Architecture as Frozen Anthropology : NATIVE AMERICAN ARCHITECTURE<i> by Peter Nabokov and Robert Easton (Oxford University Press: $45; 431 pp.) </i>

<i> Jackson's most recent book is "Discovering the Vernacular Landscape" (Yale)</i>

This is a book that architects and anthropologists and history buffs will want to own and study. It will also appeal to those who appreciate books as works of art, for it is handsomely designed and contains a great number of unusual photographs of American Indians building and living in their traditional dwellings.

Many of the photographs are more than 100 years old, and their indefinable period quality makes them very evocative. Murky, as if overexposed, they nevertheless reveal a kind of mythical, timeless landscape of dark forest or immense rangeland. Smoke drifts from family fires, and there are heaps of fresh-cut wood--logs and poles. The half-completed houses and the men working on them become the center of a whole vanished environment.

But the photographs are much more than illustrations. They are an essential part of the book’s message that the house, the dwelling, its construction and its study, are the key to the understanding of American Indian culture. Years spent collecting them, years of scholarly research, much travel and many days of field work on the part of the two authors have produced a book rich in information, rich in reinterpretations and discoveries, in pre-literate American architecture--inspiration for further work on the subject.

Travelers and explorers from the 16th Century on have always noticed and commented on the villages and houses they encountered in the New World, and many of their descriptions were vivid and detailed. But since the Europeans dismissed the culture that had produced the buildings, they could see in them no religious or social value and rarely adapted any of their features. It was not until well into the 19th Century that travelers into the Southeast and west of the Mississippi (where many Indian communities survived in something like their original form) began to express curiosity about Indian culture and its architectural manifestations. In the opinion of Peter Nabokov and Robert Easton, writing in their excellent but obscurely placed bibliographical essay, the first serious anthropological studies of Indian structures date from 1881, when L. H. Morgan’s book “Houses and Houselife of the American Aborigines” appeared.


Morgan was a highly respected ethnologist, and his writings on the social institutions of the American Indians have been very influential--notably in the case of Engels, whose “Origins of the Family” was inspired by Morgan’s work. “Houses and Houselife,” his last book, has received less attention from architectural historians, but Nabokov and Easton have in a sense revived and updated many of his ideas.

To grossly oversimplify those ideas (and to retain Morgan’s somewhat Victorian terminology), he believed that every society--Greek and Roman no less than those of the American Indians--evolved from Savagery to Barbarism (and infrequently to Civilization) through a sequence of stages of increasing social and economic complexity. The basic social unit was never the family; it was the kinship group, composed of persons all descended from a common ancestor. The smallest such unit was the gens; the phratry, a combination of gens, is eventually replaced by the tribe, and not a few American Indian communities reached the final stage of Barbarism: the confederacy of tribes, though none attained the status of a truly political society, the nation state.

The mechanism that set the evolution in motion was, according to Morgan, economic or technological innovation or borrowing. The invention of the bow and arrow, of pottery, the introduction of irrigated gardening, of livestock are all familiar instances of how a society can be transformed by economic or technological change.

But basic to all pre-Civilization societies was a type of dwelling and a type of settlement adapted not to the family and private property, but to a communal way of life: a sharing of structures and spaces within the kinship group. “Several families,” Morgan explains, “related by kin, united as a rule in a common household and made a common stock of the provisions” collected in hunting and fishing and the cultivation of plants. The kinship group likewise controlled and exploited its land in common and built its own sacred structures and spaces. “Public” buildings and the “public” spaces as well as “private” houses and “private” spaces are the creation of a political social order: The kinship organization produces houses and spaces used or occupied in common.


Our generation has accepted these theories, but when they were first enunciated they were revolutionary, and we have not always accepted their implications even now. For they imply that here was such a thing as American Indian history, an unrecorded history marked by change and conflict and migration and significant intertribal relationships. Furthermore, they imply that Indian architecture can no longer be dismissed as primitive or “timeless,” or as an instinctive adaptation to the natural environment and its resources. On the contrary, it was and still is the product of social and economic forces. Morgan had little to say about Indian religion. It remained for a later generation of scholars and anthropologists to recognize the role of myth and cosmic speculation in Indian architecture.

It is the merit of this book that it is one of the first (and certainly the most ambitious) to attempt to analyze American Indian notions of spatial organization in terms of contemporary architectural discourse. Inspired in part by Morgan, but even more by the writings of Levi-Strauss, Eliade and Jung, the two authors have surveyed about nine North American cultural areas--Mexico excluded--to establish the intricate relationship in each area between natural environment, socio-religious heritage and historical events that produced the great variety--and underlying similarity--in dwellings and spaces. The authors do not pretend to completeness, but already the image of the American Indian as noble savage (or noble barbarian) beautifully in tune with nature begins to lose its credibility. What takes its place is the shared realization that no matter how hopefully we plan and build our place in the world, none of us can escape the impact of history.

What about the future of that American Indian architecture? If the book has a shortcoming, it is its overemphasis on construction methods and its cursory treatment of the economic basis of many of the communities examined. It is sometimes hard to tell how they make their living. Different types of farming and stockraising, different types of hunting and fishing, and varying combinations of those pursuits are at once the cause and the product of different house and village layouts and of land division: And they can and do produce class distinctions. If Morgan could have foreseen the radical changes in Indian ways of life, Indian ways of organization space, ways of making a living, he might well have inserted a fourth Status of Barbarism, of individualistic religiosity and individualistic dwellings modified by an increasing ethnic awareness and pride. But others will in time explore the contemporary Indian scene, and before they do so, they will have to study this book.