Why should we conserve relatively intact Domains of Vernacular Architecture for Future Generations?

Paper  presented at the 11th Conference
Alps Adria, October 11/12 2001, on Vernacular Architecture
  at Gozd Martuljek, Slovenia

by Nold Egenter
Arch. ETH-Z, Architectural Anthropologist



1) Prehistory according to 'Architectural Anthropology'. The scheme shows the organisation of conventional sources of  archaeology , prehistory, paleoanthropology and primatology in view of an evolution of settlement. Man is interpreted in the framework of his increasing sedentarisation and finally urbanisation. The plate stands for this new prehistory which assumes a 'first artifact' with the temporal depth of 22 million years.




In a recently published book Amos Rapoport critically invited Architectural Anthropology  to dwell within his own landscape named EBS. This stands for 'Environmental Behaviour Studies'. Thus Rapoport thinks that architectural research can most efficiently be done in a domain that works with the methods of the natural sciences, in particular behavioural studies. This is doubtless a positive step to eliminate  the distorting  metaphysical ideologies related to the history of architecture.

On the other hand 'environment' and 'behaviour' are not only extremely wide terms, they are also deeply rooted in biology. Using them means to a great extent annihilating the concrete evolutionary realism of architecture.  Favouring  a self defined highly rationalistic set of abstracted terms has always been the cherished method of Rapoport from his first book with the three  factors it proposes. It created a great interest for a greatly neglected cultural phenomenon, namely built traditions. But, on the other hand, it does not really tell us the true stories how forms developed. There are various other reasons why this path should not be followed. I will write about this  in a later paper showing that the EBS profile is much too wide to host an architectural anthropology.

In contrast to this, AHA, as we will call the 'Anthropology of Habitat and Architecture' in the following, takes a quite different approach.  It uses objective characteristics (e.g. the nest building behaviour of the great apes) to reconstruct an architectural evolution in the framework of a  demarcated habitat. This reconstruction forms the basis of a scientifically reliable theory of architecture.

However, AHA is not only a reliable architectural theory. It is also a theory of the evolution of humans and culture. Its highly objective and empirically descriptive scientific methods allow us to bridge the conventional Eurocentric dilemma of natural and 'spiritual' sciences. Cultural characteristics like aesthetics (pro-portion), philosophical concepts (polarity) and religious principles (cults as toposemantic demarcations of settlement space) are understood as primarily spatial orders related to architectural structural principles. Note that the evolutionary method, that is the reconstruction of human settlement,  allows to avoid rationalistically defined retroprojections. It thus clarifies many of the main problems of our conventional theories. For instance

- the invalidity of the vague container term culture,
- the fixation on historic formations of different cultures,
- the differentiating methods of our analytical science and
- the  apriori fragmentation of our historically late disciplines producing great distortions of our so called modern worldview.

As a a new line of cultural anthropology it questions the entire historistic apparatus of the humanities by providing a new approach with an artifact depth of about 22 million years. It even manages to question the scientific method by showing a second system of cognition, categorical polarity. But this would lead too far to deal with here (most of it can be found in the Internet).

In this wider framework I think it is very important to protect the existence of vernacular architecture and to study it intensively. It is important here to emphasise that vernacular or traditional architecture is taken in a wider sense. Not just the shelter concept based on an 'arts and crafts' type of view (Oliver), or of 'built form' (Rapoport) limited on dwellings like huts and houses. I use it here in the wider sense of local traditions demarcating or spatially defining settlement units like house, village, or wider like valley, region, village clusters etc., including  social activities as this can still be seen in many places of the world, even in our modernistic Europe. This view includes festivals, ritual and cultic traditions, what is usually - and mistakenly - attributed to religion. The architecture found in the framework of these festivals - I call them semantic or  toposemantic architecture - are the most important ones if we think in terms of architectural evolution: they are the experimental field of all what we call cultural in regard to architecture and I am strongly convinced that we can not understand architecture without this semantic and symbolic type.




2) Various materials combined to formulate a hypothesis:
Uppermost: Caspar David Friedrichs painting 'The wanderer above the sea of fog' (ca. 1818). Usually attributed to Romanticism in the history of styles. The man stands with his black back towards us on the top of a mountain and observes the endless and lightful spaces opening in front of him.
Semantic architecture, a typical form of the region of 100 villages in central Japan where the author made his survey.
Photographs: Note that we do not speak of secondary sources here, but of factual buildings which are reproduced every year at the same place in the same way. Very likely these rural Shinto traditions existed for many hundred, maybe for more than thousand(s of) years.
Rooftype and columntype: It is important that these built signs which are sacred (that is, they represent a high ontology) represent at the same time very elementary and important types of the human building tradition, the roof and the column. In this schematic representation of two basic types, the variation from rooftype and columntype is only a variation of the diametre of the basis circle. Evidently we have to do it with very ancient forms and forms that have a temporally deep relation.
Hypothesis: Shows the hypothesis of this paper: Is there any structural condition that might be similar in both pictures? In spite of showing quite different things and conditions, is there a deep relation between the two?




