This volume offers a stroll behind the scenes of the architectural, engineering, and technical innovations that marked the development of building practices in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Valérie Nègre’s goal is to move beyond the customary distinction between demiurgic architects and lowly builders, and to shed light on a number of individuals — artisans, entrepreneurs, inventors, and ‘constructors’ — who, being both theoretically and practically minded and belonging to civil society rather than to official academies, worked to establish fruitful connections between a multiplicity of trades, practices, and visions, thereby contributing significantly to the constitution of the emerging ‘public sphere’. Nègre’s study of this complex and vibrant world is divided in three parts, focusing on, first, learned societies founded by enthusiasts and funded by subscription, bringing together aristocrats and professionals and organizing exhibitions and competitions; second, new or newly rediscovered materials, such as cardboard, earthenware, or cement, thought to have extraordinary qualities in terms of resistance, flexibility, or waterproofness; third, the various treatises, edited collections, or handbooks containing descriptions and drawings by architects and artisans published throughout the period, aimed either at rationalizing and providing specialist knowledge or at codifying estimates, quotes, and assessments in all aspects of the art of building. In each chapter the different case studies display an irrepressible dynamic of individual creativity and transdisciplinary interactions. From Jean-Pierre Ango’s iron floors and Pierre Giraud’s portable toilets, designed to improve the safety and living conditions of all, to Jean-Nicolas Gardeur’s cardboard ornaments and sculptures, sought after by the rich and powerful for their artificial nature and for the virtuosity they demonstrate, and Jean d’Étienne’s roof terraces, made of impermeable mastic and promising the Parisian urban élites the delights of richly adorned gardens and ponds, Nègre takes the reader on a fascinating journey through the thriving architectural culture of the time. What permeates the whole work is the sense that private or collective initiatives tend, especially in the latter years of the Ancien Régime, to overstep the sometimes not-so-neatly established boundaries of official institutions, often to the annoyance of a number of académiciens. To this can be linked the contention, put forward by the likes of Antoine-Chrysostôme Quatremère de Quincy, that artisans possess some sort of natural instinct that allows them to guess with impressive accuracy what is needed to produce a work of great quality and precision: that craftsmen have a science of their own. A lexicon listing and clarifying the relations between all the professions mentioned throughout the study — ‘experts jurés’, ‘entrepreneurs experts’, ‘architectes experts’, ‘toiseurs’, ‘inspecteurs’, ‘contrôleurs’, ‘vérificateurs’, to name a few — would have been welcome, as their sheer number can sometimes be quite overwhelming. Still, this is overall a highly stimulating read, and is bound to be profitable to both students and scholars interested in the history of architecture and materials science in pre- and post-revolutionary France, or more generally in the history of human creativity in the context of ever-varying and ever-challenging institutional frameworks. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for French Studies. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: email@example.com
French Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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