Architecture builds interdisciplinary bridges to the Humanities

Report on the Second International and Interdisciplinary Conference on 'Built Form and Culture' Research at the University of Kansas <1>

by Nold Egenter


Architecture today is in a quite ambiguous position within the framework of sciences and technology. It can only be defined with difficulties. Though architecture needs the engineer in whatever it designs, it sets itself far apart from mere 'engineering', which defines itself fully - as e.g. in bridge–building - as technology. <2>

The view supporting the architect’s outlook focuses on the history of important architectural monuments: pyramids, palaces, temples, cathedrals, etc.! Architecture interprets itself as art, as a high form of art: built art.

Paradoxically, with this claim, something important is removed from the sphere constituting architecture. Architecture seen as the history of imposing monuments develops into a subject of art history. There it is viewed from quite a different perspective than that of its artistic creator, it is analyzed from a scientific angle, which yields quite different optics, as will be shown by the last text of this book. <3>

Further, in the large spectrum of art, architecture is only a very small part of what the art historian chooses from the totality of a society to consider it aesthetically valuable and to preserve it in the eternal heaven of history. That is to say, architecture is a rather secondary matter, one among many, such as e.g. altarpieces, tapestries, or china, but is - and this is the crucial point - dealt with in exactly the same way, judged by the same aesthetic criteria.

To the practising architect, on the other hand, the work of the 'art-scientist' then becomes the fundament for his own orientation, what in fact constitutes him as an architect. He bases his understanding of his own work, his intentions, his interpretation of his role on this product of art history, certainly scientifically done with honourable intentions.

On the other hand, the art historian d/evaluates the work of the architect, sings his praises, and consecutively runs him down with his deadly critique. He glorifies the architect, makes his work become part of eternal history - or not; so to speak, he represents the 'Last Judgement' in an architect’s life. A strange sort of fossilized symbiosis? An autistically closed circle of internal vibrations? Aesthetic autocracy? In any case, a relatively autonomous circle is shown which functions on insider principles and largely excludes the lay public. There is a strange smell of history–making. Who celebrates whom? And: where is the human dweller in all this business? Just the genius? The artist? And his high–priest, eulogist, and venomous censor? <4>

This strangely contradictive and anachronistic puzzle reveals itself only to those who understand it as a structural Renaissance relic with pseudoreligious undertones. One should recall Pietro di Aretino, the first art critic. He recognized the mood of the times. A new society needs new gods. The artist as creator of the human world. One the one hand, Pietro di Aretino cultivated this secularized myth in his writings, but, on the other hand, he cunningly used his pseudotheological position in this post-medieval demigodly cult by cleverly manoeuvring between the new geniuses and the rich patrons of his time, the aristocracy and the clergy - evidently in consideration of his own financial interests. He is said to have treated Michelangelo rather shabbily. <5>

Art and Architecture, a kind of post-medieval substitute for religion? It is really amazing how this notion has persisted throughout the centuries. Throughout the eras of enlightenment, revolution, democratization, and industrialization, in both capitalist and communist, and even in fascist societies, the famous architect always remained a godlike figure, whose genius created new worlds for the new elites (see Speer and Hitler!). Always at his side, the loyal art historian, the high priest, who praises 'the creation', and converts everyday laymen to believers in 'good form'!

Modernism devoted itself to technology, installing its rationalistic and functionalistic programmes, its aesthetics of the machine as the ruling principle, and thus preserved the structurally quite outdated post-medieval Renaissance myth of the architect’s genius, and, at the same time prevented the intrusion of the scientific method into its domain. The dialogues remained focused on technology and aesthetics. In the same way, the preservation of the Renaissance myth prevented the intrusion of the human dimension. In the sense of Neufert’s famous book, man remained schematically reduced to his synchronically measured quantitative and qualitative 'needs', but never was allowed to enter the system – practically and theoretically – as a human and cultural dweller. He thus remained a more or less mechanical or functional part in the technologically rationalized artist-art schema.

