Theory and Criticism
What is traditional architecture?
what do you think about traditional architecture n what is the different between traditional architecture and classic architecture???
please I need some guidance

-- Achmad Sanad, July 8, 2008


Dear Achmad Sanad,
sorry for the delay in answering:

I would say that there are two different general concepts of 'Traditional Architecture': 1) the ethnological one and 2) the anthropological system.

1) the ethnological concept

The ethnological concept studies mainly domestic architecture as found in rural domains of modern states. A parallel term is 'Vernacular Architecture'.

Its main focus is on the domestic house, tent or hut. Depending on the cultural environment it is vaguely classified according to economico-anthropological categories, e.g. hunters and collectors, cattle-breeders or primary or advanced agriculturists.

In regard to its cultural significance 'traditional architecture' is usually understood as an important part of material culture, in its origins related to 'shelter'. It was developed, the 'theory' says, to protect humans against negative influences of climate, that is: heat, rain, winds, low temperature, snow etc.

The global diversity of traditional (or vernacular) architecture recorded recently can be found in the 3 volumes of the "Encyclopedia of Vernactular Architecture of the World", edited by Paul Oliver, published in 1997 by Cambridge University Press. The first volume shows a heterogeneous collection of theoretical approaches, which are however problematic because they project the value system of Eurocentric 'high culture' disciplines on an object which has much more temporal depth and originality as a highly complex tradition. Main problem: the disciplinary 'high culture' system rejects rural tradition because of its incapacity to produce evidence in regard to temporal depth. Thus, the discussion of 'traditional architecture' ends up in a kind of romanticism of rural 'arts and crafts'. Recently there was a discussion somewhere about 'vernacular style'!

2) 'Traditional Architecture' in the anthropological framework

This uses a quite different approach saying that conventionally 'architecture' is an elitarian term related to the cultural superstratum called 'civilisation' characterized by durable monuments, script, centralised towns and cities of larger territorial agglomerations, like states and empires. Traditional 'building' is devalued due to its ephemeral character of materials (no sources in archaeology), lack of invention (stereotype reproduction, no history) no god-like designer-creator (consequently banal!).

However, we can avoid this urban value system by redefining architecture in new ways, working with facts. The term architecture has to be redefined in a much larger and temporally deeper framework using terms like 'constructive behaviour' and its results as 'tectonic artefacts'. We gain a new field of research called 'architectural anthropology' or 'anthropology of habitat and architecture' (Egenter 1992) ->

This new definition of architecture shows us some quite new things. The 'shelter'-type, the 'hut', was not an early form of architecture. It had predecessors.

Most important was 'semantic architecture' with its 'toposemantic' functions. There are reasons to assume that in Paleolithic times it must have been important for food control and spatial organisation of temporary campsites.

Later, in neolithic times, 'semantic architecture' became extremely important for the continuous occupation of local territories and sedentary life. The system can be called 'settlement core complex'. It used semantic architecture in the form of 'nuclear borders' which, by cyclic renewal, archived the fibroconstructive foundation-marker of the village and the hegemonial rights of the founder-house, thus creating an elementary type of social hierarchy.

This type of spatial and temporal village organisation can still be studied in many places of the world where local traditions had been upheld by the local sedentary agricultural populaton (See Egenter 1982, 1994b)

It also developed symbolic functions similar like the Chinese YinYang. Without human intention 'semantic architecture' autonomously produced an aesthetico-philosophical model. Assuming that neolithic farmers for existential reasons had to deal intensely with this symbol in their environment led to a prototype of human culture.

It produced a model of 'categorical polarity' and thus became the prototype of art and aesthetics (PRO-portion). Basically this was used in early cognition by analogy of semantic architecture and natural forms (top + trunk = tree). Increasing in density, this became a basic philosophy of the harmony of all things (Greece: hen kai pan).

In other words: this neolithic spatial localism or 'toposemanticism' formed a cluster of autonomous and harmonious village-cultures in many regions which was structured by cyclically renewed fibroconstructive semantic architecture.

In some regions of the globe, struggles for domination began in these clusters. We call this the beginning of civilisation. The most ancient village had chances to become the state centre. Its founderhouse provided the palace, its representant the regional duke, the king, the pharaoh, etc..Very likely its semantic architecture - hewn into stone - became the central sanctuary of the new state.

