The Cabin like us
by Jo Toda
Mineral, plant, animal. Nature’s three kingdoms.
Designing an architectural project, is to bring order to the first two realms for the purposes of creating an inhabitable space for the third, that of men and animals. In order to do this, trees are cut down in forests and stone is extracted from quarries. Before the discovery of fire we made use of the raw earth under our feet. In his second book, De architectura, Vitruvius described the first human constructions, built using wood and earth:
“At first they set up forked stakes connected by twigs and covered these walls with mud. Others made walls of lumps of dried mud, covering them with reeds and leaves to keep out the rain and the heat. Finding that such roofs could not stand the rain during the storms of winter, they built them with peaks daubed with mud, the roofs sloping and projecting so as to carry off the rain water[ ; ……].”
Vitruvius places the discovery of fire at the origins of building: “Therefore it was the discovery of fire that originally gave rise to the coming together of men, to the deliberative assembly, and to social intercourse”. He reminds us the gesture of building is a social gesture. Men gather around fire and invent words and language. It is also thanks to fire that materials were transformed and that oven baked bricks, ceramics, tiles, etc were invented. Since Antiquity, thanks to fire, we have invented glass and cement, both made with raw materials extracted from the ground. Architecture simply employs these elements provided by nature in order to build edifices.
Vitruvius presents “the first constructions” of different peoples by explaining earthen bricks, sandstones, chalk extracted from calcium, cut stone, masonry and wood. This vernacular architecture was rediscovered in the middle of the 20th century thanks to Bernard Rudofsky and his Architecture without architects. Nevertheless, for Vitruvius these techniques are simply premises, they allow the construction of buildings, but are not sufficient to be considered as architecture. Having spoken about materials and methods of production, he then says: “as due order requires, I shall in the next book write of the temples of the immortal gods and their symmetrical proportions.”
For Vitruvius, the distinction between architecture and a simple building resides first and foremost in the care that is taken both in terms of symmetry and proportions. The Ancients drew on the secret and symmetrical nature of the human body, composed and created by a nature so wise that the result is necessarily beautiful and ideal, as is only right for a reasonable creature. The perfect body is a geometrical body that can be drawn with a set square and a compass
Anthropomorphism, an analogy between the human body and the constructed body, is the key to classic architecture. One considers architecture as an art because it is in the image of man, because it is, quite simply, a construction much like ourselves.
Could one call the modest constructions that can be found in fields and gardens, or in the courtyards of factories, architectures? Could one say that their proportions are similar to our own? Though they are often symmetrical, and have “a door and windows”, these small agricultural or industrial cabins are rarely the result of an architect’s drawing, and rarely conform to architectonic or aesthetic canons…
Another thing which distinguishes classic architecture from precarious cabins is the presence or absence of foundations. To build a structure, we first dig holes in the earth for the purposes of setting posts or pouring reinforced concrete. The constructions must be anchored deep in the earth to ensure their solidity. The construction is thus a building. Inversely, cabins simply sit on the ground and have no foundations. The walls are attached to posts, they are fragile and flexible, sometimes easy to take apart and very mobile.
Can one consider them in the context of the criteria laid out by Rudofsky in his Architecture without architects: vernacular, anonymous, spontaneous, indigenous and rural? Similar to an anthropologist, he seeks to overturn preconceived ideas and extend the vision of architecture. He proposes the notions of “exotic architecture”, or “non-pedigreed architecture”, demonstrating the idea that vernacular architecture is above all that of a community.
Rudofsky sets out a number of preconditions for the emergence of a vernacular architecture. The territory of a community should be defined using precise borders, for the purposes of forming a coherent landscape. This coherency is what defines a social space, what he calls a sense of humanity, humaneness.
Even though the cabins that can be found in the Valley seem to satisfy certain conditions of non-pedigreed architecture, it is not certain that they belong to any of the three categories that Rudofsky proposes: high vernacular, primitive architecture and sculpted architecture.
The structures of the cabins are so simple and so primitive that one can build the roofs as covers and erect the walls as an envelope. All of the elements are built according to necessity and the details come from improvisational inspiration. The primitive nature of the constructions comes from the patchwork of industrial materials that are used. One can find assemblies of wood and bricks, along with metal and plastic. But with the result being so simple and banal, can these vernacular architectures be considered as contemporary?
These fragile constructions seem to belong to communities and meet specific needs. Nonetheless, their dispersion and abandonment struggle to define a spatial unity, even one which is temporary. These cabins are lacking in finesse and geographical density and appear to be almost anonymous and spontaneous. With the materials used being imported from elsewhere, one struggles to link them to the land that they occupy, where they seem to be more exotic than they are indigenous.