With this myth cities and megalopolises are built: nowadays mini-Michelangelos are systematically cloned at our architectural design academies. Similarly, the art faculties at universities provide their cloned counterparts: mini-Pietro di Aretinos. Together they are allowed to celebrate their limitless gigantomanias, without any modern, or reasonable, or scientifically precise idea justifying it. Processes of this sort led to the situation we are confronted with today, namely that there exists one of our most costly domains in political economy which has not the least scientifically founded idea of its impacts on man.

The following text describes an interface at which new ideas sprang up. Architecture does research! For someone who knows the field, knows this to be a battle cry!


"Presently, architectural theory essentially divides into two realms, that of the designer, which provides insight into the ways of creating the architectural object, and that of the historian, which describes or explains the artefact once created."

Within this context most architectural theorists have regarded architecture as art, the main purpose of which is to express the artistic intentions of the designer. Cultural and social conditions were only considered if they contributed something to explaining these intentions. From this point of view, architectural theory assumes that architecture is always something created by the architect and that the cultural significance of architecture is of secondary importance.

"On the other hand, the anthropologist looks at the architectural artefacts broadly, as phenomena which represent the ideology of a culture, and which manifest social values. Architecture is seen as encompassing built forms, whether designed by people who call themselves architects or by others, thus including the various forms of popular or vernacular design as well as "high" architecture. This is an important point because this view allocates importance to the nature of the objects and the context, more than to authorship. The anthropologist is concerned with understanding how ordinary people use and understand the architectural artefact, and what cultural behaviour and attitudes are supported by the form of built environment." This is how Robinson (:99), in her contribution to the Second International and Interdisciplinary Congress on Built Form and Culture (1986), sketched out three different standpoints which are implicitly or explicitly concerned with architectural theory.

It is a recognized fact that in art, for instance, the United States is a favourable breeding ground for developments involving a certain distance, even lack of concern, regarding historical structures. This is particularly true of recent trends in architectural theory.

In Europe the collapse of the theoretical basis of modern architecture in the late 1960s led to a considerable breakdown in orientations. By 1972 Corboz already distinguished seven different trends. <6> Today there are even more 'alternatives' - not surprisingly there is great confusion among architects today. There is talk of a "lack of orientation" (anything goes), of "short term aesthetization of everyday life" etc. Or there is complaint that "there are no more utopias"! <7>

On the other hand, the much lamented 'crisis of architecture' also recalled academic architectural history from its state of banishment. Art circles began to be intensively preoccupied with architecture and reinstated the method of historical style long believed to be dead to the rank of 'architectural theory'. Products of this methodological revival include late and postmodern styles. In addition, the newly established 'art history of architecture' acquired new 'histories', which seemed to imply a need for much new object research. Nineteenth century art history was 'rediscovered', the Middle Ages acquired new importance. In addition to these new fields of activity with the laborious research they entailed, the art historian was increasingly involved in conservational tasks, e.g. the preservation of historical centres of settlement. In the course of a more general reaction against modernism, the long neglected study of peasant dwellings was greatly intensified, for instance in folklore.

This strong revival of the European tradition had the result that lines of architectural research which began in Europe about 1970 were scarcely noticed here, namely those which tried to make good the theoretical deficit of modern architecture by means of a long–term broadening of anthropologically based research. Such firm connections with the rich historical heritage of European architecture have thus largely hindered the spread of inquiry into questions of architectural theory which are so absolutely necessary today.

Matters stand quite differently in the USA where, in the last 20 years, a movement has come into being which sooner or later will have far-reaching effects on our understanding of architecture. <8> This will be briefly described here.


