Skip to content

Architecture Without Architects

Post date:

Architecture Without Architects is the title of a book by Bernard Rudofsky, published to accompany an exhibition of the same name at the Museum of Modern Art from November 1964 to February 1965. I first learned of this book when I was a student and in love with the idea of architecture. I thought the images charming and remember being shocked at the apparent blasphemy of the title.

Architecture Without Architects

If you’ve been following my posts regarding The Autopoiesis of Architecture, you’ll know that Mr. Schumacher is claiming it is theoretically impossible for architecture to exist without architects. Vernacular is for losers. Perhaps he’s right, and Mr. Rudofsky and his provocative title are wrong. But there’s more at stake than competing claims over the use of a word describing a concept. Rudofsky’s basic premise remains valid: It is possible to have a built environment that embodies man’s intelligence and humanity, and without involving architects. If you accept this, then you have a problem. Ask yourself: “What is it then that architects actually do? What is it they actually sell?” Get up to speed first, then read on.

Architecture Without Architects had been out of print since 1980 but is now in print again. I’m glad. I’m glad because the book’s message is also a primary theme of this blog – as can be seen from the beginning of the preface.

Architectural history, as written and taught in the Western world, has never been concerned with more than a few select cultures. In terms of space it comprises but a small part of the globe – Europe, stretches of Egypt and Anatolia – or little more than was known in the second century A.D. Moreover, the evolution of architecture is usually dealt with only it its late phases. Skipping the first fifty centuries, chroniclers present us with a full-dress pageant of “formal” architecture, as arbitrary a way of introducing the art of building as, say, dating the birth of music with the advent of the symphony orchestra.  Although the dismissal of the early stages can be explained, though not excused, by the scarcity of architectural monuments, the discriminative approach of the historian is mostly due to his parochialism. Besides, architectural history as we know it is equally biased on the social plane. It amounts to little more than a who’s who of architects who commemorated power and wealth; an anthology of buildings of, by, and for the privileged – the houses of true and false gods, of merchant princes and princes of the blood – with never a word about the houses of lesser people.

The situation Rudofsky described in 1965 is now much worse. The “houses of true and false gods, of merchant princes and princes of the blood” are now those of ASSORTED DICTATORS, DESPOTS AND (OTHER) DEVELOPERS. Forgive my shouting. Rather than have this post become a rant about that, I’ll let Architecture Without Architects speak for itself of the intelligence and humanity of an architecture without architects.

Fig. 1: Vernacular architecture does not go through fashion cycles It is nearly immutable, indeed, unimprovable, since it serves its purpose to perfection. As a rule, the origins of indigenous building forms and construction methods is lost in the distant past. Below, houses typical of the Mediterranean area. 

Vernacular architecture does not go through fashion cycles It is nearly immutable, indeed, unimprovable, since it serves its purpose to perfection. As a rule, the origins of indigenous building forms and construction methods is lost in the distant past. [Above] houses typical of the Mediterranean area.

Figs. 16, 18: One of the most radical solutions in the field of shelter is represented by the underground towns and villages in the Chinese loess belts. Loess is silt, transported and deposited by the wind. Because of its great softness and high porosity, it can be easily carved. In places, roads have been cut as much as 40 feet deep into the original level by the action of wheels. In the provinces of Honnan, Shansi, Shensi, and Kansu about ten million people live in dwellings hollowed out from loess.
The photographs show settlements of the most rigorous, not to say abstract, design near Tungkwan (Honnan). The dark squares in the flat landscape are pits an eighth of an acre in area, or about the size of a tennis court. Their vertical sides are 25 to 30 feet high. L-shaped staircases lead to the apartments below who rooms are about 30 feet deep and 15 feet wide, and measure about 15 feet to the top of the vaulted ceiling. They are lighted and aired by openings that give onto the courtyard.

Architecture Without Architects Fig. 16

“One may see smoke curling up from the fields,” writes George B. Cressey in his Land of the 500 million: A Geography of China, even though there is no house in sight; “such land does double duty, with dwellings below and fields upstairs.” The dwellings are clean and free of vermin, warm in winter and cool in summer. Not only habitations but factories, schools, hotels and government offices are built entirely underground. 

