Page 1


Radu R. Macovei December 2013 Architectural Association School of Architecture

Preluding Guidelines Meaning must be the criterion – Roland Barthes It would seem that anything is likely to happen – Claude Lévi-Strauss

A cow walks in a cow.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, “Bibliothèque numérique”, (13 December 2013).

The Cowshed

At first glance, the image and its title might infer the zoomorphic structure’s


appurtenance to a kind of proto-group of Venturian ducks. Indeed, perhaps Jean-Jacques Lequeu’s cow did precede and inform Robert Venturi’s duck. However, scratching the surface, one might conclude that the only characteristic reconciling the two is their blatant zoogenic image. The cowshed may be a bovine temple and Long Island’s Duckling may be an Anatidaen Cenotaph, but the former - unrealized, singular and decorated - seems to entail a scenario, while the latter - real, reproduced and skinned (there are no visible feathers) - is merely a sign, a Jencksian hotdog, to use an analogue Post-Modern duck: “When hot dog stands are in the shape of hot dogs, then little work is left to the Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (London: Academy Editions, 1978, p. 46. 1

imagination, and all other metaphors are suppressed.”1 Lequeu’s cowshed begs for imaginative speculation: it lies on a ‘fraîche prairie’, an ambiguous location, has an obscured interior and an unseen occupant, only the title being indicative of its function. But most importantly, we are left confused about its meaning: why would a cowshed need be large, if taking the scale of the tree, placed on a plinth with articulated corners, taking the form of a cow with a rug and an antel-like cup on its back? The image is ludicrous on its own, but when one imagines a bovine entering another through its legs, it reaches the ridicule. In this light and from a personal perspective, the narrative seems aleatoric. Jean-Francois Lyotard would say, faced with Lequeu’s cowshed, that the messages are incompre-

Jean-Francois Lyotard, quoted by Philippe Duboy, Lequeu: An Architectural Enigma (London: Thames and Hudson, 1986), p. 349. 3 Emil Kaufmann, “Three Revolutionary Architects,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society Vol. 42 Part 3 (1951): 558. 2

hensible,2 if there are any at all. It is not surprising then that Emil Kaufmann attributed Lequeu with “[introducing to building] the emotional and the irrational.”3 But in light of what Charles Jencks refers to as a code specific to a culture, a time and a place, one could perhaps imagine that in a Hindu context where the cow is a sacred animal, the bovine could, rightfully so, be sheltered by a temple that takes its form and then retakes its form in the horns of the cup in an ascending structure placed on a plinth. To that we can add our knowledge that Lequeu did in fact use motifs inspired by Oriental cultures in other projects (Indian Pagoda dedicated to Intelligence, Indian Pavilion of Delight). All of the sudden, the message is comprehensible, the metaphor explicit and the enigma elucidated.

Henri Bergson, “The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics” (Mineola: Dover Publications, 2007), p. 56. 4

Disorder is an order we cannot see,4 explains a proponent of intuition in the creative arts.


Bibliothèque nationale de France, “Bibliothèque numérique”, (13 December 2013).

The Temple to Equality in the Garden of Philosopher P.

Anthony Vidler importantly observed that Lequeu “presented his designs in elevation and Anthony Vidler, The Writing of the Walls (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1987), p. 121. 5

section; his buildings always have an orthographic personality, but rarely in plan.”5 This is revelatory of what one could call the narrative character of his projects. The abstraction of the plan does not serve the symbolism and the characterology of Lequeu’s architec-


ture; in this sense, the elevation and the section are employed as tools to express the story


of the architecture. In the Temple of Equality in the Garden of the Philosopher P., we are faced with a strong interior of glorified lights and grand shadows with a statue on a pedestal raised to the midst of this cosmos. By comparison, the plan only exposes a series of concentric circles with no reference to scale, abstractly suggesting composition without revealing a narrative. Unlike his contemporaries’, Etienne Louis Boullée and Claude Nicolas Ledoux, Lequeu’s credo lies in an intuitive outburst as opposed to “rigorous thought” and “sense of proJean-Claude Lemagny, “Jean-Jacques Lequeu” in Visionary Architects (Houston: University of St. Thomas, 1968), 150. 6

portion.”6 Stating that in Rendez-Vous de Bellevue “Lequeu has moved one step beyond Arcimboldo, as if, having decomposed a face into its principal shapes, he then remade


Vidler, 123.

the face with facial elements that stood for other facial elements,”7 Vidler concludes Le-


Vidler, 123.

