Carey Smoot has built homes for Bob Dylan and Steve McQueen; had Krishnamurti’s spirit appear, uninvited, on the passenger seat of his pick-up truck in southern California, and trained jungle survival courses to US Air Force pilots during the Vietnam War. Has never designed the same house twice in his 35 years as an architect, and he enraged Buckminster Fuller. Tropical Living pays a visit to a living legend.
Carey Smoot, founder and guiding spirit of Source Tropical, the knock-down house company and architectural firm operating in Bali and Hawaii for near on 30 years, is in a cheerful mood, and as usual, quite unstoppable. His girlfriend has confiscated his motorcycle, his deliveries from Manado are late and his business partner in Hawaii is having trouble getting a knockdown house released from customs. But never mind; we’re talking about John McCain, erstwhile Presidential candidate, US Senator and the most famous POW of the Vietnam War.
‘Man, I was glad when the Viet Cong fished that idiot out of a pond last time he crashed.’ says Smoot with a mischievous grin. ‘And so was the entire US Navy. That man was a disaster. The worst pilot in US naval history. Four planes, he lost. Four! If his daddy hadn’t been the Admiral of the Pacific Fleet he’d been court-martialled, stripped of his wings and sent home in disgrace. The fool. Last time he crashed, they sent out two helicopter airships to go fish him out, but the Congs’ had already got him.’
Smoot was born in San Fransisco and grew up in Hawaii, ‘chasing the wahine and riding surf boards’, and when he was drafted, he was sent to the US Aviation Squadron in Subic bay, the Philippines. Here, he quickly hooked up with the Negrito tribe, learning from them how to survive in the jungle, to gather food and water, to use medicinal plants. That knowledge, combined with his Hawaii background, led his superior officers to set up a five day survival course for the top gunners; those young bucks who had trained as pilots hoping to chase girls and fly Pan Am planes to London and Paris, but now found themselves in a Pilipino jungle being taught how to skin snakes and eat them raw by a slightly unhinged instructor named Carey Smoot. Life is like that sometimes. ‘These fellows had survival jackets that contained a hundred dollars, some gold coins, condoms and two vials of morphine. A guy could have a pretty good week-end in Vegas with that!’ he chuckles.
After a second tour of duty, now in Search & Rescue, Smoot de-mobbed in -71 and spent months traveling Europe, taking hundreds and hundreds of architectural photos. On returning to the States he interviewed at MIT, Yale and Harvard when he heard of the recently founded Disney Institute back on the west Coast. Founded with money from the recently deceased Walt himself, it was overseen by Roy Disney, who gave him a scholarship to take two Fine Arts degrees in design and architecture.
It was the 70’s. Ravi Shankar was playing his sitar in a corner, half the students and most of the faculty were on acid, and Smoot spent several years experimenting with shaped environments, like cubes, pyramids, spheres, and their effects on people’s minds and bodies. They built a huge pyramid in the middle of San Fransisco, with exactly the same proportions and alignments as the Great pyramids in Egypt, complete with a King’s Chamber. People came in to it, lost their sense of time. Smoot believes firmly in the theories of Peter Tompkins, who also wrote the book The Secret Life of Plants, the much-derided theory that plants are sentient beings, as in they feel and hear and touch and are conscious. This was later expanded on by people like Laurens van der Post, and even our dear own prince Charles contributed to the gaiety of the nation when he professed his beliefs in the benefits of having a good old chin wag with his rose bushes at Kensington Palace.
Meanwhile, Carey was designing spheres, and at the 1972 Design conference in Aspen he unveiled his Zafoo, an elliptical dome, to the great annoyance of Buckminster Fuller, who was designing his own spheres at the time. The Zafoo was written up by the LA Times, and the LA Times was of course read by all the rock stars and their entourages, and thus began Smoot’s next incarnation, that of Designer to the Stars. One of the weirder projects were for Bob Dylan, who then lived on a ranch up in Oxnard, just north of LA County, with his wife Sarah and their brood of children. It was just like you’d imagine it to be. “Every day at the entrance to the property, dozens and dozens of fans would cling on to the gate and try to crawl over the fence, gently pushed away by Dylan’s security team.” says Smoot. “Then I would spend an hour or so trying to find Bob, eventually finding him behind a tree or something, forever wearing his black shades, day and night, and go over the building progress with him. I never heard him utter more than five words at a time. Then Sarah would come over and start yappin’ at him, have a blazing row, and then she’d storm off. A week later, they got a divorce, I heard.”
