A Cabin of Curiosity
Hidden in the rugged pitch pine and black oak woods of Wellfleet on the Outer Cape of Massachusetts, a modest, horizontal, marine-plywood box floats above the sloping ground and overlooks, through the dense canopy of trees, the reflective mirror of an ancient glacial kettle pond. The single pitched roof slopes transversally across the long volume; screened sliding windows placed in hardwood tracks frame the view toward the lake. Everything in this summer house seems to be made of natural fiber—of wood, skin, hemp, woven textiles, fur. The wind carries clean air, and every sound—besides the rattling of the glazed panels in their frames—is muted. A cantilevered, truss-supported porch extrudes into the trees and creates an outdoor room suspended over the landscape. Only a fine membrane of mosquito mesh creates a breathing threshold between inside and outside. A wooden chessboard sits on a low table, its checkerboard pattern blurred and faded through the wearing and weathering of time. It was here, on the floating deck amid the silhouette of trees, that two Hungarian emigres—the artist György Kepes and architect Marcel Breuer—played their regular game of chess. In my imagination, I witness their thoughts occasionally and subconsciously wandering off to the Hungarian forest of their youth—a dense forest into which so little sunlight penetrates that the ground is thickly covered with moss.
During the autumn of 2017, I stayed at the Kepes Cottage (1948–1949). The house remains in its original condition, filled with Kepes’s collection of artworks, found objects, books, and catalogs.1 The building, its setting, and its contents have grown intertwined, forming a close symbiotic relationship, like the shaggy lichens covering the bark of the surrounding pines. I spent my time in these woods in good company; the works of Rainer Maria Rilke, Peter Kropotkin, Gaston Bachelard, Béla Bartók, László Moholy-Nagy, Le Corbusier, Sigfried Giedion, Ludwig Wittgenstein, D. T. Suzuki, and John Cage rubbing one another’s backs on the numerous bookshelves. I read until deep into the night, the silvery moon reflected in the pond outside below, a view abstracted by the linear grid of bamboo window screens and silhouettes of trees. It reminds me of Agnes Martin, who made her first grid paintings by thinking of the innocence of trees.2 Sentences from one book reappear in others and disappear into the void of the night. Outside, the wind is rustling in the trees or maybe what I hear is rain falling on the roof. In Zen and Japanese Culture (1938) by Suzuki, I read a passage about the Japanese love of nature, and the tradition of building a study or meditation room in mountain woods: “When viewed from a distance, the hut forms an insignificant part of the landscape, but it appears to be incorporated in it. It is by no means obtrusive, it belongs somehow to the general scheme of the view. . . . A hut so constructed is an integral part of Nature, and he who sits here is one of its objects like every other. He is no way different from the birds singing, the insects buzzing, the leaves swaying, the water murmuring.”3
Any exploration of a cabin in the woods will ultimately—like following the crumbs in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel” (1812)—return to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854). Thoreau situated his cabin to provide an outward and slightly downward view, tucking it back against a thicket of trees and building it to face the distant Walden Pond.4 Thoreau’s cabin and its deliberate positioning in the landscape can be compared to the siting of an instrument to observe, record, and meditate upon its direct surrounds—the hut as sensory extension of the body. “Delight through every pore,” Thoreau writes, “not in but part of nature.” The doorway of Thoreau’s cabin contracted and focused his wide-angle view, his field of vision, like the frame of a camera. Indeed, Thoreau aligned his cabin via the calculated skills of a surveyor and the intuitive sensitivity of a poet. The stage was set to write Walden.
