The Beginning (Origin of Architecture)

Origin Essay - Hayden White Origin Essay - Hayden White1 Origin Essay - Hayden White3 Origin Essay - Hayden White4

Between Vitruvius and Le Corbusier theorists have repeatedly returned to the

question of the origin of Architecture.

Using the writings of two or three theorists of your choosing, consider whether

their interest is for the sake of finding form for architecture or just a moral

justification of it.

Architectural theorists over centuries have reflected on the origin of

Architecture. The origin of architecture relies on many disputed factors; When

had man first worked collectively and toward a common ambition? When had

he become an ‘intelligent’ creature? When had men first began to

communicate and why? When and why did he cease to be nomadic if he was

initially? These questions cloud the origin of Architecture as they share a

simian relationship.

There exists a theoretical timeline on which to establish the terms of these

beginnings. “In the beginning was the Golden Age, when men of their own

free will, without threat of punishment, without laws, maintained good faith and

did what was right…the peoples of the world, untroubled by any fears, enjoyed

a leisurely and peaceful existence.”i Ovid describes a nomadic existence

where man enjoys nature and travels to greet conditions that please him. This

golden age does not include Architecture or other arts, as they burden his

freedom. This golden age would not last; Ovid goes on to describe an age

where man faces the four seasons of nature. A time where the weather had

changed on him and he first sought out covered dwellingii. Ovid introduces

this time through mythological means, although Catholic faith may coincide

this with the Garden of Eden and man cast from it. The biologist may

acknowledge that man simply bred too well: a silver age ensuing as

competition for nature’s luxuries and survival grew difficult.

Many ideas exist for a first Architecture, such as Lobkowitz’s idea that military

architecture was the original and as Adam and Eve were cast out of paradise

and a wall erected, that Architecture was established. Rykwert stated that

canopies erected for the marriage of Adam and Eve were the first

Architectureiii. Similarly, many theories surround the existence of man’s

intelligence and the beginning of collaboration. Cesariano, having read

Vitruvius, agrees with the notion that fire brought man together. “For it is fire,

which not only comforts many animals (and especially humankind) but it also

moves them to speaking and then they are content and keep each other

company…”iv (image 3). It is not these ideas of which I am concerned; I only

feel it paramount to give some examples of other theorists and establish a few

common threads of thought. I constrain myself to examining two theorists

using the aid of others. The texts of Vitruvius’s Ten Books of Architecture and

Laugiers Essay on Architecture shall be analysed to determine the writers

notions and intentions.

Vitruvius begins depicting man living like animals. This would later hold true

against Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Man “…lived on savage fare”.v

Contrary to Ovid, this gives the notion that nature was not kind to man but

rather man had to fend for himself. Vitruvius creates a pivotal point when

“…crowded trees in a certain place, tossed by storms and winds, and rubbing

their branches against one another, caught fire…”vi. Men bold enough to

return after fleeing find comfort through this phenomenon. Vitruvius does not

elaborate on how man knows to throw logs on this fire but explains that in

doing so they learn that their action produces more heat (comfort). It is

through reflection that man understands the relationship between action and

reaction (connotations of Einstein) and seeks more wood “thus keeping it

alive, brought up other people to it, showing them by signs how much comfort

they got from it.”vii Through making signs man first attempted communication.

The introduction of this communal asset allowed man to benefit from other

men, in particular their possessions (wood). Piranesi reiterates reflection as

man’s catalyst toward becoming an intelligent creature. “The earliest men first

felt without articulating, then articulated the wonder and emotions of their

souls, and finally reflected with a pure mind” (16) chptr 3 pg 55. Vitruvius

goes on to explain that through “…indicating by name things in common

use…”viii man entered vocal communication: firstly through sounds, then

‘words’ and eventually he engaged in some form of conversation. “Therefore it

was the discovery of fire that originally gave rise to the coming together of

men, to the deliberative assembly, and social intercourse.”ix Through fire

Vitruvius begins to separate man from other animals and barbarianism and he

introduces a progression toward a society where, through collaborative effort,

men can achieve beyond their individual means. Hence man is introduced to

complex relationships with one another. This intuitive insight from Vitruvius

will hold true in John Nash’s mathematical model of ‘Game Theory’,

“…defined as the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation

between intelligent rational decision-makers”,x where Nash proposes that in

certain situations (games) it can be to the players advantage to achieve the

best outcome for the group (other players).