Architecture Without Architects Fig. 18

Fig. 15: [Below], a partial view of an underground village near Loyang in northern China. It takes a second glance to notice that what looks like flat roofs is earth, bare except for a few trees. 

Archtiecture Without Architects Fig. 15

Fig. 5: Skeleton structure, modular building components, open plan, sliding walls, etc. have been in the repertory of vernacular Japanese architecture for centuries. Detail from an eighteenth century book illustration. 

architecture without architects 2

Fig. 90: Among some of the least known manifestations of rural architecture are the granaries in the Spanish province of Galicia, the northwest corner of the Iberian peninsula. … Put together from large granite slabs, a horreo [a storehouse for grain] is fire- and vermin-proof. It rests on pillars topped by circular stones that act as rat-guards, and, incidentally, are the forerunners of the classical capital. Interstices in the walls serve for ventilation. 

Architecture Without Architects Fig. 92

Fig. 56: The use of a single building type does not necessarily produce monotony Irregularity of terrain and deviations from standard measurements result in small variations which strike a perfect balance between unity and diversity. Below, the Spanish town of Villa Hermosa.

Architecture Without Architects Fig. 56

Fig. 42: The proximity of a body of water, whether a river, a lake, or the sea, has always been a great consideration in the choice of a community. In the Orient, millions of people live much like waterfowl, more or less permanently on the water. Below, a sampling of houseboats in Shanghai’s Soochow Creek near its junction with the Whangpoo River. The advantages of the site are evident – the waterways never need to be torn up for costly repairs, drains suffer no stoppage, a bath is ready at all hours. Besides, the expanse of water functions as a cooling plant during the hot season. 

Architecture Without Architects Fig. 42

Fig. 62: Only a few hundred years ago, the skylines of many European and Asian towns bristled with slender prismatic towers, for it was more dignified and more aesthetic to fight intramural battles from the vantage point of an appropriate architecture than from rooftops or in streets, as is the custom in our day. [Below], a view of Vatheia, one of several fortified villages in the Pelopnnesus.

Architecture Without Architects Fig. 62

Fig. 64: Like Vatheia …, this village in Svanetia, a high-lying valley in the western Caucusus, is protected by towers. Until recently, each family had to defray its own defence budget, for as late as the latter half of the nineteenth century blood feuds and vendettas raged unchecked.  

Architecture Without Architects Fig. 64

Fig. 105: Some of the contraptions of primitive technology may earn the contempt of today’s engineers, yet their charm cannot be matched by modern machines. This timeless 64-foot Syrian water wheel lifts water from the Orontes River into aqueducts for the houses and gardens of Hama.

Architecture Without Architects Fig. 105

Fig 102: In the Western world, pigeons take their place somewhere along such pests as houseflies or chiggers; whether nuisance or menace, most people look forward to their extinction. Not so in Eastern countries, where pigeonry is held in the highest esteem. The birds’ droppings are collected in special towers that work on the principle of a piggy-bank. When filled, they are smashed and their precious contents put to use [as fertiliser. Below], a battery of pigeon towers at Lindjan near Isfahan. 

Architecture Without Architects Fig. 102

Fig. 103, 104: Pigeoncotes in the Nile Valley. 

Untitled 2

Fig. 132: The partial enclosures [below] are windscreens in Shimane Prefecture in Western Japan. To achieve solid buffers against winter winds and snowstorms, the farmers coax pine trees into thick, L-shaped hedges about fifty feet high.

Architecture Without Architects Fig. 132


    • That exists too, but is neatly ringfenced as “alternative”. It’s less clear with architecture. The book Architecture Without Architects was kicking around when we were students although, I confess, it had little interest for me then. I’m glad it’s back causing trouble, asking architects to isolate what it is they bring to the table. I think the book could have done with some more examples of engineering, both ancient and not so ancient. It would have been a better and stronger bridge to the present and less easy to dismiss. But Le Corbusier had already claimed the strength and intelligence of the engineers’ architecture without architects, as inspiration for his own. Perhaps architects (of his ilk, anyway) simply architectify stuff.