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

"In dreaming about an idyllic past, we are also imagining the future."

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flickr/meltoledo

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.

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flickr/antonyspencer

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.

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Library of Congress

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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.

Presented by

Finn Arne Jørgensen

Finn Arne Jørgensen is an associate professor of the history of technology and the environment at Umeå University, Sweden. He is the author of Making a Green Machine: The Infrastructure of Beverage-Container Recycling.

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