Wilderness architecture: Dezeen's editor-in-chief deconstructs the allure of architecture in the wild

Updated 16th December 2015
Wilderness architecture: Dezeen's editor-in-chief deconstructs the allure of architecture in the wild
Written by by Nev Gillett, CNN
Marcus Fairs is the founder and editor-in-chief of architecture and design media brand Dezeen. He launched Dezeen in November 2006 and it is now regarded as one of the most influential design websites in the world.
Affluent adventurers with a taste for clean design are leaving the lap of luxury of and heading to simple huts in the wilderness, says design critic Marcus Fairs.
It's a curious and counter-intuitive new trend, explains Fairs, the founder and editor-in-chief of international architecture and design publisher Dezeen.
Often creatures of comfort, the globally mobile rich have started to flee the clutter of contemporary urban life and take up temporary residence in dangerous, challenging, and inhospitable locations, with as-little-as-possible standing between them and the landscape.
"There's definitely a trend for minimalist architecture being built in remote wilderness areas at the moment" says Fairs. "If you look at Scandinavia, where there has long been a tradition of people having a cabin in the forest, or beside a lake, recently people have been designing super-clinical, super-minimal versions of these."

How wild can architecture get?

For an early example of this rough-and-ready minimalist architecture, Fairs sites the ESO Hotel: an accommodation facility for scientists and engineers from the European Southern Observatory in Cerro Paranal in the Atacama Desert, Chile -- "one of the most inhospitable regions in the world."
ESO Hotel at Cerro Paranal, Chile
ESO Hotel at Cerro Paranal, Chile Credit: Roland Halbe/Roland Halbe
Built in 2002, the "Residencia" -- as it's known -- was the vanguard for a particular type of back-to-basics retreat. Here, the adventurous can journey in style to a location where survival without shelter is near-impossible. But rather than building a luxury resort, where residents could distract themselves from the harshness of these surroundings, German architects Auer+Weber designed a complex that resembles a sparse dormitory -- which has even been compared to a prison.
"But it really set the tone for this idea of giving people the least comforts possible," he says, "so that their experience of the landscape was somehow enhanced."

Where to go wild

Today, Dezeen maps minimal retreats on four corners of the globe, from an alpine shelter on a rocky Slovenian precipice to a pair of blackened timber cabins by the Tasman Sea on New Zealand's north-west coast.
The design -- though minimal -- offers a blank slate for architects to experiment wildly, often for adventurous clients. What unites these disparate projects are the striking surroundings.
View from a cabin retreat in Kaiwaka Harbour, New Zealand
View from a cabin retreat in Kaiwaka Harbour, New Zealand Credit: Jeremy Toth
An oversized expanse of glass -- to allow the landscape to flood in -- is almost assured.
In the public mind, these isolated buildings are catching on, too. But perhaps not as their creators intended.
Just like the sleek, modernist glass-walled houses that look down from the Los Angeles Hills -- that in 1980s action films were transformed by Hollywood into lairs for untrustworthy villains or nihilistic antiheroes -- today's minimal retreats are making an impression on the silver screen.
Alpine Shelter Skuta, Slovenia
Alpine Shelter Skuta, Slovenia Credit: Anže Čokl
These sparse shelters, too, have become inhabited by questionable characters. While the ESO Hotel starred in 2008 James Bond film Quantum of Solace (as the scene of 007's showdown with criminal cartel), this year's blockbuster Ex Machina centered on the Juvet Landscape Hotel in north-west Norway.
In real life, the hotel, which sits above a glacial river, appears little more than a cluster of cabins, which can be rented out as hotel rooms. But in the sci-fi thriller, it is center of some unscrupulous experiments with futuristic artificial intelligence.
"They chose this hotel to represent (a reclusive millionaire genius') own private bolthole in the landscape," explains Fairs. "Which, again, is a symptom of people's need to escape from their own hectic urban lives an enjoy almost a meditative experience of the landscape: where their experience is uninterrupted by everyday noise and color and mess. And they just surround themselves with a minimalist palette of concrete, glass and wood."