Getting close to nature and trying to live next to it also implies protecting yourself from it. That is why shelters, or large houses, built among vegetation assume this paradox: celebrating nature is taking care of it and understanding that it does not belong to us, we are the ones who belong to it.
Today, with more than half of the world’s population living in metropolises and with the world’s cities claiming public spaces, the city has ceased to define itself as an opposition to nature. Vegetation has become both a necessity and a place with which architecture relearns to relate. Sometimes with humility and care and others with the challenge of locating projects in seemingly impossible places. The publisher’s book Phaidon Living in Nature illustrates this coexistence.
At the top of Storfjellet Mountain in Norway, designers from the Spinn studio and engineers from the Format team built Varden, a refuge inspired by the many faces of the rocky mountain, from which the cabin’s faceted look derives. This home is sculptural and practical at the same time, but it is by no means whimsical. She was commissioned by the Norwegian Hikers Association to promote the routes in Hammerfest – the northernmost point on the planet, a place known as the best place to see the northern light – and the architects studied the area with drones.
Today the weathered hut is built with 77 pieces of wood that fit together like a puzzle to form a shell that could be reminiscent of a rock. Each of the pieces was produced with a 3D printer and, before placing it on the top, it was tested to assess its resistance to the weight of snow and the force of the wind. With the technical requirements met, the cabin was built and split into two halves for a group of volunteers to install it on the top. Financed by crowdfunding, only in the foundation and in the insulation of the finish were professional builders involved.
Nature shelters and transforms us as much or more than what we try to transform her. That is why in Aculco, northwest of Mexico City, the house that Pérez Palacios Arquitectos built for two brothers is designed to remain open, in contact with the place. Built with stone from a nearby quarry and with wood and clay from the land itself, the austere and rotund house is perceived as a light construction thanks to the large windows that open onto the landscape, giving the place all the prominence. Above ornaments or architectural resources, it is precisely the light and the views that enter that turn the spaces into luxurious corners. Nature contrasts with the austerity of the materials. Its exuberance clashes with the ornamental sobriety of the house. With two bedrooms around a central space and a bathroom, the house is not large, but the porches multiply the space without leaving a mark on the landscape. The bedroom over the bathroom tilts the deck plane and this gesture manages to protect it from the rains.
When architecture understands the place, it tries to take care of the landscape, limiting the footprint of its intervention, camouflaging its presence or building with local materials, as in the tree house that Jim Olson and Tom Kundig built using ash wood (the tree of the rain) of the tropical forest of Santa Teresa, on the edge of the Costa Rican Pacific coast. With three stacked square stories, the house is like a beach hut turned tower. Choose to stack rather than spread out to minimize the footprint of your architecture. It integrates well into the forest and gets views as if it were a tree. Here you eat and cook next to the ground, you can contemplate the place from the upper floor and sleep sheltered, on the floor in the middle. Wood slats are not fully adjusted for natural ventilation. A photovoltaic panel and rainwater collectors complete the facilities of this tree house built and grown in the forest.
Nature demands humility while posing challenges. On the Le Morion ridge, in the Aosta Valley, the temperature can reach -20 degrees Celsius and the winds reach 200 kilometers per hour. In that impossible place is where a climber may need a shelter. Precisely for this reason, a cabin designed by Roberto Dini and Stefano Girodo bears the name of the architect and mountaineer Luca Pasqualetti, who fell down in the area six years ago. With steel ribs and base – so that the shelter can withstand the force of the wind and, if necessary, can be removed without damaging the mountain – the cabin is lined with panels of pine conglomerate and recycled polystyrene covered with aluminum. The prefabricated construction was assembled in a few hours and reached the summit by helicopter. Its gabled roof imitates the top of the mountain itself and protects the interior, where a large glass roof covered by a cantilever brings nature into the cabin.
Not far from there, in the Italian province of Udine, is the oldest forest in Italy: Malborghetto Valbruna. Surrounding it with fir and larch trees, the architect Claudio Beltrame wanted his house to look like just another tree, a pineapple – due to its oval shape – surrounded by curved larch modules that protect the façade and change color.
You can only get to this house on foot. The larch also lines the interior of the refuge, which is more reminiscent of a nest than a house. Even so, it has three floors, again to limit the footprint that the architecture leaves on the site. The access one is a gazebo and contains large windows. In the central one is the living, eating and cooking area. A bedroom with overhead lighting in the center of the dome crowns the pineapple. It breaks contact with the environment and allows you to rest under the stars.
Again in Costa Rica, the Czech study Formafatal applied the Japanese method of yakisugi —Which consists of burning the wood and then nourishing it with oils— to protect the house they were commissioned to build in Puntarenas from water. The house is simple, a rectangular volume raised on stilts to minimize the footprint on the site and, at the same time, to protect those who inhabit it from the fauna. Except for a blind façade —which blocks the sun and safeguards privacy—, the rest are lattices, die-cut aluminum screens that can be opened, closed or pivoted and that build a layer that seems to breathe while offering shade and ventilation. A staircase leads to the roof of the house, which – as Le Corbusier proposed – returns the stolen land to the place with a garden of plants and bushes that lowers the temperature inside the house and, making the architecture available to the vegetation , return to the jungle part of the busy nature.
Nature is us, it is not just a frame that surrounds us. To relate with respect to it, there are houses that rise, others that are buried, there are some that are camouflaged and also some that look out. They all change, like the vegetation itself, making architecture a living construction.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.