The Mindfield, the sculptural environment created by self-taught builder Billy Tripp, is an alternative to architecture, or at least a countermodel that brings a novel perspective to the discipline. Challenging present architectural principles, such as functionality, cost-effectiveness, building techniques, and materials, the Mindfield opens the way to new possibilities. An ever-evolving edifice not designed to be inhabitable, and whose raison d’être emerged late in the building process, the Mindfield positions itself at the antipodes of mainstream architecture, thus enriching the architectural discourse with its innovative experiments. In building the Mindfield, Tripp inaugurates a holistic art where architecture, sculpture, and literature become one, and whose complex narrative begs interpretation.

Detail of the Mindfield
Detail of the Mindfield (Photo by Billy Tripp, 2012)

2A Native Son

William Blevins Tripp, better known as Billy Tripp, was born on September 26, 1955, in Jackson, Tennessee. He has spent most of his life in nearby Brownsville, a town of around ten thousand inhabitants located some sixty miles northeast of Memphis. He still lives next to the family house of his youth and the car wash he has owned for the past thirty-five years, just three blocks away from Brownsville’s main square. Tripp is the middle son of a Methodist minister, although despite his father’s religious beliefs, he acknowledges to be more inclined toward atheism, reinforcing his nonconformist image in the area.

Self-portrait (Photo by Billy Tripp, 2006).

Though he was very close to his father, Charles Tripp, Billy never developed an interest in Sunday school nor in the family business. After receiving his high school diploma, Tripp enrolled at the Jackson Trade School but dropped out soon after. This noteworthy six-week training in welding gave him the basic skills he needed, and to this day he refers to the textbook to supplement his knowledge in metalworking. Additionally, he took a night class in portrait painting (Jackson State Community College) and later attended Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis) for one semester, where he studied sculpture and took a couple of courses in art history.

Although Tripp had a genuine curiosity for the arts, conventional schooling was not to his liking. His short-lived experience as a college student convinced him that it would be more useful to educate himself. To earn a living, he helped in the family ham factory, he washed dishes at local restaurants, and he mowed lawns throughout Brownsville. During this trial-and-error approach to life, he kept seeking his calling. Art provided him with the key to his existence. As a prelude to his career as a multifaceted artist, he started to experiment with small-scale metal and wooden sculptures and, at the age of twenty-two, tried his hand at writing the first volume of a fictional autobiographical saga, The Mindfield Years, a need that coincided with the death of his mother, Mabel Tripp. His early works include wood-carved faces, a series of stick men, and a tiny skeleton of a cathedral in which it is fair to find the architectural prototype of the Mindfield. Unlike Tina Turner, another native of Brownsville, it is not music but a combination of visual arts and literature that would make Billy Tripp stand out within his community.

Back and front cover pages of Billy Tripp’s first novel, The Mindfield Years
Back and front cover pages of Billy Tripp’s first novel, The Mindfield Years, 1996. One should notice a photograph of his architecture (back) where by convention there should be a synopsis of the book and a brief biography of the novelist. Moreover, the front includes no title and no mention of the author, just his handprint revealing the profound autobiographical nature of the story.

3The Mindfield: Sprout, Growth, and Freeze

Billy Tripp’s ever-expanding architectural project broke ground in 1989. Its initial stage consisted of a yard show of various objects waiting to be assembled—some would label it a junk yard. At first, Tripp was unsure about where to locate what would evolve into an “outdoor steel church” made of discarded metal girdles, salvaged 110-foot-tall water and fire towers, and puzzling symbols and silhouettes. He considered creating his sculpture on farmlands he inherited from his father, but he opted instead for an urban setting—a slice of land that he owns that is closer to his childhood home and next door to the cemetery where his ancestors are buried. The site selection imposed a series of constraints since this plot of property in the heart of Brownsville is long and narrow, squeezed in between a ditch to the west, a barbershop (now the Master Barber Shop Menagerie Museum) to the north, and a motel to the east. His residence and workshop are located on the southern edge of the property. This half-acre enclosed space only offered the opportunity of an upward expansion, as evidenced by his 127-foot-tall spire launched toward the sky. In this flatland county where the tallest buildings are church steeples and silos, the awe-inspiring Mindfield is the most visible thing on the horizon. Painted entirely in battleship gray, the edifice soars above the town, and to this day it remains under construction. Tripp’s architectural composition looks like wild, invasive, metal flora. As the Mindfield has grown, like a sprawling plant in search of the sun, it has gradually acquired the status of a local tourist attraction, which is Billy Tripp’s way of participating in the social life of his beloved Brownsville.

Symbols (Photo by Guillaume Allamel, 2020).
Aerial view taken of the Mindfield
Aerial view taken of the Mindfield from inside the water tower (Photo by Guillaume Allamel, 2020).
The water tower and its galactic ascent
The water tower and its galactic ascent (Photo by Guillaume Allamel, 2020).

