REVIEWS Hermits dwellings

Hermit's Hut, Hermit's Dream: THREE BOOKS

A Place of My Own: the Education of an Amateur Builder, by Michael Pollan. New York: Random House, 1997; Dell, 1998.

Michael Pollan is a write and editor living and working in a Connecticut suburb. He's not a hermit but he projects an interest of every would-be hermit and solitary, namely:

A room of one's own: Is there anybody who hasn't at one time or another wished for such a place, hasn't turned those soft words over until they'd assumed a habitable shape? What they propose, to anyone who admits them into the space of a daydream, is a place of solitude a few steps off the beaten track of everyday life.

And so Pollan relates to us -- to the universal hermit in all of us -- his engaging project of building a cottage or hut at the back of his comfortable suburban property, a physical retreat meeting his own psychological needs. He takes us through each logical step, always reminding the reader of the importance of building the hut himself.

We work with his taciturn architect, the perfectionist handyman-builder, the strict-minded code enforcer, and Pollan himself, sometimes bumbling, sometimes the wistful philosopher, usually the researcher with enlightening anecdotes of history, tools, architecture, and novice do-it-yourself. With Pollan, we come to appreciate the significance of space, site, materials, and environment. The chapters reflect his progress while offering a history of everything relevant.

  1. A Room of One's Own
  2. The Site
  3. On Paper
  4. Footing
  5. Planning
  6. The Roof
  7. Windows
  8. Finish Work

This medley of the practical and the philosophical works well because the cerebral reader gets lessons on very practical skills and the tactile-oriented among us come to appreciate the reasons things are as they have become. The name-dropping provides an excellent trail to pursue, from Vitruvius and Derrida to Bachelard, Thoreau, and Frank Lloyd Wright, plus sources on everything from the history of roofs to how to identify different wood.


The Poetics of Space, by Gaston Bachelard. (first published 1958) Translated by Maria Jolas. New York: Orion Press, 1964; Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.

Understanding the psychology of the hut as dwelling and daydream is the strength of Gaston Bachelard's book, although that is only one chapter. The whole book is a somewhat abstract exercise in the phenomenology of the dwelling. It suggests why we seek the hut as psychological necessity. At the same time, Bachelard provides a dizzying presentation of almost surreal perspectives on models of dwellings, or enclosures of space, as the contents show:

  1. The House. From Cellar to Garret. The Significance of the Hut.
  2. House and Universe.
  3. Drawers, Chests and Wardrobes
  4. Nests
  5. Shells
  6. Corners
  7. Miniatures
  8. Intimate Immensity
  9. The Dialectics of Outside and Inside
  10. The Phenomenology of Roundness

Bachelard's premise is that the house is defined by the imagination. It is not mere shelter but a refuge from society.

The house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace. Thought and experience are not the only things that sanction human values. The values that belong to daydreaming mark humanity in its depths.

While Bachelard's early foray into this theme naturally develops childhood images of the house in which they were nurtured (admittedly assuming a happy childhood), the application to the daydreams of the solitary are clear. The house as image and metaphor has the power to integrate these different uses. Perhaps the hermit's daydream is an extension of the child's remembered or desired contentment. The house is a space for solitude, imagination, and creativity.

Bachelard uses the physical characteristics of the house in his phenomenological "topoanalysis" to show the house as metaphor for the self, with its "nooks and corners of solitude." Verticality reflects levels of self-consciousness from dark subconscious cellar to light-infused but ignored attic, to the weather-meeting, acclimatizing roof.

But while the child only uses a room or corner as sufficient to daydream, never exploring the whole psychological entity, the hermit masters the entire dwelling because the dwelling is the self, whole and conscious. The hermit hut embodies solitude, and in appearance necessarily -- and radically -- rejects embellishments. Bachelard puts it succinctly:

The hermit is before God. His hut, therefore, is just the opposite of the monastery. And there radiates about this centralized solitude a universe of meditation and prayer, a universe outside the universe. The hut can receive none of the riches "of this world." It possesses the felicity of intense poverty; it is one of the glories of poverty; as destitution increases it gives access to absolute refuge.

The physical appearance of the hut must reflect the mind and heart of the hermit, and historically no hermit has somehow missed this connection, while many a philosopher and ecclesiastic has. Though Bachelard does not stray from his French and German literary sources to explore Eastern writings on the topic, he is certainly right about the significance of the hermit hut to both the hermit and the onlooker.

The author gives us this psychological insight on why we come so late in life to an understanding of eremitical life:

Every great image has an unfathomable oneiric depth to which the personal past adds special color. Consequently it is not until late in life that we really revere an image, when we discover that its roots plunge well beyond the history that is fixed in our memories.

Perhaps we cannot be successful solitaries -- though all of us are solitaries in the end, after all -- because we cling too long to the mundane necessities, the perceived necessities, of daily life and work and society.

