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Dastardly Acts: Explorations in the Primitive, the Archaic and the Vernacular A Lecture Given at the University of Virginia School of Architecture November 4, 2011

To make a thing deliberately beautiful is a dastardly act...I do not believe that beauty can be created overnight. It must start with the archaic. Louis Kahn

Cabin near the Painted Desert Inn, AZ

The Painted Desert

To make a thing deliberately beautiful is a dastardly act...I do not believe that beauty can be created overnight. It must start with the archaic. Louis Kahn

Last August, when Phoebe Crisman asked me to give a presentation as part of the Design and Research Colloquium, I asked what topic she had in mind. Her response was “to tell you the truth we’d like to know what you were doing out there in the desert.” So here it is. For two weeks in August I was an Artist in Residence in Eastern Arizona at Petrified Forest National Park, specifically in the area known as the Painted Desert, located in the northern half of the Park. Above and to the left is a view out the back door of the house where we stayed, a somewhat isolated adobe cabin built by the CCC in the 1930s. Since Petrified Forest does not have any campgrounds or lodges and since we were well away from the main headquarters, we were very much alone after sunset, the only exceptions being the occasional patrolling park ranger, the rabbits and the Coyotes which, by the way, sound just like the ones in the movies.

Evening rainstorm, Painted Desert

Disconnecting from the world, from technology in particular, was not really necessary, but it seemed to be part of the exercise to do so-no Internet, no cell phones, no music. There was no shortage of entertainment in any case. You can see for miles there, and watching the storms in the distance and their odd cloud and light configurations is a popular evening pastime. Some argue that the Painted Desert isn’t a desert at all but part of the Colorado plateau. The true desert, they argue, starts further south and west. One definition of a desert is an area that gets less than 10 inches of annual rainfall. The Painted Desert got 10.4 inches last year, making it a semi-desert. The Petrified Forest proper is about fifteen miles south but there are lots of small fragments of petrified wood around the house, in which the original wood had been replaced by veins of agate and quartz. There are trees, mostly Junipers, and a variety of plants with great names: Rattlesnake Weed, Simpson’s Hedgehog, Jackass Clover, Desert Four O’clock and the three different varieties of Mormon tea.

Rabbit Brush

Petrified Wood

Church of San Esteban, Acoma Pueblo, NM

There is no shortage of architecture there. The park contains buildings by Richard Neutra and Mary Colter among others, but the real architectural glory of the region is the Native American buildings, both ruins and active communities. Above is the Church of San Esteban at the Acoma Pueblo, about 200 miles east of the Petrified Forest. The buildings in the lower photo are kivas, traditional religious spaces, which must be entered from the top-hence the ladders. The people of Acoma were forced into Catholicism in the seventeenth century but continued to practice their own religion in secret. Today they seem very comfortable following a strange hybrid of the two, in which saints and kachinas are interchangeable if not identical.

Ladders to Kiva entries at Acoma Pueblo

So the Painted Desert is a strange in between landscape-not really desert but certainly not a forest, not really America but certainly not Mexico.

Self Portrait “Les Miserables” Paul Gauguin

This is a good place to stop and admit that this narrative sounds a bit hackneyed. You could say that this story an archetype, but more accurately, it’s a cliché, a very old onethe retreat from civilization, the escape to the wilderness, the renunciation of technology, the reconnection to nature and to those that have remained connected to nature.

Landscape with Peacocks, Paul Gauguin

It was a cliché in 1895 when Paul Gauguin left Paris for his last extended stay in French Polynesia. His desire was to escape not just European art, but European culture and European society, not just to study the native art and peoples and their connection to the natural and mythical world but to become one with them, to become a “savage.” He did not come back and died in Hiva Oa in 1903.

Reconstruction of Thoreau’s cabin near Walden Pond

John Muir’s drawing of the cabin he built near Yosemite Falls

But Gauguin was no pioneer. The retreat to the wilderness was a cliché when Muir and Thoreau did so in the nineteenth century and the rules and rituals of this escape are as strictly prescribed and as any rite of the Roman Catholic Church. Among other things, one must produce both architecture and literature. Walden and My First Summer in the Sierra are two literary classics of the type and Thoreau and Muir both performed their architectural duties at the required one room scale as seen here. At the top of the page is a reconstruction of Thoreau’s cabin near Walden. Below is Muir’s own drawing of the cabin he built near Yosemite Falls. Note, by the way, that neither building is a log cabin.

St. Francis in the Desert, Giovanni Bellini

St. John on Patmos, Nicolas Poussin

St. Jerome, Lucas Cranach

The Temptation of St. Anthony, Hieronymus Bosch

But this was an old story long before Thoreau and Muir. One can find it in the letters of Seneca. It is a JudeoChristian trope as well. Moses, Isaiah, Christ, John the Baptist, among other Biblical characters, all spent time in the wilderness. Forty days seems to be the standard period required for what they were seeking to be revealed to them. Various saints performed similar rituals, most memorably Saint Jerome, Saint Francis, Saint Anthony and Saint John. Many but not all scholars I have read say that this should not be understood as a kind of proto-transcendentalism, I suppose meaning the wilderness was, at least to them, hostile, and that they were not supposed to enjoy themselves. It certainly doesn’t appear that way in Bellini’s Saint Francis. Perhaps that is the point, the difference between external calm and internal turmoil. Poussin’s depiction of St. John on the island of Patmos is set in the most bucolic of landscapes, but he is engaged in writing the violently apocalyptic book of Revelation.

Detail, St. Jerome, Lucas Cranach

Detail, St. Francis in the Desert, Giovanni Bellini

These saints also produced literature and, if not architecture exactly, certainly some very interesting furniture, at least according to Bellini and Cranach. There is a persistent thought not just in Western art but in Western culture, that there was a time before this time, perhaps an ancient one, that was better. When life was simpler, more direct, more straightforward–a primitive life-where sophisticated technologies did not separate us from nature, where complex systems of thought did not cloud our analysis of simple problems, that there was a time when art was more natural, when it was not art at all. Problems of making, including problems of representation, were solved in a direct, vital and straightforward way using what was at hand and unencumbered by the prejudices of precedent. There is also a persistent sense that we must find a way to return to that time, either by approaching problems in the manner of a primitive or by studying or imitating the work of those “primitive� peoples that have never lost the ability to do so.

The Petit Cabanon, Cap Martin, Le Corbusier

So what are the architectural consequences of all this? There are countless examples of parallel journeys made by architects in search of solitude, the natural and the primitive, and there is a great deal of architecture that came out of it. Buildings built with the materials and means available, buildings built in accordance with their natural site and buildings built in imitation of cultures that in turn, are seen as being built according to nature. For want of a better word I am going to call this architecture primitive, despite the problems of not just the word but the whole concept. It has been too long in architectural history to be discarded, so for the time being I am staying with it. Perhaps a better would be archaic and that is the word Louis Kahn used. Kahn’s idea of a wilderness experience was, I suspect, a walk through Rittenhouse Square at lunchtime, but as much as any architect he went to the heart of what all of these artists were trying to do. This is the quote from which the title of this lecture is drawn. To make a thing deliberately beautiful is a dastardly act; it is an act of mesmerism which beclouds the entire issue. I do not believe that beauty can be created overnight. It must start with the archaic.1

Ocotillo Camp, Frank Lloyd Wright

Moore House, Charles Moore

Alpine Hut, Charlotte Perriand

Sauna, Villa Mairea, Alvar Aalto

So what are these journeys, real or symbolic, that are the architectural equivalents of those of St. Francis, Muir or Gauguin. To the left is Le Corbusier in his log-faced cabin at Cap Martin where he went every summer. It contained only one bed, no kitchen and no plumbing. Fortunately there was a restaurant nearby that delivered his meals. Le Corbusier’s self denial did not extend to cuisine. Frank Lloyd Wright, Charlotte Perriand, Charles Moore and Alvar Aalto all performed to varying degrees similar exercises, all became, some for a short time, a type of exile. I am going to start by examining several of these exiles and show some design work inspired by them. But first it is better to determine exactly what the qualities of a “primitive” architecture are.

Characteristics of the Primitive

Chac Mool, Mayan Figure

Materials, not Concepts This is a Mayan sculpture, one much admired by Henry Moore. He used it as an example of what he saw as an essential quality of primitive art, that it was based on materials: Truth to material…one of the first principles of art so clearly seen primitive work. The artist shows an instinctive understanding of his material, its right use and possibilities.2 We can think about form in two ways. The first is literally Platonic. We begin design with the perhaps unconscious assumption that there are ideal forms, such as the sphere, that have no material reality but imperfect manifestations in the forms of basketballs and oranges. But we can also conceive of form as inseparable from material- that a basketball is first and only a basketball, and an orange is only an orange. For the architect working in the second mode, this means that a wood building is a wood building, a brick building is a brick building, and a steel building is a steel building, and if the material changed, so would the form.

