In late spring of 2005, about three months before Hurricane Katrina arrived to devastate the Gulf Coast and its peoples, a 25-year-old graduate student at the Tulane School of Architecture named Emilie Taylor set out on a road trip across the Southeast to learn more about men like Floyd Banks Jr. and Horace Burgess.
A native of South Louisiana, Taylor had received a research grant to spend four weeks studying amateur builders—a dozen men who, despite having received no formal training, had envisioned massive, sprawling structures, and then spent the rest of their lives pursuing them. "The idea behind the proposal was to explore the unique and amazing folks hidden throughout the south that were making space as self-taught builders," Taylor says in an e-mail. As she would find out, all of them had done so in an attempt to connect with and reflect some sort of divine calling or inspiration.
Rather than focus on the legitimacy of the claims—that God had told these men to build—Taylor attempted to evaluate the structures to see if she could discover how the divine would manifest itself in the language of building. "Is there typology or a building type or method that is common with all of them and makes some reference to some higher being?" she wondered.
There wasn't, really. The thing that unified the structures was mostly their creators' inspiration and their use of found materials, which often resulted in an eclectic style. While this led to similar motifs within the works—which Taylor describes as "spatial folk art"—in most cases she thought these seemed born of necessity rather than creative choice.
As Taylor carried out her study, she described her work to a friend, Zack Godshall, who had just graduated from film school at the University of California, Los Angeles. Godshall found the concept of men spending years pursuing acts of creation too interesting to pass up, so in late 2005 began visiting a handful of Taylor's subjects to learn more about them. The result was God's Architects, an hour-and-a-half long documentary released in 2009 that focuses on five builders, four of them in the Southeast and one in the desert of southern California.
"These are guys who spend most of their waking life being creative and building things. And that's what I like to do—to be creative and to build things," Godshall says. "And I think in the end, that's kind of what I think I got out of it." The movie earned Godshall the Louisiana Film Maker of the Year award at the New Orleans Film Festival in 2009.
While they hadn't heard of Burgess at the time, both Godshall and Taylor spent some time with Floyd Banks Jr. at his castle in Greenback. "The first time I went, there were maybe three spots on the wall that were called out as like, this is where visions had appeared in the concrete," Taylor recalls. "They were spots where you'd be like, oh yeah, I see how you can see that, like I can understand how maybe God is speaking to you through this clump of mortar. But now I feel like it's become this totally bizarre obsession, where there are circles everywhere, and I don't know. It feels like—it wasn't normal to begin with, but I feel like it's gotten way more bizarre."
"With some of the other people I met who would claim to see visions or dreams. Junior, I think, more or less sees patterns in the world, and then from those patterns sort of concludes, more or less, a natural hand in these patterns," Godshall says.
Taylor and Godshall works are rare in that they attempt to study these amateur builders in a serious way, and Taylor says she thinks that what folk art represents to high art is what amateur building could come to represent to formal architecture. "I think with folk art itself—although in the art world there's been more writing about folk art and appreciating their place in the broader spectrum of art—I think for a while it was just kind of overlooked, like an overlooked curiosity. And I imagine that will happen more in the architectural realm. It just hasn't really happened yet," she says.
Why that hasn't happened may have something to do with the impermanence of the structures themselves. "Divinely inspired is a pretty broad term," says Taylor, who now teaches a community design-build class at Tulane. "And when we think about it historically, we think about the works of men who have endured or that we still know about." For example, the Sistine Chapel, or the various cathedrals dotting continental Europe, structures built on principles of balance and harmony to reflect an ordered universe. On the other hand, structures like Banks' and Burgess'— created from recycled materials and built by men without formal training—reflect a different vision of the divine, one that feels more organic, perhaps even chaotic, and often lacks geometric proportion and physical soundness.
Yet there's another reason many of them don't last: With many, Taylor says, after the creator dies the community decides to tear them down, out of resentment for being made a sideshow attraction, or out of fear of infestation and blight.