fb-pixel Skip to main content
ARCHITECTURE

They went to the woods, because they wished to build a cool cabin

The annual Studio North workshop lets young architects hammer through design challenges. Attendees for 2021 stood before this year's challenge: a riff on Henry David Thoreau's famous cabin.
The annual Studio North workshop lets young architects hammer through design challenges. Attendees for 2021 stood before this year's challenge: a riff on Henry David Thoreau's famous cabin.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

CHILMARK — Last week, in a wooded area on private property, nine would-be architects put aside their laptops, picked up pencils and hammers, and conjured Henry David Thoreau.

The students were attending Studio North, an intensive workshop run by Boston’s Moskow Linn Architects that takes a building project from idea to completion in seven days.

“God had it much better off,” said architect Keith Moskow, who runs Studio North with partner Robert Linn. “He could do things in six days. We need the seventh.”

The architects offered a bare outline of this year’s project in a late May e-mail to students: “a Thoreau Cabin for glamping, writing and display of license plates.”

Advertisement



In an era of digital design and 3-D mockups, Studio North is rare, putting hammers and saws in the hands of aspiring architects, who often have no construction experience. This summer is its eighth, and the first on Martha’s Vineyard. In prior years, a Vermont farm became the site of elegant and fantastical structures including a rolling pigpen, a birch pavilion, and a swanky coop called the “chicken chapel.”

Architecture students Ellie Garside, left, and Ben Shapiro worked on the Studio North cabin on Tuesday.
Architecture students Ellie Garside, left, and Ben Shapiro worked on the Studio North cabin on Tuesday. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Back in 2008, Linn and Moskow undertook a company project to erect a whimsical design on a tiny, swampy parcel Moskow’s family owned in Newton. They called the platform with four triangular structures for sleeping, dining, and bathing Swamp Hut.

“We got out there and we sweated and we built,” Moskow said. “I grew up in construction, but other people had never done anything like this before. It was a really good experience for people to see actually how things go together.”

Swamp Hut garnered attention, and the architects decided to share their design-build experience with others. Studio North was born.

The "Swamp Hut" project, from 2008, inspired the creation of Studio North.
The "Swamp Hut" project, from 2008, inspired the creation of Studio North.Moskow Linn Architects

Students seem to hunger for hands-on experience. Many of them got into architecture because they’re makers. Alice Fang completed her master’s degree at Columbia University during the pandemic.

Advertisement



“Everything was remote. We didn’t do any models,” she said. “My hands were itching. I need to think through making.”

Even under normal circumstances, architecture school is more thinking than building.

“It’s all about the problems of aesthetics and function, and not really how it all goes together,” said Ellie Garside, who is in the master’s program at the University of Pennsylvania.

“When you have experience on the building side of it,” said Ben Shapiro, a Colby College graduate, “you can go, ‘Oh, wait if I draw it like that, how are they going to fit their arm in there to actually screw it together?’”

The first day, the students brainstormed and put in the foundation, which matches Thoreau’s cabin’s footprint of 10-by-15 feet. The second day, they built the platform.

“At that point, Robert and I look at all the kids’ ideas, and we glom them together and winnow out the ones that are way outlandish,” said Moskow. “People are showing two-story-high structures. Curves. We love curves, but we’re not going to do curves in seven days.”

He called the quick turnaround “a project on speed.”

“I really enjoy the tight time frame,” said Rebecca Bagdigian-Boone, a grad student in landscape architecture at UMass Amherst. “Everything’s on the fly, and it’s like, ‘Well, it looks good, let’s move on.’”

On the sixth day, the cabin was up, looking rustic but contemporary. The entry compresses space with a tall, narrow doorframe that opens to an interior wall, making everything else feel roomy. Light pours in through a transparent roof. Thoreau had a bed; this cabin has a sleeping loft. At the rear, a window frames a single tree.

Advertisement



The license plates — a collection belonging to the property owner — presented the students with a more conceptual problem to solve: What does Thoreau have to do with cars?

Alex Rebhun, who will be a junior at Haverford College in the fall, tackled that one.

“Thoreau encouraged American individualism,” he said. “Our American car culture is individualism on steroids.”

Architecture students Alex Rebhun, left, and Alice Fang hung license plates in the new cabin.
Architecture students Alex Rebhun, left, and Alice Fang hung license plates in the new cabin.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Finishing touches were being made before the license plates were installed — such as a lip and railing on the sleeping loft. There had been slip-ups along the way. Holes were re-dug, concrete remeasured.

“I’ve learned it’s OK if you make a little mistake,” said Diana Thomson, who studied industrial design at Savannah College of Art and Design. “You can work around it. Or you can just pull it out, pop it right back in. It’s a lot easier than you might imagine.”

Kyle Neumann, Studio North’s teaching assistant, who just completed a five-year program in architecture at Syracuse University, envisions applying the program’s design-build philosophy working with communities in need.

“I want to try and find a way that everyone can become part of the process,” Neumann said, “so it becomes less architect-client, more community-design built.”

For Moskow, Studio North encapsulates the best thing about architecture.

“To conceptualize and see something in the end, that’s a really good feeling,” he said. “I mean, how many professions do you get to do that?”

Advertisement




Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.