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This review appeared in Volume 5 (2) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Architectural anthropology: a manifesto

by Kenneth E. Foote

Architectural Anthropology, Vol. 1. The Present Relevance of the Primitive in Architecture. By Nold Egenter. Lausanne: Structura Mundi 1992, 216 p. 35 figs., biblio. ISBN 3-905451-0108. In English, French, and German.

This is the first entry in an ambitious eight-volume research series exploring the theoretical foundations and formative themes of architectural anthropology. Egenter, an ethnologist, uses this first volume to introduce the entire series with three brief essays followed by an index of the remaining seven volumes. Even with these guideposts, it will not be easy for most readers to readily gain their bearings. Although the volumes seem to be a sort of monograph series, they are really a large collection of essays, on a wide range of topics - all by Egenter - bound in eight volumes and issued by the author under his own editorship and imprint. This is an unusual way to present a collection of essays that, under normal circumstances, would be issued together in a single or double volume. Furthermore, Egenter has chosen to publish the entire text side by side in English, French and German. This strategy is intended to broaden the readership, but reduces the overall length of the essays to very modest proportions. The English text for all three essays included in the first volume amount to 75 pages, out of a total of 216.

I mention these points first so as to alert potential readers to Egenter's original, but somewhat idiosyncratic style and goals. This is definitely an unconventional publication that is in many respects quite difficult to review as a typical research monograph or anthology. It is, really, a manifesto Egenter believes that the study of vernacular architecture, particularly in cross cultural perspective, has been hampered by traditional disciplinary biases. He assails these artificial intellectual restrictions and turns to the enthusiastic promotion of what he terms architectural anthropology, a field he distinguishes - most emphatically - from architectural design, architectural history, and several other related subdisciplines. Egenter uses his own extensive research as an ethnologist primarily into Japanese domestic vernacular architecture and the nest building behaviour of primates to illustrate the reasons for a new departure.

Egenter's manifesto consists of three interlocking essays: 1) "The Mosaic of Endless Microtheories and the Function of Macrotheories: Some Theoretical Notes on the History of Anthropology and on the Theory of Architecture"; t"The Present Relevance of the Primitive in Architecture"; and 3) "Architectural Anthropology: Outlines of a Constructive Human Past." Although all three are important to Egenter's overall argument is the second essay, on the relevance of the primitive, that Egenter stresses by featuring it as a subtitle to the entire volume. Yet the three essays work together as a set to outline: 1) Egenter's dissatisfactions with the existing state of research; 2) examples of how a new approach could yield new insights; and 3) a possible intellectual division of labour within this new enterprise of architectural anthropology.

In the first essay Egenter reviews recent works in anthropology and architecture to show how the serious scientific study of domestic and vernacular architecture slips through the cracks of theory building in both disciplines. Egenter is particularly disaffected by the stress placed upon microtheory in contemporary anthropology believing that such emphasis leads to theoretical and historical myopia to the point that the discipline loses sight of architecture as a fundamental part of the human society and culture. Instead of seeking theories that account for the fact that "construction" and "building" are essential aspects of all human history, anthropologists too readily dismiss such hypotheses simply because they fall outside the limited domain of restrictive microtheories. Egenter is equally dissatisfied with the goals of architectural history, but for different reasons. Here Egenter shows his disdain for aesthetic 'Theories," arguing that such conjectures aren't really "theories" at all. They lead away from scientific inquiry toward an interpretive morass which Egenter wishes to avoid. At this point in the essay, Egenter engages in a relatively lengthy digression on the definition of the term "theory" in science to show how many architectural historians misuse the term. Although this digression isn't really needed, it does serve to underscore Egenter's desire to set his architectural anthropology on a firm scientific basis and to move away from the canons of humanistic exegesis.

