This reverence for nature and will for simplicity can also be seen in the rules and practices of Modernist design, but these are ultimately still rules imposed by singular figures who had the freedom to choose which objects had value and which ways of living were worthwhile. Alvar Aalto’s Paimio Sanatorium, built in 1929, embraced both the rules of the International Style and the practicalities of the needs of Tuberculosis patients. Aalto intended to build “a cathedral to health and an instrument for healing”, an environment that could provide the literal breathing space thought to help rehabilitate patients. Everything was designed with the wellbeing of patients — and the relationship to the surrounding forest — in mind. Aalto understood that nothing exists in a vacuum, his practice was Modernist, but it took in Finnish traditions, the practices of ancient cultures, the influence of Japanese spatial design, and the complexity of designing for unknown groups of people. He was by no means the only Modernist designer who drew inspiration from Japanese, or more broadly both East and South Asian practices. Le Corbusier was known to be an architectural “purist”, his work was led by strict tenets that he drew from both his own research and writing, and travel. His outlook has palpable crossovers with Thoreau’s view — and his perspective — which is one from a position of privilege, bound integrally with the history of colonialism.
Thoreau built his woodland home on land owned by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, with material from a cabin he’d bought from an Irish railroad worker. He wanted to embrace a Spartan way of living — “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity” — and in order to achieve his vision, Thoreau demolished the cabin, bleached the wood, and rebuilt it. Although he sought to live among nature rather than counter to it, amidst Thoreau’s will for connection, there was a lot of disconnection — between him and his community, between reality and fantasy and between different parts of the story. The woodlands surrounding the pond had been inhabited for years before Thoreau arrived, by people who had been freed from slavery and ghettoised immigrants who had been forced to live there, having been barred from cities and their wealthy suburbs. When Thoreau arrived in 1845, most had been forced to abandon their homes, and the land was being sold for cheap. His life there did overlap with other people, with those living close-by or passing through; but in the same way that Thoreau’s philosophy had only shallow roots, his impressions of those living in the woodlands were based in his limited perspective: “Farmers are respectable and interesting to me in proportion as they are poor”, he wrote. His life at Walden Pond had remarkably low stakes, the cabin was walking distance to his home in Concord — where he visited his mother and friends several times a week — and his life in general was incredibly privileged. He was Harvard-educated, had means, no dependents, the security of living on land owned by a friend and his mother and sisters bringing him food on a weekly basis.
Like Thoreau, William Morris — one of the practitioners who defined the Arts and Crafts movement which was a catalyst for European Modernism — struggled to resolve the relationship between his ideals and his reality. His work as a designer, craftsman, social reformer and businessman was defined by his loathing for the Industrial Revolution, and the impact it had on the quality of work being produced, the environment and working conditions. In being defined more by a set of principles than an aesthetic, the ideas of Arts and Crafts could be applied in a variety of ways. In Germany — after the First World War, when the country was newly unified — the application of Arts and Crafts thinking helped to develop a national economy and opened the path towards the Bauhaus. The two practices crossed over in their emphasis on “truth to materials”, “unity in design” and the idea of design having a social responsibility. They also aligned in their uncomfortable relationship with industry and privilege — as much as Arts and Crafts and the Bauhaus sought to serve the masses, their work remained mostly in the realms of the bourgeoise.
Walden, too, is full of contradictions and the convenient use of or disregard for the truth, or what Thoreau saw to be true, and as Kathryn Schulz wrote in The New Yorker: “The hypocrisy is that Thoreau lived a complicated life but pretended to live a simple one. Worse, he preached at others to live as he did not, while berating them for their own compromises and complexities”. He had a much more harmonious relationship to nature, and a great ability in describing and advocating for wildness (his writing on preservation helped save the Maine woods, Cape Cod, Yosemite and was an inspiration for America’s National Parks system). “We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander”, he wrote, in a notable admission to human fallibility.
A common flaw in utopian stories is that they rely on being singular. Morris, like Thoreau, ultimately fell into the trap of seeking a purity of thinking and practice that didn’t allow for complexity, or the kind of connection they so enthusiastically espoused. There is undeniable romance in stories of freedom, self-sufficiency and rebellion — and we can’t help but love the idea of being the protagonist — but nature, and particularly wilderness, is anything but singular. In order to flourish, it relies on a complex ecosystem. If we are to live more closely with the patterns and rhythms of nature, if we are to take them on, there’s nothing refined, stoic or distant about it. It requires connection, resilience, the ability to hold multiple truths at once and the will to bloom.
From the catalogue for Walden, an exhibition at Schloss Hollenegg for Design.