M. Laugier’s pilasterphobia

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A pilaster embedded in a wall of the Pantheon, in Rome. (123RF.com)

An Essay on Architecture was published anonymously in 1753 by the Abbé Marc-Antoine Laugier, who soon after quit the Jesuitical order, enabling his name to appear on the next edition. It’s the most amazing book. In Chapter 1, “General Principles of Architecture,” Article 1, “The Column,” he describes the foundational feature of the classical canon and then launches into a sort of Two Minutes’ Hate against its little brother, the poor pilaster. Laugier has it in for the pilaster, oh boy does he!

A pilaster is a column that instead of standing free is partially embedded in a wall. It is usually squared off, whereas columns are usually round. Pilasters are there mainly to give a sense of structure to a wall, creating rhythm but not actually doing any heavy lifting as the columns do. Pilasters are often matched with real, disengaged columns, so that a colonnade might have paired pilasters and columns marching in orderly rank and file into the distance (at least for the length of the wall). Sounds pretty tame!

Here is just a bit of the nasty stuff Laugier pitches at the pilaster:

On entering the nave of the Chapel of Versailles everybody is struck by the beauty of its columns, by the picturesque vista through its intercolumniations; but as soon as one approaches the apse, there is not a person who does not notice with regret the stupid interruption of the beautiful row of columns by a depressing pilaster. One can, therefore, be quite certain that the use of pilasters is one of the great abuses that have found their way into architecture. … The pilaster is a frivolous ornament which has been put to all sorts of uses; it has even been married to a column which, it seems, is there as its inseparable companion. Has there ever been a more ridiculous match? What does the engaged column mean behind a free-standing column? Honestly, I do not know and I defy anybody to explain it.

Well, leaving aside the contradiction in terms of the phrase “frivolous ornament,” even if it is “merely” decorative, the pilaster for that reason serves a necessary function. Laugier seems to dispute the idea that pilasters can stand in for columns along a wall if columns cost too much. But better a row of pilasters than a blank façade. Far better.

Laugier takes sharp aim also at the pilasters of the Maison Carrée, in Nîmes, France, completed in 2 A.D., which has a porch of columns but whose temple façades are lined with rounded pilasters. These supposed abominations were not so offensive as to put off Thomas Jefferson, for whom the building served as a model for American classicism. In fact, he incorporated a squared-off version of them in his capitol of Virginia at Richmond, which was modeled after the Maison Carrée.*

The abbé also launches blistering attacks on pedestals at the base of columns, spiral columns, columns with non-standard entasis (swelling), and various other features that arise when an architect dares to tip-toe beyond the principles of Vitruvius.

British architects feuded for centuries over whether the Gothic or the Neoclassical styles were preferable – indeed for one side the other side represented no less than the devil incarnate. The Gothic represented Roman Catholicism, supposedly, whereas the Neoclassical represented Anglicism. Obviously irreconcilable, if true, eh wot? Off with your head!

In Providence, H.P. Lovecraft cheered the demolition of a Gothic courthouse built in 1877 with a Neo-Georgian one built in 1926-33. For Lovecraft, a confirmed nativist (today we would say racist), the Gothic brought to mind the immigrants flooding into Providence from Ireland and Italy. He hated them for eroding the city’s colonial feel. Lovecraft’s idea of the “modern,” however, included the Neoclassical and the Beaux-Arts, which, he wrote in a 1929 letter to the Providence Journal, represented “the uniformly modern, commercially efficient, and showily sumptuous at any cost.”

That was before actual modern architecture raised its head in Providence. Now the threats to our beauty are real, and not just in the capital of Little Rhody. Before modernism, disputes raged over mere bagatelles. The point here is that drastic disagreements over design go back many centuries, if not further. Surely if architecture had no flaws, we would have to invent them.

Oh, how I wish that we could return to the day of such simple, unfounded hatreds! How refreshing in comparison to the style wars of our day!

***

* Calder Loth, a former Virginia state preservation officer, offers intriguing information touching on whether Jefferson liked pilasters or not:

Jefferson considered half-round pilasters like the Maison Carrée in one of his early designs for the Virginia Capitol. However, he omitted them in his final design as shown in the Fouquet model that he sent from France to Richmond to guide the builders.  They also do not show in his final design drawings.

Nevertheless, the Capitol’s builder, Samuel Dobie, took it on himself to add the pilasters.  What Jefferson thought of them when he finally arrived back in Virginia and saw the Capitol we don’t know. He never commented on it.

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Maison Carree, in Nimes, France. (Wikipedia)

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Model sent from France by Thomas Jefferson for the Virginia Capitol, in Richmond. (Calder Loth)

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Virginia State Capitol today, with pilasters and, added c. 1906, wings for House of Delegates and Senate Chamber.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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6 Responses to M. Laugier’s pilasterphobia

  1. Steven Semes says:

    Abbe Laugier was, to use a Trumpian phrase, “a nut job.” Virtually all Western classical architecture before his time was based on Roman, not Greek models (since Greek architecture was largely unknown until the mid-18th century when Laugier was writing). That means it was wall-based, not column-based. Moreover, a sophisticated understanding of Greek architecture would look beyond the peristyles of the temples to understand that it was wall-based, too, for the obvious reason that you can’t have buildings without walls. Laugier’s attempt to base a new architecture on the “primitive hut” (in which there are vertical supports but no walls) was a dead end. Not that the sight of a forest of columns (like the chapel at Versailles he mentions, or the interior of the Pantheon in Paris, or St Peter’s Square at the Vatican) cannot be thrilling, especially due to the perspective effects of parallax. But ultimately the central drama of classical architecture is the relation of the column to the wall, and the pilaster has an important intermediate role in that drama, as Leon Battista Alberti wrote in his treatise. We need the full spectrum from freestanding column to solid wall. (Now I have revealed myself as being an anti-neoclassicist!)

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  2. Andrew Rabeneck says:

    I think kyou mean Pantheon not Parthenon

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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  3. Steve Mouzon says:

    David, the first image is captioned “… the Parthenon, in Rome” Don’t you mean the Pantheon?

    Like

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