HOW MUCH HORIZON DOES AN ARCHITECTURAL THEORETICIAN NEED?
Critical remarks regarding the GOOD-FORM-theology
With reference to the New
Years Eve tradition of Urnaesch
as a vital tradition of agrarian philosophy
and as core element of a traditional architecture and settlement identity
by Nold Egenter
Recently by chance I stumbeled over a text, which fits very well into this architectural-anthropological research mosaic. More precisely, there are a quantity of larger and smaller stones at hand which have to be discussed how they fit into the picture. There is the idea of tradition', in contrast to written and objectively documented history. There are the farmers with their old traditional house culture and the urban architectural missionary, who thinks he is sitting on the absolute truth, some sort of theology of GOOD FORM. And third we have to deal with the relationship of urban and rural domains and corresponding value schemes. Ultimately we are involved into the relation of architecture and architectural theory.
The author of the text discussed in the following is the founder and long-time editor of a Swiss architecture magazine with boulevard-character (Benedikt Loderer, 'Hochparterre'). Besides his role as an editor and architectural journalist, he understands himself also as an architectural theorist.
The text we are going to discuss is found in a little book with the title "Man sees with his Feet" and contains 13 speeches. Loderer has presented them in front of various architecture-oriented committees. The general topic is 'Architecture and Design'. Some of these speeches are not to be understood really as such, they are at the margins of what can be taken serious. However, in spite of its shallow jargon, the particular text, which we have selected, touches important points of the architectural discussion. Above all, as was indicated already, the relationship of city and countryside, of written history and tradition, between so-called art-teachings or architectural theory and local transmissions of harmonious principles of living.
Finally the text also shows a devastating cultural deficit, which however should not be put on Loderer's shoulders. The situation is much worse. The level is fairly representative for the niveau of knowledge in the architectural discipline.
However, if we are watching more closely, the matter is becoming rather uncanny. On this supremely clumsy way whole landscapes of our lived environment are ultimately subjected to certain values and ideas. The process leads then to the corresponding planning processes and construction. Who wonders about how our cities' look? They should be bombed down to ashes, Botta once said when he spoke about the global condition of postmodern urban environments. And: garbage for the future.
Incredible, how Loderer, our urban GOODFORM-theologist attacks his rural tradition loving listeners without knowing anything about their local culture. He simply treats them with his arrogant urban scold.
He refers to some encyclopedia. Evidently he is not an analphabet. Farmers listen to him. Unfortunately however: absolute ignorance with regard to the essence of traditional culture. Even if there are only words, what he proposes, in fact, is extremely brutal. Basically, what he suggests: we have to bomb the local tradition, to annihilate the local houses, the kill local culture.
Tradition is dead, evidently the title wants to frighten the farmers still convinced of the meanings of their own local tradition. Their tradition is merely hollow rotten deadly facade, the 'architectural missionary' says, including their traditional festive clothes, as well as their homes (locally tenderly called 'Heimetli', the missionary uses it to make clear what is meant by his attack). They should give up this covering up their nests, the whole masquerade. They should use their brains and start to think about how they could feed their environments with reasonable innovations.
Wow! Clash of cultures in the same state...
But let us have a more closer look at this drama.
Again, the fighting goes for a corpse. It is called tradition now. Though, as the title implies, it has already disappeared completely, one wants to expel also the bad spirits and ghosts of tradition to prevent it from returning.
We have mentioned it already, initially the author cites the encyclopedia hoping that this legitimates his superiority over his tradition bound adversaries. It promises authority. But what is derived from it ends vaguely in semireligious statementsthe Halbreligissen, which is found then indeed somewhat abruptly scientifically as filters against to intense charm demand.
"Tradition is a help for life."
From this banality Loderer starts his frontal attack.. He first makes fun of the farmers dressed in traditonal clothes on festive occasions and ridicules their earrings as part of the local tradition. All this, he says has become marginal. What makes our modern lives today, this is the truth, the modern equipment. The car, fashionable clothes, working in the industry, all this is what makes it to be modern. It has nothing to do with tradition anymore.
