Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

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

This programme aims to identify the intellectual contexts that were of importance for the architectural theory of the period, and especially to clarify the relation of architectural theory to primitivism.

2010 - 2015

Since antiquity, people have believed that good societies need good buildings. After all, civilization and architecture are supposed to have arisen together. The Renaissance brought new ideas about the origins of civilization. In this project, the researchers will look at the influence these ideas had on architecture.

Architecture emerged as an autonomous discipline in the Renaissance with the publication of theories of design: treatises defining the architect’s knowledge, and the principles and models for designing buildings. These principles were founded on the conviction that to become works of art, buildings need to acquire meanings that, transcending the structural, spatial and functional aspects of architecture, are cultural in the widest sense of the word.

Design theories substantiated this claim by invoking the authorities of Vitrivius’ treatise on architecture and the ruins of antiquity, examples of good design incorporating the values of an exemplary civilisation. At the end of the 17 th century, however, the authority of antiquity was eroded, while developments in science and technology changed building practice and design.

As a result, over the period 1750-1850 new design theories emerged. Whereas the majority of these texts are well known, it has rarely been noted that they aimed at repositioning architectural design within culture writ large. After all, the architectural profession still required design principles which promised to produce buildings of cultural relevance. Moreover, after antiquity had lost its authority, architectural theory sought new intellectual foundations in emerging discourses such as primitivism. Finally, in search of cultural legitimacy, the reflection on architectural design expanded outside the realm of the treatise.

By examining this process, the programme aims to redefine the body of architectural theory of the period in Europe, and to consider in detail how at a time when attitudes towards the past fundamentally changed, architectural theory sought new ways of explaining how buildings acquire wider cultural meanings by turning to new theories of the origins of society. Thus, the programme aims to identify the intellectual contexts that were of importance for the architectural theory of the period, and especially to clarify the relation of architectural theory to primitivism.

The main questions this project wants to answer are: 

  1. What are the substitutes for Vitruvius and antiquity to serve as the foundation for architectural design’s ambition to give wider cultural meaning to built forms in the period 1750-1850? 
  2. How does architectural design endow built forms with meaning, what are these meanings, and in what manners do buildings signify according to the sources studied here?
  3. What are the intellectual contexts in which the sources studied here developed in the years 1750-1850, and how do these contexts help to shape the answers to questions 1. and 2.? 

Two hypotheses are used to answer these questions: 

  1. Architectural theory transforms profoundly over the period 1750-1850 because the foundations of earlier design theories, Vitruvius and antiquity, had become problematic. 
  2. Primitivism plays a crucial role in the transformation of architectural theory of the period, because it becomes a pervasive model of thought in the entire field of humanities, and connects with an important kernel of architectural theory, the myth of origin. 

The aims of the programme are: 

  1. To redefine the body of architectural theory of the period in Europe. 
  2. To consider in detail how at a period of fundamental change in attitudes towards the past, architectural theory sought new ways of explaining how buildings acquire wider cultural meanings by turning to new theories of the origins of society. 
  3. To identify the intellectual contexts that were of importance for the architectural theory of the period, and esp. to clarify the relation of architectural theory to primitivism. 
  4. And thereby to address an issue fundamental to all architectural design and theory, viz. to define how built forms acquire cultural meanings that transcend the material, structural and functional aspects of building, and transform building from an utilitarian practice into an art. 

The programme consists of research projects that examine three different answers to the erosion of classical antiquity and in particular Vitruvius as a design authority, in order to gauge their impact on design theory and to understand how they reshaped the nature of architectural discourse: new ideas on the primitive hut and its status as a design model; the substitution of the primitive hut as the first building by the building considered as a book; primitivism as a new foundation of design theory. Thus, the first project studies architectural theory in the conventional sense of the word, the second the discourse on architecture writ large, while the third gauges the impact of an emerging discourse on architecture and its theory. A synthesis will relate these historical research projects to the contemporary debate.