This transition from polycentric localism to a monocentric state had tremendous implications for the human condition. Mainly, because, what we mentioned at the beginning, a definite social class system was established which set up new values to dominate the others. Thus, the values of local traditions became devalued. However, some of them were preserved, even using them for power: semantic architecture hewn in stone!

With the spatial extension from village localism to state territory, many villages lost their autonomy. Their aesthetic values lost their meaning, because the fibroconstructive materials and cyclic tradition were devalued. Art and architectue became monumental, that is, formed in durable materials for eternal continuity! Polarity was vertically extended into planetary and macrocosmic dimensions. Aesthetics became an 'ideology'. The absolutely spiritual was projected into planetary heigts (Akhenaton syndrome). Early states became theocracies governed by a king who represented the theocratic line.

Foundation rites were interpreted as creation, a system which was gradually enlarged to macrocosmic dimensions. Philosophically too polarity was dissected into a spirtual world and an empirical or materialistic world. Science dissolved the system of polar harmony. It began to isolate things spiritually and empirically.

'Harmony of heaven and earth? Or, a world that has become too large, a world that ran out of control?

Thus, 'traditional architecture' can tell us in new ways how architecture evolved, how it developed fibroconstructive semantic, domestic and sedentary forms and, at the same time, how aesthetics and art evolved from semantic architecture, and how this was preserved through enormous times by those local traditional inhabitants of neolithic villages by cyclically renewing the ephemeral material of the primary artful forms.

Suddenly we become aware that we owe a lot to the content of the term 'traditional architecture'. It means much more than 'local architectural dialect' as the term 'vernacular architecture' implies.

Human beings seem to have conserved elements of this anthropological depth of 'traditional architecture' showing some sort of archetypes in their heads. Maybe tourism is an indicator: many peoples living in cities prefer traditional rural environments for their recreation periods.

Premodern architecture preserved many of these 'archtype-forms: Doors, gates etc. as signs indicating transition from space to place, from public to private. Roofs as catgorically polar symbols indicating the local world of a family. Windows as 'buildings in the building' allowing visual 'transcendence' of the microcosmic inside into the macrocosmic outside! Evidently, there is some profound need for this ancient aestheticism of categorical polarity.

And, finally, the toposemantic element! The house as a sign of my own life in the natural environment! What a difference compared to urban mass housing!

But, neither the art historian, nor the modern architect know about these things. The art historian is a 'civilised' historian, trying to rationally interprete art which in fact is irrational, and the architect has adapted to technology and functionalism which he quite naively declares as aesthetic. A boring aestheticism without any temporal depth!

Aesthetics, as we tried to show, have temporally deep cultural roots. The ever changing architectural styles in recent decades show clearly that neither art historians nor architects know about the deep-rooted meanings of aesthetics.

If we assume that the subjective search for art today has something to do with this transition from a 'toposemantic' local world to a larger imperial, continental, global and macrocosmic world, with its extended spatial concepts of order, then we might try to do more research into this anthropological domain of 'traditional architecture'.

Some readings (Nold Egenter):
Sacred Symbols of Reed and Bamboo; Annually built cult- torches as spatial signs and symbols. Swiss Asiatic Studies Monographs vol. 4, Z�rich
Architectural Anthropology - Research Series, vol. 1 >The Present Relevance of the Primitive in Architecture< (edition in 3 languages: English - French - German). Editions Structura Mundi, Lausanne
Architectural Anthropology. Semantic and Symbolic Architecture. An architectural ethnological survey into hundred villages of central Japan. Structura Mundi, Lausanne
Semantic Architecture and the interpretation of prehistoric rock art: An ethno-(pre-)historical approach. In: Semiotica 100-2/4:201-266
The Deep Structure of Architecture: Constructivity and Human Evolution. In Amerlinck, Mari-Jose: Architectural Anthropology. Bergin & Garvey Westport CT London
Vernacular architecture - where do the symbolic meanings come from? - Vernakularna arhitektura - od kod izvirajo simbolicni pomeni? )n:Architecture, Research, Ljubljana
Nold Egenter
What is traditional architecture?
Nold, I rather enjoyed your trip through the history (and prehistory) of human architecture, apart from the unnecessary use of long-winded words such as fibroconstructive (?)

But, your dismissal of vernacular architecture and those interested in this subject as either euro-centric or romantic is both true and not true, because the principles of vernacular design are similar to the principles of aesthetic design and therefore have immense value.

