Notes on the fifth IASTE Conference 14th - 17th December 1996

Architectural Department University of California, at Berkeley

(IASTE = International Association for the Study of Traditional Environment)
By Nold Egenter


Contrary to all critical objections, for the time being, the following may be objectively emphasised: in comparison to the eternally repeated, architectural theories of the art-historical types, there still wafts here the fascinating aromour of the distant world. Also, scientifically, in defiance, it is enriching! Whereas in the traditional, aesthetical ‘theories of architecture’ there is the reductionistic, aesthetic, subjective, over precise rolling out of the minimal factual, here the wonderful newness always prevails. That which is objectively portrayable is shown and discussed: the world has purely and simply not yet been fully investigated.

We are talking about the fifth conference of the International Association for the Study of Traditional Environments (IASTE) which took place at the Architectural Department of the University of California in Berkeley. Just as at earlier conferences, the recent fifth conference offered an abundance of reports on architectural traditions from all corners of the globe. Without doubt, looking back on ten years of research and presentation of investigation, IASTE counts, as far as breadth of horizon of architectural theory is concerned, amongst the most complete in the cognitive area of architecture. Congratulations!

Over 150 papers were given in four days(1). Almost every continent was represented thematically and in regard to authors. A global conference on architecture may well be a unique experience! One only has to compare it with the overinflated nonsense of the 1996 UIA conference in Barcelona: “Star Cult”! It needed massive expenditure (12 000 visitors, US$500 entrance fee), but had minimal objective communication, and as an educational exercise was worthless! From this comparative view too, the fifth IASTE conference must be congratulated.


The main title “Identity, Tradition and the Built Environment: the Role of culture in Planning and Development” confronted the static identity-shaping of tradition against the dynamics of ‘planning and development’. In the middle we find the conflict-zone of ‘built environment‘ and culture. The subtitles, balanced throughout, specified thematic areas in a largely defined sphere. The majority sought to focus on established concepts such as ‘boundaries - place - tradition - built environment’. There was a wide spectrum of possibilities which always belong to conferences intended to be as open as possible. Parallel sessions did not allow to attend all that was presented. A small selection in the following may be enough to indicate the wide range of topics. The most interesting were the contributions on Asia since they mostly also touched upon a global view. As result these have been given precedence.


Tara M Cahn reported from the Pakistan - Nepal area at the foot of the Himalayas on the present cultures and three new building projects which were developed in close intercultural collaboration. However, the pictures introduced were not convincing. Paradoxically, to a large extent they imported the poverty of western rationalistic ‘aesthetics’ into these cultures. If, on top of their economic commitments, these peoples are burdening themselves with this Western ‘poverty‘, there remains nothing more for them: their deeply aesthetic world view becomes garbage. Evidently, it seems to be extremely difficult for western thought indoctrinated by scholastic idealisations to grasp the opposite, namely that all the wonderful, colourful forms of expression of this architectural artistic and ritual world is much more than simply ‘religion‘ (which makes them changeable!). They are witnesses of a once reliable past, which - not yet devalued - still presents models of a locally worthwile life form.

Amply using slides, Chao Chung Fu showed how older women of Taiwan at the temples, full of reverence, still throw themselves on the ground before the power of heaven. With the ‘decline of religion’ the temples lost their importance. In this context, a tide of faceless buildings emerged which flooded the urban parts of the island. However, the way Fu understood the Chinese tradition in a western modern sense as religion, caused him to obstruct the insight into the deep-structure of the dissolution process. The analytical trauma of the west, the Platonic absolution of heaven (religion) and its implication on the other side, namely the negation of the spiritual in ‘objective‘ science, its forced (and often reactionary) focus on a merely empirical or material world had - in Fu‘s case - been penetrated on spiritual as well as material levels into Taiwan and had dissuaded the originally relational structure of Chinese Ying and Yang. Zeigeist in action: temples die, materials proliferate. This was an important lecture.

Similarly Puay-Peng Ho shared how first the English, then the local government disregarded the traditional Fengshui philosophy of relational landscaping by erecting a police station on top of a local wooded hill with ancestral graves above the harmonically organised village. The contribution clearly showed how the modern, homogenous concept of space borrowed from physics, can injure a traditionally and environmentally grown spatial structure which works with complimentary units towards harmonisation of the environment. Evidently as a system it has proved its reliability over the ages. This is doubtless the reason why it is part of the highest local ontological values. The inhabitants are vehemently challenged.

