Dream Houses

On Adam's House in Paradise: The Idea of the Primitive Hut in Architectural History

by Joseph Rykwert
The Museum of Modern Art, New York Graphic Society, 224, 87 illustrations pp., $4.95 (paper)

The title of these architectural meditations is attractive. It is pleasant to think of Adam, the perfect man, living in a perfect house in Paradise. Not a primitive hut to be sure, but a well-appointed residence with plenty of labor-saving devices for Eve. Alas, like so many other pleasant fantasies this one must be heretical. Adam no more had a house in Paradise than Eve had a dress. In those balmy regions, the perfect pair before the Fall were in need neither of shelter nor of garments.

It is not surprising therefore that for all his wide reading the author ultimately fails to meet the promise of his title. The closest we are brought to a discussion of our forefather’s accommodation problems is in a passage from the fifteenth-century architectural treatise by Filarete, but significantly that passage only speaks of what happened to Adam after he was driven out of Paradise. The balmy weather was over and it was raining. “Since he had no ready shelter he put his hands up to his head, to defend himself from the water.” Mr. Rykwert tries to make the best of this and suggests that Filarete thought of Adam “pitching his hands as the origin of the displuviate, the double-pitched roof.” I find no evidence for this interpretation either in Filarete’s treatise or in the charming illustration from one of its manuscripts reproduced by Rykwert. Since he was ready to extend his search outside the gates of Paradise he would have found many explicit illustrations of the primeval huts erected by the first pair and their offspring, Cain and Abel. Ghiberti, for instance, on the Baptistery Doors in Florence, gives the family a perfect primitive reed hut.

But since the author returns from his far flung explorations without having discovered a trace of Adam’s house in Paradise, we find him ready to settle for something else. He records a para-Talmudic legend about the wedding of Adam and Eve according to the Jewish ritual: “The Holy One…made ten wedding canopies for Adam in the Garden of Eden…of precious stones, pearls, and gold.” These canopies are modeled on the traditional huppah of the Jewish rite which can indeed be interpreted as a symbol of the new house to be set up by the couple. Whether it had this meaning in Paradise is another matter.

But Mr. Rykwert is not really concerned with the history of an idea—an idea that never was—but with a cluster of associations for which he looks in the writings of modern architects, in architectural treatises of the past, in ancient legend and religious rituals. He is concerned with memories or fantasies of an archetypal dwelling.

That, if at all, is why I must postulate a house for Adam in Paradise. Not as a shelter against the weather, but as a volume which he could interpret in terms of his own body and which yet was an exposition of the paradisic plan, and therefore established him at the center of…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.