Architecture and Anthropology
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Architecture and Anthropology

Adam Jasper, Adam Jasper

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eBook - ePub

Architecture and Anthropology

Adam Jasper, Adam Jasper

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About This Book

Both architecture and anthropology emerged as autonomous theoretical disciplines in the 18th-century enlightenment. Throughout the 19th century, the fields shared a common icon—the primitive hut—and a common concern with both routine needs and ceremonial behaviours. Both could lay strong claims to a special knowledge of the everyday. And yet, in the 20th century, notwithstanding genre classics such as Bernard Rudofsky's Architecture without Architects or Paul Oliver's Shelter, and various attempts to make architecture anthropocentric (such as Corbusier's Modulor ), disciplinary exchanges between architecture and anthropology were often disappointingly slight.

This book attempts to locate the various points of departure that might be taken in a contemporary discussion between architecture and anthropology. The results are radical: post-colonial theory is here counterpoised to 19th-century theories of primitivism, archaeology is set against dentistry, fieldwork is juxtaposed against indigenous critique, and climate science is applied to questions of shelter. This publication will be of interest to both architects and anthropologists.

The chapters in this book were originally published within two special issues of Architectural Theory Review.

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Marie Stender
Architecture and anthropology have always had overlapping interests regarding issues such as spatial organisation, forms of human dwellings, and the interplay between social life and physical surroundings. Recent developments in both disciplines make it even more relevant to explore and evolve their overlaps and collaboration. However, there are also challenging differences to take into account regarding disciplinary traditions of, for example, communication, temporality, and normativity. This article explores the potentials and challenges of architectural anthropology as a distinct sub-discipline and outlines its possible theoretical, methodological, and applied contributions. It is proposed that the ambition to understand people in a different way than they understand themselves is key in both disciplines, and that architectural anthropology is consequently not only relevant in studies of vernacular architecture, but also in the contemporary urban environments in which most architects work.


When working as a consultant some years ago, I was involved in a project where the client—a Danish municipality—requested an analysis combining architectural and anthropological approaches to the locality in question. A particular comment from the start-up meeting still stands out clearly to me: “Guys like you and real estate agents, who know what people want…”, said the representative from the architectural office when we tried to sort out a delineation of roles. During the ensuing collaboration, a deeper mutual insight and respect for each other’s disciplinary approaches developed, but this initial comment—however casual—still reveals what can be considered one of the main barriers between architecture and anthropology. Yet, it may turn out to be at the heart of attempts to further develop architectural anthropology. What I am addressing here is the anthropological ambition to understand a group of people from within. For the above architect, this ambition boiled down to “knowing what people want”, even “giving people what they want”, hence limiting the creative freedom and professional expertise of the architect. Yet, anthropology is not just about representing the wants and needs of the people studied. It is also about knowing more about these people than they know about themselves—or rather knowing about them in a different way. It is exactly this, I will argue, that makes anthropology comparable to—and relevant for—architecture, and vice versa. Recently, scholars like Tim Ingold, Victor Buchli, and Albena Yaneva have contributed considerably to an increasing anthropological theoretical interest in architecture.1 In order to also encourage an architectural interest in anthropology and establish the cross-disciplinary field of architectural anthropology, we need to investigate the implications of combining approaches from the two disciplines. In this article, I therefore discuss what architects and anthropologists can learn from each other, and argue in favour of an architectural anthropology beyond the vernacular.
First, the article briefly revisits earlier overlaps and encounters between the two disciplines. I outline their historically shared interest in vernacular architecture as a point of departure for the current developments that actualise their further, and possibly closer, collaboration. Anthropology has become particularly relevant to architecture since the break with modernism and universalism, and because architects are today increasingly working in cultural contexts different from their own. Conversely, current developments within anthropology have brought the discipline closer to architecture. These developments include an increasing interest in contemporary urban settings and the application of anthropological methods in innovation processes as well as in critical analysis. I argue further that the most intriguing contribution to be expected from future architectural anthropology lies in combining anthropology’s current material turn with an architectural approach to materiality. The article then examines the two disciplines’ different approaches to communication, temporality, and normativity, three of the challenges facing architectural anthropology, and considers methodology in practice by way of various examples.


