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Penelope Stewart: Chantier

Art + reading co-editor, Penelope Stewart, is currently wrapping up a 5-week residency at the Musée Barthète in Boussan, France. She has spent her time constructing a ‘primitive hut’ in the museum gardens. Titled Chantier, the installation is built from fallen branches, roots, garden debris, and found natural objects from the surrounding area. In French, the term chantier generally refers to a construction or building site. In Québec, ‘un chantier’ has a more specific meaning, referring to a hut, particularly in a lumber camp. Penelope has repeatedly returned to the image of the primitive hut in her work, playing with the intersection of nature and culture while referencing the historical influence of natural forms on social architecture.

The idea of the primitive hut was introduced in classical writings by philosophers such as the Roman architect Vitruvius, whose De architectura libri decem (20-30 BCE) is the only surviving major architectural text from that period. During the mid-eighteenth century Age of Enlightenment, the primitive hut gained renewed interest with the publication of Marc-Antoine Laugier’s Essai sur l’architecture in 1753. The work is considered a foundational text and is one of the earliest significant treatises theorizing architectural knowledge and practice, with modern and contemporary architects such as Le Corbusier, Gustav Stickley, and Frank Lloyd Wright acknowledging its influence on their work.

For Laugier, the primitive hut served as an antidote to eighteenth century French Baroque and Rococo architecture—a denunciation of ornamentation and decorative excess in favour of a return to natural, rational, and functional forms. Influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s image of early man in an idyllic state of nature, Laugier believed that the primitive hut represented the origins of all architecture, based on man’s instinctual need for shelter; that is, not simply recalling the evolution of architecture, but its very essence. Column, entablature, and pediment all trace their beginnings to the primitive hut.

Laugier writes:

"The man is willing to make himself an abode which covers but not buries him. Some branches broken down in the forest are the proper materials for his design. He chooses four of the strongest, which he raises perpendicularly and which he disposes into a square. Above he puts four others across, and upon these he raises some that incline from both sides. This kind of roof is covered with leaves put together, so that neither the sun nor the rain can penetrate therein; and now the man is lodged. The little rustic cabin that I have just described, is the model upon which all the magnificences of architecture have been imagined… Pieces of wood raised perpendicularly, give us the idea of columns. The horizontal pieces that are laid upon them, afford us the idea of entablatures… Do not let us lose sight of our little rustic cabin."

Laugier’s description might well be read as an inspirational blueprint for Chantier. No novice to creating elaborate architectural installations, Penelope carefully planned and laid out the armatures of her hut. Five main columns anchored with heavy stones are aligned to form a square structure, supporting a roof of branches and dried palm leaves (evoking a vaulted ceiling of sorts), while utilizing materials foraged from the natural surroundings to slowly build up the overall edifice. To view images of the installation in progress is to seemingly witness a structure emerging from the earth itself. There is something primordially wild about the dwelling, while simultaneously remaining recognizably domesticated.

In creating her primitive hut, Penelope consciously plays off these internalized binary tensions between nature and culture, wild and domestic, primitive and civilized. Historically, the image of the “primitive” has been marked by both fear and desire, framed by a Western-centric view of otherness and evolutionary hierarchies of socio-technological progress. In anthropology, such associations have been thoroughly unpacked and contested, particularly from the mid-twentieth century onwards. By contrast, architectural discourse has often problematically cast itself outside of this conversation, persisting in its mythologization of the primitive and its associations with ‘pure’ nature and the pursuit of simplicity.

Certainly, Laugier’s romanticized imagining of the primitive hut is largely untainted by the messiness of social contact. In the famous frontispiece of the second edition of his Essai (1755) illustrated by Charles Eisen, an idyllic mother and child stand on the periphery of the hut (often allegorically read as Architecture personified alongside the nascent architect), gesturing towards it from a distance, while remaining notably outside it.

In contrast, Penelope’s structure is very much a social dwelling. She approached it collaboratively, inviting friends of the Museum to assist her in gathering materials and constructing the installation. Chantier is thus more than a hut, it is a site of kinship and exchange with the local community working in commune with the artist. The internal logic of this structure does not come from the form alone but emerges in the act of making. Here, the artist reminds us that meaning is not autonomous. It is dynamically, collectively made and is always intricately entwined with socio-cultural values, ideologies, and processes.

In the centre of the hut, Penelope includes a stump upon which one may sit and reflect, or perhaps contemplate the heavens viewed through the oculus in the ceiling. The individual dweller is the heart of this assemblage—activating the space. At the same time, the visitor is quietly reminded of the enormity of nature and the universe, experienced in the collected materials and in the setting of the structure itself with its open view to the sky. Though created from garden refuse, dead branches, and discarded plant materials, a closer look reveals that life perseveres: stems sprout new growth and go to seed, insects scramble through the bramble, the dwelling continues to evolve. Chantier will remain installed in the gardens of the museum until it decays, when it will once again return to the earth.

Chantier opens to the public on Saturday, June 8 at 6:30 pm in the Garden of the Musée Barthète, Maison Patrimoniale de Barthète, 31420 Boussan, France

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