You may not remember me, but I did write to you some years ago about the principles of vernacular design. :)))
Frank John Snelling
What is traditional architecture?
Dear Nold Egenter,

Thank you for these valuable notes on traditional architecture. Your introduction of the term 'Architectural Anthropology' is much appreciated by architects who link space to socio-cultural systems.

It is unfortunate, however, that such an important (and most obvious!) approach of understanding architecture is missed by many, if not ignored. This is due largely to the architectural education systems that emphasise the generative process of physical form on the basis of aesthetic; legitimised by some 'interpretations' of history be it spirit of the age as in 'modernism', pseudo-continuity as in 'postmodernism' or emancipation from oppression as in 'deconstructionism'; and fuelled by money, power, technology and media (MPTM).

If we find it necessary or rather fundamental to establish that 'architecture follows people' as a priority, then form and function can follow each other as long as they follow people. But what does it mean for architecture to follow people? It means simply that new theories and methods concerning society and space need to be utilised for researching architecture and designing built form. These tools are already available in many approaches, for example: (1)semantic and symbolic: Egenter's architectural anthropology; (2) syntactic: Bill Hillier's space syntax; and (3) phenomenological: David Seamon's lifeworld; and (4) environment-behaviour studies: Amos Rapoport's culture and form

The following questions need to be answered: (1) what does this imply?; (2) what does society gain?; (3) how can it be realised when the main stream of architectural education does not support it?; and (4) how is this achieved without being judged as yet another 'discipline' fighting for a niche in the intellectual market?

The simple answers are: (1) it implies that a new paradigm for architects is needed NOT to deny their 'craving' for design creativity but to enrich it with an understanding of 'deep structures' that underlie what makes us humans in need of built form characterised by similarities and differences; (2) society restores its coherence and integration that was lost through modern thought 'experiments'; (3) each individual has the 'responsibility' to educate himself and herself about the aspect of society in space and built form; with the internet community, no (wo)man is an island; and (4) by being truly and equally critical of this approach and of what is offered in architectural schools and practices, one may come to a realisation that something of deep temporal-spatial essence is missing from the way we generally think in design process.
Ziad Aazam
What is traditional architecture?
I am a student of architecture, and like to explore on vernacular architecture in future.
As I observed in present society,
the rural people seems to avoid the traditional architecture and they want to buit their houses in so called 'modern style' ! simultiniously, the kind of spaces needed in past are not the same as present. at present because of technologycal advance we require many new type of spaces! (this is where i get confussed, when an ordinary villager asks me why do you want to study this ? now the time has changed!!)
the vernacular architecture i think talks about the relevance of spaces with the life style of inhabitants and the traditionaly life style of people was govern by the place in which they lived. now there are no barriers, you can reach to any part of word within hours......! so if i now talk about implying principles of vernacular architecture they do not hold as strong! people now dont do the tasks as they did 50 yrs before!
so, in short, there is a contradiction in the sense i mentioned above.
Charmy Sony
What is traditional architecture?
Frank John Snelling,
i think i would like to hear you on principles of vernacular design. can you give some clue on what do you mean by it ?
thank you.
Charmy Sony
What is traditional architecture?

In the following just something which disturbed me.

Frank John Snelling wrote:

..."apart from the unnecessary use of long-winded words such as fibroconstructive (?)"

Of course I could write "fibco", but I am far off from those who use words as a code for insiders. I think words should in all circumstances express what they mean.

In addition: I have been attacked by archaeologists for this concept, because it fundamentally questions their historistic methods.

In addition I think it is an important concept: maybe you should read Patricia Highsmiths 'The horror of basket-making'. She clearly felt the depth of a long gone cultural history when she found a basket at the beach.....and was able - this is the main point - to repair it on the spot! She nearly got creazy, got immediately rid of the dangerous object! She had become aware that the structural conditions of a "FIBROCONSTRUCTIVE CULTURE" maybe millions of years old, still were preserved in her brain.....!

Best wishes!
Nold Egenter
What is traditional architecture?
Ziad Aazam wrote:

"Architecture follows people"

I think the basic idea of the 'architectural anthropology-concept has not come through! Just two sentences in the following:
� Architectural anthropology is an attempt to understand architecture as an evolution of architecture
� Architectural anthropology is an attempt to understand human culture as an evolution of architecture

Nold Egenter
What is traditional architecture?
Dear Ziad Aazam,

sorry for the previous comment which was too short. In the following a amore detailed answer.

