Technology’s third wave is challenging many notions of home which have been cherished in architectural theory since Vitruvius. Here, two architects from the University of Newcastle explore, in computer animation and text, the idea of the primitive hut at the end of the 20th century.
Plan of Stage 2.
More photos can be found
in the version!
Illustrated essay Michael Ostwald and John Moore
In the present rethinking of why we build and what we build for, the primitive hut will, I suggest, retain its validity as a reminder of the original and therefore essential meaning of all building for people: that is, of architecture-Joseph Rykwert, On Adam’s House in Paradise: The Idea of the Primitive Hut in Architectural History (MIT Press, 1989).
In the last years of the 20th century, the role of architecture as mediator between man and nature has increasingly been usurped by technological invention. The human body, the historic measure of architecture, is no longer tied to the physical world but, through the agencies of virtual reality and cyberspace, has become fluid and indeterminate.
The challenge for architecture now is to step beyond the physical threshold that governs the conventional spaces of the home and into the phenomenal or simulated spaces of the mind. This hypothetical interface between the real and the virtual, between the bricks and mortar of the Cartesian world and the pixels and voxels of the illusory world, is the environment which poses the greatest challenge. This new environment, for all that it seems to be an exciting garden of colourful programs with streams of glittering data, amidst a veritable forest of software icons, is filled with temptation. The first humans to cross the threshold, to step between the real and the virtual worlds, will, like the biblical Adam and Eve, be confronted with temptation, although this time in the form of technology.
The new Adam and Eve will fly through fields of data and drink from rivers of information; but what will they do when the storms come and when the serpent offers its bitter fruit? They will seek shelter in the most simplistic of forms; they will seek to construct a surrogate home in virtual space. While technology has supplanted some of the need for architecture in this new fantasy world, there will still be a need for shelter from the environment itself and from its temptations.
This first work of architecture which is situated at the mythical threshold between the physical world and the perceptual world will fittingly be primitive; a rudimentary structure but one which resonates with other simple structures throughout history. This primitive hut, this house of Adam, is sited at the limits of conventional urban space, at the furthest extent of suburbia. However this same hut is transformed through its contact with the virtual world, and for this reason it is not fixed but is recorded in a series of transformative stages. The house of the virtual Adam may only be captured at certain moments as it is slowly and inexorably pulled from the earth and subsumed into virtual space. This mythical house of Adam is located not only on the threshold between the physical and the virtual but also within a distinct time frame which marks the period throughout which it changes. This location and period have no name in a quotidian sense, but for mythopoeic purposes, the neologism Cyburbia will suffice.
Adam’s House In Cyburbia is an experimental work of architecture; it has no site or brief and its clients are completely fictional. However the project fulfils a very important role in the history of architecture as it works to revitalise the power of myth embodied in the first work of architecture, the primitive hut. While the project is presented as a series of plans, elevations and perspective views, it is also presented in a series of stages, each one capturing a moment in time. The six stages recorded here are notional as there is an almost infinite number of stages in between which record first the machine-like changes which take place in the house and then the fluid metal changes which assist the process of virtualisation. As the body and space are fluid in the virtual realm, it is important that any work of architecture which seeks to bridge the two states is equally capable of change. For this and other reasons, Adam’s House In Cyburbia is and must remain a work of architectural myth.
The Myth Of The Primitive Hut Resurrected
In Genesis, the Lord is recorded as having made Adam, the mythical first man, "in the image of himself." God not only created the first man, Adam, and the first woman, Eve, but he placed them within a garden where he would from time to time walk with Adam "in the cool of the day." It is from these mythical beginnings that the eminent architectural historian Joseph Rykwert proposed that the traces of the first house, and thereby the first work of architecture, may be found.
Not that any house is described in Genesis: on the contrary the garden is only stocked with trees and plants that are "pleasant to the sight and good for food." Yet the Garden of Eden is to be tended by Adam; it is for Adam to "keep" it in an orderly fashion and for the garden to provide sustenance in turn. The Garden of Eden, with its four rivers, its orchards and its serpent, presupposes for Rykwert "an ordered disposition of plants in beds and terraces" because amongst the "rows of trees and beds of flowers there must have been places to walk, to sit and talk." In Rykwert’s imaginary interpretation of Eden, derived from the Old Testament, he sees that there must have been more than just a garden:
Perhaps the fruit of the trees was varied enough to satisfy all the human, or at any rate Adamite, desire for variety; and perhaps fermentation was not among Adam’s skills; if anything like wine was taken in the garden, however, this would suggest jars and cups, and these, in their turn, stores and sideboards, so on to rooms, larders, and all that: a house, in fact. A garden without a house is like a carriage without a horse.
