A Very Special Museum

Hubert Damish, "A Very Special Museum" in Skyline: The Narcissistic City (2001).   1   2   3

1. Jorge Luis Borges, "The Immortal" (from The Aleph, 1949), in Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (New York: Viking Penguin, 1998), 183-95. This citation, 188, emphasis in original.

2. Françoise Choay, L'Allégorie du patrimoine (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1992).

3. On all of these points (the role of architecture in Hegel's Aesthetics; the difference between sign and symbol; and, in general, the values assocated with "architecture"), see Denis Hollier, Against Architecture: The Writings of Georges Bataille, trans. Betsy Wang (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, c. 1989).

4. Werner Szambien, Le Musée d'Architecture (Paris: Picard, 1988).

5. Ibid., 63 and 72.

6. Choay, L'Allégorie du patrimoine, 76 ff.

7. Jules Michelet, Ma jeunesse, as quoted by Anthony Vidler, "Architecture in the Museum: From Boullée to Lenoir," in The Writing of the Walls: Architectural Theory in the Late Enlightenment (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Architectural Press, 1987), 173.

8. Szambien, Le Musée d'Architecture, 35. See also, by the same author, Les Pro jets de l'an II: Concours d'architecture de fa période révolutionnaire (Paris: École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, c. 1986).

9. Gabriel-Pierre-Martin Dumont, Suite de plans ... des trois temples antiques tels qu'ils existaient en Il50 dans le bourg de Paestum et mesurés et desin’es par J-G. Soufflot (Paris: n.p., 1764).

10. Szambien cites the following passage from Stendhal's Memoires d’un touriste recording his responses to a collection of cork models assembled by an antiquarian in Nîmes--where he had seen it--representing Romam monuments in southern France: "It would be impossible to see imitations that were more skillful and at the same time more accurate. As the [models] are executed to the same scale, for the first time I had an idea of the relative size of these monuments. Monsieur Pelet's pretty buildings have one centimeter for every meter. I saw with astonishment the triumphal arch in Orange, a gigantic structure, pass easily below the lower arches of the Pont du Gard" (Szambien, Le Musée d'architecture, 85).

11. Ibid., 34.

12. Vidler, "From the Hut to the Temple: Quatremère de Quincy and the Idea of Type," in The Writing of the Walls, 147-64.

13. Szambien, Le Musée d'Architecture, 15.

In one of his most famous novellas, as well as one of his most beautiful and singular, Jorge Luis Borges recounts the story-the fable, rather-of the "Immortals" who, weary of the condition to which they had been reduced by drinking water from the stream that "purifies men of death," ended by destroying the resplendent city in which they lived and infesting caves along the same stream, where they proceeded to live like Troglodytes, abdicating "verbal commerce" and surviving on a diet of snakes.

Thus far the fable has a consoling effect, at least by antithesis, for readers know themselves to be mortal. As the narrator says, "What is divine, terrible, and incomprehensible is to know oneself immortal." Immortality effectivelydrains away meaning: given infinite time, everything must of necessity happen to everyone, from which it follows that no one has an individual existence, and that good and evil, genius and idiocy, indeed all human endeavors cancel one another out in "a system of exact compensations." Things grow more complicated, however, when, after having destroyed the City whose renown had spread far and wide, the Immortals deem it good to build, on the same site, using its ruins, a second City, a kind of "parody or antithesis" of the first one--so the narrator tells us--that was also a temple to the irrational gods who govern the world and "about whom we know nothing save that they do not resemble man." A City unknown to antiquity, predating humanity, predating--if this is possible-the earth itself, a construction that, in the eyes of the visitor, is associated with atrocity, with complete nonsense:

I had made my way through a dark maze, but it was the bright City of the Immortals that terrified and repelled me. A maze is a house built purposely to confuse men; its architecture, prodigal in symmetries, is made to serve that purpose. In the palace that I imperfectly explored, the architecture had no purpose. There were corridors that led nowhere, unreachably high windows, grandly dramatic doors that opened onto monklike cells or empty shafts, incredible upside-down staircases with upside-down treads and balustrades. Other staircases, clinging airily to the side of a monumental wall, petered out after two or three landings, in the high gloom of the cupolas, arriving nowhere. ...This City, I thought, is so horrific that its mere existence, the mere fact of its having endured--even in the middle of a secret desert--pollutes the past and the future and somehow compromises the stars. So long as this City endures, no one in the world can ever be happy,or courageous.1

