Playing with futures: the idea of a stable architecture revisited in the face of change


The Gothic arch we find on our churches in Jamaica is indirectly related to desires expressing a wish to return to fundamental principles, the wish to revisit the qualities thought to have informed a past and which got lost somewhere in the process of civilisation. Those windows contain echoes of a vigorous approach to bigness: Big cathedrals, needing big constructions to admit the light of a big God. Bigger than us. As echoes, those Jamaican windows whisper reassurances behind our back. To some they whisper of a warm past in rosy colours, a past that has been sanitised of history, and a past where everything was good and above all clear and which does not smell, like the present.

            Le Corbusier has said about himself, and despite all superficial appearances to the contrary I believe him, that in his search for the new, he was in fact always rummaging in the pile of ruins that constitute our past. The Modern Movement saw a new world and looked everywhere to theorise its agenda for a fitting shell. Modern architecture as it developed in Europe, Russia and America during the early decades of this century is based on a curiously hybrid form of analysis of various forms of architecture including the Greek, Japanese Shoin, the Gothic and what has been called the primitive. I use the word hybrid analysis with reason, as it was at the same time rational and emotional, humanistic and idealistic. And that analysis was not perfect. Often confined by the limitations of cultural bias. But if it was anything, it was vigorous and enthusiastic.


This article is an attempt at re-evaluating what has been called “the primitive”. It will attempt to do this through a search for its complementary relationship with other words, such as progressive. The objective is to establish a directional link between the enthusiastic play with technological possibilities and the architectural accommodation of modern concerns and the seemingly remote culture of small frequently isolated settlements.


The word primitive is a difficult word, partly because it is emotionally charged and partly because it encourages a rift between the European/Western, or rather their often inflated self-image, and the other. This means that to understand such a word’s workings we need to revisit its European constellation of meaning. [1]


Within intellectual circles in Europe, despite the fact that other cultures were frequently misunderstood, the word primitive was also used in a positive sense. For some rather romantic people it was seen as a way of achieving a simple and changeless happiness within the flux of modern life.[2] And for a very small group, the word primitive stood for what was seen to be a return to fundamentals., to first principles.


Whatever the intention, European intellectuals from Diogenes to Rousseau and from Laugier to Picasso, have always looked beyond their own temporal and geographic boundaries for inspiration. As a result of this, the idea of primitivism has featured large in the European Imagination from the beginning.[3]


The desire for the primitive, for a closeness to a somewhat vague concept called nature or the natural, has led some European thinkers to a particular form of anthropology. An anthropology that was informed by the idea of progress but which took that idea down a curious path.


Primitivism[4] developed as a supplement to the concept of progress.[5] As the opposite to the usual view of progress, primitivism was seen either as the starting point of, or the obstacle to progressing. In this last sense the primitive were seen as stagnant. That view was both more widespread and more popularly compelling within European society, and far more unquestioningly accepted. After all it flattered the sensibilities of an urban intelligentsia, who liked all things new and despised anything or anyone without their means to that newness. It was a view that ascribed a primacy to such an urban civilisation as the appropriate paradigm for society and progress was its agent.


That kind of Progress expresses a wonder at technological elaboration. As Heidegger announced, technology is our most common ideology. Such Progressivists often refused to look too deep for the purpose of life for fear that it might be empty, they vested their hopes and efforts of the making of an ideal world somewhere in the future and believed themselves constantly on the threshold of this new order. They were blissfully unaware that their personal struggle to realize their world was their paradise, after all: Doing is being.


They were eager to intervene in any situation where the conditions left something to be desired, something to be completed. They believed the purpose of life to be to make a better world through technology.  And that technology fitted man like a prosthesis, extending the use of his hands, feet and brain. They did not see that such a love for elaboration and change often hides the love of change and gadgets for its own sake.[6] They looked at the technology of consumer products as the increasingly refined means and ends of gnosis. Consumption and devising new ways of consuming occupy the full brilliance of the human mind to deploy activity for the sake of itself. But they enjoy what they do.


There was always another view of primitivism. A view that expressed similar desires to Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. This kind of primitivisms was more related to ways of being which seek inner resolution of the outside and self-sufficiency with things. As its icon it took an image of the world that has never existed in reality, but for which there is a name: the natural.[7] “The natural” is a word in a catechism, the objective of which is the acceptance and appreciation of a world as they imagine it without the accretions of “the artificial”.[8] But to discover what that really means is hard. It starts from the assumption that what man makes is not always natural. And when it is not, it is artificial. Different people point at different things when you ask them for examples of both.


To fit in the world of the natural it requires you to move mountains through the shifting of perspective. The primitivists try to dissolve themselves within the object of their study. Their world is an experiential playground. The objective is to understand, to change things, not by meddling with the things themselves, but by looking at them in another way. It expresses itself in reductions, abstractions that represent essences. But they avoid intervening in the world, except with the lightest possible touch. In the philosophy of primitivists like Rousseau, himself anticipated by Michel de Montaigne, and a number of Greek philosophers, saw the primitive as a form of super-civilised state. A state whereby man could both experience and create consciously within a framework of “the natural”. A state, which had progressed so far as to return to a beginning, thereby achieving an effortless stability. Also this is not new. It shares a lot of characteristics with the idea of moral development and wisdom and is in all sorts of variations visible in the lessons of Buddha, Christ, Zen, Heidegger and Sartre. They lead to a wisdom in which nothingness and negation describe not an emptiness but a fullness. That fullness is exemplified in things like tolerance, openness, consciousness, essentially, the idea of thought and naming things as valid goals by themselves, looking into oneself for change. And their role models are people who, within a narrower focus of their activities, achieve naturalness either through the apparent (miraculous) absence of disappointment or struggle or its overcoming in the practice of disappointment: Michael Jordan, Rembrandt, Maradonna, Mozart, St Augustine, Tolstoy, Miles Davis and all are predicated by the word Great. They are all people who have resolved themselves. The book Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance is a sixties cult icon on this subject and recommended.


