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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 47, New Delhi, November 6, 2021

Architecture Without Architects | Bernard Rudofsky

Friday 5 November 2021


by Bernard Rudofsky *

(Architecture Without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture is a book based on the New York City MoMA exhibition of the same name by Bernard Rudofsky originally published in 1964.)


There is much to learn from architecture before it became an expert’s art. The untutored builders in space and time – the protagonists of this show – demonstrate an admirable talent for fitting their buildings into the natural surroundings. Instead of trying to “conquer” nature, as we do, they welcome the vagaries of climate and the challenge of topography. Whereas we find flat, featureless country most to our liking (any flaws in the terrain are easily erased by the application of a bulldozer), more sophisticated people are attracted by rugged country. In fact, they do not hesitate to seek out the most complicated configurations in the landscape. The most sanguine of them have been known to choose veritable eyries for their building sites – Machu Picchu, Monte Alban, the craggy bastions of the monks’ republic on Mount Athos, to mention only some familiar ones.

The tendency to build on sites of difficult access can be traced no doubt to a desire for security but perhaps even more so to the need of defining a community’s borders. In the old world, many towns are still solidly enclosed by moats, lagoons, glacis, or walls that have long lost their defensive value. Although the walls present no hurdles to invaders, they help to thwart undesirable expansion. The very word urbanity is linked to them, the Latin urbs meaning walled town. Hence, a town that aspires to being a work of art must be as finite as a painting, a book, or a piece of music. Innocent as we are of this sort of planned parenthood in the field of urbanistics, we exhaust ourselves in architectural proliferation. Our towns with their air of futility, grow unchecked – an architectural eczema that defies all treatment. Ignorant as we are of the duties and privileges of people who live in older civilizations, acquiesce as we do in accepting chaos and ugliness as our foreordained fate, we neutralize any and all misgivings about the inroads of architecture on our lives with lame protests directed at nobody in particular.

Part of our troubles results from the tendency to ascribe to architects – or, for that matter, to all specialists – exceptional insight into problems of living when, in truth, most of them are concerned with problems of business and prestige. Besides, the art of living is neither taught nor encouraged in this country. We look at it as a form of debauch, little aware that its tenets are frugality, cleanliness, and a general respect for creation, not to mention Creation.

To no small degree, this situation came about through the diligence of the historian. By invariably emphasizing the parts played by architects and their patrons he has obscured the talents and achievements of the anonymous builders, men whose concepts sometimes verge on the utopian, whose esthetics approach the sublime. The beauty of this architecture has long been dismissed as accidental, but today we should be able to recognize it as the result of rare good sense in the handling of practical problems. The shapes of the houses, sometimes transmitted through a hundred generations, seem eternally valid, like those of their tools.


We learn that many audacious “primitive” solutions anticipate our cumbersome technology; that many a feature invented in recent years is old hat in vernacular architecture-prefabrication, standardization of building components, flexible and movable structures, and, more especially, floor-heating, air-conditioning, light control, even elevators. We may also compare the amenities of our houses with the unadvertised comfort of, say, some African domestic architecture that provides a respectable man with six detached dwellings for his six wives. Or we may find that long before modern architects envisioned subterranean towns under the optimistic assumption that they may protect us from the dangers of future warfare, such towns existed, and still exist, on more than one continent.

There is a good deal of irony in the fact that to stave off physical and mental deterioration the urban dweller periodically escapes his splendidly appointed lair to seek bliss in what he thinks are primitive surroundings: a cabin, a tent, or, if he is less hidebound, a fishing village or hill town abroad. Despite his mania for mechanical comfort, his chances for finding relaxation hinge on its very absence. By dint of logic, life in old-world communities is singularly privileged. Instead of several hours of daily travel, only a flight of steps may separate a man’s workshop or study from his living quarters. Since he himself helped to shape and preserve his environment, he never seems to tire of it. Besides, he is largely indifferent to “improvements.” Just as a child’s toys are no substitute for human affection, to him no technical contrivance makes amends for the lack of viability.

Not only is the need for confining the growth of a community well understood by the anonymous builders, it is matched by their understanding of the limits of architecture itself. They rarely subordinate the general welfare to the pursuit of profit and progress. In this respect, they share the beliefs of the professional philosopher. To quote Huizinga, “the expectation that every new discovery or refinement of existing means must contain the promise of higher values or greater happiness is an extremely naive thought. … It is not in the least paradoxical to say that a culture may founder on real and tangible progress.”

The present exhibition is a preview of a book on the subject, the vehicle of the idea that the philosophy and know-how of the anonymous builders presents the largest untapped source of architectural inspiration for industrial man. The wisdom to be derived goes beyond economic and esthetic considerations, for it touches the far tougher and increasingly troublesome problem of how to live and let live, how to keep peace with one’s neighbors, both in the parochial and universal sense.

* (Author: Bernard Rudofsky was a writer, architect, designer, collector, educator, designer, and social historian)

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