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Entretien avec David Van Zanten

Interview with David Van Zanten

Texte intégral

  • 1 David Van Zanten, The Architectural Polychromy of the 1830's, New York, Garland Publishing, 1977.
  • 2 Voir notamment : David Van Zanten, « Semper, Hittorff, Labrouste, Jones et la polychromie en archit (...)

1David Van Zanten est un des plus importants redécouvreurs de l’architecture du XIXe siècle ; depuis la fin des années 1960, ses recherches visent à montrer que, loin de se limiter à n’être qu’une série de pastiches instrumentalisés par les classes bourgeoises nées de la Révolution industrielle, celle-ci est pavée de moments d’invention très féconds. À cet égard, sa thèse soutenue à l’université d’Harvard et publiée en 19771 a révélé combien les débats autour de la polychromie architecturale, nés du développement des recherches archéologiques, ont insufflé un renouvellement de la création architecturale2. Il livre aujourd’hui aux Livraisons d’histoire de l’architecture des réflexions inédites qui ont plus largement trait à la manière dont la question de la couleur, dont on sait l’importance pour la modernité architecturale, a plus particulièrement contribué à renouveler la manière de concevoir la ville au XXe siècle.

2Livraisons d’histoire de l’architecture : What are the starting points of your new reflections?

3David Van Zanten : We might start with an important moment when questions revolving around polychromy become institutionalized as an enseignement in London, in the multiple projects of Henry Cole : his museum, his school and the new buildings in Kensington for these institutions, the Exhibition building for the World's Fair of 1862 and the South Kensington Museum complex nearby with the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Albert Hall. Although I would argue that it was this last, facing the magnificent new Albert Memorial out in Hyde Park, that was the most important for the evolution of practical architecture of the third quarter of the nineteenth century, let us start with the teaching in Cole's institutions. It was formulated especially by the two most interesting explorers of polychromy of their time, Owen Jones and Gottfried Semper, for a moment in their complex careers, at the same place and at the same time.

4Polychromy previously had not followed a single line of argument. The scholar Quatremère de Quincy had introduced it in his Jupiter Olympien of 1815 in terms of monumental sculpture. Hittorff had shifted it to architectural design in the 1820's, culminating with his monumental Restitution du temple d'Empédocle finished in 1851, inspiring architecture students in Rome (especially those at the Académie Française) to imagine competing systems of ancient architectural coloring. While Owen Jones, first in Grenada, then in London, was slowly, laboriously printing the colored plates of his glorious Alhambra of 1836-1845 and Gottfried Semper was bringing out the first hand-colored plates of his Vorlüaufige Bemerkungen über bemalte Architektur und Plastik bei den Alten of 1834.  This confusion, in fact these, making it all the more important that two of the leaders of this exploration found themselves both in London in the early 1850's, both working in Henry Cole's tentacular institution, everyone there trying to bring these and other ideas together as a system of decorative design.

5L.H.A. : Why are London and Henry Cole so important in that regard?

6D.V.Z. : One reason why this tense merging of polychromy's explorers in early 1850's London is important is that while there had been a number of dramatic presentations of the idea that Greek temples had been emphatically painted before then, these were in very different and usually sharply polemical situations. They had been worked out as suggestions, caricatures or as art-works-in-themselves rather than as an entry-point to grasping the basic nature of architectural design as they finally became with Cole's institution : something to have on the street rather than in your head. 