Primary sources

  • Alberti, L.B., L’Architettura [De re aedificatoria]. Testo latino e traduzione di Giovanni Orlandi. Introduzione e note di Paolo Portoghesi. Milan, 1966. 
  • ___, On the Art of Building in Ten Books. Translated by Joseph Rykwert, Neil Leach and Robert Tavernor. Cambridge, Mass. and London, 1988. 
  • ___, On Painting and Sculpture. The Latin Texts of De pictura and De statua. Edited with translations, introduction and notes by Cecil Grayson. London, 1972. 
  • Bötticher, C.G.W., Die Tektonik der Hellenen. Berlin, 1874 [1844-52]. 
  • ___, Der Baumkultus der Hellenen nach den gottesdienstlichen Gebräuchen und den überlieferten Bildwerken dargestellt. Berlin, 1856. 
  • Cesariano, C., Dell’Architettura di L. Vitruvio Pollione (1521), in: A. Bruschi et al. (eds.), Scritti Rinascimentali di Architettura. Milan, 1978. 
  • Cochin, unpublished memoir on the primitive hut, Paris, Archives Nationales, 01 1919 3, undated series, nos 9 – 11. 
  • Dulaure, J.A., Des cultes qui ont précédé et amené l’idolâtrie ou l’adoration des figures humaines, Paris, 1805. 
  • Dupuis, C.-F., Origine de tous les cultes, ou Religion universelle, Paris, 1805. 
  • Filarete. Treatise on Architecture, Being the Treatise di Piero Averlino, Known as Filarete. Translated, with an introduction and notes by J.R. Spencer. New Haven and London, 1965. 
  • Laugier, M.-A., Essai sur l’Architecture. Nouvelle édition revue, corrigée et augmentée; avec un dictionnaire des termes, et des planches qui en facilitent l’explication, par le P. Laugier de la compagnie de Jésus. Paris, 1755 [1753]; reprint Farnborough, 1966. 
  • ___, Observations sur l’Architecture. The Hague, 1765. 
  • Memmo, A., Elementi dell’architettura Lodoliana o sia l’arte del fabbricare con solidità scientifica e con eleganza non capricciosa. Libri due. Rome, 1786. 
  • Perrault, Cl., Ordonnance for the five kinds of columns after the method of the Ancients. Translated by Indra Kagis-McEwen, introduction by Alberto Perez-Gomez. Los Angeles, 1993. 
  • Piranesi, G.B., Observations on the Letter of Monsieur Mariette, Introduction by John Wilton-Ely, translation by Caroline Beamish and David Britt. Los Angeles: The Getty Research Institute, 2002. 
  • Quatremère de Quincy, A.-Chr., ‘Architecture’, Encyclopédie Méthodique.Architecture. Paris, 1788, vol. I, pp. 109-116. 
  • Reynaud, L., ‘Architecture’, Encyclopédie Nouvelle. Paris, 1836-41, vol. 1, pp. 770-78. 
  • ___, ‘Colonne’, Encyclopédie Nouvelle. Paris, 1836-41, vol. 3, pp. 686-88. 
  • Schinkel, K.F., Architektonisches Lehrbuch. Edited by G. Poeschken. Munich/Berlin, 1979.
  • Semper, G. Der Stil in den technischen und tektonischen Künsten oder praktische Ästhetik (1860). Eingeleitet von A. von Buttlar. Mittenwald, 1977. 
  • ___ Style. Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts; or, Practical Aesthetics.Introduction by H.F. Mallgrave. Translation by H.F. Mallgrave and M. Robinson. Los Angeles: The Getty Research Institute, 2004. 
  • Viel de St Maur, J.-L., Lettres sur l’architecture des anciens et celle des modernes. Paris, 1779-87. 
  • Vitruvius, Ten Books on Architecture. Edited by Ingrid D. Rowland and Thomas Noble Howe, Cambridge, 1999. 
  • Volney, C.-F., Les ruines, ou méditations sur les révolutions des empires, nouvelle édition, Paris, 1833.


