-Vernacular Architecture -



Some notes regarding the construction
and function of theories
in the field of vernacular architecture

by Nold Egenter

In regard to the world congress on architecture (UIA) held recently in Berlin, Rolf Lautenschläger writes in the Berlin paper TAZ (29.7.02 :17): "Without global ecological responsibility no house can be built anymore and no city can be planned anymore. At the world congress of architecture the main theme was criticism about one’s own work." Evidently, a turning point has occurred. The UIA congresses of 1996 (Barcelona) and Beijing (1999) still celebrated the great star-designers. Probably events like the results of the conferences on environments and cities in Rio (1992), Istanbul (1996) and Berlin (2000) had some impact on the world of architecture. "It was really remarkable," Lautenschläger writes, "this time at this triannual top meeting of this profession there were no self-assured architects or planners speaking of their many new buildings, their futuristic constructions or megacities, but they had come to this place to criticise their own work. One could nearly think that, to some extent, they were ashamed to be architects." At the moment, the main discussions are largely focussed on environmental problems. However, this turning point could eventually also mean that the domain of architecture will become more aware of the importance of architectural theories.
However this is not meant in the sense of what is propagated by Jurg Pahl's recent book on the 'Architectural Theory of the 20th Century' (1999). It uses some sort of neo-medieval fundamentalism to construct theories. A hyper-idealisation of architecture! Some sort of a quasi-theological type of architectural doctrine is the result. Any monstrosities can be legitimised with these kind of arguments. Pahl defines architecture in the following way (we disentangle the arrangement to elucidate its lack of sense).

Architecture =
1) aesthetisation, the process of visualizing ideas about the dwellings of humans living in sedentary ways
2) a gestalt-related articulation of
a) technical possibilities,
b) individual or social functions,
c) religious confessions,
d) claims of political groups or military force , and
e) other social or individual needs and interests of temporary actuality.

Summed up the definition is rather banal: visualising ideas of dwellings for settlers in view of needs of types a) - e). Thus architectural theory provides some sort of a spiritual or mental basis which creates conceptions of architecture of temporary actuality. According to Pahl such theories can be used strategically in three ways, "utopian", "affirmatively" (or "defensively") and "critically" which implies that they are fabricated for some personal strategy! The highly diluted idealism, from which architecture can satisfy needs, is extremely arbitrary in the ingredients. The matter functions like a recipe, which may be fixed by tradition to some extent, but for the rest allows quite arbitrary combinations.

Evidently Pahl, who earlier had worked under Scharoun, had manoeuvred himself into the clutches of the neo-scholastic art historians and their post-modern architectural fundamentalism. Referring to Hermann Bauer, Georg Germann and semiotics, he presents illustrations showing the triangular structure of the evaluation of art and architecture in the postmodern framework. This looks like a confession of being a follower of post-modern fundamentalism in architectural theory. In the first two triangles drawn according to Bauer and Germann, the evaluation of works of art, or of architecture, are based on art-theory and 'spiritual' history in the first case (art), respectively on architectural theory and the history of ideas and social history in the second case of architecture (the third triangle is related to semiotics which is not important here). In this way, the building as such is tricked away historistically. The objective content of architecture, the empirical source of the archi-tekton's conventional knowledge disappeared from architectural evaluation! Architecture is now exclusively produced by the history of ideas raised to a 'history of theories', the accumulated text materials of endless 'architectural theorists'. Somehow, an 'Einsteinisation' of architectural ideas has taken place!

This has far reaching consequences! We do not need to compare the bundle pillars of Ancient Egypt with the Ionian column anymore, finding out that they had similar roots (W. Andrae). We have to assume now that there were great architects, who with their great spiritual capacity, had 'invented' the styles of Ancient Egypt, as Spiro Kostof (1977) tries to tell us. Furthermore, we do not need the history of the dome as an architectural form anymore. We can now assume that domes were created by the super-brains of ingenious God-like designers who calculated them with mathematical proportions as Wittkower maintains for the Renaissance. And not surprisingly Pahl immediately adds the 'Our Father' of this spiritual type of architectural theory: the veneration of the saint sanctified by the high priests of art: Marcus Vitruvius Pollio. Just as in the Middle Ages, his work is mentioned in the Latin language: 'De Architectura Libri Decem'.

