2. Semantic architecture

By semantic architecture we mean a type of built form which basically shows no sign of functioning as a shelter; as a rule, it does not provide interior space and therefore is - in regard to form, function and size - not functionally related to the human body. Its essential function24 is semantic: it is constructed to form a sign in its spatial environment. What entitles us to integrate semantic architecture into an architectural anthropology is its global distribution, in a diachronic and synchronic sense.25 Documentation will be published soon (Fig. II A-E)26

The author has carried out an ethnographic survey of such traditions in a particularly favourable milieu in terms of cultural geography, mainly in Japan.27 In relation to ancient continental culture (China), Japan - particularly in its small-scale agrarian parts - could until recently be considered as a marginal area. Its entry into the circle of advanced culture (or the First World, so to speak) was relatively late (8th century). This is also due to its 200 years of national seclusion and essentially because until today, it was hardly christianised.28 For these reasons it has preserved an enormous wealth of traditions rooted basically in its agrarian prehistory.

100 villages in Central Japan were surveyed in detail in regard to semantic architecture. (Fig. III B) Materials on semantic architecture available from Japanese folklore studies were also drawn upon and listed to generalize the results. (Fig. III C) As a whole, the study conveys the impression that semantic architecture must have been the general rule in Japanese villages before the introduction of Buddhism.29

Semantic architecture basically had two semantic functions: socio-territorial and ideological. Socio-territorial functions are illustrated by selected schemes only (Fig. III A/1-3). They function like a coat of arms. The cult group which builds a particular sign for the village-god (ujigami) considers this to be its own symbol, at the same time representing the domain of its members. Similar formal types and ritual unions with mobile types can indicate genetic relations, ancient association between settlements, economic dependence etc., in short, village history. The line of stereotype cyclic rituals begins with the foundation of the village, when the sign was initially institutionalised by the village founder. By continuous renewal in relation to the >main- and branch-shrine< (moto/waka miya) and >main- and branch house< (honke/bunke) systems, they became the traditional archive of village politics.30

But what is most important in the present context is their ideological function. At first sight the forms are mysterious: they are dominated by geometry. Geometry? Something spiritual? Platonism? A bundle of stalks always becomes round, a circle in diameter, without the intervention of human thought! (Fig. III A/4) Geometry as a technical by-product of semantic architecture?

Besides these archaic traits there is another general principle of form. (Fig. III A/ 5-7) All forms are more or less clearly divided into an upper and a lower part. The threshold between the two is marked by a holy rope. Detailed description of these clearly separated parts indicates that they represent opposite categories. The upper part is natural, freely branching, moves with the wind, has no definite limits, like a bush. In contrast, the lower part stands firmly at a particular point, fixed into the ground, clearly defined by ropes and knots, ancient technology of binding and bundling, geometrically outlined by the human hand. We can ask with Nietzsche: do Apollon and Dionysos live in the same form and at the same place? In Japan the symbolism of such forms is often called in-yo, which is the same as the Chinese Yin-Yang. And this is the symbol par excellence of polar thought, of the harmonious principle of the coincidence of opposites! But what is important here: they are not expressed by an abstract design but in an evidently primitive type of construction: it might be a very ancient synthesis of form and idea!31 Here too the origin of this formal principle can be explained as a product of binding rooted stalks. No genius then? Did Anaximander, the Greek philosopher know this, when he said: "man is the most intelligent living being because he has hands."? We are back to our philosophical theme of the beginning. We said that the complementary worldview has a harmonious trend, that it is close to aesthetics. Shock! Have we discovered the primeval form of beauty? The origin of art? Might this be a form, which taught us our primary world-view of complementarity, of the coincidence of opposites?

Obviously these forms do not simply represent l'art pour l'art. We already said that they were the archives of village policy, something of irreplaceable historical value in traditional villages. But they were much more! They were models in a cognitive process which can be reconstructed by using other types (anthropo-, zoo-, terio-, techno-morphic examples). The cognition leads from semantic architecture to natural forms!32 (Fig. III A/8) The medium of this transition is the concept of coincidence of opposites, our 'elementary aesthetics'. The objects 1 and 4 are completely different things in our analytical, or teleological world-view. 1 is an artificially made sacred symbol of primitive construction. 4 is a holy, but natural tree. Within the harmonious world-view they are analogous or - in regard to the formal principle - identical. We understand the philosophical principle of 'universal unity' as e.g. the Yin-Yang concept suggests. This looks very simple, but it provides a concept which allows us to understand the harmonious world-view of the Third World in new ways - entirely different from our scientific outlook!33 Most villages in Japan are structured according to this principle. In studying their local rituals one finds complementary relations between mountains and plains, woods and fields, nature and culture, village as place, access as path etc. It is a world-view which finds expression in Japanese art from its beginnings right on through the ages. (Fig. III A/ 9) In short, we have found a basic cognitive concept related to a type of architecture which we called 'semantic architecture'. It seems to be related to village history and politics, to the aesthetic culture of settlements and to philosophy. What we called ideological function corresponds to the Chinese Yin-Yang. In Japan we can reasonably argue that such built signs were the rule in Japanese villages before the introduction of Buddhism, that is to say, before the places they marked were replaced by wooden shrine-architecture. (Fig. III C) Thus we have to recognise that the prehistoric agricultural society of Japan (Yayoi and Kofun- periods),\plain with its historical continuity up to present times, not only had a very philosophical type of architecture and art, they also had a philosophy, the philosophy of coincidence of opposites.

