In his much-acclaimed and equally criticized book, ‘The Four Elements of Architecture’ the author, Gottfried Semper talks about the origins of architecture from an anthropological point of view. He puts forth his arguments by dividing architecture into four basic elements: the hearth, the roof, the enclosure, and the mound. Perhaps Jonathan Hale puts it best in his research paper when he writes that “the Four Elements of Architecture as an archaeologically driven theory stressed functionalism as a prerequisite to intentionality.” (Jonathan, 2005)

Book in Focus: The Four Elements of Architecture by Gottfried Semper - Sheet1
Gottfried Semper_©www.voutsadakis.com

Semper starts by stating that Hellenistic culture has risen from the hummus of old cultures before it. The ancient culture of the Egyptians and Assyrians have for example provided bedding for the Hellenic culture to grow on. 

Moving onto explaining his elements of architecture Semper starts with the hearth. It is, he argues, the moral element of architecture. He is in a sense drawing on the meaning of fire to ancient cultures as when it is used in the offering, upon the holy altars, and the symbols associated with it. He explains that the first alliances and treaties would be formed around the fire. The family would come together after a hunt and sit and eat around the fire. He thus concludes that the hearth formed a sacred focus around which everything else took order and shape. 

The author also points out that upon closer study, and according to different cultures and social customs, different technical skills developed from the four elements, which I will write under each element separately. Semper then moves to explain the formation of the enclosure, the mound, and the roof, stating that these came to defend the hearth from the three forces of nature.

Book in Focus: The Four Elements of Architecture by Gottfried Semper - Sheet2
Example of a primitive hut. ©Sevali D.

The enclosure as Semper narrates came from the need to protect the hearth from the winds and wild animals encroaching upon it. It is essentially buried in the roots of weaving. From the weaving of mats and carpets came the making of the enclosure. The spatial divider we see today has thus come from the, still seen, fabric screen. He supports his arguments by stating that even now people can see pen and fence work in primitive tribes as a spatial divider. These led to eventually plant fibers being weaved along with fabric to possibly strengthen the vertically hung mats. 

Gradually as additional functional and aesthetic requirements came about, the materials began changing to something beyond the fabric. Semper evidenced this through the historical context of the Assyrians using terracotta bricks and the eventual follow-up of wood and stones. Semper here also deals with the term polychromy. He explains through the next few paragraphs about the decorations that came about in the first walls that came to be. 

Starting with cultural elements weaved onto the mats, that then got translated into the vertical enclosure, the art of paneling and dressing, and the art of painting and bas-relief, that the Assyrians are given praise for, amongst other things. Semper dictates then the attention to details about this art through Greek, Roman, Phoenicia, Indian, and Assyrian cultural examples.

Book in Focus: The Four Elements of Architecture by Gottfried Semper - Sheet3
Hellenistic settlement and culture. ©CurioSfera

Semper then moves, after this long digression, to the roof. He has explained earlier that the technical skill of carpentry developed with the roof. So then moving from there he argues that the roof was to protect the hearth from the rain. In fact, he so much as even cites that pilgrims waiting in the courts of the temple for the procession to pass had for them and the procession itself fabric stretched out across the taller columns of the courtyard. Thus the fabric from mats gets translated and now becomes the roof. 

According to the author, again, following the customs and geography, the roof, in its importance and materiality, changed from the Assyrians to the Egyptians down to the Greeks. 

In his discussion on the temples of the ancient world and their longest developments, Semper strikes an important point. Almost hidden from the plain sight of the reader, he argues that architectural forms and practices never developed in isolation. Columns that were Phoenician became a stepping stone for later greek columns. Phoenician was also the idea of temple courts and the arrangement of forecourts that became a model for the Greeks and were seen in Tyre, Carthage, and Hades.

The least discussed element but never missed is the mound. Semper states that the skill of masonry and water developed around the mound. Semper tries to assert that the mound or the earthwork is a site-making or ground asserting space wherein the construction shall take place. That, while we mark the ground level zero, also leads us to identify sectional spatial relationships in the whole that are constructed.

Semper himself ends the discussion with a few practical applications wherein he lists a few things that should be kept in mind when absorbed in the art of making. He writes here about the enclosure always being remembered as the carpets that gave way to the walls, the identification culture, and geography of the site, and materials and decisions that must emphasize the character of the whole. 

The theory of the primitive hut by Semper remains one of the most significant in contemporary architectural theory. His nature of identifying the four structural elements and then referencing them to artistic and technical skills of weaving, carpentry, ceramics, and so on provides the reader with a deeper understanding of the life and science of architecture. 

Reference

  1. Hale, A Jonathan (2005). Gottfried Semper’s primitive hut as an act of self creation. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/231840707_Gottfried_Semper%27s_primitive_hut_as_an_act_of_self-creation [Accessed: 21 April 2021].
  2. Unknown (2010). Gottfried Semper. [online]. Available at: http://www.voutsadakis.com/GALLERY/ALMANAC/Year2010/Nov2010/11292010/2010nov29a.html [Accessed 21 April 2021].
  3. Sevali D (2018). Example of a primitive hut. [online]. Available at: https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Attraction_Review-g312618-d14091455-Reviews-Masorini_Archaeological_Site-Kruger_National_Park.html#/media-atf/14091455/318646357:p/?albumid=-160&type=0&category=-160 [Accessed 21 April 2021]
  4. Unknown (2020). Hellenistic culture and settlement. [online]. Available at: https://curiosfera-historia.com/historia-de-la-acropolis-de-atenas/ [Accessed 21 April 2021].
Author

Adriel is a spatial designer who believes writing about design is just as important as the design itself. He believes that architecture and design are instruments of human expression which ought to be unfolded to enable a deeper connection with our surroundings.

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