Architectural Design: Drawing on Nonverbal Traditions as Oral History

Article excerpt

Early in my graduate career in anthropology at the University of Arizona, I enrolled in a course, "The History of North American Indians," taught by Dr. Bernard "Bunny" Fontana. The course was an eye-opener, but above all, it impressed me with the magnitude of issues that American Indians have to address. The last thing that I thought any Indian community needed was yet another anthropologist running around in search of data. I made the decision that my career focus in anthropology would not be American Indians!

Two years later, I found myself mired in activities and obligations, not to mention having to prepare for comprehensive exams. I promised myself that I would not take on any additional responsibilities. I would "Just say no" (long before the expression became fashionable). The very next day, Bunny approached me about a seminar project that an architecture professor had started with some of his students; the professor requested help from the Anthropology Department, since they planned to work with an Apache community about which they had no cultural awareness. Here was my chance: I said no. But Bunny was persistent, reducing his request to asking me at least to meet with them once. I acquiesced and, in short order, found that I had violated both promises I made to myself: I took on another task and was en route to a career working with American Indians in a capacity I could never have imagined. In what was supposed to be my first and only meeting with the architect and his students, I quickly realized just how unprepared they were for a cross-cultural experience in architectural design. They had a goal of taking on a one-semester project that would culminate with a tentative plan for a new Apache community to be developed on what was hoped would be a new reservation. Readily apparent to all of us was that we knew virtually nothing about Apache culture but, more important, we had no knowledge of the Apache community or their needs. The spring semester was already underway and the clock was running. In hindsight, there was no way that the project as initially conceived could have been completed. Instead, the semester became a series of weekly meetings plus a couple of trips to the Tonto Apache community in Payson, Arizona. Our meetings seemed to take on the theme whereby the anthropologist's purpose was to "frustrate the architects" as they struggled to find ways to do something concrete without yet having the essential knowledge required for cross-cultural design. In return for restraining them, I found myself compelled to produce for them whatever information it was that I insisted they have before moving forward. I agreed to spend my summer conducting research and collecting the data that the architect and his students needed before they could make design decisions. Dr. Fontana assisted me in gaining financial support for my endeavor through the Doris Duke American Indian Oral History Program.

Coincidental to my involvement in the project (and unbeknownst to either Bunny or the architect) was the fact that I had studied architecture for a year when I considered a possible career in the field. The experience taught me about space as a central concept in architectural design. From the anthropological literature, I learned about cross-cultural differences in the use of space and the way that space is used for nonverbal communication (Hall 1966). Putting these two elements together as my involvement grew past that first meeting, I came to realize that the role of a social scientist in the matter of cross-cultural design would be to discover the cultural rules for the use of space in Apache culture. That kind of information would be useful to architects and would resolve their dilemma of designing cross-culturally. Several weeks of meetings, discussions, and disagreements finally brought us to the realization that the task of gathering the data rightfully belonged to an ethnographer, not to those engaged in architectural design. …