Reflections on the Most Basic Building | Mark Kingwell
What, after all, is a hut? The etymological trail suggests it is not just the idea of shelter, but the intimation of hiding – a hut conceals and covers, and its somewhat tortuous entry into the great assimilative maw of English usage was via military pragmatics. A hut, in French or German, might mean a cottage or some similar abode of retreat and respite. For the earliest English users of the imported monosyllable, it represented shelter and camouflage. Deep in the Old English linguistic roots, hut and hide are linguistic cousins.
Since then, huts have ramified their connotations across a range of meaning. Quonset huts, those half-tube pre-fab structures of corrugated iron and simple doors, still have a place in the military lexicon. These iconic structures, we find, acquired their name from the Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Rhode Island, where in 1941 they were first fashioned. Quonset Point in its turn was named for an Algonquian marker, a word that means “small, long place.” So now point meets hut, because a Quonset hut really is a sort of portable longhouse, a government-issued chunk of basic storage or community shelter.
In anthropological terms, a hut ranks somewhere between a temporary shelter such as a tent or lean-to, on the one hand, and a more permanent structure in the form of a house or a barracks. Huts are primitive and opportunistic – they take advantage of available materials in whatever form they can be found. Mud, stones, sticks, branches, hides, or cloth might be deployed in the creation of a hut. In childhood fantasies, a discarded cardboard box was ample material for a hut, or hay bales in a barn, or boards and nails hoisted into the crux of a tree. What is a treehouse except an elevated hut, a place where we can ban outsiders, hoard comic books, and drink warm soda while scanning the field of fire?
Some huts are purely defensive, or offer platforms for ballistic retaliation. The difference between a hut and a fort is, perhaps, only a matter of relative stability. A hut can be equally a place of solitude and refuge or a gathering of the like-minded, a communion stage. A hut can likewise be a place of pure recreation: a poolside cabana, an interlacing of palm trees next to the ocean, a miniature cabin hard by the cool waters of a mountain lake. Here, the hut offers a combination of contemplative vantage-point – look at the beautiful water – and green room, possibly with accompanying drinks, for forays outside.
The landmark study of huts in their primitive form is D. C. Beard’s Shelters, Shacks, and Shanties (1914), billed as “the classic guide to building wilderness shelters.” In this comprehensive illustrated guidebook of temporary housing, much thumbed by zealous Scouts, modern-day Robinson Crusoes, and unhinged survivalists, we find every sort of structure fashioned from the world around us. Beard himself was a co-founder of the Boy Scouts of America, but he probably didn’t anticipate that his book would inspire off-gridders like the Unabomber or the eccentric Thomas Johnson, “the Nantucket hermit.”
Johnson (no relation to the artist!) lived in a series of self-built underground shelters across New England – and even Hawaii – during two decades of Thoreavian reflection. “This is my church. This is my factory. This is my school,” Johnson said in a television interview. “It’s more than an experiment. It’s an adventure in lifestyle. It’s a rebel creation.” But Johnson did not view himself as weird or unbalanced. “I wouldn’t consider myself a survivalist, or a survival nut, but I am a survivor,” Johnson said. “I consider myself a fort builder. That’s something I never grew out of.” In his underground hut-fort – a space that was in fact quite luxurious – he could, he said, “hear the heartbeat of the island.” 1
The most basic form of hut might be the dugout, really no more than a hole with some simple cover added. This is the human form finding its baseline shelter and cover in the earth itself. In military use, its advantages are obvious. Less dramatically, baseball teams still take shelter in dugouts when they are not fielding, a reminder that the most abstract of team games is also the most chthonic. The sun is blocked so there is shade; there is likewise camaraderie, rest, bubblegum, water, and chewing tobacco there. The necessary equipment of the contest – bats, gloves, bits of body armour – all stands ready for use in the game. This dugout is not so much a hiding place as a staging ground.
And so there is likewise a long tradition of the hut as a built feature of the great pursuits for chasse et peche. Hunting and fishing have long featured the hut as an element of the day in field and stream. A hunting hut holds provisions and ammunition, perhaps a necessary source of warmth and sustenance. A fishing hut will have a cleaning station, say, for the careful dressing of a fresh catch before taking it triumphantly to kitchen or grill.
The hut is where tall tales are exchanged, memories evoked, smokes set alight, and hip flasks opened for judicious – or not so judicious – swigs of hard liquor. When we venture out to the field or fire or the rushing river, the hut grounds and orients us, it is the point of origin and return, a compass of our adventure. Even in the most luxurious of settings, where the ‘hut’ might be a fancy lodge-like building with hot and cold running water and other lavish amenities, its basic function is not material comfort but direction.
