In the Archive: Laugier, Eisen, Boulogne, Petitot, Percier, Dumont, Hadid

By Christiane Matt

Click on drawings to move, enlarge, and identify.

On a crisp January morning I made my way to York railway station to visit the Drawing Matter collection. This research trip is more than a year overdue, delayed by the global Covid-19 pandemic, and I am now already in the third year of my doctoral degree at the University of York. My reflection in the train window looks tired and pale but hidden beneath this and my face covering is a feeling of excitement. After two long years of working from home and being entirely reliant on the availability of online resources while libraries and archives around the world were closed, examining architectural drawings in person is an experience I never want to miss again.

The main reason for my visit is an allegorical drawing by Charles-Dominique-Joseph Eisen (DMC 1240), which was later engraved by Jean-Jacques Aliamet to illustrate the second edition of Marc-Antoine Laugier’s Essai sur l’Architecture (Nicolas-Bonaventure Duchesne, 1755). [1] However as the day goes on and I am shown drawings, more and more surprising connections unfold.

When looking at a drawing and engraving by Louis de Boulogne for Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola’s architectural treatise (DMC 1115.1 and 1115.2), I am immediately struck by its similarity to Eisen’s drawing. The female figure, dressed in classical robes and sandals, rests her right arm on a pedestal while holding an oval portrait of Vignola in her left. Her pose is strikingly similar to that of the allegorical figure of architecture in Eisen’s drawing. However, it is the ruined Corinthian capital in the foreground of the image that completely transfixes me, since it is depicted from exactly the same angle as the Ionic capital in Eisen’s drawing. I am surprised to learn that de Boulogne’s drawing was made in 1691, leaving me with many questions: was there a kind of iconography of allegorical representations of architecture in sixteenth and seventeenth century France? Did Eisen have access to de Boulogne’s drawing, and if so, did he use it as inspiration for his own drawing? In an email exchange after my visit, I am sent a peculiar etching by Ennemondo Alessandro Petitot, titled L’Auteur des Figures à la Grecque (DMC 2172) from a series called Mascarade à la Grecque (DMC 2775). It shows a male figure in fanciful classical dress, balancing a large book on a truncated column while holding dividers and a ground plan in his right hand. Because of his attributes, the figure can be read to symbolise an architect. Behind him, a ruined Corinthian capital lies upside down on the ground with a large pyramid looming in the background. The image has a parodistic undertone and is perhaps intended as a tongue-in-cheek comment on the eighteenth century’s obsession with the cultures of classical antiquity. Equally, the image could also be a humorous exploration of architects’ self-fashioning as descendants of the classical tradition.

An album by Charles Percier is pulled out and I am shown a page from it (DMC 1569.2). Over the course of the day, we repeatedly debate whether the female figure in the drawing represents architecture or painting. I think the figure might be an allegory of painting since she is reaching towards the paintbrushes to her right while holding a panel or a canvas with her left hand. Another question that sparks debate is whether the image is a deliberate composition, or merely coincidental. After examining other pages of the album which contain figures alongside floor plans, I decide the composition is deliberate, and that it could be read as an exploration of the role of drawing for architecture. Having recently read Robin Evans’s essay Translations from Drawing to Building, Evans’s argument that without drawing there could be no architecture comes to mind. [2] Perhaps Percier was ruminating on a similar question when he made this drawing?