7As is well-known, the issue was first decisively presented by a leading scholar of the decades around 1800, Quatremère de Quincy, in his massive 500-page Le Jupiter Olympien (1815) with its hand-colored frontispiece. Then came J.-I. Hittorff's 1820's presentations of his archeological study of traces of painting on the temples themselves (citing Quatremère), claiming archeological authority, but soon answered by the almost caricatural reconstructions of a rebellious generation of Grand-Prix-winning students at the École Française de Rome, pivoting on that of Henri Labrouste executed in 1828, inspiring a burst of controversy.  A bit to the side, two brilliant non-French students in a private atelier in Paris, Bindesbǿll and Gottfried Semper, soon started experimenting in the early 1830's with color, both archeologically and in practical architecture. Soon, Owen Jones with his French friend Jules Goury began his amazing adventures in the Aegean, along the Nile, and finally in Spain, at the Alhambra, producing Jones' magnificent three-volume folio book of colored plates, Plans, Elevations, Sections and Details of the Alhambra.  This led on to the general reconception of architecture as color in various ways in all history, as explored by Isabelle Frank in The Theory of Decorative Arts (2000), especially in its ornament, as documents in Jones' own Grammar of Ornament (again published magnificently but now as a textbook for Henry Cole's instructional project in South Kensington) demonstrate.

8Yet, this story has at least one further chapter, inspired by the establishment of the École Française d’Athènes, opened in 1847. Grand Prix winners in architecture were required to spend one of four years there, producing studies of Greek architecture just as they had been required to at the Académie Française in Rome. But by this point, the issue here is no longer archeological (as in the case of Hittorff) or political (as in the case of Labrouste) but theatrical. That is, polychrome reconstruction had now become a tool for the demonstration of decorative skill to be appreciated not archeologically, but for itself. Beginning in the late 1840's these included studies of major Greek temples, and these increasingly were rendered painted. In the case of Paccard in 1846, modestly and subtly, but in those of Charles Garnier in 1853 and finally Loviot in 1881, elaborately and blazingly.

9L.H.A. : But today, however, it is not these "archaeological" questions that interest you, but rather the extension of this imagined "polychrome world" into the broader context of the most important issue of the late 19th century : the reimagining of the new urban street.

10D.V.Z. : Yes, absolutely. Among these more "local", political, professional debates, thrusts implicit in the most striking incidents in the emergence of architectural color (polychromy) in the mid-nineteenth century, Henry Cole's impetus in South Kensington, for all its novelty, seems fundamental. He brought the two most committed, systematic and brilliant researchers, Owen Jones and Gottfried Semper, together, if uncomfortably, and let them build their ideas into a broad enseignement pivoting eventually on two of the most important books of the mid-century : Jones's Grammar of Ornament of 1856 and Semper's Der Stil in two thick volumes of 1860-1863. But even more important for me here, is that Cole also saw accomplished the construction of the South Kensington complex of buildings, polychrome in different ways, culminating in Albert Hall, by his dutiful military engineer collaborator Francis Fowke, facing and echoing Sir Gilbert Scott's magnificent Albert Memorial on its axis out in the greenery of Hyde Park.

11L.H.A. : Could you tell us about the influence of Cole’s conception in Europe ?

12D.V.Z. : I can begin with the last image in the plate atlas of Viollet-le-Duc's A building system, discussed in the second volume of his Entretiens d'Architecture, dated on its title page 1872 (Ill. 1). It is of a typical Paris house front on one of the new Paris streets, in color, built of polychrome tile over an iron skeleton, following a system developed at the Menier ceramics factory in suburban Noisiel. What interests me in this is that polychromy, that had previously been a matter of applied color on the surfaces of public monuments, now has become part of a reconception of the city street. This, at the very moment when the study of just this was becoming the central issue of modern design for a new class of inhabitants who were enclosing themselves in reconceptualized built environments : Napoleon III's Paris ; the Viennese Ringstrasse ; the New Berlin of the 1870's and after ; New York and Chicago a decade or two later. Cole's and his engineer friend Fowke's buildings here are nowhere so colorful or decorative as Viollet-le-Duc's facade, lightly covering the consistent metal frame he now suggests. Viollet-le-Duc cites Fowke's work for Cole and then Saulnier's factory complex to propose a broader and more beautiful application of terra cotta on typical facades (mass-produced off-site, he writes, and assembled swiftly) forming the rapidly multiplying new streets of Paris. That is, he makes the fundamental and revolutionary suggestion that the use of iron frame covered with terra cotta sheets will make the space of Paris bloom with a completely novel polychrome decoration.

