Minaret Building and Apprenticeship in Yemen

by Trevor Marchand
Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 2001, 285 pp.

Reviewed by Cynthia Myntti

Yemen Update 44 (2002)

Trevor Marchand, a Canadian architect turned social anthropologist, has produced an important book based on his PhD dissertation at the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University. In 1996-97 Marchand worked in San‘a as a building laborer, and the insights gained from this experience in participant-observation serve as the core of the book.

The published works linking the disciplines of anthropology and architecture - still remarkably few in number - tend to focus on either the social factors in domestic design or symbolism in monumental and vernacular architecture. Marchand takes a different and valuable tack: he is interested in the way traditional building knowledge is transferred from master to apprentice. Unlike modern design and construction training, the aspiring traditional builder in Yemen learns without academic lectures or expert drawings to reflect on. Instead, it is through the very process "of making" that personal capability is tested and expertise is gained.

After introductory chapters on Yemeni society and the minaret in mosque architecture, Marchand organizes the heart of the book into three chapters: Foundations, Making it above Grade, and Completing the Dome. This organization compares explicitly the vertical inside-out construction of the minaret with the stages of occupational proficiency (from laborer or shaqi to master or usta), and also with the stages of religious learning (submission or islam, faith or iman, and paramount understanding or ihsan). These parallels are illuminating and also provocative; the implication is that the path to mastery requires remarkable discipline and aspiration, and only a select few ever reach the pinnacle.

The book contains a rich description of how the minarets that have made San‘a famous in architectural circles are actually constructed, and Marchand provides clear and elegant architectural drawings and numerous photographs to illustrate his main points. He ends with the intriguing speculation that democratic trends in the country run counter to the opaque and authoritarian system that produces master builders in the traditional construction trade, and that these social and political currents, rather than changes in taste, offer the greatest threat to its survival.

The book's defects are minor in comparison to its many strengths, but they are irritating nonetheless. The book contains a number of mispellings and the references in the preface are not cited in the bibliography, signs that the book may have been published in haste and with undo care. The intermittent discussions of cognitive theory, while appropriate to a thesis, are nearly incomprehensible and detract from rather than add to the book. Finally, as one who is currently moving in the reverse direction as Trevor Marchand (I am an anthropologist studying architecture), I believe he overstates the difference between traditional apprenticeship in the building trades and modern architectural education. An increasing number of architectural schools have in their curriculum what are called "design-build" projects. My Yale classmates and I are about to embark on the most important stage of our architectural training, building a house in our community, where we will learn by "making" just like the builders of Yemen.

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