The 'cell' structure of architecture and its problematic evolution to modernism

Paper to be read at the 8th International Congress of the German Association of Semiotics
on the Theme 'Culture - Sign - Space'

Amsterdam, August 5. -9., 1996

One of the most surprising results of the author's ethnographical reasearch into Japanese village-Shinto rites related to the village-protector deity (ujigami) is the insight into a very elementary type of territorial demaraction, using an annually renewed system of non-durable, 'fibroconstructive' signs (semantic architecture). The general pattern of this ritual tradition of territorial demarcation consists of three markers, a place- and two gate-markers which are primarily implanted into the natural landscape according to traditional rules along a human access path, their 'structuro-symbolic' codes containing the 'directory' for the evaluation and occupation of the land. The place marker defines a line rectangular to the access path beyond which the natural condition of the territory is preserved. It is considered taboo, inaccessible, left in the stage of wilderness. The nearside of the line is the human domain, related to dwelling, planting, agriculture. In this basic set, the gate markers delimit towards the outside (access side) an exclusive human domain which gains its value from the singular place marker.

Most Japanese agricultural villages follow this pattern and most agrarian Shinto rites reflect this basic structure of territorial demarcation. If houses of various traditional societies are studied in the behavioural context of related rites, this same pattern can be used for understanding the genetic structure of the spatial layout and often also vertical organisation of buildings. This led to the generalisation of the pattern as "access place scheme" or 'horizontal polarity scheme' or 'value focussed axis'.

In his Afro-Euro-Asiatic survey of sacred architecture, Dagobert Frey (1949) had come to similar results: architecture, particularly in the domain of the sacred, evidently obeys to age old patterns of polar categories. He called it 'access-monument' principle (Weg-Mal-Motiv).

Hypothetically taken as a general principle of domestic and representative architecture, this pattern reveals itself as a kind of elementary "cell" of any premodern building. If facades are taken as an evolution of the anthropological concept of gate, then, very different buildings are essentially structured in same ways (church, court, school, theatre, house, apartment) and this homologous structure acts in terms of social control.

Modernism rigidly introduced the homogenous space concept of physics. This not only dissolved the in-homogeneity of premodern space, e.g. spatial patterns like the 'value focussed axis'. In ousting the 'irrational' relations of space with values (ontology, the sacred) and environmental conditions (e.g. culture, nature) it also deprived space of its essential premodern capacity for social control. With its 'universal' space concept, modern architecture in fact builds "castles in the air".

The paper shows, that this transition from premodern polar space to homogenous universal space created many problems. It dissolved the semantic qualities of the human dimensions of the cultural environment by lifting semantics on the higher urban level (skyline) and thus deprived inhabitants of a basic system of orientation. The contradiction of the two spatial systems creates conflicts, particularly in the urbanisation of traditional societies. and, finally the loss of social control in modern environments burdens society with tremendous social costs.

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