Origin myths,” “founding myths,” and “creation legends” provide a way for us to see into and imagine the distant past in metaphorical, poetic, and compelling ways. The oldest origin myths help us understand how a people or a place (such as the universe) were believed to have come into existence. Anthropologists describe these as creation myths or “cosmogonic” myths. They might explain how the world came to be. For example, Native North American peoples such as the Cherokee, Ojibwe, and Aztecs share an origin myth that land was first created on top of a great ocean. One of the most common Western origin myths is the creation of Adam and Eve. But founding stories exist for all kinds of social conditions, historical customs, and objects, as well as places—think of the myth of the brothers Romulus and Remus, suckled as babies by a wolf, who survive to found the city of Rome (after Romulus got rid of his brother).
There are even origin myths that explain the creation of architecture. One of the most enduring of these is the “primitive hut.” This founding myth was articulated by Marc-Antoine Laugier, an 18th century Jesuit priest and architectural theorist. Laugier lived during the height of Western architecture’s Baroque excesses. He grew concerned that the ostentation of the Baroque architecture of his time was despoiling architecture of its essence. He proffered his ideas about how to restore architecture to its first principles in his 1753 Essai sur l’architecture, and he elaborated on these ideas further in a second edition of the essay two years later. In this theoretical treatise, Laugier states that architecture’s true founding principles are demonstrated in what has become known as “the primitive hut,” created by the world’s first architect.
In his 1981 book On Adam’s House in Paradise: The Idea of the Primitive Hut in Architectural History, the historian Joseph Rykwert delightfully recounts Laugier’s musings on what this “primitive” man wrought. In Laugier’s narrative, he is a simple man in the wild, seeking a place to settle. Beside a tranquil stream he spies a verdant green meadow, upon which he reclines. Soon, our primitive man is hot. He escapes to the shadowy respite of the woods. Then, it rains. He flees to a nearby cave. But, of course, it’s dark and dank. It’s at this point in Laugier’s story that our primitive man, frustrated in his search for commodious shelter, becomes the first architect. In the woods he finds four straight branches and raises them as columns upon the forest floor to form a cube, joining his columns at their tops with perimeter beams. Then, the master stroke: he raises a pediment above the beams, rafters are placed, and tree leaves cover his roof. He is protected from both sun and rain. The frontispiece of the second edition of Laugier’s book is adorned with an engraving by Charles Dominique Eisen of “Architecture,” personified as the mother of all arts, gesturing toward the simple, primitive hut raised by our first architect. Its essence is that it’s an intervention through the manipulation of nature that tempers life in the wild—a civilizing force.
Laugier’s book goes on to outline what he describes as the six general principles of essential architecture: column, entablature, pediment, building story, windows and doors. But it’s his description of the primitive hut, and how it came to be, that decants the essentials of architecture. As he describes it: “The little rustic cabin that I have just described, is the model upon which all the magnificences of architecture are elaborated. It is by approximating to its simplicity of execution that fundamental defects are avoided and true perfection is attained.” His message: stick to architecture’s true, foundational principles and you can’t go wrong.
Laugier’s primitive hut has been the focus of commentary and speculation by architects, theorists, and historians since his essay first appeared. Rykwert’s book recounts how this little building has woven its way through the history of Western architecture and architectural thought. And, as I discovered recently, the primitive hut continues to enchant, provoke, and educate some architects in their own design explorations. I’d like to present two of them.
Gabriel Guy is an architect based in Port Elgin, Ontario. A few years ago, completing his architectural studies at the University of Waterloo, he decided to build a hut in the wilderness for his master’s thesis project. Why? Guy had become suspicious of his own architectural education. In design studio, the drafting boards were long gone and students were hunched over screens, clicking mouses. Computation and slick computer renderings seemed to be the goal. “The physical engagement with architecture was gone,” recalls Guy. “It felt like everything had lost its soul.” He decided that his thesis project should be a visceral reconnection with architecture. Maybe the hut could teach him something elemental about architecture. He recorded in his thesis book: “My intentions, albeit naive, were to engage architecture on its own terms, through its own medium, to return to first principles … and to acquire a form of embodied architectural knowledge inseparable from its material becoming.” For a site he chose land northwest of Toronto on Manitoulin Island, part of his grandfather’s farm. He had no building skills to speak of, few tools, and no design. He lived on the site, designing the hut as he built it in a struggle with the elements and with the architecture itself. His desire was experience, “that most brutal of teachers,” as he calls it, in a contest with the building. His thesis book became a record of humiliation as he struggled to learn basic carpentry skills. “I didn’t know what I was doing.”