Vitruvius moves on to talk about man being “…naturally gifted beyond other

animals in not being obliged to walk with faces to the ground… and also in

being able to do with ease whatever they choose with their hands and fingers,

they began in that first assembly to construct shelters.”xi Again, Vitruvius

continues to separate man from his fellow creatures. We would now link

‘naturally gifted’ to theories of evolution. His insights into human evolution

here are compelling as we know now that through walking on two limbs

homosapiens conserved energy. Where Vitruvius describes men having some

advantage with hands, we can relate to opposable thumbs. Suzanne Kemmer

writes “The thumb, unlike other fingers, is opposable… thus enables the hand

to refine its grip to hold objects which it would be unable to do otherwise. The

opposable thumb has helped the human species develop more accurate fine

motor skills. It is also thought to have directly led to the development of

tools…The thumb, in conjunction with the other fingers make humans and

other species with similar hands some of the most dexterous in the world.”xii

Vitruvius goes on “…they began in that first assembly to construct shelters.

Some made them of green boughs, others dug caves on mountain sides, and

some, in imitation of the nests of swallows and the way they built, made

places of refuge out of mud and twigs”,xiii One could suggest that it is the

deliberate marking out of territory on land (plan) that becomes the initial

architecture. This introduces rules and mutual respect for fellow men.

Vitruvius, like other theorists later, suggests that man learns through imitation

of what surrounds him. Militzia later agrees stating, “Architecture, therefore is

an art of imitation, as are all other arts”. xiv (image 5). William Chambers

shows similar thoughts to Vitruvius, “Animal creation pointed out both

materials and methods of construction He [man] admired, he imitated, and,

being endowed with reasoning faculties and a structure suited to mechanical

purposes, he soon outdid his masters in the builder’s art”.xv (image 4).

Vitruvius depicts how man’s constructions improve by learning from one

another whilst boasting about their own creations. This is, at a basic level,

how studio culture operates through competitive learning. He again states

“…and thus, with their natural gifts sharpened by emulation, their standards

improved daily”,xvi again acknowledging man’s natural gifts and an ambition to

equal and excel their fellow men in this new field.

Vitruvius then describes man reaching a successful model. “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.”xvii

Man reaches his first truly successful dwelling using the materials readily

available to him such as timber and earth. Like many others, Vitruvius states

that is was the employment of the pitched roof that gave man a successful

dwelling that could throw off the elements. The story continues, “…their

ingenuity was increased by their dexterity so that from habit they attained

considerable skill…”xviii So before where repetitiveness allowed them to strive

toward a successful model Vitruvius now attributes their repetitiveness to

improving skills in the art of construction with their hands. He elaborates,

“…the more proficient adopted the trade of carpenters”,xix thereby reiterating

the importance of timber as a malleable and workable material whilst

introducing tools, catalysing man’s progression. This concludes Vitruvius’s

story of man’s first dwelling; he summarises that from these beginnings,

nature having graced them with senses like animals but also with powers of

thought and understanding, man had outdone all other animals. From here

they moved from building to other arts and sciences evolving from barbarians

into civilisation.xx Thus in Vitruvius’s story we see a world where man is

barbaric and is brought together through an intervening object he finds of

mutual interest.

Laugiers’ An Essay on Architecture is much more picturesque than Vitruvius’s

text. He depicts the scene “On the banks of a quietly flowing brook he notices

a stretch of grass; its fresh greenness is pleasing to his eye, its tender down

invites him; he is drawn there and, stretched out at leisure on this sparkling

carpet, he thinks of nothing else but enjoying the gift of nature; he lacks nothing,

he does not wish for anything”.xxi Laugier’s man was nomadic, due to

his lack of possessions, and has become stationary, finding a landscape to

his liking. Notice that Laugiers’ primitive man is alone and Laugier does not

show us wild animals. This may be a deliberate attempt to move away from

the holistic scenes depicted by some painters (image 1) and theorists. Though

Laugier may be in keeping with his religious teachings, creating a world

reminiscent of the Garden of Eden. One could interpret the man as Adam

himself, having been cast from paradise.