It is true that the four 'approaches' mentioned have some common traits, but there are also very basic differences. Some notes in the following:

Amos Rapoport researched vernacular architecture as environmental behaviour using the conventional concepts and methods of 'culture' studies ('Built Form and Culture'). This provides a wide field of approaches, but, on the other hand, the term culture is a huge container (nature/ culture) which completely lacks precision, and 2nd it is an eurocentric-historistic term which might apriori condition the outlooks of research (e.g. 'semantic architecture' as 'primitive religion'!).

If on the other hand we discover 'built form' or 'architecture' empirically as a tectonic artefact, it gains much deeper roots than what we call 'culture'. Evidently, it is problematic to explain the cause with its effects.

If on the other hand we manage to understand architecture as a protocultural phenomenon (hominoid constructive behaviour about 20 mya and tectonic artefacts about 10 mya) we discover that 'anthropos' to a considerable extent was physically formed by architecture (upright body posture, hands freed from locomotion, arm rotation, precision grip, flat face) we can continue assuming that architecture defined in the anthropological sense as 'semantic architecture', can be considered as a medium which - through daily use during thousands of years - favoured the formation of culture.

Maybe, David Seamon's phenomenological movement is closest to architectural anthropology. Phenomenology is important because it emphasises human perception as of basic importance. On the other hand it is deeply rooted in the European history of philosophy and its brilliant capacity to suggest spiritual panoramas as ultimate truth (see e.g. David Seamon's paper on Goethe).

This is the new value of architectural anthropology: it provides a human artefact tradition which is temporally much deeper and 'culturally' much richer than all what we know in present theories. We can say "At the beginning there was architecture". Which implies also: "There were aesthetics, there was art, there was beauty, there were emotions, there was culture etc. etc....

In my understanding Bill Hiller's space syntax is a pragmatic and synchronic planning instrument which has not much to do with the temporal depth on which architectural anthropology is focussed.

Warm regards,
Nold Egenter
What is traditional architecture?
Nold, I see that you make no attempt to explain "fibroconstructive" and smacks of the old joke "baffle people with science". In other words, you use long-winded words with obscure meanings to confuse people. Please do not do this action because it does nothing to advance any debate.
Frank John Snelling
What is traditional architecture?
Charmy, Back in the early 1990s I researched into architecture,etc and finally deduced the principles of design which are applicable to any form of design (vernacular, aesthetic, etc) and applicable to any form of human activity.

Unfortunately, my coming up with such a result upset many people in both the academic architectural world and the publishing world because it undercuts the very fundations of architectural education based as it is upon the idea that "Either you have talent or you do not have talent, therefore becaue it is unteachable, there is no point in trying to teach design."

I believe that everyone is able to design, because the principles of design can be taught. This means that the current subjective selection of so-called natural talent is in serious trouble and the advocates of "either you have talent or you do not have talent" are seriously frightened because they feel threatened by my work.

The irony is that everyone including the academic architectural world can gain from what I have deduced and there is no need to fear me. :)))

Footnote: Perhaps you would like to read my paper I presented to the "IL", (Frei Otto`s Institute of Lightweight Structures at Stuttgart University in Germany)?
Frank John Snelling
What is traditional architecture?
Dear Nold Egenter,

'Architecture follows people' meant to stress the point that humans matter. Architects seem to be still hooked on what follows what: form or function, while regarding people as happen-to-be-users.

Understanding architecture and material culture as 'evolution' of architecture has two sides: one can be described as environmental determinism; the other, I sense, is an important theory that deserve serious attention. As to the former, I do have a fundamental disagreement with the belief that architecture has 'straighten man's back'. While I reject humans 'evolution' from great apes, I do not dismiss the concept itself as a scientific truth. The humans 'mind-given' scientific evidence for the evolution from apes and 'God-given' knowledge of descending from Adam are both belief-bound despite the fact that scientists like to think otherwise. Truth by definition is not relative. It has to be absolute. As for who possesses the truth, this remains to be 'seen'. Yet it needs not be a source of a halting disagreement. Differences may remain as in the famous 'yin-yang' to enrich a discussion and lead to a better world of understanding. You have already set the stage by advocating, as Edward Said's Orientalism' did, the concept of 'Euro-centric' view of history and culture.