Now we take Japan as a model. Based on the global distribution of semantic architecture, synchronically as well as diachronically, we may suggest the following hypothesis. Not only the signs but also polar philosophy became important during the sedentary developments of the neolithic period. Both traditions continued throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages and on into the historical period of agricultural societies in Europe until the spread of Christianity. In other cultures, particularly in traditional Asia, built signs and the corresponding polar philosophy continued up to the present. In general, the polar world-view played an essential role in pre-scientific thought. For verification we can point to the earliest sources of written signs. They are very similar in different cultures (Fig. IV). Did writing start by copying semantic architecture?34 Semantic architecture would thus have to be considered the revolutionary teacher of neolithic revolution. In general this could also be maintained for the traditional societies that ethnology deals with. Finally, it may be that semantic architecture stands behind the problems we have with the Third World. Do we have difficulties in understanding them because all our scientific approaches are analytical, that is to say, based on the philosophy of the First World?


What have we done? We have used architectural theory and a widened First/Third World concept to gain an insight into ethnology and prehistory. La pensee sauvage? Prehistoric philosophy? There is doubtless a very ancient correlation between architecture and space-perception. In short: by using the phenomenon 'semantic architecture' and its technical, formal, temporal and spatial implications, we may not only touch upon basic problems of philosophy, cognition, religion, and art, but also of basic patterns of linguistics35 (e.g. the complementary nature of categories in many cultures). Structuralism and semiotics36 might find new approaches. Archaeology, prehistory and paleanthropology fall into a critical light. Semantic architecture leads us globally to new hypotheses and into a complex and interdisciplinary field of cultural anthropology. Was the relevant prehistory not durable? Was architecture essentially responsible for the establishment of cultural norms? The contrast with the conventional interdisciplinary approach comes clear: it is not architecture that has to borrow from its neighbour disciplines: architectural research brings new approaches, new hypotheses. Architecture as the mother of all arts? Architecture certainly has something to say in cultural anthropology!


Architectural theory will change fundamentally. In the following we combine conventional types of architecture with those newly introduced in this article. (See following scheme)37


(up to the present)
..................................../  /  /  /  /...............	
........................./  /  /  /  /..........................
............/  /  /  /  /.......................................


All four traditions are still observable in our time, but it is evident that subhuman architecture must be a very ancient tradition. It is also evident that domestic architecture belongs to a later phase than does semantic architecture. The hut needs a more elaborate concept and technology than does a sign, which, in its most elementary form, is simply made by a grip of the hand. Furthermore, domestic architecture is highly specialised in terms of functions, whereas signs are extremely flexible. Finally, signs provide more explanations for cultural phenomena. Semantic architecture might have been the 'creator' of fire,38 of tools and devices39, of script40, of social structure41, of art42, even of religious43 and philosophical concepts, as we have tried to show. Thus the human hut - in regard to internal space - may have had its precursors between semantic and domestic forms: small constructions independent of the human body like traps for animals and fish, small signs and shelters used to store collected fruits, vegetables and other materials at a certain place. Finally, when consciousness of internal space had developed, man started to use such forms on a larger scale to shelter himself. Nomadic and semi-nomadic hunters and collectors might have had loosely distributed agglomerations of non-durable dwellings in which semantic (socio-territorial and ideological) functions were essential for orientation.44 The permanent settlement is generally associated with the neolithic period, and ethnographically with agriculture. Semantic architecture may have provided the structural layout of sedentary settlements.45 In short, our scheme of types can essentially be considered as a series of parallel traditions which influenced one another at certain times and evidently from the lower towards the upper levels.46 The connection within and between the levels is due to tradition.47

