- August 30, 2021
“Like the obelisks that are raised at the points where the major roads of a country begin, the energetic will of the leader constitutes the center from which everything… emanates”1
On War, Carl von Clausewitz, 1832
In 1671, the Royal Academy of Architecture was founded by Jean-Baptiste Colbert for two intimately connected purposes. Firstly, as the First Minister of France, he sought to formally systemize and propagate aesthetic theories and ideals in design to a new generation of architects. Secondly, as the former Superintendent of King Louis XIV’s personal buildings, Colbert sought to legitimize the powers of the state as seen through the monarch by manifesting that symbolic control onto the landscape of the country through public design works. By centralizing the education of architects under the authority of the state, Colbert was also able to extend administrative and aesthetic control over the greater production of architecture and theory under the growing absolutism of the French monarchy.
Through the limitation of the title “The King’s Architect” in 1676 Colbert used the Academy to institute a formal disruption in the building profession by creating distinctions between the role of architect and mason-builder.2 This was meant to separate out those designers whose allegiances and commissions originated with familial ties and mercantile corporations from those initiated into the limited membership of the Academy who owed their positions to loyalty to the French monarchy and ability to execute works for the greater state apparatus. This State sponsored imposition led to distinct social images and castes to emerge in the minds of the greater public when considering the different factions of the design profession as a result. One was elevated through its association with intellectualism and academia, and whose primary domain became the production of drawings and text. While the other was reduced to the status of a menial worker through association with manual labor and physical construction.3
Though founded by Colbert through the French Monarchy, the authoritarian vision and program of the Academy was academically and intellectually formalized by its first head François Blondel. For in his inaugural address Blondel related the construction of the French state as emanating from the works created by Louis XIV during his successive military campaigns. He saw the extraction of raw materials and their transformation into objects of war through buildings, ships, and the subsequent creation of infrastructural networks of canals, bridges, and roads as a method of subjugating the natural world for the benefit of the state. Henri Lemonnier in his 1911-1929 commentary on the records of the Academy’s meetings noted that Blondel in addition to being “a dogmatic, authoritarian spirit. He (also) spoke of art, both as a disciple of Vitruvius, Palladio, Vignola, and as a mathematician. He belongs exactly to his time by his distrust of innovations and by the constant appeal to the doctrines of antiquity”.4 Blondel wished to aesthetically emulate these classical motifs and features taken from ancient Babylonians, Egyptian, Greeks and Roman structures to define the French state as the successor to these civilizations and as the pinnacle of a millennium of architectural production. This, in addition to picking up on earlier strains in French architectural discourse through the works of early 1600s architects such as Salomon de Brosse and François Mansart, as well as the “Ten Books on Architecture” by the Roman architect Vitruvius, led Classicism and Classical theory to be integrated into the curriculum of the Academy as a guiding principle.5 Here Blondel saw the Academy as not just providing a historically conscious education to students, but saw the curriculum as a corrective measure to systematically reform the morals of the profession. This was directed against the eclectic expressions of earlier competing medieval masons and guilds who created “buildings which have neither solidity nor beauty, filled with a thousand ugly ornaments, applied with no judgment nor order”.6 This conceptual transformation of ancient classical orders into a system of signs that could be standardized and prescribed to provide definitive design solutions would prove useful in formulating the program of the Academy as part of the larger French authoritarian state. For this, “this training, together with that of the (French) Academy in Rome, was intended to ensure a supply of architects well fitted for employment within the huge building program of the Absolute State”. 7
Over the course of the next century successive generations of students and full members attempted to gradually expound on the theoretical and academic foundations of the Academy. In 1762 the Prof Jacques-François Blondel and his assistant Julien-David Leroy issued publications calling for the integration of Gothic architecture into the Academy’s curriculum to little avail. Nearing the end of the century a great force of change emerged during the early part of the French Revolution in 1790. Students seeking institutional reform organized a petition outlining their desires to integrate a greater deal of egalitarian policies. Their demands included the elimination of academic favoritism, changing the regulations governing the yearly grand-prix, access to the resources of the library, and including a greater range of pedagogy in the curriculum of the Academy. Initially the governing authorities disregarded the protests as they saw these students as merely using the social and political movements of the time for their own advantage. For the students were part of the established order in their eyes and highly benefited from their membership in the Academy through the privileges and the royal connections it provided. However, the end eventually emerged through the political efforts of Jacques-Louis David the noted painter and Abbé Grégoire a revolutionary Catholic priest. David seeking to bring down the old royalist institutions that acted to reinforce the political privileges and social hierarchy of the Ancien Régime as secretary of the National Convention, issued a decree that abolished the three Royal Academies of Painting and Sculpture, Architecture, and the French Academy in Rome on August 8th 1793. However, this wasn’t to merely destroy established academia, but to reform the production of knowledge under the authority of the new revolutionary government of the French Republic through the founding of the Institut de France in 1795. These institutions would again go under academic reform with the rise of the Napoleonic Empire and revival of the French Monarchy under Louis XVIII, who established the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1816 which remains in formal operation to this day.
Tempered by movements of the past and ever-changing visions of the futures, there is a constant pull between what is expected from the established order and those that call for a revolution. When governments and institutions call for a stylistic adherence to a “tradition” or “orthodoxy” in order to maintain the identity of a place or preserve the legacies of the past, it is important to consider whose identity and whose legacy is being prioritized in the creation of these realms of authority and for what purpose. Not too long ago for a great deal of us, these institutions of which we are now included and these spaces that we now inhabit were made without our consideration and often at our expense. These systems were constructed for the explicit purpose of excluding not just our bodies but our expressions and our voices from those halls of power. And though often mythologized as the creation of an individual genius, architecture remains as much a collective declaration as the expression of the singular designer– may that collective be an institution or community. Therefore, we must not wait or negate the authority we have in calling for change. For if not now, when? If not us, then who?