When thinking of Mother Nature’s increasingly complicated relationship with home building and design, we generally think of rainwater cisterns. And low-e windows. And geothermal heat pumps. And solar arrays. And energy-saving appliances and water-conserving fixtures. And nontoxic paint, natural landscaping, and material recycling. Essentially, when we think of what would be considered an earth-friendly home, we do so through a LEED-influenced filter with a home’s “greenness,” often being based on USGBC-approved laundry lists like the one above.
There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but it also helps to acknowledge that there’s a whole other breed of homes that don’t just attempt to “protect” Mother Nature through various energy and water-saving bells and whistles but that are designed and built to embrace and bring us closer to her. With the boundaries between outside and inside blurred, these are homes that frame nature, sometimes literally.
The 24 North American homes — locations range from Arizona to Arkansas — featured in the new book, “Nature Framed: At Home in the Landscape” fall into the niche of nature-embracing-but-not-necessarily LEED-aspiring. Written by my friend Eva Hagberg, a Berkeley-based design writer, and beautifully produced by The Monacelli Press, “Nature Framed” is a tome for those who enjoy architectural eye candy — pretty pictures of pretty houses — but would prefer it with a heaping side of stirring landscapes — lakes, forests, mountainsides, plains, deserts, you name it — and insightful observation. As Hagberg writes in her introduction: “What these houses do is more than simply frame nature; they transform, viscerally, the relationship between and humans and the outside.”
It’s easy to be moved by the homes featured in “Nature Framed” (and become completely envious of those who live in them as these aren't just ramshackle huts in the woods), so here’s a small taste of the type of nature-framing architecture that Hagberg explores: Idaho’s Chicken Point Cabin designed by a personal favorite of mine, Tom Kundig, the renowned Seattle-based architect whose work I’ve featured before in my “Evergreen Homes” series.
For more, pick up a copy of “Nature Framed: At Home in the Landscape,” available now from the Monacelli Press.
Chicken Point Cabin
Nestled on the edge of an Idaho lake, centered on the ecotone — a transitional region between two different plant communities —is Seattle-based architect Tom Kundig’s Chicken Point Cabin. Completed in 2003, the 3,400-square-foot structure is a study in the interaction between interior and exterior, in what Kundig calls, “the thin membrane between the inside cultural landscape and the outside cultural landscape.”
The centerpiece of the cabin is a 20-by-30-foot window/wall/door, operable by a pulley system — Kundig is particularly fond of gadgetry and hardware — that renders, on opening, an entire surface of the building a void. The window itself frames expansive views of the lake, but when the entire mechanism is raised, nature rushes to fill the cabin even more completely.
The architect, whose college studies focused on geophysics, has a fascination with the natural forces of geology: plate tectonics, earthquakes, volcanoes. In other words, the uncontrollable energy that rules and informs our daily lives in innumerable ways. “The problem that humans have is that we fetishize nature,” Kundig says. “It’s almost as if we have divorced ourselves from the fundamental idea that we are just another species on the earth that happens to be a little more clever, a little more vicious, and a little more dangerous to the earth.” The thin membrane that is this cabin is meant both to protect us from nature, then, and protect nature from us.
The master bedroom is on the ground floor to keep the feeling of a simple cabin, while the roof canopy rests on clerestory windows to encourage a sense of prospect and visibility. Chicken Point focuses on our fascination with that thin permeability between humanity and nature. Kundig has articulated, in architecture, our innate desire to consistently control our perceptions of nature — we can close the 30-foot door, after all, against the elements. Sidling a house’s front façade right up onto a lakeshore while securing its back end in the safety of a cliffside is the ultimate expression of two very human drives coming together to work in confluence: on the one hand to prospect, and on the other to protect.
Reprinted from the book "Nature Framed" by Eva Hagberg. Copyright © 2011 by Eva Hagberg. Photographs copyright © 2011 by Benjamin Benschneider. Published by The Monacelli Press, a division of Random House, Inc.
Jacket cover photograph: Dean Kaufman