Redefining the past: revolutionary architecture and the Conseil des Batiments Civils.

Author:O'Connell, Lauren M.
 
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The coupling of the Words "architecture" and "French Revolution" still calls to mind fantastic images of visionary creations - such as the abstracted forms of Ledoux's city of Chaux, or the sublime proportions of Boullee's civic monuments. While the social and political circumstances that framed architectural production on the eve of the Revolution have been closely studied in recent decades,(1) the 1790s have not received similar scrutiny. The apparent homology between the political upheaval of 1789 and the radical change in architectural form evinced in illustrated treatises of the period has been seductive - the geometric purity and formal austerity of late eighteenth-century architectural drawings seem vaguely consistent with the progressive social and political ideals of the Revolution.(2)

Study of the formal manipulations of these architects of genius, however, illuminates only the very margins of architectural thought in the revolutionary decade. For the revolution that transformed the social and political orders revolutionized the entire building task. Traditional patronage groups - the crown, the clergy and the aristocracy - were eradicated, and old funding sources were thus cut off. Institutional chains of command were broken, and the educational apparatus dislocated. Amid this chaos, a destabilized profession was called upon to conceive a host of new building types to accommodate the needs and express the ideals of successive revolutionary governments.

Despite the removal of their most reliable clientele and the dire economic situation that precluded all ambitious new construction, architects continued to practice actively in the 1790s, rallying their decimated ranks to the challenge of redefining the architectural remnants of the past in revolutionary terms. It fell to the Conseil des Batiments Civils, architectural arm of the revolutionary government, to preside over the physical and symbolic conversion of ancien-regime space to house and promote a new social agenda.

Conceived in 1791, but not definitively empowered until 1795, this state architectural authority was the last of several that emerged to fill the void created by the abolition of ancien-regime institutions.(3) Assuming the administrative functions of the Batiments du Roi and advisory capacities formerly held by the Academy,(4) this cadre of architectural advisers to the Ministry of the Interior was charged with overseeing the design, execution, and financing of all public building in France over a certain budget minimum.(5) By subjecting all projects to a standardized review process, the government hoped to limit the cost and control the quality of the nation's architectural fabric. The purpose of the Conseil, which began as an elite corps of three principals supported by six inspectors and six verificateurs (auditors) was summed up in its initial plan of organization as follows:

1) First, to insure that no work relating to civic buildings be undertaken at national expense without its utility, necessity, or other possible advantages having been well established beforehand. 2) Second, to insure that all work authorized be executed with all possible perfection, solidity, and economy. 3) Finally, to verify the legitimacy of all demands for payment and claims made regarding building projects already completed, currently under way, or suspended.(6)

Armed with this sweeping mandate, the Conseil would grow steadily in size and influence, soon attaining the status of a full-blown state bureaucracy. By the middle of the nineteenth century this institution of revolutionary gestation would come to be regarded as a far more centralized and homogenizing force than either of its redoubtable ancien-regime predecessors.(7)

The proceedings of weekly meetings held by the Conseil during its formative years offer a heretofore untapped chronicle of daily architectural activity in France in the wake of the Revolution. As the court of last appeal for all sizable public-building projects throughout the country from 1795 on, the Conseil provides an excellent lens through which to gauge the actual impact of the Revolution on architectural practice. Scrutiny of this source points up the folly of interrogating only nonpracticing architects and hypothetical projects to reconstruct the architecture of revolution. The imaginative schemes now conjured up by the label "revolutionary architecture" were dismissed by the Conseil as pipe dreams and transitory pleasures. Conseil member Jacques-Guillaume Legrand, prefiguring modern parlance, called it paper architecture. In a letter to his fellow advisers, evaluating a number of ambitious schemes submitted for review, Legrand writes of

beautiful illusions that the ardent mind of the artist creates for the pleasure of a moment. Nothing restricts him then; he commits his philanthropic visions, his sublime ideas to paper; and like Citizen Renard, the olive or laurel wreath that he glimpses in his joyful delirium at the Temple of Memory is the only prize that can, or should, repay the toil of his genius.(8)

