What It Means That Urban Hipsters Like Staring at Pictures of Cabins

“In dreaming about an idyllic past, we are also imagining the future.” Archived version of a text published in The Atlantic in 2012.

A generation of hipsters has contracted cabin fever. The Cabin Porn website has become one of these internet hits, spreading through blogs, Facebook posts, tumblr reposts, Twitter mentions, and so on. Why can’t all these people stop looking at cabins? What is the allure? Put simply, Cabin Porn is visual stimulation of the urge for a simpler life in beautiful surroundings. Commenters are likening it to “channeling your inner Thoreau.” Cabin Porn represents the return of the homesteader, living off the grid, self-sufficient and self-reliant.  

The website itself is a tumblelog featuring curated and user-submitted photos of cabin interiors or exteriors, generally with a short caption indicating the location and if applicable, the architect behind the cabin. Cabin Porn has much in common with standard interior design magazines and blogs. The images are examples to be consumed, admired, desired, and possibly emulated by an audience in front of the computer, all of them dreaming about building — or just owning — their own little cabin in the mountains, in the forest, by the sea, or in some cases, smack in the middle of the city.

The cabins depicted fall in a remarkably broad range of styles. We find simple plywood structures, log cabins with and without the patina of history, A-frames erected by both amateurs and architects. Concrete square boxes compete with corrugated iron for the starkest expression of simplicity. Many are designed or renovated by architects and they can be either rustic or modern, both equally carefully designed. Others have been shaped by time and seem haphazardly dilapidated in a way that no conscious effort can ever achieve. The cabins have one thing in common: they are all gorgeous, in their own way.

The Cabin Porn website is just the latest in a long tradition of dreaming about cabins as the gateway to a simpler life in harmony with nature. Thoreau was part of this tradition, and while certainly not the first, he contributed one of the most powerful literary representations of a simple life in nature. The cabin has become shorthand for a whole complex of values and aspirations, of self-reliance, doing-it-yourself, living off the land and off the grid, using our bodies in simple, honest, manual labor — all the things that modern urbanites supposedly have lost. Of course, the idea that we have lost touch with nature seems to be as old as civilization itself.

In longing for a simpler, more authentic life in a cabin, we keep reinventing happier pasts, pasts that never were. Let us just take one popular cabin style, the log cabin. As Americans moved west to conquer the frontier, these original homesteaders attempted to protect themselves from a new and dangerous environment by building shelter in the style of log cabins, they created little enclaves of civilization in the wilderness. The modern homesteader, on the other hand, seeks to escape from civilization.

For most people, cabins have today become leisure homes, and as such, extensions of consumer society. They are material or imagined expressions of the lives we desire to live, but mostly done on the side, as a second home. There are some who chose to actually live in the cabin, but few leave society completely to become self-reliant modern homesteaders. Rather, this broad range of cabin lifestyles has become part of exurbia — suburbia’s manifest destiny, the urban frontier.

Norway is one of the few places in the world where this seemingly global cabin dream has come true on a large scale (and not coincidentally the origin of quite a few of the Cabin Porn pictures). It is true that Norway is a country with relatively few inhabitants and much nature. We can in other words expect a fair amount of cabins in beautiful natural surroundings. But the cabin ownership statistics are still mind-blowing. More than half of all Norwegians own or have access to a cabin through their immediate family. One out of every five buildings in Norway are classified by the state as leisure buildings, of which most are cabins. In short, it is a building of enormous cultural and material significance and has become a fundamental part of the national identity.

The Norwegian romance with cabins goes back to the Romantic discovery of the countryside as a scenic tourist destination in the late 1800s, but private ownership of cabins did not become widespread until the 1960s. The car was critical to this development; a cabin was of little use if you could not get to it with relative ease. This first large generation of private cabin owners had it all: plenty of land was available for cabin building, completely without government regulation; cabins popped up by the waterfront, on top of hills, all without too many neighbors in sight. However, this rapid development caused local pollution problems, limited access to public land for many, and had a significant visual impact on the landscape. As a response, the government clamped down on the uncontrolled cabin building, issuing a series of regulations over the years, starting in the late 1960s. The Norwegian cabin could not exist outside of the regulatory structures of society at large. In other words, to maintain nominal self-reliance required a different kind of dependence.

The history of the Norwegian cabin illustrates well what happens when the romantic dream of Cabin Porn — having plenty of undisturbed and non-fragmented time, waking up with a view of a lake, sitting in front of the fireplace in the winter — meets the reality of emptying composting toilets, drafty windows, building regulations, neighbors, and so on. The images on Cabin Porn rarely show people, unless they are accompanied by a friendly animal, a bicycle, or other reminders of simpler times. Nor do these cabins seem to have any neighbors. Without architectural solitude, Cabin Porn does not seem possible. At the cabin, hell is other people. However, if we look closer we begin to see small hints that the cabin is not as remote from civilization as we may think; TV antennas, satellite dishes, power lines, and roads pop into view. It turns out that cabin life not so simple after all.

In Norway, common urban consumer lifestyles have had a significant impact on the cabin. Comfort technologies of various kinds, such as running water, toilets, electricity, radios, TVs, became generally accepted as a normal and natural presence at the cabin through the 1980s and 1990s, though the delivery mechanisms varied. Solar power, composting toilets, water wells all became ways of ensuring a comfortable and convenient lifestyle, even where the cabins couldn’t connect to regular infrastructure grids.

Providing and maintaining these infrastructure services has become a particularly critical aspect of cabin ownership — when a cabin moves from having rustic patina to simply being dilapidated, much of the practical charm disappears. Remoteness and isolation makes it very hard to provide the reliable and convenient services that most cabin owners actually want. Norwegians have solved these problems by building most new cabins in densely populated cabin villages, with a full infrastructure suite of electricity, water, sewage, broadband, and cable TV put in place before the cabins are built.

These high-tech cabin areas can and should be read as exurban future laboratories. In the most popular cabin areas, the isolated cabin without neighbors is a luxury reserved for the few. The rest face the choice of reproducing land-hogging suburbia or going for something that is closer to Manhattan in the mountains. This practice is far from the rustic Cabin Porn ideal, but one can make the case for why this actually provides lower-impact development than free-standing cabins, at least when talking about as many cabins as in Norway. The infrastructures of providing necessary and desired services to cabin areas really matter, showing that the rustic cabin dream does not scale up very well. The urban problems people are running from tend to follow them, partly because people are the problem.

In this space between the built reality and the Cabin Porn imagination, a generation of consumers — be they hipsters, wannabe homesteaders, or simply ordinary people — is trying to come to terms with their own lifestyles and relationships to nature. I think this may perhaps be the reason for why so many people find Cabin Porn so appealing. This deep romanticizing of cabin lifestyles is completely unrealistic, as most other porn, but it still has value. Looking at Cabin Porn, trying to articulate exactly what is essential and desirable at the cabin, we are looking at our lives and societies. In dreaming about an idyllic past, we are also imagining the future.  

Originally published with The Atlantic 16 March 2012. The original Cabin Porn website is dead and gone; I have replaced the link to point to an archived version at the Wayback Machine. Image from Library of Congress, public domain.

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