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  • Symbolic Space: French Enlightenment Architecture and Its Legacy
  • Richard Cleary
Richard Etlin. Symbolic Space: French Enlightenment Architecture and Its Legacy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Pp. 236; ill. 113. $40.

Richard Etlin, Professor of Architectural History at the University of Maryland, is known to many readers of this journal as the author of The Architecture of Death: The Transformation of the Cemetery in Eighteenth-Century Paris (1984). In recent years, he also has published two books on twentieth-century architecture: Modernism in Italian Architecture, 1890–1940 (1991) and Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier: The Romantic Legacy (1994).

Symbolic Space weaves together these seemingly diverse interests by identifying design strategies and expressive themes that have endured for two centuries. Foremost among these is the concept Etlin defines as “symbolic space,” meaning places in buildings, cities, and landscapes designed to go beyond meeting utilitarian needs to engage our intellects or emotions. Such intentions are by no means limited to architects of the French Enlightenment and the twentieth century. Recognizing this, Etlin has sought to distinguish attitudes and compositional formulas that illuminate architects such as Claude-Nicholas Ledoux, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Giuseppe Terragni as participants of a definable tradition. He is an articulate author and guides his readers through the text with clear transitions and summaries. The ample illustrations are a bit small, but their layout works well with the text.

The book’s seven chapters are based on articles and conference papers written over a twenty-year period. They complement each other but retain their independent identities. Chapter 1 addresses visions for transforming Paris into a magnificent, efficient, salubrious city worthy of its stature as a political and cultural capital. Etlin uses this chapter to demonstrate how urban and architectural design incorporates multiple intentions. The ideal of broad streets lined with harmoniously composed buildings, for example, simultaneously reflected aesthetic and political desires for magnificence, efforts to improve traffic circulation, and concerns for improving public health by allowing an unimpeded flow of healthful air.

Chapter 1 is also the place where Etlin introduces his protagonist, Etienne-Louis Boullée (1728–99), whose theories and visionary projects, including the famous cenotaph to Sir Isaac Newton (1784), serve as exemplars or catalysts for many of the themes traced throughout the book. Etlin assigns particular significance to Boullée’s concept of character (caractère), the [End Page 237] vehicle by which architects were to achieve symbolic space. He sees three dimensions to Boullée’s principle: expressive character and metaphorical character, which serve to portray a building’s purpose, and symbolic character, which manifests the highest ideals of the institution housed within. Etlin notes that Boullée employed a temple-like space in his buildings as the setting or the revelation of symbolic character. Sifting through these distinctions while examining a given project is easier said than done, and they are less a tool for definitive analysis than an indicator of Boullée’s effort to articulate his awareness of the range of architectural meaning.

In chapter 2, Etlin applies Boullée’s definition of character to the era of the French Revolution when the invention of new symbols and their appropriate architectural representation were matters of pressing importance. Chapter 3 shifts the focus from the social issues driving character to design method and presents the work of Paul Cret (1876–1945) as a case study in which the principles of the French Enlightenment, including Boullée’s device of temple-like spaces are masterfully applied in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century. Etlin’s concise analysis of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. (1928–32) and other buildings offers an effective introduction to this important architect who operated outside the mainstream of high-style modernism.

Chapter 4 examines French neoclassicism from three points of view: grammars for generating architectural form, design strategies based on typology, and aesthetic sensibilities based on the concepts of the sublime and the beautiful. Chapter 5 elaborates the theme of architectural typology as it was applied by mid-eighteenth-century theorists such as Jacques-François Blondel to the analysis of the urban hôtel and the suburban...

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pp. 237-238
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