It is home plate, ground zero, the celebrated locus known as fons et origo. We leave it with the high expectation of return, we hope of a triumphant tenor. The angler and hunter, it is said, are the only walkers who are happy to make their inbound journey more laden than the outbound. Weight is success, and food – even if, these days, most conscientious anglers favour the norm of catch and release (with a smartphone photo taken to mark the solitary successes).
The hut is at once utilitarian and, somehow, stranded in an odd region of the necessary and the unnecessary.
That is to say, if a more temporary shelter is all we really need, why construct the hut? Surely a tent or even a humble groundsheet will do to ward off the depredations of climate and enemy? If, by contrast, we need a more permanent lodging, isn’t it just practical to invest a little more time and energy and construct a house or garrison? But the special contours of what we might called “the hut-world” remains essential here, and provides a clue to the profound appeal of the hut as a structure. So let me attempt to place the hut in its deeper philosophical geography.
It was Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, who first argued for the central role of leisure in human life. The Greek word he employed, skhōle, has no exact English equivalent. It is retained as the root of school, but you would need time and some fancy intellectual foot-work to convince schoolchildren that they are at leisure. “We work to have leisure,” Aristotle says. It is the condition “on which happiness depends.” Leisure, he elaborates, is “a state of being free from the necessity to labor.” In his monumental Politics, the philosopher calls it “the first principle of all good action.”
Clearly leisure means something quite different, on this account, from the typical understanding we accord to it. For us today, leisure might connote rest from work, yes, but almost always with an associated resonance of rest and recreation. Time off from work is still effectively colonized by work, since it is leisure in the service of restoring the worker’s mental and physical fitness for the tasks of employment.
We have to concede that leisure can often go off the rails, descending into mere idleness, unreflective boredom, and, worst of all, new forms of competitive consumption. Nothing is more depressing to witness than the perpetual races to the bottom of aggressive leisure: progressive glamping or cottage one-upmanship, on the one hand (who can make leisure more like a glossy magazine spread?), and by reversal, the hardship sweepstakes of extreme climbing, BASE-jumping, big-wave surfing, deep spelunking, and the like. One wants to intercede and say: Everyone just relax! What you’re doing is not leisure, it’s just work by other means!
How does all this relate to the simple hut? Well, consider again Aristotle’s claim that genuine leisure is the basis of happiness because it calls out the best in our natures – the divine, ideally, if that doesn’t sound too grand. Not-working, or genuine leisure, is an activity without profit or reward that nevertheless remains in some sense productive. We are not merely twiddling our thumbs, we are engaged. Engaged in what? In some sense, that does not matter, as long as the engagement generates a passionate and invested response. Leisure should be viewed less as a particular activity and more as a way of being at home in the world.
My own favoured form of leisure, as it happens, is the same thing that gets the hut-dwellers onto the ice: the quest for the noble salmon or trout. Fishing is an instructive case. I’m a fly fisherman, so my version of the game is a little more active than the semi-homes of the ice fisherman.
Fly fishing, when undertaken in the ‘correct’ – that is, highly constrained – manner, is not easy or even straightforwardly pleasurable. The angler is apt to uncomfortable wading in a cold fast river, maybe falling and injuring himself badly: something I have done twice, with a hospital visit required each time. Choosing the right pattern and size of fly for the daily hatch is a challenge worthy of any entomologist. Then, then – the casting and presentation of the fly are skills that take years to master. Indeed, no angler of any wisdom would ever claim that he has mastered such skills beyond question. All monster-fish tall tales aside, the highest self-praise a fly fisherman will ever offer himself is that he is “pretty good.”
Luck and contingency are everywhere pervading a field we like to believe might be governed by skill. But we all know skill is just the beginning of successful human action. There is beauty here: the long graceful throw of a nice looping cast, the gorgeous bowed-hoop of a lightweight rod when a fish is on. But there is no ordinary necessity to it. Yes, certainly, sometimes one must fish to eat; but when one fishes to fish, and the cost of grocery-store rainbow trout or salmon is well below the opportunity costs of this quixotic activity, we know we are in the realm of true leisure, beyond all need. I am not at rest, at all, but I am in a state of profound contemplation and reflection that is embodied by my actions.
