How Much House? Thoreau, Le Corbusier and the Sustainable Cabin
by Urs Peter Flueckiger
“You want room for your thoughts…
Our sentences want room to unfold.”
— Henry David Thoreau, On Walden Pond, 1854
This simple, small, linen-bound volume addresses the perceived ‘need’ for vast amounts of space in the typical American house and questions the actual motivations by telling the story of three ‘one-room’ cabins built over a span of over 160 years and two continents – Henry David Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond (no longer extant, though a reconstruction is nearby to the original site); Le Corbusier’s Modulor-based Cabanon near the Cote d’Azur beach in France where he drowned while swimming in 1965; and a Texas Tech student project on the plains near Crowell, Texas, built in the semesters between 2008 and 2010. It attempts to bring the concerns of the earlier cabins to the present day.
While each, in its own way, could function as a ‘house,’ their primary idea was that of a place to repair; to retreat from others, to refrain and offer a place to think quietly. The Texas Tech cabin was designed to this program even if its first ‘use’ was academic. The freedom from distraction offers the ability to consider more deeply. In two examples, a waterfront site adds to this capacity for reflection. The third sits in the Staked Plains of the Panhandle, a landscape frequently described (by Coronado, Olmsted, and others) as an ‘ocean’ in its planar vastness.
Reduced to an inflected box, two of the cabins profiled were basically the size of a one-car garage. Thoreau’s cabin was 10 ft by 15 ft, a 2-to-3 proportion. Le Corbusier’s cabin was 12 ft by 12 ft, excluding a narrow 2-ft and 4-in-by-12-ft strip of entry hall and toilet, which he preferred not to acknowledge in published square footage, making the primary space a perfect square in plan. The Tech “Sustainable Cabin” derives its dimensions in part from the use of a “doublewide” trailer platform as base; it is 12 ft by 24 ft. A double square. A 10-ft span, in the case of Thoreau, and two 12-ft spans, in architectural terms, in the latter. “To live life simply,” in the words of Thoreau.
While this is an issue of size (quantity of space), it is also one of quality and the essential. In paring down size and complications — Donald Judd made very clear the distinction between complicated and complex: “complicated” means something has too many parts for the idea — each space acquires, it could be argued, a depth, richness, and complexity that transcend immediate use. ‘Generic’ form is timeless and open to unknown usage. It could also be argued that the more vast the context, the simpler the form ‘required’ to stand in the landscape. A reciprocity of the manmade with the natural. The book outlines the need and desire for withdrawal from overstimulation by noting many of the host of distractions that attend to us today – especially digital forms.
The author, Urs Peter ‘Upe’ Flueckiger, is a professor of architecture at the Texas Tech College of Architecture since 1998, and a practicing architect. He is from Switzerland, originally, where he worked for Mario Botta, and is most well known for his 2007 book “Donald Judd Architecture,” which provided concisely-measured drawings of Judd’s constructed works in Marfa, Texas. As he knows well, mensuration is a form of description; perhaps the only one with any true integrity. The book is out of print and much desired on the market.
Flueckiger quotes Tolstoy’s 1886 short story, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” in his excellent introductory essay to the new book. The story serves as parable, noting the human propensity for greed and its consequences in one brilliant, brief lesson.
Elaborating on the post-WWII American prosperity and current manifestations of excess, the book makes evident a kind of voracious acquisitional aggressiveness on the part of the American people: non-sustainable — even immoral, perhaps, in an extreme view.
Flueckiger carefully delineates the de facto use of most residential garages today as storage space and observes perceptively the purging of accumulations in ‘garage sales’; a kind of private ‘flea market’ in the United States.
Thoreau’s construction made liberal and deliberate use of recycled materials. Le Corbusier’s structure was pre-fabricated off-site and then shipped and reassembled in place. One could argue both were acts of a moral frugality in the idea of human habitat and not an insatiable need to compete or give evidence of social standing.
Le Corbusier famously designed le Cabanon in 45 minutes as a birthday gift for his wife Yvonne. He was 64 years old and called it a “holiday house or cabin.” It used the “little snack bar on the Cote d’Azur” where he sketched his conception as the appended cabin’s ‘kitchen.’ The owners were friends, and so, in somewhat parasitic manner, a door connects the two and allows the affable mixed use.
A chair. A table. A window. Much of our existence could in some poetic way be narrowed down to these three constructions. Even if, for much of our existence as human beings, these rudimentary ‘instruments’ were not common. In 1922, Le Corbusier had designed an earlier house for his mother that included an exterior entry court composed with these three elements and a large tree; and in 1962, Alison and Peter Smithson designed a small house in Fonthill that quoted the same exterior assemblage. Both were simply garden ‘prefaces’ to the actual small house, a kind of evocation of the idea of a house as entry tableau. Attempts to capture the poetic essence of human life.
Other excellent precedents for one-room retreats exist. Ludwig Wittgenstein, for example, working on the draft of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, built a small cabin for himself on a bluff overlooking a lake in Fiordo Skjolden, Norway. Only the stone foundation plinth remains. A few photos of it, perched high on a point overlooking the lake, show it to be somewhat larger, perhaps, with shuttered windows in Scandinavian style.
Interestingly, each of the earlier cabins had a second structure closely related although seldom discussed. Thoreau had a small woodshed, and Le Corbusier built an even more simple 6-ft-wide plywood box to serve as a drafting room with window — a retreat even from the vacation retreat. The short walk to the tiny second structure (the baroque de chantier) past a large Carob tree no doubt increased the sense of solitude.
“How Much House?” is an excellent synopsis of the issues involved and gives a coherent overview of the three cabins as well as details of their design and construction. The distillation of images provided — both drawings and photos, historic and contemporary — is the perfect accompaniment to the text in setting tone and providing explanation.
W. Mark Gunderson, AIA, is an architect in Fort Worth.