But the world cannot be simplified into two rigid categories. Primitivism and progress are not comfortable in their opposition. Being so close together they desire each other too much. They tend towards a marriage in paradox: progress is primitive and the primitive becomes a form of super progress. Primitivism was and, in its modern-day guises, is still no more than a peculiar view of progress. It stands for a different way of progressing towards the same goal, or a transcendent progression to something more worthwhile than the interventionist challenge of worldly concerns. And those who believe in progress may be cruel to anything standing in their way, but they cherish and play with their brainchild in the nicest possible way: they are good fathers and interesting neighbours.


An important ingredient within both views is the icon of civilisation as the ultimate end of progress. Not because civilisation is in itself great, but because civilisation is an imperative due to the scale of our existence. Some progressivists see the primitive as a form of stagnation and backwardness. Some primitivists see progress as expressed in the icons of Disneyworld and mobile phones, as decadent, materialist and errant. Both views are unfortunate.


Such forms of Primitivism essentially react against the view that Civilisation is embo­died in something called urban organisation. And this still holds. And like a disease, primitivism can take on many forms from the luddite[9] to the arcadian[10]. Other Primitivists are people who are simply interested in the reduction of society into more fundamental elements. Perhaps, then, we should explore the idea of civilisation and try to reduce the concept to a simple mathematical equation. Civilisation, or the sense of being civilised appears to increase with the size of the community able to maintain its sense of being well organised.


The bigger the community which perceives itself as being well-organised, the more it feels itself to be civilised above others. After all it requires new levels of organisation to sustain ever-bigger communities. A successful empire was one that could conquer, hold on to, and properly administer a vast amount of land. Large communities which do not achieve a similar sense of their own organisation or which do not answer to the same criteria, or which appear not to answer to those criteria are given third world status.


Hyper-urban life therefore has a cultural primacy in today’s society that may be related to the challenge of organizing great numbers in a certain way. That is what the predicate being developed is essentially all about.


Large cities are impressive; their gravitational pull appears self-evident. But self-evidence is a tautological concept. Smaller cities on the other hand are seen as provincial and comfortable, and villages, well.... rural is the politest term. Archigram in the sixties developed the idea of the instant city, an airborne urban experience, which could descend on provincial towns feeling themselves to be provincial and “out of it”  to give them an experience of urbanism: instant urbanism. Similarly Rem Koolhaas and the architects MVRDV are investigating the pleasures of hyper-density and coming up with fantastic thought and marvellous models for dense living. I will even go as far as saying that the social housing experiments of the sixties were heroic feats of theory. On the other side of the coin  Prince Charles and New Urbanism, which seek the comfort of stability and social cohesion in highly prescribed urban patterns and growth, which, perhaps inadvertently, encourage segregation and insularity. They appear to be the inheritors of the primitivism I will soon talk about. But if you feel things going that way, then you are not taking one essential differentiating ingredient into account: The scale of modern life.


The spatial language of this civilised  hyper urban or sub-urban architecture expresses this complexity and the level of organisation. The most modern office buildings in Hong Kong, Japan and The States are fabulous instances of this complexity. They are cities in themselves. And with the collapse of the WTC buildings and the proto-urban conditions that will flower as a result of the threat of terrorism will only increase their guile and ingenious technology. The houses of those who work in cities lie in the sub-urban sprawls. The very word “Sub-urban” is a word that indicates the distance from the true centre, of which the suburb is a satellite.


The decorative and structural language of this urban archi­tecture is similarly geared to celebrate that sense of civilisation in its complexity. It does that, paradoxically, by consuming the enormous concentration of wealth that made the architecture possible in the first place. The wealth is spent or invested in a desire to display it. A law of reciprocity: a paradox.


In this reciprocal process the economics of conspicuous waste plays an important role. Value is an emotional category of society. And architectural theory in so far as it tries to establish direction through attitude is fundamentally an economic art. All that glitters is gold; in fact, gold is really only another form of glitter. Gold serves no significant practical purpose beyond that of embodying value. That is not to diminish the practical use of value. Value represents the sacrifice of exchange. Without value, exchange would be arbitrary. Value is a very important concept in society. It focuses the direction of a desire.


Decoration is an indication of value, the use of rare and expensive materials, the thought expressed in buildings and the attention to detail are acts of devotion: an expression of value. Leon Battista Alberti, in his De Re Aedificatoria, implies as much when he sees decoration and the ordered articulation of the façade in for example the Palazzo Rucellai, as the divine process of mind ging life to matter.  The embodiment of value in manifest objects is an essential aspect in the complex mechanics of any society. Decoration plays its role in that social mechanics. As such decoration is an important indication of a sense of oneself. But what values do you want to express?


Urban architecture, the architecture of civilisation -or to use that word in a way more indicative of its original meaning- the architecture of citification, values the consumption of wealth and the display of surpluss. Economic surplus is the generative principle of a city economy. Urban economies are successful in what they do if they manage to keep ever larger numbers of people alive….. and well. They do that by creating concentrations of power and wealth to streamline the collective action of a people.


Consumption by way of display is a seemingly necessary by-product of wealth-creation. Thereby consumption becomes something of a sacrificial act, with Keynes as its Messiah, or at least one of its Old Testament prophets.


The progressivist elements in a society measure progress and success by a limited number of criteria. Interestingly enough one of the most important of these is the permanence of a society’s artefacts, a concept that would be understandably thought to contradict the values of progress and change. But the point is that that permanence can express itself in two ways: the literal permanence of an artefact, whereby age becomes venerable, and a permanence of process, whereby permanence is achieved through the eternal renewal of itself. Again one could distinguish two different varieties: replicatory and evolutionary. All three types of permanence are visible in today’s society. The programmed life-expectancy of a building and their maintenance and refurbishment plans is a case of the latter. The co-aligned preservation of our history, our collective experience, is a complicated aspect of the former.


