Laugier’s Lack of Data

Students explore various characters who shaped culture through writing in my Introduction to Architectural History course. Apart from the big ticket items such as Vitruvius and Alberti, we begin by reading Marc-Antoine Laugier's "An Essay on Architecture" (Laugier 1753). Laugier's essay, written in the age of The Enlightenment, argues for architecture’s origin. Consequently, he links the architectural principles of his day to the simplicity and functionality of nature, specifically through the allegory of the Primitive Hut. The writing provides a useful starting point for students as it shows how architectural culture is a contest of published arguments. It is also useful that his perspective can be critiqued for its oversimplification and idealisation of natural forms and primitive constructs, highlighting an ideological bias. In my practice, I find Laugier’s text useful because it emerged from an age of technological transition that provides an interesting parallel with our present-day experience.

Human Senses

My research explores architecture culture through data. Having data to analyse is good, but I am more interested in its cultural image, how we measure the world and the consequences. Laugier constructs an origin story for architecture and describes a “primitive man” building a “little rustic hut” who, in the process, invents art by “imitating the natural process” (Laugier, 1753, p11). This story alludes to architecture born from a purely analogue human existence where heightened human senses and practical skills allow survival in nature. For Laugier, architecture emerged from human sensory experience, which enabled “man” to fashion a structure from the environment. The “Primitive Hut”, seen as the prototype of all architecture, represents the outcome of an intuitive data behaviour where all the senses contribute to an improvised outcome. An architecture created in the moment. If I was to join Laugier in making cultural historical claims, the metaphor of the hut portrays a time when architecture reflected a human understanding of the world.

Lack of Data

The Enlightenment and the natural sciences discipline that emerged at the time viewed nature through empirical observation. Today, we can appreciate this era as a subjective human analogue experience that resulted in a simplistic worldview. When compared to our contemporary advanced scientific capabilities, we can forgive this simplicity as a lack of data (Carpo, 2017). Humans dealt with this lack by training observation to detect laws that could explain nature, which consequently appeared to be well organised and ideal. This approach contributed to a cultural view of nature as inherently simple and logical, which Laugier embraced in his architectural theory. However, with access to a greater range of measurements, our present-day ecological and biological sciences reveal that nature is a dynamic, interdependent system marked by complex processes rather than simple causal relationships. Humans can only observe what is humanly observable. Sanford Kwinter captures this data deficit in his book Far From Equilibrium (2007), highlighting the defective nature of human senses; that part of the world always remains hidden from us. The Enlightenment radically changed culture through empirical science, but it was based on a lack of data, leading to a worldview we still struggle to let go of.

Anthropocentric View

Through Laugier, we can appreciate an attempt to lay the foundation of architecture, but we can see it as promoting an anthropocentric worldview. Back then, the architecture of modernity aligned with the period's nascent scientific methods and the limited scope of empirical data available at the time. Laws of nature conveniently plugged gaps in understanding to promote humans as special and unique. Today, we are much more aware of our connection to nature and the world's knowns and unknowns. Today’s paradigm views us within a chaotic, non-linear, multifaceted ecological system. Marc-Antoine Laugier's book discusses how architecture should be simple and inspired by nature, much like the basic shelters made by early humans. His ideas offer a good starting point for thinking about structures, but it myopically prioritised human survival and culture over everything else. You could argue that the architecture of the Enlightenment consequently produced human-focussed architecture through ornament, sympathetic scale and perspective. However, it also introduced a story of environmental exploitation that we conveniently still hold on to. Despite this limitation, reading Laugier’s argument is still valuable; it reminds us that architecture should be practical, human-scale, and connected to nature, but it must also benefit the environment and promote human survival.

Carpo, M. (2017). The Second Digital Turn: Design Beyond Intelligence. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Kwinter, S. (2007). Far from Equilibrium : Essays on Technology and Design Culture. Spain: Actar-D.

Laugier, M.-A. (1753). An Essay on Architecture. Los Angeles, CA: Hennessey & Ingalls. (Original work published 1753)