Kazi Khaleed Ashraf


On Vastushilpa and the Art of Dwelling

December, 1994

Published in EARTH magazine, Volume 2, 1995.


The idea of architecture continues to be articulated within the three well-trodden themes of visual aesthetics, mechanistic functionalism and constructional technology, often reduced into the binary of aesthetics and functionalism. Derived from Vitruvian ideas, the themes found a strong base in the classicism of Renaissance Europe, and were carried through to the modern architectural profession despite its anti-historical stance.


In the delta of the Ganges, far from Florence and Milan, in spite of the clamors of regionalism and other anti-modern protestations, we are still operating in large part, or in the most basic formulation, within Vitruvian-Albertian concepts.


Although we use the Bangla word sthapatya, the significance and meaning of the discipline is derived from the term “architecture.” The Bangla word is a mere transliteration, carrying in it the full force of current connotations of the English term. Architecture however is a derivation of the Greek word architecton, meaning a chief builder or artificer, the emphasis being on the term tekton (tekton is the builder, archi-tekton is the chief builder, and architectonic is the art of building).


The key term is tekton. Derived from an archaic Greek verb, teucho, the term is found in the poetical texts of Homer (presumably 8th century BCE), meaning (1) to fabricate, to produce, to construct, and (2) tool, instrument. In ancient Greek, tekton meant a carpenter, a builder, which is closely allied to the Sanskrit word for carpenter, takshan. The meaning of tekton as carpenter broadened to include the artisan-craftsman, and finally the builder-architect. The closely related derivative techne (from which we get technical, technological, etc.) comes to mean “material fabrication,” or the manner of making/doing something effectively.


What is crucial is the shift that occurs in the meaning of techne, even in Homeric texts, from the sense of “material fabrication” to “causing, bringing about, bringing into existence.”  While tekton as architect carried more the notion of building well, the later Homeric meaning is also embedded in it. By the idea of “bringing into existence,” techne comes closer to the notion of poiesis, creation. In Plato’s Symposium, poeisis is seen as any action that is the cause of a thing emerging from non-being into being. What earlier seemed to be a limitation of techne, that is, material fabrication, is seen in the sense of poeisis of bringing into existence something other than what already existed.


In its current usage, techne as the technical or the technological serves the purpose of only material fabrication or mechanics of construction. The sense of poeisis, with which techne was originally aligned, is hardly addressed in contemporary understanding of architecture.


Moving from Greece to the Ganges, we find architecture approximated in Sanskritic conceptions by two terms: sthapatya and vastushilpa. In contemporary coinage, the ancient term sthapatya is used as a direct transliteration (paribhasha) of the current sense of architecture, but remaining a stranger to its own original richer meanings. It is this world of meanings, carried by sthapatya and vastushilpa, which we may have lost that I intend to uncover here.


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