In Rykwert’s imagination, the biblical description of the Garden of Eden is like an incomplete conundrum-all of the evidence points towards something that is missing from the narrative; something that is alluded to at best indirectly but which must, by inference, be present. The component which is missing is the mythical first house, the origin of architecture itself. While Rykwert hopes that his "modest inference" in the Bible will prove "unexceptionable," it is still his contention that "the shadow or outline of this inferred house"-this house of Adam in paradise-"has dogged many builders and architects’ throughout history."
Rykwert’s argument is that, throughout history, architects have returned to the idea of the first house, the primitive hut of the ancients, whenever architecture was in a state of crisis:
… my theme has been the constant interest in the primitive hut. It seems to have been displayed by practically all peoples at all times, and the meaning given to this elaborate figure does not appear to have shifted much from place to place, from time to time. I should like to suggest that this meaning will persist into the future and that it will have permanent and unavoidable implications for the relationship between any building and its user.
Architectural theorists and practitioners who are concerned with the future of architecture have repeatedly searched for some form of authority in architecture-some philosophical basis which will ensure the legitimacy of their work. The search for authority is frequently also a search for origins and thus, in times of crisis, architecture returns to contemplation of the first building, the primitive hut. Vitruvius, Alberti, Laugier, Perrault, Viollet-le-Duc, Ruskin, Le Corbusier, and Lloyd Wright have each sought to study the primitive hut in its various incarnations. Whether they attempted to find its site, reconstruct it, or study its form, they each were haunted by its spectre.
Fundamentally the primitive hut provides a "point of reference for all speculation on the essentials of building." Rykwert argues that these "speculations intensify when the need is felt for a renewal of architecture." At the close of the 20th century, architecture is again in a state of confusion. The proliferation of virtual technologies has meant that conventional concepts of space, time and the body are no longer valid. The modern home has become a site of infiltration; virtual technologies are already entrenched within its increasingly thin and media-moderated walls. The television is a new window to the world; it provides a simulation of travel, of community and communication. The computer screen connects the home to a global market, a global economy and the databanks of the world’s largest institutions. Fibre-optic networks transfer data instantaneously from place to place while video on demand and on-line banking are controlled by the same systems that patrol the garden, heat and cool the bedroom and test the fire extinguishers. The home is no longer centred on the fireplace, the primitive locus of the familial unit; it is now centred on the television, the telephone, the computer and the fax machine. Virtual technologies alter spatial perception and in this way challenge the very concept of ‘home’. In a period when architects are struggling to come to terms with this shift from the modernist conception of the home as ‘a machine for living in’ to the post-modern home as ‘extension of the body’, it may be time for architecture to seek solace in considering the primitive hut once more.
The project Adam’s House in Cyburbia is not so much an attempt to seek order within the confusion engendered through virtual technologies, but a partial revival of the importance of the house itself. While many recent texts and projects have focused exclusively on the changes taking place in the city or the expansion of the suburban condition, few are looking at the basal structure of architecture, the dwelling. Adam’s House in Cyburbia is a return not only to the idea of the primitive hut but also to its historic origins in the discovery of technology and power. Moreover, Adam’s House in Cyburbia, while created and detailed in a conventional architectural manner and presented as a series of orthographic and perspective projections, is not so much a work of architecture as a work of architectural mythology.
The primitive hut, according to Rykwert, can only exist in myth, and therefore for him its origins are in the Garden of Eden. The mythical first house is thus Adam’s House in Paradise, the title of Rykwert’s book on the origins of architecture. In the 20th century, various architects and theorists have proposed relocating Adam’s house, first to the city and then to suburbia. Given this sequence of attempts to critique the problems of nature, the city and suburbia, it would appear timely to take the next step in the process of mythical architectural translation into the realm between suburbia and cyberspace. In this project, the primitive hut moves between the suburban machine for living and the electronic environment where ‘reality flickers’ the space of ‘consensual hallucination’. This project does not take the primitive hut into cyberspace-it does not extend the myth into the territory of ‘the nonspace of the mind’ past the city limits and the ‘clusters and constellations of data’. Adam’s House in Cyburbia bridges the mundane limits of urban space, suburbia and the potentially equally mundane system of global networks perpetuated through virtual technologies. Within this mythical zone named Cyburbia, the body and the building fabric interact and occasionally seem to merge, but ultimately remain distinct and recognisable.