What is to be gained from the creation of a new macrotheoretical architectural anthropology? This is the subject of Egenter's second essay on the relevance of the primitive in architecture and it is, in many respects, the most interesting of the entire volume. By bringing his own research interests to bear on this question, Egenter offers some very provocative insights into the types of phenomena that are presently overlooked in architectural and anthropological theory. One of his key points is that human "constructivity" provides a critical link between the emergence of human systems of religion, symbolism, writing, urbanism, and territorial organization. For Egenter, it is not enough to note, for example, that some of the first written characters derive from architectonic forms, or that prehistoric votive objects were tied intrinsically to environment and territory. He seeks to show instead that human "constructivity" provides a fundamental bond between human action within all these spheres. This point - that architecture, society, and culture are fundamentally inseparable - is the one Egenter thinks is missed when researchers follow the entrenched notions of conventional architectural and anthropological theory. Furthermore, Egenter's research into the nest-building behaviour of the higher apes leads him to further insights into what can be gained from a new approach. Egenter is incensed by the fact that ethnologists studying primate tool-making abilities have consistently ignored the animals' nest-building behaviour, as if this were some type of innate ability when, in reality, it is a fundamental learned behaviour. The fact that traditional ethnologists have ignored this behaviour and its critical role in primate social life is, for Egenter, directly parallel to the way architectural historians and anthropologists have cast study of human "constructivity" in a marginal role in human culture.

In the final essay, Egenter turns to the issue of how the new field of architectural anthropology should be constructed from existing disciplines and how they should be related conceptually. He also addresses how theory and method are to be balanced properly in this new endeavour Although Egenter is willing to work, for the most pad, within the existing framework of disciplines, he also sees a need to regroup the field of architecture into four subfields. Sub-human architecture would address the nest-building behaviour of the higher apes. Semantic architecture would encompass the study of non-domestic structures that function as territorial, social, and symbolic signs. Domestic architecture would be concerned with structures that provide internal space and protection for living. Finally, settlement architecture would consider larger units that include both semantic and domestic architectures.

Regardless of whether Egenter's manifesto stirs the response he desires, it derives from genuine concern about the state of research into architecture as a cultural phenomenon. The truth is that serious scientific and ethnographic study of architecture has, quite honestly, fallen between the cracks of existing disciplines for a very long time. It is seriously marginalized in each of the three major disciplines that pay it some heed-architectural design, anthropology, and architectural history. Designers wish to draw upon historical and cross-cultural prototypes, but only for design ideas. Anthropologists are preoccupied with different issues and never devote much time to architecture. Architectural historians are also usually concerned with far different issues, such as the aesthetic theories Egenter derides. Some interesting research has emerged, but in fits and starts. Architectural anthropology lacks both a cumulative body of exemplary studies and an active program of research. It has been twenty-five years since the publication of Amos Rapoport's (1969) short, but provocative book on the relationship of house form and culture. Yet, in all this time, only a handful of works has really served to develop these and other lines of research. We have excellent works by Anthony King (1980, 1984) Paul Oliver (1969, 1975, 1987) Joseph Rykwert (1972, 1976, 1982), David Saile (1985) and a few other and additional work by Rapoport (1982) himself. These have been, so far, little more than clues in the wilderness for all the difference they have made in redirecting the progress of research. This is true also of the literature of architectural semiotics. Three very provocative works published in 1979 (Krampen 1979; Preziosi 1979a, 1979b) have not spurred a tremendous body of new work. Instead, every time these topics arise, each author seems compelled to reinvent the theoretical wheel (Anker 1981; Gottdiener and Lagopoulos 1986).

This is a rather sad state of affairs and accounts for the passion with which Egenter writes. Certainly architecture deserves better. Architecture is, after all, fundamental to all human societies and cultures through both time and space. How then can one account for its marginalization and its subordination with respect to the study of language, ritual, kinship, or religion? I think that when Egenter argues that all these phenomena - and architecture - are interrelated he is putting his finger on one of the root problems. Architecture is bound so closely to other cultural forms and processes, that it is exceedingly difficult to isolate as a separate phenomenon. Perhaps the real reason that the literature of architectural anthropology is so spotty is not because researchers haven't aimed high, but because they are often thwarted by the very complexity of the interrelationships they try to understand. They seek cross-cultural and historical understanding, but can't surmount the fact that the complex interrelationships between architecture and other cultural phenomena make such theory building exceedingly difficult.

Curiously, this situation seems as likely to induce despair as hope. In Egenter's writing, pessimism and optimism are combined in almost equal proportion. Egenter is not at all shy in voicing his discontent with the current state of affairs and he doesn't hesitate to name names and point his fingers accusingly at writers who have slighted architectural anthropology. At the same time, he is optimistic about a brighter future - if only scholars would line up behind his reconceptualization of the field. I hope Egenter proves both correct and persuasive. The eight volumes of his research series do have the potential to ignite new research activity. At the same time, Egenter may be expecting a bit much for, in a sense, he too is seeking to reinvent a theoretical wheel that might just as easily grind to a halt.

