Two Dictionaries of Architecture

Publication Date
February 21, 2019

The publication of architecture’s earliest dictionary coincides with a foundationally modern moment: the 1671 institutionalization of the discipline via the creation of the Académie Royale d’Architecture in Paris under the auspices of the crown. In 1676, the school’s secretary, André Félibien, published the first alphabetically organized work to be explicitly called a dictionnaire: the _Dictionnaire des termes propres à l’architecture, à la sculpture, à la peinture, et aux autres arts qui en dépendent._1 In his introduction, Félibien expresses the need for architects to possess a theory of all other arts that have a relation with architecture, not only for the purposes of design, but to provide the faculty of judgement required of an absolute master of the whole work (maître absolu de tout l’ouvrage), one who presides over all other workers (présider sur tous les autres Ouvriers); such is what is signified by the title “architect.”2 Architecture was thus differentiated from the trade guilds in such a way as to encompass them. Though the process hardly began with the Académie Royale, just as the creation and proliferation of architectural dictionnaires hardly ended with Félibien, this specific moment may serve as a point of intersection highlighting the importance of language to the elevating of architecture as a discipline. In fact, Félibien’s dictionnaire precedes the first official dictionary of the French language—published by the _Académie française—_by 18 years, if one does not count the preliminary editions. Moreover, the process cuts both ways; it’s important to understand the larger context of Félibien’s work as one in which the dictionnaire as a genre or type was the medium through which language was conceptualized and differentiated,3 for example, the learned Latin of academic scholars versus the modern dialect of the urban bourgeoisie.4

Not 20 years after Félibien published his principes de l’architecture, Augustin Charles D’Aviler followed with his Dictionnaire d’architecture, ou Explication des termes d’architecture (1691), which enjoyed wide publication through to the middle of the eighteenth century. Included in D’Aviler’s volume are technical terms specific to architectural practice:

Altimétrie (the art of measuring straight and inclined lines)

Planimétrie (the art of measuring the area of land or ground)

Longémétrie (the art of measuring lengths)

Ichnographie (the representation of a plan of a building)

Orthographie (the geometric elevation of a building, which presents the parts in their true proportion)

Scénographie (perspective)

Sciographie (profile)

Stéréométrie (the science of measuring solids, such as cubes, spheres, cylinders, etc.)

Stéréotomie (the science of cutting solids, as in the profiles of architecture)

Such terms do not outline an aesthetic rubric for the valuation or judgement of architecture or its relationship to other arts, but their inclusion in the format of the dictionnaire lends to the specialization of an architectural language which incorporates and codifies terms both historically used and contemporaneously recognizable by masons, builders, and craftsmen. D’Aviler’s dictionnaire therefore illustrates an equal concern for the shoring up of practical knowledge and, by extension, professional legitimacy. [5]

Contained within the last three words of the series in particular is a program for the production of architecture in which the word to cut (couper) is centrally operative. The architectural profile, or Sciographie, defined by D’Aviler as any element of architecture contoured by rule, compass, or hand (à la régle, au compas, ou à la main), is produced through Stéréotomie, the cutting of platonic solids (cube, sphere, cylinder, cone, etc.), a practice measured by Stéréométrie. The cut architectural elements that then aggregate as moldings to describe the specific lines and shapes of bases, columns, and cornices that make up the profile of a building are thus given a geometric basis, as illustrated in D’Aviler’s primary architectural treatise, the Cours d’architecture, published 80 years prior to the monumental volumes of Jacques François Blondel by the same name. Here, the analogy to language is explicit and precise:

“Moldings are for architecture, what letters are for writing (Les Moulures sont à Architecture, ce que les Lettres sont à l’Ecriture). Just as the combination of characters form an infinite number of words in diverse languages; so do the assemblages of Moldings we invent amount to the profiles of all sorts of different Orders and regular and irregular combinations…

…we should know that the contour of each Molding is established on Geometry, and that there are only three kinds of lines in Geometry: the straight, the curved and the mixed; just as there are only three species of Moldings, known as the square, the round and the ones which are composed of these two kinds of lines.”

Known only by mathematical approximation through the Gothic period, Stéréotomie was first specified with geometric exactitude in the sixteenth century by Philibert de l’Orme in his Premier Livre de l’Architecture (1564).

Through the appropriation of Boolean geometric operations, architects of the seventeenth century began to define “their” language within a rapidly diversifying modern lexicography. Such a movement would not be without consequence, as the very same medium which transmitted this canon of knowledge—the printed book—would be utilized in the contentious eighteenth century to transform architecture into a proxy media for public political debate in the pages of various reviews, journals, and pamphlet literatures, not wholly unlike the one we presently hold in our hands. [6]

1. The creation of the first architectural dictionnaire reflects not only an update of the Vitruvian principles for teaching in the new school, but more importantly the need to elevate and distinguish architecture socially as a pedagogical discipline alongside painting and sculpture through the canonization of its own traditions by a precise language.

2. Nowhere is this made clearer than in the entry for the term Architecture itself: “According to Vitruvius, architecture is a science which must be accompanied by a great diversity of studies and knowledge, by the means of which it judges all the works of other arts which belong to it.”

  1. In his own essay centering on the cours and dictionnaire of D’Aviler, Thierry Verdier (2011, Université Paul Valéry) notes that grammarians, authors, and lexicographers of the seventeenth century were occupied with the idealization of language and its “eternal past” (l’éternel passé), an idealization coupled with an acute consciousness of the social hierarchy of language, language typified and conditioned by factors such as one’s trade and class.

  2. Belonging squarely to the sphere of the bourgeoisie, the language of the architect required differentiation from the flowery speech of carpenters, taxonomic terminology of gardeners, and the “meticulous” vocabulary of the sculptors of ornament (vocabulaire minutieusement).

5.Crucially, the adoption by architects of Stéréométrie as a geometric and practical ontology for discourse avoids a reading of classical form based on principles. It is worth thinking critically about the relationship between etymology and value systems at work in any period, including our own. For example, the role of Stéréométrie today.

6. Following the seventeenth century, architecture experiences its “Habermasian” moment, in which the discipline and its associated knowledge moves from the control of an elite or selective few (such as Félibien or D’Aviler) into an active participation in the “structural transformation of the (bourgeois) public sphere.” Though this topic is too complex to cover here, it can be found expertly handled in Richard Wittman’s Architecture, Print Culture, and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century France. (Classical Tradition in Architecture. New York ; London: Routledge, 2007). It will not be until the nineteenth century that architects once again attempt to redefine the terms of architectural language, this time with an added notion of “History.”

Publication Date
February 21, 2019
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