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Catching Mini-Cabin Fever

Backyard huts are being built as tiny getaways. The simple structures are one step away from nature.

May 27, 1999|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some days Aleks Istanbullu's one-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot Laurel Canyon home can seem a little cramped. On those occasions, he walks out his back door, over his well-kept lawn, and into his one-room, 64-square-foot hut.

Despite its size, the plywood-and-glass structure affords the Santa Monica-based architect something his home can't seem to muster, namely, a private retreat for contemplation. The hut houses only the bare necessities--a phone line, an electrical outlet, a chair, a desk, a small bookcase, a file cabinet and Istanbullu.

"I wanted a place where I could go and think and sketch and read and be outside the house," said Istanbullu, 48. "It feels like I'm in nature out there."

In an increasingly complex world of high-tech homes, skyscrapers and modernist designs, the simple hut opens up another world that is literally one step removed from nature. And the elemental structure continues to offer what it has for thousands of years--shelter from the storm.

"The magic of hut dwelling is the immediacy of the environment," said Ann Cline, an associate professor of architecture at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. "You are immediately connected to the outside, while still being inside."

Compared with most, Istanbullu's hut is a palace. He spent more than $12,000 on his version of one of the oldest forms of architecture. In fact, it's such an elaborate structure--as huts go--that he wasn't sure what to call it.

"I could have called it a gazebo, which sounds pretty pretentious," he said. "I guess I could have called it an office or a studio, but I think it's a hut. It's a thinking place. I just like to sit there and put up my legs and smoke a cigar."

When Americans think of huts, they usually envision the housing for Skipper and his little buddy on "Gilligan's Island" or those of the villagers in "South Pacific." For those spots on the globe, the hut representations are, essentially, correct.

But according to Cline, huts come in a thousand different shapes, sizes and building materials. The look depends largely upon the environment from which it sprang, she said.

Middle Easterners near deserts often made huts from sun-dried earth and straw. Asian jungle dwellers used bamboo and reed, and so on. For her part, Cline, who has built two huts in her Oxford backyard (for less than $1,000 each), chose plywood.

"It's the material of America in the late 20th century," said Cline, the author of "A Hut of One's Own: Life Outside the Circle of Architecture" (MIT Press, 1998).

Incidentally, most cities do not require a permit to build a backyard hut. In Los Angeles, you only run the risk of citation if your structure is built to be lived in, or if it is a fire hazard, an obvious eyesore or poorly constructed.

Architects often divide hut users into three categories. Anyone living in a major urban area is sadly familiar with the first--those who live in huts because of economic need. Homeless people often use cardboard, or anything else they can scavenge from Dumpsters and the streets, to put a roof over their heads.

"Some of them can be extraordinarily sophisticated," Cline said.

On the other end of the social scale, many modern architects are fascinated by huts because of what they can tell us about design and function. Huts afford the opportunity to strip a shelter to its essence and examine it at its most basic level.

"It gives architects a chance to play with proportions and the connections of materials in a pure and abstract way," Cline said. "It's simple and clean."

The third group is composed of people such as Cline, who seeks the rhythms and sensations of nature. Inside her hut, Cline said, the rain, the breezes and even the birds seem more real.

"You're able to open up the inside to the outside on all four sides. You're surrounded by the opportunity to open a window," she said. "I find it enchanting."

Her enchantment began when she built her first hut in her backyard in Davis, Calif. She practically lived in the plywood hut full time for a year. She had a house with modern appliances and a bathroom, both of which she availed herself of, but usually she would be in her hut when not on campus. Rain, shine or heat, she lived in a hut about the size of a king-size bed.

In her research, Cline found that children seem to take to the structures naturally. She believes it's because children feel that a hut is the right scale.

"They just know it's built for them," she said. "But, of course, it isn't. Huts are really built for the children inside all of us."

Martin Miller can be reached by e-mail at Martin.Miller@latimes.com.

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