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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 588-589

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Book Review

French Architects and Engineers in the Age of Enlightenment

French Architects and Engineers in the Age of Enlightenment. By Antoine Picon, trans. Martin Thom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Pp. xiv+437; illustrations, figures, notes/references, index. $150.

This judicious history of eighteenth-century French architecture treats themes important to any understanding of the development of the European built environment. Antoine Picon tracks the transition from the classical architecture of the absolutist seventeenth century to the engineering-led construction of the industrial nineteenth. Yet even as he describes the permutations that accompanied this radical transformation from formalism to functionalism (as it is often crudely put), this study's virtue as historical analysis lies in its careful acknowledgment of continuity and its refusal to read the present into the past.

Picon makes us aware of the powerful hold of the classical tradition on both established architects (who, since the seventeenth century, had been rewarded with their own royal academy, although they remained tied to the patronage of illustrious clients) and their parvenu rivals, the engineers of the Corps des Ponts et Chaussées (themselves wholly creatures of the state's civil administration). The engineers' conception of territorial management and their method of organizing designs (and their execution) around productive processes was only slowly and painfully disentangled from the static, orderly convenance of the architect.

Gradually, Enlightenment notions of political economy (such as the desirability of the free circulation of goods) and the new scientific tools for rendering and calculating the material world (such as the descriptive geometry and the quantitative analysis of stress) were incorporated into the shaping of the built world. Picon is particularly good on the influence of the new mathematical analysis, which offered a powerful mode of calculation as well as inspiring a mentalité committed to flux and innovation. Yet only with the Revolution did a fundamental realignment become possible, and an architecture that had once been intended to mirror and represent the glory of the established hierarchy receded before an engineering constructivism that took the social world as a subject to be molded.

Picon's central theme is architectural theory, and this is reflected in the major figures and sources he examines. He provides careful analysis of the works of the architect-pedagogue Jacques-François Blondel and his more eclectic successor, Pierre Patte, as well as their engineer-rivals, Jean Rodophe Perront (the founder of the École des ponts et chaussées, but himself trained as an architect) and his successor, Gaspard Riche de Prony (a man who epitomized the transition to the calculational world of the nineteenth-century engineer). Picon examines their programmatic and pedagogical texts, plus their plans for buildings, bridges, and urban and territorial landscapes, as well as their imagined projects. These are supplemented [End Page 588] with the texts and plans of some of the better-known architects of the Revolutionary period (Etienne-Louis Boullée, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, and Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durant), plus the maps and plans submitted by students at the École des ponts et chaussées for the school's annual competition. This last source is one that Picon also exploited to considerable advantage in his authoritative study of the École des ponts et chaussées, L'invention de l'ingénieur moderne (Paris: Presses de l'École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées, 1992).

A focus on architectural theory does not limit Picon to the domain of abstraction, however, for during this period architecture hesitantly, yet explicitly, opened itself out onto practical problems of implementation, as well as questions later subsumed under the heading of "technology." For instance, Picon shows that the attention that early-eighteenth-century architects lavished on detail (such as moldings and the decoration of columns) was meant not only to signal their ability to manipulate space within the arithmetical strictures of classicism but also to demonstrate their ability to negotiate with the artisanal trades involved in the actual construction.

Mid-eighteenth-century architects began to acknowledge the presence of the surrounding town...


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