Brain Pickings

Architecture Without Architects: What Ancient Structures Reveal About Collaborative Design

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From Rome’s theater districts to China’s underground cities, or what pleasure has to do with utility.

The mythology of the sole genius underpins most contemporary creative disciplines, but it is particularly pronounced in architecture, where the image of the visionary diva-architect endures as the gold standard of the discipline’s success. In 1964, Moravian-born American writer, architect, designer, collector, educator, designer, and social historian Bernard Rudofsky examined a whole other side of architecture in Architecture Without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture — a fascinating lens on “primitive” and communal architecture, exploring both its functional value and its artistic richness, with a focus on indigenous tribal structures and ancient dwellings. Rudofsky peels the pretense of architecture from the creative and utilitarian acts of building to reveal a kind of vernacular, communal architecture embodying a timeless art form that springs from the intersection of human intelligence, necessity, and collective creativity.

I believe that sensory pleasure should take precedence over intellectual pleasure in art and architecture.” ~ Bernard Rudofsky

Underground city near Tungkwan (China)

Anticoli on the Sabine Mountains (near Rome)

Rudofsky was concerned with the cultural bias of architectural history, so he took a special interest in the vernacular architecture of non-Western communities.

Architectural history, as written and taught in the Western world, has never been concerned with more than a few select cultures. In terms of space it comprises but a small part of the globe -Europe, stretches of Egypt and Anatolia- or little more than was known in the second century AD. Moreover, the evolution of architecture is usually dealt with only in its late phases.” ~ Bernard Rudofsky

Cliff dwellings of the Dogon tribe (Sudan)

(Curiously, Rudofsky’s black-and-white photographs of clustered housing units bear a visceral resemblance to the illustrations of Soviet mathematician-turned-artist Anatolii Fomenko, conveying a strange sense of organic order.)

Marrakech (Morocco)

The structures in Architecture Without Architects reveal a kind of purposeful, iterative, social design process that, while dating back centuries and originating in primitive cultures, offers a powerful parallel to contemporary shifts towards collaborative creation.

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