This is a way of being in the world that is distinct from all others. I am thinking about fishing, but also thinking the marginal thoughts that only fishing allows. And when I set the hook properly, and play and land a gorgeous brown or cutthroat trout – well, nobody needs to tell me why I am out there, with bramble scratches on my legs and some scars to show.
The hut meets utility in providing shelter, but what it shelters is a form of activity which is not strictly necessary. There is some competitive impulse here, but more in the matter of equipment than status: powerful trucks and ski-doos, standard points of masculine pride. Meanwhile, the incidental beauty of the huts themselves – the varied, personalized structures; the oddball aesthetic joys of beer-can shingles and varied hues of plywood hastily assembled to form a wall – is endlessly compelling. Each one of them glows with an aura of wonder and rustic significance. So many ways of meeting the basic hut demands!
3. The Case of the Ice Hut
Richard Johnson’s remarkable long-term artistic study of the ice-fishing hut in Canada brings together all these strands of reflection and humble relation to the natural environment. The ice hut is by definition a temporary construct, even when its physical form survives from year to year, as in those versions that arrive and leave on trailers. The ground here is itself temporary, the hard thick surface of a northern region with plenty of available waterway. Sometimes broad rivers, sometimes lakes, these ice surfaces form a natural threshold between the worlds of air and water. And then, at once piercing the threshold and uniting the realms runs the fishing monofilament – the line of “hope extended,” as Paul Quinnett has put it. The hut is another, second house that is also a non-house.
You will see, for example, huts with elaborate decorations, including fancy window curtains and cushioned chairs. Others are spartan to the point of discomfort, windowless and with bare planks for seats. Some exteriors are highly decorated, others more utilitarian. Maybe most fascinating of all, Johnson’s superb images create a taxonomy of regional preference concerning what an architect would call ‘envelope’.
Some are clearly designed to fit into the back of pickup trucks, edges hanging over the truckbed rails. Others are trailers unto themselves, in square and rounded varieties. Still others are doubly temporary, both seasonal and improvised, small collations of two-by-four, plastic sheeting, tar paper, and bits of scrap metal. Even these will occasionally feature the bright colours and improbably aestheticized designs of the exterior. Canadian-flag designs are popular in some places, but high-toned monochrome seems like the norm. The distance shots, where a village of huts occupies a span of ice, look like piles of gum drops scattered across a snow bank.
These ice-hut villages add a new dimension to the individual hut, just as streets and neighbourhoods in a city create a dialogue among buildings. The villages are communities of self-reliant people, organized according to mutual desires and needs. Some villages are circular, some gridded, some scattered almost randomly. The need for organization and regulation is balanced against the essential loneliness of the hut, a creation of temporary order out of chaos. Each year, this village is abandoned as the ice melts, only to be reconstituted the next year, more or less along the lines of the past. Johnson’s images show every modality of these tiny ad hoc towns, including the long snowtracks of ski-doo passage in and out of the confines, like the contrails of airliners passing across the sky.
Some villages, indeed, put the community before the ostensible reason for the hut’s existence. Fishing is made secondary, even redundant, in villages clustered on ice close to shore, with skating rinks, shinny games, snow sculptures, and community bonfires creating a life within the circle of basic structures. These villages are more like campgrounds or trailer parks than ice-fishing villages. Indeed, one striking feature of them is that, in some cases, summer weather drives the same huts into a farmer’s field or open campground, creating a flipside miniature town, a hut village with no fish and no ice – but with cows or rabbits. (Johnson has referred to these gatherings as “Ice Villages on Holiday” – a perfect phrase.)
Even the most structured of these villages must acknowledge the fragility of the singular hut. Set upon a foundation that cannot last, deliberately courting the vagaries of winter weather, the hut is a lesson in jerry-built hope. As Thomas Johnson said, this is not survivalism in the apocalyptic sense, but it is about survival. When a storm blows up, as it might at any time, the huts’ precarious position is made evident. The horizon disappears in the snow, where there is no visual line between ice and atmosphere. Whiteness without depth or perspective blankets everything.
And now the brightly painted hut is a beacon, an island, a ship struggling upon a hostile sea. Every one of us knows the feeling of profound relief and comfort that rises within us when, after exposure, we reach a place of shelter and warmth. It is perhaps the most basic of human responses, the way a smell of woodsmoke even on an urban street can transport us immediately to the campfire, the cave, the fellowship of temporary safety. The weather, that unruly god, has been placated once more. We will not perish today.
