A critical survey of the modern architect's role from the standpoint of cultural history

By Nold Egenter

This essay was written for the Swiss Association for the Biology and Ecology of Building (SIB - Schweiz.Interessengemeinschaft fźr Baubiologie/Bauškologie) for the occasion of its 20 year jubilee conference held on the 25th of October, 1997 at Neuenburg/Neuch‰tel (Switzerland). It was published in German in the jubilee conference edition of its journal Baubiologie (5/97).

Architectural Anthropology is a new branch of architectural research. It extends research beyond the art historian's narrow history of architecture into the ethnology and anthropology of the built environment. It is an important response to the architectural crisis of the 60s. The following are some critical surveys from the perspective of cultural history and ethnology.


What is architectural anthropology? On first sight it appears nonsense. Anthropology, in fact, implies the totality of phenomena which we relate physically and culturally with man par excellence. In the temporal dimension it is a history which accounts for several million years and which, on its lower levels, merely offers rather poor cultural conditions (bones and stones). In contrast, architecture is a highly refined cultural phenomenon. It is related to high cultural achievements not only in the Euromediterranean cultural domain but also in India, China and Japan, and Mesoamerica.

Those who work in the domain of architectural research are continuously confronted with such questions. The author's recent discussion with an architectural instructor was quickly cut short when the instructor stated the following: "I know, in the 60s architectural research was in, but what has our post-modern architecture to do with the primitive huts of the Dogon in Africa? You see, today we have our own problems." This fairly short-sighted architectural philosophy deliberately overlooks the fact that the architectural domain is not the ideal world which so many architects and their teachers might, in their own interests, believe it to be.

After the second world war, the German Wiederaufbau made this clear for the first time. Suddenly, large parts of Germany's historical substance were swept away. Dallas was imported practically overnight. The Baroque bars gave way to Mies slabs and stilted freeways. The architectural consumers vehemently protested this quick change of scenery on the urban stage. Modern architecture found itself in crisis.


The art historians once excluded by modernism soon realised their chances in this precarious architectural situation. At a time when it had become abundantly clear that architecture had no theoretical basis in the scientific sense, architectural schools were boastfully provided with fairly luxurious research institutes for the history and theory of architecture. This method of research was archivalically prejudiced and completely inappropriate in regard to the temporal depth of the architectural phenomenon. It returned to classical topics in the history of art. For example, Vitruvius was quickly rediscovered in architectural fundamentalism, and the 19th century was revalidated in view of precursors of modernism. The wheels were turned back to the old history of architecture as art. Modernism was declared as outdated style, while post-modernism was propagated as new style. The style characteristics of modernism were swiftly categorised both historically and geographically, which ended in a grotesque for many young architects. That which they had just enthusiastically studied at some renowned alma mater, naively believing in its vitality, was shortly thereafter placed behind vitrines to lie in state in the new mortuary: the architectural museum.

Things move swiftly in the modern world, and so the new style spread rapidly in spite of its superficial and hasty theoretical foundation. It was nebulously supported with semiotics derived from abstract linguistics. The concept of architectonic sign in space, which is of tremendous importance in the human orientation, was degraded to a verbally historic citation. It is unbelievable that the architectural sign in space could be reduced to a mere linguistically diluted version. This new program was quickly pushed through on the parade grounds of architectural barracks around the globe, and post-modernism was born. It drove up its clean symmetries or its deconstructivist dummies in all cities around the globe. In other words, the factual problem, the urgent need for a reliable theoretical basis, was deliberately covered up. New studies would have to be planned and produced to meet this need. Instead, there was a regression to the long outdated routine of the art historian. In view of the importance of architecture and urbanism for any national economy, this was an incredible regression, a global scandal!

Given this position, it should not be surprising that today, thirty years after the first covered up architectural crisis, we face exactly the same problem. Mario Botta recently gave an interview to a Swiss weekly (Weltwoche). Caligula-like, he scornfully condemned post-modernism as a "poisonous development" and as a "global epidemic". He demanded that the European city belts, for example that around Rome, should be torn down and, further, that colossal metropolitan monsters, like Seoul and Hong Kong, should be destroyed.

Beyond such gigantic manias and theoretical bricolage, fit only for demolition, would it not be wiser to place architecture and urbanism on the more secure grounds of the human sciences? That is to say, architecture and urbanism would have to be studied systematically and scientifically to find models based on humane conditions. The history of art is not scientific in the strict sense. It is merely an evaluation system based only on subjective taste, and it allows a high degree of manipulation. In addition, in the domain of the art historian architecture is only one topic among many.

That modern society has neglected to prescribe its own research to architecture is quite probably related to outdated structural characteristics of architectural teaching itself.


The 1977 volume, "The Architect", was edited by Spiro Kostoff, an American art historian specialised in architecture. In the first chapter, "Of the History of the Profession", which he wrote, Kostoff outlines an image of the architect's role in Ancient Egypt. He points out how creative the architect had been at those times, and how grandiose the ingenious design of the Egyptian temple had been. It was further indicated that the architect was part of the social elite and had always been close to the king.

This presentation can be convincing only to those who possess merely superficial knowledge of the Egyptian temple, who cut it off from the culture of Ancient Egypt with their reduced focus on the history of art. They will consequently display their monologues about the forcefully fragmented things, describing in glorious words the strange and marvellous forms as 'mysteries'. In its origins, however, the temple of Ancient Egypt was essentially nothing new. There was no creative design; it was simply a reproduction of village sanctuaries. These can not be found archaeologically because they were perishable, but they can be reconstructed iconologically via the history of Ancient Egypt (Andrae 1930, 1933, Heinrich 1934, 1957). The innermost sanctuary was a reed hut transmaterialised into stone. The columns, originally bundled with fibrous materials, had their origins in the pre-dynastic villages. There was no creative design at all. Even the powerful monumental gates, the pylons, were reed architecture, enlarged in size but imitating primitive types of fibroconstructive built form. The plan was not created by an architectural genius; it was a simple encrustation of cultic behavioural traditions, e. g. processions with gods (Kees 1980). In addition, the plan, or horizontal section, was part of a global scheme of the sacred: polar unity composed of place and access path (Frey 1949). Thus, the horizontal plan, too, would have to have been already found in pre-dynastic agrarian villages.

