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What were the contributions of Laugier, Soufflot and Blondel to the French school in Neo-Classicism?


Itika Atri, Falak Vora, Pranjal Maheshwari, History of Modernism, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, History, Modernism, Modernist, Modern, Movement, Zeyka, Zeyka India

Less is More.

These words were made famous by Mies Van der Rohe.

Fun fact: Mies is also credited with ‘God is in the details.’


But it makes no sense! There is either ‘less’ or ‘enough’ or ‘more.’ If less is more than what is ‘enough?’ What did he mean by that? Why not simply say, “Do only what is enough.” Why be all dramatic about it? Exploiting his poetic license, I guess?


Actually, the words did not originate from Mies, neither does the idea belong to him. It was his mentor, Peter Behrens, from whom Mies heard it and borrowed the phrase. The idea made it home, and he kept referring to it throughout his work. And even before Behrens, it was used in Robert Browning’s poem Andrea del Sarto in 1855.


However, with ‘Less is More,’ architecture found an aesthetic in its essentiality. The building was stripped naked of all its ornamentation, only to adorn the bare necessities. What exists should have a meaning, a purpose essential to its existence. A column was to transfer load, not to be embedded in the wall for it to look good. Ornamentation was an additional, often unnecessary load on the building. These ideals were similar to the ones that moulded Neo-Classicism about two centuries ago.

Itika Atri, Falak Vora, Pranjal Maheshwari, History of Modernism, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, History, Modernism, Modernist, Modern, Movement, Zeyka, Zeyka India

Abbe Laugier was inspired by the works of Cordemoy (refer article 5). Civilisation and culture had effectively corrupted humankind, and it was time to break free from the shackles of the past, to do only what was necessary and nothing more. He urged his fellow artists and architects to pause and reconsider- how did man make architecture with only his natural instincts? What was the nature of a creation made with bare necessities? Is there an actual need for exuberance and flamboyance in architecture at all?


He recalled the state of man in times before civilisation. A mere wanderer, unaware and unsure of things happening around him. One who is looking for shelter and finds a nearby forest as welcoming. But then, it suddenly starts to rain. Man runs, desperately looking for a new shelter that would save him from the wrath of the skies. He stumbles upon a cave, and although it is dark inside, it is dry. He almost praises himself for being able to discover and wonders at the careless neglect of nature.


Once he realises that the storm is over, he walks out of the cave. He is determined to create his own space, where he would dwell and feel protected. He erects four of the strongest branches that he can find. Across their top, he hoists two more pairs, inclining towards each other. He covers the top of the structure with leaves, tightly packed together. Gradually, he fills up the space between the vertical branches.

Itika Atri, Falak Vora, Pranjal Maheshwari, History of Modernism, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, History, Modernism, Modernist, Modern, Movement, Zeyka, Zeyka India

With his words, he described the Primitive Hut. Charles Eisen illustrated the idea, and it became the frontispiece of the second edition of Laugier’s An Essay on Architecture. The Primitive Hut attributes the origin of architecture as a desperate attempt to survive, one that was born out of function and tectonics, reflecting honesty on its use and structure. Beauty of the primitive hut is a derivative of the essentiality of architecture, rather than a custom or any convention.


Laugier drew inspiration from the classical appropriation of Gothic architecture. But it was an architecture devoid of any elaborate forms or ornamentation. The building was not to be ashamed of displaying what held it aloft. The screens that joined one column to the other were supposed to be fully glazed, rendering the structure translucent.


Meanwhile, the dilapidated church of Abbey of St Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, was to be replaced with a new one. Jacques-Germain Soufflot, having studied architecture at the French Academy in Rome, was chosen for the job. He had studied the work of Bramante during his time in Italy and back in Paris. Laugier’s theories influenced him. With his work, he became one of the French architects in the international circle who introduced neoclassicism.

Itika Atri, Falak Vora, Pranjal Maheshwari, History of Modernism, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, History, Modernism, Modernist, Modern, Movement, Zeyka, Zeyka India

The combined effect of both these can be seen in the church of St. Genevieve in Paris, best known as the Pantheon. The marvellous structure is designed in the form of a Greek cross, with a monumental dome over the crossing at the centre. Its design resembled the lightness and spaciousness of Gothic Cathedrals while at the same time referring to Greco-Roman antiquity.


In another part of France, Jacques-Francois Blondel had started his own school of architecture, Ecole des Arts. He defined the distinction between sublime and noble, thereby elevating architecture with a simpler and truer character. The latter was crucial to architecture for each building to have its own character. This school was responsible for creating a visionary generation of architects who went on to develop a particular architectural language of Neo-Classicism in France.


His theories were interpretations of the ideologies of Cordemoy. These elaborated on Cordemoy’s triad, renaming it Composition, Type and Character. He later included the forms provided by the theoretical publications of Laugier and the architectural manifestations of Soufflot.


Laugier, Soufflot and Blondel, together, defined the course of Neo-classical architecture. French Neo-classicism was now defined, distinct and particular. Certain simple expressions in architecture were easily confused. By making these expressions more defined, one can achieve a distinct, definitive characteristic without the use of ornamentation and flamboyance. However, even with less exuberance, one was able to achieve more meaning. Even with less, there a kind of architecture that could be achieved which was absolutely truthful to its essence.


Itika Atri, Falak Vora, Pranjal Maheshwari, History of Modernism, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, History, Modernism, Modernist, Modern, Movement, Zeyka, Zeyka India



About the Writer

Pranjal Maheshwari is an undergraduate architecture student at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Bhopal. He has interned at Rethinking The Future (RTF), India Lost and Found (ILF) by Amit Pasricha, and Sandal Kapoor Associates.


About the Editor

Falak Vora is an architect, architectural historian, writer and essayist. She is a graduate of the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London (UCL), UK and Sarvajanik College of Engineering and Technology (VNSGU), Surat. She has experience working at Aangan Architects, Eternity Architects, Wall Space Architects, Studio i!, Guallart Architects and The Universidad Politécnica de Cartagena (UPCT).


About the Illustrator

Itika Atri is an undergraduate architecture student at the Deenbandhu Chhotu Ram University of Science and Technology (DCRUST), Murthal (Sonepat). She is a writer, illustrator and graphic designer. She has experience working as an Architectural Journalism Intern at Rethinking The Future (RTF).

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