apposing the shells of architectural thought

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4. Nature : Form and Expression

If John Hejduk's work may be thought to conflate premodern representation and modern expression into a postmodern Verwindung of their opposition, then its affinity with the architecture of Claude-Nicolas Ledoux should not be surprising, for Ledoux's classicism distorted the conventions of premodern representation in the direction of natural expression at the beginning rather than at the end of the experiments of modernism. Ledoux's distortions help identify three important lines of research that may be taken as early versions of twentieth-century functionalism, formalism, and expressionism, which Hejduk's work may be understood to have "absorbed" and "exorcised." Over the course of his career, Ledoux moved from Jacques-François Blondel's version of the theory of imitation, as the emblematic and stylistic representation of character, toward the expression of internal organization (modeled on the natural sciences), elemental architectonics (based on descriptive geometry, stereotomy, and crystallography), and the physiognomic expression of personal character. Where architectural characterization had previously been understood as a rhetorical practice that aimed to make a building conform to and communicate the social role of its owner or program, eighteenth-century critiques of rhetoric, theatricality, and allegory sparked formal experiments in architecture that sought to eliminate the use of conventions or applied signs in favor of the direct expression of the inner nature of a building. This practice would not require instruction or learning on the part of its audience, but would be instead universally legible as a natural language.

As Anthony Vidler has pointed out, Ledoux's putative practice of architectural expression is first evident in his project for the prison at Aix-en-Provence. Modeled on analyses of animal morphology and the classification of plants, the expression of a building's nature was first to be achieved as a totality through its organization, or more precisely by making its internal organization legible externally. Secondly, Ledoux, like his contemporary Le Camus de Mézières, developed a psychologized theory of characterization from the physiognomic readings of nature and people. For Le Camus, nature provided a model of how emotions and ideas might be evoked. He noted that in nature "each object possesses a character that is suitable for it, and that often a single line, a simple contour suffices to express it." Similar propositions were developed by the Swiss pastor-scientist Johann Caspar Lavater, who, in Essays in Physiognomy (1775-78) proposed that careful analysis of the "characteristic lines" of a person's face, the contours and surfaces of the head, could reveal the nature of the soul within. For his prison at Aix, Ledoux studied the physiognomy of "the criminal" and then, as Vidler observes, "welded a veritable 'expression' of criminality — heavy, lowering walls, slit-like 'eyes,' and a forbidding 'mouth' — to a set of antique references, primarily funereal architecture, by means of an abstract three-dimensional geometry"7

7. See Anthony Vidler, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux. Architecture and Social Reform at the End of the Ancien Régime (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1990), 206-207. See also Robin Middleron's account of early expression theories in his introduction to Nicolas Le Camus de Mézières, The Genius of Architecture; or, the Analogy of that Art with our Sensations (Santa Monica : The Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 5992).




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