Composition, Non-Composition

When Jacques-François Blondel (1705-1774) published De la Distribution des maisons de plaisance et de la décoration des édifices en général in 1737-1738, he was raising issues already known to be a “specialty” of French architects then developing a manière française much more concerned with interiors than the manière italienne mindful of the outside. This notion, little by little, became a kind of a commonplace, and a number of theoreticians were to write of the French predilection for the inside or, put another way, for distribution.

One of them, Marc-Antoine Laugier (1713-1769), was to declare a few years later: “Let us do justice to our artists; distribution is a part that they possess in the most sovereign degree.”

Distribution and regularity of rooms

By the end of the eighteenth century, the reputation of French artists with regard to distribution had attained international proportions if we are to believe, for example, the brothers Robert (1728-1792) and James (1732-1794) Adam who spoke of the “French style” with reference to the organization of apartments conceived for “the convenience and elegance of life.” Describing one of their works – a residence built for the Duke of Northumberland they specifically paid homage to the French architects, underlining their debt to these men who had become masters of a genre and noting that they “have united magnificence with utility in the hotels of their nobility, and have rendered them objects of universal imitation.”

This reputation was confirmed by Jean-Charles Krafft (1764-1833) and Nicolas Ransonnette (1745-1810). Concluding their survey of houses and hôtels built in Paris and its outskirts, they asserted without hesitation that: “It was but during the reign of Lewis XV that the architects began to unite the usefull with the pleasing, and to furnish the internal parts of buildings with those conveniencies of which they had been deprived hitherto. The thing was even strained to such a pitch as to create in some manner a new art of their style in building. There were seen at once a great many palaces, country and pleasure houses which by the charms of their internal disposition deserved the approbation and applause of the learned men, and threw on the french Architecture such a lustre, as to engage most of the European princes to take many of our architects into their service, or to draw them into their dominions.”

Having thus acknowledged distribution as a new art, let us return to Laugier and attempt to understand what exactly that art was. Laugier distinguished exterior distribution which “has for its object the rangement of its entrances, courts and gardens” from interior distribution which “touches still nearer upon the conveniency of the lodgings than the exterior.” The arrangement of entrances, courtyards and gardens was relative to the relationship a building had to the outside, whereas interior distribution pertained to the relationship between a dwelling’s rooms. Another distinction between exterior and interior distribution was drawn by Blondel in his De la Distribution des maisons de plaisance et de la décoration des édifices en général as well as Volume IV of his Cours d’architecture,published in 1773 and devoted to a “Traité de la distribution extérieure et intérieure des bâtiments.”

However, more precisely for Blondel, “interior” distribution of a building was to be divided into two branches: the first concerned with exterior appearance and the second with interior divisions; the first helping to “determine the layout of the avant-corps, the pavilions, the arrière-corps and the corps intermédiaires that bring a certain movement to the ordonnance of the facades,” and the second “whose purpose is the division of the rooms constituting the interior of the apartments.”

If distribution bearing upon exterior appearance would tend to go hand in hand with decoration and beauty, distribution bearing upon interior divisions would certainly go hand in hand with commodity (in the sense of functionality and convenience). Blondel spelled out the Vitruvian triad as follows: solidity = construction; commodity = distribution; beauty = decoration, each one of these terms corresponding to a section of Cours d’architecture, the first devoted to decoration, the second to distribution and the third to construction. Developing the specifics of interior distribution, Blondel introduced additional classifications. While he singled out three main room categories: rooms of necessity, rooms of commodity, and rooms of propriety, he also parsed them with a more precise typological classification: vestibules, salons, antechambers, drawing rooms, meeting rooms, studies, ceremonial bedrooms, galleries, etc. Naming them in this way was undoubtedly an answer to practical questions resulting from “progress” in the matter of distribution, but this “specialization” of rooms only showed its true worth once rooms were linked as a suite strung together by enfilades: “The principal objective of the interior disposition9 of an edifice is to see that the most essential enfilades are aligned with each other so that, from the rooms of private affairs to those open to society, we can take advantage not just of all the area inside and outside the building, but of its depth as well.”

Connecting rooms by enfilades went hand in hand with the symmetrization of each individual room: “By symmetry,” wrote Blondel, “we broaden the respective regularity of bodies set up in opposition to each other.” A suitably commodious apartment therefore would often be based on a plan structuring rooms of varied but regular geometrical configurations (squares, rectangles, circles, hexagons, etc) in accordance with axialities that might be of great complexity. Nicolas Le Camus de Mézières (1721-1789), writing from a sensualistic perspective, even made a variation in rooms an essential condition for a lodging’s appeal: “Always pass from simplicity to opulence: thus, the vestibule is less ornate than the antechambers; the antechambers less so than the salons and cabinets, etc… Each room must have its own particular character. The analogy, the relation of proportions, decides our sensations; each room makes us want the next; and this engages our minds and holds them in suspense.”