The most literally permanent structures service the most intangible qualities of a society, like its religion and the sense of its own destiny. Monumentality was usually reserved for a small range of building types: religious structures and tombs. Later this came to include buildings holding the power or pride of a city: palaces, city halls etc. In fact the Egyptian hieroglyph for political instability is the tumbling column, an emblem also used in the political cartoons of Modern Europe on the threshold of crisis. Any institution that thrived on stability, or had to defend against the threat of instability became monumental. Looking permanent was halfway to being permanent. Ceaucescu’s palace is a ready example at hand, but there are many. Soon even the domestic setting joined in the game. Monumentality is an act of magic, a response to a sense of the ephemeral, a celebration of a non-existent changelessness in the face of change. Monumentality bombards and inundates uncertainty with stone and concrete.


The belief in economic growth is a kind of religion and a very convincing one. As with many religions it combats the threat of the ephemeral by countering it with the overt manifestation of physical permanence, the permanence of the structure is a coded prayer for the permanence of the institution. Enshrined in stone, size, disaster-proofing etc. the city bank achieves a rhetorical similarity between its architecture and its social and economic aims: Monumentality is an act of investment for the future a girding of value. Much architecture is built to present an indestructible facade to the forces of deterioration. Like the beliefs that serve as the foundation for their existence, they are rigid in the face of the elements. But in modern architecture, that image comes at a cost. Older building collected age as a treasure. Dust was a sign of the venerable. Modern building need to shine and cannot bear dust. For dust, more than ever is an emblem of stagnation.


The sense of permanence in architecture is traditionally achieved by the durability of materials and their secure construction. Nowadays it is achieved by the calculation of a building’s life-span, the flexibility in its program and the polishing of its surface. Buildings in today’s society regenerate themselves only by offering themselves up to renewal. Restoration is a form of regeneration that is so expensive it is only done when the building is an icon with heritage value. In the act of restoration the full rich texture of acquired age is lost and replaced with a more narrow didacticism, usually serving nationalist purposes and the industry of heritage tourism.


Urban society has traditionally stressed the virtues of a permanence achieved by a single act of building. Above and beyond a minimum of maintenance even the consumer structures of today expect only a single lifespan. They have become interim structures within the fast movement of technology and fashion.


During the sixties and seventies, the Metabolists of Japan, the Archigram group in England, Superstudio in Italy, Hollein and Coop Himmelb(l)au in Austria and Otto Frei in Germany led the way by creating thinking an architecture that could be answer the wishes for mobility and freedom of a modern society. Buildings and whole cities usually requiring at least a permanent framework, would allow the programmatic units of this new society to be plugged and unplugged, to serve a new global metabolism. They failed. They failed not least because technology and fashion were moving too fast. At the heart of their concept of infinite change and exchange, of plugging in and unplugging the carefully differentiated functionally determined units of their society, was the idea of a permanent structure based on the (emergent) technology of the age.  The drama of a plug-in society, with its constant thirst of freedom of movement and mobility required the ubiqituity of a standard in which that universal interchangeability could work. And this, by implication would need to be a structure of some permanence to make it economically and culturally viable. They had designed in the mistaken belief that they were standing on the threshold of an ideal world, which by its very definition, is changeless and permanent. This is what gives the science fiction of the time its pathos. The Film 2001, a space odyssey is a beautiful and penetrating glance into a future indelibly marked by the cultural landscape of the sixties in which it was created.  However, the concept of maintenance through renewal remains so well imbedded in Japanese cultural and religious traditions, such as for example the 20 year life-cycle of the Shinto Temple and its mirrored building site, that we may hope the idea of metabolism will be revisited again and again until it finally finds a way.


The point is that this may give us a foot in the door for the re-evaluation of another kind of architecture.


There is a buzz-word which has been going around around in the world over the last decade or so. It is called: sustainable development. It seems to want to marry the concepts of progressivism and primitivism. It wants to have a world and eat it.


Assuming that the reader is familiar with the kind of permanence that resides in monumentality, and the denial of the ephemeral nature of existence, this article wants to go a little way in exlploring the second type of permanence and its relevance to that concept of sustainable development. And in so doing it is trying to look at some forms of architecture in a different way.


Rather too late perhaps, the quest for sustenance is providing us with a lesson from the stable communities which until now have been called traditional or primitive.


I would like to take a generalist’s look at those supposedly primitive societies and learn their lesson. The word primitive here is essentially anti-thetical. It judges not on indigenous criteria, but relative ones informed more by cultural arrogance. Those societies that want to call themselves Western have assumed that we are all on a course of improvement and each community or society has achieved a certain degree of advancement. That is how labels such as primi­tive, underdeveloped, developping, etc. have been justified.


Sentimentalists feeling sorry for the developing or primitive communities, say, "Well you shouldn't measure these people with the same yardstick, you shouldn't compare apples and oranges.”[11]


I don't like sentimentality. And if I am an apple I will certainly not let myself acquire the easy option of calling others oranges. We know where that leads, we’ve been there before, and, since September 11, 2001, there is little that is preventing us from undertaking the same odyssey again.


There are a lot of disadvantages to so-called primitive societies, as many as there are advantages. We do not need to be romantic either. Nor can they be homogenised as I am doing for the purposes of this sentence.


One of the qualities that some of these supposedly primitive societies exhibit, from New Guinea, through to Africa to South America and back around to Oceania, is relevant to this idea of sustainable development. And it is only according to that quality that I want to assemble them.


In fact the societies that have been called primitive can be best characterized by their conserving stability. Not by ignorance; not by the negritudinist antithetical qualities of rhythm, physicality, intuitition etc. nor by their supposed reliance on instinct. In all that they differ in no way from any other people. They differ only in the focus of their culture.


