- continued -

The traditional archetype

"The symbolic significance of architecture is architecture." "A bank is a bank." Botta planted a tree on a business building in Lugano. What is supposed to be the point of planting a tree up there? A memory of primeval times? Of which ones? Or merely a frozen celebration of scaffolding? A permanent celebration for the construction workers? Where are they, the drunken laughing companions? Or is it more rural? A maypole? But why is it walled in with bricks, like a castle? Where is the wreath someone has to win every year by climbing high? Do the employees do that at the end of the month when they pick up their salaries from the management? In any case - any how - the business building a tree of life. Does that belong to your nordic register, Mr Botta? Does that correspond to your desire to implant Arian folklore into this city? Really interesting things you discovered, really! Lugano has a face again. Indeed, a building with a head. Germanic blood in the middle of the city. A bank is a bank. The office block as an ancient Germanic shrine? Where is the grove with the heathen virgins? It'll not be the parking space with the screaming zebras! Are the mysteriously illuminated halls the new sacrificial altars? Will the ancestral feelings be conjured up there again? Or is it a matter of high fertility? Perhaps then however, the Venus of Willendorf would be much more effective than this reserved allusion to something incomprehensible from the nordic "primeval times". Just imagine: a huge woman instead of the tree of life. Fat thighs and massive breasts. Everyone would understand that. Tasteless? Of course. Is it less to the trees of life on top of your business building? "The symbolic meaning of architecture is architecture." "An office block is an office block." "A bank is a bank." Tautological phrases as architectural theory?

The cultural anthropological archetype

A third archetype of Botta's: the cave. "I would like my house to be a reminder of a cave, a reminder of the concept of shelter, of the idea of the dwelling overall,..." Brrr! A real deep abominably damp, mysterious dripstone cave, the dark inside of mother earth or merely an overhang used during sudden rainfalls while on the last weekend walk? Set up a camp-fire. How terribly nice! Or protection from mammoths and lions, like in Arnaud"s "Fight for Fire"? Or a cave in which the archeologists of the future will find our decayed skeletons? Please, Mr. Botta, what shall it be? Two-metre thick walls behind which - in the "church for no-one" - darkness protects itself for ever? Architecture for the "post-humane"?

Let us be reasonable! The cave as a residential dwelling of early man, that has quite some time ago become a highly questionable construction. In prehistory one speaks of cavemen very, very carefully because it can never be clearly proven that people continuously inhabited caves. Karl J. Narr, for example, in his two volume "Handbook of Prehistory"(3) is very reserved in regard to caves and talks merely about findings, accepts at most that under unfavourable weather conditions protection was sought. However, the socio-darwinistically simplified sensation of the caveman (cf the joke which the Philippino government of the 70s pulled off with the "Tasaday" on Mindanao!) lives busily on in thousands of films and continues to be celebrated in school books. If he had existed, the club swinging, blood-dripping brutal early man, who lived continuously in caves as the housing of prehistory, then it would have been an unprecedented decline which would make it difficult to imagine how mankind recovered: the apes of today live peacefully in ordered groups - in, on and with nests which are newly built on a daily basis. And the apes nest as an archetype: again something not at all gigantic.(4) Perhaps just such modesty would do us good for the next 500 (or 1000) years.


These are only three examples of Botta's masterpiece of history-collage. "I wanted the memory ... of the history of primeval times to be present in every act that is performed today." Primeval times according to the principle of a history-self-service shop? Historical forgery is what this is called in historical jargon. Historical forgery as a neo-modern design principle? Botta admits to it quite unconcerned. In his "Archaic of the new", facilitating his constructional wisdom he writes of Stirling "... a collage of continuous quotes from the legacy of architectural history, ..." Finally three more observations:

1) Must such grossly drawn-up follies endlessly continue? Big words, big values, big games! To awaken hopes. Après nous le déluge! A good friend is someone from whom one learns, especially when his name is History!

