We are talking about the fifth conference of the International Association for the Study of Traditional Environments (IASTE) which took place at the Architectural Department of the University of California in Berkeley. Just as at earlier conferences, the recent fifth conference offered an abundance of reports on architectural traditions from all corners of the globe. Without doubt, looking back on ten years of research and presentation of investigation, IASTE counts, as far as breadth of horizon of architectural theory is concerned, amongst the most complete in the cognitive area of architecture. Congratulations!
Over 150 papers were given in four days(1). Almost every continent was represented thematically and in regard to authors. A global conference on architecture may well be a unique experience! One only has to compare it with the overinflated nonsense of the 1996 UIA conference in Barcelona: “Star Cult”! It needed massive expenditure (12 000 visitors, US$500 entrance fee), but had minimal objective communication, and as an educational exercise was worthless! From this comparative view too, the fifth IASTE conference must be congratulated.
Tara M Cahn reported from the Pakistan - Nepal area at the foot of the Himalayas on the present cultures and three new building projects which were developed in close intercultural collaboration. However, the pictures introduced were not convincing. Paradoxically, to a large extent they imported the poverty of western rationalistic ‘aesthetics’ into these cultures. If, on top of their economic commitments, these peoples are burdening themselves with this Western ‘poverty‘, there remains nothing more for them: their deeply aesthetic world view becomes garbage. Evidently, it seems to be extremely difficult for western thought indoctrinated by scholastic idealisations to grasp the opposite, namely that all the wonderful, colourful forms of expression of this architectural artistic and ritual world is much more than simply ‘religion‘ (which makes them changeable!). They are witnesses of a once reliable past, which - not yet devalued - still presents models of a locally worthwile life form.
Amply using slides, Chao Chung Fu showed how older women of Taiwan at the temples, full of reverence, still throw themselves on the ground before the power of heaven. With the ‘decline of religion’ the temples lost their importance. In this context, a tide of faceless buildings emerged which flooded the urban parts of the island. However, the way Fu understood the Chinese tradition in a western modern sense as religion, caused him to obstruct the insight into the deep-structure of the dissolution process. The analytical trauma of the west, the Platonic absolution of heaven (religion) and its implication on the other side, namely the negation of the spiritual in ‘objective‘ science, its forced (and often reactionary) focus on a merely empirical or material world had - in Fu‘s case - been penetrated on spiritual as well as material levels into Taiwan and had dissuaded the originally relational structure of Chinese Ying and Yang. Zeigeist in action: temples die, materials proliferate. This was an important lecture.
Similarly Puay-Peng Ho shared how first the English, then the local government disregarded the traditional Fengshui philosophy of relational landscaping by erecting a police station on top of a local wooded hill with ancestral graves above the harmonically organised village. The contribution clearly showed how the modern, homogenous concept of space borrowed from physics, can injure a traditionally and environmentally grown spatial structure which works with complimentary units towards harmonisation of the environment. Evidently as a system it has proved its reliability over the ages. This is doubtless the reason why it is part of the highest local ontological values. The inhabitants are vehemently challenged.
Another interesting study (Andre Casault and David Cao) devoted itself to the modernisation of ancient court-houses in the heart of Beijing. Under the Communist system numerous families had implanted themselves into these aristocratic axes, using all kinds of constructive bricolage and proliferous plants in time honoured-tradition. The renovation suggested by western architects was indeed ‘clean’ in a western sense, but with regard to fitting in culturally it was not convincing.
Dana Buntrode and Mira Locher gave a good outline of the replacement process in Japan of its cultural traditions autonomously developed during its 200 years of political seclusion and the breakthrough of modern international industrialisation. The presentation showed how the area of conflict between tradition and development created by this process found its expression not only in architecture and planning, but also in literature and art.
Nobuo Mitsuhashi and Nobuyoshi Fujimoto presented their examination of ‘minshuku’ (holiday accommodation in private houses) in the mountain village of Kuriyama, and how the local population made these family guest houses more attractive through active participation of the visitors in local festivals.
Endang Titi Sunarti Darjosanjoto and Frank E Brown described traditional houses in the coastal region of Surabaya (Java, Indonesia) and their modern derivatives from the viewpoint of ground plan variations. There was a surprising continuity. The modern types preserved the main topic of the local tradition, a linear grading of rooms rectangular to the street: open verandas against the street and the most intimate rooms off them, towards back part of the house. This example shows that the layout of traditional houses possesses strongly conservative and autonomous strengths which are openly respected by the local designers.
Mas Santosa‘s contribution was a rather negative example. His presentation showed six different Indonesian traditional types of housing (Aceh, Bugi, Central Java, Toraya, Bali and Sumba). The houses and especially the rich forms of roofing were considered singularly from the aspect of heat reflection. The ground plans were all classified as ‘highly simple’. The excellent computer graphics could not hide the fact that this presentation was concerned with an extremely reductionistic and technological backward projection which criminally neglects the cultural background of this wonderful traditional form of housing. Should students of architecture come into contact with such highly reductionist books, they will quickly fool themselves into thinking that this is all there is to such roof forms. To put it briefly, Santosa’s contribution is highly inappropriate for the cultural understanding of architecture and is possibly disastrous in consequence.
Finally to the inspiring report of an architect (William Simple) on his design outline activity on the ‘Roof of the World’ in Tibet. Beautiful pictures accompanied his intense, portrayed attempts to empathise with the Tibetan architectural tradition, which from the work he presented also succeeded. His position is a new dimension in architecture, which might be called ‘hermeneutical design‘. It does not impose its Western rationalistic reductionism on other cultures, but tries to adapt to the worldview of foreign cultures and from such understandings tries to develop the outlines of design. This form of ‘hermeneutical design’ might contribute above all to the intercultural exchange of architecture with the so-called third world, particularly by questioning current Western Architectural Colonialism.