They differ in their methods for ensuring the stability of their life. They do not deny change, they move with it. That is no indication of backwardness. Let’s face it, the undoubted benefits of technological progress are relative to the extreme. Our blind faith in science and technology deserves, in one sense, to be called backward as it has brought us to the edge of of the most penetrating environmental catastrophe in the history of mankind. Just as the ancient cities of the Indus Valley, such as Mohenjo Daro, consumed themselves through the consumption of their environment, we are threatening to do the same.


The societies I am talking of, are or were advanced in at least one sense: they had found a way of being that was essentially stable in that it regenerated itself according to pattern which was anything but arbitrary: the change of the seasons and the resulting agricultural rhythms.


Admittedly the conditions for that stability were propitious. Africa, North & South America and Australia presented a vast and seemingly limitless expanse of space in which to multiply by division. The size of each community could be kept at the optimum level of density for subsistence by allowing a group of people to split off from the main group every now and then. At the same time the environment often offered a hermetic seal within which to preserve and develop an oral culture which preserved its collective experience while remaing relevant to current concerns.


Perhaps many of these societies did discourage individual deviation from the communal norm. And maybe that is repressive. Many of the rituals of initiation and confirmation are distasteful to members within a society who value the right of the individual. But, if one thinks about it, such rites are no more distasteful than aesthetic surgery, breast implants, and the experimentation on foetusses and animals. There is always the dream of a greater good. In both cases it is the society which forms the motive force behind such interventions.


People in every society are motivated according to a more or less rigid system of beliefs. The hyper-urban society is no different to the insulated rural society in this respect. The difference in quality is incumbent on the difference in quantity. The difference is a factor of scale not constitution. Even if we insist on the primacy of science in the civilisation process, we can supplement that with a another way of looking at ourselves: the handful of scientists that are responsible for the various scientific, technological and social revolutions that have come to characterise The West, were rarely, if ever, encouraged by the society which they were part of. Many innovators were ostracised from their community for the things they said and did. It was only when their discoveries were translated into technologies of comfort that their arguments became compelling. Examples are hardly necessary, surely. Scientific advancement came at a price determined by the ignorant and the suspicious more often than not incited by the vested interests of the powerful. And even when the innovators managed to advance their cause, the benefits were often compromised and sullied by the parasitical behaviour of greed.


Whatever the answer to all this, the challenge for architects now is to design for an increasingly urban environment in a way that will allow us a measure of environmental stability.


In preparation for such a discussion I would like to take this opportunity to rename what has been called primitive or traditional architecture. The word primitive has reduced people to children, under the mistaken illusion that children and primitive people share qualities of intellectual rawness. Their lives were supposed to be less processed, somehow more instinctive, less rational. Thank goodness that the word primitive has already long since lost its intellectual currency even if it does persist in popular use.


How to get rid of such persistent images? One way is to look at the architecture of these societies and to compare it to our own and do so until it can be appreciated for what it is in itself, rather than as something relative to an other.


The architecture exhibited by the Bamileke tribes of Northern Cameroon, for example, are hardly backward or primitive. The buildings exhibit a technological sophistication that can vie with any other building on that scale. The techniques of weaving and binding are highly sophisticated. The abstrction in the sculpture and decoration purposeful. The thing to note is the adequacy to its particular purpose. The architecture suits a way of life.


If we were to divide the world into two kinds of people we could denote two opposite tendencies both starting from the same point. The first modifies the environment to suit them, the others modify themselves to suit the environment. These two tendencies can exist within one and the same person. It is a feature that explains the extraordinary paradox in Chinese architecture for instance. On the one hand there is the strict grid in which people are ordered within the land, the city and the house, and on the other is the extreme sensitivity with which that grid touches the ground and responds to the landscape.


The significant thing to note with many African tribal communities is that such societies had no demand for buildings on the scale that reduce men to termites. (and, talking of ermites, who can fail to appreciate the extraordinary sophistication of a well ventilated termite hill?) Buildings within the Fali tribes are instruments of social cohesion, religious precaution, climatic regulation. They are beautiful structures which touch lightly.


A chief's house from the Fiji islands, is technically sophisti­cated, monumental in its conception, and highly sober and abstract in its shape, in fact it has all the qualities we should admire as 20th century aesthetes. The Nomadic architecture recently described by Labelle Prussin, is physically, socially and symbolically functional.[12]


Such buildings have been called primitive because of some aberration committed in the innocence of a solipsistic Western view of itself. Judgement has centred around foreign criteria, and has, unfortunately been rather too successful. The irony is that such an act of centrism is not unique to The West. The tragedy is that The West even managed to convince their colonies of their own backwardness.[13] That in itself is another reason to relativate the West’s sense of its own advancement. Any accusation of backwardness tends ultimately to reflect badly on the accuser and not on the culture accused.


Perhaps the label of primitivism is then justified a posteriori to describe the way the builders manipulate materials that are ready to hand and demand a minimum of collective organisation, the lack of specialised labour involved, the lack of a way of processing the material.


But, as we have just seen, the process of manipulation is often highly sophisticated and func­tional, the level of collective activity assembles around the building of similar institutions as we find anywhere: the temple, the palace, the town hall (or any of its modern-day substitutes such as the corporate office). As to the lack of specialisation being seen as an indication of underdevelopment, their level of specialisation is geared to their scale of intervention within the environment they live. Instead of being derogatory about the lack of specialisation one should admire the their breadth of ability. Most Westerners do not understand the machines they wield with such unthinking confidence. The man who uses the mobile phone is not necessarily capable of making one. Nor is the car a German invention, it is the invention of a Mr Daimler and a Mr. Benz who lived in Germany, but who looked eagerly to the technological innovations created by other excentrics in England, France and Italy


In evaluating the icons of mdoern society we have to ask ourselves: what is it all for?