Another interesting study (Andre Casault and David Cao) devoted itself to the modernisation of ancient court-houses in the heart of Beijing. Under the Communist system numerous families had implanted themselves into these aristocratic axes, using all kinds of constructive bricolage and proliferous plants in time honoured-tradition. The renovation suggested by western architects was indeed ‘clean’ in a western sense, but with regard to fitting in culturally it was not convincing.

Dana Buntrode and Mira Locher gave a good outline of the replacement process in Japan of its cultural traditions autonomously developed during its 200 years of political seclusion and the breakthrough of modern international industrialisation. The presentation showed how the area of conflict between tradition and development created by this process found its expression not only in architecture and planning, but also in literature and art.

Nobuo Mitsuhashi and Nobuyoshi Fujimoto presented their examination of ‘minshuku’ (holiday accommodation in private houses) in the mountain village of Kuriyama, and how the local population made these family guest houses more attractive through active participation of the visitors in local festivals.

Endang Titi Sunarti Darjosanjoto and Frank E Brown described traditional houses in the coastal region of Surabaya (Java, Indonesia) and their modern derivatives from the viewpoint of ground plan variations. There was a surprising continuity. The modern types preserved the main topic of the local tradition, a linear grading of rooms rectangular to the street: open verandas against the street and the most intimate rooms off them, towards back part of the house. This example shows that the layout of traditional houses possesses strongly conservative and autonomous strengths which are openly respected by the local designers.

Mas Santosa‘s contribution was a rather negative example. His presentation showed six different Indonesian traditional types of housing (Aceh, Bugi, Central Java, Toraya, Bali and Sumba). The houses and especially the rich forms of roofing were considered singularly from the aspect of heat reflection. The ground plans were all classified as ‘highly simple’. The excellent computer graphics could not hide the fact that this presentation was concerned with an extremely reductionistic and technological backward projection which criminally neglects the cultural background of this wonderful traditional form of housing. Should students of architecture come into contact with such highly reductionist books, they will quickly fool themselves into thinking that this is all there is to such roof forms. To put it briefly, Santosa’s contribution is highly inappropriate for the cultural understanding of architecture and is possibly disastrous in consequence.

Finally to the inspiring report of an architect (William Simple) on his design outline activity on the ‘Roof of the World’ in Tibet. Beautiful pictures accompanied his intense, portrayed attempts to empathise with the Tibetan architectural tradition, which from the work he presented also succeeded. His position is a new dimension in architecture, which might be called ‘hermeneutical design‘. It does not impose its Western rationalistic reductionism on other cultures, but tries to adapt to the worldview of foreign cultures and from such understandings tries to develop the outlines of design. This form of ‘hermeneutical design’ might contribute above all to the intercultural exchange of architecture with the so-called third world, particularly by questioning current Western Architectural Colonialism.


Under the title ‘pre-Christian ritual areas of the Oru-Igbo in southwest Nigeria’, Georg and Sabine Jell-Bahlsen showed how territorial cults in the Igbo are merged closely with social structure and ways of living and dwelling.

Likewise on the Igbo, Emmanuel I. Ede described the cultural change of values of an autonomous traditional architecture to an increasing dependence of industrial elements and forms. Christian conversion plays an enormous role in this environmental empoverishment!


On a comparative basis of structural schemes, Nina Veregge impressively described how Iberian town house traditions with their culturally firmly rooted emphasis on control of the entrance gate and patio, went through strong transformations under the change of economic conditions.


Using the example of a village situated idyllically over a gorge in the southern French Alps, Keith Loftin III and Jacqueline Victor showed how it developed over a long history, but then in accommodating modern tourism has completely changed (“The car was more destructive than any religious wars”).

Nenad Lipovac reconstructed the development of the Croat town of Petrinja using old town maps. Extremely beautiful traditional types of wooden houses were radically superseded in newer times by mid-European ideas of one’s own home (brick, plastered, types mostly transmitted by migrating labourers, e.g. in the case of models imported from Germany, with the consequence also of decreasing acceptance of traditional wooden house building by the local population). The presentation conveyed important insights into the spiritual and material tensions involved in processes between continuity and change.


Several presentations of invited key-speakers gave general insights. In this context two at first sight very different contributions (Saskia Sassen and Manuel Castells) were rather disappointing. Both discussed contemporary society globally with a two-level picture (upper and lower class) and described the processes between dominant-active and passive levels. Sassen did this with the title “Whose city is it?” essentially from the point of view of the “global economy”. Castell’s title was “Third Millennium Urbanisation: Megacities and Microsocieties”. Both dramatised their approaches dealing mainly with new forms of communication. However, the basic structures which they used, are extremely old hat in ethnology and anthropology, e.g. under terms like “Parallelism and Diffusion”. The exercising of power by the elite on locally tied population belongs to the basic theme of the history of state formation. Wider communication and diffusion has always supported the power of elites! Whoever is entrusted with such common structures from cultural history has great difficulties to share the innovative enthusiasm of both authors.


