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  • Primal Weaving:Structure and Meaning in Language and Architecture
  • Jason Rhys Parry (bio)

In Book II of the ancient architectural treatise, De architectura, Vitruvius gives a mythical account of the conjoined origins of architecture and language: “[I]n ancient times,” he writes, “men were born like wild animals in the forests, caves and woods, and spent their lives feeding on fodder” (37). One night, while a fierce storm ravaged the woods where these ancient humans lived, a mighty fire broke out. Faced with the flames, the men and women fled in terror. Some, however, recovering from their initial fright, and sensing the warmth emanating from the blaze, moved closer to it and began to throw more wood on it. Using sign language, those feeding the flames communicated to the others the virtues of the fire.

After coming together around the fire, Vitruvius claims, “men began to form words,” and “by indicating frequently the things they used, they began to talk in a haphazard way and so generated a common language” (37). At this point, employing their novel means of communication, “some of them from these first groups began to make shelters of foliage, others to dig caves at the foot of mountains and yet others to build refuges of mud and branches in which to shelter in imitation of the nests of swallows and their way of building” (38). Alas, humans invented speech and architecture.

According to Vitruvius, language and architecture owe their origins to fire; and Vitruvius’ myth, like many myths, hints at a possible truth—in this case, about the prehistoric production of structure and meaning. The fire is a sign that precipitates a crisis of interpretation: the ones who return to the flames resist the meaning their companions assigned to the fire—“dangerous”—and arrive at a more nuanced evaluation: “dangerous, yes, but also useful.” Fire also produces a distinct thermal space—a nomos—determined by the conduction of heat in the atmosphere. As heat radiates outward, it creates a fuzzy yet perceptible threshold between the sensations of coldness and warmth, to which humans readily adapt by forming rings around the blaze. By reinterpreting the fire, Vitruvius’ early humans learned to exploit this structured distribution of thermal intensity to invent a new social arrangement—the fireside ring—that [End Page 125] in turn created the conditions for the physical proximity, intimacy, and extended face-to-face contact that almost certainly, as Vitruvius claims, facilitated linguistic evolution (Wrangham 185).

With language, humans devised a robust semiotic system that not only served communicative purposes, but also functioned to demarcate space. Language produces a space of audibility that is inherently social. The so-called “language barrier” is both the antecedent to and invisible correlate of the physical barrier marking out the edges of a human group. The unique phonology of a language creates a shared semantic zone—a “wall-less house of sounds”—that marks an inside and an outside just as effectively as a crude material barrier (Sloterdijk 520).

As evidenced by Paleolithic findings, the physical walls that later traced an outline around the social space of a shared language also owe their origins to fire (Campbell 93). Early humans protected their fires by erecting a low stone boundary around the flames. In this arrangement of stones, we see the ancient predecessor of the wall, an instance of spatial delineation that would serve as a locus of successive encirclements: the stone boundary around the hearth would be, in turn, surrounded by another wall around the fire-sharing humans; and, eventually, would be echoed by the enclosures and fences around entire human settlements—that is, around the complete assembly of communal fires.

Architecture and language therefore share a fundamental affinity with sound, since architecture emerges as a means of preserving the fireside space for language sharing, and, later, of articulating the edge of a linguistic community. Even writing, which itself is silent, stores within itself instructions for sound production. The arches and arabesques of written letters guide the human mouth in the formation of sounds as much as the arches and walls of buildings guide sound’s diffusion, absorption, and reflection.

In his mythical account, Vitruvius cites swallows’ nests as...


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pp. 125-149
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