Rykwert, Joseph, On Adam's House in Paradise: the Idea of the primitive Hut in Architectural History. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981.

Rykwert's book, first published in 1971, is the architectural history of an idea: the hut. The author is an established authority on architecture and ideas, and he embarks on an excursion through five centuries of thought "in order to show how the notion of a first house (right because it was first) ... had an extended history and is certainly as old as architectural history."

If this seems unfamiliar territory for eremitism, it is essential not to overlook the ideal and the reality of the hut in the life of eremitism. The implications of a quest for the origins of the hut is, in effect, an attempt to describe the archetypal hermit's dwelling.

But the story is far more complex, and Rykwert leads the reader on a dazzling (perhaps overwhelming) survey of names and notions, from the famous (Corbusier, Gropius) to the obscure, which is nearly everyone else to the average reader: Blondel, Cesariano, Laugier, Lodoli, Milizia, Nisan, Paoli, Perrault, Semper, Villalpanda. And there asides from thinkers like Seneca, Vico, Rousseau, and Ruskin, followed by a grand summary of Vitruvius, the original architectural theorist of ancient Rome. Rywkert concludes with an essential look at ritual and the formation of the cultural mind on conceiving the hut. This is a complex and informative book.

The Idea of the Hut

The book is a quest for principles, not for an archaeological object, a search for meaning not technique. As Corbusier acknowledged reviewing all of the designs of the ancient world:

Look at a drawing of such a hut in a book on archaeology. Here is the plan of a house, the plan of a temple. ... There is no such thing as a primitive man; there are only primitive means. The idea is constant, potent from the very outset.

Rykwert further notes that the search for the hut is a search for not what has been lost but for what cannot but be lost. The hut is not the memory of a object but of a state of mind or consciousness, adduced not by archaeology but by identifying "ceremonies and rituals by people some still call primitive." But as Corbusier suggests, that which is "primitive" is not so much historical but social, psychological, and cultural. We are seeing glimpses of this primitive ceremony and ritual all the time, across the centuries.

Perhaps the key to architecture, let alone the design of the hut, is naturalness. A direct line can be drawn between the ideals of Transcendentalists like Thoreau and the naturalness evoked by the primitiveness of Frank Lloyd Wright. The 18th-century French architect Marc-Antoine Laugier explained it this way:

If architecture is to please through imitation, it must imitate nature, as do the other arts. Let us therefore see if the first hut made by man was a natural object; whether the human body may serve as a model for the orders; and finally whether the orders are an imitation of the hut and of the human body.

Laugier reflects the notion that the human body was the basic model for the column in architecture. The column is fundamental to ancient architecture, be it Egyptian, Greek, or Roman, expressions of aesthetics versus utility, where no other interest in architectural principles is relevant. Francesco Miliizia extended this view to one of seeing the hut as imitative of trees and overhanging branches, a view that would long remain in vogue, later interpreting the Gothic cathedral's arches as such. Whether using stone or wood, the inspiration and  object of imitation was nature, bello natura.

Not until Chapter 5 does Rykwert take up the beginning of architectural thinking with the Roman Vitruvius. Vitruvius anticipated all of the later discussions about principles, even the fundamental issue of whether culture (and its fruits, such as architecture) was the consequence of a fall or whether the fall was a consequence of culture.

As Rykwert notes, there is a "radical ambivalence implicit in all stories about the origins of techniques and civilization." All ancient cultures believed in a past paradise, whether Golden Age or Eden, and an apparent decline or fall. These are epitomized by Genesis versus Prometheus.

To Stoic thinkers like Seneca and Poseidonius (Vitruvius was a Stoic), philosophy and the arts emerge in eras of decadence and are not self-evident in periods when nature is the guiding principle. The arts evolve from the consciousness of need, and from observation of animals as example, and then the addressing of the needs. Hence philosophy and the arts, indeed, civilization itself, are a product of leisure that emerges after the satisfaction of needs. One might say, alternatively, that they emerge in decadence.