All materials for the hut were harvested from the site, reclaimed from two dilapidated barns, and sourced from two local sawmills. Traditional agricultural buildings became points of departure in learning to build in the harsh climate. Eventually, Guy arrived at a point where, through design and construction, he entered into a dialogue with the architecture. The hut became a manifestation of himself, “full of ignorance,” which he learned from.
Guy named his project the Oneiric Hut—a place of refuge but also for dreaming. In his book The Poetics of Space, the French writer Gaston Bachelard touches upon this essential quality of any shelter: “the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.” As Guy engaged with his Oneiric Hut, he also found time to reflect on works by Bachelard, Jung, Gibran, and others, along with trading notes with local farmers and carpenters. He designed and built something that might fulfill what he found lacking in most architecture: a place with a cosmic connection, a sense of sacredness. While his Oneiric Hut responded to the local climate and revealed the human hand in its construction, it also connected to the sky overhead. At the roof’s apex, Guy included a “sun door” to allow rays of warmth during the day and alignment with the North Star at night. It seems like the perfect place for dreaming.
Seattle-based architect Susan Jones has focused her practice (atelierjones), since its inception, on religious architecture and stewardship of the earth, and over the past decade specifically in the design and construction of mass-timber buildings. She’s the author of Mass Timber (ORO Editions), a book based on material research she’s conducted in her own practice. She spends a lot of time with wood, and in the woods.
A few years ago, Jones inherited a primitive hut. Actually, it was a dilapidated water tower for fire suppression that had belonged to her grandfather, who owned a remote, heavily-wooded site on Washington State’s Mount Constitution. The tower was constructed in the 1930s by the WPA to support a water tank 8 feet in diameter and about 5 feet tall. When Jones found it, the tank was still intact, but the cedar tower structure was disintegrating. “It has beautiful proportions,” says Jones, who decided to relocate the tower to a more accessible mountain site and transform it into a forest refuge—her own primitive hut, which she calls the Constitution Shed.
The board-and-batten siding was stabilized by replacing the batten strips and retaining the vertical boards. A local woodworker created new battens by rip-sawing aged logs left over from other projects and windblown trees from the site. The new pieces were left unfinished to weather akin to the original wood siding. Within the approximately 65-square-foot restored enclosure, Jones designed a plywood-lined writer’s cell with a new 4-foot-square triple-glazed window, a bookcase, a small desk, and a bunk. The floor, walls, and roof are heavily insulated (there is no heat or electricity, so good passive performance is key). The entire hut was fabricated in the woodworker’s shop, transported to the site, and carefully placed on sunken pin foundations by a boom truck. A new wood deck leading to the front door provides a place to stretch out just above the forest floor.
I asked Jones about her shed’s lineage to Laugier’s primitive hut. “The engraving shows the use of round logs as columns,” she points out, with little or no industrial fabrication. In comparison, her shed is a machine-made, albeit found, object. “There’s a tension between the natural forest setting and civilization. It makes you question how we are managing the use of this resource, and how to maintain the resource itself.” Jones’ shed is sometimes a base camp for weekend outings where friends gather to help remove overgrowth and thin out hemlocks, spruce, and firs, “to make a better forest that will consume more carbon.” And, in Jones’ view, the little crumbling shed has been recycled for a new life of maybe another 90 years.
Both of these primitive sheds—one a product of a spirited struggle with the process of embodying architecture, the other an expression of enlightened preservation, stewardship, and resource management—seem to reflect architecture’s elemental role to humanize, harmonize, and synthesize the cosmic dimension within the confines of a primitive hut in the woods.