This piece originally ran on the NYTimes T website in March of 2012 as part of my People Watching column.
Charles Bello may not be a household name, but he has a cult following in certain circles. He came to my attention via a circuitous route that started with an e-mail from Raymond Neutra (yes, like Richard Neutra, the Modernist architect; Raymond is his son). Raymond had received my book, “Handcrafted Modern” (Rizzoli), and with his compliments he mentioned that one of his father’s former interns — Bello — might be of interest to me. This was a man who dropped out in the 1960s, bought 400 acres of redwoods in Northern California and, with the help of his wife, built a number of houses and structures by hand there, Raymond said. He attached one picture, of two people sitting in front of a wall of windows with a ridgeline of trees in the distance. I was sold.
The drive to Bello’s is not for the faint of heart or ye-who-lacks-four-wheel-drive. As you pass the last locked gate and pulling onto the property, a round structure emerges out of the redwoods: the newly finished art gallery, a building whose roof is made of wood lattice and a translucent material that makes the light glow inside. It was here, snooping, that Bello found me.
A tall man with a cloud of white hair and suspendered pants, Bello is the sort of guy whose choices were not the obvious ones. An intern for Richard Neutra in the 1950s, Bello also worked for the architect Henry Hill and the landscape architect Robert Royston. A brief foray into photography once brought him to a meeting with Edward Steichen, and talks of being included in an exhibition. When Bello met the structural engineer Pier Luigi Nervi in Italy and asked him if he thought Nervi’s ferro concrete curvilinear forms could be done in wood, Nervi responded: “There is no wood in Italy. Go home and do it in California.” So he did. Bello’s path is one of material exploration, and though he had the résumé for a successful career in architecture, his choice in 1968 to buy this bit of wilderness in California with his wife and sons and live here forged a life now filled with deep purpose. He is a steward of the land.
When I think of people “living off the land” or “dropping out” in the 1960s, this is not the place I imagine. A tour of the property in Bello’s “Little Buddy,” a mini 4×4 open-air all-terrain vehicle, reveals a compound of houses and structures built over the course of 44 years. There’s the A-frame house (1968) where he and his late wife, Vanna Rae, raised their two sons, and the larger three-bedroom house (1982) near the creek, which was intended as an upgrade from the A-frame. But Bello “never did like that structure much. It is too heavy for my taste and I prefer the curvilinear, softer, lighter, forms better,” he said. A long, white-knuckled ride around the property’s dirt roads and trails (approximately five miles of each) includes crossing the five concrete arched bridges he built. Bello logged all of the lumber used from his own land — some milled by a saw rigged up to a 1965 Ford Galaxy.
When the air turned chilly, we headed back to settle in and make dinner (lentil soup, bear meat — surprise! — and fresh salad from the garden). My accommodations: the Parabolic Glass House (1989), the very one I had seen in that original e-mail from Raymond Neutra. Featuring a curvilinear wood roof (à la Nervi), the structure is made of two curved walls of windows that achieve Bello’s desired effect: to be enveloped in trees. The majority of the furniture in the house is of Bello’s design and make, including the dining chairs, each made from a single plank of redwood, and one more modern chair, a one-off. The couch is nestled along the stone dividing wall in the perfect spot, so that you may enjoy the fireplace and the expansive view all at once. Bello left me there for the night with a newly lit wood stove, a cup of tea and the sound of wild frogs breaking a silence that can only be experienced so far from civilization.