Augustin Rey and the Logic of Air Resistance
Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA
How does air shape our cities? How does air become a factor in urban design? In a session before the 1906 International Congress for Sanitary Dwellings, Adolphe Augustin Rey famously compared cities to vast bodies “furrowed by canals of air.” Rey (1864-1934), a Beaux-Arts trained architect who would count Le Corbusier among his devotees, was then foregrounding his most well-known project: the winning entry for the Fondation Rothschild’s worker housing competition in Paris. Conceived between 1905 and 1909, Rey’s entry was a redesign of a triangular block formed by Rue de Prague, Rue Charles Baudelaire, and Rue Theophile Roussel. Rey’s design featured innovative open-air courtyards and perforated fašades that would not only filter and cleanse the air inside the building, but would also contribute to healthier air in the city.
This paper examines Rey’s winning design from a different context: the burgeoning aeronautical culture in turn-of-century France. The focus will be on his drawings, with their depiction of buildings as white solids and of the dominant winds as dark lines of moving air with variable pressures—in short, architecture placed inside a wind tunnel. Using archival and documentary evidence, I will demonstrate how Rey’s designs for the Rothschild competition provided an aerodynamic solution to urban block design. Rey’s name is not usually associated with aeronautics, and yet the fact that his drawings look like wind tunnel visualizations is no mere coincidence. Here, the operative logic is that of resistance. Much like the French physiologist Xavier Bichat understood life as a product of “resistance” against pathogens, Rey’s designs show architecture as a product of air resistance. In the end, this paper proposes how one of the most fundamental aspects of 20th century urbanism—the design of the city block—can be viewed in light of advances in aeronautics at the turn of the century.