Throughout the day, I find myself coming back to the topic of trees. Already Vitruvius discusses the material transformations which occur between timber and stone architecture in his discussion of the Doric entablature, arguing that its triglyphs and mutules are imitations of similar forms in timber. [3] However, Gabriel Pierre Martin Dumont’s garden design following the ground plan of St Peter’s (DMC 2632) is not so much about timber architecture as it is about trees as architecture. What strikes me is the fact that although depicted in a schematic fashion, every single tree has a shadow, thus giving it a sense of physicality and materiality. Dumont’s garden design turns the relationship between architecture and trees on its head, confusing and blurring the lines between the natural and the artificial. The schematic representation of the trees makes me recall an article about the different species of trees used for dynastic family trees in seventeenth century German genealogical writings. [4] It argues that trees were particularly suitable visual models for genealogical diagrams since their upward growth and internal differentiation could be used to depict genealogical relations. [5] In Dumont’s garden design, the association is distinctly architectural, since the trees appear to symbolise the columns of St Peter’s in Rome. The association between trees and columns is not an unfamiliar one: already in the fifteenth century, the Florentine sculptor-architect Filarete postulated that columns derived from the upright tree trunks used in the primitive hut, and this idea is repeated by Laugier (and Eisen!) in the Essai sur l’Architecture (1755). [6]

In conversation, I mention my research into Louise Bourgeois’s Femmes Maisons (1945–1947). Needless to say, I am pleasantly surprised when someone opens a drawer to pull out a self-portrait by Zaha Hadid as one of her buildings (DMC 3075.15). Although I am familiar with the self-representations of male architects as their buildings, such as at the 1931 ball hosted by the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects at Hotel Astor in New York or a 1996 Vanity Fair photoshoot, which shows Michael Graves and Peter Eisenman dressed in ‘skyscraper couture’, I have not yet seen a female architect represented as one of their buildings. Particularly striking about Hadid’s self-portrait is the juxtaposition of the clear, ordered geometry of the building with the architect’s body. Hadid’s head is literally in the clouds — maybe she is dreaming? — and her hands are hinted at with multiple bold, dynamic lines. Bourgeois’s Femme Maison, whose head is often hidden or replaced by the domestic house, is a critical commentary on the gendered power relations which structure the relationship between architecture and the female body. [7] Compared to this, Hadid’s drawing depicts the relationship between architecture and the female body in a more positive light. Her building forms part of her own body, and she wears it proudly like a dress or a suit of armour.

Though seemingly disparate, all these drawings are united by the fact that they are not design drawings but rather drawings about architecture (with the exception of Dumont’s garden design). In their own way, each pose questions about the nature and characteristics of the thing called ‘architecture’ and explore the question of what it means to make architecture.

Christiane’s article on Louise Bourgeois, Architecture (Dis)Embodied: Translations and Tensions in Louise Bourgeois’s Femme Maison (1946-1947), can be read in Aspectus: A Journal of Visual Culture no. 2 (2020) here.

Notes

  1. Michael Bryan, ‘Eisen, Charles Dominique Joseph’, in Dictionary of Painters and Engravers, Biographical and Critical: Volume I A-K, ed. Robert Edmund Graves (London: George Bell & Sons, 1886), p.459; Michael Bryan, ‘Aliamet, Jean Jacques’,  in Dictionary of Painters and Engravers, Biographical and Critical: Volume I A-K, ed. Robert Edmund Graves (London: George Bell & Sons, 1886), p.19; Marc-Antoine Laugier,  Essai sur l’Architecture. Nouvelle Edition, Revue, corrigée, & augmentée; avec un Dictionnaire des Termes, et des Planches qui en facilitent l’explication (Paris: Duchesne, 1755).
  2. Robin Evans, ‘Translations from Drawing to Building’, in Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays (London: Architectural Association Publications, 1997), p.164.
  3. Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, On Architecture, Volume I: Books 1-5, trans. Frank Garner (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1931), p.215.
  4. Volker Bauer, ‘Dynastic Botany: Banyans, Cedars, and Palms as Visual Models in Seventeenth-century Genealogy’, in Visual Acuity and the Arts of Communication in Early Modern Germany, ed. Jeffrey Chipps Smith (Farnham, Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2014), p.181.
  5. Ibid., p.184.
  6. Antonio di Piero Averlino, better known as Filarete, Filarete’s Treatise on Architecture. Being the Treatise by Antonio di Piero Averlino Known as Filarete, trans. John R. Spencer (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1965), p.94.
  7. Deborah Wye, Louise Bourgeois (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1982), p.17.