One can share Egenter's diagnosis of the current condition of theory building in architectural anthropology, without being completely convinced by his remedy. Furthermore, there are, I believe, grounds for optimism in some literatures Egenter doesn't consider Egenter is a bit too selective in the literature he castigates. He picks the weakest examples without noting that the past twenty years or so have seen a tremendous outpouring of works on the social the and historical context of architecture and human "constructivity." These works are not mired in aesthetic theory, but consider the close relationship between forms, social context, and cultural beliefs and ideologies. One of the most fruitful lines of inquiry has been the tracing of political ideology to architectural form, particularly with regard to the rise of national identity. Apart from some very good general works (Etline 1991; Markus 1993; Vale 1992) excellent monographs have appeared on the expression of American national identify (Craig 1978; Lowry 1985; Robin 1992) and French evolutionary and Republican imagery (Agulhon 1981; Haney 1985; Leith 1991; Nora 1984; Trouillas 1988). Studies are also available on the use of architecture by fascist and totalitarian regimes (Golomstock 1990; Hudson 1994; Lane 1968; Taylor 1974 Tumarkin 1983). This new wave of architectural history has also generated insights into a wide range of humbler architectural traditions such as those developed for Mormon temples (Andrew 1977) and American campus planning (Horowitz 1984; Turner 1984). These are but a sampling of recent works and, although they are by no means strictly anthropological, they all fall within the broad compass of Egenter's concept of architectural anthropology. Even d one were to draw the lines of comparison more narrowly, a few works on the symbolic uses of civic space, public monuments, and the semiotics of the city fall almost wholly within anthropology (Foote 1992; Goodsell 1988; Singer 1984).

One of the characteristics of this new literature is its theoretical and methodological heterogeneity. The insights of these authors derive not from a homogenous program of research but from a desire to seek out insights by any available means. Concepts drawn from anthropology, architectural history, history, geography, sociology, political science, semiotics, and other disciplines are all deployed as needed to understand the subject at hand. Very little of this research would fall neatly within the intellectual scaffolding Egenter proposes. Furthermore, these studies seem particularly at odds with the macrotheoretical approach Egenter advocates. They are, for the most part, what he considers to be microtheoretical. Are these studies any less valuable to our total comprehension of human "constructivity" than those Egenter envisions? These other writers seem just as aware as Egenter of the complexities involved in studying architecture and culture, but offer insights that can't always be readily assimilated into meso-level or macro-level theory. They are concerned instead with what Geertz (1983) would term "local knowledge;" comprehension of a limited domain of human action with no pretence that human understanding is necessarily more than such contextual comprehension. In proposing an outline for his architectural anthropology, Egenter is perhaps placing too little weight on "local knowledge" and the lessons to be gained from microtheory. Egenter's dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs has led him to propose too drastic a solution, one that goes against the grain of contemporary research. Certainly, macrotheory is a laudable goal, but not at the expense of so much insightful research.

Perhaps, in the end, my point concerns nothing more than a disagreement over tactics. Despite the rich literature that has emerged in the past two decades, architecture too often falls between disciplinary cracks where its energy and insights dissipate. The study of architecture and of architectural anthropology deserves better. In this situation, Egenter's tactic is to reconsider disciplinary boundaries so as to place architectural anthropology in its proper context and then hope that everything will mesh. The alternative is to begin at the level of microtheory-the level at which so much good literature is aimed - and build on this rich, emerging literature. Maybe a combination of both approaches will be needed. Egenter's manifesto is at least an important step in drawing attention to the issues involved. His fervent appeal may serve as a rallying cry for all scholars concerned with the systematic study of architecture as a fundamental element of human behaviour.


Agulhon, Maurice. 1981. Marianne into Battle: Republican Imagery and Symbolism in France, 1789-1850. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Andrew, Laurel B. 1977. The Early Temples of the Mormons: The Architecture of the Millennial Kingdom in the American West. Albany: SUNY Press.

Ankerl, Guy. 1981. Experimental Sociology of Architecture: A Guide to Theory, Research, and Literature. The Hague: Mouton.

Craig, Lois A. 1978. The Federal Presence: Architecture, Politics, and Symbols in U.S. Government Buildings. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Etlin, Richard A., ed. 1991. Nationalism in the Visual Arts. Washinton, D.C.: National Gallery of Art.

