The 'primordial hut' of architectural theory and the nest–building behaviour of the great apes <1>

by Nold Egenter


Though not admitted, origins still play an important part in many of our ways of thinking. But which ones? The first volume of this research series pointed out the anachronism of postmodern architectural fundamentalism (Hanno-Walter Kruft, Georg Germann). The first part of the following study will show that in the formation of modern architecture too, rather dilettantish primordialities played a significant part.

Not only in 'architectural theory', but also more generally in the field of culture and civilization, some very questionable 'origins' – such as the prehistorical construction of wild gangs of early men roaming the steppes in search of food – continue to bolster our modern pride in progress and to legitimate our techno-civilization and its socio-Darwinist excesses.

With regard to civilization, nothing could contrast more with this extremely reductionist picture of primitive man, armed with deadly weapons and tools in his bloody fight for "survival", than what is described in the following study. Almost idyllic, one might say even of Rousseauist dimensions! The lifelong fabricating behaviour of our closest biological relatives, the three species of higher apes, is not at all frightening or disgusting. Every night they build a new nest. This phenomenon, which hardly anyone is familiar with, even today, is very important. It can be taken as the starting point of a new and very different, constructive, anthropology.

In the precarious context of today's architectural theory, one can hardly think of a more beautiful and clarifying discovery, than that the higher apes are routine nest constructors. The ape’s nest as primordial architecture! An architecture lacking aesthetic sophistication, but nevertheless comfortable! Since nest–building is mostly undertaken in groups, these night camps of the higher apes give us a clear idea of the primordial form of primate settlement. And, in fact, they clearly reveal primary conditions of an anthropologically continuous arrangement of dwelling space. We might ask a rather paradoxical question: does modernism lock up man in a wrong concept of space?

From a methodological point of view the following text presents two different approaches to the same issue. The one, based on history and going back to Adam, arrives at the conclusion that ideas about the origins of architecture had, throughout the past, served as an inspiration to many. The other, based on anthropology, promotes not just the idea but the original object, and consequently accuses architectural theory of relying on wrong foundations and drawing the wrong conclusions. Firstly, the origins of architecture are not to be located in the pyramids, but in a nest. Following from this, we have to ask: have today’s architects completely lost sight of the roots of their domain? Did they lose themselves in the purely virtual space of their post–medieval myth of a profaned creator-genius? Secondly, the new anthropological sounding reveals a disturbing fact: architecture is creation! But not in a limited sense, denoting only the creation of forms by architects, but, in an evolutionary sense, meaning the creation of dwelling man as an entirety, permanently and perennially, in architectonically ordered space. In other words: architects are unaware of their real demiurgic potential.


"Primordial hut!" This expression crops up more and more often in discussions among architects. A sign of the times? Certainly. The so-called "crisis of modern architecture" now impels us to reflect critically on the theoretical bases of building and dwelling. In the last decade, Joseph Rykwert's book "On Adam's House in Paradise (1972) has greatly contributed to a renewed interest in architectural theory. Over a period stretching from the Old Testament to Vitruvius and to modern times, Rykwert collects an astonishingly rich material which leads to an interesting insight: the question concerning the origins of building has obviously not only fascinated builders, but also theologians, writers, and painters. Depending on changing philosophies and individual preferences, origins were sought in nature, in the history of creation, in myths, in the socially or technically primitive. Rykwert's history of the ideas revolving around the 'primordial hut' is thus also a history of heterogeneous speculations. Depending on the technological, historical, prehistorical, or even natural historical sources drawn upon, these speculations engendered a wealth of the most imaginative theories (e.g. the 'primordial huts' of Laugier, Viollet-le-Duc or Hall).