Neither monumental nor vernacular, one hesitates to abandon such a dilapidated cabin in this kind of abandoned landscape. It cannot be denied that it attracts us with an inexplicable charm, which is nothing other than a form of humanity.
By once again using the analogy between architecture and the human being, one might ask if the resemblance between edifice and body is not to be found in the way of being but more-so in the architectural form. Lacking foundations, simply placed on the ground, there where the surface allows, exposed to the elements, the cabin will quickly fall apart. The thin walls and light roofs, with their synthetic and plastic materials, envelope a space similar to garments covering skin. Doesn’t its fragile aspect leave one with a familiar impression, an almost human feeling of intimacy? Could it not be seen as a human form?
In contemporary Japanese architecture, architects are attached to such cabins, or rather to what are called “barracks”. In the aftermath of the earthquake of 1923 in Kanto, Wajiro Kon founded an agency for the decoration and embellishment of the barracks that were spontaneously built on burnt out land. Architect and researcher, Kon opened up a new path for urban sociology, establishing the basis for what he would call “Modernologio” in Esperanto. Modernology is antonymic to archeology, that the Japanese translate by “think of the old”. By choosing the term Modernology, Kon is inviting us to “think of the contemporary”.
The influence of Modernology continues to be evident in the architectural thinking of Japan. Architect and historian Terunobu Fujimori adapted Kon’s method for the activities of his “Street observation society” founded in the 1980’s. At that time architects used the barrack as a metaphoric figure for architecture: either to regain the freedom and right to build as a self-taught constructor, or to face the material reality of the capitalist context allied with a sophisticated expression of late modernism.
By retracing the filiation of Modernology, we can find it today in the work of Momoyo Kaijima and Yoshiharu Tsukamoto of Atelier Bow-Wow and their concept of “Behaviorlogy”. For them, behavior is not only that of an individual, but also that of the built up spaces and urban context that surround them. Tsukamoton attempts, in the city, to explain interactivity and exchanges between individuals, man-made spaces – architecture and city – and natural spaces. In this way he seeks to avoid human subjectivity and the anthropocentric nature of the technocracy. His relational and ecological approach may provide a path to a better understanding of our modest cabins.
Let us return to these photographed landscapes and to the impression that they leave us with. First among the gestures and relationships that they suggest, we find the act of waiting. These cabins are waiting for someone to come. They are not those architectures described by Vitruvius as autonomous bodies, as objects, with perfect proportions and geometry. There is indeed an analogy with the body, but devoid of all idealization.
Photography maintains a certain distance from the photographed object, and this distance allows us to sense the arrival of someone or something. We can find something here of the waiting inherent to the practice of photography.
If we feel a form of intimacy with these cabins, it is exactly because they are waiting on us. It is true that we build them out of necessity and for the work. But in return, they need us in order to be complete. It is here that we encounter a contemporary and renewed form of anthropomorphism. This reciprocity between man and the constructed being suggests a behavioral approach to the environment. A cabin sitting in the desert landscape is a stage waiting for the curtain to be raised, the piece is waiting to be performed.
The Italian writer Curzio Malaparte named his villa “Casa com me” which literally means the house like me. This house would later provide the décor for Jean-Luc Godard’s film Le Mépris (Contempt) where it is an important element in the film, as if it was waiting for a role, beyond its primary function as a dwelling, similar to the cabins, that we could say are waiting to be photographed. They are cabins like us, both sociable and solitary, waiting for someone to come.
 The Ten books on Architecture by Vitruvius, Book II, chapter 1, 1914, translated by Morris Hicky Morgan, p 39
 Ibid, p 38
 Ibid. Book II, chap. X, p. 65.
 Voltaire, Candide, or Optimism, 2014, p. 7.
 Bernard Rudofsky, “Preface”, Architecture without architects, 1964, p. 1.
 Atelier Bow-Wow, Terunobu Fujimori et al, The Architecture of Atelier Bow-Wow: Behaviorlogy, Rizzoli, 2010.
Translated by Derek Byrne
Jo Toda was born in Osaka. He studied 18th century architecture at the Paris 1 University and has a PhD in Modern architecture from the Tokyo University. He teaches architecture history at the Kanazawa Institute of Technology, and is the translator in Japanese of different classical text on French architecture, notably L’Unité d’habitation de Marseille de Le Corbusier (2010) et Vivre l’oblique de Claude Parent (2008).