I am reminded of a beautiful truth recently passed to me by Prof. Ivor Smith, who quoted a man with a very long name saying an artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist. and that, I believe reflected on the social stability of the highly artistic cultures within Bali, where people worked the land in the morning and made things in the afternoon.


Furthermore, their use of materials, was, until modern life disrupted so many of these societies, sustainable. If they did not expressly return what they took from the earth, their taking was so thinly spread and so lightly processed as to allow the earth to lay fallow and regenerate itself.


The problem that the West has created in its aesthetics of order and clear and distinct categories, is the problem of concentration and surplus. The concentration of people, of wealth, of consumption, of waste, of energy. We now have to learn to deal with that. One way will be to learn the lesson of chaos, the lesson of a more complex order, which does not rely on the simplistic geometry of straight lines and violent categories that has dominated Western thought for so long and has founf ultimate expressionin the simplistic circular and rectangular geometry of the “ideal city”.


We have to focus on the resolution of concentration. To find a way of recreating the spread which allowed the world a fallow period to regenerate itself. We have to reinvent the spread so as to make the world able to cope with the enormous demands we will continue to impose on it. That is a lesson that the stable societies had learnt long ago. They knew of the lesson of the straight line, the violence of clarity and distinction.


I would like to call the architecture of these stable societies: Archi­tecture.


It is a dreadful name and one that will most certainly not catch on. The best name for the various architectures previously labelled as primitive would be one that would take on the name of the particular community to which a certain way of building belongs. Bamileke architecture, Dogon architecture etc. A much better collective name would perhaps refer to its level of permanence, such as Nomadic architecture etc.


That stability resided in a very special quality.


Colonialism has disrupted many of these stable communities, their subse­quent instability has had disastrous effects, as is plain from the perma­nent inebriation of so many aboriginals in Australia, and Indians in North America, the annihilation of so many South American Indians and the fragmentation and dispersion of Africa. If many of these are now in the process of redefining themselves, and that is good, it does not however, lessen the dreadful experience they have been through.


The glitter of this thing called progress has however, disrupted societies from within as well as from without. As Cesaire comments. “Europeanisation” would have probably happened without that greed that is euphemised by the concept of colonisation. There are genuine beauties in science and technology.


Above and beyond that we have to make a careful contrast between the architecture of the destitute and confused, the de-structured and identity-less peoples who populate the ravages of this process of development and the stable commun­ities that preceded them. Not that there are no lessons to be learnt from shanty-towns, far from it, but they is not the subject of this article.


Nor should it be thought that the West were universally derogatory about these pre-colonial or supposedly primitive communities. Jean Jacques Rousseau was intending no irony in prefacing his Essai sur l’inequalité of the Zulu rejecting the Dutch invading culture and wanting to return to his own village. The word primitive in Rousseau’s dictionary denoted a desirable purity, a state that transcended the urban civilisation he criticised. That purity he sees in the primitive was not an “Innocence”.  Whatever the confines and limits of his mind, that primitivism denoted a super-civilised state, a state where the urban product had re-discovered his purpose. The famous essay by Montaigne On cannibals, is similarly sophisticated in its evaluation of another culture. Through their perspective they were able to develop a non relativist view of another radically different culture, appreciate it, not so much on its own terms, with which they were not familiar, but on the basis of an assumption that did not allow our own values to achieve an unquestionable primacy.


Here is Joseph Thomson travelling in East Africa during the 1880’s: "It seemed a perfect Arcadia," and he was not just referring to the landscape but especial­ly to the way in which the landscape was organized with neat farms interspersed with immense shady trees with "charmingly neat circular huts with conical roofs and walls hanging out all round with the clay worked prettily into rounded bricks and daubed symmetrically with spots."[14]


The word charming is in no sense pejorative when it is used by an nineteenth century Englishman grown up on an aesthetic diet of “the picturesque.” It is a word intending to be positive and to engender something desirable. It frames the description of a desirable order, organisation, peaceableness and prosper­ity.


Such descriptions abound even if they are not as numerous as the easier view. An example of the latter within the area of architecture is the famous essay by Adolf Loos On ornament and Crime.[15] In fact examples of racial relativism abound, as graphically illustrated by authors such as Aimé Césaire.[16]


But those who did manage to see with eyes that allowed them to appreciate that other culture and to thereby modify their view of their own all have something in common emphasise the apparent stability and seeming timelessness of these cultures. They appeared to have achieved a desirable light permanence.


The point is that the architecture of these stable societies, is not itself permanent, the object is frequently ephemeral; permanence transcends the actual structure. the permanence of these society, their stability, is the permanence of the seasons, of the eternal return, to borrow a phrase from Mircea Eliade.


The organisation of life was based on the need to subsist, to acquire food and the question as to how to get enough of it. That fundamental preoccupation is expressed in the architecture, in the political and religious structure of the communities in their division of labour, use of the land and division of the sexes.


The whole purpose of their life appeared to consist in the acquisition of enough. The whole and sole purpose of urban society is to create and ensure a surplus, so that there is enough for a greater number of people. Here lies the difference, if anyone can see it.


Some of these communities hunted, some were nomadic, travelling around with their herds, some gathered, some farmed, some did a combination of all three, but the thing that characterised them all is that they moved around: Their houses were permanent but only in the sense that the blueprint was permanent, the know-how, so that the actual structure was easily renew­able.


Religion, which so often seems to need the most permanent structures to force its point, was something that inhabited their environment, in fact served as the main organisational principle of the environement. It needed nothing to incase it and turn it to stone.


These societies had similar problems to ensure that Kings and chiefs were kept in the service of the people rather than the other way around. Institutions were consequently developed to show the king his duty to prove to his people that he was able to carry his kingship.[17]


Every social act or ritual was designed to further the stability of the community as a whole. And architecture was a significant instrument within that process.


