Cabin fever heats up

A model of a cabin on display at the Cabin Fever exhibition.
A model of a cabin on display at the Cabin Fever exhibition.PHOTO: XINHUA

Exhibition in Vancouver tracks how cabins and cabin life have influenced North American culture and architecture as interest in such shelters grows

VANCOUVER • The structure looks more like a spacecraft designed to land on the moon than it does a cabin.

The Microhouse stands about 2.4m high. It rests on four legs and has many sharp lines.

Through a few small windows, a loft is visible inside and a couple of other movable partitions create "rooms" not quite high enough for an adult to stand up in.

Designed by Ken Isaacs in the 1950s while he completed a degree in design at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan in the United States, the cabin revolved around a concept of "total environment" - a multi-functional, all-in-one dwelling that could be arranged or partitioned according to a person's particular needs.

Meant to be lived in without furniture, the tiny dwelling became a popular design for youth communities in the US in the 1960s and 1970s.

Last Thursday, Isaacs' tiny cabin was unveiled in Vancouver as part of an ambitious exhibit showcasing 300 years of cabin design and culture in North America.

Called Cabin Fever, the exhibit is taking place at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG). The show comprises an entire gallery floor of models, photos, paintings, film and documents covering the role that cabins and cabin life have played in North American culture, lifestyle and architecture.

"(The show) also explores a range of human interaction with the environment," said VAG director Kathleen Bartels at a media preview of the event, which runs until Sept 30.

She said the show explores cabins - usually built in rural or backcountry parts of Canada and the US - for their use as shelter, but also as an object of desire for people who now find themselves too connected to big cities and technology.

"Cabin Fever is the first exhibition to comprehensively address the evolution of this (architecture) in North America," she said.

One of the co-curators of the show, Ms Jennifer Volland, said part of the inspiration for the exhibit came while she and her family spent time working on a cabin in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains in the US.

"I found that the process was charged with much more than simply figuring out the design of the structure," she said.

It reminded her of childhood. "(It also reminded me) about issues about land use and past inhabitants of the area and also the complex relationship between nature and architecture."

She said there has been a renewed interest in cabin life over the last decade.

"It has ironically grown with our addiction to technology," Ms Volland said. "As we as a culture have become more interconnected, there is an opposite impulse to disengage and disconnect and this has created an entirely new paradigm, where cabin life itself is being played out on social media."

She said the show takes an honest approach to the history of cabins in North America and that history has its darker elements.

"(Cabins) are also tied to ideas of colonisation and expansion," she said, referring to the occupation of indigenous land there by European settlers.


• Cabin Fever is on at the Vancouver Art Gallery until Sept 30.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 16, 2018, with the headline 'Cabin fever heats up'. Print Edition | Subscribe