Inside the individual hut, what goes on? A striking feature of Johnson’s project is the studied absence of the human form, indeed of any trace of habitation or use, including trucks and cars. These are, as he has said, portraits of the owners without the owner being present in the image. Absence is more powerful than presence: like an unoccupied chair, the huts imply the human form and human desires in a poignant mood of possibility. Occasionally we may spy a wisp of smoke emerging from a pipe chimney in a little hut roof. Otherwise, the images are composed and rigorously executed to, as it were, let the hut be a hut. We know, intellectually, that the purpose of the ice hut is fishing, but no fish are visible here. We observe no mighty catches or beatific smiles of the sort that only successful anglers can show the world.
And by considering, in this fashion, the hut as architectural form, Johnson has accomplished a number of significant and unique goals.
He has, most obviously, created a stunning photographic record of a peculiar and apparently minor category of built form. Ice huts exist all over the northern reaches of the globe, and their variety and ingenuity is quite astounding. And yet, there has been no sustained critical attention given them by historians or theorists of architecture. The closest analogue, at least in mainstream architectural thinking in Canada, would be the influence exerted by indigenous forms such as the longhouse or pit house, also the wigwam (or wikiup), on contemporary practitioners Douglas Cardinal, Alfred Waugh, and others. The deliberately temporary igloo, meanwhile, so often a cliché of our northern climate – “Do you all live in them?” – involves a hut-like form that is instantly recognizable around the world as a material trope of the Far North.
This cross-seeding of “primitive” and “advanced” forms (terms we use only advisedly) follows a long and evolving tradition in many parts of the world where native structural features, often improvised and temporary, have proved inspirational for more permanent and traditional construction. One could even argue that this sort of dialogue – or argument! – about form is a central feature of Modernism broadly construed. What else, indeed, is the visible fabric of any global city but a sustained argument about the local and the imported? Standardization everywhere contends with, and takes lessons from, the unique, organic, and odd.
The ice hut is not exactly an indigenous form, however, let alone an Indigenous one in the politico-anthropological sense. It shares with them a shifting and somewhat weightless quality – even just practically, when the melting ice will no longer bear the hut’s weight, it is time to move on. But these are no natural structures. They are not huts of that kind, gathered together from found materials like mud, fallen branches, or snow. A better architectural analogue, then, might be something similarly constructed in what appears a somewhat makeshift or haphazard manner, but which speaks to its conditions and uses in an oblique, even charming style.
One might think here of Frank Gehry’s now-famous Santa Monica residence, in which an ordinary California Dutch Colonial is utterly transformed by an add-on or “kit-bashing” aesthetic – not actually “deconstructivist,” as fashionable theory once held. Pieces of corrugated aluminum, unfinished plywood, and cyclone fencing are festooned around the original structure, creating a wholly new entrance and then, on two other sides, vaulting windows ad clear spaces that seem to wrap the original structure in a kind of sustained whirlwind of found materials. The house offers a “balance of fragment and whole, raw and refined, new and old,” according to one critical assessment. Gehry himself saw the project, completed in 1978, as a combination of exorcism and disorientation. “I loved the idea of leaving the house intact,” he has said. “I came up with the idea of building the new house around it. … The windows – I wanted to make them look like they were crawling out of this thing.”
Not everybody’s idea of a house, to be sure! But Gehry’s anti-design design, the house as hut I want to call it, would go on to ground his entire practice, including the famous “melting tower” forms of his Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the Los Angeles Museum. More akin to the house is the Venice Beach House he designed in 1986 for Lynn and William Norton. This references and elevates the Santa Monica residence – literally, with a series of stacked and staggered forms. The building is eccentric and personal and wholly sui generis.
To call this building a hut is hyperbole, but it certainly retains elements and gestures of the improvised or temporary. It feels not so much unfinished – this would imply that there is more to come – as deliberately undone, like a deliberate ruin decorating an English landscape or (maybe more apt) an artfully dressed-down person who nevertheless draws every eye at a formal event.
Architectural comparison is a perilous business, of course, and it might seem mad to even suggest a connection between the humble ice hut and the work of a Pritzker Prize-winning architect. But the basics of building are the same for the most primitive building and the most accomplished: materials, form, program, use, the creation of interior and exterior. Indeed, at its most basic, all architecture consists of affordances, threshold, and apertures: how we can stand and be protected, what separates inside from outside, and how we traverse the passage between those two.
4. Earth and World
And so the second thing that Johnson’s images have done, I think, is subtly elevate the hut to its proper philosophical significance.