The architecture was stable because the organisation was stable, the pattern of that organisation was stable and the material to realize the pattern was limited by the environment.


Do we need examples?


But if the architecture of stable societies is limited by the environment and what it offers, it is given form by the limiting effect of a fascinating conservatism.


What characterises stable societies is their emphasis on conservation of traditions, of moral norms etc. But there is a fundamental difference between their conservatism and the reactionary image it might conjure up in the minds of many.


Their conservatism was not reactionary. The creative element within that conservatism is the fact that is a conservation based on memory. Precepts were not written down. Non-literate people are not non-literate, that is a negative and relativist view of their existence. If we have to impose a Western label, then let us at least give them the benefit of sympathy, call their non-literacy Socratic. They are Socratic for the same reason that Socrates was. He distrusted a text without its author. He distrusted readers and their pervasive tendency to harden their own interpretation into dogma. In fact it is the written text that has given us the challenge against dogmatism. That lack of written texts was itself a guarantee against such rigidity.


They form what one anthropologist has called a "we" culture.[18] Such societies discourage a brash individuality, the individual is geared to the greater good. Self interest is recognised as being a necessary part of the greater interest. While the greater interest reflects back to benefit the individual.


And the greater good is felt to lie in the preservation of origins. Therefore cosmological and cosmogonical myths serve to teach the values of preservation.


In some societies it is linguistically difficult to distinguish the live people one may talk about from the dead people one may talk about.[19] The ancestor, frequently related to the original creator created a balanced world, where the strict observation of certain activities would ensure survival.


Community life would be geared to the preservation of that balance to the detriment of individual development.


In analyzing the architecture of stable societies as a useful paradigm for our own future development, we have to exercise a broad definition of architecture that extends from the religious organisation of the territory, through the question of ownership of the land to the form of a granary.


As such architecture is both a product and an instrument of social cohesion.


For nomadic societies architecture is essentially the organization of the territory, of the land in which they move.[20]


Construction is always in the service of the society. Just as it should be in our supposedly developed world. To regain that balance we might learn from the idea that construction in stable societies is secondary to its purpose: the dwelling is of value only in so far as it is easily constructed and, if taken along, light and portable.


For many stable societies the nomadic life is the sign of health, just as movement of water is necessary for health.[21]


For nomads the city, with its smelly streets, its accumulated and concentrated waste, its rubbing of people is stagnant and dirty, and becomes morally reprehensible: A Sodom and Gomorrah.


For hunter gatherers, the dwelling is built as needed, used and abandoned. It is effortlessly re-absorbed by the earth. Every so many days the re-enactment of the origins of architecture takes place with the people inhabiting (Pygmies are a good example) They rehearse their beginning both in a ritual sense and in a physical sense. Just as we do when we cover our face with an open book and sleep in the garden.


In parts of Africa and Australia it is often not the climate that demands the building, it is the fire which needs protection. Building such dwellings never requires more than the collective action of the family. It maintenance is a fundamental social activity. The construction of such houses is an image not of the society but of the family.


Only the way they are arranged within the campsite reflects the relations between families and groups. The architecture of the hunter gatherer is not poor, it is highly sophisticated if one takes architecture to mean the organisation of the landscape into a pattern of landmarks, of memories and significance.


It is the territory that becomes an instrument of social order, just as the modern building enforces social ritual and order.


It is also on the landscape that the community focuses its interpretative project; making sense of our being here. The territory takes on a structure that is useful to delineation of rights and privileges. The rights of groups are localized to specific places and sometimes specific foodstuffs.


When agriculture is the predominant activity, the crucial factor becomes ownership of the land.


Land is divided into the natural and the cultivated, the wild and the tamed and then the cultivated land is subdivided among the farmers.


As a result the house can become more permanent, although the intricate rotational farming of many African farmers means that they still move around, but less frequently. Nevertheless their houses become more complex and more durable.


Ownership and the subsequent social stratification means that constructed objects such as houses and granaries become institutions of displayed status, of belonging.


Even so the construction is only a small part. More important is the division and arrangement of space.


The spatial language of architecture involves territorial organisation: the reciprocal relationship of buildings to each other, relative dimensions and orientation.


The artistic language of architecture is to enhance that spatial hierarchy by embodying certain parts with greater significance or value: the entrance is a universally special event.


This language of architecture thus joins up with language as a whole. Plotting value spatially, just like one does with words. He thinks on a higher level etc. becomes: the king sits on a higher level.


This organisation of space always reflects a divine model that is used to justify the groups presence in the area, its right to own property there and in some measure to control the land,


It determines the relationship to aliens, the relationships between members of the clan etc.[22]


Everything becomes conditioned by the need for an exact repetition of the events of the original creation.


The myth has a practical value as it serves to preserve the activities and tasks of each season, it helps to find one's way about in the territory


And it is a major stabilizing force. Giving everyone their secure place within the great scheme of things.


The interesting part is played by the memory of the human body. The land, the site, the plan of the house and the houses physiognomy are all to some extent governed by analogy to the human body.


The human body with its salient features, are easily recognizable and so rigorously shared by everyone, its strict and clearly distinguished hierarchy of parts and functions, serves to give coherence to the structuring of a society. Anthropomorphy is the endowment of a structure which comes nearest to a self-evident and necessary order.


The same can be said for the projection of human characteristics onto animals.


The Dogon house on the Bandiagara escarpment in Mali is said to express a very complicated cosmology. Each house is said to represent a man lying on his right side in the position adopted in the womb.


But all this must not be exaggerated. Not every Dogon would be conscious all the time that he was creeping back into his mother's womb every time he entered his house.


Sometimes the explanation of a form post-dates the form itself.


