Year 0 Day 1, notes on architecture's mythologies of genesis


0 • Patchwork

Volume 10, Issue 03
April 19, 2024

Buildings need no beginnings but architecture has too many geneses. “Architecture” derives from Greek “arkhi-” and “tekton,” the master builder that came into existence prior to their oeuvre, who seeks their own origins. The identitarian character between the creator and created blurs the boundaries between the two, uniting them in a Spinozist oneness; the beginning of architecture is only a euphemism of the origin of its creator, the god that initiated the Promethean transformation of earth to paradise. The brief survey of multiple proposed genesis of architecture helps to illustrate this point. As a genre of fiction, the first architecture is an instrument to kill the old God with a new one. Yet if, following Lacanian thought, where the God is always already dead,1 the incessant deicide becomes a Sisyphean toil with no end. The only way out is to keep telling new stories of the first architecture and the first architect.

“In the primeval world, the people were few and wild animals abound. The people were incomparable to the beasts, insects, and snakes. There was a sage who built a wooden nest to avoid harm from the crowd. The people rejoiced and made him sovereign of the world with the name Youchao (有巢氏). People eat fruits and clams, whose fishy and foul smell hurts the stomach and makes them suffer from diseases. There was a sage who drilled a flint to make fire to dissolve the smell, and the people rejoiced and made him sovereign of the world with the name Suiren (燧人氏). In the medieval world, floods inundated the world. Gun and Yu dredged rivers and drained the floods. In modern times, the reigns of Jie and Zhou were brutal and were overthrown by Tang and Wu. If by the Xia Dynasty, there were still people living in tree shacks and drilling wood to make fire, they would have been ridiculed by Gun and Yu; if by the Yin and Zhou dynasties, those who still dredges river and drains flood would surely be ridiculed by Tang and Wu. And thus those who admire and implement the politics of Yao, Shun, Yu, Tang, and Wu today would surely be ridiculed by the latter-day sages. Therefore, the sage seeks not to follow the ancients nor the mores, but prepares himself for the necessary and timely affairs.”2

“Let us consider man in his first origin without any other help, without other guide, than the natural instinct of his wants. He wants an abiding place (lieu de repos)…He chooses four of the strongest, which he raises perpendicularly and which he disposes into a square. Above, he puts four others across, and upon there, he raises some that incline from both sides. This kind of roof is covered with leaves put together, so that neither the sun nor the rain can penetrate therein; and now the man is lodged (& voilà l’homme logé)…Such is the step of simple nature: it is to the imitation of her proceedings to which art owes its birth. The little rustic cabin that I have just described is the model upon which all the magnificence of architecture has been imagined; it is in the coming near in the execution of the simplicity of this first model, that we avoid all essential defects, that we lay hold on true perfection.”3

“Before men thought of erecting tents, fences, or huts, they gathered around the open flame, which kept them warm and dry and where they prepared their simple meals. The hearth is the germ, the embryo, of all social institutions. The first sign of gathering, of settlement and rest after long wanderings and the hardship of the chase, is still the set of the fire and the lighting of the crackling flame. From early times on, the hearth became a place of worship; very old and long-lasting religious ideas and forms were associated with it. It was a moral symbol: it joined men together into families, tribes, and nations, and it contributed to the rise of social institutions at least as much as want and simple need. The house altar was the first object to be singled out for adornment; throughout all periods of human society it formed the sacred focus around which the other separate elements were crystallized into a whole.”4

“If we go back far enough, we find that the first acts of civilization were the use of tools, the gaining of control over fire, and the construction of dwellings. Among these, the control over fire stands out as a quite extraordinary and unexampled achievement, while the others opened up paths which man has followed ever since, and the stimulus to which is easily guessed. With every tool, man is perfecting his own organs, whether motor or sensory, or is removing the limits to their functioning… the dwelling-house was a substitute for the mother’s womb, the first lodging, for which in all likelihood man still longs, and in which he was safe and felt at ease.”5

“The architect’s general task is to provide a warm and livable space. Carpets are warm and livable. He decides for this reason to spread out one carpet on the floor and to hang up four to form the four walls. But you cannot build a house out of carpets. Both the carpet on the floor and the tapestry on the wall require a structural frame to hold them in the correct place. To invent this frame is the architect’s second task.
This is the correct and logical path to be followed in architecture. It was in this sequence that mankind learned how to build. In the beginning, it was cladding. Man sought shelter from inclement weather and protection and warmth while he slept. He sought to cover himself. The covering is the oldest architectural detail. Originally, it was made out of animal skins or textile products.”6

“There was once a highly civilized and sophisticated group of beings whose sophistications led to their own demise on earth. When homo sapiens emerged, they took shelter in the ruins of their predecessors, and imitated the derelict structures with their own means—thus beginning architecture.”

  1. See Slavoj Zizek, Enjoy Your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out, (New York: Routledge, 2001), 38-41. ↩︎
  2. Han Fei, Wudu (Five Pests). My own translations, with the consultation of Han Fei, Han Fei Tzu: Basic Writings, ed. Theordore de Bary, trans. Burton Watson, (New York, Columbia University Press: 1964), 96-97. ↩︎
  3. Marc-Antoine Laugier, An essay on architecture; in which its true principles are explained, and invariable rules proposed, for directing the judgement and forming the taste of the gentleman and the architect, with regard to the different kinds of buildings, the embellishment of cities, (London, T. Osborne and Shipton: 1755), 9-12. ↩︎
  4. Gottfried Semper, “The Basic Elements of Architecture,” in Wolfgang Hemann, Gottfried Semper: In Search of Architecture (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1984), 198. ↩︎
  5. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, trans. James Strachey (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005), 73-75. ↩︎
  6. Adolf Loos, “The Principle of Cladding,” in Spoken into the void: Collected Essays, 1897-1900, trans. Jane O. Newman and John H. Smith.(Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1982), 66. ↩︎

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