Not everyone was content with the outcome of the conference. In various respects criticism was exercised. In the first plenary session Paul Oliver, Amos Rapoport and Anthony King critically voiced their opinions. At the end even more audible were Sanjay Mazumdar and Nelson Graburn.

Amos Rapoport in his deliberately dry way asks three questions in order to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the ten-year-old IASTE endeavours: What, why and how does the IASTE actually do research? The material, which in ten years of research, collection and publishing has accumulated is quite remarkable. Also the reason and aim are, as before, positively justifiable - namely for the purpose of design, planning and development of traditional living and settlement research. The question of ‘how’ is, however, less successful. There is a great lack of methodological integration, coordination, synthesis and theory development. Should there be an increased success in improving methods of research, then the research domain as well as corresponding theories will develop more rapidly. Since, on the other hand, this has an effect on the intensity of learning, it would also offer increased possibilities to improve and influence the theories of design, planning and development.

Anthony King asked rather provoking questions related to the political set-up of the IASTE research efforts. Is there in this globally scattered topic not a touch of neo-colonialism, in which the United States tries to maintain its cultural hegemony in the non-western world? Or, on the other hand, does the IASTE perhaps comply with the wish of would-be socialists to pit themselves against the expansion of market forces in the thus-far untouched parts of the world? Or alternatively, perhaps it concerns itself with a politically right-wing attempt to protect the ‘traditional environment’ so that world-wide tourism might be able to profit from it more and more? “Who is leading the agenda for the studies of ‘traditional environments’ and what are the reasons? What is the policy behind the direction of the studies? I believe it is now time to start asking these questions!”.

It is clear that King was trying to play the role of devil’s advocate - the contradictive questions show this clearly. The ‘free game of market forces’ is probably not the appropriate standard for the gradual building of an ‘architectural science’ - especially since the renowned French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has placed the ‘free-market‘ movement close to a religious sect. The other comparisons are also not valid. They overlook the main point of this conference.


Architecturally, the IASTE conferences are at the centre of an important development, namely the gradual formation of a new branch of the architectural discipline: ‘architectural science’. They have opened and still open new horizons. The IASTE movement has blown open the conventional extremely narrow basis of the art-historian‘s ‘theory of architecture‘. IASTE‘s declared opening to the non-written tradition - architecture ethnology globally - is extremely important for the formation of architectural theories. This should not be forgotten even in view of a few weak points.

From this point of view it must be made aware that ten years is a very very short period of time for the buildup of a global architectural ethnology. How long did it take until research of European folklore studies into European agrarian housetraditions was scientifically taken seriously? Further, it has taken over 100 years to build up subjects which are taken for granted today as scientific disciplines such as sinology and japanology. They all began with simple and fairly scattered inventories - mainly individual - often very speculative - observations and reports of journeys. It could therefore, against the voices of criticism, also be said that it is rather naive to assume that after only 10 years a new branch of research might be able to be seen as a complete science with conclusive results. What was achieved in this time is indeed actually significant. Berkeley succeeded in giving meaning to a global interest in exploration of traditional ways of building and settlements. Many hindering circumstances still stand in the way of perfection. Architecture (still) does not have any scientific basis. Educated architects and planners who decide to undertake research exploration, have to acquire for themselves competence from scientific practice. Only slowly and hesitantly have educational subjects on scientific methods in architecture schools been called for (for example, Oslo). As already mentioned, scientific disciplines fully established today such as Japanese or Chinese Studies or even archaeology and other disciplines of the humanities have all - over a long period of time - gradually been structured from heterogeneous evidence. From this point of view, the critical positions mentioned above have not done justice to the IASTE case. On the other hand the positive position expressed here does not mean that the critical should be hidden. This is estimated in the following more in methodical details.


State of Research

Many presentations are still on the level of elementary ethnographical undertakings. This is justified when unknown areas on which little is known are opened up, but not when numerous examinations already exist. Only a few of the presentations attended by the author of this report indicated that they took into account the existing ‘state of research’ in their particular area. In this context, with regard to every topic, it is necessary to enter into existing research in the area concerned and to give a description of the most important methods, hypotheses and theories, in order to distinguish between what is already studied and what is new on the topic the author is presenting. This means that architecture graduates believe, mostly wrongly, that they could photograph any topic anywhere in the world and then publish this first in lectures, then in printed form without prior consideration of the previous research of other authors. In this way everyone always begins again from point zero. An enormous waste! Here the discursive principle of science must find its way. This is, however, easily brought into IASTE practice. The primary demand for an introductory description of the state of research in the area concerned would have to be imposed on subsequent conferences.

