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“Of course, we're living in the age of skyscrapers, yet for many years now the concept of the cabin, representing the simple life, has been an essential part of modernity”

The philosopher Leonardo Caffo reflects on the concept of the cabin: from Le Corbusier's Cabanon to Unabomber's

by Leonardo Caffo
July 7, 2020

One of the most followed accounts on Instagram is called Cabin Porn. Like the Penguin-published book that inspired it, it's a collection of the world's most extraordinary cabins: in mountain hollows, on riverbanks, on rocks, perched in forests or suspended on lava. Of course, we're living in the age of skyscrapers, yet for many years now the concept of the cabin, representing the simple life, has been an essential part of modernity. In May 2018, an already historic exhibition at the Fondazione Prada in Venice, curated by Dieter Roelstraete and entitled Machines à Penser, examined the idea that for every form of thought and life there is a corresponding form of space; thus, certain lives, in this case those of Adorno, Wittgenstein and Heidegger, become associated with real cabins in which these philosophers seem to have found the ideal space for their theories. It's a common idea, yet little explored and perhaps never as topical as it is today: stories of voluntary rather than forced isolation in order to learn to truly think. There's a sort of story template, of Thoreau and his cabin, the story of a masterpiece of Americana literature – Walden. There's the story of Theodore John Kaczynsk, better known as the Unabomber, a Berkeley mathematics professor who later became the most hunted terrorist in US history: he wrote his manifesto Industrial Society and its Future in his cabin in Lincoln, Montana. Then there's a wide variety of stories and cabins, such as Le Corbusier's Le Cabanon in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France, built in 1951.

It's the myth of the cabin, one that keeps coming back recursively, which symbolises above all the possibility of an emergency escape from everyday life; the spirit of the times demands that we urgently reflect on alternative ways of living because, if we stop and look, the situation before us is by no means a reassuring one. The average age is again falling, stress has become almost natural, illnesses are increasing, the climate is protesting against humankind, the world is trembling, and all too often brings to mind the edge of the abyss. Simplicity, as a technique for doing less, seems to be a solution belonging wholly to the traditional Orient, mirrored by the passion for imitation, often naive if not ridiculous, in the West today. Thus have emerged yoga, between one drink out and the next, door to door meditation, even Tibetan music for listening to in the morning before work. A kind of profundity to be used and consumed: not even psychoanalysis managed this in such a petit bourgeois way. This is depth that sinks, to paraphrase a famous quote by Leonardo Sciascia (“in trying so hard to be deep, we sink”). Where we might smile, however, a much-needed space for reflection opens up, also philosophical in the technical sense, which is what the cabin with all its potency is about: the need to understand another, simpler way of living, focused on self-care. 

Drawing: Carola Provenzano

If we want to understand simplicity, perhaps it's a mistake, especially for “us”, to look to an Orient by now non-existent, aside from a few isolated pockets: there are stories from the west, more accepted within our vital, everyday criteria, which can teach much and are worthy of a philosophy to resolve an acute, practical problem: to escape from convention. Intuition tells us that no philosophical theory is valid unless tested through a life activity. A life activity, to be such, must be all embracing: it's not about doing something “between” other things, but rather about being the thing itself. All Michel Foucault’s last courses at the Collège de France were about exploring the essence of a truly philosophical life: not a life that does philosophy but a life that is philosophy. Foucault arrived at the paradox that a genuine philosopher's life is really just the life of a cynic: one who lives in the present, in immanence and so also in violence, and tends towards the total presence of the self. Although I don't agree with Foucault, I'm certain this new and almost obsessive interest in cabins finds its place in the wake of this legacy: the understanding of a simple life, withdrawn but not necessarily isolated, and able to show concern only for the essence of things. A transformation of existence has to be a radical process and a comparison between these cabins, which, from Thoreau to Wittgenstein, span history and are the extreme point of this radicalisation: new forms of life through new spaces for life.

Cabanon, Le Corbusier, 1951

The journey into simplicity, represented by the idea of the cabin, once again concerns the value of philosophical study: not the discipline of learning something, but the transformation of the things themselves. Things aren't learned, they are acquired and become part of us, and these attempts to unite thought and architecture are, for that matter, attempts to disconnect from a "network" that today seems more real and present than ever. A widely used acronym is IoT: Internet of things. This refers to the extension of the Internet to the realm of things, everyday objects but also physical places: a network no longer just metaphorical but physical, which equips objects with an intelligence, more or less powerful, thanks to the ability to communicate data among themselves, accessing information aggregated by others. Many of you will be reading Triennale magazine with a smartwatch on your wrist that tells you when it's time to exercise to lower your blood pressure: you are in the Internet of things. There's a common thread connecting many cabins – including those I chose for the Cabin-Out series at the Triennale (Thoreau, Unabomber, Le Corbusier, Wittgenstein) – to this present state of things: what if the Internet gets the upper hand? Stephen Hawking's prophecy known as the "Singularity" brings the science fiction of Philip K. Dick closer to reality than expected: will machines one day evolve to keep our will in check? Maybe this scenario, after the tangible vulnerability that COVID has imposed on us, concerns the impossibility of a simple, authentic life in the midst of the rampant spread of the Internet that has seen its transformation from instrument of consumption to consumption of its own instruments (us).

This scenario, foreseen to varying degrees by both Thoreau and Kaczynski, could lead to the design of spaces for "disconnecting", of which cabins, and this is why we are so attracted to them today, are the noble ancestors. 

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