Ill. 1 : Viollet-le-Duc, « Projet d’immeuble en encorbellement », structure métallique et revêtement de faïence

Ill. 1 : Viollet-le-Duc, « Projet d’immeuble en encorbellement », structure métallique et revêtement de faïence

Entretiens sur l’architecture, Atlas, Paris, Éd. A. Morel, 1872, pl. 36.

13The amazing thing about Haussmann's decade earlier "transformation" of Paris with his wide boulevards, was the insistent, unbroken off-whiteness of their legislated surfaces. Cole not only gave an important impetus to new design skills in his Department of Practical Art, but also set a precedent in the largest city in the 19th-century world, just when cities were exploding in size and densifying in texture.

14L.H.A. : And how did this infused architectural and urban creation at the end of the nineteenth century?

15D.V.Z. : The architecture of the street became very important in post-Cole, post-Haussmannian nineteenth-century Europe, the discussion set moving by the publication of Camillo Sitte's Städtebau in 1889. It was an important step beyond what Haussmann and his assistant and successor Alphand had presented to the world a generation earlier. A step taken up almost immediately in Brussels by the mayor Charles Buls, publishing in 1894 his own much shorter book on city spatial esthetics, and his architect friends like Victor Horta, as well as the Parisian admirer Eugène Magne, settling there for a while and then back in Paris, publishing his Esthétique de la rue in 1901, republishing earlier articles in the Mercure de France.

16More systematic and legislatively effective was the German reaction after 1900, theoretically spoken for by Karl Scheffler in his articles and short texts, most effectively in his Moderne Baukunst of 1907/1908, expanded upon systematically by his young admirer Walter Curt Behrendt in his first book, Die Einheitliche Blockfront of 1911.  By this point, the construction of street space, rather than grids of housing units, has transformed into the model of blocks designed as a whole, with a shared common space inside and a single "architectural" facade composition facing outward. The example Behrendt privileges being that of a quarter in Berlin, with a continuous exterior pattern with regular retreats to raise the whole block to a three-dimensional work-of-architecture. Behrendt says this exemple could be improved, but that "deren Ergebnis sich in den Satz zusammenfassen lasst :  Nicht das Einselhaus, sondern der rhythmische Reihung der Häuser innerhalb eines Blocks, der architektonisch einheitliche Blockfront bildet das Raumelement für die Stadtbaukunst der Gegenwart."

17In Paris, there were a number of projects and pamphlets published like Kahn's L'esthétique de la Rue. During the 1890's, the experimental Louis Bonnier was put in charge of the important project of re-writing the strict (and boring) Haussmannian street specifications. He oversaw discussions and projects culminating in 1902 in a new legal envelope specifically thought of to reduce uniformity, as well as increase density by allowing set-backs and elaborate silhouettes. These were demonstrated in Bonnier's illustrations in the printed explanations of the new laws. Among his papers survives an often-reproduced vision of a possible future Paris, with a multi-level boulevard amid terraces and towered apartment facades curving through the now even denser city. A dramatic and famous result from immediately before the outbreak of World War I was Henri Sauvage's rue Vavin apartment block of 1911, in white tile, each level of its seven stories stepping back in balcony terraces, which he imagined the inhabitants transforming into gardens, up to the top stories.

18L.H.A. : Do you also find this interest in the USA, where the development of architectural practice could have been less impacted by these debates ?

19D.V.Z. : At the time when Saulnier's Menier factory was being discussed and Viollet-le-Duc was putting his last chapters and plates before the French public in 1872, two Franco-American students were studying architecture in Paris. Louis Sullivan (with Vaudremer) and decorative collaborator Louis Millet (with Train), the latter of whose family was intimately connected with Viollet-le-Duc's.

20Upon their return to the USA, they both settled in Chicago and became collaborators, Sullivan as architect and Millet as decorator. It was something of importance because Sullivan's most important focus during his first ten years of practice was on theatre design, although we still can examine on the facade of his Jeweler's Building of 1881 on Wabash St. a very interesting experimentation entwining ornament and structural surface.