"Tradition is a sentimental collection of pictures in our heads."
This confrontation between the farmers from Appenzell with their traditional Sunday facades and our modern archi-missionary preaching his economical Ethics against the spirits of tradition is curious. Seen the other way round it shows also the stereotypes of the urban projections. The rurals are underdeveloped, they can not think reasonably etc. the urban educated judgement is the progressive truth. Paradoxically both attitudes are on the same level regarding the simplicity involved.
In fact, something fairly frightening is shown, a totalitarian trait of modernism. A pseudoreligious postulate: all must instantly be truth. Should all the traditional village centres be wiped out throughout the country? And what with the historical cities. Forget aubout history? Note that there is a saying going that LeCorbusiers mother was a strong believer in Gnostics. It could explain a lot about this absoulte intolerance of modernism and its castrated antihistorism. Sincerely, there is not much difference between the outskirts of modern cities and some functional dwelling camps for professionals or prisoners. It reminds me of what Levy-Strauss discusses about some indigeneous peoples. When all efforts to convert them proved useless the missionaries with some pretext destroyed their traditional dwellings and related toposemantic indicators and built them modern barracks in a very different concept, their indigeneous mentality structure collapsed and they became Christians.
But let us go on with Loderer. With farmers one should not only talk about Sunday-things. The economy is important. But Loderer speaks of an urban economy. The farmhouse ends as a "means of production" in his concept of agriculture. The farmers home, his 'Heimetli', ends up on the same level with CocaCola cans and MacDonald -cardbord-boxes for hamburgers. "Tradition is a product".
The problems of the farmers are old, he continues, and each has been solved countless times already. In contrast to this modern problems are young, always young. Prevention of water pollution, environmental protection, over aging, all tremendous problems, still unresolved. And in particular in regard to construction we are still shocked by our fast growth after the second world war. We are in a growth shock, still suffering from digestive troubles.
Note the very sensible and fine humour of our Archi-Missionary and his love for young problems.
Two generations ago, he goes on, the rural population was poor. Of course this implies: today we are rich. A second economy argument. The solution, finally.
Tradition "was always a method for the overcoming or avoidance of shortage." Inversely this is to say: hunger, need and cold exist, where tradition still rules.
From this rather simplistic concept of tradition as 'poverty' Loderer quickly moves to his architectural theory, which can be translated somehow as the 'wrong-home-theory'. Loderer uses the term 'Hüsli', which is in fact a common diminutive in Swiss children's babble language, meaning a very small house of the size children play with. It is also used to reduce a house of any normal size on the scale of a toy. With this fairly refined linguistic 'tool' he tells his auditors, that they live in the wrong houses.
In the domain of building, he says, the concept of tradition corresponds to a "collection of constructive solutions referring basically to the same type of construction." This " common instrument for gaining the livelihood of a family unit is not given anymore today." [implizit: das Haus muss so aussehen wie das Leben darin]
The 'Hüsli' covered with wood in the style of the Appenzell countryside do not show whether they are inhabited by local peoples of the Appenzell tradition or 'agglomerites' from the lowlands. The land is not "production surface" anymore, but "luxury-commodity for enjoyment". Consequently the judgements have to be clear. The conclusion inevitably is: "The tradition is dead."
Finally the architectural missionary closes by hinting to the role of the Swiss Agency for the protection of traditional environments (Heimatschutz). It is the duty of these institutions to function as police, judge and court and to expell the bad spirits from this country stricken with the sickness of dwelling in 'wrong homes'.
Since we (that is, those educated urbans who are responsible for the architecture of this world) know that tradition is dead, that it is a corpse, this region has to be saved, eventually against common sense. Landscapes like the Appenzell threatened by this formal disaster, devastated by this awful masquerade with wrong facades have to be saved by all costs.