The idea of building this second City was the idea of an Immortal named Homer. And that, we are told, should not surprise us: "It is rumored that after singing the war of Ilion, he sang of the war between the frogs and rats. He was like a god who created first the Cosmos, then Chaos." This, according to the fable, was the last symbol to which the Immortals condescended: "It marks the point at which, esteeming all exertion vain, they resolved to live in thought, in pure speculation."

Rich as it was in "bulwarks and amphitheaters and temples," did the City of the Immortals have a museum? The question might seem idle: Of what interest, utility, or consolation would such an institution have been to the Immortals, seeing as it could only have confirmed for them the idea of the purely aleatory and contingent character of the works of men pretending in one way or another to immortality? ("Homer composed the Odyssey; given infinite time, with infinite circumstances and changes, it is impossible that the Odyssey should not be composed at least once.") But temples? Amphitheaters? What cults, what spectacles, what speeches could have led the Immortals to assemble in them and discuss their own nothingness? And if we posit that the city itself had assumed the character of a museum, as is too often the case for our cities, for us mortals, we can see how paradoxical is the notion of a city sharing in the immortal condition of its inhabitants: a city that is itself indestructible, even its-lesser buildings, the most insignificant of its structures, in a way analogous to--according to Freud--the indiscriminately retentive character of unconscious memory. We can understand how the Immortals would have wanted to rid themselves of this nightmare: a nightmare all too manifestly related'to what Francoise Choay has called "the allegory of patrimony"2; related to the idea of the "monument"; related to the "museum"; but related, also, to the very idea of "architecture," and all its attendant presuppositions, all the images and metaphors that follow from it (about which Georges Bataille was the first to note the degree to which they can infect thought), all the oppositional plays that we now strive to "deconstruct." For like it or not, the word is linked, is related, to the idea of arché-- that of beginning, of principle, of foundation, as well as to that of structure: architectonics, said Kant, is the art of systems.

A nightmare, then, from which it was impossible for the Immortals to awaken, and from which they could escape only by falling into an archaic torpor. This makes it all the more remarkable that they reached that stage by way of a final "foundation"--"fundación" is the term Borges gives his narrator--that must have functioned as a symbol, and as such have been laden with meaning, but a meaning inscribed, as that of symbols should be, in its form, in its very architecture, however arbitrary and incongruous the latter might seem. As though, in order to extract themselves from the 'nightmare of an interminable history and attain a parodic absolute knowledge in which the mind is in direct contact with itself, without need of resorting to intermediate sensations or signs, they had to seek shelter in caves, thereby regressing to a stage prior to all architecture, all the while remaining--without penetrating it, knowing nothing of it, having forgotten it--in close proximity to this improbable City in which all means, all techniques, all science, but also all forms, all elements, all motifs that might pertain to the art of building had been used, the better to deny and abuse, in symbolic terms, the values regarded as inherent in the very term "architecture": the same architecture that Hegel regarded as the first of all the arts as well as the "symbolic" art par excellence.3

For such was indeed the function of the buildings that the narrator explored after having himself drunk from the impure stream (the description now detailing not avenues, temples, or amphitheaters but a palace): to bring up short, by means of their merciless permanence, any fantasy the Immortals might have had of introducing into the d~ration without beginning or end that was their lot (duration, not eternity) some semblance of history, or at least of narrative, as well as of the idea of building, of construction, but also of conservation--in a word: of permanence. Which brings us, again by antithesis, to the question of the museum, and specifically to that of the museum of architecture, which takes on a singular relief in this light. For if humanity has always sustained fantasies inverse to those of the Immortals, dreaming of conferring on history, primarily by means of architecture, a dimension that is, if not eternal, then at least durable, the institution of the museum cannot fail to have renewed this fantasy, its first effect being to bring to an end--at least as regards the art of building--the cult of ruins, to initiate another way of relating to antiquity, one that, instead of being picturesque and nostalgic, is constructive and explicitly oriented toward the future.

