Architecture

The Permanent Camping pavilions demonstrate how exquisite small buildings can be – but what does this photogenic asceticism say about how we’re living now? By Naomi Stead.

Permanent Camping

Permanent Camping: the first cabin iteration in Mudgee.
Credit: Andrew J. Loiterton

What is it about little buildings? From huts to shacks to follies to tiny houses, from “cabin porn” to cottage-core, the appeal of small spaces shows no sign of, ahem, diminishing. One of my favourite reveries comes from the Anglo–German novelist W. G. Sebald, whose final novel, Austerlitz, suggests that someone ought to “draw up a catalogue of types of buildings, listed in order of size, and it would be immediately obvious that domestic buildings of less than normal size – the little cottage in the fields, the hermitage, the lock-keeper’s lodge, the pavilion for viewing the landscape, the children’s bothy in the garden – are those that offer us at least a semblance of peace”.

Sebald’s point is not just the whimsy of small buildings but also the oppressiveness of gigantic ones. His lifelong literary project, reckoning with the legacy of World War II, included the oppressive ends to which monumental architecture was put by national socialism. Sebald’s advocacy of the miniature and humble building, the architectural value of “modesty and primitiveness”, is equally a yearning for a simple, intimate, domestic scale of building, and for a respite from the crushing effects of techno-rational ideology.

Others have different theories about why this love of cute buildings is such a thriving cultural phenomenon. But whatever the reason, it’s catnip for the world’s media – images of dreamy little refuges set in a pastoral or wilderness landscape are perfect vehicles for aspirational escapist daydreams. They proliferate online, endlessly shared and pinned and reposted, especially now when everyone wants to imagine themselves elsewhere.

The architectural projects known as Permanent Camping I and II certainly fit the bill for a romantic wish-fulfilment fantasy. Designed 12 years apart and for different clients by the Sydney-based Casey Brown architects, the first is located on a remote, granite-strewn mountainside near Mudgee in New South Wales while the second, completed in 2020, is on rolling farmland near Berry. Beautifully made and detailed, and sensitively sited, they each have an enigmatic presence as sculptural artefacts in the landscape, but are also fundamentally unexpected in form and material.

Both are small, tall towers, with sleeping loft above and living area below. They are built from reclaimed ironbark hardwood and clad externally in a protective skin of glimmering copper. Both close down when not occupied and then unfurl when someone comes to stay – literally cranking open to reveal a glass screen wall and the sumptuous timber interior, the “walls” flapping upward to form awnings.

The towers both have the same footprint, which really is small – nine square metres, three by three, is smaller than most rooms, let alone most buildings. Architect Rob Brown says that the dimensions were suggested by the Japanese tea house – the minimum area in which two people can sit comfortably together. In its scale and intricacy each is really closest to a habitable item of furniture, bespoke and highly crafted, like a jewel box out in the paddock.

The build was led in both cases by Jeffrey Broadfield, a master craftsman with a background in theatre construction. Neither can have been cheap, given the level of precision and finish and the extraordinary materials. But that’s part of what makes the projects unusual – in an age where the planned life span of a building can be as short as 30 years, these small buildings have been designed to last for a century or more. The enfolding copper “armour” protects the timber interior from the incursions of weather, animals and bushfires.

There are differences between the two iterations – the second has an additional smaller tower containing a bathroom (rather than just a longdrop dunny), extra sitting platforms including a roof-level deck, and conveniences such as solar power and an outdoor shower. But while the second version is more elaborate and refined, I prefer the first, as it retains more of a connection with the elemental pleasures of camping. It’s a cabin supporting the minimum necessities of life – shelter, water, warmth, a place to sleep and prepare food, somewhere to sit and observe the world. Brown puts his finger on it – “It’s just about you, your partner, a book, a glass of wine, nature, and the weather. That’s it!”

In discussions of small buildings there is very often a reach for the transcendental. It’s a form of asceticism, the idea that one might winnow down possessions and spaces and ways of living to reach a state of tranquillity and oneness with the world. Devotees speak, for example, of a “tiny life philosophy” to go with the “tiny house lifestyle” – where both are a process of simplification and reduction to essentials, leading to a hoped-for attainment of a freedom both conceptual and pragmatic.

When your tiny dwelling is located in a remote area, the effect seems to be compounded. It’s been described as a “back to the woods” movement – a mixture of off-grid neo-hippie, earnest sustainability devotee, hipster experience-hunter, doomsday-prepper and stressed-out urbanite looking to pare things back, sometimes all combined in the same individual. In the American context, where the movement realises a particular part of the American Dream, the literary precursors are clear – part Walden, part Little House on the Prairie and part Whole Earth Catalogue.

In a short-term dwelling or occasional holiday destination the stakes are lower than in a permanent house – the scope for smallness seems proportional to the length of stay. In this sense the Permanent Camping pavilions could be understood as a form of “glamping”: more comfortable and convenient than conventional camping but still offering the opportunity to dwell in nature relatively unmediated.

All this got me thinking about the German concept of Existenzminimum (subsistence dwelling), which emerged from the architects of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) in the early 20th century. At the time, citizens of the Weimar Republic faced severe housing shortage, high rents, overcrowding and poor housing quality. The Existenzminimum debate was argued on philosophical and ideological as well as design grounds: trying to determine the minimally acceptable standard of dwelling necessary for people (read: members of the working classes) to live a dignified and healthy life. The concept covered floor space, density and sanitation as well as more qualitative design aspects such as access to light and air and green space.

The most progressive European architects of the day were committed to analysing and identifying, but also protecting a minimum standard of design in mass housing – codified through universal standards. The project culminated in a comparative study of minimum dwellings across the world, presented in Frankfurt at the second International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM) in 1929.

Based on principles of rational efficiency and industrialised housing production, and incorporating new ideas on hygiene, health and social change that included women going out to work, the minimum dwelling was a quintessential product of modern architecture, motivated by a progressive agenda. Reinforcing the universal right to housing, it opened a range of questions – about design quality, housing and health, and the role of the welfare state in housing provision – that remain relevant today. These dwellings were also, if not small, then certainly tight – highly efficient and offering the minimum necessary, no more and no less, so that limited resources could be stretched further and more people could be housed.

Almost 100 years later, we seem to have turned the Existenzminimum on its head. The minimally acceptable has given way to the desirably minimal, as wealthy elites seek controlled deprivation through architecture to approach some kind of existential presence or essence of dwelling in the world – perhaps what Sebald called “peace”.

I’m not sneering at this – I would dearly love to go and stay in one of the Permanent Camping pavilions myself, for many of these same reasons. But I do find it remarkable that in this very particular late capitalist moment, there is relief to be found in a reduction of amenity and comfort in architecture. Dwellings are extolled for being “free” from electricity or reticulated water or telecommunications. Abundance itself has come to seem, in some way, inhumane.

For a privileged few, the focus in architecture has moved from what we do need to what we don’t.

 

Arts Diary

CINEMA Melbourne International Film Festival

online, until August 22

VISUAL ART Wilam Biik

TarraWarra Museum of Modern Art, Healesville, until November 7

SCULPTURE Project 1: Sarah Lucas

National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, until February 13

MUSIC Jazz By The Beach

Scarborough, Western Australia, August 14-15

VISUAL ART Bridget Currie: Message From The Meadow

Lion Arts Centre, Adelaide, until September 4

Last chance

FASHION Piinpi: Contemporary Indigenous Fashion

National Museum of Australia, Canberra, until August 8

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 7, 2021 as "Tiny treasures".

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Naomi Stead is The Saturday Paper’s architecture critic and professor of architecture at Monash University.