queu’s architecture is an “écriture architecturale”8 rather than an architecture parlante, the accepted historical definition of the work of the architects in the times of the French Revolution. In this sense, Lequeu’s architecture is a form of writing, not only challenging the codes of architectural communication his contemporaries adhered to, but encoding it with new meanings and functions. Illustratively, analysing Lequeu’s projects through the lens of architectural communication is problematic: the dome is an egg in the Henhouse, the column a tree trunk in the Chinese Kiosk, the window a cannon ball in the Gunpowder Magazine and the door a keyhole in the Temple of Divination. Not only would an analysis of these substitutions in terms of elemental architecture be prosaic, but it would also lack a holistic positional understanding: sequence, and not composition, is primordial in deciphering the codified architecture of Lequeu. In this sense, the question of meaning compels a different kind of analysis, one specific to the realm of literature, where a unit negotiates its place between morphology and syntax to have meaning conferred on – an analysis of the narrative itself. An architectural analysis would limit the understanding to the ‘language’ of Lequeu’s drawing, failing to understand that language and


Bibliothèque nationale de France, “Bibliothèque numérique”, (13 December 2013).

The Temple to Equality in the Garden of Philosopher P.

meaning (literature) cannot be distinguished from one another. Justified and provoked by Vidler’s statement that Lequeu’s architecture is écriture architecturale, we will employ structural literary analysis to decipher Lequeusian narratives. Beyond understanding narrative, the wider purpose is to cast judgment on Lequeu’s place in the history of architecture, which this essay argues is in the Post-Modern movement where the narrative approach to the architectural project emerged as a trend, only to be shattered more recently by the very same criticism that led to the downfall of myth as a social presence, and namely that in the context of the narrative, “anything is likely to happen. There is Claude Lévi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth,” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 68, No. 270 (October-December 1955): 429. 10 Patrick Schumacher, “Schumacher Slams British Architectural Education”, The Architectural Review (31 January 2012). 9

no logic, no continuity”9 and that the result may be “a provocation at best, but often ends up as nothing but naïve posturing.”10 Not only does Lequeu share the same approach to and belief in architecture as those of many Post-Modern architects, but he also shares the same criticism against that belief. But let us now delve in an analysis of the recently dreaded role of the Post-Modern narrative by referencing its forerunner and arguably, founder – Jean Jacques Lequeu.


Bibliothèque nationale de France, “Bibliothèque numérique”, (13 December 2013).

The Henhouse


The Language of Narrative

The sentence, as the total unit of linguistics not reducible to the sum of its words, is the Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text (Glasgow: Flamingo and Fontana Press, 1977), p. 85. 11

structural model of the narrative: “a narrative is a long sentence.”11 The narrative can thus not be broken into sentences and each sentence in the narrative embodies the narrative whole. Thus the narrative in literature is not a simple sum of propositions, more evident-


ly marked by places in architecture, but a complex system of organization, or the space of the architecture. Lequeu’s Subterranean Labyrinth for a Gothic House embodies this conception and will be a recurring model for deciphering narrative through linguistic means. The general space is the narrative order: a sequence of rooms, interrupted by corridors. The first room is a tower, hollow at its core, extending in a vaulted niche on one side, expanding in a gallery interrupted by three corridors on the other side. At this point, the meaning is incomprehensible. The second room is built on three levels: an underground corridor, a cantilevered vault and a double-layered dome, all pierced by an axial hollow. The third room is entered from a gallery mirroring the one connecting the tower to the second room. It is composed of two spaces continuing from the previous. The fourth room is incomplete, entered through an ascending gallery, following through the two strands. Here, the language of the narrative (the “long sentence”) already suggests we are dealing with a path that starts in the tower and follows through a series of steps. Each sentence, or each room, embodies the sequence throughout, i.e. the third room continues uninterruptedly on both sides and expands both in the ground and in the ceiling thus marking a step in a series. The language of the narrative – the series of rooms and corridors - is not to be confused with the language of the drawing – the aesthetic quality, the aesthetic style, the morphology and the context. The latter elements provide the description for the levels of meaning to unfold. In this context, the language of the drawing is, linguistically speaking, the descriptor of a sentence. In the Subterranean Labyrinth for a Gothic House, the following diagram emerges where the vertical levels are distributional (they distribute elements) and the horizontal are integrational (they integrate elements to form meaning).


Bibliothèque nationale de France, “Bibliothèque numérique”, (13 December 2013).

Subterranean Labyrinth of a Gothic House

Beyond these levels of description which build up the language, there are three integrational narrative levels which assert for meaning: functions, actions and narration.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, “Bibliothèque numérique”, (13 December 2013).