What is important is that the architecture of Africa cannot be distinguished by such false categories as intuitiveness, primitiveness, un-self-consciousness. It is distinguished by a stability that is achieved not by the permanence of the object itself, as it is with monumental architecture in the West, in Egypt and in India, the Central American civilisations prior to Colonisation and elsewhere. It is a permanence informed by the preservation of information: of ways of doing.


African architecture and the Australian organisation of land is a highly self-conscious, and very complex process. What it is meant to ensure is stability in the face of the uncertain. Stability in the face of potential destruction. It is the stability of rhythm.


If the monumental architecture of Europe, India etc. is permanent until it is worn away, or restored to a false presence by the restorers and preservationists, the architecture of China, Japan, Africa and Aboriginal Australia is permanent in a way that points us to a way of achieving a sustainable development.


The essay by Adolf Loos, to keep discourse within the confines of architecture, on ornament and crime is more than illustrative of that.[23] But examples of racial relativism abound, as graphically illustrated by authors such as Aimé Césaire.[24]


It is a form which has had its meaning rebuilt again and again. It started out as an inspirational answer to a structural challenge. It continued simply by saying “church” and then came to stand for something special that has got lost in the rush for progress. It is a complex history and one which cannot be rehearsed here even though the product is useful as an emblem for this essay.


But all this brings us to the question: whence now? I would suggest that it is precisely the experimetalist attitude that has sustained the Metabolists, the Archigrams, the Frei Otto’s, the Buckminster Fullers, the Rem Koolhaasses that point the way. Moreover, I believe, that in their theorising of the changing world they in fact carry on an attitude that best describes what we would like to call primitive or traditional. The attitude of measuring ends against means. Of being sensitive to conditions and adapting the instruments of our comfort to the delight of those conditions and intervening where necessary. But they have seen the change that is the result of our freedom, the change that is the result of our growth, the change in the scale of our existence and are imaging the conditions under which existence within those new conditions are good. Aristotle is supposed to have defined the city as a place where people come to live the good life. I have never been able to trace that definition. But I’ll accept it. We are changing the scale of our subsistence and we need to respond intelligently, and not by jerking our knee into the crutch of those we fear or despise because of our ignorance and suspicion. Pretending that the world should look to a cosseted and re-imagined past, which, moreover, has lost its smell, is truly destructive. Segregating the rich from the poor by creating insular communities of privilege, will create ignorant leaders. We need to be playful in our approach to the future, we need to listen to our eccentrics when they sing the song of their dreams and above all we must be fearless of the future. Bigness needs more theorizing.


[1]A Definition from Microsoft Bookshelf 1998:

prim·i·tive (prîm¹î-tîv) adjective

Abbr. prim.

1.     Not derived from something else; primary or basic.

2.     a. Of or relating to an earliest or original stage or state; primeval. b. Being little evolved from an early ancestral type.

3.     Characterized by simplicity or crudity; unsophisticated: primitive weapons. See synonyms at rude.

4.     Anthropology. Of or relating to a nonindustrial, often tribal culture, especially one that is characterized by a low level of economic complexity: primitive societies.

5.     Linguistics. a. Serving as the basis for derived or inflected forms: Pick is the primitive word from which picket is derived. b. Being a protolanguage: primitive Germanic.

6.     Mathematics. An algebraic or geometric expression from which another expression is derived.

7.     Relating or belonging to forces of nature; elemental: primitive passions.

8.     a. Of or created by an artist without formal training; simple or naive in style. b. Of or relating to the work of an artist from a nonindustrial, often tribal culture, especially a culture that is characterized by a low level of economic complexity.

9.     Of or relating to late medieval or pre-Renaissance European painters or sculptors.

10.   Biology. Occurring in or characteristic of an early stage of development or evolution.



1.     Anthropology. A person belonging to a nonindustrial, often tribal society, especially a society characterized by a low level of economic complexity.

2.     An unsophisticated person.

3.     One that is at a low or early stage of development.

4.     a. One belonging to an early stage in the development of an artistic trend, especially a painter of the pre-Renaissance period. b. An artist having or affecting a simple, direct, unschooled style, as of painting. c. A self-taught artist. d. A work of art created by a primitive artist.

5.     Linguistics. A word or word element from which another word is derived by morphological or historical processes or from which inflected forms are derived.

6.     Computer Science. A basic or fundamental unit of machine instruction or translation.

[Middle English, from Old French primitif, primitive, from Latin prìmitìvus, from prìmitus, at first, from prìmus, first.]

— prim¹i·tive·ly adverb

— prim¹i·tive·ness or  prim´i·tiv¹i·ty noun

[2] cf. Joseph Rykwert, On Adam’s House in Paradise, The Idea of the Primitive Hut in Architectural History, 1981.

[3] Lovejoy *

[4] A definition from Microsoft Bookshelf, 1998:

prim·i·tiv·ism (prîm¹î-tî-vîz´em) noun

1.     The condition or quality of being primitive.

2.     The style characteristic of a primitive artist.

3.     a. A belief that it is best to live simply and in a natural environment. b. A belief that the acquisitions of civilization are evil or that the earliest period of human history was the best.

— prim¹i·tiv·ist adjective & noun

— prim´i·tiv·is¹tic adjective

[5] A definition from Microsoft Bookshelf, 1998:

prog·ress (pròg¹rès´, -res, prgrès´) noun

1.     Movement, as toward a goal; advance.

2.     Development or growth: pupils who show progress.

3.     Steady improvement, as of a society or civilization: a believer in human progress. See synonyms at development.

4.     A ceremonial journey made by a sovereign through his or her realm.


verb, intransitive   pro·gress

pro·gressed, pro·gress·ing, pro·gress·es (pre-grès¹)

1.     To advance; proceed: Work on the new building progressed at a rapid rate.

2.     To advance toward a higher or better stage; improve steadily: as technology progresses.


— idiom.

in progress

Going on; under way: artistic works that are in progress.

