Humble homes go back to nature

Cabins may come in different styles, shapes and sizes, but they all provide escapes from the urban hustle and bustle

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 March, 2015, 6:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 September, 2015, 4:41pm

Cabins - at least those in the movies - usually seem ripe for a health warning. But don't let The Blair Witch Project and The Cabin in the Woods tar every cosy rural shack with the same scary brush because there are cabins and there are cabins … and those starring in another paving-stone slab of a book by Taschen are the latter.

Billing itself as "an inspiration for low-impact living", Cabins, by Philip Jodidio, proves that going back to nature can mean sallying forth with no little flair - provided you have cash and good taste.

The terrors of politics and pollution mean that going off grid has never been more appealing; and cabin fever is of no concern in Cabins' lusciously illustrated, star-spangled line-up. The ultimate getting-away-from-it-all cabin is probably on an Antarctic research vessel, but for landlubbers Jodidio's could prove the ultimate reference work.

One of the most intriguing entries stands amid pine trees in the mountains of South Korea. Monk's Cabin, designed by architect Kim Hee-jun of ANM, Seoul, was built as a retreat for the Venerable Beop Jeong, a Buddhist monk, author and environmentalist. His guardianship of the wooden cabin seems to have encapsulated the reasons for creating such structures.

"Today we have too much, but not enough," says Kim. "Sometimes we want the simple life and to go back to nature and out of planned areas, where we can breathe."

We want the simple life and to go back to nature and out of planned areas, where we can breathe

Monk's Cabin is open to forest on its four sides and, says Kim, is a reinterpretation of the traditional Korean bang, meaning a "room that varies depending on a change of surroundings".

A cabin built near Vienna using Japanese-style charred cedar cladding has a stork's nest atop a pole on its roof. Another, distinguished by Douglas fir columns, is a snowboarders' retreat on Vancouver Island; and another, a literal tree house outside Frankfurt, has a tree trunk growing through its elevated platform.

Some are recycled, such as San Antonio's Container GuestHouse, which, yes, consists of a shipping container still bearing its serial number, but with a roof garden and bamboo interior. Others are on stilts, cliffs or lake shores.

There are eco-hotels - witness the portable, lightweight wood and steel Drop, designed to be dropped in fetching spots on the planet without doing any damage - observatories and even a ruined dovecote converted into a music studio. Some are cubes, some are tubes and some defy an easy definition of shape.

Some are luxurious, some are spartan; but all have that designer aura and none is what Grizzly Adams would call home. Is there an anti-McMansion reverse snobbery at play? Are cabins aspirational items?

"People living in McMansions think little about people living in architect-designed projects, and people who live in architect-designed projects think even less about those in McMansions," says Clinton Cole, of Australia's CplusC Architectural Workshop, who designed the pine, cedar, light steel and stone St Albans Residence near Sydney, which also incorporates timber from a disused bridge. "There is a form of class separation here, but not a conscious one."

Cole also highlights the difference between going native and merely dipping one's toe.

"Cabins of [the St Albans'] nature are generally weekenders and holiday homes for city people," he says.

"People wanting to live off grid have a genuine desire to lead a sustainable lifestyle - although taking services to a dwelling off grid does not necessarily make for a sustainable development. The procurement system, materials and construction account for almost half the energy such a dwelling consumes in its lifetime."

Of radically different aspect is the Passage House, in Nagano, Japan, created by TNA of Tokyo. The quadrilateral building, cantilevered over a forested slope, features a glass-walled interior walkway. It was based, says architect Makoto Takei, "on a Japanese temple corridor, passing alternately into a cliff and above the trees".

He likens the structure to "a ship's cabin afloat on the sea", albeit one surrounding residents with woodland. Such escapes allow people to "relax and enjoy the extraordinary", he says. "They get bored in the urban hustle and bustle."

The cabins in Cabins vary enormously in size, cost and ambition. So when is a cabin not a cabin? When it's actually a small house?

"'Cabin' is a general description and evokes a small, humble, timber dwelling sitting comfortably in the landscape," says Cole. "The difference between a small house and a cabin may be the manner in which the landscape has been artificially modified or embraced in its natural state."

Home, sweet (weekender?) home.