Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

The idea of the primitive hut

Subproject of "The quest for the legitimacy of architecture in Europe (1750-1850)".

2010 - 2015
NWO Vidi NWO Vidi

In 1753 the abbé Laugier published his Essai sur l’architecture, to discover the true principles of architecture. To Laugier, these are embodied in “la petite cabane rustique,” man’s first house, consisting of four poles, four beams and a roof. All architecture imitates this primitive construction, and conversely buildings are good architecture insofar they resemble the “cabane”. Laugier’s “cabane” has a long pedigree in architectural theory. To Vitruvius, architecture originated in man’s imitation of animal shelters, and the development of architecture ran parallel with the history of civilisation. This conception of the origin and history of architecture is adopted in all early modern treatises. 

As a consequence, these treatises contend that contemporary architecture stands in a historical relation to architecture’s origin: all buildings are descendants from the first hut. Laugier’s “cabane”, however, is an a-historical point of reference. It is the result not of archaeological investigation or speculation, but of a typical Enlightenment thought experiment. All buildings therefore always refer back to this first model, which embodies suprahistorical design principles. If Laugier vaunts ancient Greek temples as the prime historical example of architecture, it is not because Greek society represents the pinnacle of civilisation, but because the Greek temple most closely resembles the “cabane.” 

Laugier is an example of a tendency in architectural theory over the period 1750-1850: the primitive hut is transformed from a historical point of origin into the embodiment of a-historical design principles; at the same time, because of its status as the origin of architecture, the cabane serves as the foundation of architecture’s wider cultural meaning. But how this is achieved, is left very implicit. The history of the transformation of the hut has not yet been written. More importantly, as an a-historical reference, the “cabane” and other reconfigurations of the hut establish a different relation between design principles and civilisation than the primitive hut of Vitruvius and followers; with the “cabane” these principles need to derive their cultural relevance from other sources or figures of thought. How this is done, by means of which figures of thought or frames of reference, has not yet been studied, even if the principles proposed by Laugier and contemporaries caused considerable (and well-studied) controversy. 

This project will therefore:

  1. Trace the notion of the primitive hut over the period 1750-1850 by studying the architectural theory of the period, including the writings of Laugier; Quatremère de Quincy; the so-called Romantic Pensionnaires Vaudoyer, Labrouste, Duc and Duban; Bötticher and Semper. 
  2. Analyse by means of a close reading of those texts how this transformation impacts on design theory and its claims that buildings acquire meanings that, transcending the structural, spatial and functional aspects of architecture, are cultural. 
  3. Trace the motives underlying this transformation by reconstructing the intellectual and cultural contexts of these texts. 
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