From history to posterity: The <i>œuvres complètes</i> of Jacques -François Blondel and Claude -Nicolas Ledoux
In the late eighteenth century, the philosophical debate on time and the nature of history contributed to transform the Classical system of thought into a new one, where the idea of time and the consciousness of history invested all the fields of human knowledge. This study examines architects' struggle with this debate, and how the new historical consciousness not only changed architectural theory, but the relation that architects had with writing.
In the 1770s, philosophers and writers concerned with posterity, Diderot, Rousseau and Voltaire in particular, put together œuvres complètes intended to constitute a final image of both the work and the author, and destined to the future centuries. Architects, also concerned with posterity, started to look at the text as the privileged agent of historical survival, and the best way to ensure the transmission of their ideas. As an architectural work and an intellectual tool more versatile than the building, the treatise provided the opportunity to reopen and complete a life's oeuvre.
Through his teaching and treatises Jacques-Francois Blondel constituted the first ‘body of doctrines’ of French architectural theory. Blondel was also conscious of the importance for architects to write and transmit their ideas to the future generations. At the end of his life, a small treatise in the form of an epistolary novel with autobiographical tones, allowed him to address a public image he resented, and revise some of the theories he advocated early in his career. L'Architecture… of Claude-Nicolas Ledoux epitomizes the idea of œuvres complètes in architecture. Started as a conventional collection of plates destined to patrons, it evolved to become the venue were Ledoux revisited, recreated and completed his work, but also recreated himself as a character and an author inseparable from his work. Ledoux offered his treatise to a new public, that of the future and posterity. The book marks a decisive shift and an inaugural moment, from which a new power and meaning were ascribed to the written text. Beyond participating to a theoretical debate within well defined limits, architects realized that the text could be the medium of historical survival and the site of architecture.