Why do we need a general framework?

Paper read at the Second International Conference >First World - Third World, Duality and Coincidence in Traditional Dwellings and Settlements< October 4. - 7- 1990, Univ. of California, Berkeley

By Nold Egenter


In his preface to >Dwellings, Settlements and Tradition<1 Alsayyad programmatically pleaded against "grand theories". This is certainly well-meant in terms of scientific scepticism. On the other hand, if we are leaning to a grand theory, should we suppress it in favour of many little theories? An illusion, because we always use grand theories. Religion? A grand theory! Art? A grand theory! Psychology? A grand theory. etc.! We just don't realise it, because we have established labels for the alchemy we are using! This paper outlines a grand theory, >Architectural Anthropology<, and tries to show how many paradigms might change fundamentally with this outlook. In a wider circle the paper also illustrates what we call 'habitat research' in view of an intended 'habitat theory of culture'.

NOTE: There are many illustrations related to this paper (see ->Legends), particularly on the worldwide distribution of semantic architecture (ca. 10 pages A3). To present them here in html format is not possible. Illustrations can be loaded down in pdf format. Copies can also be ordered from the 'ETH-Bibliothek' CH-1006 Zuerich (Same title, A4: p. 1 - 20).


There is still considerable terminological confusion in all those various fields of ethnology and cultural anthropology that deal with dual concepts.3 Depending on schools or background, terms vary considerably. Thus social anthropology speaks of 'dual organisations', symbolic classification of 'binary orders', 'dichotomies', diadic concepts' etc.4 Nobody denies however that dual concepts are of essential significance in the traditional societies surveyed.5 The main difficulties derive from the fact that 'duality' and similar terms generally imply a complex system of social, local (house- and settlement plan) and spatially extensive (cosmological) components. What is their origin? What is primary? Society, the vital environment, architectural tradition, cosmology? Conventionally such phenomena are either described in terms of social anthropology, interpreted in a structuralistic context, or explained in terms provided by the history of religions, such as creed, myth, cosmological ideas etc. This pattern is found also among studies of the last conference at Berkeley (Bognar, Khambatta, Lee, Pavlides, Tjahjono, and others; for critical remarks see note 50).

 Furthermore, the concept of >Duality and Coincidence< touches on a basic philosophical problem, or - more precisely - a problem of cognition. If >duality< is taken to mean "the juxtaposition of two different conditions, principles, ways of thinking, world views, directions of will, cognitive principles, ...",6 then a wide field of discussion is possible: mind and matter, idea and reality etc. But this potential multitude can be simplified by philosophically reducing >duality< to cognitive categories (e.g. above/below, solid/ empty, limited/ unlimited, etc.) and considering complex principles (e.g. mind and matter) as composites of such categories. Instead of the term >coincidence<, influenced by medieval theology, it is suggested to use the more plausible term >polarity< in the sense of "development of an essence in two opposite but mutually conditioned and complementary directions."7 The opposition of >duality< and >polarity< then shows a cognitive dimension which is also inherent in the pair >duality< and >coincidence<: two basically incompatible cognitive systems appear, one which conceives of opposites in a dual or incompatible relation, the other which interprets the same opposites in a polar or mutually conditioned sense.8 (Fig. I/1) If illustrated by a simple pair like dark/bright, or - more vividly - black/white, then the first type responds with a judgement: an object is either black or white. Each judgement excludes the other. The other cognitive system implies that black and white are mutually conditioned as in a drawing. Black and white are in a polar relation with regard to the picture. Thus on one hand we find an analytical or - literally - 'dissolving' or 'dissecting' world-view, which uses judgments (Ur-teil in German) as its basic tool, and, on the other hand, a world-view which is based more on the sense of aesthetics, with the harmonious intention of creating polar, coincidental or complementary totalities.9 So far our ethnological and philosophical discussion of the terms duality and coincidence (or polarity). Certainly we are not mistaken if we related them to world views. Since Aristotle's >Organon<, the analytical world view is the successful concept of Europe and the West. On the other hand, there are well-founded reasons to assume that the Third World is essentially based on aesthetical and harmonious norms, or integral wholes.10

 Here we would like to emphasise that we do not use the unfortunate opposition >First World -Third World< in its usual sense of economical capacity. We give it an enlarged meaning in the sense of cultural anthropology: (see Fig. I/2) we apply the term >First World< to all those urban societies which, since the first formation of empires, dominated the rest of the world by script, linear time concepts, literate education, permanent architecture, explicit social hierarchies and central administration with corresponding systems of communication. On the other hand, the term >Third World< designates all those locally decentralised societies which were extensively autonomous in supplying their needs, living without trade and transport, close to nature and depending essentially on cult and tradition for their skills, their world views being based on cyclic concepts, thus showing only little progress over time.11

 It must sound rather astonishing that the above postulate of global philosophical implications can be explained by means of architectural theory. But this presupposes an anthropological presentation of the architectural materials. This will be briefly outlined in the following.


