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Good things, small packages

The idea of designing the perfect cabin has an appeal with many of the world’s top architects

T he concept of a cabin as a bucolic bolt-hole has come a long way since the American writer and thinker Henry David Thoreau headed off to the forests of Massachusetts to try his luck as a (then) modern-day hermit.

That was in back in 1854 and Thoreau lived in his cabin for a total of two years, two months, and two days, later producing a book describing his experiences of living in nature’s bosom.

Entitled Life in the Woods it set the bar for anyone looking to escape the hurly-burly of modern life and find a little peace.

While he was away, he also had plenty of time to ruminate on a pithy phrase, explaining his sojourn thus: ‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.’

In the modern era, few of us would realistically contemplate following exactly in Thoreau’s footsteps, even if we could find a suitable tract of wilderness into which to retreat.

In the past few years, though, the world’s top architects have become increasingly interested in the potential of the environmentally low-impact, isolated, yet comfortable cabin – a place to think, relax and escape the cut and thrust of modern life.

There is a creative challenge to a small space, putting a premium as it does on the essentials of life in a compact space. Add to that a typically rustic setting and you have a propensity towards eco-friendly solutions.

In 2013 Renzo Piano – architect of the Shard in London – went to the other end of the spectrum when he designed a cabin for the Vitra Campus in Weil am Rhein in Germany. Called Diogene, after the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes who supposedly tried his hand at living in a barrel, it measured a mere 81sq ft, but included all the necessities for a single person to live happily – at least for a day or two. Made of wood and clad in aluminum, it also featured a fold-away desk and pull-out sofa, plus solar panels and a rainwater tank.

Similar environmentally aware principles have inspired US-based architect Tom Kundig, a prolific creator of cabins and concise structures. Examples of his work include the Sol Duc Cabin, set amid the forests of the Olympic National Park in Washington DC, which he created for a client to use on their regular fishing trips to the area. In 2014 the structure was one of the winners at the American Institute of Architects’ Housing Awards and it fulfils a brief for a robust structure that can remain uninhabited for weeks without suffering any ill effects.

Made of concrete clad in weathered steel it is wood-lined to provide a cozy sanctuary for its occupants

To achieve this, the architect clothed the cabin in unfinished steel and raised it up on four steel pillars.

‘The cabin’s rugged patina and raw materiality respond to the surrounding wilderness while its verticality provides a safe haven during occasional floods from the nearby river,’ said Kundig.

The result looks faintly like a military bunker, but there is no doubting its practicality. The cantilevered roof provides shade and protection from rain and snow, while the windows can be completely shuttered and then uncovered thanks to a hand-turned system of gears and drive-shafts.

Other examples of Kundig’s work include his Gulf Islands Cabin in British Colombia. Made of concrete clad in weathered steel it is wood-lined to provide a cozy sanctuary for its occupants. Perhaps less inviting on a chilly day, however, is the shower – which is located on an outside patio. A bit drafty perhaps, but the fantastic views of the forest might offset the chill.

The pod is faintly reminiscent of a Jules Verne-style submarine, with large, bulbous windows at either end of cylindrical tube

The hospitality industry has also got in on the act. With the Drop eco hotel, Barcelona-based architects In Tenta have created what they term ‘removable modular hotel rooms that draw inspiration from organic shapes found in nature’. The idea is that the ‘hotel room’ can be transported easily to your secluded beauty spot of choice and afterwards removed without leaving an ecological footprint, save perhaps a bent blade of grass or two, as its contact with the ground is minimal.

The pod is faintly reminiscent of a Jules Verne-style submarine, with large, bulbous windows at either end of cylindrical tube. These can then be slid back, leaving the residents with a patio area surrounded by nature.

Similar in approach is the Hotel Everland, the brainchild of Swiss duo Sabina Lang and Daniel Baumann, which has enjoyed several incarnations in European cities. What has allowed this itinerant existence is the fact that the hotel is portable, allowing it to take up position at different times on top of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Leipzig and on the Palais de Tokyo in Paris – where it provided excellent views towards the Eiffel Tower.

Whether Thoreau would approve of such frivolity is a moot point, but the concept of a one-room hotel, on a level with one of the world’s most scenic skylines might well have appealed. As the philosophical American wrote: ‘I have never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will.’

Cabins, by Philip Jodidio, is published by Taschen, price £15

Words: Staff

This article was originally published in Halcyon magazine in 2015

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