This interview was published in the Indian Architect and Builder, Nov. 1994 : 39-42

Nold Egenter is an Ethnolgist and Architectural Anthropologist. He is the Director: Documentation Office for Fundamental Research in Buidling Theory, Zurich. Researcher at the Department of Architecture, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne, and occasional Lecturer at the University of Zurich (ethnology). He is the author of 'Architectural Anthropology: the Present Relevance of the Primitive in Architecture (Structura Mundi Editions, Lausanne 1992).

In conversation with Architect H. Masud Taj, Egenter explains the 'evolution' of mankind and architecture.

'It may be that our historical understanding of history distorts rather than represents what actually happened.' (Karl Löwith) That citation is from your book, "Architectural Anthropology - The Present Relevance of the Primitive in Architecture".

"In English 'history' is the accumulated knowledge of the past. But in German the corresponding word is 'Geschichte' which means 'what happened'. I am in line with German historical thought. It refuses just to accumulate uncoordinated knowledge. It wants to know what happened."

But history, by definition, is a systematic narrative of past events and hence not uncoordinated. Further in 'Geschichte' lurks 'schicken': 'sending'; not what happened but what is happening. In any case to find out what happened in our architectural past you start off with the technology of the ape's nest.

"The nest-building behaviour, which is common to all three species of higher apes, that is to say Chimpanzees, Gorillas and Orangutans ist still a white spot in our common knowledge. All higher apes are nomads and routine nest-builders. Each individual builds himself at least one nest daily, either high up in the trees or on the ground. The nest is a primordial building, which has no aesthetic qualities and the ground-nest shows the basic principles of architecture: the triangle or the cone. It is a stable triangular construction bearing the 300 kilos of the animal-builder!"

But in any stable structure, whether arrived at by man or ape, the triangle is inevitable. The very structure of space so dictates.

"I don't agree."

For instance in your systematic evolutionary reconstruction:
1. the ape's subhuman architecture;
2. semantic architecture (ritual structures containing no internal space);
3. domestic architecture (the first conical hut) and
4. settlement architecture. Yet the hut need not derive from the nest. The link you forge is visual and not historical.

"I don't agree. First you have to explain how early man came on the idea to build and this is not so simple as the so called 'shelter-theory' assumes. Man built himself a hut, it maintains, to protect himself against sun, rain an cold. This is clearly a functional retroprojection. On the other hand, the ape's nest brings in the priority of fibrous organic materials as the primary building material. There are all kinds of primitive constructions - heaping of stones, building with clay, blockwood construction etc. But what was primary? You may be right, the hut is a simple construction and the most logical. But seen among all the possible solutions, it is difficult to find the basic line."

So you make the ape's nest 'a sound scientific basis to build an architectural anthropology'?


With architecture defined as constructive human behaviour paralleling the whole of human cultural evolution. Such an architectural theory is very different from the art-historian's aesthetically based distinction of 'higher architecture' and mere buildings, and from his obsession for classifying styles.

"I studied medecine for two years before I began architecture. I thought they were wasted years but now I find they have re-entered through the back door into my work. The art-historian's classification is based on aesthetics, which is deductively related to Greek philosophy. I base my research on the totality of constructed objects and classify them like a zoologist, who has to study all animals to know what an 'animal' is. He can't just study the butterflies and leave the rest! Architecture is analogous to 'zoon' in zoology."

But even the zooologist will distinguish between Homo Sapiens and the lowly amoeba.

"Of course, there is a highly evolved architecture. But you get other insights when you say an ape's nest is architecture and Mario Botta is also architecture. You get the whole thing in one field and then you treat them inductively. You manage to avoid the art-critic's aesthetic value judgement. You move towards a scientific study of architecture."

Your view of early-man as a peaceful nest-builder and constructur of signs and symbols will require re-scripting of films like Kubrick's ,2001: A Space Odyssey', which reflects the prevailing notion of early-man as a violent tool-maker.

"Also Annaud's horrible film, 'Battle of Fire'."

It calls for a radical revision in anthropology. But is a similar revision in architecture called for?

"When you take a drug prescribed by your physician, there is a long history of pharmaceutical research behind it. But architects and artists synthesise their first-hand impressions and make anything out of it. It is completely wrong to reduce architecture to merely an artistic concept. Architecture is not just art, it is a place where man dwells and lives. There is a lot to know about. I postulate a long term research into architecture."

Towards which you have classified architecture into four evolutionary phases of subhuman/ semantic/ domestic/ settlement. But as you move up you are crossing logical types. You cannot then retrace your steps; principles form one category cannot be imported into another.

"What do you mean by logical-types?"

In a Bertrand Russellian sense of movements within a hierarchy: from 'class' to a 'class of classes'. I will reframe the question from the other end. Synergy: parts cannot predict the whole. Nothing in the poisonous chlorine or explosive sodium predicts the resulting common salt. So when you step down the hierarchy from the molecule to the atom, you cannot then retrace your steps. The ape's nest is irrelevant at the other end of your hierarchy: for today's architect with his complex programmes.