For many, such speculations about a primordial hut may have served to satisfy their thirst for knowledge. But right up to modern times, they have also served architects as an argument for practical architectural manifestations. Le Corbusier, for instance, derived his geometrical concepts from huts and tents constructed by Iron and Bronze Age settlers and, in particular, the Jewish tabernacle. Frank Lloyd Wright is closer to the tradition of the American utopians. They condemned urban civilization and hailed the ideal of the free pioneer spirit. In his "Living City" (1945) Wright outlined a politically and morally biased evolutionary scheme on the basic pattern of democrats versus antidemocrats. This was a rather dilettantish opposition between 'wandering tribes of hunter-warriors' and 'cave-dwelling agrarians'. This evolutionary line was considered to derive from the two lifestyles of the apes: the good ones, freely swinging from branch to branch, the bad ones, hiding in caves! For Gropius, the Bauhaus around 1920, and Konrad Wachsmann the wooden log cabin represented their 'primordial hut'. In this, they were obviously influenced by Strzygowski, who, - following Gottfried Semper's evolutionism (1860/63), - suggested the primitive wooden constructions of the North-Eurasian belt as a basic type of Indo-Germanic architecture, paralleled by the southern, or Mediterranean, architectonic traditions in stone. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe associated himself with the German handicraft movements and dreamt of the "healthy world of primitive building methods where there was meaning in every stroke of an axe, ..." (:18). In the futuristic line, Erich Mendelssohn based his urban designs on models from nature: the city was to obey the same laws as the beehive and the anthill. According to Rykwert, Adolf Loos stands in a line which hails a "telluric immemorial wisdom and rightness". Loos' idea of a primordial hut appears in his encounter with a simple burial hill in the woods: "...someone lies buried here. That is architecture." (:28)

Certainly such ideas were a testimony to subjective originality at those times, and they have continued to be of use to the art historian because of their appeal to the general reader. To the architect, however, the art historian's standpoint cannot be of much help because ideas can never be mere ideas to him. They are always prerequisites of operative implications for his buildings. Thus today, we all more or less live in this world of ideas concerning architectonic primitivism. Fifty years after the pioneers' enthusiastic propaganda for modern architecture and urbanism, we have now lost all enthusiasm for these encrustations of primitivism. We hear of 'oppressive environments' (A. Tzonis), 'inhospitable townscapes' (A. Mitscherlich) etc. This surprising change of mind may have its deeper reasons: maybe these ideas were scientifically too primitive! Or - anthropologically - they were not primitive enough.

In any case, this contradiction between a pure history of ideas and an objective evolution of building behaviour obviously constitutes the problem to which Rykwert is pointing. The field of sources to which ideas of the 'primordial hut' can be connected is enormous. During the last 100 years, this field has grown even larger owing to developments in studies of prehistory and particularly in ethnology. The plurality of modern speculation concerning architectural theory is a direct reflection of this progress in cultural anthropology (the idea was to build for a new kind of humanity!). But it was scarcely realized that the use of heterogenous sources from which the modernists have derived their theories and design strategies, would paradoxically lead back to the same phenomenon against which the 'pioneers' had once jointly fought: the pluralism of styles. No doubt, the styles are here again: 'modernism', 'postmodernism', etc. Modern though they are, they are still based on personal taste. Whatever has found its manifestation in the theory or practice of our architectural past, provides a gigantic playground from which any architect can take whatever fits his concept. Clearly, historical, cultural, and geographical factors have influenced the selection of source materials, for instance, when Le Corbusier sees only geometric rationalism in the Jewish tabernacle (which in its essence is a religious and ritual centre with very complex functions!) or when Frank Lloyd Wright leans towards American pioneer models. The provocative insights gained from Rykwert's book show that interesting ideas derived from chance sources cannot suffice for the construction of an architectural theory.

Rykwert himself has recognized the methodological problems of a historical presentation of the idea of the primordial hut. He describes his approach as paradoxical because, in a narrower sense, history provides the ideas about the primordial hut, but not the hut itself. "... the first object of my search must be a memory of something which cannot but be lost." (:14) Rykwert avails himself of a technique which is quite legitimate for the historian. He contents himself with the idealized part of his theme. "...it is a notion which I wish to stalk, and not a thing,..." (:14) On the other hand, it is just as legitimate not to be satisfied with avoiding the objective challenge by covering it up in a mist of ideas, but to accept it and search positively for the object itself. The rewards will not fail to come. The 'paradox' of Rykwert's approach leads to a surprisingly simple solution: we discover "paradise"! We only have to acknowledge that the search for the 'first house' cannot be a historical problem in the narrower sense of written history, nor of its extension: it is neither a problem of archaeology nor of prehistory. The first house demands an anthropological outlook. In other words, 100 years after Darwin's death it appears rather dubious to tackle a question of human building behaviour by way of stories from the Old Testament. The concept of 'Adam's House in Paradise', from which Rykwert proceeds, is a purely historical one because it is based on history in a narrow sense. But our image of man in the last 100 years has changed fundamentally. It is no longer based on the Bible! To gain knowledge of primitive building behaviour, we have to keep step with scientific progress. It has to be sought where Adam is now located: in subhuman primatology. There one will make the surprising discovery that - though slightly modified - the "primordial hut", the "first building" and implicitly also the 'archi-tekton' we sought for, the "first builder" really exists! Not merely as an idea, but visibly and tangibly, factually and scientifically supported!