Distribution and irregular terrain

Linking rooms with each other and varying their shapes made it possible to adapt a building to irregular terrain and, as Blondel put it, “get the most out of the smallest spaces.” Demonstrating his point at the end of Volume IV of his Cours d’architecture, Blondel presented the students – his “young distributors” – with several examples of house plans, notably those of Francois Franque (1710-1793). Franque was an architect he held in high esteem and whose house for the Marquis de Villefranche in Avignon he had already cited in the Encyclopédie for its “most ingenious regular distribution contained in a walled-in plot of some of the most irregular terrain imaginable.” Plate XLVIII in Volume IV of Cours d’architecture shows the ground floor plan of the abbey house of the Prémontrés Abbey at Villers-Cotterêts which is supplemented by Plate XLVI, a very precise detail of this plan in which all the lines enabling an understanding of the building’s axes stand out. The house is set behind a courtyard on a direct line to a “vestibule” distributing a hexagonal “dining room” on one side and, on the other, an octagonal “cabinet” opening on the axis of a lateral garden bordered by a wing containing a rectangular library. Thanks to the inversion of the axes due to the lay of the land, “the difficulty became an attraction” for the architect according to Blondel, and the irregularity of the terrain was not an obstacle to interior symmetry. As for Plate XLVII, it presents the ground floor plan of a private home organized around two “courtyards” and a “farmyard” about which Blondel noted: “The architect of this project conceived it so successfully that not only is the irregularity of the terrain almost entirely concealed, but each interior room is of perfect symmetry and composed of forms as agreeable as they are interesting.”

While answering the demands of commodity and creating a beautiful “appearance,” complexity in distribution was not necessarily exempt from criticism, especially when it presented a challenge to solidity, the third defining parameter of architecture in the eyes of an eighteenth century theoretician. Pierre Patte (1723-1814), who would complete Blondel’s Cours d’architecture, worried about possible consequences of the progress distribution was making in buildings of residence: “The art of distribution, which has perfected itself over the last forty years in France, has damaged the solidity of buildings more than we think by introducing, in the name of commodity, the great number of forms plaguing so many of their plans. The result is a multitude of cantilevers that vary in size – sometimes on the same floor – to such an extent that it is hard to tell how one can hold on above the other in the midst of so much distortion.”
Still, it is in resolving problems related to distribution that an architect can prove his talent, particularly – as we saw earlier – when faced with an irregular urban terrain, a notion not lost on Laugier: “In the distribution of a building an architect should be attentive to put all the ground to the greatest advantage; and not to leave any useless. How small soever the spirit of combination is, it will draw a great part even from irregularities; and we shall see under its hand, the least nooks metomorphosed into new conveniencies.”

This transformation is also what Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand (1760-1834) would later call for in his Précis des leçons d’architecture, advising the architect to work on a double level incorporating the resources of geometry to “build as many parts as the site permits in a regular form, and correct the irregularity of the rest either by using canted corners or by making them circular in plan.” The ability to take advantage of irregularities in the terrain was noted by Charles Percier (1764-1838) and Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine (1762-1853) when analyzing houses and palaces built in Rome starting with the Renaissance.

In their book published in 1798 – Palais, maisons et autres édifices modernes dessinés à Rome – they thus emphasized several times the skill of an architect like Baldassare Peruzzi (1481-1536), most notably in regard to the Palazzo Massimo alle Colonne. “It is,” they wrote, “without a question the most ingenious production of this skillful artist… Nowhere else did he display so much talent in distributing so favorably a cramped and irregular terrain.

”Sharing their point of view, Antoine-Chrysostome Quatremère de Quincy (1755-1849) considered this palace Peruzzi’s masterpiece, giving it credit for “having managed to make such remarkable use of so thankless a site, narrow and irregular,” its disposition such “that one could have believed it to be an invention conceived free of any outside constraints,” and he concluded: "The space is narrow and small; all that fills it is big and appears comfortable there.” Let us also note here that Georges Gromort (1870-1961), professor of architectural theory at the École des Beaux-Arts from 1937 to 1940, would later make the Palazzo Massimo alle Colonne the basis of one of his lectures on composition: “The plan is astounding in its eleverness. Nothing in it seems irregular, and each element has just the right dimension, so that it is impossible to guess that the architect has had the least difficulty anywhere. It is a masterly composition.”

When all is said and done, the ability to take advantage of and transform irregularities in a given terrain does not only affect the distribution of a building’s interior, it also applies to the way in which an urban terrain may be beneficially appropriated or, to cite Percier and Fontaine once again, “to enlarge by a felicitous disposition the most confined of terrains.” It ultimately applies to the city as a whole when plans for improvements of the urban entity are to be conceived applying these same principles of symmetry. Blondel’s publication of the plans he drew up for the renovation (“embellissement”) of Metz and Strasbourg at the end of Volume IV of his Cours d’architecture and following the house plans already discussed here, could hardly be interpreted otherwise. Not meaning to trot out the old commonplace of “a house being a little town” and “a town but a big house,” the fact nevertheless remains that there is no discontinuity between architectural and urban design: streets, squares, courtyards, pedestrian malls, etc. correspond to vestibules, antechambers, salons, bedrooms, etc.

It should also be noted that a distributive layout fit into an irregular terrain, if it seeks regularity through the creation of enfilades and solely symmetrical rooms, will itself on the whole be irregular. If the symmetry is “local,” then it cannot be “global.” It follows that the pursuit of what we will later refer to as equilibrium or balance becomes necessary once regularity of the whole has become an impossible option. Nevertheless, it was not until the nineteenth century that these issues regarding irregularity were confronted as such and explicitly formulated as problematics. Progress in the field of distribution was thus paradoxically a necessary preamble to the articulation of this problematics.

To learn more

Extract of the book: Composition, Non-Composition
by Jacques Lucan
Published by the Presses Polytechniques et universitaires romandes

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