Tuesday, May 1, 2007

La petite cabane rustique de Marc-Antoine Laugier

It is the same in architecture as in all other arts: its principles are founded on
simple nature, and nature’s process clearly indicates its rules. Let us look at man in
his primitive state without any aid or guidance other than his natural instincts. He is in
need of a place to rest. On the banks of a quietly flowing brook he notices a stretch of
grass; its fresh greenness is pleasing to his eyes, its tender down invites him; he is
drawn there and, stretched out at leisure on this sparkling carpet, he thinks of nothing
else but enjoying the gift of nature; he lacks nothing, he does not wish for anything,
But soon the scorching heat of the sun forces him to look for shelter. A nearby forest
draws him to its cooling shade; he runs to find a refuge in its depth, and there he is
content. But suddenly mists are rising, swirling round and growing denser, until thick
clouds cover the skies; soon, torrential rain pours down on this delightful forest. The
savage, in his leafy shelter, does not know how to protect himself from the
uncomfortable damp that penetrates everywhere; he creeps into a nearby cave and,
finding it dry, he praises himself for his discovery. But soon the darkness and foul air
surrounding him make his stay unbearable again. He leaves and is resolved to make
good by his ingenuity the careless neglect of nature. He wants to make himself a
dwelling that protects but does not bury him. Some fallen branches in the
forest are the right material for his purpose; he chooses four of the strongest, raises
them upright and arranges them in a square; across their top he lays four other
branches; on these he hoists from two sides yet another row of branches which,
inclining towards each other, meet at their highest point. He then covers this kind of
roof with leaves so closely packed that neither sun nor rain can penetrate. Thus, man
is housed. Admittedly, the cold and heat will make him feel uncomfortable in this
house which is open on all sides but soon he will fill in the space between two posts
and feel secure.
Such is the course of simple nature; by imitating the natural process, art was born. All
the splendours of architecture ever conceived have been modelled on the little rustic
hut I have just described. It is by approaching the simplicity of this first model that
fundamental mistakes are avoided and true perfection is achieved. The pieces of
wood set upright have given us the idea of the column, the pieces placed horizontally
on top of them the idea of the entablature, the inclining pieces forming the roof the
idea of the pediment. This is what all masters of art have recognized. But take note of
this: never has a principle been more fertile in its effect. From now on it is easy to
distinguish between the parts which are essential to the composition of an
architectural Order and those which have been introduced by necessity or have been
added by caprice. The parts that are essential are the cause of beauty, the parts
introduced by necessity cause every license, the parts added by caprice cause every
fault. This calls for an explanation; I shall try to be as clear as possible.
Let us never lose sight of our little rustic hut. I can only see columns, a ceiling or
entablature and a pointed roof forming at both ends what is called a pediment. So far
there is no vault, still less an arch, no pedestals, no attic, not even a door or a
window. I therefore come to this conclusion: in an architectural Order only the
column, the entablature and the pediment may form an essential part of its
composition. If each of these parts is suitably placed and suitably formed, nothing
else need be added to make the work perfect.

An Essay on Architecture, trans. Wolfgang and Anni Herrmann (Los
Angeles: Hennessey and Ingalls, 1977), pp. 11 – 13.