In the title pictures I have chosen a fairly provoking comparison.  The first picture (2a) is a painting of Caspar David Friedrich, a paintor who is usually considered in the stylistic context of Romanticism. This picture was painted around 1818. A man, a mountain hiker dressed in the way of his time stands on top of a high mountain and admires the endlessness of the skies, the lightful clouds. In spite of seeing the figure from the back we can feel his emotions.

(2b) shows a drawing taken of my  study on 100 villages in Japan. Some points regarding this second picture and the following ones related:

• Seen from architecture the picture shows a building constructed with fibrous materials, using the very ancient techniques of knotting, binding and weaving for a  semantic and symbolic function.
• In the framework of semiotics it is a sign put up at particular places of the local landscape. It is a toposemantic sign related to spatial and territorial organisation of the settlement.
• In terms of the local history such signs cyclically remade with perishable materials are a part of a  traditional cyclic archive which documents the origins of a settlement and keeps its implications alive through time.
• The social hierarchy of this settlement depends on this archive. The representative of the founder's house line is main priest (owner of the deity) of the corresponding cult, at the same time most important ruler and chief of the village.
• In the cultic sense, the cyclic territorial demarcation gained a high ontological value and is considered as legally and metaphysically protecting the settlement (body of village deity).
• In terms of art, we find a primary aesthetical principle, pro-portion, which is not abstract, but clearly bound to material: the upper part is protruding about a lower part
• In terms of philosophy the sign is an autonomously generated form expressing categorical polarity. It is a kind of a yin yang model for all that is harmoniously formed or perceived and maintained in the environment (woods and fields; mountains and valley type of spatial organisation)
• In the modern religious sense, the form shows the temporary and sacred body of a local deity (uji-gami). Often the form shows an accumulated evolved type of cosmic symbolism, the upper part being called tenkai, canopy of heaven.
• By retracing this form to a rooted primordial form we become aware that it covers in fact to prototypes of architecture, the column and the roof. The only difference between them is the diameter on the ground.
Thus, this sign is of a very complex nature, not at all simple as its primitive making suggests. It is in fact of a pluridisciplinary nature. My book is about this in all details with the eyes of an architect who uses phenomenology to describe and understand things.

Note that the example chosen is representative for two fundamental types of building, the column and the roof (2c). If rooted material is bound over a small diameter, we obtain a rooted column prototype. If the diameter is larger at the basis, we obtain a roof- or hut like type. This is not a fictive postulate but appears as an empirical phenomenon in the surveyed tradition (2 d, e)

Now, the  hypothesis we relate to these pictures sounds provoking.

Beyond the objectively different environments, is there a structural relation between the two, a coordination, a deep structure pattern?

Or, in reverse terms: does Caspar David Friedrich‘s painting express a deeply rooted and long conserved per-/conception, which now is painted and 'felt' in anthropomorphous form and projected on a  spatially enlarged entity showing man in the middle between his earth and the endless universe.

Can we speak of some sort of an 'archetype'?

Note that in both pictures we have some common elements. Endless space is centred in both images by a human condition, an artifact, a representation of a human being. It stands at the end of an access path to this place which is characterised by a lower part represented by earth and an upper part which represents heaven.

Both pictures can be described aesthetically with the term pro-portion, the skies are jutting out over the small peace of earth on which man stands, philosophically man is between two entirely different entities which in his emotional cognition form a unity, and in the sense of religion the picture shows the transitional position between an empirical world, the earth and a 'supernatural' or inaccessible world of the universe. Also: man in this position is close to the divine!

Note that the 'heaven and earth topic' is one of the most continuous themes throughout the arts of all cultures as far as we know about. But it got lost with modernism, when our space perception became universal and homogeneous. I have written several papers about this topic related to art as well as premodern architecture (see Internet) and do not want to deal further with this here.




