notes on the six orders of architecture

20th-century discoveries in biology and archeology have shown that evolution, both biologically and culturally, unfolds with jumps and starts: punctuated equilibria (Gould). Philosophers and psychologists have inferred that human consciousness must be subject to the same evolutionary dynamic. Jean Gebser discerns five "structures" of consciousness: the archaic, magic, mythical, mental and integral.

What if we sought to understand architecture, its (pre)history, present and future, in terms of the Gebserian unfolding of the human mind? It is possible to see that, in correspondence with Gebser's five-tier system, architectural form is expressed in five basic modalities or orders:

The first order corresponds with Gebser's archaic structure. It originates in the lower paleolithic (more than one hundred thousand years ago). The fireplace is the point of architecture's origin (no constructed dwellings yet).
The second order corresponds with Gebser's magic structure. It is upper paleolithic in origin (starting one hundred thousand years ago). Architecture is expressed as the nomad's hut, round in plan.
The third order corresponds with Gebser's mythical structure. It is neolithic in origin (starting ten thousand years ago). It is the farmer's house, rectangular in plan.
The fourth order corresponds with Gebser's mental structure. It is of bronze age origin (starting five thousand years ago). The architecture of hierarchical societies is monumental and symmetrical. 
The fifth order corresponds with Gebser's integral structure. It came about recently, encompassing modern and post-modern architecture. Asymmetry and connectivity are its characteristics.

Architecture seems to be striving for a sixth, transcendent order in which matter is perceived as mind or energy. Architecture would no longer be subject to Newtonian physics.


The First Order
Archeological evidence for the use of fire pre-dates the evidence for huts by hundreds of thousands of years. The story of architecture starts here, with the focus of social life, source of light and warmth, of protection against an often hostile environment. According to Vitruvius, the "invention" of fire catalyzed the forming of communities and the emergence of spoken language (Rykwert). The first order of architecture was established in the Lower and Middle Paleolithic, roughly between 1 million and 100,000 years ago. I relate the first order to Jean Gebser´s archaic consciousness structure.

The first hominins to colonize Eurasia were probably groups of Homo ergaster, some 1.5 million years ago. It seems likely that the control of fire was what enabled them to colonize cooler regions, although unequivocal proof for hearths occurs not earlier than about 150,000 years ago, in the Middle Paleolithic, at cave sites belonging to Homo neandertalensis such as Le Lazaret in southern France. We see the beginnings of ritual; the first burials were performed in this period.

The Second Order
The second architectural order emerged in the Upper Paleolithic, roughly 100,000 years ago. It is the building as circular circumference, the nomad’s hut. The fireplace sits in the center of the hut like an umbilical connection to the first order.

Contemporary Asian herders living in yurts, during certain ceremonies, erect a birch tree on the site of the fireplace, projecting out through the smoke-hole. It is the axis mundi, the world tree, connecting the spiritual worlds above and below (Eliade).

The rise of Homo sapiens in the Upper Paleolithic is associated with a proliferation of cultural output. Tools made of stone, bone, ivory and wood become extremely detailed in form, and varied in function. The well-known "Venus" figurines date from this period, as well as famous cave paintings. Domestication of animals, primarily the dog, is likely to have started in the Upper Paleolithic. People are believed to have lived in relatively small groups as food gatherers, hunters and herders.

Complex camp sites from the Upper Paleolithic are known from locations across Eurasia. Animal figurines of fired clay, and impressions in clay of basketry and textiles, date back as far as 27,000 years ago at sites in the Czech Republic. Two infants buried around 24,000 years ago at Sungir, Russia, were honored with red ochre, numerous fox teeth and objects made of mammoth ivory and bone. At the Russian site Kostenki I a camp was found, consisting of several semi-subterranean dwellings constructed from mammoth ribs and furs.

The circle is the sun, the moon, a symbol of infinity. Is it not safe to presue that our stone age ancestors already read a special significance in this roundest of shapes? With the advent of the neolithic age the circle was largely abandoned in favor of the rectangle as the archetypal building plan, becoming instead the preferred shape for spaces with a heightened social importance.

