Preliminary notes on the six orders of architecture

Archeology has shown that culture evolves with relatively sudden jumps (punctuated equilibria), the neolithic (agricultural) revolution being the best known instance of such a jump or mutation.

The above makes thinking in terms of the mutation that lies directly ahead of us inevitable.

Vitruvius already wrote about architecture in evolutionary terms. Eurocentric visualisations of an evolutionary "tree of architecture" were produced by Bannister Fletcher in the Victorian era. Also in recent times, architectural commentators are using evolutionary metaphors in thinking about architecture. Jeff Kipnis (AA, London, 2014) speaks of a "cambrian explosion" in late 20th century architecture.

In an attempt at a contemporary grand narrative, I am constructing an evolutionary view of architecture involving a progressive series of six architectural "orders." My research draws on data from three fields within the humanities: archeology, art history and (western) philosophy. The implications of the theoretical work are explored in practice, through art and architecture.

I want to develop a conceptual framework and nomenclature for thinking about architecture afresh, a possible remedy against what Winy Maas calls the "originality syndrome" haunting architecture today. It is my hope and expectation that it will contribute to the wider debate about (post)modernity and the romantic revival. Contrary to postmodern relativism, I maintain that universal statements can be made, in attempts at bringing renewed direction and impulse to the field of architecture. For lack of a better term, I am willing to defend the heresy of progress. According to some definitions, it may merely be a return to modernism.

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 has to start here, with the point-like center, the focus of social life, source of light and warmth, of protection against a hostile environment. In other words, 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 fireplace became the magnetic point around which life was organized. To be able to contain this force of nature, radiating warmth and light, must have surely impacted the psychology of ancient people in a major way. It was a game-changer in terms of self-confidence and power, in the face of the often inhospitable and hostile natural environment. Is it possible that fire played a key role in the emergence of human consciousness? This idea is already present in Vitruvius, according to whom the "invention" of fire catalyzed the forming of communities and the emergence of language.

The Second Order
The second architectural order emerged in the Upper Paleolithic, roughly 100,000 years ago. The second order is the building as circular circumference, exemplified by the nomad’s hut. The fireplace sits in the center of the hut like an embryo. It is the umbilical connection to the first order.
Contemporary Asian herders living in yurts, during certain ceremonies, will 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. It is clear that the central position of the fireplace has meanings transcending the merely utilitarian.

I relate the second order to Gebser´s magic consciousness structure. "Here, too, lie the roots of that tragic entanglement of fighter and fought: to ward off the animal that threatens him – to give but one example – man disguises himself as that animal; or he makes the animal by drawing its picture, and to that extent gains power over it."

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. We all know the "Venus" figurines from this period, and the famous cave paintings. Domestication of animals, primarily the dog, is likely to have started in the Upper Paleolithic. People lived in relatively small groups as food gatherers, hunters, and possibly herders. We constructed mobile huts or tents with a circular plan, forerunners of contemporary nomadic dwellings such as the Mongolian ger.

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, the womb, it is infinity. For the builders of the following order, the third, it was to become the preferred shape for sacred space.

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 moment of transition from round to rectangular architecture has been pinned down to 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 rectilinear 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. And it happened in neolithic societies, when the circular plan was reserved for sacred spaces such as the great stone circles. In later times, the circle would retain a 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 produced them. The design of the stepped pyramid at Saqqara, 60 meters in height, is attributed to architect Imhotep around 2500 bc. Architecture is now 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. To my mind, fungal mycelium 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 anticipation of the Sixth, to the extent that 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 psychedelic 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."

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