"The cabin" has a prominence in certain regions of the Canadian psyche that I won't pretend to fully grasp, but I can certainly understand the appeal.
I grew up on the Gulf Coast of Florida, surrounded by "vacation properties," which are something else entirely. You might have known a family that kept a "beach house" or a "summer home," but the words carried overtones of impossible privilege, conjuring images of a breezily out-of-touch lifestyle that few could reasonably hope to realize.
By contrast, the family cottage near some lake (any lake) that you might find here offers a considerably more attainable -- and more interesting -- vision of escape. Built and rebuilt incrementally over the years, passed back and forth among siblings and cousins, the cabin represents a kind of improvised retreat, an informal conglomeration of salvaged wood panelling and mismatched furniture, home to overlapping generations of hand-me-down toys and linens, ancient VHS tapes, and the same decades-old copies of Canadian Living. Relaxed attitudes toward everything from decor to building codes signal the break from everyday urban or suburban life that cabins exist to provide.
The homes featured in Second House First, currently at Raw Gallery of Architecture and Design, signal that same break from routine in quite other ways. To be clear, these places likely bear little resemblance to your brother-in-law's three-season cottage outside Winnipeg Beach. They reflect the same underlying desires, however: for a change of pace, of scenery, and the potential to cobble together one's own getaway on one's own terms.
Produced by a collaborative team of five architects, designers and artists from as far afield as Denmark and Spain, the show presents photographs and detailed models of several innovatively designed (and impeccably well-appointed) Manitoba cabins.
It's not difficult to imagine the photographs featuring in an upmarket lifestyle magazine, and to some extent the exhibition engages with individual aspirations (the designers', the homeowners', and our own) in similar ways. Each minutely faithful, dollhouse-sized model, walls cut away to reveal an equally detailed interior, hangs from the ceiling like some otherworldly mirage -- or a carrot on a string.
The show especially seeks to highlight approaches to design that stray from the characteristic (and in some cases rigidly enforced) uniformity of suburban architecture. Aside from a few interesting variations on the mid-century bungalow or ranch house, many of the cabins accomplish this through a distinctly un-suburban responsiveness to the landscape. A sleek modern construction with an odd, inverted "butterfly" roof sits low to the shoreline, faced with sliding, translucent panels that open directly onto the lake. In one photograph, marsh grasses tower outside the open windows of a monastically unadorned bedroom. One of the houses boasts a detached observation tower, which just doesn't seem fair.
The hanging models, with their fastidious construction and handmade charm, have a ship-in-a-bottle quality that reinforces the idea of the cabin as a do-it-yourself labour of love. In the centre of the gallery, dozens of plaster building forms, ranging from squat saltboxes to miniature grain elevators, are laid out like toy blocks on a low plywood table. The overall impression -- and the central promise that "cottage living" holds out -- is that escape is just within reach, that it's still possible to improvise a private corner of paradise somewhere.
It's a lovely thought. If you need me, I'll be here in the city, quietly seething with jealousy.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.