Primal buildings

It is quite common for professional works about architecture to start with the peasant house or perhaps the one-room hayward’s house, and then move towards such complex buildings as magnificent castles and cathedrals. It would be instructive to have a study that moves in the opposite direction, one with an approach that is able to recognize the admirable in simple structures as well. Seen in their own context, why would the constructions in farmyards be inferior to castles?

Within this folk architectural register the three concerns that architects are always warned to keep in sight are realized as a matter of course: the function, the shaping and the application of the simplest and cheapest materials available at the site.

I had the privilege to know the world of Hungarian villages from my early childhood. As an ethnographer, I have always tried to see things in their context as parts of an organic whole.

Since the mid 1960’s taking photographs during my ethnographic study trips is more and more like a conscious method, which one could also call an active visual anthropology. This paved the way to the study of such topics that cannot be grasped otherwise. The village house attics have emptied, one cannot go on collecting old objects the way one used to. It seems to be more efficient to record the way objects are used, to photograph those situations of everyday life that may be taking place for the very last time.

I discovered the crystal clear primal forms of architecture at the shepherds’ lodgings of remote steppes and in the back of farmyards. Then, as I wandered through the Great Hungarian Plains, the part of the country that preserves more archaic ways of life, I recognized more and more analogies.

In 1978, in the farm world around Baja I came across a 3.5 m high chicken-coop with a whitewashed cupola. It was amazing. It reminded me of the grain storage huts by the river Niger. That was the point when I became addicted to finding these „barely-buildings”. In his book entitled Architecture Without Architects (New York, 1964), Bernard Rudofsky explores the residential and farm buildings of aboriginal peoples. With their astonishing practicality and richness of form, these structures may serve as eternal reference points for architects seeking renewal.

It was a bold venture: to find and systematize folk architecture, which existed independent of the fashion, engineers and regulations of the time. These are the products of people’s innate, instinctive inclination to build: the hidden fundamentals. Without these two decades of sustained rescue excavations the deep layers of folk architecture would have been lost. This was also the time when the renowned Hungarian folklorist, Zsuzsanna Erdélyi collected archaic folk prayers.

It was while I was wandering among the farmyard „makeshift structures” of peasant farming that I recorded the primal forms of architecture, the applications of the basic space-shaping strategies. It is food for thought indeed that the structures I call primal buildings are all created by „uneducated” people, who could hardly know about their predecessors and relatives, far away in space and time. The round cotes evoke African tribal architecture. The shepherds’ buildings are
relics left from the once nomadic lifestyle of our people and our lives on the eastern steppes. The rounded open-air bread-ovens seem to have inherited the shape of medieval Avar or Hungarian round churches.

The monumental corn barns with stone footing and the amazing pigeonries found at the households of rich farmers evoke the sight of Stonehenge and other megaliths, or the Sun-Gates in South America and the Far-East.

Do we really encounter these wonders here, in the middle of Europe, in the geographical centre of our continent? Let us add that this is a country where the same kinds of cars and the same pieces of software are used day by day as anywhere else in Europe.

In my research I focused mainly on the Hungarian Great Plains, the eastern part of my homeland, torn for centuries by wars with the Ottoman-Turkish and the Habsburgs, where this traditional lifestyle was partly preserved.

When researching the archaic register of architecture in the Hungarian-speaking region, I explored a territory of about 48 000 square kilometres. (These were the plain part of the eastern Transdanubia, the Mezőföld and that southern part of the Great Plains that belonged to Yugoslavia and Serbia in the 20th century.) In the 1970’s and 1980’s I walked with my photo equipments on my back from one farmhouse to the next, from one shepherds’ lodging place to the other. I took a train when I could, and sometimes I cycled. At times I was picked up by a horse-drawn cart, and I had long conversations with the farmer on the road. I never considered that a waste of time.

There is no other way to perform such a study, but visual recording, as primal buildings are not made of precious materials, but rather from mud and reed, some from brick or wood. The methods of monument-protection are usually inadequate for their preservation. These „makeshift” buildings – which only stand for a couple of years, yet often bear witness to an admirable sense of form – are actually ancient remnants. They disappear only to reappear, as they manifest such obvious solutions.

Hungarian ethnography discovered round cotes a long time ago. The shepherds’ buildings were studied by our renowned researchers in the early 20th century. As such structures still exist, it was necessary to initiate a new and comprehensive study. My intention was to reveal the whole of this register of our cultural heritage.

It is advisable for the researcher never to finish one’s explorations. In September 2013, with the support of the Hungarian Academy of Arts, Zoltán Bicskei made a film portrait about me. During its shooting near Zenta I managed to record another, stunning round cote.

There were photo exhibitions of my works organized in several Hungarian towns and also in Warsaw. My book Primal Buildings was published in 2000 and again in 2001, in Hungarian, English and German as well.

It was amazing to see what a wide public my book could reach! There was a whole set of round cotes built at the estate of a wellknown organic farmer. On the yard of a restaurant famous for its folk dishes six ovens were erected, on basis of my photographs. The cover page of my book manifested as a sort of triumphal arch in Somogyaszaló. The round chicken-coop in Baja inspired two outstanding architects, György Csete and Zoltán Rácz when they were making plans for a church.

The third edition of Primal Buildings will be published in 2014.

László Kunkovács