The Primitive Hut In History And the Significance of Fire
While Rykwert traced the origins of the primitive hut to the Old Testament, the primitive hut was first described in detail by Vitruvius in The Ten Books On Architecture. In Book Two, ‘The Origin Of The Dwelling House’, Vitruvius provides an account of the mythical first building-built up largely from circumstantial evidence. Vitruvius commences his description by noting that the "men of old were born like the wild beasts, in woods, caves, and groves, and lived on savage fare." Like Adam in the Garden of Eden, the primitive savage of Vitruvius was initially based in a form of benevolent wilderness until such a time as an almost magical occurrence intruded. As time passed in this garden, "thickly crowded trees in a certain place, tossed by storms and winds, and rubbing their branches against one another, caught fire, and so the inhabitants of the place were put to flight, being terrified by the furious flame." After the flames died down, Vitruvius records that the savages drew near to the fire and became comfortable in its warmth. The advent of fire is linked by Vitruvius to the first act of communication and spatial expression. In the gathering around the first fire, people grew comfortable together and "they put on logs and, while thus keeping it alive, brought up other people to it, showing them by signs how much comfort they got from it." Through communication and the urge to protect the fire, the need for the house was formed:
At first they set up forked stakes connected by twigs and covered these walls with mud. Others made walls of lumps of dried mud, covering them with reeds and leaves to keep out the rain and the heat. Finding that such roofs could not stand the rain during the storms of winter, they built them with peaks daubed with mud, the roofs sloping and projecting so as to carry off the rain water.
In this way, the origin of architecture and the origin of communication and industry is combined in the one allegorical account. During the Renaissance, Alberti suggested that the essence of the primitive hut was in the formation of a "roof, as a shelter from the sun and the rain." And in order to support a roof, load-bearing walls had to be built-"for they realized that in this way they would be the better protected from icy storms and frosty winds." Finally, primitive man opened "windows and doors in the walls, from floor to roof, so as to allow entry and social gathering within, and also to let in the sunlight and the breezes at the right time, as well as to let out any moisture and vapor that may have formed inside the house."
However, it wasn’t until 1753 that the Abbé Laugier published his Essai sur l’Architecture, in which he argued that the primitive hut was not only the origin of built form but was also the very personification of all that was right in architecture. Laugier’s primitive man is depicted as emphatically noble and at one with nature. Surrounded by the wilderness, Laugier’s savage cultivates nature; a nearby stream provides fresh water; food from the fields may be harvested and, most importantly, the trees provide shelter. For Laugier, the first house was an extension of the forested glade. The hut was built of "column-like tree trunks" with a thatchwork of living branches overhead. The primitive hut of Laugier was without artifice; it did not need clay or cut stone as it had formed from nature’s wish to shelter man. Yet Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand, a contemporary of Laugier’s, argued that primitive man could not have sought shelter beneath the trees unless he had been forced there. Durand suggests that it was torrential rains and the power of lightning that forced primitive man first to shelter in caves and then to seek out and use the trees of the forest to escape the lightning.
|In recounting each of these three versions of the myth of the primitive hut, the focus has traditionally been on the rise in architecture. However rarely has the other common element, power in the form of fire or electricity, been considered. Similarly, the role of fire in promoting communication, social formation and the need for the window has been less frequently referred to by architectural historians. For Vitruvius, the primitive hut was formed as a result of the need to protect fire; the essence of creation and destruction before civilised times. Significantly fire may be seen as the basis of industry, the ancestor of the machine and an early device of empowerment of man over the environment. The earliest appearance of fire and the technologies of virtuality are intricately connected; like Plato’s cave, they are implicitly concerned with illusion, fantasy, imagination and representation. Appropriately fire was linked by Vitruvius and Durand initially to fear and then later to the first attempts at communication; an idea which strongly parallels the growth of industry in the Victorian era and the rise in virtual technologies in the late 20th century. For Alberti, the creation of the window was the sign of the completion of the primitive hut. Yet 20th century architectural and cultural theorists have proclaimed that the modern incarnation of the window is the television or the computer screen. Virilio has called the television screen "the third window" (in The Lost Dimension, Semiotext(e), 1991), because it, like any other window, is a physical interface between interior and exterior and is complicit in the creation of community and social interaction. The third window represents a constantly changing space which is slowly beginning to supplant the significance of the more traditional apertures. For Virilio, the new ‘window’ is also a metaphor for all aspects of technology which alter time and space.
