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Thieving Baltard!

Niall Hobhouse on the 19th century painter turned architect’s exhibition in Paris

What, besides its continuous occupation over centuries, makes a city great? Specifically, what can designers do, in periods of spectacular growth, to mediate and preserve continuity (and greatness)? What might an exploding Moscow be learning now from the pattern of change of the built-form of 18th-century London, or of Paris in the middle years of the 19th? From London, not perhaps so very much. The Georgian city seems to have been a kind of slow accident: a shifting cocktail of land ownership structure (aristocratic, and cash hungry, ground-landlords), a limited material palette (brick and stucco), and low consumer expectations (theprimary residences were still in the country). Mostly good luck then, and, for once, a reticent profession.

Paris, in the years between the fall of Napoleon I and the fall of Napoleon III, offers some more positive lessons, when faced with a rate of growth equivalent to London’s and with social pressures that were much more dramatic. The recent exhibitions devoted to the work of Henri Labrouste and Victor Baltard suggest one intriguing answer, and together imply that there are sometimes moments in history when architects can indeed assert themselves as useful agents in the city, without necessarily addressing very directlythe city itself.


It was said that Baltard took the idea of Saint Augustin from Labrouste’s great library schemes

Throughout the period architectural circles were consumed in a vigorous theoretical debate about the nature, and the styles, of the new building typologies that were appropriate to the modern city.More than anything, it was the precision and tone of this debate that set the scene for the breathtaking quality of the new urban monuments which were built for commerce and public education (in the present context, Baltard, for the markets; Labrouste, for the libraries), while the city re-formed itself around them. And if this talk sounded at times rather narrow and abstract, that may just be something that contemporary architects could do well to note before making their own large claims to be the makers of the city.

What is remarkable, certainly, is the quality and passion of a public discussion, begun by Pierre François Léonard Fontaine in his aborted schemes under the Empire and continued (at various tempos andvolumes) first by his pupils, through the three decades after 1830 by Labrouste and Baltard, and later by Viollet-Le-Duc and Garnier. Of course it all ended badly, as all long-running architectural arguments tend to do; an exhausted truce was declared by the beginning of the 1860s. One can accept the Opera Garnier as a key moment in architectural history without believing that profligate eclecticism offered it a real future. If the story told in this way sounds a little broad-brush, keep in mind that for much of the same period most architects in Britain were trapped in the narrow frame of Ecclesiology, while the others − the Nashes, the Burtons and the Barrys − just got on with the business of building the city, without any equivalent ideological apparatus to speak of.

The parallel careers ofLabrouste andBaltard began more or less at the same moment in the Villa Médecis, each as winners of the Grand Prix. The former had already left before Ingres’ arrival as director in 1835, a key event in Baltard’s professional formation. Both participated in the revolutionary rethinking of those years, as to what a modern architecture might take from the buildings of ancient Rome. Charles Garnier’s mot,that the young Baltard could have ‘become an excellent doctor, or a remarkable politician, a scientist or a manufacturer, a poet or a merchant’, says something about the fluid human geography of Paris in the 1830s (any trace of the sneer which we can perhaps hear is belied by the phrase in the French, and as pronounced by that grand fonctionnaire of the Second Empire).


Baltard’s drawing of Les Halles. The architect was accused of cribbing the iron structure from a rival project by Hector Horeau

In fact, Baltard did not choose architecture over his first training as a painter until his departure for Rome (and he was collaborating on canvas with Ingres himself after he got there). On his return he was indeed to deploy many different survival skills throughout an astonishingly successful career which was to last into the 1870s, as an architect in public employ. Thus do youthfully self-conscious radicals become, in their later years, the safest pairs of hands; but his career was certainly accompanied throughout by a level of médisance from his competitors − that he had cribbed the iron structure of Les Halles from a rival project by Hector Horeau, or that he had taken the idea of Saint Augustin from Labrouste’s great library schemes. At times indeed Baltard does sound exasperated, and too shrill, in his own defence.

What does remain elegiacally memorable is the enormous public popularity of the great market buildings, and the photography and the descriptions of the light as it flooded through the roof and sides of a building of such mundane utility. That, together with the great elegance of its detailed design, in which slender triangular brackets were substituted for tie-bolts at real additional cost, on a slim pretext of structural stability.

The exhibitions in Paris, Henri Labrouste at the Cité de l’architecture (AR December 2012) and Baltard at the d’Orsay, could together have been read as a charming reprise of the professional rivalry of their two subjects; but French institutions are subject totheir own curious rivalries, and last autumn no reference in either museum could be found to the exhibition currently on display at the other. In 1841 both architects had submitted projects for the defining architectural competition of the age − a tomb for the returning body of Napoleon I, under the dome of Mansart’s chapel in the Invalides.

Labrouste’s consisted of a huge oval bronze shield set on eagle brackets which held it just enough above the floor to allow light, and the reverential gaze, to penetrate to the tomb in a simple crypt below. Baltard’s proposal, shown for the first time at the d’Orsay, had an equestrian statue by Marochetti in the Cour outside, the base ornamented with a bronze door that led down into a plain corridor towards the crypt, where the tomb itself sat below the crossing under a mosaiced vault; in the church, directly above, lay a bronze recumbent Napoleon on a stepped pedestal. In the event the jury was inconclusive, choosing neither the melancholy simplicity of the one nor the bold grandeur, and smooth expediency, of the other. As sometimes happens, what must have seemed then the commission of a lifetime reverted to Louis Visconti, the architect originally appointed for the job.

Victor Baltard (1805-1874), Iron and Paintbrush

Where: Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France

When: Closed 13 February 

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