"This does not make sense in my case. Theoretically, I remain close to the evolution I reconstruct. Speaking of architectural anthropology implies also an anthropology of awareness. Semantic architecture was widespread in Neolithic times. Logic did not exist in the Neolithic village culture. They thought harmonically. Heraclitus was the last harmonic philosopher. He said that high sounds and low sounds form a melody. High and low as opposites form an aesthetical unity. Then we have Aristotle who develops the instruments of our modern analytical thought. He said A cannot be B - Logic. Between Heraclitus and Aristotle a tremendous transformation happened in science. The harmonic system vanished. It was absolutely incompatible with the analytic system prevalent today."

In other words, the question I am asking belongs to an analytic system, which I am applying to your approach that belongs to the harmonic system, and as the two systems are incompatible, the question cannot be answered.

"Yes. That is also the problem between the artist and the art-historian. The artist is some sort of a clown today. Because we do not understand that he is trying to harmonise contradictions in his concept. So we need an art critic, who can transfer the artist's way of seeing the world into the scientific world. But the scientifically educated critic can no longer read the harmonious language of the artist."

You state that writing can be considered as a development, which originated from architecture, by showing signs depicted on Sumerian clay-tablets. One line shows variations of the 'Ishtar' signs, which technologically was a reed bundle - Semantic architecture. But there are 13 other lines in that scirpt-tablet. Couldn't the fields from which they are derived equally claim to have originated writing?

"They have not been deciphered."

Architecture also provides, you claim, the essential impulses in art, philosophy, religion. Isn't that assigning a halo too heavy for the head? You came to anthropology via architecture. Supposing you had arrived via some other discipline, wouldn't you then be seeing signs and formulating a hypothesis that based mankind's development on that discipline?

"How I came into anthropology has to do with my personal biography. I graduated in Zurich in ,67. There was a huge crisis in architecture then, books like 'Life and Death of American Cities', 'The inhospitality of Cities' ..."

The mood of the '60s led you into anthropology?

"Not directly. But I had the feeling of having received an education that was outdated at graduation. One felt that architecture should have basic research and that took me to Japan. Being marginal to the Chinese continent, never Colonised or Christianised, Japan has a culture that is obviously pre-historic and still alive."

You spent 10 years in Japan and. among others, studied 100 villages. Did the subject of research gebin to influence th researcher and make him modify the goals he set out to achieve?

"Ofcourse, the goal I realised fairly early was leading to an anthropology of constructive human behaviour. When I later found the nest-building behaviour of the higher apes, I was sure one could construct an anthropology of building."

But the Japanese village culture must have influenced you personally.

"It changed my relation to religion, art, philosophy, science; I realised the disastrous historicisms of our so called scientific world view."

You hav the outsider's detached overview. But the Japanese insider has his own worldview, which never figures in your book or your talks. Though its only when both the views superimpose that one gets a well rounded stereoscopic view.

"It is part of my methodology not to ask the people. I call it structural ergology. I look at what the structures express. This forms the basis of my interpretations. The factual semantic structures continue to be made exactly the same way every year. If I ask the farmers about the meaning of what they do, they give me th priest's view, who is educated in a Central Institute. His ideas are influenced by historical imports from China. In order to find the original meaning, I try to closely relate to the structural form traditions, its spatial and symbolic expressions."

How do your colleagues in the West respond to your works?

"The architects are not interested, they don't see how this can apply to practice (1). On the other hand, the ethnologists have never studied architecture. They brought objects into the museums, but not the house itself. They now realise that the house could relate to all those sophistiacted studies they have done. The dwelling could become the new interdisciplinary focus."

Your book has the text in 3 languages ...

"There is a lot of stimulation in the act of translating, and switching back and forth between German, French and English."

Besides reaching out to a wider audience. Yet your talk at Sir J. J. College to practitioners, teachers and students was pretty dense. Ant the one you gave to first-year students of architecture at Rizvi-College was almost a repeat performance, equally formidable. I got the impression that you were talking to yourself.

"I think I am better at writing." (laughs)

Your book is the first volume in an 8-volume project. This is your fist visit to India. Will you be visiting more often and will India get into the subsequent volumes?

"I think so, yes. I had always felt India to be a missing part in my anthropological reconstructions from ancient Mediterranean cultures to modern Japan or reverse. But I was afraid of India. It is so large. I felt that there will be so much material to do research that it would take the rest of my life. And may be this will happen."


(1) This interview was produced in 1992. The situation has changed since then. The author has worked considerably on the question how the anthropological outlook and its results could influence practical design of a 'post-postmodern' architecture. See 'Anthrop-Arch' and 'Lectures' on this homepage.

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