4A Field of the Mind

From a distance, Tripp’s postindustrial roadside construction looks like an electric power station, or an oil rig, or even a roller coaster made of colossal pylons, water tanks, twisted girders, and scrap metal—although we sense that none of these functional architectures has a place at the Mindfield. In search for an answer, Italo Calvino’s Armilla comes to mind. Here is the depiction of this imaginary city:

[I]t has no walls, no ceilings, no floors: it has nothing that makes it seem a city, except the water pipes that rise vertically where the houses should be and spread out horizontally where the floors should be: a forest of pipes. . . . Against the sky [. . .] a bathtub [. . .], like late fruits still hanging from the boughs. You would think the plumbers had finished their job and gone away before the bricklayers arrived; or else their hydraulic systems, indestructible, had survived a catastrophe, an earthquake, or the corrosion of termites. (49)

Calvino’s description of the fictional, tubular city matches Tripp’s citadel of the void precisely, including a bathtub suspended in midair. When visiting the Mindfield while on a road trip throughout the American South, two French authors admitted to being puzzled: “Is this sanctuary an edifice of which the skeletons are all that remain?” (Décimo and Persuy 137). In fact, the Mindfield developed as an alternative urbanism, erected for a single soul, not even providing a protective shelter to its builder. “I like to see buildings before they are covered up. . . . ; it looks prettier,” Tripp claimed about his sanctuary. In line with outsider environments such as Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers (Los Angeles, California) and Dr. Evermor’s Forevertron (Sumpter, Wisconsin), the Mindfield confuses the visitor.

Clearly, the Mindfield arises as something of a mystery; it fits none of the known architectural taxonomies. One could argue that the edifice stands as a visual metaphor, conveying Tripp’s aspiration to transcendence, as well as his life-lesson in will and perseverance. High up in the steel structure, a metal sign reads “Begin,” as a call to action to break all inhibitions and claim one’s unrestrained agency to start a new existence off the beaten track. Ironically, “Begin” was also the last word of Tripp’s first novel, The Mindfield Years, vol. 1 “The Sycamore Trees” (1996), and more noticeably the only word of its final chapter, thus offering a blurred frontier between the beginning and the end, as if the Mindfield in its literary and architectural form were a constructed ouroboros representing the eternal cycle of destruction and rebirth, and thus eternity.

Image of Signs
Signs (Photo by Guillaume Allamel, 2020).

5Whatever the Price

Although the financial investment on this ever-expanding structure does not reflect limitless funding, interestingly Billy Tripp comes from a prominent family. A well-respected figure in the region, his father was both a minister and a businessman who embodied the Weberian notion of Protestant ethic shaping the spirit of capitalism. Tripp’s siblings followed their father’s footsteps. Charlie Tripp lives next door in the familial antebellum-inspired mansion and still runs the family business, Tripp Country Hams. Bob Tripp is a Methodist reverend in Knoxville, and in this triad, Billy Tripp plays the role of the prodigal son, having been unconditionally cherished by his father. As a product of his social class, he, like the younger son in the parable, can rely on his inheritance, dividends, and savings to undertake such a monumental project. However, Tripp’s fantastic architecture is more than a squandering of fortune. Unlike eccentric English noblemen adding follies to their estate as a form of visual humor, Tripp is dead serious about completing his skeletal mausoleum, for now a cenotaph dedicated to his parents, and in the end a vessel for undertaking his final voyage towards the afterlife.

Tripp’s cruiser stays on the loading dock
Tripp’s cruiser stays on the loading dock, awaiting the final crossing (Photo by Guillaume Allamel, 2020).

6Self-Taught Builder

Nowadays, being an architect requires extensive formal training, consisting of rigorous studies of a wide variety of subjects. Architectural history and theories, building technology, and computer-aided design are a few examples of the tools needed for the architect. An obvious outlier in the normative architectural world, Billy Tripp never attended any school of architecture, and consequently he had to invent his toolbox and techniques.

Furthermore, obtaining a valid building permit and proper insurance are usually prerequisites for the implementation of any architectural project. As anticipated, Tripp substantially deviates from the well-beaten path. At first, he bypassed city hall and kept constructing without a permit, unaware of building codes, regulations, and zoning laws. Once cognizant of these requirements, he pleaded in favor of an outdoor sculpture in order to be exempt from any construction rules. Then, in the place of proper insurance, he simply removed ladders and placed “private” and “no climbing” signs throughout the Mindfield to warn trespassers against climbing the structure. In a world where the built environment is generally the prerogative of the architects, urban planners, civil engineers, contractors, and pedigreed manufacturers, Tripp asserts the inalienable right to build for oneself, claiming “the sky’s the limit” motto as the ultimate constraint. Using whatever is at hand to construct something new, Tripp’s position as a bricoleur is in opposition to the one of the engineer-architect, as Tripp relies on materials for purposes that differ radically from the original intention (Lévi-Strauss 16–36). In the vein of Marcel Duchamp, who selected mass-produced, utilitarian objects and elevated them to the dignity of artwork, Tripp is a forager of the ordinary, except that Tripp’s equivalent of Duchamp’s Bottle Rack has gained architectural proportions. As a result, the Mindfield looks like a series of gigantic ready-mades, as exemplified by the rescued fire towers and the water tower that acts as a post-industrial castle keep, now a memorial to his deceased parents.