[Middle English progresse, from Latin progressus, from past participle of progredì, to advance : pro-, forward. See pro-1 + gradì, to go, walk.]

[6] My colleague Flip Krabbendam is about to publish a dissertation where he divides the world into two sorts of people: those with a “conditionalist”, and those with an “instrumentalist” attitude to the world. The first approach the world experientially. They are conscious of the conditions they find themselves in and value those conditions on their own terms. The other narrows experience down to absences and always seeks for something it is missing and proceeds to intervene in the conditions presented to him in order to complete something that is felt lacking. At the risk of oversimplifying the argument, I think I can summarise the thesis as follows. Krabbendam, acknowledging the value of both approaches, seeks a syncretism between the two, whereby the two approaches combine to form an attitude in the architect whereby he so interprets the brief set by the client (who is looking for an appropriate condition for living or working but is partially blinded through cultural programming) that the resultant design becomes like present given by the architect to the client. The client, on opening the present, discovers a need for the object he had never before realised.

[7]A definition from Microsoft Bookshelf 1998:

 nat·u·ral (nàch¹er-el, nàch¹rel) adjective

Abbr. nat.

1.     Present in or produced by nature: a natural pearl.

2.     Of, relating to, or concerning nature: a natural environment.

3.     Conforming to the usual or ordinary course of nature: a natural death.

4.     a. Not acquired; inherent: Love of power is natural to some people. b. Having a particular character by nature: a natural leader. See synonyms at normal. c. Biology. Not produced or changed artificially; not conditioned: natural immunity; a natural reflex.

5.     Characterized by spontaneity and freedom from artificiality, affectation, or inhibitions. See synonyms at naive.

6.     Not altered, treated, or disguised: natural coloring; natural produce.

7.     Faithfully representing nature or life.

8.     Expected and accepted: “In Willie's mind marriage remained the natural and logical sequence to love” (Duff Cooper).

9.     Established by moral certainty or conviction: natural rights.

10.   Being in a state regarded as primitive, uncivilized, or unregenerate.

11.   a. Related by blood: the natural parents of the child. b. Born of unwed parents; illegitimate: a natural child.

12.   Mathematics. Of or relating to positive integers.

13.   Music. a. Not sharped or flatted. b. Having no sharps or flats.



1.     a. One having all the qualifications necessary for success: You are a natural for this job. b. One suited by nature for a certain purpose or function: She is a natural at mathematics.

2.     Music. a. The sign (J) placed before a note to cancel a preceding sharp or flat. b. A note so affected.

3.     Color. A yellowish gray to pale orange yellow.

4.     Games. A combination in certain card and dice games that wins immediately.

5.     An Afro hairstyle.

[Middle English, from Old French, from Latin nâtúrâlis, from nâtúra, nature. See nature.]

— nat¹u·ral·ness noun

[8] A definitions from Microsoft Bookshelf 1998:

ar·ti·fi·cial (är´te-fîsh¹el) adjective

Abbr. art.

1.     a. Made by human beings; produced rather than natural. b. Brought about or caused by sociopolitical or other human-generated forces or influences: set up artificial barriers against women and minorities; an artificial economic boom.

2.     Made in imitation of something natural; simulated.

3.     Not genuine or natural: an artificial smile.

[Middle English, from Old French, from Latin artificiâlis, belonging to art, from artificium, craftsmanship. See artifice.]

— ar´ti·fi´ci·al¹i·ty (-fîsh´ê-àl¹î-tê) noun

— ar´ti·fi¹cial·ly adverb

Synonyms: artificial, synthetic, ersatz, simulated. These adjectives are compared as they refer to what is made by human beings rather than natural in origin. Of these terms artificial is broadest in meaning and connotation: an artificial sweetener; artificial flowers. Synthetic often implies the use of a chemical process to produce a substance that will look or function like the original, often with certain advantages, such as enhanced durability or convenience of use or care: synthetic rubber; a synthetic fabric. An ersatz product is a transparently inferior imitation: ersatz coffee; ersatz mink. Simulated refers to what is made to resemble or substitute for another often costlier substance:  a purse of simulated alligator hide; simulated mahogany paneling

[9] Lud·dite (lùd¹ìt) noun

1.     Any of a group of British workers who between 1811 and 1816 rioted and destroyed laborsaving textile machinery in the belief that such machinery would diminish employment.

2.     One who opposes technical or technological change.

[After Ned Ludd, an English laborer who was supposed to have destroyed weaving machinery around 1779.]

— Lud¹dism noun

[10] Ar·ca·di·an (är-kâ¹dê-en) adjective

1.     Of or relating to the ancient Greek region of Arcadia or its people, language, or culture.

2.     Often arcadian . Rustic, peaceful, and simple; pastoral: a country life of arcadian contentment.



1.     A native or inhabitant of the ancient Greek region of Arcadia.

2.     Often arcadian . One who leads or prefers a simple, rural life.

3.             The dialect of ancient Greek used in Arcadia.

[11] Denyer *

[12] Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture, Space,PLace and Gender, Washington, 1995.

[13] Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade, Vol. 1 , p. *.

[14] Denyer*

[15] Adolf Loos, Ornament and Crime, (1908) from: Ulrich Conrads, Programmes and Manifestoes on 20th Century Architecture, London 1970, pp. 19-24.

[16] Aimé Césaire, *, (19*) from: I Am Because we Are, *

[17] *

[18] *

[19] *

[20] cf.Bruce Chatwyn, Songlines,*

[21] ibidem.

[22] Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane

[23] Adolf Loos, Ornament and Crime, (1908) from: Ulrich Conrads, Programmes and Manifestoes on 20th Century Architecture, London 1970, pp. 19-24.

[24] Aimé Césaire, *, (19*) from: I Am Because we Are, *