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.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Looking Past the Primitive Hut


For the last couple of centuries, a great deal of theoretical architectural discourse has revolved around the concept of the Primitive Hut.  Although this concept has existed since the time of Vitruvius, it entered into serious academic discussion after Laugier used it as the frontispiece of his Essai sur l'Architecture.  It is a fundamental mythologization of architecture.

Although there is absolutely no archeological record of a hut of the type that Laugier described, nor any evidence that anyone prior to the Imperial Romans even theorized the elements of the hut in the manner theorists think about them, it is still an essential key to understanding architectural form.  The ideas that the column is emblematic of the tree and the pediment shed water like the leafy branches above.

However, this is not the only way to mythologize fundamental architectural forms.  Ching, for example, discusses patterns of organization and mathematical proportions.  According to Simon Unwin, there are four fundamental architectural elements; The Bower, the Hearth, The Altar and the Performance Space.  These are then housed in enclosures to create the basic architectural forms of the House, the Temple and the Theatre. 

But it is Unwin's fundamental elements that I am particularly interested in here.  Unwin looks at these from a purely pragmatic, formal analysis in much the same way the architects who have followed Laugier used the Primitive Hut as a formal derivation to explain the Orders, and ultimately even Le Corbusier's Five Points.  But looking at these fundamental elements as formal only completely ignores the cultural context, and what these elements tell us about ourselves.

Before I begin exploring this, I want to discard one of Unwin's elements, the performance space.  If we wish to go back to the most ancient roots, the hearth in it's broader context was the prototypical performance space, where tales were told around the fire.  In their most primitive forms, the Bower, the Hearth and the Altar were the three fundamentals, the performance space followed behind these three as social structure evolved.

I also want to point out, in the beginning, these fundamental elements would not have been "architecture" in the way we currently describe it.  However, if you want to state that architecture is any alteration of the natural environment for human use, then these elements, even in their most primitive state would be architecture. 

I should note here, that I don't personally restrict architecture to purely human actions on the environment.  I consider beaver dams, termite mounds and birds nests to be architecture.  In fact, any modification of the environment by deliberate action for the purpose of habitation could be considered architecture.  Similarly, any alteration of the environment for non-functional purposes could be considered art.  And yes, animals do make art, from Bower Birds lavishly decorating their nests to dogs that deliberately place their toys in specific geometric patterns.

To return to the point, we would probably not see the most primitive of these elements as architecture; a pile of branches for sleeping, a ring of stones to protect a fire, a specific mark on a tree or in a cave, these are what would have been the original forms of these elements.

However, it is not the physical that interests me, it is the significance of them that begins to tell us about the societies.  As I have stated before, architecture is a pure cultural container.  How it is arranged, what it is made out of, even the relationships between uses in proximity tell us volumes about what a society valued, how they viewed the world, what sort of social structure existed.  In terms of pre and proto literate societies, or for ones for which we cannot decipher the written language, it is the only key to understanding them.

But these fundamental elements are also the fundamental elements of mythologization of built form.   Myth the ties of man to man, man to God and man to himself.   Then, in a more meta-analysis, when you examine the role of all the myths aggregated, you discover the overarching understanding of the relationship man to nature, which can be expanded to describe man's place in the cosmos.  For example, a broad reading of Greek Mythology indicates a view that Man is at the mercy of a very capricious an unpredictable universe, whereas Egyptian Mythology shows a very hierarchical, ordered worldview.

Each one of these roles of myth can be tied into the fundamental architectural forms.  

First, we will look at the hearth.  The hearth is the gathering place for the band. (And the period we are talking about would have been band level societies which are the most primitive.)  This form facilities the role of the relationship of man to man.  Around the hearth, the rules of conduct for the band are laid down.  Whether or not they are explicitly stated, children in the fire circle learn from their elders appropriate behavior in relationship to each other.  Adults who violate the behavioral norms are sanctioned.  Problems are addressed and plans are made.  Social hierarchies are established, maintained and sometimes even overthrown.  Around the hearth, all aspects of how one member of society relates to any other are established.

Moving on, we have the Altar.  In primitive societies, this would have been a sacred tree, pool or cave, or some other object in the environment that would have housed the spirit of the supernatural.  In other words, the altar would have been the band's fetish object.  (Remember, a fetish has no relationship to how we use the word today, but described an object that literally houses a God.)  This fundamental element describes the relationship of man to God.  The forms and ceremonies related to worship, even the very nature of that relationship is addressed at the altar.  For example, does the shaman hold dominion over the God, commanding and summoning it, or is the shaman the supplicant begging for intercession?  Is the ritual highly formal or is it more casual?  These are the relationships laid out by the altar and form the second purpose of myth.

The final relationship that is described by myth is the most esoteric, man to himself, and it is given form by the Bower.  It can be said that dreams are how we understand ourselves and how we process the experiences of our lives, and the Bower is the space given over to dreams.  Whereas the first two elements look outwards and upwards, this final element looks inwards.  Sleep is an absolute universal, but how we sleep tells us about our relationships to ourselves, i.e. how we care for our bodies when we cannot consciously protect ourselves.   As such, the location of the Bower begins to tell us where the danger is, on the ground, in the sky, in the earth. 

And this then begins the pivot to the final role of myth in architecture, which is found in the aggregate of understanding all three elements taken together, how man relates to nature or in broader terms, how man is placed in the cosmos.  Does the society view itself as secure or in peril?  Do they dominate or are they dominated?  Are they a part of a greater nature, or are the separate from it?  When we examine Hearth, Altar and Bower we can build a larger image of how the society views their place. 

As societies evolve, these fundamental forms also evolve.  The Hearth becomes the Hall, developing into the Court, the Capitol, the Forum, and through separation from the fire and union with the Altar, the it transforms into the Theatre.  (This is because ancient theatre was a scared rite)  The Altar becomes the Temple, the Church the Cathedral.  The Bower becomes the House, the Castle, the Palace.   But even when this happens, the fundamental forms are maintained, even if abstracted beyond recognition. 

And these fundamental elements dictate the architectural forms of even modern buildings.  How man relates to man dictates whether the administrative spaces place all people on the same level, or if it reinforces a strict hierarchy.   How man relates to God determines the ritual space that surrounds the altar, if it is centered on ritual and procession, or if it is a gathering of a congregation.  The Bower defines the house, as the purpose of the home is for rest and refreshment.

By looking at the basics, and their mythological purpose, we can begin to analyze all societies, even modern ones, through their built form.

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