21Their most important work, however, came in 1891 with the steel-framed office design Wainwright Building in St Louis (Ill. 2)., which, in a sense, folds back most directly on Viollet-le-Duc's last plate (Ill. 1). This now a "solution", a model for this architectural problem, if not for Paris with the Haussmannian street-scape addressed twenty years before by Viollet-le-Duc but, instead, of the new industrial city. In a sense, it is Viollet-le-Duc's last plate scaled-up for commercial use, but now with attention to the patterning of its unprecedently tall and broad façade. A continuous floral patterning in three-dimensional terra cotta sheets.

Ill. 2 : Louis Sullivan, Wainwright Building, St. Louis, 1891

Ill. 2 : Louis Sullivan, Wainwright Building, St. Louis, 1891

David Van Zanten, Sullivan’s City, The Meaning of Ornament for Louis Sullivan, New York, Norton & Company Éd., 2000, p. 52.

22Where this brings us, for me, is to a possible answer to a question polychromy always seemed to pose but, in the hands of the first experimenters of the 1830's (Hittorff and Labrouste) and during the decades afterward, was not faced: what the modern urban environment might look when it conceptually flashed into color.

23There is an interesting document among the Sullivan papers in the Chicago Art Institute: an essay evoking color in our environment, hand-written in French around 1893. I have been able to find two pieces of documentation placing it between: 1) a U. S. immigration passenger list of 1893, showing Louis Sullivan and his decorative collaborator Louis Millet arriving in New York from Le Havre, France ; 2) an article in a French art journal quoting a fragment of the Art Institute text, which Sullivan must have carried there with him.

24Millet had an interesting and complex background. His family, like that of Viollet-le-Duc, worked in the Royal palaces in Paris and was given housing as a result. Among Millet's papers, still in the family's hands, is a childhood drawing signed by Viollet-le-Duc using his youthful initials, V. L. (an identification I owe to a French Viollet-le-Duc scholar). Millet's father, a musician, emigrated to New York after the Revolution of 1848 but his son, now of the same generation as Sullivan, returned to France in 1873-1878 to pursue his art education at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, a student of Eugène Train in architecture. Among the Millet family papers is a sketchbook of drawings made during a trip documenting passage through Lyon and Geneva and ending with a drawing of a church tower designed by Viollet-le-Duc, living then in Lausanne in retirement (this was his last work of architecture). Returning to his family in New York in 1881, Millet fils established himself as architect and decorator in Chicago and became Sullivan's decorative collaborator and personal friend.

25To bring this back to where we began with Sullivan's idea carried to Paris during his visit there with Louis Millet in 1893, this burst of "new" polychrome architecture carried with it ideas of scale and natural chromaticism of an extraordinary intensity, as well as passionate sincerity and optimism. In a sense, it returns us to where this essay began, the 1830's vision of the Greek temple painted and blazing in the Mediterranean Quatremère de Quincy's Jupiter Olympien, but struggling to find expression in the very different responses of Labrouste, Semper and even (if more vulgarly) Paccard, Garnier and Loviot. I mention this to establish the simple fact Sullivan could not have been unaware of Viollet-le-Duc's work.

26L.H.A. : Could you tell us more about Sullivan’s essay of 1893 ?

27D.V.Z. : It is not about architectural design at all, but an evocation of botanical nature at different times of day, commencing:

"L'âme des choses est une puissance inerte par elle-même. Sa représentation servile ne peut constituer qu'un grossier matérialisme. L'âme humaine, toute seule, ne peut incarner un idéalisme nuageux et créer des abstractions maladives sans fondement. L'art véritable est le produit de la fécondation de l'âme humaine par l'âme de la nature."

28The text that survives, at least, goes on to depict the times of day and seasons of the year, in light and color. It's beautiful, but that is all Sullivan presents to his audience. No architecture, or at least not what one might assume architecture would be.

