On the interpretation of space in traditional settlements

Book Review

Nold Egenter

ARCHITECTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY - SEMANTIC AND SYMBOLIC ARCHITECTURE - An architectural ethnological survey of 100 villages in central Japan. Lausanne, 1994, Editions Structura Mundi

See also: Cover Text ; Divine Reed Art ; On the Origins of Religion

Increasing global communication today confronts many architects and urbanists with tasks beyond their own cultural domain. This often creates significant problems, since, what is taken for granted in one's own field, might be entirely different in another cultural environment. Probably the most important of these problematic "self-evident truths" in the architectural and planning domain is space, that is to say fundamental differences in the interpretation of space by the planner and urbanist on one side, and by the traditional inhabitants of the district selected for planning on the other.

Euro-Western teachings of architectural and urban design have firmly established themselves on the modern enlightened concept of homogenous space. Within certain limits, it can be used freely by the architect or planner. Buildings and other planned elements are often conceived in some geometrical matrix following essentially pragmatically estimated human needs.

However, important research based on the anthropological notion of space (Bollnow: Man and Space, 1963) shows clearly, that - in terms of cultural history - the homogenous space concept of physics must be taken as a very recent idea (European period of discoveries). The architect or planner working in non-Euro-Western cultures consequently runs the serious risk of being confronted with quite different, pre-modern concepts of space.

In recent years many architects and urban planners have become increasingly aware of the importance of the fact that different cultures show different attitudes in regard to space. (Islamic cultures: Stefano Bianca 1976; Nepal: Carl Pruscha 1975, Niels Gutschow and B. Kölver 1975). But this trend only concerns the acceptance of fundamental cultural differences (cultural pluralism) and, consequently, emphasises the adaptation of conventional design instruments to the particular conditions of a particular culture.

In contrast, Egenter's study goes much deeper, suggesting an inter-cultural outlook by introducing space and its sensory categories in an anthropological sense as a basic constant of culture (Bollnow 1963). With this tool his study researches the conditions of local settlement space in about 100 villages of central Japan.

The results of Egenter's study are fascinating and new. The book shows that Japan's traditional agrarian settlement uses a semantic system quite different from what would be expected from a Western viewpoint. It secures and defines its territorial extension from the inside out, by marking the main path or way-system with a core set of primitively constructed signs (semantic architecture).

Since the settlement's foundation, certain spatial portions have been set aside as "archive-spaces" within the settlement's territory. In these places of highest existential value, "documents" of the settlement history are preserved. On a primary level - which the study essentially reconstructs - these "documents" consist of perishable markers, >fibroconstructive< signs and symbols made of plant materials. These perishable signs are preserved through time by cyclic renewal of their forms. On a more evolved level we find topological markers of more durable character: trees marked with ropes, marked stones and other designated natural markers. On a third level there are developed buildings ("shrines") marking semantically what was conventionally called "sacred places". These "documents" of the local settlement history all contain codes of the structure of the settlement: spatial, social and ritual. These codes are expressed on a meta-language-level at the cyclic renewal rites related to these "archives".

This is evident most clearly on the primary level, as reconstructed in Egenter's study. The primitive markers express a specific structure which can be called "coincidence of opposites" or "harmony of polar categories" and this symbolic or "philosophical" structure handed down since time immemorial is evidently used as a model for the "design" of the village:

(1) Spatial: categorically contrasting parts of the settlement space are combined to form harmonious units (valley and mountains, fields and woods, place and path, inside-outside, closed and open, static and dynamic etc.).

(2) Social: the active proximity to the sign ("owner of the sign = local priest) in the framework of its cyclic renewal documents the social hierarchy of the settlement (high: village chief, founderline and its descendants; low: later settlers).

(3) Ritual: the factual renewal of the sign involves the codes for ritual behavior. Its temporal structure consists of a continuum of identic cycles (no progress!) with the settlement's origins (foundation) and the present: before and now!

In this way a >core complex< becomes visible conditioned by the settlement's origins and containing virtually the whole village plan, from spatial, social and ritual points of view. The cyclic ritual with its complex codes embodies the program according to which the settlement has developed since its foundation within local space and time. The most important aspect of this system: space is not void! It includes substantial parts of the environment that are classified by category. Antithetic parts in this sense are combined to form a higher and harmonious unit. If this harmonizing intention is taken in the higher sense of a world view (local ontology), its function as an overall "design principle" becomes evident: it creates harmonized environments and forms with the principle "uniting contradiction" or the formula 1 = 2!

In other words the planner obtains a relatively clear view of a traditional settlement's environmental value-system. But he also understands that he endangers this complex network full of complementary tensions by using his own homogenizing instruments. Methodologically essential in Egenter's approach is also the fact that he frees himself from the conventional religious concepts which provided prejudiced explanations for the highest local value system ("belief" in supernatural powers, "superstition", "fertility cults" etc.; Egenter uses the term "local ontology" instead of religion). His methodological approach of architectural and spatial anthropology is thus focused on objective data such as material, construction and form of the "documents" and related to the village map with places and access paths. Evidently the active motive of the culturally creative system becomes plausible - beyond the conventional primitivisations of religion - as securing the local existential space of the inhabitants.

Egenter's basic assumption of a >spatial anthropology< mentioned above further implies: The results obtained in this sample study should also apply in a wider sense. Other studies of the author tend to generalize the system of a >core complex< related to the settlement origins. It should apply to traditional autonomous agrarian settlements of many other cultures (e.g. Nepal: Rob. I. Levy: Mesocosm, 1990; India: L. P. Vidyarthi's "sacred complex", 1976) or in an even wider sense as characteristic basis of pre-modern planning (Mircea Eliade 1968, Werner Mčller 1971).

In this wider sense Egenter's >core complex< can be understood from the standpoint of Western planning principles. In spite of its theoretical absolutism (e.g. LeCorbusier's plan for Paris) the modernists' homogenous interpretation of space has not managed to oust the more ancient system, the >core-complex<. In European cities the historical substance is still respected as a legitimation of a specific spatial existence (to be citizen of THIS and no other city). In spite of its totalitarian urbanistic claim, at least in Europe, modernism has remained an urbanistically "marginal" phenomenon.

With regard to the increasing globalisation of architecture and planning, this book can be taken as a cornerstone for an intercultural theory of architecture and planning. In the framework of >architectural anthropology<, the book describes a primordial type of >semantic architecture< and thus clarifies the semantic aspects of architecture. Within the domain of human sciences, Egenter's >settlement-core-complex< will doubtless stimulate cultural research related to the origin of settlement.

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