L'ESTHETIQUE DES VILLES
Municipal Affairs 3 (December 1899):732-741. Translated from the author's L'Esthetique des Villes (Brussels, Bruyland-Christople, 1893)Charles Buls (1837-1914) was a native of Brussels where his father was a jeweler. After his schooling Buls began to study drawing as part of his preparation to become a goldsmith as his father wished. This led him to Paris for a year and to Italy for nine months where he was introduced to painting, sculpture, and engraving. On his return to Belgium he also began the study of languages, including Latin, English, and German. Beginning in 1862 Buls found himself engaged in promoting reforms in teaching and politics and two years later joined with other liberal-thinking colleagues in founding an organization devoted to improvements in teaching, "La Ligue de l'Enseignement." He served that body as secretary from 1864 to 1880 and as president from 1880 to 1883 and 1905 to 1914.I.--NEED FOR THIS STUDY.
These activities led him into politics. Elected to the city council in 1877, he was elevated to the post of Burgomaster in 1881 and remained in that post until the end of December 1899. For part of that time he also took part in national governmental affairs as a member of the Chamber of Representatives from 1882 to 1884 and 1886 to 1894. As Burgomaster of Brussels he played a leading role in the rehabilitation of the old buildings facing the Grand-Place, and he also became involved in the controversy about the merit of "disencumbering" historic churches and other ancient structures of the smaller buildings that had grown up around them. On this and on several other issues, Buls became a supporter of the doctrines espoused by Camillo Sitte. He tell us "That is the reason that I have always stoutly opposed making an open space about our Palais de Justice. Its principal note is its size; to have that strike us, we should preserve near to it smaller dwellings to serve as a scale; isolate the colossus and you dwarf it."
This version of Buls's essay appeared in an issue of Muncipal Affairs devoted to the City Beautiful. The ellipses represent portions cut from the original by the editors of that journal.
Old cities and old streets have a peculiar charm for all who are not insensible to art impressions. They may not be called beautiful, but they are attractive; they please by that delightful disorder that here results not from art but from chance....
When these venerable cities were founded, it would have been useless to have asked whether they were aesthetically planned. They spring up of themselves; they grew little by little, as needs called for them and conformably to these needs. They drew their beauty both from this conformity and from the local character that was reflected in their building.
To-day this is no longer the case. Rapidity and ease of change draw a large population to capitals and industrial centers. Cities are no longer peopled by children born in them; it is to immigration that first of all they owe their rapid increase in population. Cities with walls no longer occupy extended areas: hence the demands which old cities did not feel, and the need of providing broad or straight ways and the further duty to create spacious quarters, or to tear out blocks of old buildings to make way for the growing tide of foot travel, carriages and trams. Moreover, the growth of hygiene compels cities to drive broad airy streets through the slums where epidemics prevail.
Officials, architects and engineers charged with this work have then to consider whether, meeting the demands of progress, aesthetic caution may not be observed.
If we were Americans we would have no scruples; with a few strokes of the pencil we would draw a series of perfectly straight streets, cutting each other at right angles on leveled ground. But we are Belgians, and our Walloon cities picturesquely rising by stages on their rocky sites, our Flemish cities with their canals and tortuous streets converging toward the square where proudly rises the city belfry, suit us too well for a kitchen garden to satisfy us.
As one looks at the plan of one of our great cities, one can distinguish at once the ancient from the modern part. The former is formed by a network of streets that ramify, interlacing like arteries and veins in a living body; the latter, with its streets parallel or at right angles, is like an artificial crystallization, dry, mathematical. The one aim that has guided the authors of these plans has been to design the platting most favorable for the sale of the land.
We have had before us a striking example. The level space of Ten Bosch was long given up to circulation; as we know, it was a vast rectangle. Crossing it we would have said that if we had to plan the quarter to be built there, we would have been guided by the paths worn by foot travel; they evidently showed the natural currents of circulation. Now, these currents followed the diagonals of the square. Instead of taking hints from these signs, what did we do? We laid out streets parallel to Livourne and Defacqz streets, thus forcing passers to go about two sides of a right-angle triangle, when they would have preferred to follow its hypothenuse.
These considerations seem to me to justify the study we are about to make. It should, therefore, include city plans, the direction and shape of streets and public places, the decoration that they may receive, monuments, parks, squares, the grouping and plan of public buildings.