In all three historic accounts, the primitive hut is linked to the growth in technology and the formation of community through communication. These themes are particularly relevant in the 20th century as virtual technologies are increasingly blamed for rendering architectural spaces detrimental to the community because they are over-concerned with ‘speed’ and ‘vectorization’.
|"In all three historic accounts,the primitive hut is linked to the growth intechnologyand the formation ofcommunitythroughcommunication."|
The Primitive Hut In The Late Twentieth Century
In 1986 the American architect and theorist Neil Denari was invited to design a structure to fill a hypothetical public garden in New York city. The garden was to be replaced with city-owned housing (or public housing) to be developed by "Adam Purple, a local folk hero." The site was located between "Stanton and Rivington Streets fronting Eldridge Street in New York’s Lower East Side" and the brief was to "provide a maximum number of low-cost housing units while preserving" as much of the park as possible. Denari, not without a certain irony, named his project ‘Adam’s House (in Paradise); New York City No. 8407.’ (in Robert McCarter’s Building Machines. Princeton University Press, 1987).
Denari’s design, while not strictly a house but rather housing, was a "hybrid structure of two housing types." It combined aspects of a "typical New York walk-up" apartment building with a proto-typical modernist unit of habitation. The structure of this second section was perched above the first on pilotis, its roofscape reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s works in Chandigarh and Marseilles. "Affixed to the slab as mechanical appendages" were various functional spaces including wet areas and a library. The roof was "reserved for the expansion of Adam’s Garden" and in this way the entire building could be viewed as "a wall of observation witnessing nature’s productivity."
Denari’s design project follows in the footsteps of both Rykwert and Le Corbusier. "Primitive man," Le Corbusier recounts in Towards A New Architecture:
has brought his chariot to a stop, he decides that here shall be his native soil. He chooses a glade, he cuts down the trees which are too close, he levels the earth around; he opens up the road which will carry him to the river or to those of his tribe whom he has just left; he drives in the stakes which are to steady his tent. He surrounds this tent with a palisade in which he arranges a doorway. The road is as straight as he can manage it with his implements, his arms and his time. The pegs of his tent describe a square, a hexagon or an octagon. The palisade forms a rectangle whose four angles are equal. The door of his hut is on the axis of the enclosure-and the door of the enclosure faces exactly the door of the hut.
Le Corbusier’s primitive hut becomes the model of a shelter built for primitive man’s god, the representation of sanctuary which is in turn reflected in his dwelling. This same idea is developed by Denari in a scheme contemporaneous with Adam’s House in New York wherein he proposes a monastery in the city as a place of both home and sanctuary. Yet Denari’s primitive hut, imposed on New York city, is emphatically technological; his architecture is a "SLAB-MACHINE"-not the machine of modernism, but a new machine of high technology. His house is not the singular house of the tribal forest-dweller; rather it is the high-density housing of the city-dweller. But despite Denari’s proposal, the real problems of housing and space in the late 1980s and early 1990s were more prevalent in the suburbs than in the city. Within the suburban sprawl, the house has became a mass-produced icon of consumer gratification. The project home is not designed, it is chosen from a catalogue-it is not located in or near any recognisable communal space, it is situated on highways or near airports and rail lines. The suburban home of the ‘80s was the site of the new challenge of architecture, a challenge taken up a few years later by the American architectural firm Holt Hinshaw Pfau Jones.
In the late ‘80s, Paul Holt, Marc Hinshaw, Peter Pfau and Wes Jones proposed that the search for origins in architecture should once more be considered, even if, as they argued, the search would be futile. Not only is the idea of searching for origins flawed but they also claim that the "concept of the origin is the fulcrum on which architecture teeters." It is the impossibility of the search which, they argue, frequently returns architecture to the battleground of precedence. Without precedence, which confers the "status of origin," architecture constantly returns to the pursuit of mediocrity. They saw their purpose as twofold; to elevate the machine and its role as dwelling to the status of architecture (an extension of the modernist project) and to subvert conventional architectural and urban form. In their project The Origins Of Architecture, they proposed to simultaneously question the validity of the mythical origins of architecture in the primitive hut and to undermine the spatial structure of suburbia. They claimed that:
The beginning of architecture is complicated by architecture’s simultaneous existence as abstract institution and physical fact. Both claim the origin for themselves; many stories have been told to promote one over the other. The primitive hut story suggests, for example, that building preceded architecture-that there was a hut which became architecture-but the story betrays a prior sense of architecturality by which the hut is recognized. Which came first: the hut or the idea? We recognize that the story is a myth, retro-figured into the history of architecture to provide an origin from which the present condition could be logically, scientifically derivedHolt Hinshaw Pfau Jones.