Juan Bautista Villalpanda attempted to reconcile Vitruvius with Genesis, equivalent to the familiar project of reconciling reason and revelation. The significant biblical archetype he had in mind was the Temple of Solomon. Restoration of the Temple could benefit from the principles of Vitruvius, thought Villalpanda, though the process denigrated medieval models, such as the cathedrals.

The Meaning of the Hut

To Rykwert, the centuries-old debate on origins reasserts the interrelationship between ritual and the purpose of architecture, specifically the central place of the hut. For the hut is always conceived of has having been

inhabited by god or hero; most commonly it is a rite of building huts which in some way resembled or commemorated those which ancestors or heroes had built at some remote and important time in the life of the tribe. ... And in every case they incarnate some shadow or memory of that perfect building which was before time began: when man was quite at home in his house, and his houses as right as nature itself.

Rykwert identifies a prototype story in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book 8. Here are presented an elderly couple, paragon of virtues, Philemon and Baucis. Their hut is made sacred, transformed into a temple, and the couple made holy, transformed into trees on the temple grounds, to be cared for and remembered forever.

Assembling other Greek myths of rituals involving huts, such as those of Apollo and Delphi, Rykwert identifies etiological myths associated with festivals, underworld descents, rites of passage, and rites of purification such as the scapegoat. He links them to structures like caves, lairs, huts, temples, sanctuaries, tents, and booths.

The hut of Romulus, the Palatine hut in Rome made shrine, is rich in sign and ritual. In the Succot Festival originating in Phoenician and Semitic culture (and which had its Roman counterpart), Rykwert brings together the evidence of huts, equinox, the Hosana procession of palms, Mosaic passage rites, and the scapegoat ritual to demonstrate that the hut is a fundamental motif.

The examples point to a common thread: rites practiced by a number of peoples, Greeks, Romans, Jews, Egyptians, Japanese, all involve either a "primitive" hut being built ritually -- and at seasonal intervals - or a hut deliberately built in a "primitive" style for analogous ritual purposes. And what are these rituals? They are, says Rykwert, a "cosmogonic attempt to renew time by reinstituting the conditions which were 'in the beginning'." An intrinsic part of this beginning is the hut. The rites are an identification of self and hut, and of hut and earth. Huts are, from every viewpoint, of "unalterable value ... a permanent relevance."

Huts in festivals of renewal are projections into the future as dwellings of the redeemed and safe. In huts or their equivalent take place the cosmic liturgy of all peoples, their differences obliterated and their selves made one, whether in the hut of Jewish and Christian ritual or the hut of the Japanese tea ceremony.

The "primitive" hut is the human projection of caves, bridal chambers, and the womb of the Mother, of Mother Earth. Thus the debate of five centuries can be resolved: the hut is indeed divinely inspired but imperfect by human skills. Architecture can evolve those skills but in the process remove us from the closeness and palpability of divine inspiration.

Psychology offers the analogy of children's "enclosure" games, wherein children instinctively play at the possession of enclosed spaces -- whether "found" or "made," whether cave or tent. The ambivalence of these social games of children -- of exclusion and inclusion, of terror and pleasure -- are ultimately the primordial ambivalence of the child towards the mother as exclusion and terror (authority) versus inclusion and pleasure (womb). It is an ambivalence of past and future, of life and death, and ambivalence we never escape or transcend.

The return to origins is a constant of human development and in this matter architecture conforms to all other human activities. The primitive hut -- the home of the first man -- is therefore no incidental concern of theorists [but reflects the] essential meaning of all building for people.

How to build and why has been the question across the ages, and if to build then what to build but the hut? The hut is the pattern, a pattern that must be in some place which, Rykwert says, "I must call Paradise. And Paradise is a promise as well as a memory."


If there be such a thing as "deep eremitism," then the hut is part of it, and Rykwert's scholarly and probing study of the hut as archetype would be one of its documentations.