At first sight, giving this study the title city aesthetics, we seem to subordinate all to beauty, and practical souls will perhaps tell us that there are business considerations that should not be lost sight of by builders of cities. I do not question this; but I remember that in the studies on the aesthetics of the decorative arts, published in the Revue Belgique, I argued that industrial art workers would find in perfect harmony between the form and the use of objects the most beautiful and picturesque ideas.
This aesthetic principle is applicable to city plans or public monuments as well as to objects of industrial art.
II.--FROM A TECHNICAL STANDPOINT.
What are the principles that should guide engineers charged with bettering the ways of an old city or with creating a new quarter.
We find a first reply to this question in a work published in 1885 by an engineer of great merit whose premature death was a great loss to the city government of Brussels. Mr. Van Mierlo thus defines the fundamental idea of his plan.
Encircling boulevards offer in their development a certain number of points at which open great arteries of circulation which are prolonged beyond and travel through the suburban communes. Joining these points by diagonals, the northeast is made accessible to the southwest and the southeast to the northwest.
Points opposite in a north or south, or east or west direction are generally joined direct routes of travel, the ones parallel with, the others perpendicular to the trend of the Senne Valley. Unfortunately the streets on the right bank take the line of steepest slope--which has caused long discussion as to what are the best directions for streets between the upper and lower city.
To secure communication between all parts of the city, Mr. Van Mierlo was careful not to unite opposite points by straight boulevards, to fill ravines, to tear up whole quarters, to hide the unevenness of the old street plan. He tried to proceed conformably to existing streets connecting those which run nearly in the desired direction by not shrinking from a curve to soften a descent, trying at the same time to preserve points of view and to respect old buildings. Such is the practical spirit, such the prudence, that we should be glad to see inspire the officials of our great cities; in this path benefits alone are to be awaited.
Its local and national character is preserved to the city, souvenirs of the past are destroyed only when modern life absolutely demands it, picturesque effects are obtained, city funds are saved, and there is less disturbance to the habits and interests of citizens. Leopold quarter is a striking example of mistakes that may be made when a new quarter is laid out. If one comes from Saint-Josse-ten-Noode or from Ixelles, he cannot get to the Luxembourg depot except by going roundabout. Was it not perfectly plain that these streets should have diverged, fan-like, from the depot to permit arrivals to be promptly dispersed in their respective directions? In making access to the depot more easy, a plan should have been suggested which would have given it a few surprises in the way of views, instead of its actual deadly vulgarity.
But let no one think that by over regard for the picturesque we would wish to forbid those symmetrical groupings, planned to give an impressive, monumental character to our city. The Place du Carrousel at Paris, with the Madeleine and the Corps Legislatif balancing each other and the beautiful perspective of the Champs Élysée, crowned by the Arc de l'Etoile make one of the most beautiful city views to be seen in Europe.
But to create that symmetrical quarter, it was not necessary to destroy anything; it has been gained from the open country. The city of Brussels did the same when it adopted the plan of its northeast quarter. The talented architect who designed it made happy use of the slope of the site to secure monumental embellishment. It was the same with the old parade ground that has been turned into the Parc du Cinquantenaire.
Though straight avenues have the fault of not letting be seen the architecture of the buildings that border them, there are cases where they must be used, and where indeed the effect is good. Generally, however, they should be closed by a prominent building at the "eye line." All will remember that the Rue Royale is too long; that the Church Sainte Marie, had only decorative effect been consulted, would better have terminated this enormous perspective if it had been placed as high as the Botanic Garden. La Rue de la Loi has the same fault.
When the breadth of the way is proportioned to its length the effect is decidedly better. Such is the Botanic Boulevard reaching to the Koekelberg plateau; it has a dignified effect, which the slope of the ground and its elevation above the canal strengthens. Here it is the roadway itself, the change of grade of which stops the eye and satisfies it.
There is one thing that it has always seemed to me about which architects do not take sufficient pains; that is their tendency to bird's-eye survey of their plan. Bent over their paper they devise symmetry which is not visible when one walks about the quarter actually built up. We are convinced that many citizens of Brussels have never observed the symmetry that Guimard worked into the plan of the Parc quarter. The wings and the decorator's motifs of the balustrade of the Palais des Academies and the Hotel Errera, which balance each other, are so far apart the eye does not note that. In the architect's thought, they are destined to complement each other. Architects ought, therefore, to keep in mind the horizontal point of view, and not that from above, valuable only for aeronauts who float over the city.
