Primitive Hut In Relation To Theories Of Social Organisation

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The 'primitive' hut has been a source of fascination across the disciplines for many years, and formed a fundamental part of the aesthetic traditions in nineteenth century Europe, beginning with the works by Papworth romanticising the rustic, and reaching a peak in the Arts and Crafts period where writings such as those of John Ruskin lauded the handmade nature of the rustic unit. Discussing the 'primitive' hut is possible between the disciplines, the architectural approach such as that taken by Rykwert being one side, and the anthropological analysis of Bordieu being the other.

I shall discuss two African examples from a spatial arrangement perspective, one from Algeria, the Kabyle House as described by Pierre Bourdieu, and the other the Zulu Dwelling as described by, amongst others, Argyle and Buthelezi. Without entering the discourse defining the 'primitive' hut, I take as my starting point the definition submitted by Paul Oliver, where 'Vernacular architecture comprises the dwellings and all other buildings of the people. Related to their environmental contexts and available resources they are customarily owner or community built utilising traditional technologies. All forms of vernacular architecture are built to meet specific needs, accommodating the values, economies and ways of living of the cultures that produce them.' (Oliver;1997:xxiii)

The Zulu beehive dwelling

The Zulu beehive dwelling, or iqhughwana, is notable for the symbolism that it encompasses in its shape, its position in the homestead and the manner in which the inside space is used. A couple of authors, largely Biermann, have addressed the buildings as physical entities, and others such as Knuffel the manner in which they are constructed and the social processes that surround the construction. The gender responsibilities such as the women thatching and the men cutting the poles and setting them into the ground sets the picture for the manner in which the hut building as a material culture is reflective of the social organisations of the people (Argyle et al;1992:16). One cannot discuss the hut unit without looking at the homestead as a whole. This consists of a number of buildings situated on a slope, built around a central cattle byre, forming not only the spatial but also the cognitive centre of the society where cattle represent wealth and power. The headman's hut is usually at the apex of the circle, with the entrance (usually) at the bottom. The main hut has adjacent wives sleeping huts and their associated cooking huts in order of marriage and status. The positioning of these units is of the utmost importance in the familial hierarchy, where the discourse as to where the wives huts are placed in relationship to each other and the headman's hut is engaged by the authors (Argyle et al;1992:9) with the generalisation being that the hut of the first wife sits to the right of the homestead head, then the second to the left and alternating from then on.

The units and their spacing thus represent the polygamous belief systems of the people. This is then given a gendered perspective where, according to the authors, the right hand is associated with men and the left with women. The binary of strength and weakness is also similarly addressed. (Ibid;2) The hut itself is a grass dome formed of concentrically placed wattle lathes that have a central pole or poles, depending on the size of the building. A single semi-circular doorway forces the person to bend low to enter, partly to disadvantage the entrant but also to ensure that the entrant has to genuflect to the headman on entrance. Argyle and Buthelezi discuss the internal arrangement of the single hut, where the circular plan is split in half through the central hearth, forming the left and the right. As a generalisation, the left hand side is the women's side, the right the men's. Argyle and Buthelezi see this not necessarily as a gender split, but relating more to power and seniority. This is evidenced in their note following Adam Kuper that 'Thus, if a homestead-head (umnumzane) sits in a hut with no women present, but just his sons, he will be on the right as usual, but his sons will be on the left side,' (Argyle et al;1992:15) This is also seen in the case where a cow has to sleep in the hut if it is sick or its mother has died, then the left hand side near the door is where it is placed. In addition, implements associated with gender find themselves stored on the appropriate side.

The Kabyle house is a well-publicised study of internal arrangements that were undertaken by Bourdieu amongst the Berber in Kabylie, Algeria, following on other previous works. The simple rectangular buildings of undressed stone have a similar dichotomy to that of the Zulu, with relationships between dark and light also reflecting the Zulu tension between strength and weakness. Importantly here, the domains of the women being the house and the immediate garden, and the men being the world- public life and cultivation of crops mean that the house is a physical representation as to how the immediate society is organised. This is to the extent that the man must leave the house to the women after the sun has risen, and men and boys will usually sleep outside the house, and the women and children inside. The standardness of plan has also a similar resonance, in that the tradition reinforces the reproduction again and again of the known and the understood. The two 'roomed' dwelling is split with a 'small openwork wall half as high as the house' (Bourdieu;1979:133).

This wall is used also as a useful space, accommodating on the one side food in baskets, and on the other water jars. The right hand portion of these two spaces is twice larger than the other, elevated and is the light side of the house, containing the hearth and thus the female part of the dwelling. It is used for living and cooking, and the other the dark side, accommodating the livestock, storing water and being associated with sexual activities and sleep. Above the smaller section is a loft that is used by the women and children for sleeping, as well as keeping fodder and implements used in daily farming practise.

The specific relationships of people within specific space as articulated by Argyle et al are echoed in the Kabyle example, where the rear wall facing the entrance, the wall of light, is the location point for the weaving loom and the rifle, and ones position against this wall and proximity to the loom are indicative of honour and status. As Bourdieu says, 'Indeed, from the standpoint of her male kin, the girl's whole life is in a sense summed up in the successive positions she symbolically occupies vis-à-vis the weaving loom, the symbol of male protection.' (Ibid;137) The dichotomy carries further, with the juxtaposition of male and female into spatial relationships, where the upper, light and larger part of the house and the garden are female spaces, with all the activity being female based during the day, as opposed to the lower male, a place of darkness and being occupied at night. Left and right are transposed here, with the female portion being on the right, and the dark side, associated with the male, on the left. The structural members also have intimate associations, where the cross beam connecting the ends of the house is associated with the male, and ritual involving this beam is thus connected with the masculine, whereas the main pillar that supports the building has feminine associations and thus the space for ritual and display connected with fertility and marriage.

A proverb states that 'Women is the foundations, man the master beam' (Ibid;140) thus the very structure of the building is identified with the sexual qualities of its inhabitants. Thus the Kabyle house exists as a set of representative oppositions, based on the male/female binary and its connected associations that are accorded to them; fire and water, fertile and infertile, horizontal and vertical, dark and light, east and west and north and south, left and right. The house-boundedness of the women is supported by an adherence to the Islamic faith, and at the same time the woman is perceived as both treasure and 'twisted like a sickle' (Ibid;153).

Bourdieu is also careful to note that despite the interior of the house being determined in large part by the women that inhabit it, the exterior and its orientation is determined solely by the menfolk. He says that 'The orientation of the house is fundamentally determined from outside from the standpoint of men, and, so to speak, by men and for men, as the place men come out of.' (Ibid;153) This reinforces the gender divide that was introduced above. He continues in his closing phrase to say that 'The supremacy given to movement outwards, in which man affirms his manliness by turning his back on the house in order to face other men, choosing the way of the east of the world, is only one form of the categorical refusal of nature, the inevitable origin of the movement away from it.'

In both the Berber and the Zulu example, the house is divided, whether physically or notionally, into left and right, one side being associated with the male and masculine qualities, and the other associated with the female and the qualities and responsibilities of women. In the Zulu example, the spatial divide is extended to the occupation of different huts by the man and his wives, facilitated by the polygamous system, as well as inter unit specific placing and definitions as to ones place in both the gendered environment as well as the society of the homestead. Similarly, in the Kabyle examples, the women's definition of their space is ordered, dependant on her place in the household as well as her age. The examples represent materially the manner in which the society is structured, responds to the particular value systems embraced by the culture, as well as the metaphysical ideas, particularly in the Kabyle case where the woman is largely housebound, that order the ritual and religious belief systems of the people concerned.


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