Columbia University, New York, NY, USA
Among the many tropes in nineteenth-century architectural theory, Victor Hugo’s claim that buildings had lost their communicative authority to printed books was the most prevalent. Implicit in Hugo’s famously digressive chapter of Notre Dame de Paris was the suggestion that architecture was but mute and inert material, and left to its own means of expression, was no longer able to render socially relevant ideals. That Hugo’s claim left an indelible mark on the nineteenth-century French architectural community is clear, but receiving less attention today is the equally coherent response to Hugo in the architectural press of the day. For the SAH session "Rethinking Architecture in the Age of Printing" I propose to examine the arguments leveled against Hugo’s dire prognosis for architecture.
It is no small irony that César Daly, the architect most vocally opposed to Hugo’s argument, was more important as founder of the nineteenth-century’s preeminent architectural publication (Revue générale de l’architecture) than as builder. As editor of the popular journal, Daly recruited a phalanx of young architects that attacked the problem from multiple angles. Some, such as S.C. Constant-Dufeux, articulated a theory of the symbol that borrowed from Romantic authors and celebrated the polysemic quality of historical forms and signs. Others, such as H. Espérandieu and Daly himself, took as starting point the spatial and formal disposition of architecture and mounted a theory in which the expressive quality of the line was paramount. While others still, such as V. Ruprich-Robert, saw Hugo’s challenge as being primarily about mechanical reproduction and sought a new attention to natural vegetal form as a possible solution to the dilemma. My paper will present the many readings and reactions to Hugo’s enduringly relevant dictum and make the claim that Hugo’s detractors paved the way for a modern mode of architectural expression.