The First Moderns: The Architects of the Eighteenth Century 
by Joseph Rykwert.
M.I.T., 585 pp., £27.50, September 1980, 0 262 18090 1
Show More
Show More

To omit architecture from cultural history would be absurd, but to integrate architecture, with its peculiar blend of abstraction, fantasy and technology, into a general history of culture is considerably more difficult than integrating images and texts. Where they are not obvious, utilitarian or problem-solving, the intentions of architects are remarkably hard to pin down. The limitations of Sir Nikolaus Pevsner’s famous Outline of European Architecture (1943) illustrate the difficulty. So illuminating in other respects, the book is less than satisfactory in its treatment of buildings as expressions of ‘Western Civilisation’. It communicates a diffuse sense of connection between Michelangelo’s poetry, Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises and late 16th-century churches and palaces, but the nature of these connections remains vague. To be told that the Escorial, say, was ‘more a monastery than a palace’, or that ‘Spanish etiquette stood for a discipline as rigid as that of the early Jesuits,’ does not take us very far towards understanding either the Escorial or the court of Philip II.

An alternative model of the relationship between the history of architecture and the rest of cultural history was offered by the late Rudolf Wittkower in his Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism (1949). Wittkower had two aims. The first was to relate the architectural practice of the Renaissance to contemporary architectural theory: Alberti and Palladio were, as he pointed out, ‘equally great as theorists and practitioners’. His second aim was to relate Renaissance ideas about architecture to ideas about man, nature and Classical Antiquity, more especially ideas about the mathematical structure of the universe and the analogy between musical and architectural harmony and proportions. Narrower in focus than Pevsner, Wittkower achieved a sharper definition of his subject.

The point Wittkower might have made about the Escorial, the point that one of his students, René Taylor, did make, was that it was an attempt to reconstruct that lost master-piece of architectural proportion, the Temple of Jerusalem, as seen by a Spanish Jesuit, J.B. Villalpando. Villalpando interpreted the book of Ezekiel as evidence that God had revealed to Solomon the secrets of musical harmony which were also known to Pythagoras and Plato. The rules of good architecture were thus supported by both reason (mathematics) and revelation.

Another of Wittkower’s students was Professor Joseph Rykwert. In a sense, his exciting new book, The First Moderns, does for the architecture of the 18th century what Wittkower did for the Renaissance. It starts where Wittkower left off, in the late 17th century. Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism ended with Claude Perrault. Unlike his brother Charles, Claude Perrault does not normally rate a place in histories of 17th-century thought. Paul Hazard’s classic Crise de la Conscience Européenne (1934) does not mention him at all. Yet Claude Perrault put forward revolutionary ideas in aesthetics. His Ordonnance des Cinq Espèces de Colonnes (1683) ‘broke decisively’ (Wittkower’s words) ‘with the conception that certain ratios were a priori beautiful,’ asserting that it is custom and not reason which leads us to find classical proportions pleasing.

Joseph Rykwert is concerned to place Claude Perrault in his cultural context. To the untrained eye, the Louvre scarcely appears to be a revolutionary work. However, the author points out that the coupled columns designed by Perrault for its east facade have no precedent in Classical Antiquity. They are self-consciously modern. He relates this architectural manifesto to the contemporary conflict between ancients and moderns, in which one of the leading supporters of the moderns was Claude’s brother Charles. He reminds us of the political aspect of the controversy. To say that the moderns surpassed the ancients implied that Louis XIV surpassed Augustus, and no doubt also that his minister Colbert, who happened to be the patron of the Perrault brothers, surpassed Augustus’s minister Maecenas. From another angle, Rykwert observes ‘Perrault’s affinity with Descartes’, who believed that it is culture, not nature, which determines what musical sounds we like to hear. He also compares Perrault’s ideas on architecture to those of the so-called libertins on religious and political institutions – institutions they believed to be based oh falsehood but necessary all the same. Avenues of thought radiate from Claude Perrault like spokes from the hub of a wheel.

Joseph Rykwert takes his readers down one of these avenues after another, although he cannot always resist the temptation to make detours. A discussion of the academies founded by Colbert leads to a digression on the concept of the ‘academy’ from Plato onwards. There is a section on Renaissance typecasting, another on Jansenism, another contrasting Poussin with Philippe de Champaigne. Eighteenth-century architecture does not appear on the horizon for sixty pages or more. It soon becomes clear that Professor Rykwert is a man of extraordinarily wide interests. No wonder that Alberti is one of his heroes. He has given us an immensely rich, fascinating and suggestive book, though somewhat bewildering and on occasion mildly exasperating.

The First Moderns is bursting with ideas – enough to launch a hundred doctoral theses – but these ideas are rarely worked out. The reinterpretation of the Venetian friar Carlo Lodoli, ‘the Socrates of architecture’, is important enough to be a book by itself, involving, as it does, not only the demonstration that one of the primary sources for Lodoli’s ideas, Algarotti, is unreliable, but also the discovery of a surviving building to his design, the pilgrims’ hospice next to the church of San Francesco della Vigna. It is also pointed out that Lodoli admired Vico and tried to have his New Science published in Venice. The discussion of Jansenism and architecture deserved at least an essay, rather than disjointed comments in different parts of the book. Some sections seem to be organised on the principle of free association. Some of the information necessary to understanding the argument is buried in the notes, which generally start as references to the text but end by engaging in discussions of their own. The dizzy jumps from one century to another are what one might have expected from the author of Adam’s House in Paradise (1972), a brilliant tour de force which pursues ‘the idea of the primitive hut in architecture’ backwards (more or less) from Le Corbusier through Viollet-le-Duc, Goethe, Lodoli, Palladio and Vitruvius to the hut of Romulus on the Palatine and the shrine of Ise.