Forked column at porch, Painted Desert Inn, Mary Colter et. al.

The Found Object This is the column of a porch of the Painted Desert Inn, across the road from the cabin I stayed in. It is a work of the Pueblo Revival of the 1930s and uses a common device of Southwestern architecture, the forked column. The forked column is entirely missing from contemporary architecture but it is almost universal in any archaic building culture that uses wood. You can find it at Colonial Jamestown or Neolithic Asia. It represents a different kind of design than what we a familiar with. An engineer in analyzing the problem of a column would calculate loads, determine a formal concept, select a material and design and fabricate the column accordingly. The forked stick column method of design is based on the circumstances of a man finding an object who then saves it, thinking it might be useful and finally uses it as a column to support his porch. This man is what Claude Lévi-Strauss in The Savage Mind called the bricoleur. The ‘bricoleur’ is adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks; but, unlike the engineer, he does not subordinate each of them to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and procured for the purpose of the project.. [He] makes do with ‘whatever is at hand,’ that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and also heterogeneous.3

The Betrayal of Christ, St. Zeno, Verona, IT

Exaggeration Above is an image familiar to you if you have been to Verona-it is a side panel of the door of St. Zeno portraying a story from the Bible, the arrest of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane just before the crucifixion. To the left is a version of the same subject by Anthony Van Dyck, The Betrayal of Christ. Like most religious art since the Middle Ages both works follow a fairly precisely prescribed set of images. Men with clubs and torches are coming for Christ. The time depicted is the moment when Judas betrays Christ by identifying him with a kiss, and in a sub plot, one of Christ’s followers has cut off the ear of one of the Romans. Although the two versions are separated by 300 years, they contain the same elements. Both portray all of the actions prescribed by tradition.

The Betrayal of Christ, Anthony Van Dyck

Despite the precision and craft of the later version, I think most observers, including myself, would say they prefer the older one. The Van Dyck is more anatomically correct, more precisely constructed in perspective and far more polished in its execution but it is also far more mannered. Elaborate draperies and contrived gestures are aligned rather artificially along the diagonal connecting the corners of the canvas. The St. Zeno version has a quality Ruskin called “rudeness” something he found infinitely preferable to perfection or even accuracy. The work has a vitality and sincerity lacking in the Van Dyck.

Paestum and the Parthenon as shown in Vers une architecture

E. H. Gombrich points out that the type of primitive art represented by the St. Zeno panel often possesses two qualities. Pictorial space is shallow and rarely perspectival. The elements are sized according to importance, not according to their location in a perspectival grid. Thus all the heads in the St. Zeno panel might at first appear large, but it is a device that allows for the facial expression to be more pronounced. Elements are exaggerated almost as they would be in a cartoon or caricature.4 This is a particularly common sentiment in Modern art. Barnett Newman sees this as an essential part of the creation of symbolic images: One of the serious mistakes made by artist and art critics has been the confusion over the nature of distortion, the easy assumption that any distortion from the realistic form is an abstraction of that form‌.In primitive tribes distortion was used as a device whereby the artist could create symbols.5 One can say that Louis Kahn’s preference for the temples at Paestum over the Parthenon is part of this phenomenon. Le Corbusier had originally made the comparison in Vers une architecture, arguing that the Parthenon was the refined version of the messy prototype that was Paestum. Kahn saw it differently; he wrote: The archaic begins like Paestum. Paestum is beautiful to me because it is less beautiful than the Parthenon. It is because from it the Parthenon came. Paestum is dumpy — it has unsure, scared proportions. But it is infinitely more beautiful to me because to me it represents the beginning of architecture.6

Doric capital, Parthenon

Doric capital, Paestum

What makes Paestum dumpy in comparison with the Parthenon is clear. All of the curves of Paestum are larger and, by contrast, exaggerated. The entasis of the column is much greater; the curve of the capital more pronounced. The parts are far less refined than the Parthenon but far more vital in that one can sense the forces at work-the weight of the entablature moving through the column, then finding its way through the shaft to the ground. These distortions are not really structurally functional and even if so are greatly exaggerated. In that regard Paestum has much in common with the St. Zeno panel and other primitive works.

Dormitories, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, India, Louis Kahn

It is easy to find this kind of exaggeration, particularly structural exaggeration, in Kahn’s own work. This is the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. Its primary elements are structural-the brick buttresses that laterally support the base and, above, the jack arches and concrete tension ties that restrain the lateral forces produced by the arches. Kahn himself admitted that the concrete tension ties are needed only at the ends, as the lateral thrust of each arch in the center portion is counteracted by the lateral thrust of the adjacent one, and I suspect that the building does not really need the buttresses at the base. These again, are structurally exaggerated elements.

The First House, Viollet-le-Duc

The Primitive Hut, Abbe Laugier

The Rational Primitive A large number of architectural texts and treatises, going all the way back to Vitruvius, begin with a kind of creation myth. The forms and some of the details of these stories vary but they all share the basic prototype. Primitive man, needing shelter, begins to assemble one with the materials at hand and the tools available in a straightforward response to his immediate needs. Having no precedent to follow, he makes a work of pure invention, responding to problems of structure and climate in a direct, straightforward way. Gottfried Semper, Viollet-leDuc, Adolf Loos and Marc-Antoine Laugier all take the work of the rational innocent as the point of origin of architecture. The work of the savage is thus a kind of proto-functionalism. This is the process Kahn wished to imitate when he spoke of the beginning of the archaic. It is the time Seneca longed for when he wrote, in the first century, “Believe me, that was a happy age, before the days of architects, before the days of builders!�7

Picasso, Head of a Woman

Mask from the Dan Region, 1920

The Magical Primitive-Abstraction In 1905 Maurice Vlaminck, after a long day of painting in the Parisian suburbs, walked into a bar in Argenteuil. Behind the counter, mixed in with all the liquor bottles, were three African sculptures, two from Dahomey and one from the Ivory Coast. After some haggling he purchased them. This incident was for Vlaminck the beginning of an obsession with African art. It is possible he was the first of the modern, painters to take up this fascination but he was certainly not the last. In France Picasso, Braque, Matisse, and Derain soon became collectors. Nolde, Marc, Macke and others in Germany did the same. Few if any of these painter/collectors were particularly articulate as to what specific characteristic they found of value in these works. Matisse spoke of material, Picasso of totems and magic, others of its directness and power, others of its child-like innocence, others of its abstract simplicity. Willam Rubin argues that Modern art and tribal art have an afinity for the conceptual, as opposed to visual perception. In most cases this implied an abstraction of reality. Robert Motherwell wrote: primitive art… is not like modern art,.. it is incorruptible, because there is nothing to corrupt the makers…. All primitive art in the best sense of the word, in a T. S. Eliot sense, is abstract. Totally focused on what is to be said, and there is no diversion.8 But the most basic quality of works of primitive art seems to be their “otherness,” the fact that they were nonwestern, that most of the conventions of art, those artists were familiar with, were missing. But while Modern art’s long fascination with the primitive and modern architecture’s long fascination with the vernacular are closely parallel, they are in many ways different phenomenon. Architects for the most part have sought the funtional/ rational origins of architecture. Artists have for the most part sought the mystical/magical origins of art.