Maybe surprisingly, for those who do not follow such things, he is not the first to do this. Martin Heidegger, the influential 20th-century German thinker and controversial supporter of Nazism, is perhaps the most famous hut-dweller in the Western tradition of philosophy. Like Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Austrian genius with decidedly different philosophical proclivities, Heidegger found solace, and the opportunity to think deeply, in a rough woodside structure. Wittgenstein’s favourite location was Norway; for Heidegger, the philosopher of Blut und Boden, it was inevitably the Schwarzwald – the Black Forest. Where once had disported the characters from the Brothers Grimm, Heidegger now made his own off-grid retreat. In the 1930s and after, this densely treed and mountainous region provided the philosopher with a magical home.
The hut was situated on a hillside near Todtnauberg. The basic structure is a small foursquare log house, its most arresting feature a long roof that extends back and joins the building organically to the sloping hill. The hut is rooted in place, a material illustration of the later Heidegger’s notion of building (Bauen), explored most completely in an essay called “Building Dwelling Thinking” (1951). 2 According to the dense poetic idiom of Heidegger’s work, much-quoted by architectural theorists, conventional notions of building as mere structural achievement fail to heed the linguistic ‘call’ embedded in the verb-form of bauen. Most importantly, the notion of building also embraces dwelling – being at home, in place – and cherishing or preserving the world.
To build, therefore, is to engage the prospect of dwelling, which in turn is a preserving or holding. Here, and only here, is thinking made possible: the true thinking of our essence, which is the fact of being here.
The second major theme of this essential essay, equally relevant to the question of the hut, is Heidegger’s notion of the fourfold. This is often considered mystical in tone, but let us be more pragmatic: the fourfold is a matrix of meaning that consists of (a) earth, (b) sky, (c) mortals, and (d) divinities. A genuine building – one which makes dwelling and thinking possible, or rather recognizes these as the logically necessary prior ends of building – gathers the fourfold unto itself. One needn’t be a mystic or even a believer to acknowledge the force of ‘divinity’ here. The divinities in question are the household gods or inhabiting spirits that extend across our mortal span.
Thus, a hut like Heidegger’s own gathers the fourfold by sitting on the earth, by being situated under the sky. The mortals who dwell there, Heidegger and his wife Elfride, sporting their traditional costumes and drawing water or chopping wood, commune with divine presences that are more immanent than transcendent. The hut is ‘merely’ material in its component parts, but as a building that is also a dwelling it opens out a clearing of truth and non-material significance that joins it to other ontological portals such as works of art.
“The mere object is not the work of art,” Heidegger wrote in another influential essay that marks his later period of thought (final version 1950). 3 We might echo this by saying the mere structure is not the building. The humble nature of the hut might obscure its profound depth of meaning, its ability to allow thinking, preserving, and holding.
We’ve come some fair distance from the humble ice hut, true. But these reflections reveal their power when, aided by Johnson’s magisterial photographic technique, we look at the hut with new eyes. By strictly avoiding the simple utilitarian motives of the ice hut – fishing, shelter – we also go beyond the typical but still limited account of it, namely its space for fellowship and time away from the routine demands of working life. We begin to see revealed the genuine wonder of the ice hut. It is a dwelling whose temporary quality only adds poignancy and urgency to its meaning. The earth upon which it stands is not earth, except in the sense that everything under the sky is earth. Our dwelling here is framed by contingency – as, indeed, is everything we mortals may experience or think about.
Beyond use, beyond form, beyond matter, beyond even desire – only here do we find the essence of the hut. I began these thoughts about Richard Johnson’s aesthetic project by asking “What is a hut?” We have seen that, in traditional terms, this is a question without a definitive answer, at least of the traditional kind. There is no set of necessary and sufficient conditions that defines the category of hut. Nor is there a cluster of instances of ‘hutness’ that would allow us to express a family-resemblance view of hut-identity. Rather, a hut is as a hut does. The hut’s essence is in what it allows, not what it looks like.
Preserving, holding, protecting; building, dwelling, thinking. The hut may be, after its humble fashion, the most essential building we mortals can know. Within its tiny confines, the whole world awaits.
1. Pamela Furdin, “A Nantucket Hermit Is Pulled from His Shell,” Washington Post (29 December 1998); https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1998/12/29/a-nantucket-hermit-is-pulled-from-his-shell/07b85d7c-f887-41ab-8f89-f8b263592cf2/?utm_term=.d81b52782c16
2. Martin Heidegger, “Building Dwelling Thinking,” in Albert Hofstadter, trans., Poetry, Language, Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1971).
3. Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” also included in Poetry, Language, Thought.