Werner Szambien has recounted in magisterial fashion the history--not brilliant, in truth, but nonetheless exemplary--of the idea of a museum of architecture such as this was formulated for the first time in France, on the eve of the Terror.4 Should we be surprised by this? The Revolution, through the mouthpiece of Etienne-Louis Boullée, among others, put the question of the museum of architecture on the agenda, the idea being not to institute a place that would welcome the more or less utopian projects for monuments and buildings dreamed up by the "revolutionary" architects (beginning with Boullée himself) in a manner consistent with the new order of things, but rather to present, in the best possible conditions, an ensemble of objects and models likely to nourish and enflame the imagination of artists and patrons as well as that of the "architecture-loving" public, which was still quite small. In this context, it is worth noting, following Szambien, that--contrary to current fashion--what is often called (somewhat glibly) "paper architecture," purely graphic designs, restricted to the two-dimensional plane, originally figured not at all in the constitution of the museum of architecture, which was open to the most varied techniques of representation and reproduction, with one signal exception: drawing.5

The history of the museum of architecture is exemplary in more than one respect, above all because it poses with maximum clarity a set of questions likewise occasioned by the present revival of this idea, support for which now--at a moment when the word "terror" has lost all of its revolutionary connotations--seems to be unanimous. This unanimity (or its appearance) is of course suspicious, given the variety of interests in play and, still more, the diversity of the designs accruing authority from the idea, which often differ radically among themselves. A museum of what, composed how, for whom, and to what end(s)? One's answers to these questions will of course be anything but innocent. And it is not by chance that the initial formulation of these questions and answers coincided with the moment of definitive rupture with the Old Regime, when there was widespread belief, for the first time, in the double possibility of building a new world and doing so ,with means that were, preeminently, those of architecture. Things are very different now, when not only the notion of the museum is in question but also those of architecture and construction, as well as--it bears repeating--all the values potentially accruing to them. With the caveat that, today as yesterday, at a distance of two centuries, the history from which the constructivists thought they could free themselves is again bearing down with all its blind weight. The history, but no longer the utopia, whose sole refuge for the moment is science fiction.

In its initial form, and in a way that might indeed be called (as we shall see) revolutionary, the museum of architecture-described at the time as "special"--answered a specific need and addressed a specific public, even as it brought together objects of a specific kind. Doubtless architecture merited a place in the Louvre, among the arts of drawing in what would become, in 1793, the Musee Central des Arts. In light of this expectation, the depot at the Petits-Augustins, the core of Alexandre Lenoir's future Musée des Monuments Français, provisionally housed architectural fragments appropriated from the property of the church, émigrés, and finally from those of the crown, to guarantee their safety and make sure that they wouid be "placed at the disposition of the nation," save for those that might serve to embellish extant buildings. As Françoise Choay has noted, we are very conscious of the havoc wrought by revolutionary vandals, but the Revolution's project to safeguard what was then coming to be known as the French patrimony remains largely unknown. Heritage, succession, patrimony, conservation: from the beginning, the authorities adopted the metaphor of succession to designate and administer this treasure.6 But the intention to transform the Louvre, the most symbolic of all French sites, into the prime receptacle for the nation's artistic riches demonstrates nicely how rupture with the Old Regime went hand-in-hand with an affirmation of continuity that was effectively patrimonial, and preeminently real-estate oriented. In this sense, constituted as it was by pieces of architecture and sculpture "wrested from the hands of destruction," the museum of Alexandre Lenoir was consistent with one of the functions it is tempting to ascribe to a museum of architecture, namely the advancement of historical preservation and historical pedagogy, goals held to be at least equal in importance to that of civic education. As Michelet noted, it was here that the young Romantics discovered "the true order of eras" as well as "the absolute relativity of every age and style"7--which is why, as Anthony Vidler has suggested, Quatrermère de Quincy fought so relentlessly for its closure.

