French constructs

Architecture in France in the Eighteenth Century
January 12, 1996

Contemplation of the architectural glories of their cities was one of the few pleasures left to French commuters as they trudged to work during the recent wave of strikes and labour unrest. For the towns and cities of France derive their identity and character from a tradition of architectural achievement which reached a peak in the 18th century.

Wend von Kalnein therefore tackles what many would regard as the crucial period of modern French urban history. At the formal level we have a dynamic history of building, building styles and public taste extending from the eclipse of the Sun King, Louis XIV, to the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. Yet, this is combined with a comprehensive biographical history of the leading players in architecture and interior design, and a scrupulous inventory of all the stylistically significant edifices constructed, or planned, during the period. It is a measure of his achievement that the volume can be used as a picture-book by social historians with no more than an amateur interest in "high art", while still satisfying the most demanding student of ground plans and front elevations.

With the passing of Louis XIV French architecture entered a period of accelerated development. Baroque ostentation retreated in the face of a welter of new styles; the internal organisation of buildings evolved in response to revised notions of comfort and sociability; and the decorative arts signalled rebellion against the dead weight of classical tradition. These shifts tended to register, moreover, at every level: in the architecture of palaces as well as the homes of the nobility and the bourgeoisie; in the design of churches as well as theatres and utilities. The changes are best grasped over time, as the author acknowledges. Accordingly he divides his study into four sections which trace, consecutively, the exit from the 17th century in the shape of the got moderne (1700-30); the Rococo (1730-55); early neoclassicism (1755-75); and finally the sublimation of the neoclassical into the visionary architecture of the revolutionary decades (1775-1800). Readers primarily interested in cultural shifts across the century will find their surest guide in the introductions that preface each section, but Kalnein also caters for the specialist. The biographies of architects and planners, draughtsmen and designers all interlock, thereby enabling threads of stylistic indebtedness, family influence and even back-scratching to emerge. Revealed is an art prone to market pressures and the fortunes and misfortunes of patrons much like any other. The sections also contain matching thematic subdivisions which make it possible to trace, say, the metamorphosis of internal decorative architecture across the century.

Of course, the dynamic approach raises an obvious question. Is it safe to mark off stylistic periods in such a deft fashion? Kalnein readily concedes this difficulty: styles blurred into one another; public taste was not monolithic; and architects sometimes practised several genres at once. It is also true that change over geographical space did not always proceed hand in hand with change over chronological time. All this the author succeeds in conveying without jeopardising the broad outline of his argument. The result is an intensely satisfying book which can be read at several different levels.

P. M. Jones is professor of French history, University of Birmingham.

Architecture in France in the Eighteenth Century

Author - Wend Von Kalnein
ISBN - 0 300 06013 0
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £50.00
Pages - 294

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