Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

The building as book as a new origin of architecture

Subproject of "The quest for the legitimacy of architecture in Europe (1750-1850)".

2010 - 2015
NWO Vidi NWO Vidi

The best-know assertion that man invented architecture in order to retain memories and communicate his ideas, rather than to provide shelter, is found in the chapter “Ceci tuera cela” of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris (1831/32). Hugo argues that a building is like a book, reversing a fundamentel tenet of vitruvianism: if to Vitruvius architecture acquires cultural meaning because the construction of the primitive hut occurs at the beginning of human society, to Hugo man starts to build in his urge to retain and communicate cultural meaning, regardless of his need for shelter. As a result, Hugo sees architecture as part of a larger group of cultural artefacts that are mimetic, performative or representative; the comparison embeds architecture within civilisation by treating it as a medium, not as a design problem. 

Richard Wittman has begun to trace Hugo’s sources, and historians of literature have collected examples of the comparison between the building and the book, also from well before and after the period under consideration. The topic occurs for instance in Quatremère de Quincy and Viollet-le-Duc; in the eighteenth century controversies on Roman versus Greek architecture, in authors like Mariette and Piranesi by way of Montesquieu; in Balzac, Nodier and Nerval; and in Modernist writings of Sullivan, Wright, Le Corbusier, Muthesius or Taut. Nonetheless, there is no exhaustive overview of this trope in architectural theory. 

More importantly, little attention has been paid to its implications for design theory. Hugo wrote against the background of nineteenth century discussions regarding the gothic that would feed into the European neo-gothic movement. At the same time, in Hugo’s close intellectual vicinity architects like Henri Labrouste critically examined the classicist vocabulary because they found it unable to express the political and scientific culture of their times. 

Finally, if it is established that Hugo’s “ceci tuera cela” influenced architectural theory but also the budding discourse on historical preservation, so far nobody has studied whether Hugo’s new legitimation for architecture made possible a reallignment of architectural theory with the disciplines of archeology, art history and the history of civilisations. 

This project will therefore:

1. Trace the occurence of the comparison book-building in the different discourses that are concerned with the cultural meaning of architecture for the period under consideration: architectural theory, archaeology and history, but also literature and criticism, and finally texts on public buildings. 
2. Interpret the comparison within the context of these different discourses. 
3. Analyse the impact of the comparison on design theory, i.e. whether adoption of the comparison leads to particular views on design principles. 

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