Outlines of a constructive human past

By Nold Egenter

This short report was published in 'International Semiotic Spectrum - a Publication of the Toronto Semiotic Circle Nr. 14 (Sept. 1990) under the title 'Architectural Anthropology'. An overall view of the concept of 'Architectural Anthropology' is given in 'Architectural Anthropology - Research Series vol. 1; in 3 languages (English, German, French). See also contents vol. 1-8: English, German, French

At the end of the sixties, in the course of the so-called 'crisis of modern architecture' a movement of architectural theoreticians greatly stimulated by Amos Rapoport's 'Built Form and Culture' (1969) began to widen their horizon into the ethnology of architecture. This movement has produced very valuable studies, but now finds itself confronted with methodological problems due to the accumulation of uncoordinated knowledge from all parts of the world (Bourdier/Alsayyad 1989, Saile 1986). The main problem lies in the fact that architectural research has not yet developed its own method (with the possible exception of Cataldi's worldwide typology (1986, 1988) which, however, limits itself to construction and form). Most of the studies borrow concepts and approaches from established disciplines like religion, psychology, social anthropology, structuralism, semiotics etc. and thus import not only the theoretical difficulties that arise within these mother-disciplines, but also create new problems by adapting approaches from one field to another.

In this context another field of research is gaining weight which concentrates on architecture itself. It interprets the term architecture as a generic term in analogy to 'zoon' in zoology and defines the field anew in the widest sense of anthropology. In this way two essentially new types of architecture have been discovered, which may make architectural research a valuable member of the circle of anthropological disciplines. Together with the conventional these new types have been grouped into a scheme of four types:

Semantic architecture refers to a dia- and synchronically widespread type of building which has conventionally been classified and described differently. What is implied by semantic architecture was historically termed 'life tree' and is widespread in ancient cultures. Over the course of Christianisation history 'semantic architecture' was called by ethnologists 'fetish', 'idol' (idolatry!) etc. in a derogatory sense, because the veneration of material objects, and particularly cult signs made primitively with vegetable materials at hand could not be understood from the theological standpoint of 'higher' religion. Accordingly it was thought to be an expression of 'primitive creed' or 'superstition', but the objects were not researched, neither in regard to form, nor from the perspective of social relations or spatial conditions. Recent ethnographic studies (Egenter 1980, 1982, 1995) show a quite different situation. Semantic architecture of this type appears within a semantic system handed down locally in stereotype form since prehistoric times. With the formation of sedentary agrarian societies it must have become important for its territorial, social and ideological functions. It has been preserved in favourable circumstances (e.g. non-Christianised regions of Asia, such as Japan) from protohistoric times to the present as a script-less 'archive' of traditional settlement history and politics.

The 4 types are not meant to represent successive development stages, they singly characterize relatively well defined, resourceful types of construction, although they obviously are related both structurally and diachronically.

If architectural theory is thus restructured from its base, the individual types and their relations can be clarified by obvious characteristics and priorities, e.g. by assuming the hand as primary 'tool', vegetable fibres as primary building material, binding and weaving as primary techniques (soft prehistory! Egenter 1986a). By using recent ethno-historic and ethno-prehistoric methods it might thus be possible to reconstitute a constructive continuum. Widely held concepts must be abandoned, e.g. the idea that early man 'invented' primitive 'shelters' to protect himself against negative climatic influences. Domestic architecture in our scheme is now a rather late event which presupposes a wide experimental field where man - e.g. at the occasion of finding and taking hold of foodstuffs, edible plants and the like, or, in the wider context of spatially structuring his vital environment -, operates with simple signs and thus develops techniques and forms which later are used also for 'shelter'.

If this continuum of constructive behaviour is found plausible, it will certainly question the prehistoric method, particularly its questionable extrapolations from the field of natural science and the correspondingly implied social Darwinism. Of course it will also critically question its fixation on the historical method ('stone age'). The strict reference of prehistorians for historically dated pieces of evidence might be unmasked as speculation if suggestions of architectural anthropology make it evident that physical and cultural developments were essentially the result of intensive operations with a type of object culture which was not durable. In short, architectural anthropology might in a constructive and positive sense essentially change the paradigms of our outlooks on the human past.


Bourdier, Jean-Paul and AlSayyad Nezar
Dwellings, Settlements and Tradition; Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Berkeley / Lanham / London

Cataldi, Gian-Carlo (ed.)
All'Origine dell'Abitare. Florence
Le Ragioni dell'Abitare/ Les Raisons d'Habiter (Italian and French); Florence

Egenter, Nold
Bauform als Zeichen und Symbol. ETH, Zürich
Sacred Symbols of Reed and Bamboo; Annually built cult-torches as spatial signs and symbols. Swiss Asiatic Studies Monographs vol.4, Zürich
The present Relevance of the Primitive in Architecture. Architectural Anthropology - Research Series vol. 1, Structura Mundi, Lausanne
Architectural Anthropology - Semantic and Symbolic Architecture. An architectural-ethnological survey into hundred villages of central Japan. Structura Mundi, Lausanne
Foundations for architectural anthropological research. Architectural Anthropology - Research Series vol. 2.; Structura Mundi, Lausanne

Rapoport, A.
House Form and Culture. Englewood-Cliffs, N.J.

Saile, D.G. (ed.)
Architecture and Cultural Change: Essays in Built Form and Culture Research. School of Architecture and Urban Design, University of Kansas

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