We all need shelter

This essay by our comrade of the thinking landscape, Murdo Macdonald, was first published for an exhibition, Shelter: on Kindness, at RMIT Gallery, Melbourne, Australia, in 2009. We reproduce it here with his kind permission.

Shelters are changing. A self-defeating global economy threatens physical shelter by shifting the weather into more extreme cycles of flood, drought and storm. At the same time the emotional and intellectual shelter of personal privacy crumbles under the weight of surveillance technology. Thus global warming and state oppression give an edge to any thought of shelter. But our needs are still the same. We all need shelter.

A physical shelter shields us from the weather and creates a tolerable, often wonderful, microclimate. But the necessity for all of us is that such a microclimate must be as much a microclimate of the mind as it is of the body. A real shelter addresses both these aspects. 
When Joseph Beuys said that ‘everyone is an artist’ he meant that the impulse to make and understand art is inherent to every one of us. To make art is to be human. Art thrives when we are properly sheltered both emotionally and physically.

A shelter is thus not first and foremost a structure of roof and walls and floor and windows and doors, it is a place that makes possible a free state of mind. A shelter is not just a space. It is a place that exists within a landscape – urban or rural, flat or mountainous, maritime or inland. It addresses that geography and when that geography is appropriately addressed, we who inhabit those shelters are able to function properly as human beings.
For Gautama, such a place of emotional security had no walls and the shelter was the enclosing canopy of a tree. Sheltered by his locality he experienced enlightenment and became Buddha.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein sought shelter - and his place in philosophy - in a hut above a fjord in Norway. Another of the great pioneers of 20th century philosophy, Martin Heidegger, found his intellectual and physical shelter in a hut in the Black Forest. Huts and philosophers seem to go together.

For me, something of a paradigm of a shelter was created by the artist Sesshu.  He revolutionised Japanese painting in the 15th century and his small house above Yamaguchi unites a simple living space with a space to think and create. It is no more and no less than it is. I found it the archetypal studio - a place of study where studies are created. It was sufficiently warm, sufficiently sheltered, sufficiently lit, sufficiently beautiful. 

There Sesshu not only painted but also designed one of the earliest surviving Zen gardens, constructed not far from his house at what is now the Joei-ji temple. In due course this studio of Sesshu’s acted as an inspiration for the building of an artists’ hut at Miyama, near Kyoto, which forms part of Alan Johnston’s Nozomi project, and has now become a shelter and focus for the work of contemporary artists.

My own recent work has been devoted to the visual cultural history of the Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland. On the northern Atlantic seaboard of Europe where weather changes hour by hour or even minute by minute, shelter is always an issue. I wonder how the monks of Iona in the 8th century sheltered while they created illuminated manuscripts like the Book of Kells? Their needs were the same as those of Sesshu. No trace remains of their scriptorium, but I like to think that their sense of an appropriate shelter within with to create would have been the equal of that of their later Buddhist counterparts in Japan.
A good shelter is always an elegant solution. It is an imaginative leap from discomfort to comfort.  Among such shelters I number the modernist concrete bus shelters in the island of Lewis that - because of their fourfold symmetry - provide effective shelter regardless of the direction of the wind and the rain. These open structures protect you even when the rain is horizontal.

The Western Isles are rich in good shelters. The traditional dwellings, the ‘black houses’ and their outbuildings, with their double thickness stone walls and roofs of turf or thatch are another example. Their principles of construction reach back to into prehistory: they seem to link via the mills of the Vikings to the round houses and brochs of the Iron Age, shelters in which dry stone construction had been developed to a fine art.

In the Highlands one can see the beauty and effectiveness of such construction in the ruined walls of the birthplace of the Gaelic bard Duncan Bàn Macintyre. In the 18th century the shelter of these walls defined a place in which a young man found himself as a poet of nature. This dwelling place was at Druim Liaghart on the lowest terrace of Rannoch Moor, just where the realm of the red deer gives way to the possibilities of agriculture. 
Reflecting on such buildings is more than an exercise in nostalgia, for they have environmentally appropriate properties that much modern construction can and does learn from. This does not just apply to the locally-sourced building materials, it applies to the psychological nature of the shelter provided. 

There is a reconstructed Iron Age house that I visited some years ago at Bosta on the island of Bernera. Within the double wall its interior had an extraordinary sense of calm. I remember the woman who showed me round telling me that you could sit inside during a storm and not even know that the wind was blowing. There was something that enabled a unity of mind and body in that place. It was very different from the deliberately light construction of Sesshu’s studio, and yet, like Sesshu’s studio, it was responsive to the human condition. One would have little opportunity to paint in the low light and close community of an Iron Age house, but it would have provided a wonderful opportunity to sing and tell stories in complete security from whatever weather the Atlantic was conjuring up. 