Subterranean Labyrinth of a Gothic House

II. Functions Functions are the smallest narrative units that convey meaning and, in any linguistic


form, are recognized as significant details. In this sense, narratives are only made up of 12

Barthes, 89.

functions and therefore, everything within the narrative signifies.12 Functions are thus either operational – they correlate moments – or indicial – they signify meaning and have varying levels of importance, some being cardinal, others being catalysing. Let us identify the functions of Lequeu’s Subterranean Labyrinth. The cardinal operations are the entrance – accessibility or inaccessibility, the first corridor – the choice of access to the second room or to the passageway, the second and third rooms – passage or impasse, and the fourth room – accessibility or inaccessibility. These functions are consecutive and consequential, the exposure of one opening to or barring the next. The operational catalysers are the corridors, galleries and the fifth room which are purely consecutive and whose exposure does not have consequences to the narrative. Lequeu’s narrative is highly indicial in character. Indices refer to a “diffuse concept which is nevertheless necessary


Barthes, 92.

to the meaning of the story”13 and are very often true metaphors. The cardinal indices are the large cylindrical void of the entrance tower – articulating an enclosure, the descending staircase – signifying the impossibility of escape upon entry and the singular directionality of the narrative, the weapons in the second room auguring pain, the fire in the second room – symbolizing hell, the water in the third room – expanding the metaphor of the primordial elements, the gradually diminishing heights of the rooms suggesting a selective process, the gate at the end of the third corridor underneath the seated statue in the fourth room – auguring an end to the sequence, and the statue on a throne in an elevated alcove – suggesting a trial. Probably the most important index, however, is the trinity of passageways intersecting the corridors. It is generally known that the narrative number three never just means three and in this context, the index places the entirety of the narrative under the sign of the mythical and, in particular, of the world of Freema-


Lévi-Strauss, 430.

sonry. Structuralist thinkers argued that politics replaced myth in modern societies14 and in the case of Lequeu’s Subterranean Labyrinth the myth implies a political happening – the French Revolution - which is both “a sequence belonging to the past […] and an


Lévi-Strauss, 430.

everlasting pattern which can be detected in the present French social structure.”15 This is

Indice Operation

Bibliothèque nationale de France, “Bibliothèque numérique”, (13 December 2013).

Subterranean Labyrinth of a Gothic House

clarified by comparing the last room of Lequeu’s narrative and the image of “The Goddess of Reason at the Jacobin Fête in Notre-Dâme” in 1793 which depicted a pagan deity on the high-altar, celebrating the end of religion. While we may not know whether Lequeu attended this ritual or not, he was a freemason and a political activist who fought against the monarchy during the Revolution and the Goddess in the final room of judgment on the pedestal in the Subterranean Labyrinth strikes in similarity to the Goddess of Reason in Notre-Dâme, notably because they are both wearing a Phrygian hat, a symbol of reason. The sequence of rooms of what seem to be trials which conclude with supplication to the Goddess of Reason is a process of initiation where the very notion of a ‘subterranean’ labyrinth alludes to appurtenance to a secret society, a trademark of Freemasonry. Supplementing the index, the informant provides pure data to “embed fiction in the real 16

Barthes, 96.

world:”16 the interstitial spaces and infrastructures in between vaults and walls which demonstrate an intricate technology, the smoke filling two vaults of the second room and leaving through the chimney accentuating the presence of intense fires, amongst others. Bringing these elements together and relating them to one another is a chronology of functions clustered in sequences. In the Subterranean Labyrinth, the sequences are in fact places and the hierarchy of functions emerges from a spatial hierarchy. These are not clearly delineated: when one starts, the previous could continue within it. “The structure


Barthes, 104.

of the narrative is fugued,” it “holds and pulls on.”17 This is not based on a consequential relationship between sequences. Indeed, to enter the corridor leading to the room of water one would have to pass through the room of fire, at whose end one may not reach. But if reached, the passageway beneath uninterruptedly follows through, as does the smoke of the fire. Following the room of water, the staircase’s and the passageway’s ascent prolong and simulate the inclined side of the pool - the narrative is ‘holding on’ – while the cloudlike motifs on the wall in the corridor foretell the following chamber’s aerial theme – the narrative ‘pulls on’. But the narrative is not only holding on at the level of functions, but also at the level of actions – at times in the analysis we have assumed the performance of an action.


Bibliothèque nationale de France, “Bibliothèque numérique”, (13 December 2013).