When a city like Brussels has developed upon the slope of an abrupt hill, street plan problems are complicated and often present difficult problems. In former times the more elevated quarters of Brussels were occupied only by the palaces of princes and a few seigneurial residences surrounded by vast gardens; the city only extended along the two banks of the Senne, and the houses of the citizens climbing up to the cathedral, stopped at the foot of the ramparts which, the whole length of the present Rue d'Isabelle, hemmed in from that side the gardens of the Dukes of Brabant. The Louvain road coming out at Treurenberg, and the North road leading to Montague de la Cour, were the only ones that pierced the walls on that side. The streets which to-day descend from the upper plateau, were originally foot paths winding at the bottom of ravines, and one could hardly ascend them except on foot or mule-back. The heavy carriages of old times would scarcely have attempted them. These old ways being slowly built up, have preserved the abruptness of their slope, for they descend at right angles to the thread of the Senne valley.
M. Van Mierlo shows in his work that easy ways of communication could be established only from the northwest to the southeast (from Observatory to the d'Anderlecht gate) and from the southeast to the northwest (Louise gate to d'Anvers gate) because they took the turn of the hill diagonally, which allowed them to slope more gently.
That is why so many plan-makers lost time trying to reduce the slope between the Place Royale and Rue du Cantersteen; that is why M. Maquet found the better solution of the problem to be to take the street along the side of the hill at first north, then, turning on itself, toward the southwest.
III.--AESTHETIC POINT OF VIEW.
But the officials of a great city which has a history and which preserves remains, alas! too rare of the past, should not consider solely facilities of passage. They should remember that they belong to a nation which counts in art history and where citizens take pride in adorning the city of their birth. Now it happens that if one seeks aesthetic rules applicable to old cities with the idea of changing them as required by modern life, it is precisely by following the principles indicated by the engineer that the artist will find solutions most nearest to his ideal. Let us not therefore be counted among the conservative admirers of the past, who, exclusive lovers of the picturesque, regret the vaulting of the Senne and sigh for the infected ruins which used to breed fevers in the stream of foul water.
A prosperous city is fated to change, to adapt itself to new needs of circulation, to the demands of property, health and comfort.
But this change ought not to take place brutally. It ought to be brought about with filial respect for all that, without inconvenience, can be preserved of our old memories. We have always insisted, and observation as well as study has more and more confirmed us in this opinion, that architects will produce street plans and monuments most satisfactory to the eye, most original and most lasting by considering the peculiarities of site, the practical demands and needs imposed by custom, for which the monuments are intended.
How nice it is to commence by flattening everything and erecting on level soil a monumental decoration borrowed by whole sections from the artist's classical memory! And then--to use for whatever needs the building is intended, a theatrical or symmetrical plan.
How much more interesting and more alive will be the work of the architect who, taking up piece by piece, the difficulties of his problem shall have completed a city view by a monumental group, adapted to the topography of its site, satisfying the demands of circulation, utilizing circumstances of the ground, differences of level, necessities for distribution, to produce a structure smacking of the place, and not of the vulgar beauty which flaunts itself in every capital of Europe and America.
Brussels shares with Lisbon, Edinburgh and Constantinople the advantage of being built on [an] uneven site, and thus offering varied points of view over the lower quarters and over monuments. Congress place, Belliard place, Poelaert place have outlooks over the valley of the Senne, which can be compared to the panorama of the capitals of Portugal, Scotland and Turkey.
We need not hesitate then to turn a street from absolute straightness or to go through a group of houses if we can thus secure a view of a belfry or interesting monument. But one must bring delicate taste to the choice of points of view. Thus it is that we criticise the street, that it was put through in front of Sainte Gudule church, and we greatly hope that they will not insist on prolonging it in a straight line to the galeries Saint Hubert, as had been planned.
Account should be taken of the architecture to which belong the edifices it is proposed to erect. Gothic churches constructed when streets, crowded within the ramparts of a walled city, formed a net of crooked and narrow paths, lost their aspiring character when they are isolated too much or seen from too great a distance. I still remember the deep impression I felt when, coming out by a crooked street upon a narrow square, I saw, all at once before me, the majestic facade of d'Amiens cathedral. This sudden apparition, in a way, stuns the spectator by its imposing upward rise of lines which are lost in the clouds.