Foote, Kenneth. 1992. "Stigmata of National Identity: Exploring the Cosmography of America's Civil Religion." In Person, Place, and Thing, ed. Shue Tuck Wong, 379-402. Baton Rouge: Dept. of Geography and Anthropology. Louisiana State University.

Geertz, Clifford. 1983. Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology. New York: Basic Books.

Golomstock, Igor.1990. Totalitarian Art. New York: Harper Collins.

Goodsell, Charles. 1988. The Social Meaning of Civic Space: Studying Political Authority through Architecture. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press.

Gottdiener, Mark and Alexandros Lagopoulos. 1986. The City and the Sign: An Introduction to Urban Semiotics. New York: Columbia University Press.

Harvey, David. 1985. Monument and Myth: The Building of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Chap. in Consciousness and the Urban Experience. Oxford: Blackwell.

Horowitz, Helen L. 1984. Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women's Colleges from Their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s. New York: Knopf.

Hudson, Hugh D., Jr. 1994. Blueprints and Blood: The Stalinization of Soviet Architecture, 1971 1937. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

King, Anthony D., ed. 1980. Buildings and Society: Essays on the Social Development of the Built Environment. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

---. 1984. The Bungalow: The Production of a Global Culture. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Lane, Barbara M.1968. Architecture and Politics in Germany, 1918-1945. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Leith, James A. 1991. Space and Revolution: Projects for Monuments, Squares, and Public Buildings in France 1789-1799. Montreal: McGill Queen's University Press.

Lowry, Bates. 1985. Building a National Image: Architectural Drawings for the American Democracy, 1789-1912. Washington, D.C.: National Building Museum.

Markus, Thomas A. 1993. Buildings and Power: Freedom and Control in the Origin of Modern Building Types. London: Routledge.

Nora, Pierre, ed. 1984. Les Lieux de mémoire. 2 vols. Paris: Gallimard.

Oliver, Paul, ed. 1969. Shelter and Society. New York: Praeger.

---, ed. 1975. Shelter, Sign, and Symbol. London: Barrie and Jenkins.

---, 1987. Dwellings: The House Across the World. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Preziosi, Donald. 1979a. Architecture, Language, and Meaning. The Hague: Mouton.

Preziosi, Donald.1979b. The Semiotics of the Build Environment: An Introduction to Architectonic Analysis. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Rapoport, Amos. 1969. House Form and Culture. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

---. 1982. The Meaning of the Built Environment: A Non-verbal Communication Approach. Beverly Hills, Cal.: Sage.

Robin, Ron. 1992. Enclaves of America: The Rhetoric of American Political Architecture Abroad. 1900-1965. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Rykwert, Joseph. 1972. On Adam's House in Paradise: The Idea of the Primitive Hut in Architectural History. New York: Museum of Modern Art.

---. 1976. The Ideas of the Town: The Anthropology of Urban Form in Rome, Italy and the Ancient World. London: Faber and Faber.

---. 1982. The Necessity of Artifice. New York: Rizzoli.

Saile, David D. 1985. "Many dwellings: Views of a Pueblo world." In Dwelling, Place, and Environment: Towards a Phenomenology of Person and World, ed. David Seamon and Robert Mugerauer, 159-181. Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff.

Singer, Milton. 1984. Man's Glassy Essence: Explorations in Semiotic Anthropology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Taylor, Robert R. 1974. The Word in Stone: The Role of Architecture in the National Socialist Ideology. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Trouillas, Paul. 1988. Le complexe de Marianne. Paris: Editions du Seuil.

Tumarkin, Nina. 1983. Lenin Lives! The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Turner, Paul V. 1984. Campus: An American Planning Tradition. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Vale, Lawrence J. 1992. Architecture, Power, and National Identity. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Kenneth E. Foote is associate professor of geography at the University of Texas at Austin. His research concerns historical geography and American landscape history. Recent works include "Stigmata of National Identity: Exploring the Cosmography of America's Civil Religion" (1992). "To Remember and Forget: Archives, Memory, and Culture" (1990), the co-edited Re-Reading Cultural Geography (1984), as well as a number of articles on semiotics in geography. He is now at work on a landscape history entitled A Dream's Shadow: America's Landscape of Violence. At the moment, he is also involved in a number of hypermedia curriculum development projects funded by the National Science Foundation that seek to explore the dynamics of "electronic" classrooms and texts.

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