From these pop-culture sensations, I wonder: Are researchers and designers of the built environment just as advanced and fearless in interpreting traces as archaeologists?
In every-day life, the profession of the archaeologist is most likely not as adventurous as we see in popular culture. According to the dictionary, archaeology is the study of physical remains of human cultures. This includes the studying of linguistic codes, artefacts ranging from cutleries to stone columns and landscapes shaped by industries.
The most obvious distinction between archaeology and architecture is arguably that archaeologists focus on the past, while architecture has a tendency to focus on the present and future. A similarity might be that both fields seek for relations between materials, artefacts and cultures. Also, in both fields, the interpretation of these relations has changed in the past century.
Until the beginning of the 20th century, archaeology has mostly been about collecting, classifying and studying artefacts in relation to cultures. The collecting of artefacts thrived with the development of great museum collections and world expositions. Here, artefacts could be seen as material traces which narrated human culture and ethnographical pasts. After the 1920s, the focus on the artefact as inertly dead matter changed and was replaced by, what is called in archaeology, functionalist theories. In these theories, all social and cultural phenomena are seen as functional in the sense that they work for the needs of society. Social relations become more important than things, and artefacts become plain reflections of what was deemed fundamental: social relations. Artefacts were seen as tools, extensions of the body.
After the 1960s, structuralist and symbolic anthropology shifted the view on artefacts from ‘good to use’ objects to, reciting the words of Lévi-Strauss, ‘goods to think with’. The symbolic meaning, performances, ritual and exchanges are a part of the culture of the object. Understanding them, to the point that materiality becomes an integral dimension of culture. In other words, artefacts and physical traces are not only objects of a culture or tradition, but part of a larger structure of thinking. For instance, traces in archaeological landscapes can be reread as material constructions of messages about power or gender, not only about one culture but also about inter-cultural relations between groups of people (Tilley, 1991).
Broadly speaking, this change in thinking about object-culture relations can also be found in architectural theory and practice. Another thing we might have in common is our problem-solving ability. Architects and designers are trained to be creative and critical thinkers. We try to realise ideas that can have helpful influences, not only on the built environment, but on society in general. Therefore, it is interesting to try to not only look at traces as physical remains found on a project site but as things that are still active in society.
An interesting example of combining the interpretations in a design is the recently built residential tower Stone Garden in Beirut, designed by the Beirut-born Lina Ghotmeh. The philosophy behind her office is defined as “Archaeology of the Future, where every new gesture is drawn from the traces of the past”. In the design of the residential tower, local re-used concrete and local earth-mixtures are used for the façade of the building. The textures on the skin of the building are built up out of a layer of earth and bonding material and are scaffolded in situ on the concrete-base. Therefore, the pattern is always slightly different. The irregular openings in the façade remind of the bullet holes which can be found on walls throughout the city of Beirut. Here, architecture is not limited to imitating local building techniques, it also responds to the immaterial traces present in a city.
In most of the options of interpretation, the traditional archaeological method of collecting and studying traces is practised, the traces of making spaces and material details are closely studied. Even though there is a lot of value in these ways of interpreting traces, I believe we are still not as culturally aware as archaeologists of the multi-disciplinary values, traditions and inter-cultural relations that are embodied by traces. Perhaps, this has to do with the fact that we are not educated enough about cultures and humans in general. Maybe, the bachelor spends its time too much on disciplinary architectural practices. Perhaps, we simply don’t have time to consider every little on-site trace we find. Perhaps, we do research on all of these facets but lose them in the design. Or perhaps, we don’t want to be like archaeologists because we just don't like Indiana Jones.
So no, probably the built environment has not received the right to be portrayed as adventurous in reading traces as archaeologists. But bold the built environment can certainly be! Obtaining knowledge about fields such as ethnography, human behavior studies and cultural geography could strengthen the interpretation of traces. Not only analysing them to understand historic-facts or to use them for ‘identity-inspiration’, but as seeing them as artefacts or ideas that transform and embody cultural relations and values.