SEMANTIC ARCHITECTURE AND
THE BIRTH OF SCRIPT

A theory of the origins of writing
based on architectural anthropology

By Nold Egenter

- 3 parts – 30 illustrations – 12'483 words –


This study was first published in 1984 in Umriss, the Vienna architecture and design magazine. It had the title “The arthistorian's architectural theory: built on sand - An approach towards architectural anthropological semantics”. The new title is more apt to express the factual content of the study. The text has not been changed, except for some minor alterations. It is still valid.

Postmodernism speaks of “styles”again. The untiring fashion-creator of architecture — the“history of architecture as art” — has quickly pounced upon the worn out mantle of modernism. Let us do away with the rags; styles are back again! The eclecticism of the nineteenth century, vehemently denied by Giedeon, Zevi and Pevsner, has become socially acceptable once more. The first part of the following article deals symptomatically with these methodologically reactionary, radical changes and critically hints of contradictions in architectural theories that are based on the history of art. Recently proposed theories under the promising label architecture and language are rather unsuitable for architectural teachings. Can architectural design follow alphabetic letters? Could Renaissance style be as Oechslin describes it? Should architects again figure out letterplans? Can we afford such surrealistic luxury today? After the great trauma of the break down of modernism, should architectural teachings again sneak back into the shade of academies dominated by art historians? Should the elitarians, who cultivate their hollowly sophisticated language in their sacred halls, again make up the evaluation of architecture? Should architecture not free itself, finally and forever, from prejudices based merely on the gourmet-ism of architecture as art-history? Should architecture not cease its continuous retrospective evaluating, imposing its own style-optics and thus perpetuating the curse of eclecticism?

If we are going to talk about theories in architecture, should we not first clarify the grounds? If we neglect to define the basic domains about which we are going to theorize, architectural theories can produce any kind of nonsensical speculation!

In an extension of this first, critical part, Egenter outlines an architectural/anthropological approach. In narrowing the topic of architecture and language to a more explicit and objective architecture and script, Egenter's study not only reveals plausible explanations for the origins of script but also hints at a surprising parental relation: architecture as the mother of script!


Does architecture become “fashion”again?

Both the Second World War’s shocking effects on the value of history and the more recent critical successes of social psychology against modern urbanism have helped to prepare the fertile grounds in which the pre-modern type of “history of architecture as art” has again taken root. Of course,the modernist programs — those over-proud and overconfident out cries of propaganda, the l’ architecture, thec'est moi of the architectural 1920’s — are still ringing in everyone’s ears! Today, nobody becomes disturbed over sermons about the overwhelming dominance of art-history buildings at many architectural schools.

A bold cosmetic act made this possible. The institutes became known as “history and theory of architecture”. At the same time, this title implies a kind of stab legend. Already groggy from the evaluation studies of sociology and social psychology and their vehement criticisms against modern urbanism, architecture was finally finished off by the avenging goddess of art-history. In showing that the modern image-storm had its roots in the reformatory/revolutionary history of the mind (with its beginnings in the sixteenth century), the arthistorians and their recent “architectural” theory destroyed all hope of being modern without history. The architect suddenly recognized himself as a naive henchman of the wider processes of the Zeitgeist. Modernism is considered part of the global expansion of Protestant ethics, with all its unpleasant consequences.

On the other hand, it could also be shown that modernism was, in its elitist claims at least, a very limited phenomenon. In contrast to the beliefs of most architects, the styles vehemently condemned by modernists were not eradicated at all. Within German National Socialism or Italian Fascism, the eclecticism of the nineteenth century remained thoroughly productive and also remained vital within the American “playboy” Architecture (Giedeon) or within the “neo-historical revivals” of the 1950’s (von Moos).

Thus, the history of art had maneuvered modern doctrine into a vacuum. On the other hand, about 1970 it offered, at least theoretically, two constructive lines towards the rehabilitation of nineteenth-century eclecticism (characteristically, the vernacular movement began parallel to this). Another line let itself be guided by the old spirit of the pioneers, however, and emphasized scientific research and scientific theory.

The term historism, a familiar term in the history of art, is intentionally avoided when speaking of the nineteenth century because it diminishes something essential. It is the historism of the history of art itself that perpetuates eclecticism in the sense of historical methodology! Byhistorism we mean that spirit of “completely relativistic revival of arbitrary past formations with the oppressive and tiring impression of historic omniscience and skeptical unproductiveness for the present” (Troeltsch). Do we face the revival of this type of historistic historism when we see architectural theory progress towards making the eclecticism of the nineteenth century again socially acceptable?

