by Jerry ElengicalJun 22, 2022
Can all architecture be traced back to a single point of origin? An idea that can serve as the foundation for all the layers and perspectives that have developed over millennia to shape the field as we know it today. Is this an oversimplification of an art form that has morphed from a means to fulfil the human need for shelter, to one that informs the identities of cities, nations, and the very lives of the people who inhabit it? And finally, how can this prototype inspire further innovation in the discipline while facilitating stronger ties to the natural world? As proposed by Marc-Antoine Laugier in his Essai sur l'architecture, published in 1755, the concept of 'The Primitive Hut' is among the most widely studied theories on these lines of thought, reducing architecture to its primordial form in response to the opulence and ostentatiousness of the time. Describing a dwelling stripped down to its bare skeletal structure - vertical supports, a horizontal beam, and a sloped roof - drawn from precedents in classical Greek architecture, the notion of a primitive hut has sparked much debate over the years with its idealised depiction of the art of building in its simplest form.
Based in Stockholm in Sweden, Ulf Mejergren Architects led by Swedish architect Ulf Mejergren, is a practice that is currently exploring the relevance of this idea in the contemporary architectural context, creating temporary pavilion-like structures. This series of installations, titled Primitive Huts, consists of small-scale shelters across Sweden, built using locally available material and exceedingly simple construction techniques, beginning with the Snowball Hut, completed in 2021. Interestingly, this approach is in line with Laugier's own reasoning, as he believed that every manifestation of the 'The Primitive Hut' arose from the conditions of its context and the rudimentary construction skills possessed by early humans. With over 15 such structures completed so far, using materials that range from baked goods to balloons, grass, mushrooms, and even ice, the venture probes into how simple solutions expressed through low-tech building practices can yield results radiating an otherworldly beauty, in a manner that conventional architecture today can scarcely hope to match.
In doing so, Mejergren has somewhat validated Laugier's own idealised vision of architectural aesthetics while also provoking greater inquiry into the need to explore alternative construction materials and techniques. Speaking to STIR, Ulf Mejergren delves into the finer details of how he set about on this endeavour and what he hopes it will inspire within the realm of architecture in the present day.
Jerry Elengical: What is your interpretation of the concept of 'The Primitive Hut' and its depiction as the fundamental basis of all architecture?
Ulf Mejergren: 'The Primitive Hut' has connotations as the earliest form of architecture, the first experiment to make something inhabitable out of what you can get your hands on. It is less like a permanent house as we would define it today, and more of a temporary shelter for wandering people, before we decided to settle down and create civilisations. It’s perhaps an echo of a simpler time where we lived closer to nature and understood its value better. When we borrowed from the land rather than trying to subjugate it. The brief state of the huts is reflected both in the materials they are made of - since many of them can only be found during a certain time of the year - as well as the time taken to build them, which shouldn’t exceed more than a couple of days.
A primitive hut is a temporary space, a concentration and interpretation of the land surrounding it. It’s a mix of simple architecture and land art one could say. Another thing that makes it primitive is that it could be erected by a person that doesn’t necessarily need to be particularly experienced at building, other than having a keen interest and curiosity to work with the material in question. For me, a cheap and often free material allows me to make a great quantity and variety of these huts, even if they are not commissioned by anyone but myself. This means that I have a lot of time to experiment and it also brings great freedom, material experience, and knowledge, since I also build them myself - which means no middlemen and no one to blame if the result differs from the theoretical and visual goal I had in my head before starting each hut. Even if I am not getting rich off the huts, I have got other commissions from them which have made it possible for me to put aside a budget for more huts which hopefully will lead to other commissions and so on.
Jerry: How did you conceptualise this series of structures and what were your objectives when commencing work on it?
Ulf: I made a big throne out of snowballs with my kids one day, during which I sort of re-discovered the ease and fun to build from what nature has to offer. So the next time the weather conditions were right, I decided to make a big 'inhabitable' snowball lantern during one long day. I had no expectations for the outcome and wasn’t sure if it was going to collapse, but it didn’t. Encouraged by this result, I just kept doing more of these huts. I see this series as a lifelong commitment, and I have a big queue of ideas waiting to be realised.
Almost all of our flora has been categorised and given a Latin name, but I kind of want to re-discover nature with this series, showing the great inventiveness and richness that the planet holds. I see this as a way of collaborating with it and highlighting its incredible features that have been shaped over millions of years by evolution and adaptation.
Jerry: What are some of the core design principles that hold true in the case of every primitive hut?
Ulf: All the huts need to be big enough to enter, and one should feel enclosed by the material that it is built with. Many of the huts resemble each other in shape, mainly because I often found the pile-shape to be the simplest means to build them, where the walls narrow into a roof/cupola. At first, I was pretty dogmatic with the series: the huts could only be built using one natural resource etc, but since then, I have built both a Bun Hut (that I baked myself), a Gingerbread Hut made of readymade cookies, and a Balloon Hut made of latex balloons. If they have something in common, it is their usage of a material that is available in abundance. The Gingerbread Hut was made just before Christmas because they could be found in any local grocery store, for example. The Balloon Hut was timed according to a birthday.