29What is it that Sullivan prepared, evidently, to present to a Parisian audience, either publicly or in some more private social setting?  Are these just words, as in poetry, or images, as in the description of fine days among open hills? Or is this, in fact, the evocation of architectural qualities, intensely visual ones instead of technical constructions or historical evocations? Examinations of architectural surface itself made complex, suggestive, evocative, like the surface of the architectural planes of a city texture seen in an intense light where pattern and color are fundamental? And is there an answer to this in Sullivan's most recently finished building, his ten-story Wainwright Building in St Louis?

30So, this is what someone knowing about Viollet-le-Duc brought with him to show about and even read publicly (although I cannot find proof of any such event), and to introduce himself as an artist, one seeing the world as surface and color, as a landscape. For a long time I have been confused by this document, until it became clear to me that this "color-scape" was what Sullivan hoped the new, rapidly densifying city-scape around him might be made to evoke. To take this one step further, this is why the facade of his recently-completed first "skyscraper", his ten-story Wainwright Building in St Louis, is treated as a huge single sheet of colored terra-cotta ornament (Ill. 2). It is a "nice day in a sunny climate", that is to say, that it was less the Wainwright Building as a work of architecture than this huge evocation of color and pattern that was the revelation he wanted to bring back to Paris, where he had first experienced orchestrated architecture. In a sense, he was finishing the work Viollet-le-Duc suggested in the last plate of his Entretiens (Ill. 1). If iron/steel and terracotta suggested a polychrome streetscape, and if that very technology was exploding with the lighter fire laws in American cities, this is what might be produced, and, indeed, in the case of Sullivan, was produced in various ways, culminating in his Carson Pirie Scott facades of 1898-1903, the iron ground floor of which was originally elaborately painted in green on a strong red under-ground.

31Now, what I have set out in this account of increasing concern for street facades and competing theories of how to make or "read" it, of course, suggests an answer: namely that Sullivan is taking a step past Sitte and the Belgians (if not quite Scheffler and Behrendt) to make street color not just a matter of ornament but the key to a profound transformation of American gargantuan city space in terms of chromatic intensity. Might this fold back on the emergence of ornamental surface with Owen Jones and Christopher Dresser, as well as fold back on Semper's intense historical explanations of colored surface and forward to a new intensity of color and light in ferro-vitreous interiors? Might it also be seen as Sullivan's "poetry", which may be why this manuscript is so intense and unrehearsed? Sullivan may not be suggesting this as an ornamental possibility but instead the aesthetic core and essence of a new, "modern" architectural street. Which is saying a lot because Sullivan was evidently doing just that in Paris, in his French text (probably corrected by his partner Millet), where he expected it might be understood. And at least in his actual work, he did not put it aside, even when he was only dealing with a small opportunity in a smaller town building in terra cotta and tile. Starting with his magnificent bank in Owatonna, Minnesota, of 1909, and the scattering of buildings that followed it, like his last major building, again a bank, in Columbus, Wisconsin. Are these all (like the Wainwright and the Carson, Pirie, Scott Store) gateways to a new architectural world, standing open for us in the most unpromising places and environments ?

32L.H.A. : If this is what Sullivan was talking about in his most esthetically riveting buildings of the years between 1890 and 1904, how does it more broadly focus your analysis of his work ?

33D.V.Z. : I think our analysis of street esthetics helps here. Sullivan seems to be addressing architectural setting and to be taking it a step beyond Sitte, Scheffler and Behrendt. Even to make street color not just an ornament, but a profoundly symphonic transformation of American gargantuan, dense city space, both in terms of pattern and in terms of chromatic intensity. It thus folds back on the emergence of ornamental surface with Owen Jones and his successor Christopher Dresser, as well as on Semper's abstract literary and historical theorization of colored surface itself.

34This could even be seen as Sullivan just being "pretty", which would be denying which may be the reasons this MS text is so intense, if sadly today so unread. Sullivan is not suggesting this as an ornamental possibility, but as the esthetic core and essence of the new city street texture. Which is saying a lot, and Sullivan, evidently, saved it to say in Paris and in French, where it seems to have been quickly forgotten. But at least in his later works Sullivan did not put it aside when he used series of small town opportunities (mostly local banks) executed in wonderful terra cotta colors.