Specialists and art professionals advocated a very different kind of museum. They did not, I repeat, imagine it as a receptacle for projects and dreams, for the full gamut of fantasies to which architects were prone (but which were in fact not the least bit. "fantastic"), confined largely to paper. Submissions to the design competition for a projected museum of architecture (or if you prefer, of revolutionary architecture) organized in the Year II--apparently the first architectural competition conceived along lines that have since become familiar to us--had to be rather fully worked out: the rules stipulated that the winning designs be reproduced as maquettes and carefully preserved, so as to constitute over time "a collection of models."8 This notion of the "model" was basic to the project for a "musee speciale d'architecture," but in ways that were by no means specifically contemporary.

Werner Szambien has shown that the project for a museum of architecture, in process during the Terror, was a characteristic product of the second half of the eighteenth century, and that it was an extension of endeavors then thought to be as much archaeological as architectural, for example Les Ruines des plus beaux monuments de fa Grèce considérées du cote de l'Histoire et de l'Arcbitecture by Julien-David Le Roy (1758) and Gabriel-Pierre-Martin Dumont's presentation of Soufflot's discovery of the ruins of Paestum.9 The publication of the first "visual" travel accounts, a genre conceived by the English, who illustrated them lavishly, was viewed as a public good, a utilitarian project that reached its culmination and its end simultaneously in the Egyptian expedition. But however interesting, allusive, and seductive--in a word, picturesque--the images in the Description de l'Égypte, however precise and objective their renderings of ancient buildings, these volumes were nonetheless marred by a striving for effect, especially in their handling of perspective, that their many plans, sections, and elevations did not suffice to correct. By comparison with these illustrations, which are often approximate (as Champollion suspected, to the ire of the authorities responsible for the Egyptian expedition), the plaster casts made directly from architectural and ornamental motifs--another novelty--held every promise of being precise, whereas the models--of recent invention, realized in three dimensions in cork or other materials and to scale--created an entirely different effect, making it possible to take in a building at a glance.10 But above all, these models, like the plaster casts, were less representations than reproductions, and thus facilitated reconstitutions that, breaking with the taste for, the cult and ideology of the ruin, were of such technical perfection that they imposed themselves as "models" in their own right, to such an extent that they were able to en flame and-as was already being said--"electrify" the imagination.11

I will not dwell here on the acknowledged value of Greek and Roman models under the Terror, until those of Egypt were added under the Empire, simultaneous with the emergence, in reaction against the vandalism surreptitiously encouraged by the successive early Revolutionary governments, of a new sensitivity regarding the national patrimony, beginning with the Gothic, so long denigrated.12 Marx wrote astutely about the pervasive feeling among contemporary men that donning antique masks would make it easier for them to confront the tasks assigned them by history. What matters here is that the initial emergence of the idea of a museum of architecture coincided precisely with a moment in which, as regards the. art of building, the level of reproduction might have seemed, a good half-century before the invention of photography, to interfere with that of representation, even to short-circuit it. And yet, while it is accurate to say, as does Werner Szambien, that the production of models constituted an implicit critique of the means of representation current in the period13 (beginning with strictly graphic ones), it does not follow from this that the museum of architecture escaped from the circuit of representation. Assuming that cities themselves are not deemed the only viable museums of architecture, such institutions differ in principle from other museums, for example those of painting and sculpture, in that they cannot accommodate actual works of art, save very occasionally (as with the Temple of Dendur, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) or in the form of fragments taken directly from buildings or cast in plaster--or in the form of simulacra, which is precisely what scale models are. The mere fact that the administrators were, in principle and to the extent their resources allowed, completely free to commission models of whatever monuments and buildings they deemed appropriate, set the museum of architecture apart from other types of public collection, its brief being not so much to conserve artifacts as to educate a specialized public; a distinction that eventually led to its demise. In the field of architecture, not only was the «real" museum preceded by the imaginary one, historically as well as in the guise of the varied publications in which imaged representations played the largest role, the former--as an institution, as a site of memory, at the limit, even in its built form--was inscribed within an imaginary and conceptual field far exceeding the limits of the collections it housed. Doubtless this holds, to some extent, for every museum. But the kind of memories and cultural associations that can so enrich our experience of museums of painting and sculpture would have been, at least initially, utterly crucial to the functioning, in both historical and comparative terms, of the \nuseum of architecture, its having been premised, from the start, on the technical reproducibility of architectural productions, the imaginary component necessarily prevailing in it over all others.




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