The Primitive Hut - Essentials of Architecture

Laugier's 18th Century Theory About Architecture

A Primitive Camp in Kenya, Africa
A Camp in Kenya, Africa. Photo by Keith Levit / Perspectives / Getty Images

The Primitive Hut has become a shorthand statement of principle that defines essential elements of architecture. Often, the phrase is "Laugier's Primitive Hut."

Marc-Antoine Laugier (1713-1769) was a French Jesuit priest who rejected the opulence of Baroque architecture prevalent in his lifetime. He outlined his theory about what architecture should be in the 1753 Essai sur l'architecture. According to Laugier, all architecture derives from three essential elements:

The Primitive Hut Illustrated:

Laugier expanded his book-length essay in a second edition published in 1755. This second edition includes the iconic frontispiece illustration by French artist Charles Eisen. In the picture, an idyllic woman (perhaps the personification of Architecture) points out a simple rustic cabin to a child (perhaps the unknowing, naive architect). The structure she points to is simplistic in design, uses basic geometric shapes, and is constructed from natural elements. Laugier's Primitive Hut is his representation of the philosophy that all architecture derives from this simple ideal.

In the English translation of this 1755 edition, the frontispiece created by the British engraver Samuel Wale is slightly different from the illustration used in the well-known, celebrated French edition. The picture in the English language book is less allegorical and more clear-cut than the more romantic picture from the French edition.

Both illustrations show, however, a reasoned and simplified approach to building.

  • Charles Eisen frontispiece from Essai sur l’architecture, 2nd edition (view image)
    Public domain image from DOME, digitized content from the MIT Libraries' collections, dome.mit.edu
  • Samuel Wale frontispiece from the English translation (view image)
    Illustration in the public domain courtesy of Open Library, openlibrary.org

    Full Title in English:

    An Essay on Architecture; in which Its True Principles are explained, and Invariable Rules proposed, for Directing the Judgment and Forming the Taste of the Gentleman and the Architect, With regard to the Different Kinds of Buildings, the Embellishment of Cities, And the Planning of Gardens.

    The Primitive Hut Idea by Laugier:

    Laugier theorizes that man wants nothing but shade from the sun and shelter from storms—the same requirements as a more primitive human. "The man is willing to make himself an abode which covers but not buries him," Laugier writes. "Pieces of wood raised perpendicularly, give us the idea of columns. The horizontal pieces that are laid upon them, afford us the idea of entablatures."

    Branches form an incline that can be covered with leaves and moss, "so that neither the sun nor the rain can penetrate therein; and now the man is lodged."

    Laugier concludes that "The little rustic cabin that I have just described, is the model upon which all the magnificences of architecture have been imagined."

    Why is Laugier's Primitive Hut Important?

    1. The essay is considered a major treatise in architectural theory. It is often cited by teachers of architecture and practicing architects even in the 21st century.
    1. Laugier's expression is pro-Greek Classicism and reacts against the Baroque ornamentation and decoration of his day. It established the argument for future architectural movements, including 18th century Neoclassicism and the 21st century trend toward unadorned, eco-friendly tiny homes and small dwellings (see Books to Help You Build a Smaller Home).
    2. The Primitive Hut idea supports a back-to-nature philosophy, a romantic idea which gained popularity in the mid-18th century and influenced literature, art, music, and architecture.
    3. Defining the essential elements of architecture is a statement of purpose, a philosophy that drives the work of an artist and practitioner. Simplicity of design and the use of natural materials, what Laugier believes are architectural essentials, are familiar ideas that have been embraced by more modern architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright and the vision of Gustav Stickley at Craftsman Farms.
    1. Laugier's rustic cabin is sometimes call The Vitruvian Hut, because Laugier built on ideas of natural and divine proportion documented by the ancient Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius (see Geometry and Architecture).

    Critical Thinking:

    The popularity of Laugier's philosophy is in part because he offers easily understood alternatives to the architecture he scorns. The clarity of his writing is such that the English architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837) is said to have given copies of Laugier's book to his new staff members. Architects of the 20th century, like Le Corbusier, and of the 21st century, including Thom Mayne, have acknowledged the influence of Laugier's ideas on their own work.

    You don't have to agree with Laugier's visions, but it's a good idea to understand them. Ideas shape everything we create, including architecture. Everyone has a philosophy that develops over time, even if the ideas haven't been written down.

    A useful project is to put into words the theories about architecture and design that you have developed—how should buildings be built? what should cities look like? what design elements should all architecture have? Here are two articles to help you express your own Philosophy of Architecture:

    The Primitive Hut and Related Books:

    • Essay on Architecture by Marc-Antoine Laugier, English translation by Wolfgang Herrmann and Anni Herrmann
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    • On Adam's House in Paradise: The Idea of the Primitive Hut in Architectural History by Joseph Rykwert, MIT Press, 1981
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    • A Hut of One's Own: Life Outside the Circle of Architecture by Ann Cline, MIT Press, 1998
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    Source: Quotations and frontispiece designed by Mr. Wale for English translation of Laugier's Essay on Architecture (1755) in the public domain courtesy of Open Library, openlibrary.org