If, on the contrary, a monument is first seen from a distance and increases little by little (as it is approached) the impression is insensibly dulled and the thrill is lacking. I had an even more striking proof of the truth of this principle. The first time I visited Vienna, the Ringen had not been built and the Votivkirche, one of the very few modern Gothic churches, rose in the middle of a broad plain. This church made little impression upon me. Some ten years later, going through Vienna, I went to see it again and was struck with the effect which it produced upon me, solely because the space had been narrowed about it as the square had been built up.
Buildings in classical style, on the contrary, need a more extended point of view because they stretch out horizontally and their symmetrical dimensions are better appreciated from afar; such as the dome of St. Peter's, which disappears as one comes near the Roman basilica.
One must keep in mind the fact that we can appreciate the dimensions of a building only by finding some point of comparison in the neighborhood. Here again, for example, the interior of St. Peter's at Rome always produces at first a deceptive impression upon the tourist who has heard of its colossal dimensions. Every part of the immense nave having the same proportions, the spectator has no real feeling of their actual size, but if he comes near one of the fonts, built by the pillars, he notes with astonishment that the little angels that support the shell are giants. That is the reason that I have always stoutly opposed making an open space about our Palais de Justice. Its principal note is its size; to have that strike us, we should preserve near to it smaller dwellings to serve as a scale; isolate the colossus and you dwarf it.
IV.-- ARCHAEOLOGICAL POINT OF VIEW.
Old monuments, old houses of artistic character or recalling historic memories should be preserved, and we should not hesitate to crook a street in order to spare them. We cannot look at an old plan of Brussels in the sixteenth century without bitterly deploring the disappearance of all our city gates (except one La Porte de Hal). To see how much it contributes to the beauty of our boulevard, helps one to imagine the effect that the others would have produced if, separated from walls which it was impossible to preserve, surrounded with open space proportionately restored, they still adorn our promenades. La Giunta de Valentia and the city of Nuremberg had that happy idea, and there is no traveller who does not congratulate them upon it when he finds himself before gates and towers which once helped surround these cities, and which to-day adorn their circular avenues.
Too often cities allow themselves to be persuaded to demolish the remains of old structures because they imagine their preservation is not of enough interest to justify the expense that keeping them in repair will involve; but they forget that, though taken by itself, each of these was perhaps of petty interest, taken together they contribute to the picturesque aspect of the capital.
It is against such error that I fought to preserve the Black Tower from threatened destruction. I then instanced how much its very stones tell us. They recount the suffering, the struggles, the triumphs of our ancestors; they give a reality and a scene for the facts of our history; they accentuate the curiosity of youth and make it ever hungry to learn the events of which they were mute witnesses. For those who know history, they call up the picture of the deeds which were done before them; they connect the present with the past, and keep echoing throughout our city a venerable and original accent that cuts through the monotony and the vulgarity of modern life.
Let us then scrupulously guard these witnesses of the past which adorn our streets with beauty; these invokers of old times and manners. They are the landmarks that our fathers have set on the path of our city's history. They mark the steps of its prosperity.
In former times public squares were exclusively markets. The Grande Place preserved the remembrance of this in its Flemish name. The Place de Louvain was the cattle market, the Sadlon the horse market. The wood market, the pig market, the cheese market, the grain market, the vegetable market, the hide market, the fowl market--these yet recall their first use. In front of the principal church there was generally a little square which became a place for waiting before or after services.
I do not think that there can be found in old Brussels a single square created, as is done in the modern city, solely to provide for a monument, a palace, a church, such as Palais Square, Poelaert Square, and Civilization Square; or to introduce rest or variety into the dull regularity of Leopold quarter (Place de l'Industrie). When a square has no practical use it is sad and deserted. It is an artificial creation lacking life and not justifying its existence. A broad square is its own explanation when it is placed at the junction of great arteries and serves to facilitate circulation. Brouckere Square, where five grand streets open, has admirably succeeded in this office.
Martyrs Square, situated away from the crowds, has a cemetery look which is accentuated by the funereal monument and the staid symmetry of the houses that face it.
Vegetation offers itself to make open spaces pleasant. The city administration of Brussels has used it as much as possible, and wherever it could plant a tree it has done so. I wish that in every plan for embellishment of the capital it could be insisted upon that space should be left for planting. Thanks to her magnificent park, to old ramparts transformed into boulevards reaching the Bois de la Cambre by a wooded avenue, Brussels has no reason to envy the very best capitals provided with promenades. But if consideration of the general effect which we are attempting to define had ruled the laying out of these avenues, how much more picturesque effect would have been obtained. When one examines a plan of Brussels of the sixteenth or even of the seventeenth century it is seen that from Schaerbeek to the l'abbaye de la Cambre extended a wreath of preserves, pools, little lakes fed from the Maalbeek.