The approach taken by Holt Hinshaw Pfau Jones to challenge suburbia is to reinterpret the mythical origins of architecture in the primitive hut. They have described this process as akin to "souping-up" a hot rod (‘Soup/s up-‘ in Bill Lacy and Susan de Menil’s Angels And Franciscans: Innovative Architecture From Los Angeles And San Francisco, Rizzoli, 1992, and ‘Origin Verses Existence And Language’ in McCarter’s Building Machines, 1987). The architects suggest that this strategy of "interventive reuse" is "critical" but "carries none of the negative sense that we expect from critique." In this way, the architects do not attempt to attack suburbia but rather propose various means of revitalising the sprawl. Importantly, the focus of any attempt to soup-up must first be rescued from oblivion (the scrapheap of urban fringe) and then its body must be immaculately upgraded. "In this way, many otherwise forgotten vehicles" and works of architecture "have achieved a classic status." The process of souping-up is only successful if the object is a commonplace commodity"… with expectations encouraged by lowest-common-denominator marketing and realised through the universalisation of mass production." The aim of souping up is to take the essentially meaningless and repetitive and to make a statement about the "importance of the individual in contrast to the anonymous conformity of the assembly line."
In The Origins Of Architecture, Holt Hinshaw Pfau Jones looked at suburbia and proposed that Adam’s house should be relocated from paradise. Moreover Adam’s primitive hut should be souped-up in such a way that it could lead architecture out of the fugue state engendered through its confrontation with suburbia. They claimed that the future of architecture is in technology and the machine-the "primitive hut should not be celebrated as a link to nature but as a step to man; as the first building, not the last tree." In their transformation, the primitive hut is no longer the "font of nature but of artifice; it is not a natural spring but an electric water-cooler."
Adam’s House in Cyburbia: An Architectural Project
The earliest references to the primitive hut have been associated with the rise in technology through the cultivation of fire and the advent of communication. In the 20th century, the primitive hut has been repeatedly resurrected as a means of critiquing those problems of the built environment which seem beyond architects. From its origins in nature, the primitive hut has also been metamorphosed into first a machine and then a kind of electronic hardware configuration. Thus it seems natural that in its most recent incarnation, in Adam’s House in Cyburbia, the primitive hut should become virtual. It is also fitting that the means of representing the primitive hut and its modern incarnations have always been linked to the technology of the day. The early wood-cut depictions from Cesare Cesariano soon gave way to Ribart de Chamoust’s etchings, then to Le Corbusier’s pen-and-ink sketches and on to Denari’s plastic models and Holt Hinshaw Pfau Jones’ steel working prototypes. For this reason, Adam’s House in Cyburbia is wholly realised in the virtual environment of the computer. It may be viewed only in a series of representational forms; as print-outs or on video, but in any case the detail contained in the vast computer images can never really be seen.
Adam’s home is no longer within the suburban sprawl. As technology renders its walls increasingly fluid, it must metaphorically rise above its neighbours and link with the world through satellite relays and electro-magnetic pulses. As the machine in Adam’s house slowly becomes invisible (and thereby intrinsic to the very fabric of the dwelling), the walls of the house will open out to simulate the blurring of the boundaries between the man-made and the natural once more. As the house pulls free from its foundations in the suburbs and takes its place within the global networks, it must also take the human body with it. Michael Ostwald is Assistant Dean and John Moore is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Architecture at Newcastle University. In virtual space, the body will be freed of the limitations of gravity. The bodies of the new virtual Adam and Eve will soar with the virtual hut above the endless urban fringe. Where once the presence of fire and communication were linked to the formation of the first primitive hut, they are now, in the form of technology and data, the very walls of the primitive hut at the close of the 20th century.
The project Adam’s House in Cyburbia is the visualisation of a myth. Gone is the Garden of Eden, replaced with the backyard; the four rivers have become swimming pools, the trees have metamorphosed into clothes lines and the serpent into TV antennae. And, just as technology embodied in fire and lightning is the key to the creation of the original primitive hut it is also the means by which the virtual hut starts to detach itself from the ground. The new primitive hut of the virtual Adam still provides sanctuary just as Le Corbusier’s did; although no longer from the natural environment. It now forms the protective barrier between the latter day Adam and Eve and the all-encompassing systems of technology and communication.
This project was produced in 1996 as a five minute video transformation in 9000 still frames (30 frames per second over five minutes). The film occupied 36 gigabytes of storage; beyond commercial frame capture software available at the time.
Michael Ostwald is Assistant Dean and John Moore is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Architecture at Newcastle University.