One day, after a particularly embarrassing scene between the Dylan’s, Bob peers at Smoot through his ray-Bans and says ‘hungry?’ and off the two of them go, companionably silent in Dylan’s 1952 Buick pick-up truck, down to a little Mexican place down by the railroad tracks. Here, they spend the entire afternoon, drinking beer and eating burritos, Dylan still not speaking but playing old country songs on his guitar in a corner, completely unrecognized by the Mexican workers frequenting the place. You can’t buy a memory like that.
When Smoot worked for Steve McQueen, the actor had more or less stopped working; he was 59, had a long beard and drove around on Indian motor cycles and would start drinking Old Milwaukee beer at nine in the morning. An avid smoker, he had already been diagnosed with lung cancer and was spending much of his time doing public service announcements to stop kids from picking up the habit. When he finally died and they did the autopsy, they found that he didn’t have cancer at all; it was asbestosis. As a young man, McQueen had worked for several years in the loading docks in the harbour, unloading asbestos from ships.
But my favourite Carey Smoot story concerns the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. Born in 1895 and discovered at age 13 as being the seventh son of a seventh son, Krishnamurti was taken to England by the leader of the Theosophists, Ms Annie Besant, and educated there. Hailed as a Messiah-like master, a World Teacher and the leader of the Theosophists (a huge movement at the time), Krishnamurti abruptly in 1929 denounced any implications of his own divinity, insight or wisdom, and resigned from the movement, spending the rest of his very long life ‘not as a teacher, but as a simple investigator looking into life’s issues’. This of course made his following even bigger and larger and although he spent his entire life denouncing his own authority, ‘Life-of-Brian’ – like, the more his following grew. I saw him lecture myself once, in Switzerland, oh Jesus, it must be 30 years ago. I was just a kid, and I still remember the enormous charisma of this tiny, white-haired little Indian chap with his softly spoken voice and infectious laugh.
At any rate, 1976 some people in the Krishnamurti Foundation saw a dome that Smoote had done, and invited him to come an look at a piece of land in Ojai, California, given to Krishnamurti 50 years earlier, where they wanted to build a school. The first draft by an Ivy League firm looked like a small Princeton; white-stucco neo-classical buildings with a flagpole on the lawn and square flower beds. Krishnamurti had thrown those plans out the window. So Smoot was introduced to Krishnamurti and engaged to come up with a preliminary design. So he went home, sat up all night in his studio, and then the idea came to him. So he made a crude model with matchsticks, called Krishnamurti’s secretary and demanded a meeting; was let in by the great man himself and down they went on the floor, Smoot describing his building to the ageing philosopher on an office carpet. He got the job not just to design it, but also to build it himself. And so he did. One day, towards the end of construction, when the maestro was away on one of his endless world-wide lecture tours, Smoot was driving home from the site, through the endless orange groves of California, when Krishnamurti appears next to him on the passenger’s seat. Having narrowly avoided driving into the ditch, they start talking about the project, about load bearing beams and floor covers and light and so on, for half an hour. Then the apparition disappears again. Five months later, the building was completed. Today, there are ten buildings on the Oak Grove School site, all built by a different architect. Have a look at http://oakgroveschool.com/. There is Carey’s building, right on the front page.
There are so many stories to tell about Carey Smoot, and you will just have to wait until the book comes out to read the others, but let me finish by saying that, although he is full of great stories and has had a great career, the main thing is that he is living a great life now and he is designing beautiful buildings now. At this very moment, Carey is in his office in Sanur, working on a wave-shaped building for a restaurant complex on Sanur Beach. He still has his knock-down house factory in Manado and is still doing projects all over the world.
As a matter of fact, just a couple of years ago, he was commissioned to build a series of traditional style buildings on Yap Island, northern Micronesia. He had the structures built in Manado and shipped them over and assembled them, but they couldn’t get the thatch roof right. It blew off, it leaked, it looked plain wrong. Smoot was growing more and more frustrated, and finally he tore the whole damn roof off and had the villagers make an entire new roof, a meter thick and packed tight, tight, tight. After many more weeks and endless frustrations, the new roof was finished and put on. The old chief from the next village, who had been sitting on a stone next to the building site for six weeks without uttering a single word, finally looked up at Carey and said with a toothless grin: ‘Not bad for a white boy!’
Source Tropical, +62 (0)361 288864