There are a few minor inaccuracies, not to mention misprints. However, the book abounds in perceptive comments, illuminating juxtapositions and out-of-the-way information. Only one good opportunity for digression seems to have been missed. The discussion of Colbert and the arts draws heavily on an excellent old monograph by Lady Emilia Frances Dilke: some readers might have liked to know that Lady Frances (née Strong) was once the wife of Mark Pattison, and was widely believed to be the original of George Eliot’s Dorothea Casaubon.

The First Moderns would be easier to follow if it were stripped down to the bare structure, but it would also lose much of its charm and some of its value. If books could be transposed into buildings, Wittkower’s would be severe and symmetrical, like a Palladian villa. Rykwert’s, on the other hand, would be a rambling country house built at various times in a mixture of styles, surrounded by an overgrown garden, through which paths are intermittently visible. An aerial view reveals that the house has a plan.

Like Architectural Principles, The First Moderns is essentially concerned with the Classical tradition and its transformation. With characteristic breadth of vision, Rykwert discusses this transformation as an instance of changing attitudes to the past, notably the shift from the Renaissance assumption that Antiquity was homogeneous and authoritative to the new view that it was extremely diverse and in any case did not have to be followed.

Gothic architecture could now be taken seriously again. Perrault thought Gothic ‘not to be rejected out of hand’. Carlo Lodoli agreed, and so did the architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot, an 18th-century admirer of Perrault (not to mention Wren, Hawksmoor, Kent etc). Lodoli and his disciple Piranesi were interested in the architecture of the Egyptians and Etruscans. Chinese architecture was studied and imitated from the late 17th century onwards: Rykwert discusses the Pavillon de Porcelaine at Versailles (built 1670, pulled down 1687), as well as 18th-century examples. The increasing interest in the exotic was summed up in Fischer von Erlach’s Entwurffeiner Historischen Architektur (1721), with its engravings of Arab, Turkish, Chinese and Japanese buildings. Architecture had gone off the Classical standard.

The theme of changing attitudes to the Classical tradition is more than enough for a book of this length, but in his longest chapter, ‘Initiates to Amateurs’, and sporadically elsewhere, Rykwert takes up another, apparently inconsistent with the first. We return to Solomon’s Temple and its ideal proportions. Villalpando was not alone in his attempt to reconstruct it. Following Frances Yates, Rykwert discusses the interest in architecture shown by the Elizabethan magus John Dec and the possible connection between Dee and Inigo Jones. So far, so good: Perrault had not written yet. But it turns out – another exciting discovery – that Sir Christopher Wren, despite his admiration for Perrault’s writings, was also interested in the occult, and that Isaac Newton considered the Temple of Solomon ‘the original divine exemplar for all building’. Newton saw the drawings of the Temple made by the antiquarian William Stukeley. Where Villalpando’s Temple looks like the Escorial, Stukeley’s resembles Hawksmoor’s Christchurch Spitalfields. Another enthusiast for the Temple was Fischer von Erlach, whose Karlskirche in Vienna follows this exemplar.

Stukeley was a Freemason. The Masons think of God as the architect of the universe, and the legend of the building of the Temple of Solomon is one of their main traditions. Some of Lodoli’s disciples were Masons. That architects should have been attracted by Freemasonry is scarcely surprising: as Joseph Rykwert says, it ‘offered their professional activity as a model of the quest for wisdom’. The problem is to reconcile the continuing concern with ideal mathematical proportions in the 18th century with the new interest in exotic architecture, which was explained by the collapse of the Classical standard. It isn’t a question of some people following one line and others another, for Fischer von Erlach was involved with both. At this point one begins to wonder whether the book’s initial emphasis on Perrault’s belief in the arbitrary or culturally relative nature of beauty based on mathematical proportions may not have been a false trail. But what is the alternative?

In his Ancient Theology (1972), Professor D.P. Walker discussed the Renaissance argument that God had revealed certain Christian truths to pagan sages such as Plato and Zoroaster. The argument was later extended to China – for example, by the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher and by the Chevalier Ramsay (another Mason). Perhaps Fischer von Erlach’s admiration for Solomon’s Temple, combined with his interest in oriental architecture, could be accounted for on similar lines. When he lived in Rome, Rykwert tells us, Fischer moved in the same circle as Kircher.

Besides the changing attitude to the past and the continuing interest in the occult, there is also a social theme which surfaces from time to time in The First Moderns: the place of the architect in society. The effect of Perrault’s ideas, the author argues, was to reduce ‘the architect’s authority over his domain’ by taking the architect’s skills ‘out of the realm of reason’. ‘The nature of our responses to the world of artefacts, the way in which groups and communities appropriate space’ – questions like these were once studied by architects, but now sociologists and anthropologists have taken over. ‘Perhaps, if there is to be a place for the architect’s work within a future social fabric, he will have to learn how to deal with such problems again.’ I must admit that I am not convinced by this argument. So far as the historical side of the question is concerned, it is not clear that the architect had full authority over ‘his’ domain in the Middle Ages or even the Renaissance: patrons often knew what they wanted and insisted on it. In any case, if architecture shapes social life, then it is too important a business to leave to the architects. But perhaps Joseph Rykwert only means to lament the passing of the ideal of the architect as polymath, an ideal preached by Vitruvius and practised by Alberti, Michelangelo, Bernini, Wren, Lodoli. The argument deserves to be developed at greater length. As he may well be the last of the dinosaurs, Joseph Rykwert might consider devoting to this theme another of his learned, eccentric and perceptive essays.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences