The Primitive Hut
In Alberto Moravia’s 1957 novel ‘Two Women’ the protagonist Cesira describes an ancient type of shelter still commonly in use within the mountainous province of Ciociara southeast of Rome.
“I knew these huts quite well; in my own country they keep implements and beast in them, and huts like this can be built in one day if you work hard. First you make the wall, placing roughly hewn stones and fitting them one into the other, without mortar. Then, at the two ends of the enclosed space, which is oval in shape, two forked branches are place upright. Horizontally, resting on the forks of these branches, is placed another long branch. Finally, the straw, in bundles tied together with vine tendrils, is laid on in superimposed layers, on both sides. There are no windows; the door is made with two upright stones as doorposts and a horizontal one as architrave, and it is always a small, low door that forces you to bend down as you enter the hut.”
Cesira and her daughter Roseta shelter in one of these primitive huts in 1943 & 44 during the Allied invasion and occupation of Italy. They sought refuge because their vulnerability as two women living in Rome through daily food shortages and nightly air raids had become a burden too great for them to bear.
For twenty years Cesira had taken great pride and significant joy in furnishing, decorating and keeping her Roman apartment presentable to her acquaintances and livable for her family. However, during this most extraordinary of times, she and Roseta found that the isolated, dirt floored hut offered them physical, psychological and emotional relief that could no longer be taken for granted in the eternal city. This relief afforded them the ability to sleep soundly for the first time in months and consequently recover their strength and resolve to survive.
We humans are fragile creatures. Relatively speaking, we are physically weaker, slower and more vulnerable to environmental exposure than our primate cousins. So how have we survived? How have we propagated so prodigiously and expanded our range so greatly as to be the dominant species on planet earth?
Humans, like all living organism must solve the riddle of protection from predation and the elements – there are many successful strategies throughout the kingdom of the living. Shells both grown and adapted, dens dug into the earth, nests and other built structures fashioned from procured available materials. Colonization of caves, canyons, hollows, and natural geological formations. Being very observant, humans have discovered and adopted many of these strategies successfully deployed within the natural world. Consequently, we provide shelter in many ways – we cover our bodies in mud, fabric, and animal skins. We protect our heads through the manipulation of our hair and the fashioning of hats. But we also build structures capable of withstanding common weather events such as wind, precipitation, and temperature extremes and strong enough to resist penetration by would be predators. Additionally, these structures allow us to shelter from other humans in order to protect precious resources such as food, water, and sources of energy.
As modern humans, we live in a world where our intelligence, ingenuity, and dexterity have lead us to adapt, fashion, and invent incredible means of transportation, communication, and housing. Great cities and fanciful homes, giant dams and vast distribution networks for transmitting energy and transporting goods and people are the results of millennia of combined human effort. Commonly, however, we find ourselves significantly distracted and disconnected from our most basic physical needs such as nourishment and shelter. For most of us it is only during extraordinary moments or events when we are thrust back into physical vulnerability that we connect to and appreciate our sheltering needs. One of the consequences of this subconscious relationship is that buildings are often designed without sufficient regard to the importance that shelter plays in our wellbeing.
Qualities of Shelter
The solidity of a well-crafted structure made from indigenous materials is by its very nature reassuring. Light emanating from east facing windows in the early morning is hopeful. The warmth of the hearth in winter and the coolness of a deep shaded porch in summer is comforting and relieving. Substantial walls that separate and protect provide peace of mind. And correctly oriented and proportioned openings connect us to powers greater than ourselves and reminds us that we are not alone.