[Oct 5, 2013] Origins: Primitive Misnomer
In ‘Representation and Symbol’, architecture enthusiast and philosophy professor at Yale, Karsten Harries attempts to justify Laugier’s primitive hut by utilizing the etymology of the word architecture as arche’, its timeless origin.1 He says that ‘Successful architecture recalls this arche’ by representing the natural elements of building.’ He continues with his praise when he says that ‘Laugier understands architecture as arche-tecture.’2 Interestingly, however, Harries stops there. He forgets to mention tekhne or tekhno, which is the Greek word-forming element meaning art, skill, craft, or system.3 Arche-tecture, thus, is the timeless origin of art, not the origin of building or shelter.
The primitive misnomer.
Our question: How, and why, does the primitive matter with an architecture today, if spiritual resonance and cosmological understandings differ so greatly throughout different eras? The answer lies in the human condition. By human condition I mean we are one and the same: the same species, with the same make-up. Our superficialities, like religion, morals, and tastes, are insignificant to the similarities at a visceral level. Even more so, thus, what can we learn from the primitive, the original - a culture aligned with this visceral oneness - uncloaked by a mask of irrelevance.
The modern primitive as commonly defined is aligned with pre-architecture rather than origins of architecture. Herein lies its construct as an ideal, and hence the problem. Perhaps the word we are hunting is not primitive, but origins? Or, rather, we challenge the mistaken use of the word through the aforementioned etymology? It is not the ‘primitive’ we are after, it is architecture - the first architecture. Thus, we have to define architecture, and subsequently ‘architectural experience.’ It always come back to the definition of ‘architectural experience’.
Harries, battling his previous self, adopts this distinction between building and architecture in ‘Tales of the Origin of Building’ while referencing Joseph Rykwert. Rykwert gets close to a reading of an ‘architectural experience’ as he relates it to the first house of biblical Adam ‘not as a shelter against the weather’ (and I would also add desire for comfort here) but as ‘a volume which he could interpret in terms of his own body and which yet was an exposition of the paradisal plan, and therefore established him at the center of it.’4 With this description we see the origins, not of building as shelter, but building as a construction of the cosmos. In short, architecture.
Even Vitruvius alludes to this connection between earth, mortal, sky, and the divine when talking of the origins of architecture. He says that first humans would raise their eyes up from the ground and ‘gaze upon the splendor of the starry firmament.’5 Like Hegel and his Symbolic, Corbusier’s ‘architecture’ plays a mediatory role between the realm of external, real objects and that of the geist.
“Le Corbusier’s not-so-primitive barbarians recognize what Hegel recognized, what every architect must recognize: that to build is to appropriate and humanize nature... But the human being is not just another animal but the animal rationale. The animal demands physical shelter, the ratio spiritual. Both demands must be satisfied if there is to be genuine dwelling.”6
Throughout history there has been a general reading of the allegorical primitive, as, well, primitive. The primitive, however, insofar as it relates to prime origins, is that of a discordant relationship between a hut, and architecture.