Architecture is becoming a kind of religion, and nobody has noticed.

We have mentioned Pahl's book here as an indicator. It shows just how precarious the present architectural theory constructed by art historians really is. It obscures the fundamental theoretical ideas to guarantee a kind of absolute design-liberalism. Anything goes! However, this absolute arbitrariness has to be questioned profoundly by another type of architectural theory which is firmly based on empirically founded scientific methods.

Scientific theories today - and that implies empirically supported theories - always have a basic field of objective phenomena, which can be verified objectively and in the same way by different human subjects. I have written extensively about this problem of a scientific architectural theory in the first volume of 'Architectural Anthropology' - Research Series (-> Egenter 1992 :19-88). Here we focus on the particular topic of vernacular architecture and its relation to theory.
Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World (EVAW)
and architectural ethnology
One of the most important events in the recent history of architectural research is unquestionably the publication of the 'Encylopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World', edited by Paul Oliver (1997). It documents the results of a completely new global architectural research which has developed over the last 20-30 years. Over 750 specialists from more than 80 countries have contributed their knowledge to it. Over 2,500 pages in three volumes with over 1,700 photos and 1,000 line drawings including plans, diagrams, etc. The first volume is chiefly theoretical, with over 100 different approaches and concepts. Volumes 2 and 3 geographically document traditional architecture found globally in 7 main continental areas and in nearly 100 sub-zones. Unquestionably, this is the first time, that we have relatively complete and dense information for a cultural phenomenon badly neglected before: traditional dwellings and settlements. Now they are documented all over the non-urban parts of the inhabited surface of the globe. At different levels, the Encyclopedia allows a complex picture. It covers cultural, geographical, climatic and environmental aspects. At the same time, it gives - as said before - a rather complete picture of the subject matter. In this sense, the Encyclopedia is a milestone not just for ethnology and architecture, but also for numerous other disciplines.

Within the framework of architecture the work reveals the insight that the term architecture was understood in an extremely one-sided, and thus limited, way, in addition to highly diluted ways. Evidently, the one-sided importance of aesthetics in the domain of architecture is a pre-modern survival of its former historically dominant dimension. Modern and post-modern architecture have conserved something quite outdated of their former "history of the art of building" (in German: Bau-Kunst-Geschichte, an outdated synonym for the term architecture) as well as its elitist position in society (key terms: pyramids, temples, palaces and cathedrals). In the view of these Eurocentrically pompous architectural ideals, traditional architectural forms had no place.

Evidently present architectural theories are highly problematic. Their main defect: a shocking lack of knowledge. These crippled theories project Eurocentric rationalisms into our daily habitat. This is increasingly also the case in other parts of the world, in non-European cultures. In the latter case, the increasingly frequent intrusions into culturally different environments produce a new architectural colonialism, which creates poisonous blood in many countries (e.g. India). Maybe this will change. Architects from different regions of the world will become aware that there are many other ways to conceive architecture other than the Euro-Western rationalisms and their blindness for social dimensions (-> Aga Khan Foundation; -> Indonesia).

Maybe some ethnologists and anthropologists will join this empirical side of architectural research, thus becoming also part of the process of questioning the idealistic attempts to maintain a highly abstracted "spiritual theory of architecture" and to contradict it with the results of empirical theories.

What does it mean for architectural theory, this enormous amount of material gathered by the Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture? The most important question exists in its relative position in a wider theoretical framework. In his introduction, Paul Oliver has discussed the idea of a 'vernacular' related to architecture. He emphasised its precision in view of other specifications, e.g. 'traditional'. In analogy to language, where it means 'local language', it is a relatively new word for many, but it is theoretically open. It facilitates free interpretations. On the other hand, this openness can also be seen as a shortcoming. With its approximatively 100 potential approaches there is not much hope for an 'intersubjectively' shared theoretical insight. Some of these access gates consist of interesting reflections which, however, indicating this and that, do not really touch on the problems. It is therefore questionable whether this is the ideal ground for the build-up of effective research programmes. In the following we shall resume and discuss some (or one) of the contributions of the theoretical part.

