REVISITING THE PRIMITIVE HUT
Text by: Imu Chan
May 2019 (1st edition published in Sitelines Magazine, February 2017)
In December 2016, Robin Rosebrugh, then guest editor for Sitelines, proposed that I write an article for the upcoming February 2017 issue. “But what does an architect have to do with writing for a landscape design magazine?” I asked. She then told me the theme this time was celebrating risk-taking, and it’d be up to me to take up the challenge. She had given me no option but to agree.
During my first year in architecture school, we were taught the primitive hut, a concept postulated by Marc Laugier in his Essai sur l’architecture (2nd ed. 1755). Though most of what I learned has escaped my mind, I still remember the frontispiece of the publication. In the illustration engraving, a young woman – presumably the personification of architecture – leans upon the ruins of the classical orders. Her right arm points toward an unadorned shelter made of tree branches, admiring its simplicity and truthfulness, while an angelic child looks on.
To a class of aspiring students eager to show off their talents, the sight of a shed was, to say the least, disenchanting. The primitive hut obviously lacked the fashion of our time. The distraught ones among us even protested that, virtuous as the hut might be, there was no design to it. Woe betides students who present their projects made of leafy branches.
But what has kept me pondering even until today is not Laugier’s concept of his primitive hut, but that of his primitive man, who presumably created an architectural masterpiece out of scraps while strolling leisurely on fragrant grass. The easy success acquired by our architect forefather does not reconcile with my prejudice that recognition in our honourable profession has to be hard earned. Suspecting Laugier’s tale is merely a pretext for his treatise, I wonder if the primitive man’s life were not as celebratory as described, but one that reminds our own ups and downs in our professional life. We often hear success stories as singular events, thus ignore the fact that each achievement is merely a dash along an infinite line marked by setbacks and failures.
In all honesty, who knows if our architect forefather wasn’t a caveman who, rather than taking a blissful stroll, was caught amidst a tumultuous storm of prehistoric scale, and desperately gathered whatever he could find to make a protective covering? Out of survival instinct and lacking the manual dexterity of a master builder, he tried in vain to arrange the scraps this way and that way, while the cold rain beat on, until finally through countless frustration and fatigue realized that he might have created something sufficient to envelope his body, and barely rescued himself from the tempest. His creation lacked any recognizable form, and from every angle appeared like a DIY bookshelf badly assembled. There was neither angelic child cheered on, nor goddess offering her benediction.
Well, that is merely half of the tragedy. If I were to stretch my imagination onto the next day, when his fellow cavemen peeked out from the mountains, and discovered the strange invention standing in the open field, I can almost hear the gossips spreading like a wild fire. First came the skeptics, who started by criticizing this makeshift construction not being as cozy as the dark crevices between the rocks. The pessimists dismissed it entirely, claiming that it would not last another storm. Thirdly came the snobs, who, noticing the lack of hard surfaces for the shamans to chalk their ritualistic paintings, proclaimed that the novel invention as ominous. Finally, the conformists, who always preferred the good old ways, silently agreed to the verdict. You can imagine how the story ended.
It is apparent that my version of the primitive man is not anymore credible than Laugier’s. Nobody knows what actually happened to our protagonist. What we do know, however, is that two million years later today, archeologists in Central Africa would find evidence of the earliest habitats made by our tool-making ancestors, who arranged branches in circles to form dwellings, and that these haphazard “prototypes” are now reverently studied by architects around the world. We may dispute on this caveman being a genius or a fool – that is a matter of our opinion. Each of us is our own judge in offering praises or blames, while secretly hope that time will prove our righteousness.
But what is indisputable is this: there was once a man who strode out of the dark cave and built the first primitive hut, without knowing what others might think. For us, we have the luxury to look back in time and contemplate this endeavour as the subject of an intellectual discourse or a moral lesson. For a caveman whose livelihood was at the mercy of the wrathful nature, he did not build for the sake of publicity nor for the academics. He built it simply to fulfill a need, which could be a matter of life and death. But because he built it, others would forever see differently. Because he took the risk, mankind had made a giant leap.
And two million years later, unbeknownst to the primitive man himself, he was elevated from being a caveman to the father of architecture.
Those were the lingering thoughts I had left myself since my formative years. Looking back, I wonder if my classmates might also feel a strange inkling after class that someday our protagonist would cross path with us again, as inevitably as how his primitive hut would one day be accepted, mused upon, and eventually evolved into what we now call architecture. As for myself, it was not until some years later, when I was finally on my own feet, and at times working long into the night, that I realized the primitive man had been bearing witness all these time, reminding us that we had been down that dark cave before and know its foul air. In our collective existence as creative professionals, I believe it is upon us to see light at the cave opening, and through which we were made to walk upright onto greener pasture, breathing fresher air.