The Third Order
The appearance of the third order, the rectangular building plan, coincides with the rise of agriculture following the end of the last Ice Age some 12,000 years ago. The earliest known moment of transition from round to rectangular building plans dates from the ninth millennium bc, to the Mureybetian culture in present-day Syria. The site of Jerf el Ahmar provides a remarkable example of the "invention" of the rectangular floor plan, a metamorphosis that took several centuries to complete. The site consists of some sixty architectural units distributed over several levels. Danielle Stordeur gives the following description: "The first four [levels] have only produced round constructions. The three following have constructions with rectilinear interior walls and fairly straight exterior walls, articulated by large curving angles. In level O/E the first strictly rectangular constructions appear."

Jerf el Ahmar (from Stordeur, 2000)

Archeologist Jacques Cauvin observes the fact that circular, semi-subterranean dwellings were replaced by rectangular ones, now placed above ground on the earth’s surface: "We must not forget that when rectangular architecture appeared at the end of the Mureybetian period, it had never before in any way existed in the world, but then it very rapidly became the archetype of the human house. In that way sedentary people left the hole of their origins and the circular matrix of their first homes."

Cauvin’s statement resonates with Gebser: "Strictly agricultural cultures … already take part in the mythical structure: they are matriarchal societies which are more consciously harnessed to the temporicity of growth and decay than those of the animal breeders and are more closely attuned to the maternal realm of the earth. Here arise the vegetative myths as well as a dawning awareness of the dark, subterranean realm that bears its fruits above ground."

Both Cauvin and Gebser suggest an emergence from the subterranean, like a birth. Whenever the transition to a new order is made, the previous orders are viewed in a new light. It happened to the fireplace when it took up its central position in the hut. Then it happened in neolithic societies, when the circular plan came to be reserved for presumably sacred spaces such as the great stone circles. In later times, the circle would retain its special status in architecture, often nested within the rectangle. Many examples can be given: Palladio’s Villa Rotonda comes to mind, as do Le Corbusier’s Palace of Assembly in Chandigarh and the Glass House by Philip Johnson.

The Fourth Order
Metallurgy started with the use of copper in Mesopotamia around 6000 bc, the Chalcolithic Age, followed by the Early Bronze Age around 3000 bc. The emergence of cuneiform script out of pictorial writing is attributed to the latter period. Metallurgy may have evolved independently in Egypt, although connections with Mesopotamia did exist. The pyramidal structures of Egypt and Mesopotamia appear like representations of the hierarchically stratified societies that appear to have produced them. The design of the stepped pyramid at Saqqara, 60 meters in height, is attributed to architect Imhotep around 2500 bc. Architecture becomes an official discipline; we have entered the fourth order.

The fourth order is an extrusion of the third and a negation of the second: circular forms seem to disappear completely from the architectural repertoire. To me, the fourth order corresponds to Gebser’s mental structure, in which three-dimensional, perspectival space is discovered: "The ring is broken, and man steps out of the two-dimensional surface into space, which he will attempt to master by his thinking. This is an unprecedented event, an event that fundamentally alters the world." Buildings are now conceived as three-dimensional solids; facade and section become important. We also see the emergence of the city. Roger Matthews writes: "Although we find large agglomerations of people much earlier, for example at Çatalhöyük in the neolithic period of Anatolia, it is only in Late Chalcolithic Mesopotamia that we can detect a real multiplicity of function within those settlements, which enables us to identify them as true cities."

The verticality of neolithic mound ("tell") sites such as Çatalhöyük was the spontaneous result of stacking many successive generations of mud-brick construction. Perhaps the tell phenomenon, as a faint and distant memory, foreshadowed the intentional emphasis on verticality that begins to appear in the Ubaid period (5000 – 4000 bc) in Mesopotamia. In their intricacy and symmetry, the temple complexes of the Ubaid period are clearly different from the organic agglomerations of the neolithic. Gwendolyn Leick describes a fifth millennium precursor of the ziggurat at the site of Eridu, now southern Iraq: "all the earlier ruins were filled in with sand and enclosed with a brick wall, to provide the basis for a new building elevated from the surrounding areas by one meter and accessed by a ramp." In the subsequent Uruk period (4000 – 3000 bc), the ziggurat typology would materialize: a stepped platform in solid sun-dried brick, topped with a shrine.

