Creative content studio, Stranger Collective, commissioned me to write a story exploring the architecture that encourages us to explore the liminal spaces between land and water for their client of the same name. I wrote a piece which took readers on a journey into some of the spaces with me while diving into the history and psychology of our designer to return to nature. All copy as provided to the client.
On a mission to discover the architecture that reconnects us with nature, author, journalist and design commentator Katie Treggiden packs a rucksack and takes us camping in the liminal spaces between trees, land and water.
I arrived after dark and parked my car in the rain. Shouldering a backpack, I clipped on my head torch and turned to the right, finding a hand-painted sign with its beam: ‘Kudhva – adventurous route.’ Deciding I’d signed up to enough adventure already, I took the left-hand path, following a distant light through the trees – a candle flickering in a triangular window. Soon I was climbing the steep ladder into my simply furnished ‘kudhva’ (‘hideout’ in Cornish) – an insect-like pod atop metal stilts. I pulled the door shut behind me and settled in for the night.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” says Henry David Thoreau in his seminal work, Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854). He is not alone – ever since we came down from the trees (a way of life maintained by the Korowai and Kombai people of Papua New Guinea), we have yearned to return; to reconnect with nature and with ourselves.
In the 1st century AD, the emperor Caligula reputedly held banquets in a large plane tree; in 15th century Tuscany, arboreal architecture was a must-have for the Medici; and pulley systems hoisted champagne up to diners in the chestnut-tree restaurants of 19th-century Paris. “Climbing a ladder feels out of the ordinary, and in the adventurous surprise, people delight in being transported back to their childhoods,” says Studio Puisto architect Jenna Ahonen, explaining our attraction to treehouses and the ladder-accessed sleeping pod she designed for Finland’s Arctic Treehouse Hotel. “We instinctively feel safer in elevated places,” adds Kudhva founder Louise Middleton. “Looking upwards opens our body language, making us feel more capable.” Middleton’s theory is backed up by social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s ‘power pose’ – a wide-legged, open-hearted stance she argues makes us feel more in control.
It’s not just trees that we instinctively long for, but also water. A treehouse in Atlanta might be one of Airbnb’s most ‘wished–for’ listings, but Scandinavia’s summerhouses are perhaps Europe’s most ubiquitous rural retreats – Finland boasts one for every three inhabitants – and they’re just as often at the water’s edge as in the woods. Most are simple huts designed to provide little more than shelter and reconnection with the natural world. “Everything about summerhouses emphasises nature,” says Sabine Zetteler, the half-Finnish director of her eponymous London-based communications agency, who relishes the annual pilgrimage to her family’s ‘mökki’. “They are wholly designed to make you look outside or go outside.”
Despite insisting on tactile textiles and a wood burner, designer Heather Scott purposely excluded a bathroom from her Triangle House, the glazed end of which frames the sea view. “An outside loo might feel like a hardship, but there’s something wonderful about being reminded of your surroundings by the stars or the hoot of an owl,” she says. London-based Danish designer Nina Tolstrup took a similar approach in her Whitstable beach chalet. “A simple life isn’t necessarily an easy life,” she explains. “I wanted a contrast from our home comforts so we could enjoy time in nature, cooking slowly and even the washing up. The only thing you want to do here is take in the infinity of the sky, the sound of the waves and deep breaths of fresh air, so my focus was the view – we don’t need much more than that to be happy.”
Scrolling through Instagram’s aspirational ‘cabin porn’ – a term popularised by Zack Klein’s coffee table books of the same name – might seem like the only way for urban folk to get in on the action, but there are in fact architectural interventions that bring flora, fauna and water to the city. Cutting right through Manhattan, the High Line is an elevated former railway line, repurposed as a linear park. Paddle-perfect water features are planted with wetland species such as cattails and swamp milkweed, and miniature woodlands engulf you with crab apples and bigleaf magnolia. The 10th Avenue Overlook provides a unique view of the Hudson River and a reminder that you are in one of the biggest cities in the world.
Architectural office Boeri Studio took a more vertical approach in Milan, planting as many large trees as you might find in a hectare of woodland, along with 5,000 shrubs and 11,000 floral plans on the balconies of all four sides of its ‘Bosco Verticale’ (Vertical Forest) skyscrapers in the Italian capital. The planting is intended as a way to combine high-density residential planning with new habitats for birds and insects – and will create both a humid oxygen-producing micro-climate and shaded areas of outside space for the building’s residents. VTN Architects took a similar approach for Vietnam’s FPT University Administrative Building the chequerboard design of which sees square walled sections alternate with tree-planted balconies, offering a contrast from the technology-based courses taught within and screening from the heat of the sun. And it’s not just outside walls that are going green, ‘living walls’ – and even relaxation rooms filled with plants – are a popular trend in office interiors as part of a biophilic design movement that embraces the natural world.
It’s that sense of unplugging from the digital demands of our always-on lifestyles – even just for a moment – that these spaces have in common. “For everything that today’s connected world offers, its fast pace leaves many of us feeling disconnected,” says Ahonen. “In nature, we can slow down and re-engage with its inherent order and beauty.”
“I feel so lucky to be able to walk in the woods and swim in the lakes – things that feel a million miles away from modern life,” says Zetteler. “After two days in the chalet, it feels like we have been away for a week,” adds Tolstrup. “It’s the perfect antidote to London life – calming my mind and bringing joy to my soul.”
As for me? I woke at dawn as the half-light streamed in through that triangular window and birdsong came not from above, but from all around; the view through the tips of the willow trees revealed in the morning light. Pushing open the window to feel fresh air on my face, I nestled into my sleeping bag and felt a deep sense of connection – not only to the landscape around me, but to something within myself. I felt refreshed, renewed and ready to take on anything. Not least the trek through the woods in search of coffee.