For two years, two months, and two days, Thoreau looked his “forest mirror” in the eye: “A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is the earth’s eye, looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”
If Thoreau’s cabin could be likened to a simple pinhole camera—a darkroom for mental exposure—then the Kepes Cottage could be compared to a more advanced single-lens reflex. The Breuer-designed cottage certainly mimics a camera: a rectangular box perched upon stilts as if on a tripod, its windows as viewfinder, and the cantilevered porch attached as lens focused straight on the view. In the correspondence between Kepes and Breuer, there is a short note in which Kepes, after revisiting the woodland plot, requested that Breuer reposition the cottage farther from the shore and higher up the slope. Care was taken to fell as few trees as possible. Kepes, with the keen eye of the artist-photographer, must have intuited that a position higher up the slope would provide a view that would reconcile the sky above and lake below while containing the horizon within the sloped woodland fringe. As it turned out, the siting of Kepes’s cottage is remarkably similar to that of Thoreau’s (no longer extant) cabin. Both cabins have a similar orientation toward and elevation above their respective wood-fringed kettle ponds. In fact, the impression of Long Pond from the Kepes Cottage in Wellfleet is nearly identical to that which Thoreau must have experienced overlooking Walden Pond from his cabin in Concord. My five-day stay at the Kepes Cottage provided me the opportunity to sense the woodland lake in all its nuances according to the variables of weather and light, as might have been seen through the eyes of not just Kepes and Breuer, but also Thoreau. The liquid mirror radiating through the silhouette of trees—below, in front of me—registered now a double exposure in space and time.
In his journal entry from November 6, 1853, Thoreau observed: “It is the most perfect and beautiful of all frames. . . . [A] view of the distant water through the near forest, through a thousand little vistas . . . that intimate mingling of wood and water which excites an expectation which the near and open view rarely realizes. We prefer that some part be concealed, which our imagination may navigate.”
Thoreau’s description reads like a retrospective manifesto for the placing of his cabin at Walden. In 1949, the year the cottage was completed, Kepes composed a series of close-up figure-ground photographs of raindrops set against the mosquito screen of the elevated porch.5 The photographs would make a perfect illustration of the chapter “Solitude” in Thoreau’s Walden: “Some of my pleasantest hours were during the long rain-storms in the spring or fall, which confined me to the house for the afternoon as well as the forenoon, soothed by their ceaseless roar and pelting; when an early twilight ushered in a long evening in which many thoughts had time to take root and unfold themselves.”
I study the photographic images with forensic precision. The diagonal streaks of tiny droplets reflect and refract the light (“a thousand little vistas”); the watery lake background (or, better, backdrop) is blurred by the combined effect of aperture setting and moisture in the atmosphere. Trees are reduced to silhouettes like a monk’s robe all in tatters.
Ponds are prone to make you ponder. Can a similar circumambient view, as seen and framed through different eyes, metamorphose—across space and time—into an overlapping and evolving vision? Is the frog that jumps in Basho’s 17th-century haiku about the pond leapfrogging into my imagination?6
On the night before my departure, I stroll along the winding sandy path to the lakeshore for the last time. A luminous night sky—like a gigantic photogram—is magically illuminated by the celestial fireworks of a rare meteor shower. Across the pitch-black surface on the liquid dancefloor the nocturnal dance of fireflies.
1 Marcel Breuer built his own cottage and his friends György and Juliet Kepes’s family cottage between 1948 and 1949 based on a prototype he had been working on since 1943. Both cottages were designed as modest summerhouses for their young families, as meeting places for friends and colleagues, and as studios in which to work in quiet isolation.
2 In a 1989 interview, Agnes Martin recalled, “When I first made a grid, I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees and then this grid came into my mind and I thought it represented innocence, and I still do, and so I painted it and then I was satisfied. I thought, this is my vision.”
3 Zen and Japanese Culture by D. T. Suzuki was first published in Japanese in 1938, and then in English in 1959.
4 This setting is more elaborately described by Robert M. Thorson in his 2015 book Walden’s Shore: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Science.
5 The Kepes Cottage was completed exactly 100 years after Thoreau stayed on Cape Cod at nearby Williams Pond, right across from the location of Breuer’s own simultaneously constructed twin cottage.
6 “Listen! A frog / Jumping into the stillness / Of an ancient pond!” Basho, 1686.
The author wishes to thank Juliet Stone for her support and inspiration.
Eelco Hooftman is cofounder, with Bridget Baines, of GROSS.MAX Landscape Architects. Their work integrates theory and practice of landscape architecture in an extensive output of international projects. Between 1990 and 2008, he taught at the School of Landscape Architecture at Edinburgh College of Art and was cofounder of the innovative postgraduate program Art, Space and Nature. Hooftman is visiting studio instructor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.