Image of Fire and water towers
Fire and water towers (Photo by Guillaume Allamel, 2020).

Moreover, unlike the trained architect who designs scale models, detailed blueprints, and now computer-generated images of the finalized project prior to the construction, Tripp relies on a vague mental image that remains open to experimental adjustments. Such an architecture is receptive to new discoveries that modify the course of the project and innovative meanings that provide the Mindfield with an ever-evolving narrative based on the builder’s latest ideas. This being said, as preliminaries to any substantial additions to the site, Tripp does draw architectural sketches of sections he is about to construct, as evidenced in his notebooks, The Mindfield Notes (2017).

Despite the sheer expansiveness of the Mindfield, Billy Tripp works alone. The best illustration of this is the water tower, which he found while on a road trip with his father in nearby Arlington, Kentucky. He claims the water tank talked to him, begging to be transplanted in the Mindfield and away from the defunct factory, Deena Lamp Products. Following this mystic experience, Tripp bought the structure for $1,500. He began preparations to take down the water tank in mid-September 2002, one week or so before his father’s passing. Shortly after the funeral, he returned to Kentucky, cut the tower into pieces, and transported the tower to Brownsville on his crane truck. All by himself. It took him twelve trips to bring the entirety of the tower home. This six-week-long project coincided with the mourning of his father and allowed him to come to terms with his loss. For the next three years the water tower lay unreconstructed. After this long wait, Tripp began reconstruction at the Mindfield. The transplant of this edifice was so essential for the rebuilding of his self that it also materialized into a book, My Year of Deena, volume 4 of The Mindfield Years (2019). The rebuilding process took him two-and-a-half years of building and grieving before completing the task, or more precisely, as Tripp puts it, giving birth to Deena, the water tower, which he says was a work of love and death combined.

7Cast-Off Postindustrial Materials

The traditional builders of yesteryear were gatherers of whatever materials (clay, stone, wood, snow, etc.) were available in the environment, making their shelters an extension of the natural surroundings (e.g., Inuit igloo, Navajo hogan, Alpine chalet, etc.). As in the case of Billy Tripp, he provides a hybrid version of the traditional and the modern builder. He is definitely a “collector,” although he would purchase most of his materials (scrap metal, steel girders, etc.) at bargain price from defunct factories and auctions. Moreover, if he finds these supplies discarded within a twenty-five-mile radius from his home, they do not belong to nature. They existed previously to fulfill specific purposes before, as Tripp sees it, undertaking an aesthetic metamorphosis. For instance, Tripp transmuted a grain and cottonseed silo into a shack. As a matter of fact, turning silos and water towers into shelters is trendy in contemporary architecture, where industrial buildings, doomed to destruction, find a second life. Used as building blocks, freight containers become modular living quarters and even “cities,” such as Container City in London. Giancarlo Norese’s Precarious Home finds its address nestled in a high voltage electricity pylon, and postmodernist architect Ricardo Bofill’s abandoned cement factory in Catalonia became his home and studio. This postindustrial aesthetic represents a rare bridge that unites Billy Tripp to some risk-taking, trained architects.

In a sense, the Mindfield is the custodian of a lost golden age of which only a few artifacts remain: layers of trusses from Brownsville’s demolished buildings and closed-down businesses, a water tank from the old county jail, as well as surplus steel from CSX Railroad and Southwest Electric Corporation. However, one should not expect to see a museum dedicated to rural life, farming, and manufacturing. If Tripp recycles materials to become part of his landscape, he does so to uncover possibilities that the initial function of the object failed to explore, as in the case of his recent addition, a refuse burner turned into a Terminus Temple. Moreover, if architects take down scaffolding once construction or renovation is complete, Tripp’s permanent scaffolding emerges as an end in itself. It looks like the building’s main requirement is to make visible its inner, here turned outer structure, and all steps of its dynamic processes. The Mindfield reads like an X-ray of architecture, showing an ever-growing skeleton that its daredevil builder playfully keeps climbing, not without danger.

Image of Recycled cottonseed house
Recycled cottonseed house, which symbolizes the storehouse for the “ship” depicted in section 5 (Photo by Guillaume Allamel, 2020).


