About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Essence of Architecture


Architecture is a cultural container.  At it's purest form, it is a built representation of our value system, our cultural beliefs, our social structure and even the patterns of our lives.  It represents our views of cosmology, theology, sociology and psychology.   It demonstrates our technology and our science.

In short, you can look at architecture and determine a large amount of information about the culture that built it. 

On a side note, the buildings are one of the main resources available to archeologists.  The buildings, coupled with the artifacts contained within, are typically the only resources you have to understand a pre-literate society.

But why is architecture such a significant identity marker?

The answer comes from the Theory of Essences.  Before I explore how this impacts architecture, I will briefly cover what this term means.

The origins of this theory date back to pre-Socratic Greek philosophy, which addressed what could be termed the "Folk Theory of Essences."   First of all, folk theory refers to an informal theory (as opposed to a scientific theory) and it typically an unconscious characterization.  In the folk theory of essences, you essentially say that there are certain characteristics that define something. 

For example, there are certain identifiers that make an animal a dog.  You are probably not even consciously aware of how you determine the animal bounding toward you is a dog, you just know it is.  It is something we learn as a very small child.  If we came from culture that did not differentiate between dogs and cats, we might have very different folk theory of essences referring to them.  Perhaps we would categorize them as small animals that live in our houses; it might even be possible that we would categorize the small lap dogs with cats while the large working breeds might get lumped in with livestock.

But at the root, the folk theory of essences allows us to identify what something is in relationship to other things like it.  The theory of essences is at the root of ontology.  Dogs and chairs can have very different appearances, but when we see any dog or any chair, we are probably going to know what it is.  (However, don't even get me started on Chinese Cresteds, those are not dogs, they're freaks of nature.)

According to Lakoff, there are three things that characterize what an essence is: essences are substances; essences are forms; and, essences are patterns of change.  These three things are what we analyze to categorize an object.  Everyone does it, it is a part of our psycho-social makeup.  Humans are pattern makers, it's how our brains work.

The folk theory of essences gives us an ability to understand the world around us at a basic level, but for the expert, the theory of essences needs to be combined with Aristotle's theory of categories.  This theory refers to a set of necessary conditions and inherent properties that define something.  We are able to identify a dog by simple characteristics, but a biologist has a far stricter categorization that is necessary to define an animal as a dog.  And sometimes, as in the case of moths and butterflies, even biologists can't actually work up the exact categorical differences.

It should be noted that the theory of essences is not the entire foundation of science, because, as in the moth/butterfly example, these essences do not tell the entire story.  The theory of essences informs scientific thought, but it is not the entirety of scientific theory.  But for fields like architecture, the theory of essences lies at the core of the profession. 

This is where the folk theory of essences comes in, and where it combines with naturalized culture.  Most Americans can look at a strip mall or a church and know exactly what it is.  There are cultural markers that we understand through the folk theory of essences that identify a building for it's purpose.  If we took someone from a vastly different culture, or a different point in history, they would have no idea what the building was or how it was used.  (There is a wonderful book to this effect called the "Motel of the Mysteries" where a group of archaeologists from the future completely misinterpret a motel as a burial complex.  You should see what they think the toilet lid is used for.)

Every group of people is encultured to understand the essences of the objects that surround them.  No one could function without this awareness, because it would mean that every time we encountered a chair that looked different from any chair we had seen before, we would not recognize it as a chair and we would have no idea how to use it.  This explains why, when we excavate objects belonging to non-literate societies, we often cannot figure out how they were used.  This leads to the typical archaeologists dodge, "it must have been ceremonial."  It probably wasn't, but we have no way to understand it's purpose, because we do not understand it's essence.

The architect, on the other hand, cannot simply rely on the folk theory of essences.  Architects, just like any other professional, must understand the expert theory of essences as it relates to their profession.  Architects must do more than recognize the cultural markers that identify a church, they must understand those markers, and understand how to manipulate them without violating their essences.

This is one of the great failings of modernism.  Modernists tried to turn their backs on cultural markers, especially in non-Western cultures such as Chandigarh.  By attempting to remove cultural identity from architecture, they removed many aspects of it's essence.  It is interesting to note, however, eventually culture catches up.  Now we have accommodated Modernism into our folk theory of essences about architecture and we can understand it better.  We can look at a Modernist building and categorize it through our redefined cultural markers, but this understanding took years to penetrate into naturalized culture.

But at the core, the theory of essences is something that architects cannot ignore.  To create architecture that the public can engage, the architect must understand and apply this theory in an expert manner.  An architect can create a church that looks nothing like the traditional church, but he or she must include enough markers for the regular person to feel that the space is sacred.

This is why architects need a diverse education, they must be able to understand all of the factors that feed into our understanding of culture, and by extension, our understanding of architecture.  The architect must enframe society into their buildings, to allow their buildings to help define society. 

It is a powerful cycle.

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