Evidently, furious battles are fought here with vulnerating words. Loderer^s shallowly funny word flow should not blind us for the fact, that there is a serious problem. which extends now already. Well over a half century now its destructive energy, like a fire of epidemic proportions, expands over the Swiss mountainscapes once rich in vernacular house-traditions. Paradoxically those who conserved or adapted their 'architectural paganism' like Zermatt, are economically flourishing and have rich numbers of visitors from all over the world, giving somehow the lie to Loderer's 'wrong-home-theory'. Is Loderer some sort of an architectural 'Ötzi', a fossile in view of the global preference for the 'rural', for the architecturally 'pagan'? Is his urban totalitarianism deeply reprehensible, particularly in view of his absolute ingnorance of rural conditions?
Beyond the rather poor role Loderer plays in this game, the main problem is of a more systematic character. Modern architecture interprets itself as a branch of 'modern art' , thus using the paradigms of the urban history of European art (-> Udo Kultermann, History of the history of art). As part of the urban history it becomes part of the urban value centrism which produces such totalitarian outlooks regarding the rural devalued apriori, as we have seen it in Loderer's 'speech'. Objectivity is lost. Any scientific process is supressed. Any discussions become ridiculous.
Not by case we indicated parallels to the history of christianisation which had a similar structure. A rather speculative truth based on written history was imposed on the medieval rural domains of Europe. An often quite cruel and bloody history of conversion was diffused strategically from secured cities and convents into the pagan country.
Evidently the urban superiority and dominance is a fairly ancient pheonomenon. But, do we have to continue this tension on and on?
Loderer's missionary journey to Appenzell and his aggressive speech in front of the farmers, and particularly the threat, they would have to give up their traditional houses in favor of modern urban box-aesthetics, fits quite well into this old, originally theocratic pattern of reasoning and the urban centralistic dominance over the morally and strategically dominated agrarian countryside. The urban norms are considered absolute. They were not focused primarily at the population living in these regions. Rather the maintenance of the territorial substance was basic and the territorio-legal hegemony of the center.
The following goes with this. Evidently, in history tradition is unimportant. And particularly in the history of art, disparaging attitudes are definitely expressed. Traditional art lacks in regard to 'originality' and ingenuity. Tradition is measured against the urban myth of the post-medieval profaned creator genius. The result is blindness for the factual paradigms of traditional art.
From a global and anthropological position the following is clear. In the wider frame of human history, tradition is far more important than what Loderer conjures up. Also in the urban context tradition is basic for many human capacities, e.g. language and behavioural education. Far more than half of the human communication rests directly or indirectly on tradition. Fine arts, music, craft, all are essentially based on tradition.
The main problem is: Loderer has a much too narrow horizon. He is indoctrinated by the contemporary urban values. This makes him feel obligated to move to the countryside in order to do something morally positive (seen from the city), namely to bring the poorly educated farmers the message of the urban truth. What an incredible nparadox! About fourty fifty years late he takes himself for the modern avant-garde, does his pilgrimage to help the poorly educated land population to bring them his truth, but in fact has his head still in the antiquated mentalities of the middle ages!
There is another point which consists in the fact, that tradition is hardly explored. All the emphasis is on written history or on factually conserved monuments. In this framework tradition is not important. However, this was completely different in other times an dother cultures, for instance in ancient China. Tradition was at least as important as written history.
In traditional societies ritually used and reproduced objects were archives of the local history. Unfortunately, this does not show in the evolved historical systems where cults are based on historically supported religions and beliefs. Consequence: most traditional systems went through the meshes of scientific methods or are heavily distorted by modern principles of analytical science. In short, in contrast to our modern times and its playing at dice for a better future, tradition is a very complex system of human orientation which favours continuity through time. In this sense it could also be used to balance modern risk-societies.