3) The art historian wants us to believe that all kinds of speculations on architecture he finds along the history of architecture can be considered as 'architectural theory'. Of course this is highly misleading. Imagine that  historians had provided us with   all kinds of funny ideas about animals and we would call this zoology today. It makes you laugh? We should not forget: Its an extremely effective error. This is the way how our modern environments are built.




It is evident, the history of art is too narrow for topics like this, and particularly it lacks in temporal depth. The historical condition, namely to find verbal expressions regarding, e.g. the column cuts it off even from the Egyptian columns (There is no Vitruvius in Ancient Egypt!). Thus it mainly deals with Vitruvius' suggestions of different styles, the Dorian, Ionian and Corinthian orders. This goes on and on in their disputes about the history of the Vitruvian 'order of columns'. But, the modern anthropological reasoning about columns is entirely different (see below, W. Andrae).

The rationalisations introduced by the art historians dealing with stylishly decorated forms leads to misinterpretations and high degenerations like Le Corbusier‘s 'piloti' or  his support for his domino elements. Architectural theory based on history is, in fact merely a history of speculation about architectural ideas. What we perceive as architectural history is in fact a very limited and elitarian, a very urban collection of data highly selectively gathered according to personal gustos. Italy is not just Rome plus Renaissance! See e.g. Soeder's documentation of vernacular architecture in Italy. Most explicit for the art historian's phantasms about a  mere history of ideas is Werner Oechslin's 'Architecture and Alphabet' (1982) a vague conglomeration of topics related to alphabetic script and architecture. His 'theory' leads to absurd legitimations of 'script-buildings',  'Campari' style. However, the deeprooted relation between architecture and script only shows in serious anthropological approaches (Egenter 1982, UMRISS).

Conclusion: the art historian's circles accept a high tolerance regarding any type of speculations which may be legitimate in art, but which, in their effects on architectural theory are destructive for the human environment. Consequence: serious architects must  aggressively fight against the art historian's dominance over architectural schools today and replace his theoretically immature position by  groups of scientific researchers who put together the anthropological conditions related to architecture and space. In the following we will hint to some important aspects. In the following we will outline the methods of AHA.



4) Methods compared: The frame on the left shows a schematic representation of the disciplinary method used in the humanities. In contrast to this the right side shows the method used by AHA. All sources available of man and his culture are put together and discussed in new ways, not historically but systematically. Many indicators speak for a new 'pre-lithic-fibroconstructive industry' which evidently went through the meshes of archaeology and prehistory.




With the new mobility and the new means of communications on a global level we have to become aware that conventionally we explained culture essentially based on our own Eurocentric Western history - and that this led to a tremendous manifold of speculation, to value systems, to dominance and subordinance, not really knowledge.

Architecture is one of the best domains to show this methodological contrast between history and anthropology. History always depends on what we find in terms of sources and how we interprete them, often glorifying origins which are only transitional fields. See Egypt for instance. Spiro Kostof tried to use what he called the architectural design of Ancient Egypt historically to create a new idol for architectural students of today. His suggestion is not valid. There was no formal creativity in the temples of Ancient Egypt: they were a 'monumentalisation' of fibroconstructive structures developed in the predynastic villages of the Nile valley. No invention as we understand it in the sense of Renaissance. Maybe some advanced engineering, not much more (see below, W. Andrae).

If, on the other hand, we define architecture anthropologically, we can assume that constructive behaviour and fibroconstructive artifacts were about 22 million years old (nest building behaviour of Miocene proto-apes). In view of this deep reaching temporal dimension it is fairly naive to discuss architectural theory with Vitruvius‘s ideas about architecture at the time of the Roman empire.

We have listed two schemes showing the difference between conventional disciplinary methods and AHA. The first scheme  shows the structure of conventional disciplinary interpretation of the history and prehistory of culture. This  view fragmented into different disciplines is a very late post-medieval, resp. enlightened accumulation of post-scholastic reactions against an extremely narrow historistic standpoint. Most people still take it as an adequate and modern concept of knowledge but it works widely with  retroprojections  on earlier conditions.

In contrast to this the second scheme  shows a new prehistory based essentially on anthropological sources (physical anthropology, anthropological definition of material culture). It finds its strongest legitimation in the rich and complex sources of the early city-empires in the Ancient Near East, Egypt, India and China. All these cultures show rich secondary or monumentalised sources based on primary fibroconstructive industries. They all are related to ontologically high value systems which allow us to reconstruct their functions in the buildup of higher social systems through superseding cyclic village cultures with their own, but monumentalised and thus temporally linearised cultural standards. Essential to understand this new approach is Walter Andrae's works and theory in the Ancient Near East and Egypt.

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