  • Bergdoll 2000. Barry Bergdoll, European architecture 1750–1890, Oxford. 
  • Bolzoni 2001. Lina Bolzoni, The Gallery of Memory. Toronto. 
  • Braegger 1982. Carlpeter Braegger (ed), Architektur und Sprache. München. 
  • Brière 2007. Chantal Brière, Victor Hugo et le roman architectural. Paris. 
  • Brunel 1978. Georges Brunel (ed.), Piranèse et les français: colloque tenu à la Villa Médicis, 12 - 14 Mai 1976. Rome. 
  • Ciotta 2003. Gianluigi Ciotta (ed.), Vitruvio nella cultura architettonica antica, medievale e moderna: atti del convegno internazionale di Genova 5 - 8 novembre 2001, Genova, 2003. 
  • Contangelo 1989, “Arte e Provvidenza in Vico,” Filosofia 40: 45-72. 
  • Cowling 1998. David Cowling, Building the Text. Architecture as Metaphor in Late Medieval and Early Modern France. Oxford. 
  • Damisch 1977. Hubert Damisch, Modern’Signe. Recherches sur le travail du signe dans l’architecture moderne. Paris: CORDA/CEHTA. 
  • D’Hooghe 2005. Alexander D’Hooghe, Public Form. Antwerp: A16 and Vai. 
  • Van Eck 1994. Caroline van Eck, Organicism in nineteenth-century architecture: an inquiry into its theoretical and philosophical background. Amsterdam. 
  • ___ 2004. Caroline van Eck (ed.), British Architectural Theory 1540-1750. Aldershot. 
  • ___ 2007. Caroline van Eck, Classical Rhetoric and the Arts in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge. 
  • Eriksen 2001. Roy T. Eriksen, The Building in the Text. Alberti to Shakespeare and Milton. University Park, PA. 
  • Gent 2005. Lucy Gent (ed.), Albion's classicism: the visual arts in Britain, 1550–1660. New Haven: Yale University Press. 
  • Glaser 2004. Stephanie Glaser, “Of revolutions, republics and spires: nineteenth-century France and the Gothic cathedral” in: Signs of change: transformations of Christian traditions and their representation in the arts, 1000-2000. Amsterdam, New York: 453-473. 
  • Gleichmann 1992. Peter R. Gleichmann, “Architecture and Civilization: A Sketch,” Theory Culture Society 9, 27-44. 
  • Goebel 1971. Gerhard Goebel, Poeta faber. Erdichtete Architektur in der italienischen, spanischen, und franzözischen Literatur der Renaissance und des Barock. Heidelberg. 
  • Grell 1989. C. Grell (ed.), Primitivisme et mythes des origines dans la France des Lumières, 1680-1820, Paris. 
  • Griener [2009], Pascal Griener, “Théorie de l’art et théorie pessimiste de l’art. Histoire d’un paradoxe,” in: J. Lichtenstein and C. Michel (eds), De la quête des règles au discours sur les fins. Les mutations du discours sur l’art en France dans la seconde moitié du XVIIIe siècle. Lausanne (in press). 
  • Hamon 1980. Philippe Hamon, “Texte et architecture” Poétique 19: 3-26. HAR 1984. Harvard Architecture Review, no. 4, Spring, thematical issue: The Monument and the City. 
  • Hart and Hicks 1998. Vaughan Hart and Peter Hicks (eds.), Paper palaces: the rise of the Renaissance architectural treatise. New Haven. 
  • Herrmann 1962. Wolfgang Herrrmann, Laugier and the eighteenth century French theory. London. 
  • JoA 2008. Journal of Architecture, thematical issue “The primitive in modern architecture and urbanism,” 13/4. 
  • Kagis McEwen 2003. Indra Kagis McEwen, Vitruvius.Writing the Body of Architecture. Cambridge (Mass.). 
  • Kantor-Kazovsky 2006. Lola Kantor-Kazovsky, Piranesi as interpreter of Roman architecture and the origins of his intellectual world. Florence. 
  • Kaufmann 1952. Emil Kaufmann, Three Revolutionary Architects: Boullee, Ledoux and Lequeu, Philadelphia. 
  • Koolhaas 1977. Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York. A retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan. New York. 
  • Krause 2002. Katharina Krause, Wie beschreibt man Architektur? Das Fräulein von Scudéry spaziert durch Versailles. Freiburg im Breisgau. 
  • Kruft 1994. Hanno-Walter Kruft, A history of architectural theory: from Vitruvius to the present. Transl. by Ronald Taylor a.o. New York. 
  • Levine 1982. Neil Levine, “The book and the building: Hugo’s theory of architecture and Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Ste-Genevieve,” in Robin Middleton (ed.), The Beaux-Arts and nineteenth-century French architecture. London. 
  • Loach 2000. Judy Loach, “Anglicanism in London, Gallicanism in Paris, Primitivism in both, Plus ça change,” in N. Jackson (ed.), Architectural Interchange between France and Britain, Papers from the Annual Symposium of the Society of Architectural Historians, 9-32.
  • Lovejoy 1932. Arthur O. Lovejoy, The first Gothic revival and the return to nature. Baltimore. 
  • Lovejoy and Boas 1973. Arthur O. Lovejoy and G. Boas, Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity. New York. 
  • Mallion 1962. Jean Maillon, Victor Hugo et l’art architectural. Paris. 
  • Marouby 1990. C. Marouby, Utopie et primitivisme: essai sur l’imaginaire anthropologique à l’âge classique. Paris. 
  • McClung 1981. William A. McClung, “The Matter of Metaphor: Literary Myths of Construction,” JSAH 40/4, 279-88. 
  • Morolli 1984. Gabriele Morolli, “Le belle forme degli antichi”. Raffaello a il progetto del primo trattato rinascimentale sulle antichità di Roma. Firenze. 
  • Odgers, Samuel and Sharr 2006. Jo Odgers, Flora Samuel, Adam Sharr (eds), Primitive.Orginal Matters in Architecture, London. 
  • Oechslin 2006, “The Janus-head figure of ‘greek-gothic’. Fragments in the (never-ending) story of modern architecture’s search for identity,” in Barry Bergdoll (ed.), Fragments: architecture and the unfinished. London. 
  • Onians 1990. John Onians. Bearers of Meaning. The Classical Orders in Antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Princeton. 
  • Papadakis and Watson 1990. Andreas Papadakis and Harriet Watson (eds), New classicism: omnibus volume. The Hague. 
  • Payne 1999. Alina Payne. The Architectural Treatise in the Italian Renaissance.Architectural Invention, Ornament and Literary Culture. Cambridge. 
  • Rykwert 1981. Joseph Rykwert, On Adam’s House in Paradise, 2nd edition, Cambridge. 
  • Smith 1992. Christine Smith, Architecture in the culture of early humanism. Oxford: OUP.
  • Szambien 1986. Werner Szambien, Symétrie, Goût, Caractère. Théorie et terminologie de l’architecture à l’age classique 1550-1800. Paris.

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