Under the title ‘pre-Christian ritual areas of the Oru-Igbo in southwest Nigeria’, Georg and Sabine Jell-Bahlsen showed how territorial cults in the Igbo are merged closely with social structure and ways of living and dwelling.
Likewise on the Igbo, Emmanuel I. Ede described the cultural change of values of an autonomous traditional architecture to an increasing dependence of industrial elements and forms. Christian conversion plays an enormous role in this environmental empoverishment!
On a comparative basis of structural schemes, Nina Veregge impressively described how Iberian town house traditions with their culturally firmly rooted emphasis on control of the entrance gate and patio, went through strong transformations under the change of economic conditions.
Using the example of a village situated idyllically over a gorge in the southern French Alps, Keith Loftin III and Jacqueline Victor showed how it developed over a long history, but then in accommodating modern tourism has completely changed (“The car was more destructive than any religious wars”).
Nenad Lipovac reconstructed the development of the Croat town of Petrinja using old town maps. Extremely beautiful traditional types of wooden houses were radically superseded in newer times by mid-European ideas of one’s own home (brick, plastered, types mostly transmitted by migrating labourers, e.g. in the case of models imported from Germany, with the consequence also of decreasing acceptance of traditional wooden house building by the local population). The presentation conveyed important insights into the spiritual and material tensions involved in processes between continuity and change.
Amos Rapoport in his deliberately dry way asks three questions in order to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the ten-year-old IASTE endeavours: What, why and how does the IASTE actually do research? The material, which in ten years of research, collection and publishing has accumulated is quite remarkable. Also the reason and aim are, as before, positively justifiable - namely for the purpose of design, planning and development of traditional living and settlement research. The question of ‘how’ is, however, less successful. There is a great lack of methodological integration, coordination, synthesis and theory development. Should there be an increased success in improving methods of research, then the research domain as well as corresponding theories will develop more rapidly. Since, on the other hand, this has an effect on the intensity of learning, it would also offer increased possibilities to improve and influence the theories of design, planning and development.
Anthony King asked rather provoking questions related to the political set-up of the IASTE research efforts. Is there in this globally scattered topic not a touch of neo-colonialism, in which the United States tries to maintain its cultural hegemony in the non-western world? Or, on the other hand, does the IASTE perhaps comply with the wish of would-be socialists to pit themselves against the expansion of market forces in the thus-far untouched parts of the world? Or alternatively, perhaps it concerns itself with a politically right-wing attempt to protect the ‘traditional environment’ so that world-wide tourism might be able to profit from it more and more? “Who is leading the agenda for the studies of ‘traditional environments’ and what are the reasons? What is the policy behind the direction of the studies? I believe it is now time to start asking these questions!”.
It is clear that King was trying to play the role of devil’s advocate - the contradictive questions show this clearly. The ‘free game of market forces’ is probably not the appropriate standard for the gradual building of an ‘architectural science’ - especially since the renowned French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has placed the ‘free-market‘ movement close to a religious sect. The other comparisons are also not valid. They overlook the main point of this conference.
From this point of view it must be made aware that ten years is a very very short period of time for the buildup of a global architectural ethnology. How long did it take until research of European folklore studies into European agrarian housetraditions was scientifically taken seriously? Further, it has taken over 100 years to build up subjects which are taken for granted today as scientific disciplines such as sinology and japanology. They all began with simple and fairly scattered inventories - mainly individual - often very speculative - observations and reports of journeys. It could therefore, against the voices of criticism, also be said that it is rather naive to assume that after only 10 years a new branch of research might be able to be seen as a complete science with conclusive results. What was achieved in this time is indeed actually significant. Berkeley succeeded in giving meaning to a global interest in exploration of traditional ways of building and settlements. Many hindering circumstances still stand in the way of perfection. Architecture (still) does not have any scientific basis. Educated architects and planners who decide to undertake research exploration, have to acquire for themselves competence from scientific practice. Only slowly and hesitantly have educational subjects on scientific methods in architecture schools been called for (for example, Oslo). As already mentioned, scientific disciplines fully established today such as Japanese or Chinese Studies or even archaeology and other disciplines of the humanities have all - over a long period of time - gradually been structured from heterogeneous evidence. From this point of view, the critical positions mentioned above have not done justice to the IASTE case. On the other hand the positive position expressed here does not mean that the critical should be hidden. This is estimated in the following more in methodical details.
But, on the other hand, the conviction is expressed here that architectural research has a tremendous immanent potential, not only for architecture and the corresponding know-how (which will have its impacts on practice), but also in regard to the humanities. Architecture is still an enormously wide white surface on our world maps, which is a theoretical handicap, but also a chance for new findings. One can well imagine that architectural researchers might be found among the leading figures in the humanities of the 21st century. In any case, architectural students should be reminded, particularly if they feel some attraction to research, to keep this option of architectural research open - if not only for the case of a second architectural crisis which is already in distant view. The public will then more openly discuss - and probably with pressure - ask for more research into the basic conditions of man and built form.
More concretely, the following suggestions should be made: 1. In a long term view the IASTE association could choose the buildup of a scientifically structured architectural research (‘architecturology‘). One would have to discuss, what is expected from such a type of knowledge and how the field should be structured and supported. 2. This new focus implies also increasing discussion of scientific methods and how they can be used by architectural research in a ‘post mythical‘ period of architecture.