To what extent Semper is misunderstood by the art-historians' Semper research can best be shown by the term 'metabolism' introduced into the discussion by Stockmeyer. Stockmeyer used the abstracted term in order to psychologically spiritualise Semper's evidently too practical theory of 'clothing' or 'incrustation' by referring to Th. Vischer's expression "form as spiritual coat thrown over materia" (:45). In contrast to this, Germann (1985: 122f.) falls into the opposite of trivialising the concept. Following Vogt (1976:195f; Theory and practice) he pedantly takes Semper's culturo-anthropologically wide term 'incrustation' as the basis for his tatty little shop-report focussed on Semper's Zurich house 'Sonnenbühl'. Most insolent is Quitzsch (1962/1983) in regard to the term metabolism. Referring to Goethe and Winckelmann he first philosophically vaguely dilutes it into Semper's "basic worldview" ("Grundanschauung"), then compares Semper's relation to decoration with that of Hegel who considered the "need for cosmetics and decoration of the human body" as a general trait of human behaviour. (:90). Hegel's concept of "decoration as a means, by which man makes the outer things his own" is thus manoeuvred penibly into contradiction to Semper. "He [Semper] considers ornament as something strictly determined by natural law". Consequently he did "not leave any scope for the subjectively active side" and thus ends in the cross-fires between Fiedler and Riegl.

On the following pages, Quitzsch's treatise amounts to nothing more than mobilising some further arguments against Semper's natural scientific determinism. He finally solves the problem by maintaining that Semper's theory expresses the contradiction of the 'Zeitgeist'. Contradiction too between antiquity (respectively Renaissance) and modernism, contradictions of a classicist, "who stands at the end of his epoch, but still belongs to it." (:103) What an absurd conclusion this is! Semper's work is hollowed out by a tautology: his own contradictions stand as a subjective reflex of the contemporary contradictions.


As we tried to show, the art historian is not up to the systematic dimensions of Semper. He completely lacks the wider horizon of cultural anthropology. Fixed on the historically narrow 'art and artist' perspective he conceives theory and practice merely in the narrow relation of Semper as an architectural theorist and practising architect (Vogt 1976, Germann 1985). That is as if someone would only be interested in Darwin graphologically. Semper is definitely not the ideal topic for 'small is beautiful' research.

If, on the contrary, one considers Semper in the wider framework of cultural anthropology his theory develops tremendous dynamics. Doubtless there are its contemporary conditions, but, nevertheless, Semper shows structural values with astonishing consequences. For instance, he fundamentally questions the conventional archaeological periodisation. In the framework of modern anthropology, his 'textiles' can be considered as a 'pre-lithic industry'. This hypothesis is presented graphically in the following four schemes.

Particularly in the domain of building research this approach proves fruitful in regard to two points.

Semantic buildings

If the term architecture is extended into 'non-domestic' buildings ('semantic and symbolic architecture', Egenter 1980, 1982a, 1995) we find a lot of sources in the proto-history of early states and empires as well as ethnologically, which were dealt with conventionally by religion and were termed 'fetish', 'idols', effigies etc. but also 'life trees', 'tree of cognition' and so on. In a former study entitled "Software for a soft prehistory" (Egenter 1986) these types of 'semantic and symbolic architecture' were presented and discussed in the Euro-Mediterranean and Near Eastern domains with focus on the German prehistorian Karl Narr and his important Euro-Near Eastern "Cultural-lag-diagonal" (see also Egenter 1998*)

The most important point in view of Semper is the following: his theory of clothing becomes obsolete. Semantic and symbolic buildings can be documented worldwide as primordial forms of architecture. Secondary durable sources tell us about an archaeologically unrecorded proto- and prehistorical architectural substrate. To give an example: the plant pillars of Ancient Egypt or the Ionian column can now be read explicitly technically (Andrae 1930, 1933) as well as in regard to their symbolic and territorio-semantic meanings. Semper's system gains an intelligible clarity in so far as his concept of 'metabolism' now becomes related to the whole form. The rich symbols of the Ancient Near East, the Egyptian plant pillars, even the whole temple architecture of Ancient Egypt once belonged to the class of 'textiles' and, by means of criteria like durability and monumentality were transmaterialised into stone (Egenter 1984a, 1986a). On the other hand in ethnology or folklore studies, phenomena, which conventionally were classified and described in the framework of agrarian or religious traditions can clearly be understood as traditional relics of fibroconstructive semantic architecture (s. Egenter 1988h, about brilliant poles and pest candles in Austrian folklore).