2) Doubtlessly the modern world has become more complicated. Is the flight towards the simplified the right answer? Is this kind of simplistic tinkering with architectural forms enough for our modern complex problems? Should we not rather sit down for once and talk about what we actually know, and most of all what we actually want?(5)

3) Not before too long, would there not something terrible be caused with similarly amateurish historical misrepresentations? Whoever is of the opinion that that is exaggerated should go to Berlin. The stadium has been repaired again. Gigantic! Geometry creates unity of big ideas! It was also there that some said: "an arena is an arena". And then the "Greek Olympic Games" were shamelessly exploited.

It seems to be an unteachable characteristic of many people, to let oneself be blinded by big words.


Admittedly, the sudden turn in trend of the post modern age became a trauma for many architects, who in the 60s perceived their education with humane responsibility. Being sensitive for the architecturally critical opinions of that time, they drew out their consequences in view of the striking lack of basic research and turned to anthropological architectural research. Now: no research anymore! We have Botta! Like with the movies and fashion, the star-principle counts! Despite all the difficulties and set backs ‘modernism‘ had always symbolised hope. Hope for new sources, for new methods, for new insights for a more humane architecture. From the start of the modern age it carried a nucleus of constant renewing in itself.

In contrast to this, postmodernism is without doubt primarily a reaction against the technological rationality of modernism. Reaction implies also negatively the rigid reduction on the question of style and secondly, in view of the complexity of architecture, an illegitimate reduction of the horizons. The formerly basic criteria (e.g. ahistorical functionalism) were simplistically turned into their opposites (citing history) and this ‘created" the new postmodern architectural world! Evidently this happened intellectually on the most ‘primitive" level of a ‘stimulus-reaction" scheme.

Wellmer (1985) critically examined this "Dialectics of the modern and post modern periods". One does not need to share his somewhat tense connection to Adorno to see that he touches on important architectural theoretical aspects, especially in his lecture held on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the German ‘Werkbund". He refers, amongst others, to Jencks, who celebrated "the rediscovery of language" as "the actual discovery of post-modern architecture". On the level of this linguistic model of semantic architecture terms like ‘univalence" - ‘polyvalence" became tricks in the very foreground. Jencks simply hangs on the known line which accuses modern architecture of being "one-dimensional", i.e showing characterless monotony, being historically onesided, etc.. Against this he then sets his terminologically concealed banality called "polyvalence", implying "semiotical complexity", or "complexity" including "stylistic pluralism and eclecticism". How tedious: we make much of one.

Similarly simplistic is Jencks" rehabilitation of eclecticism. There can only be "stylistic homogeneity of an architecture which embodies "meanings" in societies with a generally binding "signification system", that is, only in traditional societies". In industrial societies such signification systems no longer exist, consequently architecture can only be created "in awareness of historical distance or in ironic breaking out of the semantic potentials of the past..." From this evidently weak grounding of post modern ,theory‘, Wellmer supports two important critical points. A "concession" lies in this "Neo-electicism". It hints to the incapacity for an "own language". Out of its "need and own speechlessness" it makes the virtue "of an arbitrary or frivolous game with forms from the past..." Its productive side, however lies in an imminent "transcendence of modern architecture..." The surmounting of the modern period can be seen in the sense "of a liberation from the simplifications and restrictions of a technocratic rationalism."

The latter is paradoxical. Postmodernism became productive because it manifested itself with its simplifications at a moment where modernism started to realise its own simplifications and began to search for new principles. The wide perspectives of this phase of late modernism were thus cut down and reduced to questions of style. Architecture was degraded to an empty formalism. Finally the trick, with which Jencks set his "communicative rationality" against the technocratic rationalism is quite simply transparent. For modernism the concept of style had been a taboo. By raising the style concept on the abstract level of language , or rather semantics, the taboo lost its prohibitive power. The way to historical form was thus opened. But style is no longer evidence of its time, it is becoming part of a "communicative rationality" . Radically emptying its historical importance - this new ‘communicative rationality" simply understands style pluralistically as any sign amongst any other sign.