Traditional societies are organized in the framework of cyclic time perception. They do not interprete their origins and identities from dated 'histories' or monuments, but from cyclically repeated constructive behaviours. Consequently their values are not focussed on 'innovation' but in the contrary, on continuity, on reliable traditions, in the objective, behavioural, verbal (or linguistic) sense. Cults and rites, as reenaction of the origins of an existential unit, a settlement, a cluster of settlements, a valley, a region etc. These cyclic traditions determine the social hierarchy, local power, the territorial responsibilities, organisation of work and feasts, etc..
Thus, it is an incredible shortsightedness, to devalue tradition in such ignorant ways. It is a rather bigoted attitude which is tolerated in the field of architecture because architecture is somehow a theoretical third world domain, which, however, does not hesitate to put its firsthand experiments into our city spaces. To remin within the allusion to theology: an architectural 'Reformation' is urgently needed.
TRADITION AS IDENTITY
Very likely Loderer has never taken the trouble to honor the famous New Year's Eve St. Nicholas traditions of Urnäsch with his visit. The strange clothing of these differentiated figures and their very contrasting dances before the houses visited would have told him clearly that tradition lives intensively here and even attracts peoples from all over the world! Absolutely nothing of his big-mouthed prophecy of the death of tradition! On the contrary. It wonderfully survives in spite of such narrow-minded pseudo-rationalisms.
After this marvellous event had ended and before returning to his home in the lowlands the author of this paper went to a shop to buy some of the famous meat products of the Appenzell region as a tasty souvenir. There was a short discussion with the shop owner about the three different types of interacting figures in this event. We mentioned the wild and ugly ones with their caricature faces clothed in grasses, branches and foliages as they are supposed to come from the mountains to intrude into the human order. And further the beautiful ones, who contrasted the savage ones with their beautiful masks showing civilized woman and men, a part which developed under the influence of the monastery of St. Gallen. And finally the semi-ugly or beautiful ugly ones, who take an intermediate position. They are of wild in their conduct, but are adorned on their heads and their backs with traditional houses. All of them show the inner human and inter-human tension, the eternal tension, which every person knows from experience. They are alluding to the tension between nature and society, between passion and education, between wild outbreaks and harmonious combinations. Marvellous how this pattern of human tension is expressed in their behaviour. Lots of walking through the high snow of the landscape, then arriving at the place of a house. They first react wildly, to mark a chaotic stage moving their bodies ekstatically thus shaking the bells loudly until the family of the house comes down to tame the wild ones with drinks and offerings. And soon the wild scene turns into culture. The group forms a circle. Very beautiful songs are sung, a kind of gregorian choral music. Then they go to the next house which may be quite far. Several times the shopowner winked mischievously giving his consent with a smile.
One of the main aspects of this local tradition consists in the fact that one still can read its basically pre-analytical worldview. Functionally different objects or environments can be quasi identical depending on the degree of harmonious balance they reflect. It is not the functional banality, which defines the essence of things and environments, but their aesthetically balanced structure. The more harmonious things are, the more they are the same.
A wonderful worldview! Very likely it was globally known in traditional societies. It does not emphasise the diversity of things. Determining them is not of absolute importance as in the analytical worldview. It rather emphasises the similarity of different objects or conditions in regard of an elementary aesthetic concept, namely categorically polar harmony. "High and low sounds produce a melody" is a statement we know from Heraclitus. Very likely he was the last harmonical philosopher at the margins of the Ancient Near East and Egypt.
Unfortunatley, like his worldwide predecessors, our urban architectural missionary indoctrinated with the absolute truth of his GOODFORM-theology had no appreciation of this philosophy of tradition. Is our world going to pieces, maybe, because we have no more reliable theories in regard to what it means to be human and to dwell reasonably?
The question remains open: How much horizon does an architectural theorist need?
Geschiche der Kunstgeschichte. Der Weg einer Wissenschaft. Prestel, München
Der Mensch sieht mit den Füssen. Hochparterre-Verlag, Glattbrugg,