Against this methodologically reactionary line, however, stands another that emphasizes objective scientific research into architecture. Such an emphasis implicitly identifies it with the pioneer time, if the early programs of the modernists are seen from the basic motive to find new, humanely valid sources and arguments for a new world architecture. The following focuses on this. Have we now, more than fifty years later, reached a high enough point on the theoretical plane where we become aware of the need for architectural research to at least avoid this new eclecticism — not simply that of forms but also that of historically arbitrary theories, those of the “anything goes” in our urban landscapes? Do we have to develop anthropological methods that allow reliable scientific grounds for stable theories to fight against this regression to the patterns of fashion journals?

Under the title Architecture and Language,Braegger (1982) edited a collection of architectural theories of arthistorians. This will lead us to an exemplaric discussion of the fundamental problems of architecture within the framework of art-theory and its corresponding methods. It is evident that they are built on sand. The reader will be made aware that the anthropological method goes deeper; it is built on rocks.

“Architecture and language” - a short review

Evidently, the title does not just reflect the aim to appeal to a large readership. Language implies something generally humane and culturally original. It is a cleverly arranged detour towards anthropology. This aspect doubtless plays its role, particularly if Oechslin anthropologises the alphabet in unconventional, idealistic ways using language and geometry (216 ff.), or if Vogt, following Panofsky’s search for a primary sense layer, is looking for the body language of the naked ape in the front of the Hagia Sophia (279 ff.).

Language also implies something scientifically very complicated, but it is not the complex linguistic domain that is meant here; rather, the term is used in the philosophically nebulous sense that anything may have its own “language”. Anything can speak to humans; language is not the only method of communicating). In a much wider sense, everything visible, hearable, touchable and enjoyable has language. Architecture is set into this basic framework, and very heterogeneous approaches are thus possible. Doubtless, this means an important opening, and certainly a welcome one within the history of art. With this enormously wide concept of language, however, great imprecision and methodological entangling is possible. Oechslin's book stands in the light of this partly shining, partly dimmed star. The following is a short outline of the contents.

In his contribution, (“Description of Architecture in theMiddle-Ages”) Reinle deals with new studies related to very important sources: the greatly neglected interference field of prehistoric and historic spatial thought in the Middle Ages. Maurer (“From Ciborium to Triumphal Arc”) carefully works on an exciting evolutionary micro-theory of the golden frame, which transgresses completely conventional ideas of the frame asdecoration of the panel-image (Tafelbild). Using paintings of Poussin, Bätschmann (“Discourse of architecture in the picture”) presents a new method of reading architecture as temporal and spatial order. Based on sources related to the construction and interior design of the first Swiss “White House”, Gubler (“Architecture as Manifestation of State Policy”) outlines a rather problematic play of architectural history. Home, as related to the new national monument, becomes an accumulation of the ancient and the new, the uprooting of the locally grown and the synthesizing of it with heterogeneous pieces of borrowings from outside. Can the “biggest house in the country” be a symbol of modern homelessness? Braegger (“The Highest Terrace”) deals with Hoffmannsthals' architectural soul. In a methodically well founded study, Knoepfli (“The Language of the Historian ofArt”) warns the reader not to trust the art historian's words!

Hofer, too, (“Invective against a shimmering idea”) expresses his warnings regarding the misty lands of nebulous terminology in the field of the history of art, referring to them as “word-jellyfishes” and “word ghosts”. He opposes the idea that the sculptured facade-detail of the eighteenth century can simply be theoretically isolated, and deals with it within the wider framework of architectural composition. Using Gadamer's hermeneutic approach, Hauser (“Architecture parlante - dumb art of building?”) works (albeit script-exegetically jerkily) on a modern Protestant architectural history. Germann (“Alberti’s column”) celebrates his relatively non-original find — a case of “wooden” thinking on the part of Alberti. Departing from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sources, Oechslin (“Architecture and Alphabet”) provides us with rather surrealistic ideas regarding the relationship of architecture and letters (see below). Vogt's attempt to relate Panofsky's hoovering motive as "suspension“ (sic) to the dome of the Hagia Sophia is similarly questionable. Outside of Prokop's deeply philosophical text, he merely presents us with some dry bones in an attempt to make his own physical anthropological projection work. Furthermore, the “fountain-like bubbling up” of the marble plate betrays the disproportion of his method: Stepping at the same place can not solve the anthropological problem of a primary pre-iconographical sense-layer!