Jerry: There is a noticeable variation in scale throughout the series. How did the properties of the materials selected influence the scope of the intervention in each case?
Ulf: The scale is decided when the material is chosen and I have scouted how much of it I could actually gather within a reasonable time. Certain resources also needed to be assembled more quickly than others: flowers wither, snowballs melt, mushrooms rot and dry, so these are also things to consider. Sometimes I have overestimated the quantity of materials available, which has led to very long working days but the opposite could also be true.
Jerry: As most of the huts employ natural materials mounted onto metal meshes or frames, do you believe that the inclusion of conventional materials will always be necessary from a structural standpoint?
Ulf: I always try to come up with a solution to avoid as much conventional material as possible, but after a couple of structural collapses I started to use some kind of backbone that could be trusted. For example, I baked bread sticks in the oven for my Bun Hut, which were supposed to attach each bun to one another, but it was a nightmare. Instead, I decided to adopt a mesh net structure where the buns could be stapled on. For the Cone Hut, I tried to glue them together with spruce resin, but that didn’t work out as planned either. I have started to play around a bit with ordinary garden objects to work as structural frames, like trampolines, swing sets, soccer goal frames, etc. When a hut is commissioned and should be on display in public for a while, there is of course, more of a need to make sure the structure won’t hurt anyone and fall to pieces.
Jerry: In the case of the Shrub and Spruce Huts, the materials used are both living and non-living. How feasible would it be to build using living materials in more diverse scenarios, as the next step in the integration of architecture and nature?
Ulf: Wood is kind of a living material, so it already exists in a way, even if it isn’t growing, it can bend and twist and rot and swell, etc. If the trees used for a house would still be alive and connected to the ground, it would probably not be optimal from an insurance point of view, even if it is a beautiful thought. I have made an observation tower out of a high-stump, which is a semi-dead tree that still is rooted, maybe that state could be something to explore further - "zombie-trees". There are thoughts, for example, that we would be able to gene-modify trees to make them much larger, as we have done with most vegetables we are growing for example, then we could theoretically grow one-family tree houses that are carved out of a tree. From my point of view, I don’t mind a house as a “dead” constant factor. What interests me more is to integrate each house more with the garden surrounding it perhaps, and to make the garden itself more relevant to the surrounding “real” nature.
Jerry: Among the huts in this series, which ones were the most enlightening and enjoyable to work on? What were some of the key challenges involved in each case?
Ulf: Our first hut, Snowball Hut is probably the purest hut so far since it’s just one material. It also touches base with childhood memories and traditions here in Scandinavia since kids usually build snow lanterns at winter time that are lit up from inside with a candle. The Snowball Hut is much larger though. The Ice Hut was also a nice experience, since I took giant sheets of ice from the ocean and built it right on the beach. That was quite humbling and also very exhausting since they were so heavy. I also like the Leaf Hut a lot. And the Spruce Hut. All the huts are memorable in different ways, I guess.
Jerry: In your view, how can contemporary architectural theory and practice benefit from the more stripped-down and simplified approach you have followed throughout the series where the focus is only on bare essentials?
Ulf: For me as an architect, this series has been a step towards art and land art which has been very invigorating. Sometimes in architecture, we over-build and over-plan things, and there is no room for alteration and no possibilities to add customised things for a client/tenant. Lacaton & Vassal for example are good at this kind of simplified architecture, an industrial bareness that is very humane, but also economical and very customisable.
Jerry: Do you see such structures being realised as permanent dwellings at larger scales in the near future? How do you envision this venture aiding the building industry in charting a more sustainable approach towards shaping the future of the global built environment?
Ulf: From a Scandinavian point of view, many people are longing for an easier life with less objects and clutter and being closer to nature, especially when they are on vacation. So perhaps these huts aren’t something that can compete with complicated permanent dwellings, but it sure can do so with temporary structures. Vacation homes for a couple of weeks maybe, or something between a tent and a summer house. There is a famous hotel in northern Sweden that is created with ice for example, so maybe there can be some potential in the tourism sector for these kinds of experiences. Some of my findings, like the spruce cone for example, are quite extraordinary materials, and it's strange that there haven’t been more experiments done around it.
Jerry: What are some of your key takeaways from this series?
Ulf: That everything has something of value. Within each material or object, there is a world of knowledge ready to be discovered and used. That the planet we live on is home to so many fascinating and clever things and that we need to treat it with the respect it deserves.
Jerry: What’s next on the horizon for UMA?
Ulf: Right now, I am going to collaborate with a local farmer for a year, in an improbable design-duo like a cop movie, where two completely different characters get thrown in the same police car and have to work together. The farmer has great knowledge about the land and the different techniques on how to alter/make use of it. I see it with different eyes, and it’s going to be interesting to see what results we come up with. I also have a couple of public art works that are getting built in Sweden and I have just realised a pavilion in Karachi, Pakistan. For the future, I am going to do further explorations in the area where land art and architecture meet, and perhaps on even larger scales in different contexts.