An Architectural Journey Through the Woods
This article was originally published on Common Edge.
There are extraordinary connections between the natural world and the capacity for creativity in human beings. In his book Last Child in the Woods, journalist and author Richard Louv observes: “Nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualization and the full use of the senses. Given a chance, a child will bring the confusion of the world to the woods, wash it in a creek, turn it over to see what lives on the unseen side of that confusion.” He concludes that in nature, “a child finds freedom, fantasy, and privacy: a place distant from the adult world, a separate peace.” The architect Frank Harmon likewise wrote touchingly about the outdoors, woods, and water as perfect settings for cultivating a thirst for learning and discovery: “Children raised by creeks are never bored. Creek children don’t know about learning by rote, neither are they conditioned to working nine to five. Berries are their first discoveries, and birds’ nests, and watching the stars come out. Later they discover books. To creek children, learning is discovery, not instruction.”
In the course of researching the dynamic of playing in the woods and cultivating creativity, we talked to several contemporary architects who draw strong connections between their childhood experiences in natural settings, especially the woods, and the forest’s role in their formation as architects. Each has found within the woods the underpinnings of their design ethos: vernacular antecedents, spatial awareness of patterns and boundaries, ecological relationships and systems, seasonal rhythms and their minute changes, and the inherent qualities of beauty and richness in light, water, and materials of the earth. For these architects, the woods inspire designs that celebrate the rituals and ethos of transcendent existence. But rather than focus just on these architects’ buildings, we offer some images of projects inspired by childhood memories of the woods that they recall as places where they discovered a desire to be an architect. Each seems to live up to an observation made by the French writer François-René de Chateaubriand: “Forests were the first temples of God, and it is in the forests that men have grasped the first idea of architecture.”
Seattle architect Susan Jones identifies the roots of her desire to become an architect in her many experiences as a child walking through natural environments, particularly the woods near her home. One sees evidence of these elements—the forest light, color, textures, and scale—in Jones’s design for the renovation of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Seattle (originally designed by Steinhart, Theirault and Anderson). On her way to school nearly every day, Jones walked through a forest. As a 5-year-old, she watched the construction of the house her parents were building in the woods. Jones recalls the spaces of this house, the way the mountains stood majestically in the distance and formed the backdrop for her new home’s setting, how the trees filtered light as it came through her bedroom windows, the ways in which each of the rooms in the house felt different because of the aspect and the views. The power of those experiences and the memories of a child in the woods, says Jones, have never left her. The relationship to nature, “the beauty and purity of material, texture, and light” fills her practice day to day, she says.
Tucson, Arizona–based architect Rick Joy has an affinity for the vernacular, and his design for a house in the Vermont woods seems to best capture this translation between the resourcefulness he learned as a child in the Maine woods, and the native genius of vernacular architecture. As a boy, Joy spent much time on his own, playing outdoors in the rugged settings of the backwoods and farms. These early experiences were invitations to engage with the natural environment to entertain himself and learn problem solving by building forts with whatever materials were at hand, assembling a playhouse from old barn siding and spools of baling wire and twine, and foraging for other materials and adventures among the rocks, trees, and streams. Through these experiences, Joy developed “an understanding of nature, loving it, being in it.” His time in forests and fields inculcated a sense of resourcefulness—part of New England’s culture best captured in an early 20th century verse about legendary Yankee thrift: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” He has translated this resourcefulness into his architecture, particularly his early works, which he built himself. This interest in how things work and how to mend them is most treasured in vernacular architecture, which puts an emphasis on practical solutions whose beauty is expressed through down-to-earth ingenuity and sensate human experience. Early vernacular architecture is also a hallmark for designing and building sustainably, as such practical yet beautiful solutions needed to conserve scarce resources.
The “mountain retreat” that architect Thomas Barrie designed for a site in the woods of Boone, North Carolina, for himself and his family captures the unassuming nature of a simple cabin (it’s not much more than 1,000 square feet). Barrie spent his formative years outside Boston, the geographical and intellectual wellspring of the Transcendentalists, with their focus on nature as a setting for rapturous experiences of the mind, spirit, and soul. Barrie notes that Henry David Thoreau described the virtues of an “authentic life” as being the products of creating and living in a simple cabin in the woods (in Thoreau’s case, on Walden Pond near Boston). Barrie sees a lineage to Thoreau’s cabin from the “hermit scholar’s retreat” in Zen Buddhism: a setting for both the authentic life and enlightenment that offer meaning and connection through nature, family, setting, and purpose.
For Barrie, his retreat on a wooded hillside becomes whole only “when the quotidian rituals and periodic celebrations inhabit and animate its spaces.” Rituals—in this case, meals, fires, repose, and rest—are what complete this simple house, much the way a church or a temple is made sacred only when the space hosts the rituals of the members of a faith community. These expressions of architecture and design in support of the primary purpose of living a conscious life provide examples of the value of being in harmony with nature.
The architecture of Jones, Joy, and Barrie points to a construct that is essential in building for the future in a way that not only sustains the natural environment but promotes the relationship of humans with nature, both physical and spiritual. According to Christopher Alexander and others, this connection, while deeply innate, requires awareness beyond the subconscious and is of such value to the future of humanity. It needs to be consciously incorporated into the development and education, particularly with students of architecture, planning, and landscape architecture.