From Vitruvius to Rousseau and Heidegger, so-called “primitive” architectural form has stimulated consideration of the origins of human society and what it means to be human. As British anthropologist Victor Buchli states in his thorough account of the anthropology of architecture, in this respect, the two disciplines have been related from the outset:
The history of anthropology is filled with accounts of longhouses, sketches of the layout of villages, and analysis of how spatial organisation is embedded with cultural meaning. Early Anglo-American anthropological descriptions were primarily fuelled by the ambition to document the broad range of rapidly vanishing cultures,3 whereas in French anthropology, architectural form was primarily approached as representing universal social structures. According to French sociologist Marcel Mauss, architectural form is thus the key technology by which social life and reproduction are made possible,4 Techniques, Technology, and Civilisation and French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss launched the concept of House Societies, highlighting the house as an objectification of relations.5 Along the same lines is French sociologist and anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu’s description of the Kabyle house in Algeria, where he analyses divisions of space as reflecting leading cosmological dichotomies between man and woman, outside and inside, day and night, or, as he coins it, “the world reversed”.6 Danish anthropologist Niels Fock equally finds the big common house of the Waiwai people in Brazil to be their predominant cosmological symbol: “In it is written past and future, proximity and distance as obvious dimensions; what the house is for these people can be compared with what the book is for us”.7 I nterestingly, it did not seem to occur to Fock that buildings in his own society might carry as much cultural meaning as the books more familiar to him. Later ethnographic approaches8 have downscaled symbolic readings of local building forms and concentrated more on how social relations or phenomenological ways of being “at-home-in-the-world” are mediated by windows, walls, or landscapes.9 In general, though, anthropological studies have approached built form as a means to gain insight into cultural meaning or social practice, rather than as an end in itself.10
Architects, on the other hand, have also studied dwellings and buildings around the world, but for slightly different purposes, ranging from the search for aesthetic inspiration or knowledge of functional, tectonic, or material properties, to a foundation for general theories on architecture. According to American architectural historian, Joseph Rykwert, preoccupation with “the primitive hut” in architecture emerges at times when renewal is needed.11 For the French architectural theorists Eugène Viollet-Le-Duc and Marc Antoine Laugier, the primitive hut thus served as a key analytical category through which to think about honesty of materials and architectural form.12 German architect Gottfried Sempers also tended towards anthropological speculation when developing his theory on the origins of architecture. However, it was apparently only aft er he had written The Four Elements of Architecture that he came across a convenient ethnographic confirmation of his theory—a Trinidadian hut displayed in the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London.13 More recently, architects like Canadian Trevor Marchand and American Dorothy Pelzer have engaged in more genuine ethnographic field studies investigating local building techniques and construction skills, in Yemen and Southeast Asia, respectively.14 Danish architect Jørn Utzon also seems relevant to mention here, as he found enormous inspiration in his travels in Morocco, China, and Mexico, though this was not so much a basis for developing a theory of architecture. Rather, it served to prompt him to integrate everyday knowledge and local materials, the use of yellow brick in his Danish works being just one of several outcomes. Even so, the more spectacular and cosmological aspects of, for example, Mayan architecture also became a key source of inspiration for him: the use of platforms in their temples, lift ing the visitor above the jungle top, striving towards the sky and the gods, influenced his development of landmarks like the opera house in Sydney.15
As demonstrated through these examples, anthropologists and architects have long—though for different reasons—shared an interest in studying vernacular architecture, or architecture without architects, as architect Bernard Rudofsky called it in 1964.16 Recently, this concept has been revived through the promotion of New Vernacular Architecture, stressing the environmental and cultural benefits of learning from native building traditions and local materials.17 Of course, a critique of the universalism prevalent in modern architecture is also inherent in the concept, as well as a critique of the homogeneity produced by the global building industry. As shown through numerous anthropological studies, globalisation does not just cause cultural homogeneity—it also goes hand in hand with local quests for identity, variation, and authenticity.18 Anthropological insight thus seems more relevant to architecture than ever, given the fact that architecture is increasingly becoming a global commodity and more architects are creating buildings for cultural contexts quite different from their own. Studies of vernacular architecture can of course provide an understanding of local building traditions and materials, but ethnographic analysis of contemporary cultural identity, spatial organisation, and everyday practice in the given society may be even more useful for the architect working abroad. It is not just for iconic “starchitect” projects in Shanghai and Qatar that it is relevant to consider different cultural ways of using space and different types of relations between public and private. The same goes for the architects and urban planners giving shape to everyday housing and cityscapes “back home”, as these are also becoming increasingly multicultural.


In order to gain knowledge of whom one is actually building for, it should be obvious that anthropological methods may assist. But anthropology can contribute more than just a better understanding of cultural foreignness. While, as mentioned above, architecture has increasingly “gone global”, anthropology by contrast can be said to have “turned home”.
Whereas the majority of anthropologists continue to specialise in “small” societies in faraway places, during the last decades, studying one’s own society has become an integral part of the discipline. Contemporary anthropological studies are thus increasingly focussing on some of the same settings that architects tend to be familiar with: large cities, housing areas, office buildings, or modern institutions like schools and hospitals. Though architecture and anthropology typically present rather different foci, the fact that they are to a large extent approaching the same places and spaces emphasises their potential for collaboration.
Furthermore, design anthropology has evolved during the last decades, not just as an academic sub-discipline, but also as an applied approach in which anthropological methods have proven to be of use in connection with user-driven design. This originated in US innovation companies like INTEL and IDEO, but today, leading ...

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