If, instead of making a comparatively monotonous avenue at great expense by filling in and digging out from the Louise Gate to the Bois, the natural shape of the land had been utilized to face these ponds with promenades somewhat better developed than the too meager scale of vegetation preserved about the Ixelles ponds, the foot path might have been carried as far as the Bois by one of the most charming promenades that can be imagined, and there would have been prompted the building of city villas surrounded by gardens, just as one sees them at Frankfort and de La Haye. I had the pleasure recently of walking in the Chine at Bournemouth, where advantage had been taken of a rivulet to make a grassy vale crowned with villas buried in gardens. This vale leads to a forest of pines by a path, winding amid groups of trees along the stream which now spreads out in graceful pools, now bounds in foaming cascades.
Spaces offer thus a means of treating beautiful points of view, which blocks of buildings cut off. We owe Rond Point square and Saint Gilles park to the intelligent munificence of the Ring, who preserved views over d'Ixelles ponds, and over the broad panorama of the Senne valley. The Lacken public park, due to the same high initiative, permits the spectator to take in the enormous mass of dwellings accentuated with spires, towers and domes that Brussels in the aggregate presents.
About Brussels where aesthetic intent is shown in the restoration of the Grand Place, the preservation of old monuments, the planting of squares and tracing picturesque streets therein, extends and develops a circle of suburbs, where, unfortunately, no effort can lessen the dry vulgarity, the absolute insignificance of long straight streets, quarters plotted solely from a land sale standpoint. Except the chic town hall of d'Anderlecht and Schaerbeck's more dignified one, due to the same tasteful architect, no monument, no planted area alleviates the lack of interest that is presented by this formidable mass of houses already more numerous than those of its mother city.
What is most deplorable is the cutting down of all the trees which used to border the highways along which, these suburbs first grew. What beautiful avenues they might have formed. Of course one cannot expect growing towns, obliged to provide immediately for the demands of a modern city, to adorn themselves with monuments; but why not demand, in the cheap adornment of vegetation, in the preservation of old walks, means of enlivening the mass of bricks and of resting the eye from the dull gray of buildings? A few private citizens in our suburbs especially Saint Gilles, by putting variety into their houses have thus struck a more cheaply and picturesque note in the general platitude.
The same reproach, and better merited, can be addressed to our rural communities, such as 'Uccle, Keokelberg, Laeken, Vilvorde, Auderghem, and Boitsfort, where citizens used to love to sit under the fresh shade. These charming rural villages are slowly being transformed into sad little cities. Indeed, we now take the train to seek the country further on.
If the management of country sites had not merely had some taste but had known their interests, it would have preserved for their communities their rural character, by preserving clumps of old trees, shady walks, points of view; by prescribing a garden before each house; which would have led citizens to adorn them with climbing plants and preserved a smiling aspect to the village become a borough. It is the rural aspect that the English have been able to give their country residences to which is due so much of the charm of the suburban localities of that country.
Up to now we have treated only city plans, the distribution of squares and plant areas, but it is evident that what most conduces to giving a stamp of originality is the style of buildings. A fortunate trait of our national character contributes greatly, not to give Brussels the looks of a little Paris, a compliment that our amiable neighbors sometimes give us, thinking that we like it, but which, on the contrary, we are very glad not to deserve. We have not, as have the Parisians and other Latin peoples, a taste for great barracks, divided into apartments, which give to the boulevard and streets of Paris so monotonous a character. We are of Dante's opinion:
. . . . com' 'e duro calle
Lo scender e'l salir per l'altrui scale.
We like to go up our own staircase.
As the Anglo-Saxon, whose cousins we are, we love our home, the family fireside. We love to adorn our house, to embellish it as our business affairs prosper. We sympathize with the ingenious things that married couples do to make more roomy and convenient for the demands of ease and a growing family the dwelling where the young couple first builds its modest nest. The vast houses with which a French speculator at first garnished our central boulevard ruined him; our compatriots could not endure living in them, and even to-day they are occupied in great part only by foreigners, guests of passage, whose business brings them temporarily to Brussels.