The title "Built Form and Culture" was thought up by Amos Rapoport. His little book, published with the title "House Form and Culture" in 1969, proved to be an astonishing jewel, had wide circulation and an extraordinary influence. For the first time it brought home to many architects the fact that their own horizon was much too narrow; that apart from familiar practical and historical aspects of architecture there was an enormous range of built forms that had hardly been investigated and which were nevertheless worthy of study. Rapoport's most general terms, 'house', 'form', and 'culture' made it clear that architecture was susceptible to a comparative approach far exceeding the narrow perspective of the art historian's 'styles'. At the same time Rapoport's approach to the genesis of form and his inquiries into the 'factors' determining the rich formal variety of world architecture were highly stimulating. The works of Christian Norberg-Schulz and Christopher Alexander also helped to extend this field of study. Although employing different methods, these pioneering publications had one thing in common, namely, they raised the level of architectural discussion from that of specific aspects of this or that project, building plan, or exemplary structure (i.e. from the functional typology of architectural practice) and introduced general terms of cultural relevance. For instance, Alexander contrasts 'community' and 'privacy', while Norberg-Schulz uses the terms 'existence' and 'space' in relation to architecture.

As a result, a research programme has taken shape in the USA during the past 15 years. Under the title 'Built Form and Culture' - Research, it has greatly developed recently. <9> The architectural departments of various universities are working implicitly or explicitly on this programme. Furthermore, the University of Kansas at Lawrence, has, for some years offered a postgraduate course, leading to a master's degree in this subject.


The Built Form and Culture' - Studies at the University of Kansas are concerned with "the understanding of socio-cultural aspects of architecture and settlements and the understanding of built environments as cultural phenomena", with "humanistic approaches to the study of both everyday indigenous architecture and stylish monumental architecture" and with the "examination of the roles of architecture and the design professions in relation to society ..." Generally speaking: architecture is emancipating itself from the domination of art history and is attempting to understand itself anew in the wider framework of the humanities. Interdisciplinary and intercultural approaches to the study of relationships between built form and culture are being encouraged and "the roles of architecture and the design professions in relation to society" are being studied. In addition, greater interest will be shown in an architectural and urban design education that is "more sensitive to the values and ways of life of other cultural groups." <10>

The optional postgraduate subject of 'Built Form and Culture' can, as mentioned, lead to a master's degree. Typical are studies and research on relationships between built environments of different scales and associated socio-cultural processes. It is not only open to students of architecture and the design subjects, but is also intended for students of cultural anthropology and philosophy. <11>

An important component in this new line of research and study is the biennial 'Conference on Built Form and Culture', first held at the University of Kansas in Lawrence and later to be held at other universities. The outstandingly interesting 'Second International and Interdisciplinary Conference on 'Built Form and Culture' - research will be detailed in the following.


There was a big attendance even at the first conference. It was attended by about 200 participants from 5 countries and 30 US states. And they showed that there really is interdisciplinary interest in the subject. Participants represented 15 different disciplines. Under the subtitle 'Approaches and Implications of Socio-cultural Aspects of Built Environments', participants considered how best to promote the broad study of socio-cultural aspects of architecture and urban construction and how professional design and design training could be made more receptive to the various values and life styles of different cultural groups. <12>

This first conference was evidently highly stimulating. It was followed by increased interest in the cultural aspects of built form, and not only in architectural circles. The humanities showed their growing interest, above all those where environment plays a part, e.g. branches of cultural geography, applied anthropology, environmental psychology, sociology, social history, and political science. Another result of the first conference can be seen in the international associations of interest groups which were formed at the end of the conference. There are now close links between the North American Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA), the European International Association for the Study of People and their Physical Surroundings (IAPS) , and the Southwest Pacific People and the Physical Environment Research Organization (PAPER).


Objectives were to be even more clearly defined. 'Why do we need to understand built environments better and how does this lead to improvements in research, education, and environments?' were questions raised in the programme. Researchers and university teachers, professional designers and building promoters were to report their experiences with the new cultural-anthropological standpoint. Methods, approaches, and theories were to be compared and difficulties between theory and practice were to be clarified.

The programme covered the following topics:

Broadly speaking, the whole programme was backed up by a structure which is best shown in graphics (Fig. 1).

Part 2
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