The Bowerbird is named for its very particular mating ritual, where the male constructs an elaborate bower-structure and decorates it with a shrine of colorful objects in order to attract potential mates. Males will spend hours gathering sticks and shiny things to complete their bower, which tend to follow two basic typologies: a tent-like cone of sticks, or two stick-walls in parallel, forming a little avenue. Whether the bowerbird builds the tent or the avenue depends pretty consistently on the species, but once the bowers are bedazzled, the structures become absolutely unique to that particular bird and its surroundings.
It’s not clear whether the bowerbird’s habits predate the first instance of human architecture, but to imagine that an inception point of our architectural history owes itself to a horny bird throws an interesting irreverence into the thought-piece of “what is the origin of architecture?”. Last Monday at the REDCAT theater in downtown Los Angeles, Pier Paolo Tamburelli, editor of San Rocco magazine, addressed that question from the perspective of historical discourse, explaining differing opinions of architecture’s origins across nearly a millenium of architectural thought. The name of his lecture, “What’s wrong with the primitive hut?”, refers to the myth of architecture’s origins in the “primitive hut”, as described by the French architectural theorist, Marc-Antoine Laugier. Laugier’s primitive hut is explained as a liberalist allegory, where man’s self-realizing need for individual protection drives him (definitely not her) to create his own shelter.
Tamburelli addressed other caveats to this myth of architecture’s origin, including the more social and political angles of Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach and Aldo Rossi, who imagined the origin of architecture as predicated on the existence of cities -- making the liberalist interpretation of architecture’s origins a bit harder to swallow. The primitive hut is not architecture unless it plays a part in a city of huts. Regardless of the disputed origin of architecture, Tamburelli concluded the lecture by citing the true priorities of architecture after the modern-era (the theorist behind this idea I did not catch) -- that the structure no longer matters, but the most important factor of architecture is how a collective memory is formed around a singular space.
Tamburelli’s concluding remarks considered the priorities of architecture after modernism -- but what of the bowerbird’s architecture? It’s a folly by some considerations, certainly more for show than use, and it’s not predicated on a city, but it does reference a society of sorts (the purpose is to continue the existence of the species, after all). And given the worldwide publicity that a select few bowerbirds in Papa New Guinea and Australia received from the BBC’s “Planet Earth” series, it might not be a stretch to say that a significant number of people have come to associate the bowers with both that environment, and their own reaction to the remarkable ritual -- forming a collective memory through the medium of television. Within the deluge of digital images and viral publicity that surrounds it, architecture could also be considered through its evolutionary-hardiness in new media.