The rest of the book pursues other aspects of house and dwelling. For example, developing the image of the lamp in the window as the vigilant and safeguarding eye of the house, Bachelard relates an anecdote about Rilke. One dark night, Rilke and his friends were about to cross a field when they saw "the lighted casement of a distant hut, the hut that stands quite alone on the horizon before one comes to fields and marshlands." They felt like "isolated individuals seeing night for the first time." For the dark background of our lives is assumed as inevitable until a flash of insightful light is seen. As Bachelard puts it:

One might even say that light emanating from a lone watcher, who is also a determined watcher, attains to the power of hypnosis. We are hypnotized by solitude, hypnotized by the gaze of the solitary house; and the tie that binds us to it is so strong that we begin to dream of nothing but a solitary house in the night.

We dream, or daydream, of the solitary house, perhaps as a hermit's hut, because its simplicity and solitude are congenial. How many nightmares are set in huge oppressive mansions or bewildering urban streets? Our childhood settings required a minimum of space, and so should our requirements in maturity. The beacon in the mansion or the yellow streetlamp of a city night is as alien and foreboding as the hermit's hut is inviting.

One last note about Bachelard. In speaking of the "Dialectics of Outside and Inside," the author speaks of our modern obsession with circumscribing things, the modern's "geometrism" or "geometrical cancerization." We geometrize everything from property to national boundaries, from forests to green-spaces, from ideology to psychology of the individual -- all is cut up, divided, entrenched.  But, says Bachelard, being is all around us, not circumscribed. We are not the center of being, nor is anything else, for that matter. Hence there is neither being-here nor being-there. Modern humanity goes from claustrophobia to agoraphobia.


The Natural House, by Frank Lloyd Wright. New York: Horizon Press, 1954.

If we consider models for building a dwelling, even a hermit's hut, there are at least two divergent views, says Michael Pollan: the European and Henry David Thoreau's. For where the European image of the enclosed dwelling is a barricade to the world as an experience of space (perhaps due to historical memory of the early medieval invasions), the cabin of Thoreau at Walden Pond was the opposite of enclosure, a dwelling "so thinly clad I did not need to go out of doors to take the air," writes Thoreau.

Thoreau's hut was transparent to nature, nearly about to dissolve back into the woods, but that reflected Thoreau's own philosophy of a benign and interrelated universe: "a house whose inside is as open and manifest as a bird's nest." But this was before the enormous revolution in American architecture and building that stripped the Midwest of forests to build industrial cities and fill the countryside with Cartesian grids of urban structures that ignore topography in an effort to conquer nature, a process that continues in the U.S. unabated today.

A balance between Thoreau's ideal hut and the common person's demand for their own dwelling came with Frank Lloyd Wright. In The Natural House, a compilation of writings dating from the 1930's to publication in 1954, Wright begins with a critique of domestic architecture: "no sense of unity, no sense of earth, no appropriate application of experience as much as principle." And Wright knows that principle, even architectural principle, must come from the core of a person.

Organic simplicity must everywhere be seen producing significant character in the ruthless but harmonious order I was taught to call nature. I was more than familiar with it on the farm. All around me, I, or anyone for that matter must see beauty in growing things, and by a little painstaking, learn how they grew to be "beautiful." None was ever insignificant. I loved the prairie by instinct as itself a great simplicity: the trees, flowers, and sky were thrilling by contrast.

(We don't know if Wright was aware of the vast forestland that once was the prairie he loved. But we must love what is, and treasure it here and now.)

Wright's criteria for building houses was to begin on and not in the ground, and to eliminate attic, basement, beams, cornices, closets, features as fixtures, and room partitions (except for privacy, as in bedrooms, bathrooms, and part of the kitchen). Dwellings should be proportional to the human frame. Floor heating and cooling chimneys should regulate climate naturally. (Wright would be at home with modern alternative building principles, though he wrote this as early as 1934.) Generous eaves should extend from low roofs, and the natural use of materials should prevail. "Shelters should be the essential look of any dwelling."

Many other points follow. Wright speaks of plasticity and continuity, the familiar "form follows function" or all as part of each. Plasticity is the "spiritual concept of "form and function as one" (his emphasis). And governing all the principles of organic architecture is integrity, he writes. The individual person and the particular dwelling must reflect integrity from within.

An irresponsible, flashy, pretentious or dishonest individual would never be happy in such a house as we now call organic because of this quality of integrity

Instead, Wright's house

aims to be a natural [his emphasis] performance, one that is integral to site; integral to environment; integral to the life of the inhabitants, a house integral with the nature of materials ... and all the elements of environment [that] go into and throughout the house.

We return full circle from what Wright called the "Usonian" house -- after Samuel Butler's adjective for the United States -- to Thoreau's hut, projecting integrity, harmony with nature and environment, a place for a simple and honest person. Clear enough principles for the building of a hut, too, and for the dreams of a hut that Pollan and Bachelard relate.