Jack arches, Fort Wayne Performing Arts Center, Louis Kahn `

Jack arches, Trajan’s Market, Rome

What follows are six histories of forays into the archaic, the primitive or just the non-architectural. Each episode begins with the story of an exile, and their attempt to escape architecture, if not civilization altogether, and the buildings that journey produced. Each is followed by a series of my own designs that explore these beginnings. So why do this? Is this intention to pursue a kind of neo-primitive design some kind of Luddite reaction against the critical status quo, its faith in the digital age and the inevitability of a complete transformation of architecture? In fact I am not so much dismayed at the current state of architecture as I am with the fact that I know it is going to change. Twenty years ago the zeitgeist demanded fragmentation and collage; today it demands continuity and flow. Thirty years ago orthogonal plan geometries represented the true, the rational and the functional. Today, for reasons rather poorly explained, non-orthogonal geometries are the true, the rational and the functional. When I began teaching in 1980 the study of historical precedent was almost universal. Today we deny its relevance while making no less use of it. Everything that was mandatory in 1970 is now forbidden; everything that was forbidden in 1970 is now mandatory. It is clear to even the most superficial observer that none of these phenomena are the result of progress, technological or otherwise. They are simply stylistic cycles, trends that are just as likely to reverse themselves, as they have done many times before, as to continue. The critical status quo, at any given moment, appears to be the result of a pendulum of mood swings, veering from one extreme to the other in rapidly increasing cycles. We all want to believe that there is the possibility of an architecture that gets beyond this, that is more permanent, that is, if not exactly timeless, at least transcends the style of the day. The intent of the journeys I describe and of my own was to leave this process of rapidly changing aesthetic whim behind and start over, to find something that would have a validity beyond the fashion of the moment. I wanted to do what Kahn and Lewerentz had done, to escape from style, fashion, and the zeitgeist, to escape from history by going back to its point of origin, to look at brick or concrete or steel for their functional qualities while ignoring their symbolic associations, to design buildings that had the qualities of archaic building without the appearance of archaic buildings. There is no mystery why Kahn, or for that matter Viollet-le-Duc and Laugier, were attracted to the primitive. It was the way beyond style. It was based on the pragmatic and the functional. It had no gestures, no inflections and nothing of the moment. Primitive man could see the problem of shelter clearly without reference to precedent or tradition or style, and solve the problem in a way that was straightforward in its elegance. The idea, as Kahn said, was to go back to beginnings of architecture, to what he called volume 0. If Kahn’s or Lewerentz’s buildings were often imperfect in craft and crude in formal resolution, this was deliberate as well, to forgo the perfection of the Parthenon for the rugged vitality of Paestum. All these architects had in common the search for a way of building that had a legitimacy beyond taste, even beyond aesthetic judgment, that responded to pure functional needs, that had a straightforwardness uncontaminated by preconception, that used technology that was neither archaic nor experimental. What I really wanted to escape from is probably architecture, or, more precisely, to get outside of architecture and find the art of building in a very literal way.


Horace Kephart

Kephart’s cabin in North Carolina

So as promised I will show some modern equivalents of these exiles, of the wilderness journey, of this fascination with the primitive, the desire to recreate it, and my own attempts to do so. I am going to start with this man, Horace Kephart. He was not by training an architect, but a librarian, something you might not guess if you notice that he is holding a revolver in this photograph. In 1900 Kephart was to all appearances a success-the head of the Mercantile Library in St. Louis, married, the father of five children, and beginning a career as a writer and editor. 1904 found him a changed man, fired from his job, abandoned by his family, recovering from bouts of alcoholism and depression and living in the cabin shown on the right in the woods near Bryson’s City, North Carolina. Yet none of the problems of his family and career were the sole reason or even the primary reason for his changed circumstances. He later explained: In far Appalachia it seemed that I might realize the past in the present, seeing with my own eyes what life must have been to my pioneer ancestors… I wanted to enjoy the man’s game… of matching my woodcraft against the forces of nature.9

Pages from Camping and Woodcraft, Horace Kephart

While the intentions of Kephart’s wilderness journey seem similar to Thoreau’s and Muir’s, the resulting literary output, Camping and Woodcraft (1917) is of another order. Walden has sold a lot more copies, but if you are actually going to try this, that is to retreat into the wilderness, you would do well to leave Walden at home and take Camping and Woodcraft with you. The book is short on philosophy and long on advice-how to live in the woods, how to start a fire, cook a meal, prepare a campsite. There is also a lengthy section on how to build shelters. But Kephart’s objective was not to make architecture but rather to escape from it. It is understood that the shelters described are temporary and transitional, and that is their virtue. They all use logs; the joints are all lashed. They require no more equipment than an axe and some rope.

Pages from Shelters Shacks, and Shanties

About the same time that Kephart wrote Camping and Woodcraft, Daniel Beard published a similar manual, Shelters Shacks, and Shanties. (1914) Beard’s book is a cultural catalog of how to build a variety of sheltersNative American Structures-Hogans, Bark Tepees and Wikiups; vernacular American traditional types: Adirondack lean-tos and log camps, sod houses and tar paper shacks and some more exotic types-the Wyoming Olebo, the Canadian Mossback, the Nortland Tilt and Hornaday Dugout. The huts are divided in two groups-those built only with a hatchet and those built only with an axe. Beard wrote “The buildings here suggested require a woodsman more than an architect; the work demands more the skill of the axe-man than the carpenter or joiner.” Again immediacy not just of material, but of joinery, is necessary.10 I suppose the point about these structures is that not only do they not require an architect, they don’t require a carpenter. The joints are impermanent and appear so, and inevitably the qualities of the joint, temporality and tentativeness, are imparted to the structures as a whole, and the sense that the results are not really architecture or even building but something far more immediate and vital.

Illustrations from the Boy Scout Field Book,1944

These are pages from my Dad’s 1944 Boy Scout Field Book that deal with the subject of lashing. There are three basic types-square, diagonal, and sheer. All of the joints require only rope and pocketknife and no training other than the instructions shown. These structures have a very specific character because of the visual autonomy of the parts. The logs are connected side to side. They barely touch; the parts remain parts. The joints are easily made and just as easily unmade. The result is a structure as impermanent as a permanent structure can be.

The first series of sheds were dogmatic in that they followed precisely the rules set out above: constructed of natural materials, minimally processed, assembled with minimal primitive tools, and built with joints made only with a rope and axe, allowing for a fair number of spikes.

Alpine Hut, Charlotte Perriand

These log structures have a curious resemblance to a small but significant exhibit at the 1937 Paris Exposition-Charlotte Perriand’s Alpine Hut. Perriand is best known as the collaborator and in some cases the primary author of much of the furniture commonly attributed to Le Corbusier, and the scale and character of this building are closer to furniture than to architecture. Perriand was more athlete than exile, and the hut was designed as a shelter for skiers. It was 4x2 meters and contained one room and one bed although the sofa could be unfolded to accommodate five more. Following the exhibition it was erected in the Alps at an elevation of 200 meters. Despite the location it took only three days to assemble and all the work was done by Perriand and two colleagues. It was built entirely of aluminum tubes of identical diameter and fixed with scaffolding-like fasteners that could be rapidly connected and disconnected so that it could be easily transported.

Scaffolding joint

Lashed wood joint

But other than the material and location, there is little that is unique about Perriand’s structure. It is scaffolding, and its virtues are the same as scaffolding. Scaffolding is light, can be handled without the aid of heavy equipment and is easily assembled and disassembled. Perriand’s hut has the same structural character as scaffolding or more correctly, the lack of structural character. When beams, columns and struts are all the same cross section regardless of length, load or stress, and when those elements are rather tentatively joined, the result is a sense of lightness regardless of its real weight. Kephart’s huts, Beard’s huts, the Boy Scout structure, Perriand’s structure and scaffolding are really the same. The only real difference is material and the materials with which the joints are made. Nevertheless each structure has different, even contradictory associations. One is everyday; one is avant-garde. One is ordinary; one is high tech. What if the designer ignored these associations and simply used the technology and material that was in front of them, as primitive man would do?

Steel Shed A, Ed Ford

Log Shed B, Ed Ford

The difference between the scaffolding joint, the lashed log joint and the buildings in which they occur, or rather the lack of difference, was the point of departure for a second series of designs. I began by developing simultaneously one shed in wood and one in steel; one of logs and one of steel pipes and deck. I took an attitude of technological neutrality toward these systems, trying to set aside their associations and simply study their character. They follow loosely what might seem to be the rules for a primitive structure. For the most part they use materials readily at hand, if not exactly from Lowes or Home Depot they are readily available standard components. Some of the huts use modern materials, but everyday modern materials. While some employ different levels of sophistication and craft, for the most part the materials are formed using primitive, accessible technology in a symbolically neutral way. While certain elements are minimized, others are overdesigned, and some, while not exactly useless, are structurally redundant for the sake of clarity. All are highly abstracted, using geometry to eliminate any stylistic association.

Log Shed A, Ed Ford

Log Shed B, Ed Ford

The first series of log sheds, as at the top of the page, are “pure� in they are constructed only of logs, rope, splkes and glass. Like scaffolding, all use logs of uniform diameter regardless of the load and like scafffolding they are diagonaly braced. I quickly moved to a more hybrid version with steel cable diagonal reinforcing, steel pivots at the column bases and steel and wood flitch beams (Two half logs with a steel plate between) for the major supports.

