Tuesday, September 20, 2016


Gurness Broch

One of the most informative lectures on architecture ever attended was one given many years ago by an historian: a lecture on Japanese architecture; in particular, the Japanese house. One of the best books ever read on the social and personal impacts of architecture and planning, place, was written by a social historian: the study was based on the experiences of those who had been involuntarily moved from, or had lost their homes - (reviewed by the Australian Archaeological Association, not any architectural association#). In a similar fashion, one of best technical presentations on materials in architecture was given by the chief industrial chemist of a large manufacturing company: complex matters were explained simply, thoroughly and comprehensively, without apology or compromise. The depth, clarity and understanding of all of these unpretentious presentations/studies were illuminating; unforgettable. It made most architectural lectures/papers look like light, hagiographical entertainment - pure indulgences.

Architecture not only reaches out into other realms of knowledge to try to make sense of itself, to explain, theorize and to rationalise issues, but other researchers, not architects, also frequently delve into matters architectural, and do it very well too. The two paragraphs below were found in a book on the brochs of Scotland written by an archaeologist. As with prior experiences of others’ views on things architectural seen from another context, the perceptions expressed here by Ian Armit, Professor at Archaeology at the University of Bradford, are ones rarely discovered or expressed so precisely, intimately or caringly, so comprehensively, in any architectural text.

Instead of grabbing clever references from other fields of study for its own indulgence; and rather than constantly looking in on itself and admiring and praising its ‘amazing’ output, the architectural profession should remain open to the views, opinions and understandings of others in fields of study outside of architecture, who frequently see things more objectively and express these views more simply, concisely, more expressively than architects do themselves, free of any fashionable jargon. There is much to learn and comprehend – if only we are prepared to listen:
Ian Armit Towers in the North The Brochs of Scotland The History Press. Gloucestershire 2003
p. 105-106 (on the broch village at Gurness in mainland Orkney):

For the inhabitants, too, this would have been a remarkable place, revolutionary perhaps for people whose parents and grandparents most probably farmed independently from scattered farmsteads in the surrounding countryside. This was a closed community. You either lived within the walls or you did not. There was no middle ground. It was a place where people's movements and actions could be watched and controlled, and where social norms would be hard to break. Only one path led in and out; the houses shared common walls, and were often simply subdivisions within a larger building. Entering or leaving the village would have taken on a processional quality, passing the doors of neighbours, squeezing past others on their way home or out into the fields. This was not a place to keep secrets. The comings and goings of each inhabitant and family group would have been obvious to all. It was a sheltered, covered, protected environment, but one where common values, communal lifestyles and co-operative ventures would have been hard to challenge.

Architecture is not simply a passive reflection of social structure, but also serves to reinforce certain values and social principles. For example, although the broch village at Gurness may have been laid out to reflect the social dominance of a single family within a wider kinship group, once built, it would have formed a remarkably potent symbol of social authority in its own right. For subsequent generations, growing up within the maze of passages and interconnected houses around the broch tower, their daily routines and their perception of the natural order of society would have been shaped and constrained by the architecture itself. The separateness, difference and dominance of the broch tower within the tight-knit cluster of otherwise standardized buildings, would have reinforced the social dominance of those within. The seclusion of the village itself, and island within its deep ditch and broad rampart, would have set the village community apart from outsiders. Once built, the broch village did not simply reflect the social life and world view of its inhabitants; it silently but surely moulded and refined them.

The question for us to ponder today is not only why architects are not interested in such understandings, but also: how is our architecture shaping and moulding us?

For more on brochs, Mousa Broch, see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/07/mousa-broch.html

Peter Read Returning to Nothing: the meaning of lost places  Melbourne  Cambridge University Press 1996
for a review see: https://www.australianarchaeologicalassociation.com.au/journal/review-of-returning-to-nothing-the-meaning-of-lost-places-by-peter-read/

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