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Building a House - Reflections

"A large commercial company was on the point of erecting manufacturing works on an extensive scale. They had engaged an architect who was proposing to erect buildings in the Roman style, which was not exactly what they wanted. They did not think it quite to the purpose to build in the plains of the Loire edifices re calling the splendours of Ancient Rome. I was introduced to the directors; they explained what they wanted to me. I listened; I worked indefatigably to acquire what I was ignorant of, in order to satisfy my clients. I visited fac? tories, made the acquaintance of large contractors, studied building materials, and at length furnished the draft of a plan which pleased them, but which would scarcely satisfy me now. The work was begun; assiduous study, and constant attendance on the ground, enabled me to supply my deficiencies in point of knowledge, so that they were satisfied with my commencement. Most of these gentle men had town and country-houses. I became their archi tect, and this soon obtained me large practice and more work than I could execute; especially as I have come to the conclusion that it is necessary to be always studying, G 2 reasoning, and improving; so that (looking at the matter in this light) the further you advance the more difficulties you have to encounter." "How, then, should architecture be studied?" "Why, - as I have shown you, - by practising it. In France, at any rate, no other method has been employed hitherto, and perhaps this is the best." "But how do those learn to build who do not travel, as you did, but simply study in the usual way?" "They do not learn to build. They only learn to imagine and design impossible structures, under the pre text of preserving the traditions of high art;' and when they are tired of putting these fancies on paper, they have a place as clerk of works given them, where they do what you are going to do; the only difference being that they feel a disgust for the work because they were ex pecting something very different." "But, beginning as I am going to begin, shall I be able afterwards to study the - what shall I call it?" "The theory, - the art, in short. ' Certainly, you will be able to study it much more easily; for the modicum of practical knowledge you will have acquired in building a house, or in seeing it built from foundation to roof, will enable you to understand many things which, without practice, are inexplicable in the study of the art. This will give you the habit of reasoning and of satisfying yourself as to the why and wherefore of certain forms and certain arrangements dictated by the necessities of practical building, - forms and arrangements which appear simply fanciful in the eyes of those who have no idea of those necessities.

"How are children taught to speak? Is it by explain ing to them the rules of grammar when they are only three years old? No; but by speaking to them, and inducing them to speak to express their wishes or necessities.

When they have learned to speak nearly as well as you and I do, the mechanism and rules of language are ex plained to them, and then they can write correctly. But before learning according to what laws words ought to be placed, and how they ought to be written to compose a phrase, they had become acquainted with the signification of each of them.

"If we had not in France the most singular ideas re specting teaching, we should begin with the beginning, not with the end, in the study of architecture. We should impart to students the practical elementary methods of the art of building, before setting them to work to copy the Parthenon or the Therm of Antoninus Caracalla, which, for want of those first practical notions are to them mere phantoms; we should thus train their young minds to reason and to become aware of all their deficiencies, instead of exciting their youthful vanity by exercises purely theoretical or artistic at an age when they cannot clearly understand the forms that are given to them as models."

"A house such as we are going to build seems to me a very small affair. Surely such a construction can hardly supply the information necessary for erecting a great edifice." "Do not imagine that, Paul; construction, apart from Certain branches of scientific and practical knowledge, which you will be able to study at leisure, is nothing but a method, - a habit of reasoning, - a compliance with the rules of common sense. Of course you must possess common sense and consult it. Unfortunately, there is a school of architects which disdains this natural faculty, asserting that it fetters imagination; for we have among us idealists, as there are in literature and among painters or sculptors; though if idealism is permissible among littIrateurs and artists, - for there it is harmless, - in archi tecture it is quite another thing; it is expensive, and you and I have to pay for it. We have consequently the right to consider it at least out of place. The reasoning faculties and good sense have to be called into exercise quite as much in building a house as in constructing the Louvre, in the same way as you may show tact and intellect in a letter as well as in a large volume.

"The ability of an architect is not determined by the quantity of cubic feet of stone he uses. The size of the building makes no difference." "You maintain, then, that as much ability is required to build a moderate-sized house as to erect a vast palace?" "I do not say that; I say that the faculties of the mind, reasoning, accuracy, the exact appreciation of the materials at our disposal, and their proper use, are mani fested as well in the construction of the simplest habitation as in the erection of the most magnificent architectural monument." "I shall then be able to learn much in observing the building of my sister's house?" "Certainly. First, because one learns much when one has the wish to learn; secondly, because in a house, as in the largest of palaces, the entire architectural staff will have to present themselves before you, from the excavator to the decorative painter. Whether the carpenter makes twenty doors or two hundred, if you can get a clear notion of how a door is made, hinged, and hung, one alone is quite enough; you have no need to see a thousand." "But here we shall not be making doors (for example) such as those of royal apartments?" "No; but the principles on which they are, or ought to be made, are the same for both; and it is by departing from these principles that we fall into mere whims and follies. When you know how a wooden door is made you will see that the structure is adapted to the nature of the material employed, viz., wood, and to the purpose it has to serve. This knowledge acquired, you will be able to study how clever men have made use of these elements, and how (without departing from fundamental principles) they have produced simple or splendid works; you will be able to do as they have done, if you have talent, and to seek new appli cations of principles. But you must, in the first place, know how a door is made, and not imitate at hazard, while destitute of this preliminary practical knowledge, the various forms that have been adopted, be they good or bad." Paul continued thoughtful all the rest of the day. It was evident that he was becoming aware of grave diffi culties, and the building of his sister's house was assum ing in his mind disquieting proportions. Returning to the clu2teau, he began to look at the doors, the windows, and the wainscoting, as if he had never seen anything like them in his life; and the longer he looked, the more con fused, complicated, and difficult to understand did it all appear to him. He had never asked himself by what con trivances these pieces of wood were combined and held together, and found hardly any satisfactory solutions of the questions he was putting to himself.

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