A further objection! Wellmer writes: except for universal basic values, according to Jencks one can no longer maintain "any system of objectively binding meanings...." There is only one way, namely to accept a ‘pluralism‘ of values, meanings and life forms resulting from the liberation of communicative potentials. Included in this is also "the release of an ever different reverting to traditions and the semantic potential of the past".

This shallowly resigned theorising neglects the fact that a different line of a much deeper rooted architectural theory has not remained idle. For a good three decades one has endeavoured anthropologically for a new picture of architecture and space. It is a scientific field in which major names are listed, such as Otto Friedrich Bollnow and Martin Heidegger (philosophy), Ludwig Binswanger (psychiatry), Jean Piaget (child psychology), Mircea Eliade (comparative religion), Gaston Bachelard (literature), Werner Müller (history), Dagobert Frey (art history), Pierre Deffontaines (geography), Max Jammer (physics) etc. With this interdisciplinary research related to space an important base was formed which has been quickly transferred to architecture, amongst others mainly by Christian Norberg Schulz (Genius Loci) and Amos Rapoport (Built Form and Cultue). This anthropological field of architectural research has developed a remarkable dynamism particularly in the field of ‘architectural ethnology" as its many international networks and symposia (e.g. IASTE, at Berkeley) clearly show (1). The most fundamental thing which is becoming apparent in this research, is now directed vehemently against Jencks" theory saying that "no system of objectively binding meanings" can be maintained. Just the opposite is the case. The advancing anthropological architectural research into new areas (6) shows that the evolution of architecture itself, from its reconstructed beginnings (subhuman architecture), through typologically classified domains (semantic and domestic architecture) now can be discovered as the real and factual evolutionary supplier of semantic significance. It appears rather grotesque then to observe post modern architectural theory - in extreme blindness for architecture itself - distilling this "semantic significance" out of linguistic communication.

If anthropologically it turns out in such a way that architectural form essentially and fundamentally had a part in the evolution of human culture, then the significance of architectural form - completely opposite to what Jencks says - again becomes objective and generally binding. The pluralistic games have finished. We will have clear values. This is good, that is nonsense (Botta‘s ‘big words"). And the history of architecture on the whole will experience a new high esteem, in the cultural-anthropological sense. This high esteem will be a result of the new light of anthropological knowledge. If further the basic hypothesis of architectural anthropology, namly that ‘man built himself and his ideas" are proven to be fruitful in cultural anthropology, then cultural evolution would no longer appear as self completed but rather as a continuous process to which building and space did and do definitively have a major contribution. It will then be absolutely irresponsible to leave this demiurgish function to post modern theory. From the point of this theoretical conviction the criticism of Botta, a figurehead of the post modern period, is not intended merely as a ‘polemic for polemic‘s sake‘ (in the sense of l‘art pour l‘art), but is rather a plea for architectural research as a reliable basis for a post-postmodern - anthropological - theory of architectural and urban design.


See Nold Egenter: Art historical architectural theory - built on sand. Beginnings to architectural anthropological semantics. In UMRISS 1 + 2/84, :10-23, Vienna.

Munich 1912:23/24. Wissowa"s work is still relevant for today because it is based on historically exact sources (ritual texts, temple chronicles and legal decrees). It avoids the - often freely fabricated - interpretations of Roman poets and philosophers.

Bern, 1966, 1975

See Nold Egenter "Affen Architekten" - Die Nestbautraditionen der höheren, Menschenaffen (‘Ape architects" - the nest building traditions of the higher apes). In UMRISS 2/83 2-9, Vienna

See Nold Egenter: Die Zukunft gehört der Theorie (the future belongs to theory). The emergence of an anthropologically well-founded architectural theory (UMRISS 1/87 38-42 Vienna).

For primatology see Egenter 1982b, 1983a, 1987a; religious studies: Egenter 1980b, 1981b, 1982a, 1983d; archaeology: Egenter 1986a; art history [semantic architecture] Egenter 1984a, 1986b, 1987b, d, e, f, g, 1988a, b, f, etc.)

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