In his contribution titled 'Aesthetic', Henry Glassie presents his own ideas about vernacular beauty. Essentially, he derives his concept from the theory of information and projects it onto vernacular architecture. Loyal to Eurocentric essentially Platonic concepts, he coins the first subtitle as 'The idea of the aesthetic' and then defines it as something generally abstracted from the totality of a culture. Its meaning comes from producing feelings (pleasure, displeasure). Glassie does not give a clear principle. Architectural communication disposes of utilitarian and aesthetic components, Glassie says, and what is important in the dialogue between 'sender' (that is the 'creative' vernacular builder) and 'receiver' (for instance the student of ethnology!) is to find out about the intentions of the 'creative' builder. Under the second subtitle 'Expression', we also find Eurocentric concepts. Ornament, decoration, it is the Eurocentric idea that beauty in this context results from decoration, or, that decoration is merely an 'application'. Furthermore, it sounds strange to see the word 'creative' used here and to hear about 'intentions'. All those researchers who have worked among traditional societies in this field will agree that vernacular builders never use this word. They would say that they do things just as their ancestors did, or as their fathers or mothers or grandparents had shown them, etc. The artist as a creative and inventive subject is an Eurocentric Renaissance myth which is generally not valid in traditional societies.

The worst error happens to Glassie with the Japanese teahouse. He interprets it as a vernacular aesthetic architectural form. However, this is a secondary 'primitivisation'. In fact, the Japanese teahouse is culturally a highly refined form with its own clearly written history. It emerged at the end of the 14th century around two schools (Noami, noble Higashiyama-school and Shuko, civil Nara-/ Sakai-school). Both lines are enriched in the aesthetical and ontological sense as 'the way of tea' (chado), combined with ideals of Zen-Buddhism and Daoism and perfected for use in court by the famous teamasters Sen no Rikyu and Kobori Enshu during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Maybe vernacular aesthetics are best represented by what Glassie cites from Boas as "the aesthetic impulses of technology." However, this idea is not developed further, and it is dissolved rather superficially. Form is not produced functionally. Glassie refers to the mysterious reserve of vernacular aesthetics, which he again presents in Eurocentric dimensions of decoration, symmetry and so on.
Furthermore, what Glassie interprets as the results of such studies of vernacular aesthetics is not convincing. It leads to what architects like Mackintosh or Le Corbusier have shown us with their study of vernacular Scotland or their Balkan and Turkey journeys respectively. Its main area of concern is finding suitable traditional forms to create new formal syntheses for modern architecture. Everybody will agree that after the rather embarrassing 'death of modernism' (Jencks) we do not need anymore this type of formal bricolage. Our search goes deeper. We are looking for something, which has to do with man and culture in the deepest sense. We are looking for forms and their relationships which express a worldview. We are looking for a 'deep structure' which again makes forms meaningful to us. We are looking for forms that enable man to spiritually and physically identify with them (Egenter 2001).

What is lacking in Glassie’s contribution on the 'Aesthetic' theme is shared by other contributions to the theoretical part of the Encyclopedia. Most 'approaches' are views from outside which reflect standard disciplinary conceptions, but which often have not much to do with vernacular architecture. The theme is adjusted, but it does not show the way to go forward. Thus, the Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture introduces fairly new, quantitatively enormous and theoretically very important material into today’s architectural discussion. However, the theoretical integration of this material, as proposed in the first volume, is probably not the ideal solution.

However, can we deal theoretically with vernacular architecture in quite different ways? Instead of viewing it from outside, from various disciplines or from exterior theoretical fields, could we start to deal with it from the inside? For instance, we could question the narrow-minded approach of the art historian focussed on Vitruvius and other written sources as an anachronism. Evidently, architecture has its roots much deeper in time, its forms have a much older 'history'. We can not find the primordial hut in the Bible as Rykwert's book 'On Adams House in Paradise' has suggested (1972 ). Evidently the origins of human building are an anthropological problem.

