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Building a House - What Architecture Is

"It froze last night,"said Branchu;"and it's going to be a hard frost." "Well, you must cover the stone-work with litter or straw, and we shall have to stop. Put some scaffold planks on the walls, the straw over them, and slabs with stones at intervals. Take care that the planks project beyond the faces of the walls. If you have not straw enough, put soil on the slabs, or turf clods. As to the cellar vaults, spread a good layer of mould over them, and contrive some openings in the haunches, so that the rain or melted snow may run off. Come, set to work ! Let all this be arranged for and finished to-morrow evening; then we will stop till the end of the cold weather." "So much the better,"said Master Branchu,"for all the young fellows are gone, and none but poor creatures are left at the works." "This suspension of the building,"said Eugene, when th ey were returning to the permit us to work out the details of construction without having to hurry over them." "Yes,"replied Paul;"but I should much like to know how you set about it when you have to draw one of the details." "You must have learnt that in the two months we have been doing this sort of work." "Not quite; I perceive that you say what you intend, and that what you intend shows itself drawn on paper; now, I have tried to do the same, but though I knew well what I intended, I could bring nothing to paper; or if I did draw anything, it made me forget what I had in my mind. Yet, surely, for everything one wants to do in architecture, there must be a method, a process, a - what should I call it? - a recipe." "Ah ! now I see what you mean. But you must per ceive, my young cousin, that people often fancy they understand and intend, while they really do not always know what they intend, and do not clearly understand the question in hand. All this morning, for instance, you have been revolving in your mind this question which you have only just put to me; and I have wished to give you leisure to present it in a definite form - to do which your brain has been obliged to work. Now, thanks to the effort you have made, you will comprehend the answer I am able to give you better. You remember those two lines of Boileau's "Ce que l'on concoit bien s'enonce clairement, Et les mots pour le dire arrivent aisement," and which are applicable to all the arts. The great thing is to habituate one's self to clear conceptions. Unfortu nately we learn to form phrases before we learn to reason, and try to express an idea before it is completely elaborated in the brain. Then we fancy we can supply what is incom plete in this idea by a happy combination of words. In architecture we think of forms that have seemed attractive, before knowing whether they will be exactly appropriate to what reason and the rigorous observance of the neces sities of construction, or the requirements of the case, demand. In a speech, the vulgar are readily seduced by a brilliant phrase, and perceive only too late the intellectual void which this seductive form conceals. Similarly, in architecture, the vulgar are seduced by a picturesque as pect and an attractive form, and have to pay the penalty of their error in the defects of the building. M. Durosay, in his admiration for certain forms that had cliarmed him as a tourist, has not thought of asking himself whether these externals were in harmony with the requirements to be satisfied, and what the structure itself demanded; the turn of the phrase has arrested his attention, and he has not inquired whether there was a clearly developed idea behind it. We might, therefore, have argued together in this way for days, without hope of convincing one another - he being entirely occupied with the form or fashion of the phrase, and not troubling himself as to whether this form has a signification - whether this phrase expresses a clear idea. All depends on this, my dear Paul, and, in my judgment, our country, which is so near the verge of absolute ruin, will not recover itself until it learns to reflect before it speaks. We build immense edifices, costing fabulous sums, yet we have no clear idea as to what they shall contain. Or rather, we think only of making the casing, and leave it an open question whether we shall use it for such or such a purpose. And I would have you observe that this unfor tunate habit prevails not with regard to public buildings only. How many respectable men there are who, like M. Durosay, in proposing to build a house for themselves, first determine to erect a chalet, or an Italian villa, or an English cottage, according to the fancy of the moment, and make it quite a secondary question whether life will be comfortable in the case they are going to put up ! Conse quently you will see Italian villas in the north of France and Swiss chalets at Nice. Learn to reason, to observe before you proceed to act, and you will be a good barrister, a good physician, a good soldier, a good architect. If nature has endowed you with genius, so much the better; it will supply a noble complement to your faculties; but if you have not gained the habit of reasoning, genius will be of no use to you, or rather, it cannot develop itself. Now, to learn to reason, you must labour much and labour long, and not allow yourself to be led astray by appearances, however attractive. Unfortunately, our education and in struction in France lead us to content ourselves with mere appearances, and to rely on traditions which are regarded as articles of faith, and which consequently may not be discussed. You will find M. Durosay's portico confronting you everywhere. The army, the government, literature, politics, and the arts have their portico, which you must adopt, whatever has to be done or wherever an entrance has to be provided; unless you have sufficient energy, power for work, independence of character, practical knowledge, persistent determination, and the authority which that alone can secure, to say : - I will adopt your portico only as far as I think it advantageous to make use of it. But to return