35L.H.A. : You also think polychromy had an impact on 20th century urbanism. Could you tell us more ?

36D.V.Z. : Introducing the issue of color and the possibility that it might be more – in Sullivan's hands at least – than simple nuance, is interesting for me because it raises the issue of the architectural compressing itself into a "work of art". Let me, as a final and perhaps extreme example, look at an early work of a designer of the next generation, Mies van der Rohe, namely his entirely conceptual project for a glass skyscraper facing the central-Berlin Friedrichstrasse railroad station of 1919. There is more to this tower, might I suggest, than the mere minimalist sheerness of its glass exterior surface.

37First of all, one of its three identical sides was precisely across the street from this main central-city railroad station, that elevated above local traffic at the Friedrichstrasse, completed in steel and glass just before the War in 1914. Mies' perspective conceals the station behind the tower, but the bridge carrying the rails southward is visible from the left-hand street. Secondly, because of the concavity of Mies' tower's sides, they would have captured, broken up and emphasized the familiar noise of elevated railroad activity. The very opposite of, say, Grand Central station, with all its activity buried underground.  Had it been built, the tower's acoustical impact would have been amazing. I remember myself arriving at the Friedrichstrasse Station, early on a winter morning, some years ago, and being flabbergasted at the smoke, flashing sparks, and crashing noises as I climbed down to the street in front of where Mies' building was meant to rise. Mies, knowing this railroad tumult even more vividly than we do today, could not have been unaware of what his broken, concave surfaces, 60-story high building would have poured out over this amazing corner of the New Berlin. Perhaps he chose his view point up the Friedrichstrasse to make this evident.

38But permit me an administrative note here. This triangular building site across from the Friedrichstrasse station, both before and after Mies' 1919 rendering, had drawn the design attention of two very interesting (and mildly self-promoting) slightly-older architects who had been experimenting with architectural effects: Hermann Belling in 1904 (the design advisor announced in 1914) and Otto Kohtz in 1919 (the leader of the team afterward). Belling taught at Karlsruhe, having his students experimenting by mixing theories of design from multiple media, publishing a book of the results in 1904 titled Architektur Skizzen. Kohtz, more pretentiously, published his own fantasies in a volume titled Gedanken über Architektur in 1909, many in color, where the geological, the vegetal and the architectural intertwine. They both, like Mies, were fascinated with architectural surface.

39Mies, knowing the flashes and explosions of that spot on the Friedrichstrasse better than I in 1979, could not have been unaware of the chaos his multi-plane facade would have poured out across the street of this corner of the New Berlin. To a degree, Mies was competing with what these two artists had been calling "crystal" designers after the War. His experiments in his renderings here could not have gone unrecognized, making us aware of the degree to which parallel illustrations, made famous in 1932 by the Museum of Modern Art exhibition, were chosen and printed to avoid or at least diminish exactly this quality in Mies' work.

40L.H.A. : Many thanks, David, for this fruitful conversation !

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1 David Van Zanten, The Architectural Polychromy of the 1830's, New York, Garland Publishing, 1977.

2 Voir notamment : David Van Zanten, « Semper, Hittorff, Labrouste, Jones et la polychromie en architecture », Revue germanique internationale, no. 26, 2017, p. 103-122.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Ill. 1 : Viollet-le-Duc, « Projet d’immeuble en encorbellement », structure métallique et revêtement de faïence
Crédits Entretiens sur l’architecture, Atlas, Paris, Éd. A. Morel, 1872, pl. 36.
Fichier image/jpeg, 235k
Titre Ill. 2 : Louis Sullivan, Wainwright Building, St. Louis, 1891
Crédits David Van Zanten, Sullivan’s City, The Meaning of Ornament for Louis Sullivan, New York, Norton & Company Éd., 2000, p. 52.
Fichier image/jpeg, 334k
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