Consequently, do we have to define architecture anthropologically today? Individual architectural fields would then be organized and described within the framework of an architectural anthropology (Egenter 1992, 1995, 2001). This produces new approaches and methods. Architecture is no longer studied by established disciplines like the history of art. Or, of anthropology in the way Reimar Schefold describes it in his short history of research in the Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture. Phenomena like the symbolic meanings attached to buildings are not considered as primarily social or ideological projections on architectural form, but are derived from architectural processes themselves, that is with parameters like materials, construction, form and their developments through time and various cultures. We could even ask: can we construct a fully fledged anthropology with architecture itself and can we explain the evolution of culture by reconstructing the evolution of constructive behaviour and its developments into architecturally demarcated settlements (Yerkes 1929, Wilson 1988)? Does the architecturally demarcated spatial organisation of the habitat tell us more about the main characteristics of man and about the development of culture than any other contemporary concept, e. g. the so-called 'toolmaker' idea (Egenter 2001)? However, all this is only possible on condition that we do not rely on medievo-scholastically prejudiced disciplines, but put architecture and all its aspects at the centre of our research.

If, as indicated above, vernacular architecture is set into a wider anthropological framework, new perspectives can be gained. New phenomena will emerge, like, for instance, the routine nest-building behaviour of the great apes (Egenter 1983) or, as indicated above, the phenomenon of 'semantic architecture' (Egenter 1994 a, b). Architectural research will develop into a new type of cultural research, particularly if the anthropology of space described by O. F. Bollnow (1963) is considered basic for the evolution of human organisation of space. However, these approaches are described comprehensively in the framework of other studies (Egenter 1992, 1994a, b, 1995, 2001). We just want to give some references here. These should show how this approach opens new aspects suggesting new parameters in regard to a scientific theory of architecture. In addition, we can reconstruct the evolution of human culture in the sense of increased control of the environment by means of architectural demarcation.
Tradition and progress
Vernacular architecture is chiefly a traditional development of agrarian societies which have settled, and thus dwell permanently in the same place. Unquestionably, nomadic hunters and collectors also knew huts and houses, but sedentary life and the perennial existence in the same location produced specific parameters which are expressed in the way dwellings are built. Hunters and collectors mostly used monocellular or polarly structured bicellular house forms, relatively small in their dimensions and mostly round or square, or sometimes rectangular, in their plans (Egenter 1991b). In contrast to this, the houses of agrarian societies become larger and more complex in their spatial articulations, their relationship with the ground becomes increasingly important. The outer forms may vary according to the materials and techniques used, but the plans are extremely conservative because they are also used in toposemantic rites related to certain fixed points (Ränk G. 1959/ 51Egenter 1991a). The same is valid at the level of the settlements. Ancient order concepts like the 'place-related access-axis' or the 'materially conditioned vertical proportion' which prove effective for the protection of the settlements, gain great importance. These orders are preserved into the monumental history of architecture. In the traditional substrate, they are preserved through cyclical rites and cults (Egenter 1994a). Since they refer to the settlement foundation, the cyclic tradition produces a new time dimension, 'the Once and the Now'. The demarcations gain great importance and structure the order of the settlement socially, politically and legally. A new type of chiefdom is introduced by the dominant function of the village-founder's houseline. It provides the basis for later social hierarchy in the early states (Egenter 1990, 1994a, 1994b, 1995, 2001).

In short, reconstructions in the field of agrarian vernacular architecture will greatly advance our knowledge of transformative processes between the agrarian village cultures and the early city-states. They will also show to what extent our urban ideas about the rural world of agrarian cultures were tremendously prejudiced. We will become aware that traditional architecture had very positive aspects. By involving the population in local architectural forms, festivities and rites, it created a high degree of local identification which disappeared with the arrival of historically founded religions, urban administration and their universal claims.

From the beginning, the city has placed all the emphasis on its own history. As a superstratum, it always devalued the layer where it came from and thus created a tension which can still be felt today as the rural-urban dichotomy. It prevents objective scientific positions in regard to rural types of life and particularly in regard to rural architecture (see the position of folklore studies among other disciplines of the humanities, or the value of 'vernacular architecture' in the conventional teaching of architecture, or 'popular art' in the theories of art!). Evidently the most important event in the whole of human history, the transition of rural village cultures and settlement clusters to towns and cities, a process which has been repeating itself for at least 4-5,000 years with more or less similar parameters, is not really shown in the general theory of culture. Our knowledge is restricted to the early city cultures of early civilizations, but for the rest, the origins of towns and cities remain within the history of the individual cultures. In so far as the vernacular domain exposes new important material, which shows the house and settlement-related criteria of local agrarian society and their adjustment to urban influence zones, it offers possibilities for reconstructing this important cultural threshold in a far better way than is being done today (Egenter 2001).

