Thursday, December 5, 2013

Bill Coperthwaite and The Mountain Institute

Bill Coperthwaite in Almati, date unknown
Bang! A wooden door opens and shuts quickly, drawn down by the cast-iron pot which serves as a counterweight. A group of curious children rushes up the stairs to the library, pauses at the ladder to the aerie to gaze up at the giant skylight which frames lazy clouds overhead, and then the whole lot of them clambers up into the topmost room. The library is soon filled by the sound of their whispered conversations. Downstairs, in the outer ring of the yurt, a group of staff sits at a table, overlooking the meadows of the High Plains, eating lunch. They’d looked towards the group of kids as they ran in, but since the sight is a familiar one, they return to their food with enthusiasm. In the belly of the yurt is the kitchen, where the air is warmed by the oven and a couple of staff run laps around the circular kitchen as they clean up the dishes and scrub down the counters after putting out lunch. Outside the yurts, a truck comes down the bumpy road and turns a corner. The driver catches sight of the yurts for the first time, and wonders, briefly, if he has entered Middle Earth.  
Ulan Bator being built, King Seegar in foreground
For those of us arriving at the Spruce Knob Mountain Center for the first time, these yurts seem to have come from another world. Really, they came from the mind and hands of Bill Coperthwaite, who passed away this past week near his home in Maine. Coperthwaite designed these iconic buildings, and worked alongside a large crew to build Ulan Bator, our three-tiered yurt, in 1975. Besides his influence in the aesthetics of the place, he was also a contributor to The Mountain Institute’s philosophy and will be dearly missed by those who knew and admired him.
Bill Coperthwaite was inspired to build his version of the Mongolian ger (yurt) after seeing a National Geographic article on the structures used by the nomadic herders of that part of the world. Coperthwaite took the basic design and modified it for the wet climate of the Northeastern United States. The fabric covering traditionally used is well suited to the dry climate of Mongolia, but in the Eastern U.S. it would act like a sponge for rain and snow. He kept the design principles the same, including the copper ring that held together the wooden planks of the structure. Coperthwaite described a yurt in an early Yurt Foundation calendar, published in 1976:
"The Yurt design has its origins in the folk wisdom of ancient Mongolia where the prototype has, for thousands of years, been found to withstand the severe cold and violent winds of the steppes of inner Asia. There the nomadic herders developed a circular tent made of light poles and thick felt, held up by a simple band of yak hair or wool (similar to the hoop that holds a wooden barrel together) encircling the Yurt at the eaves and taking the outward thrust of the roof. The result was a circular living space, free of the normal tents' inward sloping wall and the resulting negative space, and unencumbered by interior support. It is out of deep respect for the folk genius of these nomads that their word “yurt” was chosen for this modern offspring of their ancient engineering skill."
Ulan Bator Work Crew, "Bill Cop" 5th name
Coperthwaite designed both a simple yurt (the inspiration for several staff residences at the Spruce Knob Mountain Center) and a concentric yurt. He put together the drawings and plans that would eventually become TMI’s three-tiered “yurt within a yurt.” As a nod to the yurt’s origins, this building was named “Ulan Bator,” after the capital of Mongolia. Coperthwaite continued to design yurts and participate in workshops through The Yurt Foundation, a small non-profit which he ran from his own yurt in Maine. Coperthwaite’s design principles reflected his personal ethics, and special care and meaning was put into much of the design. Bill believed in the principles of democratic design, which influenced his love of teaching people to build low-cost yurts and encouraged his affinity for curved spaces: "Why Hobbit shaped doors? We are not rectangular animals. A door with a curved top appears more inviting. When making your own it is nearly as easy to make it curved as not - and it is more fun. We are narrowest at our head and feet and widest in the middle. Early thoughts were to have doors widest at the shoulder, but, on pondering more I realized that often we are carrying a load in our arms when passing through a doorway - groceries, a child, firewood - and that man-cum-load is widest at the elbows” (Coperthwaite, 1986).
Coperthwaite remained involved with The Mountain Institute after designing and helping to construct Ulan Bator in the 1970s. Most recently, he led a workshop during the 2011 Woodlands Homesteading Festival. Now, after his death, his yurts continue to symbolize TMI and embody the organization’s most dearly held values: democracy, equality, self-sufficiency, and intelligent, intentional choice. Bill’s legacy will live on at Spruce, both in his buildings and in the philosophy behind our day-to-day operations.  
As Bill commented, “I think that there is more emotional security in people’s lives if they have an intimate relationship with their surroundings. What I am talking about is more than just knowing the flowers and birds and trees in your region. It can be knowing the things that you are using. If you make a shirt, you know that shirt in a way that you don’t if you just walk in and buy it. The same is true of a spoon or a bowl or a house. If you have been involved in making it, it gives you more understanding of that. Plus there is a confidence that comes. I can build my own house. For me, an awful lot of the violence in the world comes from insecurity. If we could find ways to grow in emotional stability we wouldn’t have to tell the ethnic jokes, we wouldn’t have to push someone else down, either mentally or physically. Otherwise we are going to continue having this society that does violence to people in so many different ways."
Ulan Bator in the 70s
Some quotations from:
MacIver, Rod. (2011). An Interview with Bill Coperthwaite. Heron Dance Creativity Journal. Retrieved from
B/w photo of Ulan from The Yurt Foundation calendar, color photograph likely from:
Easton, Bob and Lloyd Kahn (1973). Shelter. Shelter Publications.

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