We are talking about the nest–building behaviour of the higher apes. Today it is supported by about fifty years of field research and about 200 years of observation. In 1929, the nest–building activities of chimpanzees, gorillas, and orang–utans was systematically studied by Yerkes, an outstanding American primatologist. He interpreted this behaviour theoretically in the wider frame of "constructivity" and set it at the beginning of an evolution of building. The methodological reasons why this approach was not developed in cultural anthropology is the theme of another paper. Here - with an introduction to the history of research in this field - we want to emphasize the constructive and technological aspects of the nest–building behaviour of the higher apes. From the standpoint of architectural theory, a basic point is thus gained, and the evolution of building can be anthropologically reassessed.


It may be of interest to note that early observations of the nest–building behaviour of the 'higher apes' (scientific term: pongidae) were closely related to the idea of primitive building, of huts built in treetops. Observations began about 200 years ago and were in fact a byproduct of colonial history. The first chapters were written by laymen. Colonial officials gave exotically tinged descriptions of their encounters in the tropical rain forests with primordial human beings or apes who lived in huts on trees. They spoke of captured women and the like. Local legends were also woven into their stories. Later, the hunters included zoologists, who mostly came to catch living animals for the zoos back home. The descriptions became more and more precise under the influence of these zoological experts. The terminology changed. Former terms such as 'huts', shelters', 'homes', which were coined by laymen, became 'nests' in analogy e.g., to the stork's nest. While this was primarily meant in a formal sense, zoologically speaking, the pongid nest was gradually included within the broad category of vertebrate nests and theoretically came to be associated with technologically and functionally quite different structures, such as the breeding nests of birds, which are built with the beak, or the burrows of beavers and other rodents.

As mentioned above, Yerkes, in his monumental study, "The Great Apes", published in 1929, dealt, for the first time, scientifically and systematically with the pongid nest. He critically studied and compared the whole history of the observation according to the three species. Summing up, he classified the pongid nest as a product of "constructivity" and emphasized this characteristic as an important criterion within primate evolution. He emphasizes the importance of the development of the primate hand. Further, the higher apes show a fundamental change with regard to nest–building behaviour and sleep. There is not just adaptation to chance conditions found in nature, but a clearly defined and systematic attempt to adapt environmental elements to the animal's own needs. With regard to the temporary character of the pongid nests, Yerkes stresses the fact that only man brings relative permanence of construction into the general development, together with functions of climatic protection which are lacking at the subhuman level of the higher apes. But the developmental trend from the lack of constructive behaviour in lower primates to its definite presence in the higher apes and to the relatively highly developed constructive behaviour in the case of man is important. For "nesting behaviour illustrates the appearance and phylogenetic development of constructivity, and coincidentally, the transition from complete dependence on self-adjustment to increasing dependence on manipulation or modification of environment as a method of behavioural adaptation." (Yerkes 1929:564).

Yerkes' study had a strong influence on subhuman primatology. It suddenly brought about an awareness that the study of caged animals in zoos was not enough, that observations of behaviour had to take place in the natural habitat to be scientifically reliable. Studies in the wild with definite objectives gained considerable importance after Yerkes. These surveys of nest–building behaviour brought with them a wealth of observations which, however, remained unsystematic, mainly because they were made in the wider framework of the daily life of the pongids. In addition, recent pongid behavioural studies have focused increasingly on sociological aspects. Analogous to human sociology, emphasis is laid on social relations between individuals and groups and their corresponding manifestations (aggression, dominance/ subordination patterns etc.). As a technical object, the nest thus remains in the background. One of the latest general studies of pongidae (Hamburg 1979, The Great Apes) hardly mentions nest–building and then only from marginal viewpoints.