The Fifth Order
Jean Gebser detects the shift from mental to integral consciousness in modern architecture: "The new conception of space based on the new valuation of time has led to what is today called a "free plan". In other words, time, to the extent that it is expressible architectonically, has transformed closed, three-dimensional architectural space into dynamic, open space-time."

The fifth order adresses time as well as space. It encompasses both "modern" and "postmodern" architecture. The fifth order disperses perspective and abolishes symmetry. A desire for weightlessness, for dissolving the solid into floating planes or pixels, is omnipresent in fifth-order architecture. The Blur Building by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, at the 2002 Swiss Expo, is a compelling case of architecture´s current dematerialization. Frank Lloyd Wright´s pioneering language of interpenetrating solids and hovering planes was paralleled by a European avant-garde post World War I. Theo van Doesburg stated in 1924 that the new architecture "acquires a more or less floating aspect that, as it were, works against the gravitational forces of nature."

The presence of the past, due to the transparency of the integral mind, is a further characteristic of the fifth order. Japanese tradition and the legacy of the Western avant-garde were brought to synthesis by the Metabolist group in the fifties, sixties and seventies. For all its futurism, Metabolist architecture embodies ancient Oriental notions of impermanence, exemplified in Ise shrine. Ise shrine is essentially a neolithic house which has had a continuous existence of 1200 years, its material constituents being replaced ("metabolized") every 20 years. Kenzo Tange stated: "In the same way as life, as organic beings composed of changeable elements, as the cell, continually renewing its metabolism and still retaining as a whole a stable form – thus we consider our cities." The insight of the built environment as essentially a part of biology, a living system, will not lose its viability. Fungal mycelium, I think, is a good metaphor reflecting the decentralized, organismic nature of fifth order architecture. Already in neolithic Çatalhöyük there were organic agglomerations of third order cells, a premonition of fourth- and fifth order urbanity with its modular repetition.

In the years following the end of World War II, incidentally the time of publication of The Ever-present Origin by Jean Gebser, members of the international CIAM movement stressed the need to connect with origin. Sigfried Giedion was researching "the eternal present" and, in the words of Francis Strauven, "the original archetypes of art and architecture … the primal, prehistoric forms that he saw simultaneously re-emerging in the art of the contemporary avant-garde."
According to Strauven, Aldo van Eyck "… believed that CIAM now had no choice but to abandon its narrow Occidental viewpoint and place itself open to a broader human horizon, a more complete conception of man." In the context of CIAM 9 (1953), van Eyck "… expressed his conviction that the attitude of the Westerner towards the so-called "primitive" cultures should be a humble one. Only by discarding his rationalistic bias can the Westerner gain access to the general-human archaic values that survive in these cultures." Western man had to recover "… the elements of a primary, general human visual language that have survived through the millennia within the archaic cultures. They are the same forms as those being discovered by contemporary archeology in prehistoric art."

The Fifth Order is an asymmetrical and connective tissue, connecting present and past, inside and outside, here and there. The Fifth is an anticipation of the Sixth, insofar as it wants to dematerialize architecture, turn it into an airship, a cloud or a blob.

The Sixth Order
The Sixth Order is synonymous with the singularity foreseen by Terence McKenna: "Humanity, correctly seen in the context of the last five hundred years, is an extruder of technological material. We take in matter that has a low degree of organization; we put it through mental filters, and we extrude jewelry, gospels, space shuttles. This is what we do. We are like coral animals embedded in a technological reef of extruded psychic objects. All our tool making implies our belief in an ultimate tool. That tool is the flying saucer, or the soul, exteriorized in three-dimensional space. The body can become an internalized holographic object embedded in a solid-state, hyperdimensional matrix that is eternal, so that we each wander through a true Elysium."

Architecture as we know it will cease to exist if human consciousness consistently and collectively transcends to a kind of higher-dimensional afterlife. Reality is perceived primarily in terms of energy and consciousness. Bodies do not obey Newtonian physics, but are more or less freely manipulated in the imagination. Perhaps architects' efforts to imitate the flying saucer must be seen as lower-dimensional intimations of that which lies beyond.

Silvan Laan 2019

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