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The Story of the World

A deeply researched and comprehensive work by Jacques Lucan, Composition, Non-Composition examines the history of the word in terms of architectural formulation

Recently the term was ‘parametric iteration’; some decades ago it was ‘design method’; but for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the word ‘composition’ served to indicate the process, if not the rules, by which a work of architecture was designed. Appropriately enough, the word ‘composition’ came into full service at the same moment that the curriculum of architecture became established in schools − from the École des Arts of Jacques-François Blondel, through the long reign of the École des Beaux-Arts and surviving in the Modern Movement to the middle of the 20th century. The teacher and encyclopaedist Blondel devoted an entire chapter to it in his magisterial Cours d’architecture (1771-77); the polytechnician JNL Durand systematised its rules for his two-year students, the École ratified it until, ossified, it came under attack from outsiders like Viollet-le-Duc. But, as Lucan point out, even the radical introduction of ‘Gothic reason’ could not dispense with its procedures, and, as Le Corbusier was to demonstrate, its ghost lay behind the elaboration of the free-plan.

‘Composition’ was thus a fundamentally French idea, but the French system spread to Britain (the University of Liverpool) and the United States (MIT, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, and with the appointment of a Beaux-Arts architect, Jean Labatut, Princeton). As Colin Rowe observed in his ground-breaking article, ‘Character and Composition; or Some Vicissitudes of Architectural Vocabulary in the Nineteenth Century’ (written in 1953-54, first published in Oppositions 2, 1974), ‘the shelves of any representative architectural library in the United States or Great Britain might suggest that between 1900 and 1930 the major critical interest of the architectural profession throughout the English-speaking world lay in the elucidation of the principles of architectural composition’. Save for this one article, however, and the numerous handbooks published between 1800 and 1930, there has been no serious attempt, before this deeply researched and comprehensive work by Jacques Lucan, to draw out the history of this formidable word, that at the height of its usage demanded a rigorous approach of the student and architect that enabled the formulation of a parti, or starting-point, appropriate for every programme and any site.

The history assayed by Lucan is thus not one of individual buildings, styles or technology, but rather of ideas of architectural formulation before the emergence of final projects or constructed works.

As Lucan writes, ‘composition is antecedent to “styles”, or, to put it another way … a given composition can be dressed in several different “styles”.’ A question of ‘syntax’ rather than ‘vocabulary’, the idea of composition at any moment in the 19th and 20th centuries is intimately bound to the idea, or theory of architecture itself. Shifting from the 18th-century theory of the arrangement of interior rooms, to the volumetric organisation of irregular plans in the Picturesque movement of the early 19th, thence to the disposition of identifiable elements of the programme in the Beaux-Arts, to the rational organisation of structure and ornament in the Gothic Revival, and operating as an abstract technique of manipulating what Rowe called ‘an architecture of pure form’ from 1900 to the 1950s, ‘composition’ emerges in Lucan’s account as the primary key to modern architectural thought.

As such the book marks a welcome and long-awaited breakthrough in the history of architectural theory. In one sense its belated arrival can be explained by the history of ‘composition’ itself, as only when definitively abandoned as a technique, or strategy of design, could its profiles and deep influences be written. Rowe, who made the first attempt, was himself trained in the attenuated Beaux-Arts curriculum of Liverpool in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and indeed his vision of Corbusian and Miesian Modernism was always to be inflected by compositional formalisms − an analytical and design approach which he was successful in handing down to successive generations of architects from James Stirling and Peter Eisenman to many of my own generation at Cambridge or Cornell.

Lucan, as a part of the generation of ‘68 in Paris, and having previously written the history of that generation in its struggle against the Beaux-Arts system, is well-placed to take a cooler, insider look at the immense success of a word and a concept that, as he concludes, still exercises a considerable, but almost invisible power over architects from Rem Koolhaas to Herzog & de Meuron.


OMA’s Casa da Música. In Lucan’s book, Koolhaas is presented as the latest adept in the long tradition of conveying meaning through the abstract process of ‘composition’

Lucan’s narrative, as he develops this ‘story of a word’, is never dry or dull, as the question is always addressed through examples − whether drawn from the rule books, or analysed as the processes by which projects emerge. His own order of composition is, however, not entirely chronological, but thematic, moving from an introductory discussion of what he calls the ‘closed order’ of the 19th-century academic system, to its apparent opponent in Viollet-le-Duc’s emphasis on ‘construction’, and only then to a treatment of the question of ‘irregularity’ embodied in the Anglo-American Picturesque movement, itself beginning in the 18th century. His final chapters deal with the ‘open order’ developed in Modernism, and the present day, poised in his terms ‘between composition and non-composition’.

In this thematic rather then chronological treatment, something important about the continuing discourse of architectural order is lost. While satisfying a certain epistemological approach, signalled by Lucan’s citation of Michel Foucault at the outset, the often violent debates and oppositional partis-pris of the last three centuries are occluded, and the to-and-fro of argument, treatise versus treatise, not to speak of the battles among different schools − of thought as well as education − seem dropped in favour of the investigation of their inner systems. Thus, to take the most glaring example, the Picturesque is named as a ‘new paradigm’ following the Beaux-Arts and Viollet, as if it emerged as such chronologically. Yet, as we know, the influence of the originally British movement on late 18th-century French composition, especially in the realm of gardens − although, as Laugier attests, in urban planning as well it was strong − remained as a theme for rural architecture alongside and often opposed to the Beaux-Arts before being adopted as the ‘rule’ for American country houses with the Shingle Style.

This lack of a dialectical approach, however, in no way diminishes the innovative nature of the book, with its extraordinarily original takes on individual thinkers and projects. Some of the best analyses, appropriately in regard to Lucan’s earlier research, are of Le Corbusier’s projects for villas. Long buried beneath the apparatus developed by Rowe − neo-Palladian, transparency ‘literal and phenomenal’, and Mannerist − Garches, the Beistegui apartment, together with the Mill Owners’ Association Building, Ahmedabad, are revealed in a new guise as the heirs to the opening up of compositional modes brilliantly reformulated by Le Corbusier.

Finally, the analysis of Koolhaas’s diagrammatic programming gains enormously when placed in the context of the hundreds of previous diagrams in the book. If not the ‘last architect’, Koolhaas is seen as the latest in a continuous history of an idea, that, through the manipulation and inversion of solid and void, volume and surface, interior and exterior, has remained a fertile instrument of conveying meaning, not through style, but through the abstract process of ‘composition’ until today. Whether or not the recent rise of computer science represents a new ‘paradigm shift’ in this history is a question Lucan leaves unanswered.

Composition, Non-Composition, Architecture and Theory in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Author: Jacques Lucan, EPFL

Publisher: Lausanne, distributed by Routledge

Price: €75

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