On the other hand, if one does not entirely lose sight of the concrete aspects of nest–building , recent research in a specific aspect of nest–building becomes important: whether nest–building is an innate or an acquired ability. The result of such research, namely, the recognition that nest–building is learnt may call for a reconsideration of Yerkes' approach. The one-sided zoological classification of the pongid nest, conditioned by the history of research, implied the complete disregard of its technical aspects. Thus, the hand–crafted nest of higher apes was simply equated with the beak–crafted nest of the birds. For example, Nissen (1931), following Yerkes (1929), carefully and extensively deals with the chimpanzee nest, but - in disregard of Yerkes - concludes that the pongid nest should be regarded as analogous to the bird's nest. Nest–building - according to Nissen - should thus be understood as a part of social behaviour.

From another side too, the zoological classification cut off pongid nest–building from comparison with human artefact behaviour. The inclusion of the pongid nest into the wider category of the vertebrate nest implied that pongid nest–building behaviour should be interpreted as purely instinctive. It was considered to be an entirely programmed motor process.

However, this is exactly what has quite clearly been disproved by the research of Bernstein (1962, 1969, in Germany. See also Lethmate 1977). During 10 years of study, Bernstein managed to show that young animals raised in isolation showed a basic pattern of motor behaviour which allows them to use their arms to pull all kinds of surrounding objects or materials to form a circle around their body. But the constructive aspect has to be learnt. Only animals that had contact with others over a longer period of time, were able to coordinate their movements in such a way as to produce a stable nest. Goodall too, (1962) made similar observations in the wild. "The construction of a nest is a species-characteristic pattern of chimpanzees ... ." And: " ... in the wild, there is much opportunity for the chimpanzee to learn the nest-building pattern, initially by watching, and subsequently, by imitation and practice." She then describes some situations where young animals watched or even helped their mother to build a nest, and another where juvenile chimpanzees built nests as a "form of play activity" (:467; see also Goodall/Van Lawick 1963:301). It is clear that proficiency in building nests increases with age (Albrecht/ Dunnet, 1971:28). Van Lawick-Goodall (1971) observed the behaviour of young chimpanzees aged from ten months to four or five years in relation to playnests. It involves quite a long learning process and shows a clear break when the child starts to build its own nest and sleeps separated from its mother. In a wider context too, this presumed capacity for learning accords with the views of many authors. Precultural traditions assumed with regard to various aspects (e.g. eating habits), and the pongidae's capacity for learning has long been used in teaching them new tricks (e.g. sign language for the deaf!)


Nest–building is a daily routine behaviour. This is closely related to the life of the pongidae. Sociological surveys have brought to light remarkable aspects of pongid daily life. We have an approximate idea of the size of groups. For instance, chimpanzees, according to Nissen (1931), live in groups of four to fourteen individuals (8.5 on average). There are also indications of population density. Donisthorpe (1958) mentions 3-4 animals per square mile for gorillas in Uganda (Kisoro reservation). Further, daily and seasonal migrations have been observed. All three species of higher apes are nomads. They wander practically every day. Donisthorpe (1958) mentions the distance of 1-7 miles for mountain gorillas. These migrations are not random. Pongids always wander within a more or less clearly defined territory (Fig. 1, 2). In this context, the studies of Fossey (1974) are remarkable. She divided the home range of mountain gorillas in quadrants and statistically reported the frequency of the animals' visits to such quadrants. They clearly show preferences for certain areas within their home range. Harrisson (1969), too, talks of "habitual rest sites" with regard to orang–utans. Burt (1943) considers the size of home ranges in relation to the size of the animals. Daily migration - probably due to the lack of foodstuffs - implies that the animals find themselves at a different place every night. Thus, nest–building becomes a matter of routine, and it is characteristic of all three species that they build themselves a new nest at least once a night.

Next part
Figures and figure captions
Notes Back to homepage