Laugier continues, “…Soon the scorching heat from the sun forces him to look

for shelter. A nearby forest draws him to its cooling shade…soon, torrential

rain pours down… he creeps into a nearby cave and, finding it dry, he praises

himself for his discovery. But soon the darkness and foul air make his stay

unbearable again”.xxii Where man had enjoyed the splendour of nature he has

now to endure her wrath. Laugier says “He leaves and is resolved to make

good by his ingenuity the careless neglect of nature”, showing that nature has

turned against man in this transition from nomadic to stationary. It is through

this neglect that man must protect his person against the elements. Blondel

furthers the significance of protection, “men doubtlessly first made themselves

shelters against the severities of the seasons and the attack of ferocious

beasts”.xxiii Laugier then states that man seeks to construct a dwelling but does not give

detail on how man knew how to do so or where he found inspiration. The cave

and forest suffice as natural models to learn from. Laugiers’ man looks to the forest

branches for material and “…chooses four of the strongest, raises them

upright and arranges them in a square”. Laugier accredits his man with the

insight to understand and apply geometry, which Vitruvius does not introduce

until later. Laugiers’ use for such early geometry may again be referring to

some biblical sub-plot, where strict geometries often belong to temples for the

divine or its origin attributed to divine influence. Laugier avoids a messier and

scattered means of construction so as to not attribute man’s rise to nature or

to his imitation of her. One could imagine that where Laugier fails to detail and

expand on aspects of the story he could attribute to his religious teachings.

Laugier goes on to describe man’s first primitive dwelling as a temple with

columns, entablature and pediment. (image 2). He later states, “I therefore

come to the conclusion: in an architectural Order only the column, the

entablature and the pediment may form an essential part of its

composition”xxiv . We can see Laugier justifying Greek temples through this

means. Laugiers’ story reads less as a detailed thought experiment and more

as a moral justification and precedent for his argument toward the Order and

those parts he considers essential to it. He again reveals his opinion in text

contributed in later publications “We have, indeed, moved far away from it

[rustic hut] through the grand gout of the decoration which we have put in

place of the careless faults of such a crude composition…”xxv. It becomes

clear the Laugier is expressing his opinion of Architecture through this story

and that he believes any move away from the hut he provides is done

“…through caprice”xxvi .

The thoughts that both Vitruvius and Laugier have tried to induce are now

clear. Vitruvius’s story for the origin of architecture is rational, detailed and

provides example forms of first architecture whereas Laugier’s story lacks

depth and is embroiled with his personal views. Laugier’s story, though it does

provide a form for his primitive hut, acts as justification and reasoning for his

argument. Vitruvius explains that the house, in its protecting essence, is the

original architecture. Contrary to this, Laugier finds the origin of architecture to

be monumental and symbolic, such as portrayed with his temple. Both the

conclusions of intent are portrayed in the titles for each chapter; Vitruvius,

‘The Origin Of The Dwelling House’ and Laugier, ‘General Principles Of


i Ovid, Metamorphoses, Lawson Lecture, 2011

ii Ovid, Metamorphoses, Lawson Lecture, 2011


Rykwert, 1981, P. 190

iv Rykwert, 1981, P. 115

v Vitruvius, 1960, p.38

vi Vitruvius, 1960, p.38

vii Vitruvius, 1960, p.38

viii Rykwert, 1981, P. 55

ix Vitruvius, 1960, p.38

x Myerson, 1997, P.1

xi Vitruvius, 1960, p.38

xii Kemmer, 2012, online

xiii Vitruvius, 1960, p.38

xiv Rykwert, 1981, P.67

xv Rykwert, 1981, P.71

xvi Vitruvius, 1960, p.39

xvii Vitruvius, 1960, p.39

xviii Vitruvius, 1960, p.39

xix Vitruvius, 1960, p.39

xx Vitruvius, 1960, p.39

xxi Laugier, 1977, P.11

xxii Laugier, 1977, P.11

xxiii Rykwert, 1981, P.65

xxiv Laugier, 1977, P.12

xxv Laugier, 1977, P.13

xxv Laugier, 1977, P.12



Image 1:


Image 2: Rykwert, 1981. Pg 45

Image 3: Rykwert, 1981. Pg 104

Image 4: Rykwert, 1981. Pg 72

Image 5: Rykwert, 1981. Pg 65


Laugier, M, A, 1977. An Essay On Architecture. 3rd ed. Los Angeles:

Hennessey & Ingalls, Inc.

Lawson, 2011, Origin, Lecture notes from Architecture Theory at the

University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh,

Myerson, R, B, 1997. Game Theory. 1st ed. USA: Harvard College.

Rykwert, J, 1981. On Adam’s House in Paradise. 2nd ed. USA: MIT Press.

Vitruvius, M, 1960. Ten Books On Architecture. 1st ed. New York: Dover

Publications, Inc


Origins and Evolution of Human Language: Opposable Thumb. 2012.

[ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed

11 January 2012]

© Hayden White