Steel frame Steel Shed A

Log frame Log Shed B

Non-bearing metal deck walls Steel Shed A

Non-bearing log walls Log Shed B

Steel Shed A

Log Shed B

Steel Shed A, near the C+O tracks, Ed Ford

Log Shed B in the San Juan National Forest in Colorado, Ed Ford

Log Shed B in a Colorado campground, Ed Ford

Log Shed B at a pre-fab building supplier, Ed Ford

Elevation Elevation



Elevation/Section, Log Shed B, Ed Ford

Wood Shed B


The next shed uses squared off pine logs, TJI’s, tongue and groove decking and scaffolding elements. As in the sheds with round logs, the typical, labor-intensive log cabin corner is avoided.

Cut-away section of Wood Shed B, Ed Ford

Scaffolding base

Log walls

TJI roof joists

Wood Shed B for sale at Lowe’s, Ed Ford

Wood Shed B at Walden Pond, Ed Ford

Wood Shed A

Scaffolding frame

Built-in furniture

Log walls

Wood Shed A at the Vallecito Reservoir in Colorado, Ed Ford

Wood Shed A is a hybrid of logs and scaffolding. The log walls are square timbers but use conventional log cabin corners. There are interior scaffolding frame and foundations so that a permanent, massive structure sits atop a transient base.


Axonometeric and sketch of Wood Shed C

This shed also places the metal frame inside the wood hut, the steel scaffolding inside the squared log cabin, then doubles its size and height. Most of the furniture is built-in and grows out of the scaffolding structure, bridging the divide between the two structures and transforming both in the process.

Cut-away section of Wood Shed C

Steel scaffolding


Log walls


Wood Shed C in rural Virginia, Ed Ford

Wood Shed C in Venice, Ed Ford

Metal Shed A1 on Cape Cod, Ed Ford

Structural tube frame Furniture elements Projecting metal siding elements for furniture

Metal Shed A1

Metal Shed A is transformed into a more programmatically specific building by the addition of a desk and a bed. The swinging wall panel remains as a door. Each of the furniture pieces grows out of the tubes of the scaffolding structure. The round steel tubes of the outside columns are extended into the room to support the desk or bed or along the wall to frame the opening.


Steel tube supports

Metal Shed A1 Corner with bed unit


Each column is a cluster of three steel tubes. At two opposite corners one of the tubes break free to form a furniture support.

Steel tube supports

Metal Shed A1 Corner with desk unit


The steel tubes also support windows and projecting walls before reconnecting with the cluster column.

Metal Shed B on Cape Cod, Ed Ford

This shed is constructed of more raw, everyday maufactured materials, using heavy guage metal studs for all framing and preinsulated metal deck walls with plywood interior facing. When galvanized elements are cut the zinc coating is compromized, so the the ends are painted yellow to restore the waterproofing.

Metal Shed B

Metal stud frame

Stud floor and roof joists

Metal siding and floors


Ocotillo Camp, Phoenix, AZ, Frank Lloyd Wright

Our third exile is the archetypal one, Frank Lloyd Wright-the most domestic of architects and the worst of fathers, the most place sensitive of designers but always a nomad. He did not seek solitude in the Arizona desert or in the farmland of Wisconsin but rather, as N. K. Smith suggests, to form a community, a kind of architectural Camelot.11 This is Ocotillo Camp, built outside of Phoenix in 1929. Constructed of canvas tents on wood platforms, it was inhabited for only short time and destroyed in less than a year. Most modernists have taken on the tent at some time in some form, sometimes literally: Wright again at Taliesin West. Le Corbusier’s Pavilion des Temps Nouveaux, Eero Saarinen’s canopy at Aspen, and Kahn’s unbuilt canopy at the Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad are other examples. The intent of all of these is to capture the spirit and perhaps the reality of mobility. This is another return to origins, a more literal one, evoking a past when we were more nomadic and less rooted.

Pages from Camping and Woodcraft, Horace Kephart

You could say the most basic primitive hut is the tent. These are two pages from the tent chapter of Kephart’s book. The one at the upper left is a fascinating design in which a sleeping bag morphs into a tent.

Reconstruction of the traveling tabernacle described in the Book of Exodus in Eilat, Israel

The Primitive Temple illustrated in Le Corbusier’s Vers une architecture

. Of course the tent has a pedigree longer than the log cabin. At the top is a reconstruction of the traveling tabernacle described in the Book of Exodus. It is in effect the mobile St. Peter’s of Judaism, the dwelling house of God, but constantly in motion. Below is the version published in Vers une architecture by Le Corbusier. The tent is a great deal more than an impermanent shelter. It is a shelter with minimal displacement from the elements and a transient connection to place.

Tent A Tent B

Designing a tent is easy enough, but I rather quickly moved from a simple tent to the idea of using the tent as an umbrella over some of the huts I had already designed. Tent B creates a cover for a more architecturally useful idea, an open space in front of the shed, and I added a Plexiglas roof to the shed so the light that filters through the tent is visible from inside.

Here they are scattered around Charlottesville-on Carter’s Mountain, behind the Blue Moon Diner, on a farm in Bath County, and for sale in the parking lot at Lowe’s.


Traditional Japanese Farm Shed

Ise Shrine, Japan

What is appealing about all of these huts, of course, is that they are not architecture, and deliberately so. They go to great lengths to deny or subvert those things that characterize architecture in the conventional wisdomgravitas, solidity, permanence. So the first question is what would happen if we made the huts architecture, and the second question is how to do it. At the top of the page is a view of a twentieth century vernacular Japanese grass and stick storage shed. Below it is the Ise shrine, also in Japan. According to Alexander Soper they are descendants of the same ancestor. Ise is the simple storage shed made more solid, stable and permanent. It retains most of the features of the original prototype although some elements have lost their original functions. The primitive shed has simply become larger, thicker and heavier.12 So one structure is just building and one is architecture. What is the difference? Most traditionalists and many modernists would say it is monumentality and the easiest way to achieve monumentality, if you cannot increase size of the whole, is to increase the size and weight of the individual members.

Monumental Wood Shed A

Monumental Wood Shed B

These are some basic monumental huts. They are essentially generic platform framed boxes with the studs on the outside and with all the members doubled, oversized and overdesigned, but at the same time the scaffolding base and cross bracing foundation has been retained. There is, however, a far more effective technique for establishing monumentality than simply enlarging and thickening.

Monumental Wood Shed C, Ed Ford

Axonometric, Monumental Wood Shed C

Monumental Wood Shed C, Ed Ford


Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite, CA, Gilbert Underwood

Detail of concrete

Petrification If you are interested in the five star wilderness experience you might want to try the Ahwahnee hotel in Yosemite-rustic elegance at its best. Not long ago I was sitting on the terrace there, thinking it was one of the best-preserved wood buildings I had ever seen. In fact the only wood in either picture is the tree on the left. The wooden beams are concrete, formed and painted to look like wood. It is, rather, one of the best-preserved concrete buildings I have ever seen. The architect, Gilbert Underwood, who was Ivy League trained and had a successful Los Angeles practice, was no exile, but he was one of the masters of the true rustic style, and had already designed the lodges at Bryce and Zion National Parks. But this was an eight-story hotel that needed to be built quickly. Concrete was faster and fireproof. The only real wood structure is the dining room and it is heavily reinforced with steel. We turn up our noses at this, but for many this is what making mere building into architecture is about–petrification-the translation of a wood building into a stone one, or in this case concrete. If you don’t believe me ask Vitruvius. This is how he says the Doric order was created. A wood prototype was translated into stone. Some contemporary archeologists contest this idea, but petrification is common in a variety of architectural cultures, particularly in India. According to R. Nath the Palace of Fatehpur Sikri is a translation of the temporary wood and canvas structures of the typical Mogul encampment into a permanent stone palace. Thus the arcades of the Panch Mahal are stone replicas of the wood raotis and cloth chandovas in stone13

Temple of Zoser, South Court, Saqqara, Egypt

According to Earl Baldwin Smith petrification represents the birth of architecture. When the Egyptians transformed their everyday wood, reed and grass buildings into stone in the city of the dead, as here at Saqqara, building became architecture.14

Conjectural construction of an Egyptian wood building, of which south Court of the Temple of Zoser was a stone replica.