The symbolic tender of the laurel wreath is the only recompense possible because these visions are entirely unresponsive to the architectural possibilities of the day, Legrand continues: "But alas, what does he find when, upon regaining his calm, he comes back down to earth? Difficult circumstances, preoccupied men, a malnourished public treasury, and the war, the dreadful war, whose ravages leave the arts absolutely bereft of everything, including hope."(9) In other words, the "beautiful illusions" and "sublime ideas" of optimistic artists were essentially irrelevant to the needs of a war-torn and nearly bankrupt nation. Legrand's indictment was a general one, leveled at unnamed ranks of "artistes francais." His mention of the prize-coveting motive, however, suggests that among Legrand's targets were the drafters of competition projects, those sublime unbuildables encouraged by the competitions of the mid-nineties.(10) The immediate cause of his outburst was a certain Renard's proposal that fireproof hollow-brick vaults replace wood in all public "monuments." The Conseil lauded Renard's "patriotism," and celebrated the "poetic" style of his report, but endorsed Legrand's sobering conclusion about its patent impracticality.

Rather than inspiring and facilitating the creation of a new architecture for a changed society, the ravages of revolution forced architects to recycle existing fabric. In a report on the state of architecture at the close of the eighteenth century, architect Guillaumot highlights this most characteristic feature of "revolutionary architecture" - conversion rather than creation: "the revolution destroyed many monuments," and "changed the purpose of most of those that were preserved."(11)

Some functional types of building were vitiated by the Revolution, for example, the royal palace and the chateau. In other cases entirely new institutions, and thus spaces to house them, were conceived, such as the bicameral legislature of the Directory. For example, Gisors and Leconte's Chamber of the Council of Five Hundred was installed in the Palais Bourbon, former residence of royal relatives [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURES 1 THROUGH 3 OMITTED].(12) Most frequently, however, functions performed by ancien-regime institutions, and accommodated by its repertoire of building types, were recast, dramatically or less so, in republican terms. For example, the government's attempts to replace Sunday Mass with civic celebrations on the tenth day (decadi) of the revolutionary week prompted a flurry of proposals to convert Catholic churches into temples decadaires. And when the government assumed responsibility for national education and hospital administration, previously entrusted to the religious orders, it reassessed the tasks to be performed in each area. Medical and educational space had to be correspondingly reconfigured. Figure 4 shows a 1796 proposal for desacralization of the church in the old hospital of the Incurables. Under secular management, the project implies, the hospital's Gothic chapel might be unceremoniously replaced by an expanded sick bay.(13)

Several contemporary sources suggest that this process of converting old buildings to new uses was the predominant architectural activity in the 1790s. A pair of nineteenth-century maps prepared by the City of Paris demonstrates just how comprehensive the redefinition project was in the capital city [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURES 5 AND 6 OMITTED]. In 1887 the municipal council of the City of Paris undertook to reconstruct changes in the plan of Paris between 1789 and 1790-94, that is, between ancien-regime Paris and the Paris of the early Revolution, from the fall of the Bastille to the close of the Terror.(14) Relying on the texts of National Assembly decrees and on contemporary street directories, the drafters were able to document the wholesale toponymic transformation of the city. The same base plan was used for both maps: the often-cited Verniquet plan begun in 1783 and completed in 1791. The original Verniquet plan - conceived as the first ever geometrically precise survey of Paris - was lost in the fire of 1870, and the idea of graphically reconstructing the revolutionary transformation of the capital was probably conceived in the context of the city's decision to reconstruct the lost plan itself.(15) The 1887 plans record the attempt to transform what was a seat of royal power in 1789 into a celebration of national objectives; on the 1790-94 plan every street, square, and building of appreciable size is emblazoned in red, with a new designation. The color on the later plan dramatizes the scale of the conversion phenomenon; while the practice of "translating" old buildings to new uses was not new to the Revolution, the need to transform virtually all royal and ecclesiastical buildings at once was unprecedented.(16) The map also highlights the...

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