Who were Auguste Choisy and Julien Gaudet, and why are they important?
From Baroque now, via Neo-classicism, we find ourselves at a threshold, the beginning of the end, so to say. In the last article, we left off with Labrouste and his architectural marvels that bridged the gap to modern thought. However, his understanding of the fundamental nature of architecture as a social metaphor was not the impetus. Rather, it was the ability to think about the built environment as a dynamic entity that paved the way for the acceptance of thought crossing over into new groundbreaking territories.
While Labrouste is an important figure in the narrative of Modernism, he was not the first and definitely not the last. His students (and in turn, their students) carried forward this legacy that continued breaking glass ceilings, time and again. By this, I mean not just the tangents of his thoughts but also introducing new thoughts stemming from classical ideals. And it wasn't just an isolated band of thinkers going down this path, but other influential theorists and architects of the successive generations that emerged who gravitated towards rationalist thought.
Two names stand out from these exceptional thinkers- Andrew Choisy and Julien Gaudet. In this article, we attempt to understand their thought process and seek to answer another essential question-
Why did modern thought evolve the way it evolved?
Auguste Choisy was a french architect in the second half of the 19th century, around when Neoclassicism was reaching its climax. The popularity of the movement was creating a shift in the architectural theory towards a focus on the aesthetic, the visual, the ornament. A result of this was a chair of aesthetics at the École Polytechnique. Choisy’s thought took the form of a reaction against this concept.
Today, we think of Modernism as a principle opposing classical thought, but that might not necessarily be true. The visual expressions of the two may be drastically different, yes. But, like all revolutions, Modernism did not only evolve as resistance to Classical rigidity but also as a reaction to it. Thus, modernist architecture finds roots in traditional Greco-Roman architectural styles. It then takes the basics and builds up a new pattern with a different visual language, obviously. The crux of Modernism was never to become a new style but to allow for a new way of thinking. New building materials and social complexities created an experience that facilitated a new strand of thought to emerge and take its own path.
Western Classical thought, right from Vitruvius, has always talked about architecture as a trinity: structure, function and ornament. Over time, the order and emphasis changed, but this concept remained steady. As the return of a classical idea of beauty emerged, architectural theory saw a shift towards considering imitation of ornament as the paramount definition of beauty. The proportion and scale were considered the backbone of the classical ideal. In some way, this consideration of structure wasn't new in any sense- just the way it was done was according to the technology and resources present.
As a student at the École Polytechnique in Paris, Auguste Choisy spent a few years studying in Rome and Athens. However, instead of scrutinising the aesthetics, he was interested in its structural composition. His observation and inferences had him developing what we now term as Romantic Modernism. The style directly takes from the principles of the classics but moulding its essence in construction to translate the classical architectural language into new materials and advanced technologies.
There were two seemingly contradictory results of this development. Firstly, the return of these theorists and architects to Gothic Reverence. Secondly, the removal of ornamentation from these or other periods as the method of design. It was a realisation of the genius of the space and structure but the slow disillusionment about the idea of what Corbusier will later call the "elastic ornament."
As a mode of representation, Choisy is remembered for his discovery of the axonometric, synthesising the information of a plan, elevation, section, perspective into a single graphic. This was a result of understanding the vitality of the ‘anatomy’ of architecture. The drawing style was developed as a visual method of communication of this aspect- the aesthetic element was present and thought of, but it followed the design style and ideology. His drawings were meant to dissect -
"the architectural organism to reveal its skeletal structure, as if the stones, bricks and tiles, wood, and concrete were its bones, ligaments, and tendons, the exterior surfaces its flesh."
-Richard A. Etlin, Auguste's Anatomy of Architecture
His seminal work Histoire de ll'architecture (1899) is considered as the culmination of structural classicism, influencing the successive generations of the Modern Movement to take up axonometric to explain design ideas. However, it was his revolutionary thought that provided modernists with an excellent way to express the core of the idea centred around the structure of the architectural form.
Parallelly was the path forged by Julien Gaudet, Auguste Perret and Tony Garnier, who emphasised the Graeco-Gothic ideal of the 19th century stemming from Cordemoy but with a romantic sensibility. While Choisy followed Labrouste's thought, Gaudet was influenced by Beaux-Arts and the polytechnical approach of Durand, whose rationalist thought manifested as a normative approach to design. It sought a kind of rethinking of the principles of Classical ‘Elementarist’ Composition to crossover in the Modern Movement and the works of 20th-century masters.
People were slowly recognising that the walls of Classical ideals need not stay exactly the same and were coming to terms with the idea that different did not necessarily mean wrong; they realised that classical architecture was about more than just the aesthetic (imitation). This idea is where the journey to Modernism concretely starts.
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About the Writer
Garima Agarwal is an architect, writer, photographer and researcher. A graduate from the School of Planning and Architecture Bhopal, her praxis is situated at the intersection of space and experience. Gender studies, Sustainability and Art form the tangents along which her architectural thought progresses.
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).