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Jim McClelland looks beyond the ‘bling’ skylines of celebrated ‘starchitects’ to discover a secret architecture of spiritual proportions

4 min read

Hidden in plain sight worldwide are to be found gems of secret architecture, design delights discoverable in discrete locations. From Europe to Africa, the Americas and far Antarctica, locations lie off the beaten track, in lakeside seclusion, high on a hill, on the edge of the desert, across a snowscape or even up a tree.

Whether a holiday hotel, wilderness hideaway, off-grid haven or scientific survey station, small is not only beautiful, but often more sustainable, inspiring innovation, creative use of space and smart material resource. It is also perhaps “prefabulous”, portable and mobile – this is design that can move, literally, even on skis.

Real benefit though is measured neither in carbon nor column inches, neither metres nor money, but in wellbeing. In a time of high-profile urban skyline “bling” and celebrity “starchitects”, the value of responsive design to appropriate scale offers an aesthetic, almost spiritual, relief. Secret architecture may not stay secret for long, but it will remain a pleasure forever. Design is good.

Room with a view [1 & 2]

Project: Lookout Cabin, Austria
Design: Andreas Wenning, Baumraum

Perched on hillside props, this free-standing dynamic structure sits high above Seeboden town, boasting panoramic views over Lake Millstatt. Featured in Treehouses: Small Spaces in Nature, it is fully deserving of its name.





Gone Fishing [3 & 4]

Project: Sol Duc Cabin, United States
Design: Tom Kundig, Olson Kundig Architects

Built for catching steelhead on the Olympic Peninsula, this flood-proof hideaway on stilts can be shuttered up when the owner is away. The rugged, raw materiality has resilience designed in, as befits its wilderness setting in Washington State.





Smart with curves [5]

Project: Footsteps Eco Lodge, Gambia
Design: Gijs de Groot

Colourful roundhouses welcome eco-tourists into a permaculture landscape haven in Gunjur, amid the flora and fauna of the smallest country in mainland Africa. Sat atop site-made bricks, the tension domes are both intelligently cool and fireproof.



Polar panels [6]

Project: Halley VI, British Antarctic Survey, Antarctica
Design: AECOM with Hugh Broughton Architects

On a 150-metre-thick floating ice shelf, 10,000 miles from the UK, on the coldest, windiest, driest, most remote continent on Earth, is to be found the award-winning architecture of this British Antarctic Survey research station, on skis.


© James Morris

Sweet pipe dreams [7]

Project: Tubohotel, Mexico
Design: T3arc Architecture

Roll up for a sustainable night’s sleep in rooms of recycled concrete pipe, stacked in pyramids of three. Thermally efficient but aesthetically chilled, this innovative green design trick makes accommodation affordable in the Magic Village, Tepotzlán.



Tread lightly [8]

Project: Earthships, United States
Design: Michael Reynolds, Earthship Biotecture

Rammed-earth tyres, wrapped in adobe walls, studded with recycled bottles and cans for light and decoration, provide green base materials for sensuous and sustainable earthship biotecture, as pioneered in the desert heat (and cold) of New Mexico.



Hotel to go [9 & 10]

Project: DROP eco-hotel, Anywhere
Design: IN-TENTA Creative Design Group for URBAN SQUARE

Micro-architecture for eco-nomads, DROP is organic in shape, prefabricated, en-suite, off-grid and portable, designed to go wherever you go, in a field, on a beach, up a mountain, leaving no trace or environmental impact.