Cabin fever: a history of the humble cabin

Cabins have existed in form another in North America since as early as the 17th century. Vancouver Art Gallery’s latest show is looking at the enduring architectural and cultural appeal of these simple lodgings

From the rustic lodgings novelist Henry David Thoreau described in his 1854 book Walden to the cult website Cabin Porn, the cabin has long been a feature of popular culture.

A new exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery is tracing the cabin’s architectural and cultural history in North America, spanning early designs in the 17th century to some of its more recent incarnations.

Dorothea Lange, Home of rural rehabilitation client, Tulare County, California, Farm Security Administration–Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
Richard Johnson, Ice Hut #556, Cochrane, Ghost Lake, Alberta, Canada, 2011, Courtesy of the Artist

The exhibition has been conceived as a follow up to the gallery’s 2013 exhibition that looked at the cultural impact of the hotel, and has been brought to life by guest curator Jennifer M. Volland.

Volland has based it around three themes. Shelter introduces the cabin’s story as a practical architectural solution during the period of westward expansion in North America; Utopia examines its function as a means of escaping the conventions of normal society; and Porn looks at its emergence into mainstream popular culture.

Henrik Bull, Flender Residence, Stowe, VT, 1953, Henrik Bull Collection, Environmental Design Archives, University of California

The centrepiece of the show is a collection of 17 architectural models, which are displayed in chronological order to show the changing influences and practices in cabin design.

Other exhibits include plans, photos, historical documents, literature and ephemera, with works by architects such as BIG and Frank Lloyd Wright both on display.

Visitors can also see two full-scale installations by American artist and filmmaker James Benning and a full-sized cabin by Canadian artist Liz Magor.

“I think the cabin harkens back to a simpler existence, one where we can be closer to nature, one where we can turn inward, and one where we can escape the noise of modern life,” says Volland. “I hope [visitors] will better understand the layered and complex history of the cabin, not just the romantic image of what we see in lifestyle magazines and books.”

University of Colorado, College of Architecture and Planning, Colorado Building Workshop, Outward Bound Micro Cabins, Leadville, 2015. Photo: Jesse Kuroiwa
Rudolph Schindler, Bennati Cabin, Lake Arrowhead, CA (floorplan), 1934–37, R.M. Schindler Papers, Architecture and Design Collection, Art, Design & Architecture Museum, UC Santa Barbara

Cabin Fever is on display at Vancouver Art Gallery until September 30 2018. More info here