Subterranean Labyrinth of a Gothic House

III. Actions The role of the actions of a narrative presumes an analysis of the Lequeusian characterology. The universe of characters in Lequeu’s work is dominated by either a codified self-portraiture, a recurring muse or a lack of living beings. One can find Lequeu himself as a column in a static condition of praxis, as a voyeur, making love in a “Hammock of Love”, as a female in the bed of the wife of the Béglierbejs of Rumélie. The multiplicity of and contradiction in poises (at times man, at times woman, at times hermaphrodite) reveal a complex and disturbing psychology, but the codification in architecture through narrative generates meaning very much in resonance with that practiced by Post-Modern architects. Not only is meaning codified in the architectures of Lequeu and in that of Post-Modernism, but the character, or the grimace, rather is found in the ‘face’ of the building. When one compares Vidler’s description of Lequeu’s façades as “faces” that laugh, yawn, purse 18

Vidler, 119-121.

their lips18 (notice the humour) with Charles Jencks’ observation of the edifices on either


Jencks, 39.

side of the Thames “shouting, […] and giggling”19 at each other, one would be assertive to associate the two conceptions of architecture. Returning to the narrative exemplar – the Subterranean Labyrinth – we find there are no characters present. The fact is, there are no living beings present, only assumed statuesque incarnations of fire, water and, if following the primordial elements motif, air. While the effigy of fire is an etching, that of air is a hollow statue, the figure of water is more codified – it is obscured, un-sectioned, sculptural, and yet begs for doubt. Much of the work of Lequeu casts uncertainty over the living and the statuesque in his figurative drawing. The prime example is the very sexualized Les Priapées des Satyres et Bacchantes where the violent movements of the minotaurs build a convincing living picture of the figures down to the arm of the male on the right which is cut off revealing a solid interior. The question of replica and original fits within the theme of mimesis in Lequeu’s work, if one refers to the cowshed we started with, “they were simply replicas of their originals, if not the


Vidler, 122.

originals themselves.”20 The water muse is not a living being, but a moribund one, which

Bibliothèque nationale de France, “Bibliothèque numérique”, (13 December 2013).

Bed of the Wife of the Béglierbejs of Rumélie A Hammock of Love Les Priapées des Satyes Priapées des Satyres et Bacchantesres

means we are dealing with a chthonic characterology, much in the freemason spirit. Who 21

Barthes, 104.

is to be the character then? Aristotle informs us there may be actions without characters21 and this must be the case with the Subterranean Labyrinth. In this situation the actions


Barthes, 107.

are the major articulations of praxis:22 Entrance, Descent, Passage, Torture, Passage, Struggle, Passage, Waiting, Trial. But these major articulations always have the possibility of terminating in an overbearing signifying action – Death. Torture (Burning), Struggle (Drowning), Waiting (Life), Trial (Condemnation) all imply the possibility of Death and this is where the uncertainty and therefore the passion of the narrative stems from. Death has both a functional and an actantial role in the narrative of the Subterranean Labyrinth. At a functional level, Death is the narrative logic of the narrative time. In this sense, through the possibility of endless duration of torture, struggle, waiting and condemnation comes the speculation of endless inaction. The torturous fires burn persistently even though no character is subjected, the violent waters fluctuate constantly albeit no contained, the judging figure sits imperatorially although there is no one to accuse. The narrative satisfies itself in continuous action without reaction. In this sense, the narrative metaphor extends to and expands the narration itself: the architecture is already dead because both the characters and the narrator


Barthes, 111.

are always “paper beings.�23


Bibliothèque nationale de France, “Bibliothèque numérique”, (13 December 2013).

Subterranean Labyrinth of a Gothic House

IV. Narration Due to the generalized actantial uncertainty, the level of narration is highly enigmatic


and coded. Instead of dealing with characters, we will deal with ‘persons’ who have two attributes: linguistic and psychological. Even the statuesque figures have an intentional and a rhetorical role in the narrative. An illustrative example is in Lequeu’s Temple of Silence. In elevation, the six female statues in the façade seem to be rushing away from the temple; in section, however, another intention is uncovered: the statues are leaning towards the walls of the temple to listen. The rhetorical person is in the elevation and depicts the females rushing out leaving behind a silent temple. The intentional person is in the section and exemplifies play in Lequeu’s work, always tending towards the ironic: what could the females be listening to in a Temple of Silence? In the Gothic House, the seated statue, a person of the narrative, has an unknown intentional role (one does not know what the statue does), but the clear rhetorical role of adjudicating. The unknown intentional role keeps the enigma going; of course, the enigma is falsified because there are only actions, but no characters; thus the irrelevance of the intentional role. This is particularly important in a context where the narrative content, the logos, is subjugated to 24

Barthes, 114.

