Fictions in eighteenth-century French architecture

2009 Fictions in eighteenth-century French architecture«If we wish to study the architecture of a particular period in history, we must not overlook the insight given into it by contemporary literature or art. This is particularly true when the architecture itself features unreal elements or fictions, elaborated in space as if they were stories made not of words but constructed forms. This is the case of eighteenth-century French architecture so often conceived of as a theatre stage upon which aristocrats lived out their lives, whilst the more prosaic facets of their existence took place in the wings. This paper addresses eighteenth-century French architecture from the viewpoint of the literature of that period and aims to reveal the relationships between literary fiction and the imaginary or deceptive nature of architectural space.

Regardless of its type —a literary text, a work of art or play performed on stage— the ultimate aim of fiction is the credibility of its subject for, by definition, fiction is intended “to convey something not true”. Fiction is proof of a deception and consequently an inherent element of art. Not for nothing have some authors associated its decline with the “decay of lying”. Unlike undeniable, scientific principles, art aims to “make people believe”. Its realm is not that of demonstrating the truth but of evoking things credible. Knowing there is no need to say or show everything in order for people to understand, artists employ their resources to stimulate the beholder’s imagination.

This being the case of literature, painting and drama, one wonders if architecture might involve a similar type of fiction too. Weighed down by functional and construction imperatives, there seems to be little room for illusion.

However, a theatre’s stage is basically an architectural space. What is more, at certain times in history, the house or household where people led their everyday life was conceived of as a sort of stage where, far from behaving naturally, individuals acted out roles assigned to them by a theatricalised society. And in this “theatre of the world” what mattered was not so much their identity as subjects as their participation as characters in the fabric of society. This was the case of French society during the Ancien Régime and its architecture too: a fiction that was in itself a new art form, the “endless mechanical manipulation of space”.»

Fictions in eighteenth-century French architecture.” Paper presented at the Constructing Knowledge/Das Wissen der Architektur conference, RWTH Aachen, Germany, November 5-6, 2009.

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