On the urban fringes of Latin America, a majority of families build their own houses using immense ingenuity and the recycled materials that come to hand. In the commuter belts of North American cities, plenty of families once put up their own houses from a mail-order kit out of the Sears, Roebuck catalogue. In both continents, the methods were taken for granted. They were not thought worth writing about, even though both are intensely interesting from the standpoint of Britain's restrictive assumptions about housing.
But in the US now, there is a whole genre of we-built-our-own-house books in which lovably idiosyncratic carpenters, sensitive-to-their-fingertips architects and bubblingly inept clients are brought to life in predictable prose. The best was Tracy Kidder's 330-page House in 1986. Michael Pollan almost reaches that level of prolixity in this "captivating personal inquiry". An American critic assures us that Pollan's book has "the brilliant plainness of a piece of Shaker furniture". Sadly, it lacks that laconic Shaker economy.
For when Michael and Judith move into one of those Thirties mail-order houses, built in its "resolutely nondescript clapboard" way by a long- bankrupt farmer, they are awed by their architect, Charlie. Despite bringing their contractor to what Pollan calls the cliff of despair, Charlie "had succeeded in transforming our humdrum little bungalow into a house of real character". The crushing banality of this non-Shaker observation prepares us for the main plot.
With their first child on the way, and one room set aside as Judith's painting studio, they realise that Mike will need, as writers do, a shack of his own in the garden so as to meet his deadlines with Harper's and the New York Times Magazine. The rest of the book describes how he learns from Charlie and from carpenter Joe as this rugged fortress-for-one is built.
Bernard Shaw was content with an off-the-peg summer-house mounted on a turntable, Dylan Thomas with an asbestos-cement lock-up garage, Thoreau with his cabin of second-hand planks and Virginia Woolf with a room of her own. And for people familiar with the world of self-builders, this book is hilariously self-indulgent. British readers yearning to make a place of their own should turn to Broome and Richardson's The Self-Build Book (Green Books). They will learn there of the way that the architect Walter Segall has creatively adapted the American "balloon frame" tradition to the potentialities of self-build housing for poor and homeless people in this country.
The virtues I tried hard to discover in Pollan's book would include an account of that particular building vernacular, and a guide to worthy architectural mentors, from Lewis Mumford and JB Jackson to Vincent Scully and Christopher Alexander. The last of these gurus wrote a splendid book on The Timeless Way of Building. With all this accessible wisdom, I'm astonished that putting up a writing room became such a ponderous task and took such a time.