the act of its delivery, the lexis, generating a “pure present.”24 We can only ‘read’ the language of the Lequeusian Labyrinth, and deduce the content from it. The narrative is not explicit, only its language is, and by prioritizing lexis over logos, Lequeu casts suspense over the totality of the narrative. Here we do not speak of the “threat of an uncompleted


Barthes, 119.

sequence,”25 instead we speak of the threat of an uncompleted narrative (even the fourth room is incomplete). Partially, this is due to the incorporation of death in the actantial level, but the rest is accounted for by the linguistic character of the space. “Narrative does not show, does not imitate; the passion which may excite us […] is not


Barthes, 124.

that of a ‘vision’. Rather it is that of meaning.”26 This is almost to paraphrase Charles Jencks who renounces the Venturian concern with image for that with meaning in his pursuit of a language of Post-Modern Architecture. Post-Modernism in this conception is narrative and aims at transforming architecture into something of an “écriture architecturale”. Of course, within this realm, there is much bad narrative that can barely be


Bibliothèque nationale de France, “Bibliothèque numérique”, (13 December 2013).

The Temple of Silence

considered as such. When the codes are obvious, the enigmas weak and the language subsumed to content, there is no narrative. In this sense, Lequeu’s narrative recounting the tale of initiation of Sethos, a young Egyptian prince who undergoes the trials of fire, Günter Metken, “Jean-Jacques Lequen ou l’architecture rêvée,” Gazette des Beaux Arts (April 1965): 223-225. 27

water and air,27 marks itself as the paradigmatic example of a Post-Modern architecture where historicism, revivalism, neo-vernacular, metaphor, in one locution – radical eclecticism, to paraphrase the contents page of the Language of Post-Modern Architecture, merge to generate meaning. To add another, humour is key: does Lequeu kill Sethos? ‘Narrative’ has been recycled in architecture to the point where, under the pretext of Post-Modernism’s eclecticism, contradiction and complexity, it has been imbued with weak links. By way of example, Herzog&deMeuron’s 2008 CaixaForum in Madrid does reveal a narrative of movement across five stages which, through the play of elements (fake versus real windows; old versus new bricks), instruments dramatic surprises. However, the architectural promenade culminates at the top in a predictable enclosed retail space rather than in, say, an open-air deck that could have cast the city as the fifth space. Jencks would attribute this flaw to the prevailing agnosticism, but, as often before, here the architecture of narrative is compromised by the economic motive once again. Perhaps true narrative is only possible in paper architecture.


Spanish Cultural Tourism, www.espachinos. com (24 November 2013).

CaixaForum, Madrid Herzog&deMeuron, 2008

Bibliography Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text (Glasgow: Flamingo and Fontana Press, 1977). Claude Lévi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth,” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 68, No. 270 (October-December 1955). Günter Metken, “Jean-Jacques Lequen ou l’architecture rêvée,” Gazette des Beaux Arts (April 1965). Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (London: Academy Editions, 1978. Emil Kaufmann, “Three Revolutionary Architects,” Transactions of the American Philossophical Society Vol. 42 Part 3 (1951). Philippe Duboy, Lequeu: An Architectural Enigma (London: Thames and Hudson, 1986). Anthony Vidler, The Writing of the Walls (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1987). Jean-Claude Lemagny, “Jean-Jacques Lequeu” in Visionary Architects (Houston: University of St. Thomas, 1968). Patrick Schumacher, “Schumacher Slams British Architectural Education”, The Architectural Review (31 January 2012) online source, last accessed: 27 November 2013.

The Sundial Arcade in the Thematic House, London;

The Subterranean Labyrinth of the Gothic House;, Bibliothèque nationale de France

The Dairy House – “face-building” - and the Hen House – “an architectural joke”;, Bibliothèque nationale de France

Lequeu's Self-Portrait as a Woman;, Bibliothèque nationale de France

Cindy Sherman's History Self-Portrait as Madame de Pompadour;

The Cowshed - Venturian Humour?, Bibliothèque nationale de France

The Façade of the Temple of Silence - Figures are fleeing;, Bibliothèque nationale de France

The Section of the Temple of Silence - Figures are listening;, Bibliothèque nationale de France

He is Free - Lequeu as a great failed artist;, Bibliothèque nationale de France

Lequeu looking in the Mirror: the Post-Modern Wink?, Bibliothèque nationale de France

‘Frontispice’ of the New Method; “Lequeu: An Architectural Enigma” by Philippe Duboy

Rem Koolhaas: the Angry Serene;

Eduardo Paolozzi's “Head of Invention”;

(P)relocating the Language of Post-Modern Architecture  

Radu R. Macovei History and Theory Studies 3rd year Architectural Association

Read more
Read more
Similar to
Popular now
Just for you