Architectures of Hiding

Rebecca Williamson

Clutter, Tidying, and Architectural Desire

In exhorting his readers to “keep your odds and ends in drawers or cabinets,” Le Corbusier (1887-1965) transmits a yearning for tidiness inherited from his predecessors.1 Architecture, it would seem, is an endless war against disorder and decay. Nevertheless, those same forces continue to assert their presence, penetrating buildings, images, and texts.

This paper will explore underlying tensions and conflicts that produce periodic eruptions and reversals in architecture’s campaign to impose and preserve order. It will look to architectural texts for evidence of such efforts: suppression of information or images, sleight of hand, or outright censorship, as well as their thwarting.

Architectural theory’s foundational rupture is the loss of the drawings that Vitruvius claims to have included with his manuscript. While Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), in renewing and revising the Vitruvian project, uses only language to convey and combat lurking chaos, many before and after him would try to reinvent the lost drawings, exposing fissures between language and image in the process.

Marc Antoine Laugier’s Essai sur l’architecture (1753) promotes a theory of architecture shorn of excess and error. The first edition bears no images. The second features a frontispiece by Charles Eisen that, while being among the most familiar images of architectural theory, diverges from Laugier’s verbal construction. That edition adds a glossary of terms and eight plates.2 Anne Fonbonne’s name appears on the last image, an assemblage of violations of Laugier’s rules. Did she, with her transgressive composition, seek to undermine Laugier’s efforts to convey a tidy, purified vision of architecture? Laugier himself hints at other ways at the end of his texts in his descriptions of gardens, in which China represents the tantalizing possibility of worlds where familiar rules might not apply. Subsequent architects such as John Ruskin (1819-1900), and even Le Corbusier himself would find such exotic unknowns in their imaginations, yet architecture’s desire for control would reassert itself. Through examination of such incidents, this presentation will expose architectural propriety’s failure to stem the loss of control that lurks in the fissures between language and image, and between thoughts and things.

Keywords: rules, disorder, chaos, transgression

1 Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, translated by Frederick Etchells, (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1960), 115.

2 Neither the glossary nor the plates appear in Wolfgang and Annie Herrmann’s English translation of the 1753 first edition, for which the frontispiece of the 1755 second edition serves as cover and title page. See Marc Antoine Laugier, An Essay on Architecture, translated by Wolfgang and Anni Herrmann (Los Angeles: Hennessey and Ingalls, 1977). In their introductory notes the translators explain their desire to preserve the impression of the first edition, arguing that the later additions tend to weaken Laugier’s case.

DR. REBECCA WILLIAMSON directs the MS and PhD Programs in Architecture at the University of Cincinnati. A registered architect with experience in practice in Europe and the United States, she received a PhD in Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and M.Arch. from Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Before joining the faculty of the University of Cincinnati’s School of Architecture and Interior Design in 2006, she taught for five years in France through a partnership between the Ecole nationale supérieure d’architecture de Versailles and the University of Illinois and in the Urbanism program of the Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po). Her scholarship on architectural history, theory, pedagogy, and practice often involves the probing of older architectural texts for their embedded contradictions and complications as a way to shed light on current dilemmas. She is particularly interested in the impact of cultural exchange between Europe and other regions in the pre-Industrial era.