to your question as to whether any definite prescriptions or rules of procedure can be given in architecture, I reply that there are practical rules of procedure suitable to construction; but as the materials and the means of execution vary continually, any such rules ought to be modified by these variations. In architecture there is a method to be followed in all cases that present them selves, but there are no definite prescriptions or rules of procedure. This method is none other than the applica tion of your reasoning faculty to all particular cases; for what is desirable in one set of circumstances is not so in another. It is therefore on the observation of these cir cumstances - of facts, customs, climate, and hygienic con ditions - that your reason must rely before forming the conception of your work. And when this operation is complete, and all is properly arranged in your mind, then you will be able to put on paper without hesitation the result of this intellectual labour." "I think I apprehend your meaning; but how must I begin?" "By acquiring the habit of observing everything, and reflecting on everything you see, hear, or read. When you have a ditch before you that you want to cross, do you not ask yourself whether your legs will carry you to the other side? do you not know, as the result of previous observa tion, whether you can jump the ditch or not, and do you not decide accordingly? You do not ask yourself before jumping whether Achilles or Roland was alleged by the poets to have leaped much wider spaces. It is yourself, your own strength, that you consult - not that of heroes - on pain of tumbling into the water. Exactly in the same way, if you have to build a house for a person you know, you first remind yourself that a house is made for people to live in; then you represent to yourself the habits of the owner, you calculate the number of apartments he requires, and what relations they will have to each other. You know whether he lives alone, or entertains much company; whether he will live in the house at such or such a season; whether he affects luxury or lives quietly; whether he has many servants, or employs only one, &c. : and when you have thoroughly considered all these essential conditions, you will try to put on paper the result of these observations. But if the first thing you think of is putting this person and his family in a house like those of Pompeii, or in a feudal chdteau, it is a thousand to one that you will build him an uncomfortable habitation - that you will be obliged to sacrifice the convenience of its arrangements in order to assign them a place in a building that belongs to a period and a civilization differing from our own civilization and times." "I can quite understand that, but still we can learn how to make a door, a window, or a staircase." "That is to say, it is possible to explain how people in former times set to work to make a door, a staircase, or a floor; but it is not proposed, nor ought it to be proposed, in teaching you the methods employed by our predeces sors, to oblige you to do exactly what they did, since you perhaps possess materials which they did not, and your customs differ from theirs. The instructions given you run thus, - at least they ought to run thus : These are the results of the experience acquired during past ages; make these your starting-point; do as your predecessors have done; use your reasoning faculty in applying the knowledge that has been acquired, but in obedience to the requirements of the present. You ought not to be ignor ant of what has been done before you, - it is an accumu lation for the common good, a possession secured to man kind. You ought to be acquainted with its existence and value; but, as a partner in its advantages, add your store of intelligence; make a step in advance, do not retrograde.' But observe : there is only one means of preventing retro gression in architecture, and that is making art the faithful expression of the requirements of the time in which we live, - making the building a casing suited to that which it is destined to contain." "And is not this always done?" "Not exactly. We are something like persons who have inherited from their ancestors a costly stock of furniture, - a venerable and venerated heirloom - who keep and make use of this furniture, though it is inconvenient to them, and no longer suits the habits of the times; who have even gone so far as to appoint a guardian for this old lumber, who is enjoined not to allow it to be modified. If therefore you, the master of the house, want to change the covering of this furniture, or send some of the articles themselves, which are more inconvenient than useful, to the lumber-room, the guardian you pay and lodge assumes a dignified air, and declares that the function with which you have invested him, and which he makes a point of strictly discharging, forbids him to allow these modifications or suppressions; that his honour is concerned in not allowing these relics to suffer injury or change, since he is com missioned to preserve them. For the sake of peace, you continue to make use of this intolerable furniture, and you retain its guardian." "I do not quite understand you." "By and by you will. But observe, I have given you fair warning. If you go into some old mansion crammed with antiquated furniture, take care not to criticise it; for though the host and hostess may content themselves with smiling, the guardian of those curiosities will take good care that you never set foot in that house again."

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yourself, idea, learn, set and reason