Morimoto Restaurant, Tadao Ando

Petrification is very much with us. In 2006 Tadao Ando took on a commission that was, for him, very much out of character, the design of a restaurant in New York for Morimoto, television’s Iron chef. Ando’s wellestablished minimal concrete vocabulary is not the obvious choice for a commercial dining room. Ando had no illusions about what the commission demanded. This, he said, was not just architecture; it was entertainment. The problem of applying Ando’s architectural vocabulary to a restaurant is not one of adapting a different palate of materials, it required a different attitude toward material, one in which materials might be used out of character, in which one material might represent another. The finished interior has many such juxtapositions. There are heavy concrete walls and stairs, but there are also chairs that, while massive in appearance are made of foam. The entry canopy that appears to be cloth is made from PVC but this is only a prelude to its oddest feature, the ceiling. It appears to be hanging folds of cloth and it is, but the cloth is sprayed with an encrustation of fiberglass and transformed into a literal fossil.

Plastic roof at living room, Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright

Canvas roof at drafting room, Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright

Ando was not the first modernist to petrify a tent. Frank Lloyd Wright’s process of petrification was more deliberate. The drafting room and other spaces at Taliesin West were originally roofed with canvas fabric supported by redwood beams. The canvas fared badly in the desert sun and even during Wright’s lifetime, it was partially replaced with plastic.

Tent A

Petrified Tent A

Detail of Petrified Tent A

So if you are going to actually make architecture and not just building, the next step is to monumentalize the huts, to petrify them. What follows is a series of fossilized sheds. Petrification is a partially incorrect term as it implies stone, and some are canvas structures translated into wood, but it seem useful to stretch the definition here. In the first version the simple hanging tent I showed earlier is turned into a structure in which two tubular steel beams support a series of steel cables on which are placed structural insulated panels, faced with plywood below and metal roofing above.

Petrified Tent B

Wood tent

Platform-framed box with sliding door


In this scheme the wood tent becomes the roof of one of the monumental platform framed boxes shown earlier.

Petrified Tent B at a pre-fab building supplier with sliding door open and closed

Petrified Tent C, Ed Ford

Steel braced wood walls

Plywood tent

Composite image

Petrified Tent D, Ed Ford

Brick walls

Plywood tent

Composite image

Composite House A composed of Petrified Tent B and four Wood Shed B units, Ed Ford

Composite House A composed of Petrified Tent B and four Wood Shed B units

The huts are connected by library and kitchen corridors

View of living room from dining room Composite House A, Ed Ford

Plan-Composite House A

This is an attempt at a larger house using the square log huts for the major elements-three bedrooms, dining, and living. The long corridors are rooms in themselves. One is a library; the other a kitchen. The living room is to the right, dining to the left and three bedrooms are at the top. The bedrooms are linked to the living room by the library/corridor and the living to the dining by the kitchen/corridor.

View of bedrooms from dining room Composite House A, Ed Ford


Aalto cabin, Muuratsalo, Alvar Aalto

Aalto cabin, Muuratsalo, Alvar Aalto

Many of the buildings we admire are the product of rigid ideologies translated into rules that must be adhered to, e.g.: all the parts must be prefabricated; all the joint must be perfect; all the parts must be steel; all the joints must be dry; all the parts must be concrete, or it all must be produced without the use of paper. Aalto’s wilderness exile, like Le Corbusier’s was seasonal. His summer cabin is not a pure structure, but a highly inconsistent one, a hybrid of the modern and the primitive. The cabin contains a kind of technological progression from the sophisticated to the primitive. The brick and wood living room begins an archipelago of structures of progressively more primitive construction with progressively more minimal foundations.

Entry and Living Room, Villa Mairea, Alvar Aalto

Sauna, Villa Mairea

The long C shaped plan of the Villa Mairea has a similar technological progression from the sophisticated to the primitive. Beginning with the steel and concrete living room, it ends in the sauna, a wood structure of lashed poles, rough siding and a turf roof. Both Nairea and Muuratsalo are examples of the process of colonization.

Holy House of Loreto, Bramante

The Miracle of the Holy House of Loreto, Tiepolo

Reliquaries A Renaissance example of colonization is the reliquary. In 1507 Donato Bramante began work on a project that was, if not his most eccentric work, certainly his most eccentric commission, an enclosure for the Holy House of Loreto. According to tradition the house was the birthplace of the Virgin and originally located in Acre in present day Israel. When the Sultan of Egypt captured Acre from the Christian Crusaders in 1291 a group of angels lifted the stone and brick structure and carried it to Loreto on the East coast of Italy. Two hundred and fifteen years later Bramante, along with Sansovino, Antonio Sangallo the Younger and others, were hired to give it an exterior covering. The Holy House was already located inside a basilica; there was no functional need for enclosure and the result is not so much an undersized building as an oversized reliquary.

Abraham Lincoln Birthplace, Enclosure by John Russell Pope

Before snickering too much at a world that finds this story plausible you would do well to consider this American equivalent of the Holy House. In 1910 John Russell Pope was given a similar commission in Hogdenville, Kentucky-to build an enclosure, a reliquary, for one of America’s greatest relics, the log cabin in which Abraham Lincoln was born. What Bramante achieved through finesse Pope achieved through sheer mass. A stone building with massive walls and minimal windows encloses a structure that, in this context, appears to be so many toothpicks. Pope’s objective was the same as Bramante’s, to elevate the everyday into the realm of the sacred. It is a wonderful building and the fact that the much traveled cabin never came anywhere near Abraham Lincoln takes away from it not at all. It had no authentic provenance and has been shown by subsequent dendrochronology to post date Lincoln’s birth.

Adoration of the Magi, Sandro Botticelli

The point is that all these buildings involve a phenomenon called colonization-an insertion of one architectural structure, perhaps a rustic and temporary one, into another, perhaps a more permanent and refined one. It is particularly common in Renaissance Art, especially the work of Botticelli and Durer. A large number of early Renaissance paintings involve commissions for set pieces, scenes from the Bible or Christian history–the crucifixion, the last supper, the annunciation (or the betrayal of Christ, shown earlier)-that were represented time and again. They contain the same constituent elements, which at first glance seems to place numerous restrictions on the artist. Nevertheless they are depicted in a wide variety of styles and configurations as if those restrictions had fueled creativity in other areas. Sandro Botticelli painted a number of versions of the Adoration of the Magi, and given that they all involve the same artist representing the same event, they show a remarkable degree of variation. One element they all have in common is a building that houses the Holy Family, the stable where, according to Saint Luke, Christ was born. In one version it is a primitive wood bower in front of a cave, in another a supersized ruined series of arches. One of the most intriguing is this version is from 1480. A classical but ruined pavilion of square Corinthian columns has lost its roof, which has been replaced with a more primitive arrangement of wood trusses. Much of the iconography-the three kings, the ox, and the ass-fairly standard in any adoration of the time-is drawn from a thirteenth century work, The Golden Legend. Some scholars believe that explains the odd building, that it represents what was once called the “Temple of Peace” in Rome, today more accurately referred to as the Basilica of Maxentius. According to The Golden Legend the oracle of Apollo predicted that the temple would stand until a virgin gave birth, and thus the building collapsed at the birth of Christ, no mean feat given that the basilica of Maxentius was not constructed until 312 years later. The new roof of Botticelli’s painting represents the rebirth and rebuilding of both the new covenant and along with it the church.

Nativity, Albrecht Durer

Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood, the authors of Anachronic Renaissance, wrote of the building in Botticelli’s adoration: Advanced architecture has been laid low, and the history of architecture is cycled back to its beginnings in sheds, huts an lean-tos- essays In provisional, archaic wooden building of the kind describe by Vitruvius In disquisition on the origins of architecture in book 2 of De architectura. The clock is stopped and restarted. The nativity shed is the reverse image of the hut of Romulus: not surrounded by the masonry that has superseded it but propped up on the castigated ruins of a whole era worth of stone architecture the pictures ask: Will the process begin again or has the occasion for substitution been missed? 15 This is a Durer nativity that juxtaposes three structures-a decaying classical masonry building, a fairly refined medieval timber building and a highly decayed and precarious wood structure connecting them.

Sketches of reliquary sheds

Nagel and Wood see the process of colonization as a beneficial, even necessary. They write: Conceptually the generation of a house relic from a few authentic stones is no different from the absorbing of into a painting of a fragment of an old panel or fresco. Unless the seam between container and contained is clearly signaled, the embedded relic has the power to colonize the whole image....It softens the abrupt juxtaposition of grand architecture and humble shed, and the apocalyptic chronology that contrast implies, promising instead a reassuring and reversible movement up and down, backwards and forwards.16 These two sketches show two early attempts at colonized structures, putting lightweight lashed pole and log structures inside heavier brick wall and vault structures.