Those who speak of traditional architecture today find themselves supported by what is well known. Man, they say, built shelters and huts as a protection against heat and cold. This idea is so well established that most encyclopedias somehow refer to it: building, like shelters and huts and the like. For the moment, let's call this the 'shelter-thesis'.12 But, if one decides to do research, one should have an idea of the content of this research. We all deal implicitly or explicitly with architecture. If we take architecture as a container, what goes into it? For once, let us take it to be a very large thing, a generic term.

1. Subhuman architecture

 In his book >On Adam's House< Joseph Rykwert recently raised the question of the origins of architecture. As an art-historian he brilliantly discusses the history of the 'idea of the primitive hut'. BUT: of course, written history cannot do justice to this problem. Today it should be evident that the question of the primordial hut is an anthropological question. One has to look for >Adam's hut< where Adam is sought today: in primatology. More precisely: among the chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans. Discovery: their nestbuilding behaviour has been known for about 200 years and was postulated by the Yerkes' in their monumental work on 'the Higher Apes' (1929) as proto-culture under the term 'constructivity', but - for understandable reasons14 - this never really entered the cultural anthropological discussion.15 The results of this survey have been published elsewhere.16 Here we will only mention some of its most important aspects, namely those which support the following theoretical concepts.

 The constructive techniques of primates are very differentiated. There are tree-nests and ground-nests (Fig. I/3-6). This distinction is very important in regard to the arboreal and terrestrial movements of the animals: these are vertical and horizontal. Nestbuilding behaviour is also extremely important in quantitative terms. All three species of the higher apes are nomadic. They build themselves new nests every night. If all the nests built by one individual during his roughly 40 years of life were piled on top of each other, the result would be a tower about 16 times the height of the Eiffel-Tower. An enormous opus! Furthermore, to a large extent nestbuilding is learnt behaviour;17 it is a real subhuman tradition which may be very ancient (15-20 Millions of years?).18 The nest is related to the nocturnal half of the apes' life (Fig. I/7,8). At night the apes are ill-adapted to their environment (stereoscope-vision), particularly in the vertically structured arboreal domain. The nest prevents them from falling down. Socially too the nest is important. The changing mother-child relation is reflected in the form of the nest (Fig. I/9). And groups build a kind of temporary settlement, where distances seem to reflect the intimacy of relations (Fig. I/10). Settlements are dispersed (Fig. I/11) or along rivers (Fig. I/12). The nests are therefore of vital importance, unlike the ant-fishing behaviour which is often exaggerated as a form of proto-culture (McGrew).19 But from our point of view, the most important aspect consists in the fact that primate nestbuilding behaviour provides a scientific base upon which to build up an anthropological theory of architecture.

 This scientific basis provides priorities for the reconstruction of architectural development. Not stones (pebble tools) were the first tools but the hand! Weaving, bundling, sheaving, tying are the basic techniques in building!20 Stone, clay and wood are secondary materials.21 As a tool, the hand works with easily manipulated fibrous materials like grasses, twigs and branches.

 There is another important implication of this new scientific base: it suggests new methods of reconstruction. Nestbuilding behaviour suggests important new questions in regard to basic problems of hominisation: Were the developments of a precision grip, of the increasing rotation of the arm, of the refinements of stereoscopic vision related to frequent building? Could the erect posture of the body be related to an increasing number of tower-like terrestrial nests - enforced by climatic conditions (loss of rainforest, increased formation of savannah)? Is it even possible that the increasing brain volume was related to increased memorizing of different constructional techniques? Now if one leans to the hypothesis that building might have been important for hominisation, then it suddenly becomes evident, that the archaeological method is not suitable for the elucidation of a constructive human past. All the artefacts important for development would have rotten away! Prehistorians in general do not realise that there is a basic contradiction in their concept of material culture, which becomes obvious on comparing an archaeological with an ethnological museum: "stones and bones", that is to say, durable materials on one hand; grasses, twigs, branches and woods, maybe up to 90%, on the other. Is the latter type of material culture late in time or is the archaeological method mistaken? Ergological paradox: the latter are technically more primitive than the former!

 What does this mean? New approaches have to be adopted: ethno-historical, ethno-archaeological, ethno-anthropological. The past material culture has to be reconstructed not historically, but systematically. We have to find models in the ethnographic present and use history to verify our reconstructions. Very likely the archaeologist provides us with a human past that is based on an illusion: that what survived materially was responsible for human cultural development. Thus we hit upon a new method: we call it soft prehistory.22 In this concept the following type of architecture plays an important role. Key-words: life-trees, idols, fetishes, sacred seats of gods. Religion took them to be an expression of primitive beliefs, but never really studied them. Within architectural theory they developed traditionally through long phases of local isolation. They provide the experimental field of architectural form and meaning.

To Notes 1 - 29
To Notes 30 - 54
To second part