Hence, Spiro Kostoff's interpretation is pure fiction. The Egyptian temple builder was, at best, a good engineer: nothing more. He petrified, and thus monumentalised for eternity, the pre-existent, non-durable forms in view of the increasing need of the pharaohs. Durable monumental buildings indicate the first steps of the first empires into history. There was also a clear reason for this. Durable sanctuaries could be used to supersede the perishable cultic demarcation systems of the villages. Theocratic cults functioned as territorial and social constitutions and were used for control. Thus, Kostoff's presentation is clearly a retroprojection. It projects the modern ideal of the architect onto history. Kostoff says it himself. He wants to spur on his students. They should match their strength against his ideal of the architectural creator figure: the Renaissance myth, the architect who creates entirely new worlds.

The temple of Ancient Egypt, the star-architect-concept of the art historian and the bi-level image of architectural anthropology. This critical episode makes us aware that our modern understanding of architecture is conditioned, just as athletes are conditioned in sports. The historical view, trained on the sudden origins of monumental arrangements, celebrates its own projection and thus legitimates its own needs for grandeur.


The anthropological view is quite different. It draws much wider circles of cultural developments into its view, not just history, and thus it manages a quite different interpretation than that which appears to the historian as primary and, therefore, original. To the anthropologist, the same object appears in a continuity which reaches much deeper in time. This wider and deeper circle allows for much broader material, gained from cultural comparisons, to be brought into the discussion. Anthropology works with the whole cultural history of two million years or more. Architectural anthropology, with its focus on building, space and settlement structures, manages to uncover developments which question our historical view.

Evidently, the image of the Egyptian temple is quite different if viewed from the anthropological perspective. With its monumentalised forms, it supports the power of early theocracies of the first empires. It is a semantic system of nuclear demarcation. This is important for the security of spatial existence in the transitional field of sedentary agrarian and cattle breeder societies and the first empires which superseded them. The cyclic world of prehistory (cyclic time meaning minimal progress) turned into a linear time system: that of history. Thus, the anthropological picture tells us much more about the temple in Ancient Egypt. It had nothing to do with any architectural star-cult. It was the ancient origins that counted, not subjective originality.


The Egyptian temple is not just beautiful (which can now be explained within the framework of aesthetico-anthropological theory), but it is also pars pro toto in a territorial sense. It embodies correlated lands and is thus also a power symbol. Socially, this pars pro toto relation implies space, and it manifests identification with the spatial dimensions implied in the pars pro toto relation. This was valid for the pharaoh and for the people. The temple feasts formed the calendar that was the time program for the population. Sacrifices formed the first taxes and enabled social hierarchy. The columns of the Egyptian temple corresponded to tributes of surrounding settlements. Thus, they were also represented in the framework of the pars pro toto system of the temple. They were positioned in front of the kingly place (reed hut) within the temple. Obviously, the temple was the nucleus of a humane socio-territorial orientation system. In the framework of theocracy, it was the nucleus of an anthropologically evolved constitution, a human dimension of tremendous importance. The Egyptian temple thus shows how man organised himself within his local environment during that period. This system appears to have worked well in Ancient Egypt. It was the first empire which remained more or less intact over two thousand years. Even today, dilettantic bricoleurs of empires dream of it.

The local ontological axis was the most important morphological element. In another sense, too, there exists an incredible continuity. This primordial architectonic pattern related to path and movement, and this demarcation of the place and access scheme still lives in its purest form in altars and portals, choirs and entrance facades of modern churches. This is absolutely non-homogenous space. Man subdues his own behaviour to this pattern: a power model of architecture. There must be a deep truth expressed in this tremendous continuity. Nota bene: If one can trust the French National Television (TF1), Paris is the most visited city of the whole world. Does Paris owe this to the fact that its urban form still follows pre-modern principles of space organisation? Paris is articulated into uncountable axes. Even modernism can be integrated into this historical chain. Mitterrand knew this very well when he built his own monument, La dŽfense, in line with the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs ElysŽes.


Question 1: What would the touristic balance of Paris look like if Le Corbusier had had the opportunity to realise his urbanistic plans for Paris?
Question 2: What were the reasons for the flourishing tourism in historical European cities?
Question 3: Why does modern society protect its historical heritage in the city centres with extreme tenacity?

Answers 1 - 3: The theories of modernism were wrong. There is more involved than just functions and needs and their satisfactions. Architecture creates a spatial organisation. In particular, nuclear demarcation (sanctuaries, temples, palaces, monuments), is considered to be of highest ontological value. With their monumentality, such buildings create history. They provide anchors for identification with certain ideas and times. Maybe modernism and post-modernism have greatly neglected this fact. Evidently, even in its most primitive form ( i.e., Siberian huts) settling means history definitely related to architecture as the core of an environmental orientation system: the human past. The European doggedness in preserving historical centres, contrary to all modern architectural commodity theories, finally proves that these conservative cores of high values are an urbanistic constant. For many, the nuclear demarcations of Europe, the cathedrals and churches in towns and cities, have lost nothing from what has been described in the case of the temple of Ancient Egypt. They are rooted in origins not in originality.

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