Reliquary A

The first series of reliquaries are concentric boxes of varied construction types-here a lightweight steel structure inside a heavy log structure inside a brick structure.

Brick Shed A in Philadelphia, Ed Ford

Wood and cable structural frame, Brick Shed A

Vaults and non-bearing walls, Brick Shed A

But this double envelope strategy was a bit too easy. The next series of sheds seek to merge two radically different structures into one while preserving the identity and qualities of the originals. They combine brick vaulting and steel scaffolding. They have a de-monumentalized character and avoid architectural qualities in the conventional sense. James Fergusson, a stodgy and rather unimaginative turn of the century English historian, wrote that, “The great art of the architect consist in obtaining…. the appearance of superfluity of strength as shall satisfy the mind that the building is perfectly secure and calculated to last for ages.”17 Strangely all of the precedents I am following and the work I am producing seems to seek the opposite effect, the impermanent, the transitory, the temporary and the changeable.

Corner, Brick Shed A

Brick Shed A

Brick Shed B in Philadelphia, Edward Ford

Composite view


Scafolding frame and bearing wall

The second brick shed eliminates the columns and uses the brick wall to support the vault.

Corner, Brick Shed B

Brick Shed B

Brick Shed C

This structure uses scaffolding to group four brick sheds together.

Column, beam and vault details Brick Shed D

Tower A, composed of Brick Shed A units, Ed Ford

Detail, Tower A, Ed Ford

Tower A employs a five story cross-braced scaffolding frame to house four Brick Shed A units, with the addition of a large stair to the main floor and a small circular one to the upper floors.

Tower A on West Main Street in Charlottesville, Ed Ford

Plan and elevations, Tower A

Perspective, Tower A

Elevation, Tower A

Tower B, Ed Ford

Detail, Tower B, Ed Ford

Whereas Tower A is additive, Tower B is subtractive, composed of a four story brick volume containing the basic elements of a simple archaic brick builidng-fireplaces, chimneys and brick bay windows-that is then subdivided by the scaffolding into four units.

Tower B on West Main Street in Charlottesville

Plan and elevations, Tower B

Elevation, Tower B, Ed Ford

Perspective, Tower B, Ed Ford

Wood and steel pipe scaffolding frame

Petrified stone scaffolding frame

This series of sheds are examples of true petrification. The steel scaffolding of the previous schemes is made into stone. Some parts remain steel-tension cables, diagonal bracing and pivoting joints. This shed involves simultaneously both colonization and petrification, both elasticity and rigidity, both temporality and monumentality.

Stone frame


Stone walls

Stone Shed A

One of the results of the processes of colonization and petrification are ambiguities or double readings of structures. If you take a steel structure that is highly elastic and animated and petrify it or combine it with a static, rigid stone structure, the result is a structure that is elastic and massive, flexible and stiff at the same time in different places.

Stone Shed A, Ed Ford

Perspectives, Stone Shed A, Ed Ford


The First House, Viollet-le-Duc

The Primitive Hut, Abbe Laugier

At this point we should be thankful that there are no anthropologists in the audience, for much of the thinking I have just described is not only wrong and wrong-headed but if you think about it, repugnant to our sensibilities. It assumes that there is a category of people we call “primitive,” people that are not as advanced as ourselves. In fact they are the same as children, and their societies like children, will eventually grow up and become like ourselves. For those in history who subscribed to this view, these thoughts were meant as a compliment. It was the advantage of primitive people that they are child-like. They are unimpaired by the veneer of society, with the preconceptions of history and, when it comes to architectural problems, they are believed to posses a kind of transcendent rationality that comes from their innocence. They have no precedents and therefore can attack the problem in a straightforward way. It is not surprising then that the admiration of the primitive is closely related to ideas about children’s art. Like children, this thinking maintains, primitive people have not been taught to see and draw in a certain way. Left alone, they can actually see more clearly. There is a shelf full of books written on the erroneous thinking laid out here. Societies do not advance in the manner of maturing adolescents. But architecturally perhaps the most significant flaw in this thinking is the idea of the primitive hut as a rational point of departure for architecture. Neolithic people, as opposed to the nonexistent primitive man, are not unimpaired by preconception. In the making of their technologically simple shelters, most tribal cultures could hardly be bound more by tradition and religion. Not only are its processes ritualized and uninventive, but changes in form or rituals of construction are almost nonexistent. In those actual historical dwellings identified as primitive they are overwhelmingly restrained by non-functional criteria-the need to place their shelter in the cosmos, alignmened with an understanding of its place in the builder’s universe. But the despite the defective anthropology of Violet-le-Duc and others, architect’s appreciation of the primitive has always included the mythical as well as the rational.

High Priest under Baldachin, Rosano Gospels

Totems Charles Moore was never an exile but always a nomad. 1958 found him in his first year as a doctoral student at Princeton, where he attended the last course taught by the archeologist Earl Baldwin Smith titled “Palace, Temple, City, State” and it is safe to assume that Smith covered the themes that appear and reappear in his five books. Smith was particularly fascinated with the tent canopy and its descendants-the ciborium, the baldachin, the kalube and the kubba in the Ancient and Medieval architecture of the Levant. One of these was the Egyptian “soul house,” a tent /canopy supported by poles. It was one of the first basic types of shelter in Egyptian culture but “persisted as a shrine, apse or holy of holies” and as a portable canopy covering a raised platform for the pharaoh. According to Smith, that form evolved into stone architecture. Its close relative was the baldachin-common to Hellenistic, Buddhist and Early Christian architecture-cosmic throne rooms as Smith calls them, representing the vault of the heavens and placing the emperor or Buddha or Christ at its center.

Ciborium, Santa Maria Assunta, Lugano

Moore later wrote: We believe the image of “house� holds great power over the human mind, and that a house should seem the most important place in the world for its inhabitants. From the earliest times four posts, generally surrounding a hearth, have marked the spiritual center. In the huts of primitive man, this four-posted hearth was surrounded by nooks devoted to the storage of use of specific implements. Later the four poster with a roof added became the symbolic house, the aedicule, in which, for instance, pharaohs were crowned, and later still, altars or statues of saints were enshrined....In our own work, the aedicula provided a way of accommodating the general need for a symbolic center in the midst of the specific demands of the household.18

Axomometric, Charles Moore House, Orinda CA

Living room, Charles Moore House, Orinda CA

Five years later in California Moore built the first of his “aedicule houses” and soon after a second, this one for himself, in Orinda, The form was a truncated pyramidal roof sheltering two smaller freestanding canopies, each supported by four wood posts. It drew on Smith’s archetypes but also on John Summerson’s essay “Heavenly Mansions,” and the idea of the aedicule, the little building, in Gothic architecture.

Section, Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

Smith’s work, along with that of many other historians suggests a very different type of ”primitive” architecture than that of Viollet-le-Duc or Laugier, One that was not free from precedent but entirely bound by it, one that was not primarily about shelter but about building a model of the cosmos, one that was not about the rational but the magical and one based on archetypes. As Mircea Eliade wrote “the consecration of place equals the repetition of the cosmology.”19 There are a number of books, from William Lethaby in the nineteenth century to Paul Oliver today, chronicling these archetypes-the omphalos, the axis mundi, the cosmic mountain, and the imagio mundi among others. Thus we can understand the Dome of the Rock not as a rational construction of stone and wood but as a tent canopy sheltering the rock or omphalos or naval of the world. Note that in this illustration there is a real tent above the rock.

Haida Village, Skidegate Inlet, British Columbia, Canada

Axis Mundi of a Haida Plank House

One of the more fascinating of these devices is the axis mundi, essentially a central column. This is a clan house of the Haida Nation of British Columbia. During the winter ceremonies a pole is placed in the smoke hole of the lodge, and during the ceremony a shaman climbs the pole and disappears.

Plan, Izumo Shrine, Japan

Izumo Shrine, Japan

A well-known example of the axis mundi is the Izumo shrine. It has a simple square plan with a column squarely in the center that pushes the main altar to one side and the main entry to the other. Its exact symbolic significance of the column is not known. 7000 miles away, separated by 700 years is the Diwan-i-khas of the palace of Fatehpur Sikri, an elevated throne room and reception hall built in 1575 where the Mogul emperor Akbar sat atop a column at the center of a cubical space to receive visitors.

