Today, our guest, historian Rob Zaretsky balances the building against
the book. The University of Houston presents
this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Early in Victor Hugo's novel of medieval Paris,
Notre Dame de Paris, the antagonist, Claude Frollo, utters a
terrifying line. He directs the eyes of two visitors from a book on
his desk to the massive silhouette of Notre Dame cathedral beyond his
door, Frollo then announces: "This will kill that."
"That" is the cathedral, "this" is the machine that produced the book
on his desk: the printing press. "Small things overcome great ones,"
Frollo laments, "the book will kill the building."
For Frollo -- or, rather, Hugo -- the history of architecture is the history
of writing. Before the printing press, mankind communicated through
architecture. From Stonehenge to the Parthenon, alphabets were inscribed
in "books of stone." Rows of stones were sentences, Hugo insists, while
Greek columns were "hieroglyphs" pregnant with meaning.
The language of architecture climaxes in the Gothic cathedral. For centuries,
Hugo asserts, priests had controlled society, and thus architecture: the
squat lines of Romanesque cathedrals reflect this oppressive dogmatism.
But, by the High Middle Ages, the Gothic cathedral liberates man's spirit.
Poets, in the guise of architects, gave flight to their thoughts and
aspirations, in flying buttresses and towering spires.
In this (admittedly) potted history of the West, the cathedral, this Goliath,
inevitably falls to the David of moveable type, the book. By 1832, the year
he published his novel, Hugo believed architecture had reached an impasse:
architects had nothing new to say. This artistic bankruptcy was revealed in
the profusion of movements that toyed with earlier styles: neo-classicism,
neo-Byzantine, neo-this, neo-that. Architecture was dead, but architects
hadn't yet heard the news.
Except for one: Henri Labrouste. Labrouste was still a young man building a
reputation when he read Hugo. It was an epiphany -- one embodied in Labrouste's
first great commission: the Ste. Genevieve Library in Paris. The library's lines
are sharp and free of ornamentation: it refuses the slightest of nods to past
styles. It is a machine for reading in which function alone determines its
shape. Labrouste drives home the point by engraving the names of dozens of
great thinkers on the exterior walls. Ornamentation? Hardly: instead, it is
an enormous card catalogue: on the other side, books by these very same authors
were to be shelved.
How ironic that these writers, responsible for digging architecture's grave,
would be so honored by an architect. And perhaps it is even more ironic that
the library lies in the shadow of the Pantheon, the French Republic's Hall of
Fame. Hugo detested this neo-classical pile: a "great sponge cake," he called
it. Yet in 1885, the great man was buried there. Perhaps we should just call
it a machine for commemoration.
I'm Rob Zaretsky, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Robert Zaretsky is professor of French history in the University of Houston
Honors College, and the Department of Modern and Classical Languages. (He
is the author of Nîmes at War: Religion, Politics and Public Opinion in
the Department of the Gard, 1938-1944. (Penn State 1995), Cock and
Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue.
(Nebraska 2004), co-editor of France at War: Vichy and the Historians.
(Berg 2001), translator of Tzevtan Todorov's Voices From the Gulag.
(Penn State 2000) and Frail Happiness: An Essay on Rousseau. (Penn
State 2001). With John Scott, he is co-author of The Rift:
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume and the Quarrel that Shook the Enlightenment.
(New Haven, Yale University Press, 2007).
Victor Hugo, Notre Dame de Paris, tr. John Sturrock (New York: Penguin, 1978).
Neil Levine, The Book and the Building: Hugo's Theory of Architecture and
Labrouste's Bibliothèque Ste-Geneviève. The Beaux-Arts in 19th Century French
Architecture, edited by Robin Middleton (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982).
Hugo's book has been made into many movies, usually titled The Hunchback of Notre
Dame. Frollo's conversation appears on screen in the classic 1939 version
The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Frollo's conversation appears on screen in
the classic 1939 version with Charles Laughton as Quasimodo. See:
Images above are courtesy of Wikipedia.
Architectural detail of buttresses on National Cathedral in Washington, DC. This is a modern
building made in strict conformity with Gothic styling. Victor Hugo saw a form of
language within this sort of filigreed detail. (Photo by JHL)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
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