Artist Ben Vautier once argued that “in every country a big wild territory should be given to all those who are not satisfied with society. . . . It would be interesting to see after some time how life has organized itself—for instance what will the architecture look like” (qtd. in Allamel, “A New Poetics of Space,” 18). This wild request has materialized, not in the fringes of the wilderness but in downtown Brownsville. At minimum, life at the Mindfield has organized in a poeticized mode, which requires a new conceptual toolbox to report it. To better stress the systematic inversion that is at play in these buildings turned inside out, we should use the term “inverted architecture,” which best describes Tripp’s idiosyncratic constructions. One could also contemplate the concept of anarchitecture—a combination of “anarchy” and “architecture”—but that term only partially fits. As in the case of the New York–based Anarchitecture Group of the 1970s that included the architecturally trained artist Gordon Matta Clark, the critique of modernist architecture was the keystone of their agenda, which they perceived as complicit with the alienating, capitalist mode of production. If Tripp embodies the nonconformist (e.g., “In Honor of: turd” and “Satan Saves,” controversial signs posted on the water tower and on his truck, respectively), occasionally criticizes consumer society, and is an advocate for LGBT rights (in sharp contrast with the evangelical viewpoint prevailing in his community), he claims no nihilist program and shows genuine appreciation for the citizens of Brownsville who either see him as an asset to revitalizing their town or as the devil’s messenger. Though Tripp doesn’t bother with social conventions, labeling him as an anarchitect would miss the point. His aim is not to thwart the principles of contemporary architecture but to question them in a didactic way that explores the architectural field for new possibilities, thus establishing a thought-provoking alternative evolution of this art.

Finally, considering that “to build is in itself already to dwell” (Heidegger 348), one may ask oneself, could it perhaps represent a sheltering place for the living ones besides its sepulchral value? Maybe to the poet sleeping under the stars who, like Arthur Rimbaud ("My Bohemian Life"), refuses to be bound by walls and roofs, and is not afraid to catch the wind. Tripp could also make Lebbeus Woods’s words his own: “I am an architect, a constructor of worlds, a sensualist who worships the flesh, the melody, a silhouette against the darkening sky” (qtd. in Jencks and Kropt 304). As an inventor of an idiosyncratic world and as a maker of emaciated flesh made of twisted steel beams that defiantly stand “against the darkening sky,” Billy Tripp asserts himself as an architect in the first sense of the term: arkhitekton (master builder).

Frédéric Allamel teaches in the Department of Sociology at Butler University in Indianapolis. He holds doctorates in sociology (Sorbonne, Paris) and social anthropology (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, Paris). He was the guest editor of the Outsider Architectures issue of the journal Southern Quarterly (2000), which included an essay on Billy Tripp. He also authored Éros et l’architecture, published by the Paris School of Architecture (2019). His most recent book, Écoréfugiés au pays des bayous (Presses de l’Université Laval, 2020), focuses on environmental refugees in coastal Louisiana.

Photographer Guillaume Allamel holds a Bachelor of Sciences (McGill University, Montreal) and is currently working on a master’s degree in architecture at Indiana University Bloomington. After working on environmental projects in Sri Lanka, Australia, and Paraguay, he worked with French “anarchitect” Michel Rosell, focusing on emergency habitats and bio-architecture.

Works Cited

  • Allamel, Frédéric. “A New Poetics of Space: Elements for an Idiosyncratic Vernacular Architecture.” Number, vol. 39, 2001, pp. 18–25.
  • ---. “Du sang dans les branches de sycomore. Mort et résurrection de Billy Tripp.” Les Cahiers de l’Institut, vol. 1, 2008, pp. 110–21.
  • Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.
  • Décimo, Marc, and Sandra Persuy. “Megalometallic Hero-Making; or the Ordinary in the Life of Billy Tripp.” Southern Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 1, Fall 2001, pp. 136–51.
  • Ellis, William L. “Billy Tripp’s Mindfield.” Folk Art Messenger, vol. 26, no. 1, Spring/Summer 2015, pp. 9–13.
  • ---. “The Mindfield Cemetery: Billy Tripp.” Spaces, n.d., http://spacesarchives.org/explore/search-the-online-collection/billy-tripp-the-mindfield- cemetery/.
  • ---. “Tripp, William Blevins (Billy).” Folk Art. Edited by Carol Crown and Cheryl Rivers. The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, volume 23, U of North Carolina P, 2013, 24 vols.
  • Heidegger, Martin. Basic Writings. Routledge, 1993.
  • Jencks, Charles, and Karl Kropt. Theories and Manifestoes of Contemporary Architecture. Wiley-Academy, 1997.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind. The U of Chicago P, 1966.
  • Rudovsky, Bernard. Architecture without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture. Museum of Modern Art, 1964.
  • Tripp, Billy. The Mindfield Years. Mindfield Press, 1996–2019. 4 vols.

© Center for the Study of Southern Culture