Diwan-i-khas of the palace of Fatehpur Sikri, India

The central columns of the Haida Lodge, the Izumo shrine and Fatehpur Sikri appear to be variations on this common symbolic element-the axis mundi. Mircea Eliade defines it as, “ a universal pillar…. Which at once connects and support mother earth.” Many of the cultures that employ it believe in a tiered cosmos, a series of parallel worlds that exist in horizontal strata and the axis mundi is the vertical element that links the various layers. The range of its use in both place and history is remarkable. Eliade lists the Kwakiutl, the Israelites and the Babylonians as cultures in which it occurs. Paul Oliver adds the Kabkite houses of Algeria and the Sakalave houses of Madagascar. David Wallace and David Pearce describe similar columns used by the Algonquin, the Navaho, Siberian Tungus, Chukchee of Northeast Asia, the Desana of South America. For the Achipa of Australia it is portable, a sacred pole that is replanted as they migrate. For the Biblical Jacob it was the ladder of his dream. Then there is the case of St. Simeon Styles who lived atop a column in the Syrian Desert for thirty nine years. Its fragmentary remains survive at the ruins of the church of Qalaat Samaan.20

Church of St. Peter, Klippan, Sweden, Sigurd Lewerentz

The single central column, particularly in a square room, has its place in Modernism. It is rarely a client pleaser, having obvious functional shortcomings for any space for groups of people that require clear sightlines. When it is used it is out of spiritual rather than structural necessity. Although they had very different personalities and careers Erik Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz were frirnds and for a time partners. Something they did share was the love of a particular plan idea, the square room with a single column at the center. Asplund proposed this for two small chapels at the Woodland Crematorium. As executed the single column remains but it is off center and the room is oblong. Lewerentz used it in his church at Klippan, where a single column is placed squarely in the center of the space, and it is not just a column but also a T shape, suggestive of a cross.

Kingpost Shed A

While I wanted to return to the archaic as Kahn and Lewerentz had done, I also wanted to do what Joyce had done, what Steinbeck had done, what Rauschenberg had done, to take that which is exceptional only in its ordinariness and elevate it to the mythical. That is what architecture did at its point of origin. Kahn saw the archaic as the ability to look at materials and structures free of precedent. He wanted to return to rational origins. Joyce, Picasso and Rauschenberg wanted to return to mythic origins. If the archetypes that Joyce, Picasso and Rauschenberg do exist and if they have validity for contemporary art, then I should be able to likewise. All of this first series of sheds are variations on the square Izumo plan with eight columns around the perimeter and one at the center, but the arrangement is bit more complex. The columns are connected to form story-high trusses. The eight perimeter verticals sit on the foundation wall. The vertical at the center does not touch the ground but is the kingpost of the truss. In this case the resulting truss supports an inverted plywood dome.

Section, Kingpost Shed A

Wall structure, Kingpost Shed A

Section showing structure, Kingpost Shed A

Roof structure, Kingpost Shed A

Four Poster Shed A, Ed Ford

Four wood cluster columns

Steel reinforced wood dome

Brick walls

Four Poster Shed B, Ed Ford

Steel reinforced wood dome

4 wood cluster columns

Steel reinforced wood walls

Thiese two structures are, I suppose, a kind of oversized ciboriums. In designing them I was more conscious of the idea of a tent of wood that was inverted and with making its means of support evident but independent so that the vault rests lightly on its supports.

Perspective, Composite House B composed of Kingpost Shed A and three Wood Shed B units, Ed Ford

Perspective, Composite House B composed of Kingpost Shed A and three Wood Shed B units

Perspective showing only sheds in color, Kingpost Shed A and three Wood Shed B units

This house is made of combined sheds. A Kingpost unit is the living room and three Wood Shed B units form the bedrooms, elevated on scaffolding and enclosed by a steel pipe and metal deck roof and walls.

Axonometric, Composite House B units

A Kingpost Shed A unit forms a living room and three Wood Shed B units form bedrooms


Hut of Romulus

This is the Hut of Romulus on the Palatine hill. In Roman tradition it is the first building of Rome, built of thatch and sticks. The earliest version is from probably around 200BCE, but it was reconstructed and rebuilt for hundreds of years following numerous fires and the deterioration of its flimsy organic materials. Nagel and Wood wrote of it: Like the cabin Henry David Thoreau built at Walden Pond in Concord Mass in 1845, the hut of Romulus was the construction of an increasingly sophisticated rationalized culture inventing pride in its humble origins. Thoreau’s cabin was in itself in its time a model of a simpler way of life. He built it only a few hundred feet from a railway line. In the late twentieth century Thoreau’s cabin was replicated on its original site and today it is maintained much as the hut of Romulus was effectively preserving its identity for tourists who probably ask themselves few questions about the substitution chain behind it. Thoreau‘s cabin is and is not the original cabin. Place and some rough idea about what the Ur structure looked like create the effect.21

Sukkot in Israel

Sukkah in Great Synagogue of Herzliya, Israel, Tel Aviv

The desire to recapture the lost original, the tabernacle, is all around us. Parallel to the desire to create the primitive house is the desire to recreate the original temple. During the Jewish festival of Sukkot small booths called Sukkah are constructed and inhabited for a week in commemoration of the Israelites time in the desert during the Exodus. There are certain rules for Sukkah. They must be made of organic materials such as branches. It must have three walls, be at least three feet tall, and part of its roof must be open to the sky.

To the left is a portable sukkah, a shack built on the back of a pick-up. This was part of an exhibit in Union Square “Sukkah City, 2000.” A description by its organizers: Ostensibly the sukkah’s religious function is to commemorate the temporary structures that the Israelites dwelled in during their exodus from Egypt, but it is also about universal ideas of transience and permanence as expressed in architecture. The sukkah is a means of ceremonially practicing homelessness, while at the same time remaining deeply rooted. It calls on us to acknowledge the changing of the seasons, to reconnect with an agricultural past, and to take a moment to dwell on–and dwell in–impermanence.22 Below is a patent drawing for a prefabricated demountable version.

A Portable Sukkah

Proposal for a Pre fab Sukkah, Aaron R. Feigelson

Original New Grove Baptist Church, GA, 1871

A 1930s tent revival meeting in West Virginia

A similar tradition but as far as I know one unrelated to Sukkah is the tent revival, still a staple of American Evangelical Christianity. This tradition dates to the nineteenth century, and structures created for these assemblies also take the form of brush arbors.

This shelter built with palms is particularly beautiful. It is the work of the Apostolic Outreach Ministry in Bude, Mississippi, who will use it for their Brush Arbor Revival.

This one is built by the Randall United Methodist church in North Carolina. It is a replica of the original church and they will use it to reenact the first service held by their congregation. These obviously are not processes of creation. They are reenactments. According to Alan Colquhoun, this is what the tradition of the primitive hut is actually about: Laugier was no more concerned with the real Mediterranean vernacular than was Rousseau with historical primitive society. He was concerned with a distillation of classical architecture. He was not concerned to returning to the earliest hours of man, but to the pure sources of classical architecture. The process entailed not the discovery of vernacular building, but the re vernacularization of classicism with which to substantiate a myth of origins‌. a process by which classicism.., recreates its own origins.23 I think that is precisely what most of these architects were about, a revernacularization of formal language and the substantiation of a myth of origins.

Joseph Rykwert published On Adam’s House in Paradise, the classic study of the primitive hut, in 1972. Colquhoun’s essay, quoted on the previous page, was written in 1984. That same year The Museum of Modern Art held a show “Primitivism in 20th Century Art.” It is notable in retrospect primarily for its critical unpopularity. The show acknowledged the many problems of traditional Primitivism-racist attitudes toward culture, the fact that “Primitivism”was part of a much larger surge of colonialism, the equation of biological and social evolution, the lack of archeological understanding on the part of many artists, but for many critics this was insufficient. Hal Foster wrote: To value as art what is now a ruin; to locate what one lacks in what one has destroyed: more is at work here than compensation. Like fetishism, primitivism is a system of multiple beliefs; an imaginary resolution of a real contradiction: a repression of the fact that a breakthrough in our art, indeed a regeneration of our culture, is based in part on the breakup and decay of other societies, that the modernist discovery of the primitive is not only in part its oblivion but its death. And the final contradiction or aporia is this: no anthropological remorse, aesthetic elevation, or redemptive exhibition can correct or compensate this loss because they are all implicated in it.24

Magney House, Binge Point, AU, Glenn Murcutt

Aboriginal Shelter

It could be argued that in this lecture I have dealt with three overlapping but nevertheless independent phenomena- the search for solitude, the search for rational beginnings in architecture, and the search for historical beginnings in architecture. Yet while each can be explored independently, each takes as a point of departure ther rejection of the cultural status quo. The concept of “otherness,“ often mentioned in discussions of the primitive, is probably useful here. Foster is correct when he says that our culture is simply one more “other” to other cultures. Perhaps so, but this does not alter the nature of what is “other” to us. 1984, the year of the primitive exhibition at MOMA, was also the year Glenn Murcutt finished the Magney house at Binge Point Australia. Murcutt has lived for a time with an aboriginal group in North Arnhem Land and his work draws heavily, but not directly, on their architecture. Thus the elevated platform and the pole and bark construction of the aboriginal dwelling can be seen as an ancestor of Murcutt’s architecture. Murcutt seems untroubled by Foster’s misgivings, as are most of Murcutt’s architectural contemporaries. However problematic this fascination with the primitive is to the critical establishment, I see this idealization of some ancient utopia all around us, e.g., we must return to natural ways of producing food; we must return to the ancient time-honored ways of passive environmental design; we must recover the craft of traditional building; we must reconnect to the land; we must retain and cherish vernacular and local traditions; we must fight the globalization of culture and preserve the ancient virtues of the place in which we are situated. It is an attitude that seems unlikely to go away soon.