When each one occupies his own house he naturally impresses his character and taste upon his dwelling; and we have seen the talent of our excellent architects promptly conform to local customs. It is enough to go through certain quarters where building commenced some thirty years ago to note the great progress of our, architecture and public taste. First come houses frankly vulgar. Windows without scale pierced in a bare facade; then come ornaments borrowed from Athens and Rome, denticulated cornices, balconies, supported by brackets, windows topped with pediments; next period is characterized by cast ornaments borrowed from a Renaissance of convention, exaggerated and absurd. Then comes what I should like to call the cabinet-maker's style, because the houses of that epoch resemble great buffets with ornaments much more befitting wood than stone.
Now taste has become more pure; even when our architects use classical styles or architectural features borrowed from antique styles, they do so with a better sense of their significance and a more happy use of proportion. Little by little the national mind for the moment fettered, has gained vigor and has expressed itself in buildings whose elements have been borrowed from the French Renaissance. That was foreordained, for it is a phenomenon that we see everywhere throughout Europe where national feeling is still strong.
Notwithstanding cosmopolitanism, which seems likely to result in closer and more free relations between nations, we see them reject, little by little, the classic tinsel which they had worn during the eighteenth century and the first empire, and little by little return to national styles. The fashions with which we had toyed from time to time, such as orientalism and Japanese culture found no echo except in a few rare Edens or Alhambras, too frail to be counted. This phenomena is seen in Northern and Central Germany, in England, in Holland, and in Belgium. The Latin countries alone remain faithful to the architecture derived from classical orders, because it corresponds to their sense of the beautiful. Austria, a composite monarchy where no special tendency can rule without stirring a protest, borrowed its models from the Italian palaces.
As to private buildings, therefore we have no fear, notwithstanding academic teaching the personal taste of the nation will ever re-appear and dominate. One can see it by looking about him.
The case is different with public buildings whose ordering belongs to the state or the city. Official taste is generally behind public taste; or, rather, official taste imagines in good faith that it alone has healthy traditions and that its duty is to maintain them. The state acts also by its schools in which natural traditional rules are carefully adhered to, and by its patronage which naturally goes to artists who conform themselves to certain official ideals. History teaches us how fatal are these tendencies to the development of art.
More than seventeen hundred years ago there lived a Roman Emperor. He passionately loved art. considered it from the highest standpoint and admired it as the majestic crown of Greek or Roman culture. With a cultivated mind gifted for fine arts, he sought pleasure worthy of a sovereign in architecture and in masterpieces of painting and sculpture. He gave to the activity of artists a field such as was never offered either before or after him. Incalculable sums were expended, so that the people ended by complaining at the imperial madness for building. He gathered in his Tiburtine villa copies of whatever--on his travels--he found most beautiful. The most celebrated edifices of Athens were there found reproduced. But posterity has remained indifferent to this artistic efflorescence bursting into bloom.
Though it had expanded almost under the sun of Greece, the glory of its beams appeared borrowed, since they lighted only the reproduction of classical models.
The Emperor could build and adorn Greek temples. He could not raise either Phidias or Polygnotas to give life to the dead forms of antiquity.
The names of the artists who worked for him are forgotten to-day. They were never original, they copied only Greek and Egyptian types. Their art was a reproduction of an old ideal with no stamp of its time, without local expression.
The nineteenth century has had its Hadrian also, and, visiting Munich, we can see the influence that King Louis of Bavaria had on the architectural art of his time:
The Prince Royal of Bavaria from the time of his visit to Rome appeared to have been seized with admiration for the great monuments of that old city; their contemplation had filled him with love for art, and seem to have inspired him with a resolve to restore German art, to make of his capital, as soon as he mounted the throne, the center of a great movement. He worked with perseverance to realize that ideal during his reign, and if the result has not been as satisfactory as could have been hoped it cannot be attributed to any lack of encouragement on the part of the King, but rather to the system that he followed, perhaps by his own inclination, perhaps because of the agents whom he was forced to employ to carry out his plans. The main idea of the architectural school at Munich seems to have been to copy, as exactly as possible, in fac-simile every building reputed great or admirable, to whatever.. country or whatever period of history it might belong, without considering its use or the site it was to occupy in the new capital. The King ordered his architects to copy the monuments he had admired in foreign lands. The result has been that Munich is little else than a badly arranged museum of dry specimens of foreign styles, often reproduced on a reduced scale, generally in plaster, more or less faithful copies of buildings of every epoch of every style, nine times out of ten planned for other uses and built in other materials.