Sustainability and the vernacular in architecture
Traditional societies are also the perfect example of what we are searching for as 'sustainable' societies today. They did not change considerably over hundreds, even thousands of years. We owe them our present life. Evidently they had a high autonomy. How did they live, what enabled them to exist closely together, what protected them? Archaeology and prehistory give us very fragmentary answers to such questions (Egenter 1997). Maybe, as Gordon Childe has suggested, we should make our reconstructions in the vital field of ethnology using our new sources of 'vernacular architecture' and then try to verify our hypotheses in the domain of prehistory. Did traditional architecture play an important role in the sense that it mediated a high degree of identity, allowing all these local populations to live over a long time in the same place (Egenter 2001)? Perhaps we could use part of their structural conditions to balance our overheated developments?



Bollnow, O. F.
Mensch und Raum. Stuttgart, Kohlhammer.

Egenter, Nold
Affen Architekten (Ape Architects - The 'Primordial Hut' of architectural theory and the nestbuilding behaviour of the higher apes) In: Umriss, Nr.2/:2-9

Architectural Anthropology - Why do we need a general framework? Paper read at the International Conference 'First World, Third World - Duality and Coincidence in Traditional Dwellings and Settlements'. Oct 4-7 1990 Univ. of Calif. Berkeley. http://home.worldcom.ch/~negenter/061aFramewrkTX_E1.html

The Japanese House - Or, why the Western architect has difficulties to understand it. In: 'Deutsche Bauzeitung' 12/1991 http://home.worldcom.ch/~negenter/410aJapHouseIntro1.html

In der oberen Hälfte unserer Stube wohnt der Bär, der Herr der Wildnis - Haus und Weltbild der Ainu In: Bärenfest - Vom Dialog mit der Wildnis: die Ainu Hokkaidos, Japan. Thomas Kaiser (ed.), Völkerkundemuseum der Universität Zürich :55-75 (English: http://home.worldcom.ch/~negenter/015AcrobatArchives/N_IntPublic/MasterOfWild.PDF

Architectural Anthropology - The Present Relevance of the Primitive in Architecture - Research Series vol. 1; Structura Mundi, Lausanne http://home.worldcom.ch/~negenter/015AcrobatArchives/AA1.PDF/AAA.PDF

Architectural Anthropology - Semantic and Symbolic Architecture. An architectural-ethnological survey into hundred villages of central Japan. Structura Mundi, Lausanne

Semantic architecture and the interpretation of prehistoric rock art: An ethno-(pre-)historical approach. In: Semiotica 100-2/4 (1994) :201-266 http://home.worldcom.ch/~negenter/4570_SemioIntro.html

Antropologia arquitectonica: un nuevo enfoque antropologico. In: Mari-Jose Amerlinck, Hacia una antropologia arquitectonica. Universidad de Guadalajara, Mexico :27-128

On the Archaeology and Prehistory of Architecture and Habitat - Some Research Problems in the Framework of wider Anthropological Horizons http://home.worldcom.ch/~negenter/231aBauerIrm_TT_E_D.html

The Deep Structure of Architecture: Constructivity and Human Evolution. In: Amerlinck, Mari-Jose (ed.), Architectural Anthropology, Bergin-Garvey, Westport, London, :43-81

Kostof, Spiro (ed.)
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Oliver, Paul
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Ränk G.
Das System der Raumeinteilung in den Behausungen der nordeurasischen Völker; ein Beitrag zur nordeurasischen Ethnologie. 2 vols. Stockholm

Rykwert, Joseph
On Adam's House in Paradise. The Idea of the Primitive Hut in Architectural History. The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Wilson, J. P.
The Domestication of the Human Species. New Haven. CT: Yale Univ. Press

Yerkes R. W. and A. W. Yerkes
The Great Apes. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press