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The Hut and the Altar: Architectural Origins and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century France

From: Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture
Volume 36, 2007
pp. 235-259 | 10.1353/sec.2007.0017

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The Ten Books on Architecture by Vitruvius Pollio, a Roman engineer from the reign of Augustus, contains the classical tradition's most famous and influential account of the origins of architecture. Vitruvius wrote that in the earliest times men lived like wild beasts, dwelling in woods, caves, and groves. One day a dense group of trees, agitated by winds and storms, caught fire. The nearby inhabitants initially ran from the terrifying flame, but once it subsided a bit they drew near and discovered to their delight that its warmth gave them great comfort. They began trying to keep the fire alive. Soon they were bringing other people up to it and making gestures to show how much comfort it gave them. In the process of trying to share and maintain the fire together, the sounds that people made with their voices began to fix themselves into articulate words. Society and its corollary, language, thus both came into being. And as people kept arriving in ever greater numbers at this place, something else was soon invented:

Having, beyond all the other animals, this gift of nature: that they walked, not prone, but upright, they therefore could look upon the magnificence of the universe and the stars. For the same reason they were able to manipulate whatever object they wished, using their hands and other limbs. Some in the group began to make coverings of leaves, others to dig caves under the mountains. Many imitated the nest building of swallows and created places of mud and twigs where they might take cover. Then, observing each other's homes and adding new ideas to their own, they created better types of houses as the days went by.

Vitruvius's account thus relates architecture to the most fundamental aspects of human existence. Building emerges out of the formation of language; out of the precarious position of human beings between the terrors and comforts of nature; from their special intelligence and skill in making things with their hands; and from their propensity for philosophical or religious speculation, represented here through the act of gazing at the heavens. The story thereby establishes architecture as a practice with a profound scope for meaning, one that satisfies contingent needs even as it draws inspiration from, and aspires to do justice to, thoughts of eternity.

For centuries, the ideal evoked in Vitruvius's story oriented Western architecture. The perception of architecture as a bridge between the mutable world and the deeper order of the cosmos underpinned the dedication of immense intellectual and material resources to the arts of building. But in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this ancient paradigm finally unraveled, gradually to be replaced with the new modes of architectural thought, practice, and experience we know as modern. In the course of this shift, Vitruvius's account of the origins of architecture was inevitably subjected to radical challenges and revisions. The present essay examines two very different eighteenth-century attempts to reimagine the origins of architecture, one from mid-century and one published on the eve of the Revolution. Such texts have traditionally been studied and interpreted with reference to the history of ideas (philosophy, historiography, aesthetics), but the focus here will instead be on how the aspirations and anxieties embedded in these two narratives relate to contemporary changes in the structure of the French public sphere. This discussion seeks not only to illuminate hitherto neglected factors in the genesis of these specific texts, but also to use discourse on architecture—an art, after all, that publicly articulates the relationship of communities to places—as a lens through which to look afresh at how the French public sphere was changing during the eighteenth century. In this connection, I shall be highlighting a crucial, if understudied, legacy of that transformation, namely, the demotion of space from its primordial role as the principal ground for social existence. On the basis of this analysis, I shall argue that the two profoundly different origins stories examined here, one essentially rationalistic, the other mythological, both sprang from related apprehensions about contemporary social change. This paradoxical commonality invites us to see the rationalistic and the mythological not as opposed, as Enlightenment texts...

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