Island shelters have also fostered those who need isolation to produce their best work. In the 1930s the poet Hugh MacDiarmid needed a place apart to think and write. On the Shetland island of Whalsay he found such a cottage and despite the hardship of the life he led there, in that shelter he produced some of his best work.

George Orwell also needed such a place. In 1946 he retreated to a house on the Inner Hebridean island of Jura. He was twenty-five miles from the nearest shop and a mile from his nearest neighbour. There he evaded the pressures of his growing fame and was able to reflect on the nature of mass surveillance while himself being surveyed as little as possible. Orwell understood that surveillance allows one only the freedom to conform. In this island house in 1948 he finished his novel 1984, a discourse on the attempt to destroy the last shelter of the thinker: privacy. 

In 2005 Graham Fagen responded to this by appropriating Orwell’s island house for visual art by using mobile phone camera technology. He put the Jura house under the overall surveillance of a British Broadcasting Corporation project called ‘a digital picture of Britain’. As a former BBC employee himself Orwell would have appreciated Fagen’s irony.
Orwell understood all too well the surveillance implications of the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower attempted to warn us against. What he would not have known is that it is the values of that same military-industrial complex that have driven the planet - by way of Vietnam and Iraq - away from the cultural values of the human race towards environmental catastrophe. The threat is thus one and the same to both physical and psychological shelters.

Orwell’s island sanctuary has become something of an icon for us when we think about him. It is one of those true shelters where things have been made. Sometime such places – as is the case with Sesshu’s studio in Yamaguchi - have been transformed into small museums. I like such places. They transmit the values of the inhabitant. Sigmund Freud’s final intellectual shelter, his study in London, is one such place. It is a place of warmth and learning where gods and goddesses can be invoked to make their points. It is a place where a perspective can be found on what Freud called the uneasiness inherent in civilization. 
Every shelter has its perspective. For Freud in his study it was an inward perspective that lights the way to sanity. For Sesshu it was enough to be placed as an integral part of ridge upon ridge of bamboo-clad hills.  For the late 19th century Finnish landscape painter Pekka Halonen, every window in his lake side studio house was made to sample another variant of the landscape.

Halonen’s house has beside it an example of that perfected form of Scandinavian hut, a wood-fired sauna. There Halonen would sit in companionship with his friend Sibelius, creating the new Finland as idea and reality. 

On the shelf of Pekka Halonen’s studio stove is a group of ceramic bowls and on his workbench stands another well-used wooden bowl. As they would have been for Sesshu, bowls were clearly of more than everyday importance to him. Bowls extend the notion of intellectual and emotional shelter. To hold a bowl in one’s hands is to connect body and spirit. The tea bowl, the singing bowl, the begging bowl, the grail. Bowls are portable shelters of the soul. Each is the focus of contemplation. At the same time just as a roof enables us to live effectively, so also does a bowl. Thus, as with a shelter, a bowl can unite spiritual sustenance with the sustaining of the body. And just as a sense of proportion transforms even the most simple shelter into a work of art so also with a bowl.

The shelter is echoed in the bowl. That perfect form of shelter, the dome, is an inverted bowl. Human beings have been trying to make such forms of shelter for a long time. One prehistoric attempt to do so by simple corbelling of flat stones can be found in the chambered cairn of Maes Howe in Orkney. At mid-winter the low sun shines down a tunnel to illuminate the heart of that prehistoric space. It perhaps seems strange today that the most solid shelter of an earlier culture, the one that has survived to our present, was primarily a place of annual ritual relating to the position of the planet in space rather than to everyday needs for shelter. 

Maes Howe is an expression of the notion that the appropriate way to recognise the sun’s fundamental unity with the earth is through the agency of shelter. It is a temple of the sun. This is resonant with what I have already noted, namely that the physical and spiritual aspects of shelter are deeply intertwined in the human psyche. In a complementary way that is what the classical myth of Philemon and Baucis tells us also. If you give freely to others of the hospitality of your hut, you may find that your hut has become transformed into a temple. 

text & photography, Murdo Macdonald


a bowl, after Ovid
growing old together
Baucis & Philemon
share this humble home

raking ashes, lighting fires
with the little breath
their frail bodies have left

in the middle of the table
they set their only bounty
a bowl of clear white honey


Bothan Shuibhne | Sweeney’s Bothy

Alec Finlay & The Bothy Project

commissioned as part of Creative Scotland’s
‘Year of Natural Scotland 2013’

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