Nestbuilding behaviour of the great apes

In regard to quite another point the modified theory of Semper proves to be enormously fruitful for research into architectural anthropology. In the subhuman domain we become aware of the nest building behaviour of the great apes. It is a learned and routined constructive behaviour which is found among all three great apes, among chimpanzees and gorillas in Africa as well as among Orangutans in Asia. Now, Vogt's hand (1978) proves to be useful! The hand is the primary 'tool' used in nest building behaviour! For a long time primate research was narrowly limited to zoological gardens and corresponding institutes. In these artificial manmade environments nestbuilding did not enter into the view of observers. Only after 1930, when, stimulated by the Yerkes' book 'The Great Apes' (1929), observations of freely living animals in their own environments began, this behaviour was scientifically described and also researched (see report: Egenter 1983). Groves and Sabater Pi (1984) and Sabater Pi (1985) recently connected it with primitive buildings constructed by tribal populations in Central Africa. In several papers the present author pleaded for systematical ergological and architecturo-anthropological studies (Egenter 1982b, 1983a, 1987a, b, d, e). The most important aspect of nestbuilding behaviour of the great apes is probably the fact, that it might provide prehistory with a proto-cultural subhuman (fibroconstructive) industry which can be estimated back to about 22 million years ago (Proconsul; Egenter 1998*). It might have produced the most dominant human characteristics, namely sedentarism and increasingly extended territorial control (Egenter 1998*). It is fairly evident, that, from this perspective the problem of 'man and culture' could be studied in new ways: based on the term 'constructivity' (Yerkes 1929) and dominantly in the framework of an anthropology of space and architecture.


In the anthropological dimension Semper's fairly global documentation of the 'incrustation' principle supports a tremendously conservative element of art and architecture, a constant factor which is fundamentally questioning the Eurocentric Renaissance myth of the artist as creator genius and his ever changing styles. Semper was aware that art has much deeper roots, that the subjective originality of the art historian's artist-art scheme and his deductive aesthetics are a very recent and superficial instrument. His decisively 'pragmatic' terminology and the high 'technical' affinity among functionally very different forms shown in his class of 'textiles', reflects the conviction that 'originality' in art is not subjective, but cultural, in the anthropological sense. If man hands down the plant ornament potentially over hundreds of thousands of years, this is not simply a 'coat thrown over form', a casually inventive decoration, as the art historian tries to tell us. It is a visual code deeply embedded in form, and related to a very ancient history, very likely the creation of man and culture. Semper felt, that this creation had to do with the 'technical and tectonic arts' and that his 'incrustation' principle contained the enigma of this relationship, since it was culturally universal! This grandiose idea was his passion, his factual motor to write his books.

On the other hand there are also some shortcomings in his theory evidently related to his times.

In spite of these shortcomings, the idea to apply cross-functional classes in the 'empire of the arts', thus showing the 'technical' and 'tectonical' affinity of functionally very different forms, is a great achievement. This does not only change our vision of form, it changes also the conventional, very abstract and stilted terminology of the art historian. Form becomes empirically accessible, and can be objectively described. For instance, in the case of the Ionian and Corinthian columns: 'Cannelure' now implies the texture of bundled reed. The capital can be read as the antithetic upper part, the structurally bound 'pro-portion'. We discover an elementary aesthetic principle formed in the fibroconstructive prototype, the polarity between the technically defined and the remains of the prototechnical 'natural' or 'wild' condition. As Nietzsche would say, Apollon and Dionysos in the same form. They were models of a then still valid system of harmonious cognition. What Semper did not, and probably could not yet know, that these forms were considered sacred in their original fibroconstructive state. Thus their aesthetic expression can not be trivial. We mentioned it above: both, its aesthetical and ontological values are part of a cultural 'originality'. Its roots are evidently deeper than the post-medieval myth of the profaned creator genius. Mimesis of the deeprooted ontologically high values is the key, not subjective creation!

If thus we become aware that the Ionian and Corinthian columns - as 'antique' forms in Ancient Greece already looked back to a history of at least two thousand years originally being representations of the divine (e.g. Ishtar sign), and, on the other hand, that they managed to survive into our days, particularly in representative and monumental architecture, then we can understand what is meant by the 'constant factor' in architecture.

That these built ontological codes could degenerate into a functional "piloti" (LeCorbusier) is not only an architectural problem, it is widely the result of dilettantic rationalisation processes imposed on art and architecture with the totally inadequate historisms of the history of art.

Semper's anthropological approach opens such new views. But, the art historians are blind to this, or even block his influence, because he questions the basic terms on which their widely pseudo-theologically deductive reasonings rest. In fact we are facing a strange historical paradox! If anthropology is considered an advanced scientific domain to deal with man and culture, more than hundred years ago, Semper was much more advanced than his luxurious interpreters in our modern and prestigious 'Institutes for the History and Theory of Architecture'! In view of Semper's far-sighted anthropological grandiosity, Semper-research at the ETH of Zuerich is - unfortunately - rather a very narrow-minded regress!

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