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Reviewed by:
  • French Architects and Engineers in the Age of Enlightenment
  • Anthony Vidler
Antoine Picon. French Architects and Engineers in the Age of Enlightenment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Pp. 452. $140.

While most aspects of the French eighteenth century have been subject to some of the most important revisions in the writing of history in the modern period—with institutions, social orders, rural and urban cultures all reframed politically and intellectually somewhere between the longue durée and mentalités—the history of architecture has remained surprisingly untouched. Persuasively introduced in the 1920s by historians like Emil Kaufmann under the sign of “the architecture of enlightenment,” “architecture in the age of reason,” and more problematically, “revolutionary architecture,” the shift from seventeenth-century classicism to late eighteenth-century neoclassicism has generally been construed at worst, in stylistic terms as a long, drawn out struggle against the frivolity of the rococo, or at best as the natural and unexamined result of the gradual spread of enlightened ideas. The strikingly “abstract,” “sublime,” and utopian projects of the 1780s and 1790s produced by architects like Etienne-Louis Boullée and Claude-Nicolas Ledoux have either been seen as the forebears of 1920s modernism, following Kaufmann’s 1933 essay Von Ledoux bis Le Corbusier, or been demonized as the first signs of the death of traditional architecture at the hands of a cruel and anti-humanist geometry, following Hans Sedlmayr’s Art in Crisis: The Lost Center. In either case they have been marginalized as curiosities, like so many utopias before them.

It is therefore refreshing to find a work that attempts to take seriously the entire production of eighteenth-century architects, built and theoretical, projected and imaginary, and further, that finds its explanatory apparatus in a fundamental paradigm shift for architectural history. For Antoine Picon’s French Architects and Engineers in the Age of Enlightenment finds the key to interpreting otherwise diverse and apparently contradictory movements in eighteenth-century architecture in the history of its “sister” discipline, engineering. It would certainly not be surprising to find Antoine Picon, a trained researcher in the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées, exploring the history of engineering and its gradual professionalization in the eighteenth century; but it is certainly novel to find a historian of engineering insisting on the integral and complementary treatment of architectural practice and theory. Ostensibly tracing what he calls at the outset, citing Alexandre Koyré, the gradual move from the “approximate world” to a “universe of precision,” Picon in fact refuses such a glib characterization at every point, preferring to read his architects as closely as his engineers, to study their educational formations, their technical practices, their debates, their attitudes toward territory, both urban and rural, finding a complex and reciprocal relationship between an architecture seeking new bases of authority in nature and science, and an engineering working to establish its raison d’être for the state, whether royalist or Revolutionary.

This task has involved not only patient research in the archives of the Ponts et Chaussées, unearthing the assignments and model exercises of its first students, but also the close reading of treatises in architecture once dismissed as pedantic and boring (Jacques-François Blondel) or even mad (Ledoux). Picon has taken his engineers—from Pierre Patte (a would-be engineer-architect) to Prony, chief engineer of Ponts et Chaussées during the Revolutionary period—equally seriously, finding in their supposedly technical texts enough poetics to satisfy even the most diehard architectural formalist.

Picon’s work has been further complicated, as he recognizes at every stage, by the previous historical framing of this subject in nineteenth- and twentieth-century treatments of engineering and architecture, themselves partisan professions, more often than not divided against each other. As an indication of the nature of the debate, we might remember (to take one influential example) the way in which the architect Le Corbusier framed the question in his Vers une architecture of 1923: “The engineer’s aesthetic, or architecture?” By this formulation he [End Page 240] reframed a problem that had troubled the entire nineteenth century: Would a truly “modern” architecture refuse history altogether and simply make way for the engineering forms of...

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