The pluralism of the theoretical “styles”

The above review clearly shows that the contributions are methodologically and thematically very heterogeneous in character. As in the case of a mosaic, they are evidently dominated by the idea that many different micro-theories of this type are vaguely related to the “wealth of relations between architecture and language” (Oechslin, preface). Gradually, an entire picture should emerge that may also be of help to architectural teachings. This is, of course, an illusion. Without any plan, a heap of very useful stones remains a heap.In addition, should architecture again deal with the problem of figuring out X-, Y- or Z-types of floor plans? Of course, such displays may be charming to some extent, particularly under the influence of surrealism, but let us remember that this was just painting with colors and a little bit of linen. The architect has certainly been away from such experimental games for quite some time. In short, despite some valuable attempts, the book Architecture and Language clearly reveals the insufficiency of the art historian's method.While reading this book, one often gets the impression that this wainscoted, paneled and brocaded circle of art historians often produces narrowly defined, almost petty themes under very general and unclearlydefined titles.

The missing basis

The fundamental problem of a theory of architecture based on the history of art is, however, that theory’s origin in the arts itself. In the first place, the domain of the arts is huge. Its objects include most heterogeneous things, in addition to very different cultures. Architecture, in this framework, will always be anunder age stepchild (which, without doubt, it is not!). Secondly, its foundations on beauty aesthetically prejudice the view of the arthistorian. His historical outlooks, always related to “high-culture”, dictate an a priori elitist relationship to the explored object. The arguments are related to the selective operation of subjective taste, as is the case in fashion.The proof is in the styles. These aesthetic a priori relationships — and that is the decisive point, if we speak about theory — prevent the art historian from defining the theoretical basis of the theorizing. In this way, it appears that an elementary scientific prerequisite is elegantly avoided. Because of the disregard for this condition, however, the conventional “science” of the arts, with its micro-theoretical attempts, remains in the air and can in no way satisfy its high-flown goals of producing a theory of architecture!

Architecture and alphabet

Oechslin’s contribution most clearly demonstrates the above statements. In his highly exaggerated framework of the “universal setting of the architectural” (217) (note the monumental language!), he deals with sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sources. Focussing on a very narrow field, he tries to establish a fundamental relationship between architecture and the alphabet (Fig. L-3). In Oechslin's interpretation, the geometrical abstractness common to both supports this close relationship, and he finds, in both cases, a systematic relation concerning elements forming a whole.Unfortunately, Oechslin works with the term alphabet. The interesting fact escapes our view that letters could be placed standing freely in real landscapes, particularly during the periods mentioned above, as does the strange characteristic of the architectonic in books of transforming letters into buildings. All this is simply attributed to the historical domains of the phonetic alphabet. In this context, Oechslin's idealistic citation of geometry cannot be enough to raise his results beyond a very limited episode in the history of ideas. He manages, with great difficulty, to keep the most important phenomenon out of his discussion: the ideogram. Since this usually implies a great affinity to some natural or artificial object that often has nothing to do with geometry, Oechslin reduces the Egyptian hieroglyphs to mere prototypes of a geometrically rationalizing worldview. In many places where Oechslin tries to indicate universal validity beyond his narrow focus, his arguments begin to crumble. Architectural theory based on the history of art remains fixed on Eurocentrisms. What is stated remains on the level of characteristics, on observations limited to a certain domain (in the case of Oechslin, on European architecture) and on the European alphabet. We gain intellectually stimulating indicators of a rather grotesque architecturo-historical episode that remains rather insignificant because its perception does not reach the basic substance of architecture.

If, however, the topic architecture and script, on which Oechslin's study rests, is approached from the standpoint of cultural anthropology, very important insights come to light, contributing many new explanations to Oechslin's topic. Most of what he describes historically is, in fact, a late collision or meeting of two different lines of development. An originally factual unity of architecture and script had developed two independent lines that never forgot their common origins. A letter can be a building; a building can be a letter.

In the following, we have to deepen this idea of the original unity of things using the example of architecture and script. At the same time, however, we must extend our interest beyond the merely historical (in the narrowest sense); we have to deal with the modern results of the archaeology of script.


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