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Dream Houses

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 it.

To track down and to map this cluster of associations the author adopts the methods of the psychoanalyst rather than those of the historian. He starts with the present and tries to follow the leads suggested to him by the utterances of twentieth-century architectural writers such as Le Corbusier and Adolf Loos. Like many apostles of reform these writers sometimes appealed from culture to nature. Architecture, they argued, has lost its way in artifice and we must return to essentials. We can only do so by reflecting on origins and observing the ways of the unsophisticated and the uncorrupted.

This response to the malaise of civilization is so universal that one cannot be surprised that it can also be richly illustrated from debates about architectural theory. Mr. Rykwert embroiders a web of such illustrations with other instances of primitivism, as when he remembers the Tarzan films and Kipling’s Mowgli in connection with Le Corbusier, or associates the Blockhaus Sommerfeld, a glorified log cabin Gropius built in 1921 for a Berlin timber merchant, with the art historian Strzygowski’s interest in the history of timber construction.

It is from these illustrations and associations that the author tries to find a point of entry into nineteenth-century theories and debates about the influence of materials on architectural style, debates which centered around the German architect Gottfried Semper, and the discussions sparked off by the Gothic revival in the writings of Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc. Pursuing these inquiries cancricans (as musicians call the backward steps of the crab), he arrives at the treatise of the eighteenth-century critic Laugier, whose meditations on the primitive form of the hut provoked the young Goethe to violent contradictions. With his gift for a pregnant phrase the author reminds us that “Laugier’s little hut had been built on Rousseau’s river bank.”

There is indeed no dearth of material when it comes to speculations about origins and about the demands of nature in eighteenth-century writings. It certainly would not be easy to organize this vast material, but here as elsewhere Mr. Rykwert prefers suggestive allusion to systematic presentation. Within half a page we are reminded of Robinson Crusoe, of Lord Monboddo’s advocacy of an airbath, and of Pestalozzi’s ideas on education, only to return to various attempts to “reform” the architectural orders. An excursus discusses eighteenth-century speculations about the origin of Gothic vaults in the intertwining branches of northern forests—one of the ideas which have been thoroughly documented in Paul Frankl’s monumental work, The Gothic.

We are more than halfway through the book before the author tells us that he now “cannot avoid” a discussion of the text to which nearly all the architectural writers of the classical tradition were “forced to allude”—the canonic passage from Vitruvius about the origin of architecture, in which the ancient author graphically describes the reaction of primitive man to a forest fire, the invention of speech, of handiwork, and the first construction of shelters “in imitation of the nests and buildings of swallows out of mud and wattle.” The author attempts to relate these famous speculations to Stoic philosophy, but he appears to be unacquainted with that classic in the history of ideas in which these motifs are firmly set into their context, the book by Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas on Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity (1935). It is to this book that we owe the famous distinction between the “soft primitivism” expressed in the legends of the Golden Age and the “hard primitivism” exemplified by Lucretius with his picture of early man’s struggle for survival. In the same book Mr. Rykwert would also have found most interesting passages from early Indian literature about the origins of timber architecture.

Be that as it may, the acknowledged importance of the Vitruvian doctrine compels the author to reverse gear and to return to Renaissance treatises on architecture. Anybody who has ever tried to write the history of an idea knows of this problem of reconciling an intelligible systematic exposition with the needs of a chronological narrative. But whatever solution he ultimately adopts he must surely try to guide the reader by the establishment of signposts and points of reference. Mr. Rykwert does not seem to feel this concern. In fact one must ask oneself what readers he had in mind. He presumably writes for architects and designers, and the sponsorship of his book by the Museum of Modern Art supports this conjecture. But would this class of readers know, for instance, who Filarete was? How could they find out, since the bibliography quite properly lists the modern edition and translation? How could such a reader spot behind an allusion to “Opicimus de Castris” the fourteenth-century monk Opicinus de Canistris, or how could he find his way through the references to esoteric writings which influenced the architect of the Escorial?

Before we know where we are, we are confronted with speculations about the true appearance of the Temple of Jerusalem and the various reconstructions which were proposed for this archetypal shrine—a theme to which in any case only a separate study could hope to do justice. Whatever the Temple may have looked like, it certainly did not have much to do either with Adam’s house in Paradise or with primitive huts. But maybe the author felt in need of this transition to religious architecture because the theme that appears to be closest to his heart is the motif of the hut in ritual and legend which we have already encountered in the Talmudic story.

He pursues not only huts but branches and twigs, reeds and papyrus plants, the ritual dismantling and rebuilding of shrines in Japan and the erection of temporary structures. The web of associations here becomes particularly rich and dense, but is not this type of motif-hunting rather frowned upon by anthropologists today? Maybe the reaction against Fraser’s Golden Bough, the book to which both Freud and Jung were so much indebted, has gone somewhat too far, but in Mr. Rykwert’s hands the method is certainly open to criticism. He is looking for what is perennial and universal in man’s reaction to buildings, but he ends by investigating a tribe of Australian aborigines who have no buildings but carry a ceremonial pole which apparently stands for a totemic animal or object. The object interests the author because of its geometric shape and its associations, but not even he wants to suggest that Adam carried such a contraption with him in Paradise. One cannot but wonder whether the method adopted by the author is best suited to throw fresh light on his underlying theme—man’s nostalgia for the past and his desire for renewal.

It would certainly be merely pedantic to criticize such a romantic and almost whimsical essay for sins of omission, for if the book has a virtue it is that of comparative brevity. However, there is one text which Mr. Rykwert would hardly have omitted if he had known it. It is one of the most seminal passages in the history of architectural thought and one moreover which must have been known to practically any person in the past who had a classical education, since it comes in Cicero’s De Oratore, a wideranging discussion of rhetoric which was universally read. Here the author would have found many elements of the cluster of ideas he has been pursuing, the comparison of the building with the human body, the interest in trees and in timber building, and, strangely enough, even a remark about the shape of the house to be imagined, if not in Paradise, at least in a pagan heaven. It is the passage (III, 179-180) in which Cicero illustrates the requirements of a perfect speech and propounds a functionalist aesthetics which, despite its vicissitudes, has indeed not lost its appeal:

…Carry your mind to the form and figure of human beings or even of other living creatures: you will discover that the body has no part added to its structure that is superfluous, and that its whole shape has the perfection of a work of art and not of accident. Take trees: in these the trunk, the branches and lastly the leaves are all without exception designed so as to keep and to preserve their own nature, yet nowhere is there any part that is not beautiful. Let us leave nature and contemplate the arts: in a ship, what is so indispensable as the sides, the hold, the bow, the stern, the yards, the sails and the masts? Yet they all have such a graceful appearance that they appear to have been invented not only for the purpose of safety but also for the sake of giving pleasure. In temples and colonnades the pillars are to support the structure, yet they are as dignified in appearance as they are useful. Yonder pediment of the Capitol and those of the other temples are the product not of beauty but of actual necessity; for it was in calculating how to make the rainwater fall off the two sides of the roof that the dignified design of the gables resulted as a byproduct of the needs of the structure—with the consequence that even if one were erecting a citadel in heaven, where no rain could fall, it would be thought certain to be entirely lacking in dignity without a pediment.

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