Straight Line People

Mohenjo DaroMohenjo Daro, Sindh, Pakistan

“The Yoruba associate line with civilization: ‘ This country has become civilized,’ literally means in Yoruba, ‘this earth has lines upon its face.'” – Clifford Geertz, Art as a Cultural System

Why do we build square houses?  Individuals acquainted with hands-on construction may attest to the relative ease of joining a snug frame when the corner angles are kept to a common 90 degrees, as compared to the math and carpentry involved in building timber-framed ovals, triangles, and non-Euclidean monstrosities.  Trees make for exemplary home construction materials; the linear shapes found in trunks and limbs coupled with the sturdy indigestibility of lignin lend wood a singular suitability for constructions designed to be load-bearing and permanent.  Nearly every building we see is characterized by echoes of the linear design vocabulary required by wood-framing.  Even when more malleable substances like plastic, concrete, or steel are used to provide support and structure, the shapes- rectangles, squares, the odd vaulted ceiling- remain consistent with older forms.  Even within superficially novel contemporary architectural creations (the ones designed for practicality rather than spectacle, at least) the interior landscape remains one of linear corridors, rectangular rooms, and square cubicles and closets.  The engineering supports the conventions of linear architecture, but where did the conventions come from?

The architecture of people who spend their lives around trees, and pay notice to this fact, is very different from our own contemporary ‘squares and lines’ design vocabulary.  Rectangular buildings are common to nearly all wood-using cultures, but- and here’s the kicker- most of the time nobody lived in ’em.  The exceptions to this convention are raised structures inhabited by necessity in places of regular flooding, such as the stilt houses built by people living along the Amazon, Missouri, and Mekong rivers, and by parallel convention, as in the marae of Maori country; stable support for a rectangular structure is much easier and more reliable than rigging up stilts for a round house.  Where timber-framing and right angles do occur with remarkable consistency across cultures is in communal feasting-halls and in structures built to house the equipment of male mystery societies.  Sleeping structures, whether made of boughs or mammoth bones, cob or stone, tend to be circular in form.  As a mad Dutch architect friend of mine put it to me, “would you rather live in a womb or a phallus?”

Experiments in intentionally designing womb-like indoor gathering spaces have been undertaken from Arcosanti to Mumbai.  Mark Lakeman, sometime hetman of City Repair tells a story about the construction of an ovate women’s space in a Portland, OR neighborhood.  Strange synchronicities dogged the building of the space, and once finished visitors reported feelings of deep and powerful compassion, even before the space was furnished.  Throughout the construction, the builders experienced intense dreams of Olympian goddesses, the Virgin Mary, Kali, the pre-Indo-European Earth Mother, and other notable personages exemplary of feminine prowess.  All this just from hammering some bits of wood together in a circle.

So how did permanence, maleness, and the structural possibility of a second floor come to outweigh psychological comfort when it came to the construction of our home-buildings?  What would happen if a tree stove in the roof of your house?  Who would build you a new sleeping place?  Why did the dwellers of Mohenjo Daro and Ur forsake their grandmothers’ round houses and line their family compounds straight-edged along the avenues when the city walls engulfed their villages?  When were the round sod houses of rural Scots and Danes abandoned for stone cottages, and what else was happening in these places at the time?  If you wanted to build a garden shed, what shape would it be?  What does the shape of Wyoming have to do with the shape of English sheep enclosures?  Where does the Christian god dwell; where does the Earth Mother dwell?  Which is more noble, a skyscraper or a bungalow; why?  In Yoruba country, who built the first cinder-block structure?  Find the common thread linking these puzzles: it is one of the core stories of our people.

The Tzutujil Mayan village of Santiago Atitlán did without doors from its founding several thousand years ago until the early 1980’s.  Martín Prechtel, refugee shaman and raconteur, tells the story of the coming of doors to the village in Secrets of the Talking Jaguar (I think).  After millennia of relative security and stability, theft, domestic violence, and other social ills erupted overnight.  Without doors, anyone may visit at any time; there is no border between one’s public and private life.  One cannot, in a fit of anguish or rage, shut the rest of the world out and allow the self’s shadow free reign.  Without doors, when you’re hurting, everyone knows it and out of that everyone, someone’s bound to come help.  When obstructions are placed to the flow of loving attention throughout the village, fear and anger breed unchecked.  In climate-controlled apartment buildings, how emotionally close do neighbors tend to be?  Why do you choose to live in a house with doors?  Or central heating:

“Manteled chimneys, built into the walls, were a feature in every part of [Castle Coucy].  As distinct from a hole in the roof, these chimneys were a technological advance of the 11th century that by warming individual rooms, brought lords and ladies out of the common hall where all had once eaten together and gathered for warmth, and separated owners from their retainers.  No other invention brought more progress in comfort and refinement, although at the cost of a widening social gulf.” – Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

Much of what shapes our lives remains invisible so long as we do not look at it.  What else constitutes the pattern language of the built environment?


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