But what is most important: the 'shelter thesis', considered to be fundamental until now, moves to the end of a very ancient continuum of 'constructivity'. Domestic architecture presupposes a large field of architectural forms, independent of the human body, in which constructive, formal and symbolic characteristics might have developed over very long periods. It is evident that the enormous manifold we find today (see the Japanese model) including anthropo-, zoo- and terio-morphous precursors (art!) developed in numerous isolated locations. In many ways these semantic traditions must have influenced the formation of the house, either structurally48 or by the accumulation of different semantic elements, such as hearth and fire, sacred pillars within the house, entrance door and other elements as 'buildings within the building'. Domestic architecture thus becomes a composition of various semantic elements!49 (Fig. V)

Now, if the house is of composite character, we could understand e.g. how rites and cults (originally developed with the renewal of signs in the semantic stage), follow the integration of sacred pillars, fire, hearth etc. into the house. A new instrument is found for research into the ideological structure of the house! The same may be assumed for the >coincidence of opposites< expressed by semantic architecture. What we today interprete as the cosmological meaning of a domestic type of architecture, might simply be the accumulated remnant of semantic architecture, its harmonious structure and its polar philosophy, misinterpreted by ourselves in terms of our modern cosmology! The same can be said of ornamental pillars, doors, roofs etc.. In the case of woven or bundled plant ornaments these are obviously a reminiscence of semantic precursors. Was this aesthetic tradition so strong that it survived over thousands, maybe even millions of years?

In short, we can no longer rely on current concepts of religion, of the history of art, of historical philosophy etc. if we want to explain domestic architecture and its formal, symbolic and semantic phenomena.50 Rather we have to focus on the architectural tradition of a particular geographical unit for our reconstructions. The same may be said in regard to the structure of settlements. We have outlined the idealised structure of a Japanese village in relation to its cultic tradition of semantic architecture.51 Settlement research in traditional societies would have to include cults and rites showing semantic architecture - what religion conventionally regarded as its own domain. Only then might it be possible to percieve the roots of settlement patterns!52


The subtitle of this paper asked: why do we need a general framework? I do not believe in the total pluralism of present cultural anthropology. In English the word "history" is related to the Greek historia, 'knowledge'; but in German 'History' means 'Geschichte'. And this comes from 'Geschehen', 'what happened'. Thus, besides what we know about history there is something which factually happened. History had a certain economy. Certain things were possible at a certain time, others not. In general our cultural anthropology is not really conscious of all its developed retro-projections. For instance, it is historio-methodologically absolutely unwarrantable to attempt to explain processes related to the origin of the world (~ one thousand million years ago) and cosmogony (about ten thousand million years ago) on the basis of a written history covering only 2-3000 years. The Ptolemaic world map clearly documents the extension of geographic or spatial consciousness in the Mediterranean ancient world. They were entirely limited to the Mediterranean Sea and the Near East. Further, Kerschensteiner53 showed that the word >kosmos< in Greek meant >battle-formation< amongst other things. Its spatially narrow meaning of order and beauty survives in our cosmetics! Thus it is simply historically illegitimate to speak of archaic cosmologies before it has been clarified what such terms really meant at those times! Consequently, it would be nonsense to base architectural theory on history, using methods developed by other disciplines. We would remain in the (mis-) interpretive schemes of these disciplines. In short, it may have become clear why - in contrast to Alsayyad - we need "grand theories". We need the wide-angle outlook and a general frame. Firstly, to avoid mistakes in our research. Secondly, to bring forth new cultural hypotheses based on facts. Thirdly, to find our 'own way', our own methodology of architectural research. Fourthly and finally, to question the ever-changing 'styles' of the art historian in architectural theory and to work out a design theory with reliable criteria, one which is focussed on man in the anthropological sense.54

Let us return to our introduction with our dualistic or coincidental pair, namely "mind and matter". In our short philosophical discussion we said that 'duality' corresponds to the 'First World' and 'polarity' represents the basic thought pattern of the 'Third World'. In regard to the First World this would mean >mind OR matter<, but for the Third World >mind AND matter<, a basic difference which has left deep imprints on European thought and is still at the root of our difficulties with the Third World. After 2000 years of philosophical arrogance, religious proselytizing and economic exploitation, it may be that with architectural anthropology - and this means >mind AND matter< - we are now on the right path to get away from all those miserable misconstructions based on a bloody prehistory of butchering and killing with its absurd concepts of primitive man (are WE not the primitive?) and its ugly Social Darwinisms etc.. We could start to re-interpret ourselves, together with the Third World, in all modesty and in a globally humanistic sense as 'homo tectonicus', as constructive human beings.

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