Outsider architecture is the name given to architectural projects undertaken by non-architects. It isn’t as common as you might think, considering the stringent laws governing new buildings – what can be built, where it can be build, how it must be built, and who must design, review, and construct it. These kinds of rules are hardly exclusive to the United States, so even in the world as a whole, outsider architecture usually manifests itself in small, unregulated towns and villages, or else as guerrilla projects undertaken in secret at remote locations.
Outsider architecture encompasses everything from the tool shed you designed and built in your back yard, to the 12-acre sculpture complex one man built in the middle of an Indian nature reserve (Nek Chand Sani). And although your tool shed is undoubtedly fine, it’s these larger scale endeavors that have something to teach us about architecture, design, and human spirit, through their blurring of the distinction between art and architecture and the way their form expresses their function.
One of these projects that raises questions about what constitutes architecture is a driftwood complex built by a single artist in the corner of a small nature preserve in Sweden. In 1980, Lars Vilks began construction of this wooden fort that would eventually become known as Nimis, latin for “too much.” The construct wasn’t discovered until two years later by Swedish authorities, who deemed it a “house” and therefore illegally built in the preserve. Vilks meanwhile sold Nimis to the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude (the legal documents for the sale were a piece of driftwood). A legal battle ensued, and in 1996 (apparently Swedish legal battles last as long as American ones) Vilks declared the area surrounding Nimis and his smaller sculpture, Arx, the independent nation of Ladonia.
In case that history isn’t weird enough for you, things get even sillier. The nation of Ladonia, though not formally recognized by any other nation, boasts 14,000 citizens, all of whom are supposedly “nomads,” since no one actually lives in Ladonia. The national flag is a green Nordic cross on an identically green background. In 2006, the Armed Coalition Forces of the Internets formally declared war on Ladonia. And in 2002, Vilks claimed that 3,000 Pakistanis had applied for immigrant status, apparently missing the satirical nature of the “country.”
Despite its convoluted history and dubious legal validity, Nimis remains standing. And no matter what your feelings are on Ladonia, Nimis deserves your respect. The fortress is comprised of 70 tons of driftwood and nails, and boasts a nine-story tower (remember, it was built in secret by one man). It is hardly a livable “building,” but it seems unquestionably to constitute “architecture.”
I think what this particular example of outsider architecture has to show us is the innate desire we have to erect monuments independent of function. It’s easy to get lost in the intended use of a building, or the carbon footprint it will posses, but it’s important to not lose sight of the human attachment we have to places and to structures. Projects like Nimis, and like Nek Chand Sani also remind us that while rules and regulations may have their place, some of the most spectacular human achievements come when people break away from the laws of society and construct uniquely personal structures.
We don’t need armies of renegade architects creating illegal monuments out in the woods, but we do occasionally need people like Lars Vilks to show us another side of architecture, and the passion and fun that it can inspire.
Sources: Atlas Obscura, Wikipedia