If, on the other hand, the King had required of his architects that they copy nothing, but seek to produce buildings which were original and adapted to their use and to the climate of Germany, he might have been, perhaps, the founder of a school; which would have made his name illustrious to posterity.
Let us profit by this teaching of the past.
We see but two sources of inspiration for artists who seek to be of their time and of their country. These are the ornamental interpretation of forms which result from materials employed in building, and the adaptation to the use of the edifice of motifs taken from our national architecture. No style is created deliberately to order.
Architectural styles develop slowly, insensibly shaping themselves to the demand of materials, customs and climate. From the Parthenon to our Palais de Justice can be seen the gradual development of every member of architecture, and their origin can, be followed through Roman, Byzantine, later Ogival and Renaissance.
Unhappily at certain epochs artists have misunderstood the adaptation of architectural adornment, brutally transporting exotic buildings to climates which did not befit them, cruelly adapting them at the same time to uses for which they were never planned. In a damp and chill climate and under sky often dark, they raise buildings planned for a dry and warm climate and for a dazzling sky; they break national traditions to import a style borrowed from other races who had neither our deals nor our needs. Let the reader get photographs of St. Paul's in London, St. Isaac's in St. Petersburg, St, Nicholas in Potsdam, the Capitol at Washington, St. Jaques at Caudenburg, and we challenge him to say, merely by looking at their style, what nations built these monuments. These churches are in fact the production of art conservatories where, as the seventeenth century ended, they were trying to develop architecture by the teaching of the schools.
But, you will say, are you then of St. Luke's school, and do you wish to return to the traditions of the end of the middle ages, absolutely ignoring the art of the Renaissance which was only a return to the pure forms of classical antiquity ?
Nothing is more contrary to our idea. We persistently urge that architecture be the living reflection of the civilization in the midst of which it develops. If a considerable part of our society considered that Christian ideals ought to be followed, nothing more natural for them who have this faith than to go seek their inspiration in the essentially catholic art of the middle ages, avoiding with care the pagan influence of the Renaissance. I also believe that when it is a question of buildings, churches, convents, and even dwellings for catholic devotees, the Roman art and Gothic art are two sources of inspiration. So far do we applaud the persevering efforts of the schools St. Luke. Any impartial critic must recognize that they have not been sterile, and they have already produced noteworthy results.
But the artist who gives a more extended and more human scope to his activity cannot ignore the evolution that in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the return to the study of antiquity, encouraged by the Popes themselves, produced in art as in letters. To do so would be to forget one of the most brilliant periods of modern civilization. Its works breathed a youth and joy of life, a fecund vitality that absolutely distinguished them from those of the academic period. The latter coincides with the constitution of the absolute monarchies of the seventeenth and eighteen centuries.
It is so true that one can clearly distinguish in the architecture of this epoch a French Renaissance, a German Renaissance, an English Renaissance, a Scandinavian Renaissance; and, even in Italy, Rome, Florence, and Venice had each a special Renaissance. It is enough to compare with each other the Giraldi palace of Rome, the Strozzi palace of Florence, and the Vendramin palace of Venice, to understand this.
A clear proof that this new art, though taking root in old soil, varied its branches according to the climate in which it grew. When one remembers the chateaux of the Loire, Chenonceaux et Chambord; those of England, Longleat et Wollaton; those of Denmark, Rosenborg et Frederiksborg, one cannot sufficiently admire the sumptuousness with which architectural elements, borrowed from classical styles, have been bent to the demands of climate and the taste of the race.
Similar examples are met among us; but, to the end of the seventeenth century, our buildings preserved in the face of classical orders a free charm which proves that our architects dominated them, that they used them not as slaves but as masters. Antwerp, Bruges and Malines have preserved dwellings which attest a creating force and a spontaneous fancy which are revealed to their full extent in our famous Grand Place. There beats a national life, foreign to classical monuments frozen in the tyranny of their perfect models.
One gets an entirely different impression before the dry copy of antique orders of which the Munich Colonnade the Louvre, the Berlin Museum, the London National Gallery, and the Brussels Palace of fine arts, offer examples.
Selected, scanned, edited, provided with headnotes, and formatted as a web document by John W. Reps, Professor Emeritus, Department of City and Regional Planning, West Sibley Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA. Tel: (607) 255-5391, Fax: (607) 255-6681, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org To Top of Page To Homepage