As for the built environment as the largest human artefact, Hillier et. al. have developed an architectural theory along the structural anthropology lines that considers 'space' as intrinsic aspect of society and society as intrinsic aspect of space. Society shapes its artefact into a spatial 'configuration' that embodies its own social configuration, values, intents, etc. For example, human encounter generated by movement and copresence generated by occupation are generic functions of the spatial fields regardless of cross-cultural diversity or diachronic continuity or transition.

The main objective of the theory is to �model the underlying processes that produce regularities�. For this purpose Hillier devised what he called �non-discursive techniques� to explain the underlying �non-discursive regularities� in the relation between spatial configuration�defined as a complex relational scheme or pattern of spaces in which spatial relations take into account all other spatial relations of the scheme, and the observed function of built environments.

Two morphological laws of space were devised: (1) in the evolutionary sense, buildings through their spatial configuration embody social information, or �genotype�, which governs the nature of human activities; in this sense the building is a dependent variable in a social process; and (2) in the Newtonian sense, spatial configuration is generative of �natural movement� and potential co-presence and encounter; in this sense the building as an independent variable is a social process.

Generative laws in Newtonian sense of natural movement tend to govern the spatial configuration unless restricted by social rules. It follows that some building are restrictive of social relations through space while others are generative of such relations. The presence of strong genotypes is indicative of strong behaviour rules mapped clearly by the building; however, the spatial configuration returns to the generative mode when social rules decay or become less enforced.

This suggests the existence of some kinds of �natural� laws underlying the form of the human artefact. For space syntax as a theory of the �artificial� to be descriptive and analytic, it has to account for such laws of the �artefact� and its phenomena of which it set out to explain. Based on the above paradigmatic assumptions and theories describing underlying processes of regularities, three types of laws of space implicit in forms of the artefact � buildings and cities � were formulated: (1) type 1, laws of space itself pertaining to effects from local design moves to global spatial configuration; they explain the generative process of the artefact� their morphology; they are called the laws of space or the object itself, in which global patterns of space are generated by local morphological relations; (2) type 2, laws by which social formations realise themselves in space-time through type 1, explain buildings as �socio-cultural objects� in that they give spatial form to different kinds of socio-cultural relations; they are laws from society to space, in which embodied social information forms distinct �spatial culture� or cultural genotype; and (3) type 3, laws of how space, as a field of probable encounter and co-presence of everyday life, affects back human behaviour in such a way as to generate or restrict encounter and co-presence; they are laws from space to society, in which �natural movement� is a manifestation of this law type.

Space syntax theories, methods and computer software devised for modelling the built form provide an immediate link between theory and practice. If one could conceptualise a relation between architectural anthropology with its temporal concern and space syntax it would be one in which architectural anthropology is the main material cultural theory from which space syntax branches as a tool of application.

Warmer regards.

Main sources for space syntax theories, methods and modelling software:
Hillier, B and Hanson, J (1984) The Social Logic of Space, Cambridge Press.
Hillier, B (1996), Space is the Machine: A configurational Theory of Architecture can be downloaded in its entirety from:
Conference papers since 1997:
Free modelling software:
Ziad Aazam
What is traditional architecture?
Dear Nold Egeter
To answer your question four areas have to be answered: 1-What is Architecture?2- What is Architecture to me (theory), 3- What period of time I am discussing, and finally 4- Which geographic location I am concerned of.
The notable writers has answered these questions from their point of view, and for me the answer is the following:
1- Architecture is the space making, choice of envelope to define the space, and the organization of space-to-space, space to envelop (i.e. design),and the interaction of space-other spaces with the rest of the environment (man made, natural, and human),
2- Architecture to me is approached through the Human Behavior, where I use Human Behavior results to make spaces, chose envelop to define the space, and I organize spaces in order to achieve positive interaction of the spaces with other environment component,
3- If I chose the 19 th century
4- In Dhahran, Saudi Arabia,

Therefore Traditional Architecture is: the Architecture (space, envelop, organization, and interaction) of the 19th century founded in Dhahran Saudi Arabia.
Now he can have the discussion starts: what do you men by traditional, classical, and so on.
I will leave the answer to you.
My best wishes
Fahad Al-Said
Fahad Said


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