Donald Judd in Marfa, Texas

Untitled, Donald Judd, Marfa, Texas

Prada Store, Marfa, Texas

Is this kind of escape possible today? 1970: Donald Judd, disgusted with the New York art scene, moves to Presidio County, Texas, one of the most sparsely populated areas of the United States. Undeterred, the New York art world follows Judd to Marfa where in time it establishes the world’s smallest Prada outlet. Judd died in Marfa in 1994. Judd, Gauguin and St. Jerome are the exceptions in this family of exiles. They each never returned from their own wilderness and died there. But most patriarchs, saints, naturalists, artists and architects who make this journey come back. For most the wilderness retreat is a kind of ritual of renewal that must be periodically re enacted, to return to whatever it is that is the basis of one’s art.

St. John on Patmos, Nicolas Poussin

This is another view of the house we stayed in. Obviously it is not as isolated as I have portrayed it. Isolation, in any case, is a question of attitude, not of geography. Like most patriarchs, saints, naturalists, artists and architects, I came back. A week after I left the desert I was standing in a trout stream in Colorado, happy to have escaped the dry landscape and scrubby trees. But the point, as I have already said, is about the need to recapitulate memory, even if that memory is inaccurate, naïve or even fictitious. The great building, however abstract, must contain within it a memory of its origins. Last week I ran across this in a review of a new book on T. S. Eliot in the New Yorker written by Louis Menard. Stravinsky … had taken something primitive and recast it in a contemporary idiom--the way Picasso used African masks for his portrait of the prostitutes in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, or Joyce put the whole of the Odyssey underneath Ulysses. What was important … was that the bones of the old are legible (or visible or audible) under the contemporary skin.25 Of course, returning to my noble intention of escaping the rapidly escalating stylistic cycles of architectural style, I have done nothing of the sort. These buildings are full of my personal mannerisms and the stylistic devices of the era, and in a few short years those elements that will become the clichés of 2011 will be readily apparent in them. At the same time I would like to think there is something else in them something that if not exactly timeless, is not about the this time or even this place but something that transcends all of them.

Notes: epigraph Richard Wurman, Louis Kahn: What Will Be Has Always Been (New York: Rizzoli, 1986), p. 91. 1. Richard Wurman, Louis Kahn: What Will Be Has Always Been (New York: Rizzoli, 1986), p. 91. 2. Robert Goldwater, Primitivism in Modern Art (Cambridge: Harvard, 1934, 1968), p. 243. 3. Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1966), p. 17. 4. E. H. Gombrich, The Preference for the Primitive: Episodes in the History of Western Taste and Art (New York: Phaidon, 2006), pp. 207-214. 5. Barnett Newman and John P. O’Neill, Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews (Berkeley: University of California, 1992), p. 139. 6. Wurman, op. cit., 91. 7. Lucius Annaeus Seneca. Moral Epistles Volume II (Cambridge: Harvard, 1917-25), p. 401. 8. Mary Ann Caws, Robert Motherwell: What Art Holds (New York: Columbia, 1996), p. 197. 9. Horace Kephart, Our Southern Highlanders (Knoxville: Tennessee, 1913, 1976), p. xxvii. 10. D. C. Beard, Shelters Shacks, and Shanties (Mineola: Dover, 1914, 2004), p. vii. 11. N. K. Smith, Frank Lloyd Wright: A Study in Content (Watkins Glen: American Life Foundation & Study Institute, 1979), p. 114. 12. Alexander Soper, The Evolution of Buddhist Architecture in Japan (Princeton: Princeton, 1942), p. 8. 13. R. Nath, Architecture of Fatehpur Sikri (Jaipur: Historical Research Documentation Program, 1988), p. 24. 14. Earl Baldwin Smith, Egyptian Architecture as Cultural Expression (Watkins Glen, N. Y.: American Life Foundation, 1938, 1968), p. 88. 15. Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood, Anachronic Renaissance (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010), p. 198. 16. Ibid., p. 53. 17. James Ferguson, A History of Architecture in all Countries (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1907), p. 25. 18. Charles Moore, The Place of Houses (New York: Holt Rinehart Winston, 1974), p. 51. 19. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and The Profane (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1957), p. 32, 20. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and The Profane (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1957), p. 36. Paul Oliver, Dwellings (New York: Phaidon Press, 2003), pp. 179-183.

21. 22. Alan Colquhoun, Collected Essays in Architectural Criticism (London: Black Dog, 2008), p. 188. 23. Hal Foster, “The “Primitive” Unconscious of Modern Art,” October 34, (Autumn, 1985), pp. 45-70. 24. Louis Menand, “Practical Cat: How Eliot became Eliot,” The New Yorker (September 19, 2011), p. 80.

General Sources D. C. Beard, Shelters Shacks, and Shanties. Mineola: Dover, 1914, 2004. Steven Bedford, John Russell Pope, Architect of Empire. New York: Rizzoli, 1998. Jack Flam ed., Primitivism and Twentieth-Century Art: A Documentary History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. Rab Hatfield, Botticelli’s Uffizi “Adoration:” A Study in Pictorial Content. Princeton: Princeton University, 1976. Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft: A Handbook for Vacation Campers and for Travelers in the Wilderness Knoxville: Tennessee, 1917, 1988. Marc-Antoine Laugier, An Essay on Architecture. New York: Hennessey & Ingalls, Inc., 2009. Arthur O. Lovejoy, George Boas, Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1997. Mary McLeod ed., Charlotte Perriand: An Art of Living. New York: Abrams, 2003. William Rubin, “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1984. Joseph Rykwert, On Adam’s House in Paradise. New York: MOMA, 1972. Norris Kelly Smith, Frank Lloyd Wright: A Study in Architectural Content. Watkins Glen: American Life Foundation & Study Institute,1979. John Summerson, Heavenly Mansions. New York: W W Norton & Co Inc., 1963.

The images shown are photogreraphs by the author, from Wikipedia Commons, or have expired copyrights. Those that are not, or that require attribution, are from the following sources: A. Davido Archives charlotte perriand (achp) ©adagp-achp 2005 By Ruk7 (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons By Lansbricae from Santiago de Compostela, España [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons need J. P. Lauer Mission Archéologique de Saqqarah By Tyler Elkington Tylersmiler [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons Library of Congress Historic American Buildings Survey Timothy Brown from Chicago (Alvar Aalto - Muuratsalo house Uploaded by A333) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons Trevor Patt Art History Images Holly Hayes CED University of California Berkeley University of California Berkeley Foundation Le Corbusier Architectural Record University of Notre Dame Open Courseware By 663highland (663highland) [<a href=””>GFDL</a>, <a href=”http://”>CC-BY-SA-3.0</a> or <a href=””>CC-BY-2.5</a>], <a href=” jpg”>via Wikimedia Commons</a>

Seier + Seier By RonAlmog, (Flickr page) (sukkot-36) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons By Yoninah (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-2.5 (], via Wikimedia CommonsAaron R. Feigelson â&#x20AC;&#x153;Sukkah City, 2000.â&#x20AC;? New Grove Baptist Church, GA Apostolic Outreach Ministry, Bude, Mississippi Randall United Methodist Church, North Carolina Glenn Murcutt Aboriginal Environments Research Centre By Chinati Foundation (Chinati Foundation) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or FAL], via Wikimedia Commons flickr user Daniel (originally posted to Flickr as Prada Marfa) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons Reuben Rainey

Dastardly Acts:Explorations in the Primitive, the Archaic and the Vernacular  

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