The problem of interpretation of the objectively researched

The fifth IASTE conference clearly showed that there is an important problem in the following: Architectural research in the sense of architectural ethnology is (like ethnology itself) a micro domain. In the frame of human research as a whole it is focussed on a certain area, but incidentally uses the disciplinary structure of the humanities. This means that in any culturo-geographical situation it selects its objects from the totality of the cultural context, deals as objectively as possible with them and describes and documents them. However, since architectural objects always stand in complex social, religious, artistic and economic relationships, the archiectural researcher interprets his objective facts in the framework of existing disciplines (sociology or social anthropology, religion, art, economics, etc.), and possibly falsifies complex relationships which are inherent in his architectural, social and spatial data. Here presumably, one must demand a method of research which in the individual case always takes into account the whole and vice versa, such as for example in the mutual relationship between architectural ethnology and architectural anthropology. Also in this regard, a methodologically critical forum could be suggested at one of the next conferences.

Objective phenonomonolgy versus reductionism

What is empirically or phenomenally accessible and objectively describable can be studied in extremely reductionalistical ways. Often it is enough to describe rashly exotic forms of buildings selected according to eurocentrically preconceived aesthetical norms. Temples and their forms are often described in the framework of (any type of) religion. The formative principles of the building tradition are completely neglected: the ‘spritual‘ creates the forms. At its extreme this reductionism distorts the cultural content of traditional architectural forms, for example if these forms are - retroprojecting the modern on the old - viewed in the framework of the high-tech test bed. Mas Santosa’s high-tech test with roofs of various Indonesian tribes belongs clearly to this category. Such work should be left to the material testing institutions of the building institutes of technical colleges. It has nothing to do with architectural research in the cultural field. In view of further IASTE conferences such problems of method and interpretation can be discussed accordingly under titles such as “How can a house objectively be described?” or „How do we interprete houseform(s) in the cultural context?“ This could show that the the scientific potentials of this question are not at all exhausted yet. It could also be discussed in a cognitive framework of “Phenonomenology versus disciplinary reductionism”.

Systemisation of research

Amos Rapoport’s critical suggestion to increase the systemisation of research was probably one of the most important and most positive of the critical objections. On whatever objective methods of recording the inquiring admission of built environment are based (human behaviour studies, phenomeonology, ethnology and anthropology etc), relatively consistent factors always become recognisable in traditional architectural landscapes next to formal variety, which are more or less derived clearly from physical or empirical human conditions (mobility, perception of space, economic situation, material and technological conditions, human tradition, development and so on). Such constants would have to be increasingly worked out and checked in regard to their potential of useful hypotheses and these being checked again in regard to concrete facts(2). For this aspect too a forum might be suggested. There might be a section set up in one of the forthcoming IASTE conferences which is dedicated to investigate “Constants of global architectural tradition“ (-> Research Report).


Science requires time. Evidently it is not very realistic to expect fully fledged scientific studies from an association of architects who had essentially an aesthetically based education. The buildup of a systematically structured field of studies requires time. Paul Oliver critically emphasised the lack of interdisciplinary know-how and comparative capacity which is shown in the contribution to his encyclopedia. This is a clear characteristic of scientific efforts in a field which is still in the state of buildup.

But, on the other hand, the conviction is expressed here that architectural research has a tremendous immanent potential, not only for architecture and the corresponding know-how (which will have its impacts on practice), but also in regard to the humanities. Architecture is still an enormously wide white surface on our world maps, which is a theoretical handicap, but also a chance for new findings. One can well imagine that architectural researchers might be found among the leading figures in the humanities of the 21st century. In any case, architectural students should be reminded, particularly if they feel some attraction to research, to keep this option of architectural research open - if not only for the case of a second architectural crisis which is already in distant view. The public will then more openly discuss - and probably with pressure - ask for more research into the basic conditions of man and built form.


The abstracts from the lectures are published in “Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review” Fall 1996

More concretely, the following suggestions should be made: 1. In a long term view the IASTE association could choose the buildup of a scientifically structured architectural research (‘architecturology‘). One would have to discuss, what is expected from such a type of knowledge and how the field should be structured and supported. 2. This new focus implies also increasing discussion of scientific methods and how they can be used by architectural research in a ‘post mythical‘ period of architecture.

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