Origin Myths



Volume 8, Issue 04
February 24, 2023

Charles Eisen’s allegorical engraving of the Vitruvian hut on the frontispiece of Laugier’s 1755 Essai sur l’architecture is one of the most widely reproduced and storied images in architectural history. Why is this? The origin myth of the primitive hut has been stirring the architectural imagination since antiquity, but when Laugier narrated his version in Essai the primeval cabin took on an entirely different meaning. For Laugier, it was not merely the original shelter from the elements of weather but an originating condition of architecture – a monadic structural framework of four columns, beams, and roof. The narrative, however, is one thing and the engraving is another. Eisen’s allegorical image – like photography – commits itself to collective memory in the theater of our mind’s eye in a way that the written form perhaps never will.

In Eisen’s depiction of the primitive hut, its columns are firmly rooted in the ground with a tree canopy blossoming above its rafters. Architecture is here born of a forest as an artifice in a state of nature from which it deviates. This simultaneous adherence and deviation from nature underlies Laugier’s narrative as one of the clearest representations of Rousseauism in architectural theory. Simply put, Laugier (a contemporary of Rousseau) believed that all art is an imitation of nature, and Eisen’s frontispiece can be understood as an image of Rousseau’s egalitarian “state of nature.” Rousseau fabricated the origin of private property when he wrote, “The first man who, having fenced off a plot of land, thought of saying, this is mine … was the real founder of civil society.”1 With this narrative of his own, Rousseau suggests that conflict over land has played a key role in major developments in society, and that its effects have been entirely negative. He concludes: “You are lost if you forget the fruits of the earth belong to all and that the Earth belongs to no one.”

This search for the historical beginning of things has persisted since antiquity, but what is found is never, as Foucault writes, “the inviolable identity of an origin, but the descension of other things. It is disparity.”2 Origin myths in architecture persist to this day. Is Laugier the root of disparity from which these writings descend? The distant ideality of the origin and the memetic imitation of nature form a complex course throughout history warped by precarious accidents, minute variations, complete reversals, false appraisals, and faulty calculations that deliver the things that continue to exist and have value for us; it is, as Foucault continues, “to discover that truth or being does not lie at the root of what we know and what we are but the exteriority of accidents.”3 And this discovery is the soil in which architecture’s origin myths take root and branch into new modes of writing history, and of critiquing that history.

Taking Alison Smithson’s 1974 genealogy of mat-building, Timothy Hyde extends and modifies her timeline in his essay “How to Construct an Architectural Genealogy.” Or more recently, Design Earth writes speculative tales of climate change and the fossil fuel industry in the Persian Gulf with their projects After Oil and Of Oil and Ice. Or in their newly published book A Manual of Anti-Racist Architecture Education, WAI Think Tank rewrites Charles Jencks’s ‘evolutionary trees’ as a way of questioning Eurocentric architectural epistemologies devoid of political and social contexts. In his 1971 essay “Toward the Year 2000,” Jencks forecasts ways that architecture can develop leading into the new millennium by imagining two schools of thought: “The Cybernetic School” led by ‘post-humanists,’ and the “Revolutionist School” led by anarchists. And even these predictions were explicitly modeled on earlier narrative forms, notably Sant’Elia’s 1913 “Milano 2000” and Bellamy’s 1887 Looking Backwards, 2000-1887.

These critical genealogies are written as works of fiction, or allegory. Laugier’s figment of the primitive hut is one in a vast collective genealogy spanning centuries, always under the microscope of critical examination and revision. Every day new images of environmental disasters and planetary catastrophes flood our screens. But if, as Walter Benjamin writes, “Allegories are, in the realm of thought, what ruins are in the realm of things,” then what new origin myths can we stage in the theater of our minds to remind us that “the earth belongs to no one” before it falls into ruin?

  1. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality (1755). ↩︎
  2. Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984). 79. ↩︎
  3. Ibid. 81. ↩︎

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Volume 8, Issue 04
February 24, 2023

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