Indeed, compiling a genealogy of essays on architecture could continue almost endlessly, stopping in at William Gilpin’s essays on the picturesque, or the essayistic responses of Semper and Ruskin to the Crystal Palace of 1851, or early textual touchstones of modernism like “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” “City Planning According to Artistic Principles,” and “Ornament and Crime.” These are not manifestos, nor are they histories, nor are they descriptions of projects—in each case we find a polemical thinking-in-public that shapes the architectural discipline and also the popular response to it.
But all essays are necessarily partial, and this one will turn instead to a moment when the political potential of the essay form gained a newfound importance, as industrialization and social change were effecting radical transformations on the modern metropolis.
“He defines this mission in the account he gives of his own activity.” In short, he essays.
This two-part description of the Tretiakovian “mission”—the writer’s obligation to see the critical act as a form of political intervention rather than description, and to position that critical act within a field of discourse and within a socioeconomic order—is what endures, more than Tretiakov’s specific politics (as with each of these figures, he occupied a historical moment and a political position that doesn’t require recuperation for the present).
Centuries later, Georg Lukács would tease “the great Sieur de Montaigne” by claiming that “the simple modesty of this word is an arrogant courtesy” by which “the essayist dismisses his own proud hopes which sometimes lead him to believe that he has come close to the ultimate.” The notion of the essay as attempt, for Lukács, was both an aggrandizement of the individual idea and a demure admission of “the eternal smallness of the most profound work of the intellect in the face of life.” follows this simultaneously declamatory and deferential model.
They are all statements of tentative belief, leavened with a welcome frankness about Montaigne’s own particularities, his distinct existence within those beliefs, and an inquisitive sensibility.In 1753, Marc-Antoine Laugier wrote what is surely the most famous essay on architecture—partially for having claimed the title early on, partially for the famously allegorical frontispiece of its second edition, which describes the tectonic origins of the primitive hut, but largely for the strength of its commitments, the vivid rhetoric of its arguments, and an emphasis on shaping popular opinion rather than conferring legitimacy through received wisdom.As with Hogarth’s essay of the same year, it can be read as an attempt to replace connoisseurship in architecture with a new rubric of making judgments—principles, yes, but derived argumentatively and not through established tradition.But his replacement of the treatise with the argumentative essay also marks an important turn in the discursive construction of the field that we call architecture.The essay has since become one of the central means of discussing the stakes of books and buildings—appealing to personal judgment with a dose of expertise, framing the act of design within a cultural and political milieu while holding firm to particular articles of unmoving faith (whether universal or particular).If buildings are indeed the stuff of architectural history, essays illuminate our changing understanding of those buildings.The history of architectural ideas is a history of essays as much as a history of artifacts.Laugier’s first sentence: “There are several treatises on architecture which explain measures and proportions with reasonable accuracy, enter into the details of the different Orders and furnish models for all manner of buildings.” Thus he dispenses with Vitruvius, Alberti, Serlio, Perrault, and the wealth of architectural writing that came before him—these are useful texts, vital even, and full of potentially productive information, but they aren’t a point of urgency for what Laugier has to say.His second sentence: “There is no work as yet that firmly establishes the principles of architecture, explains its true spirit and proposes rules for guiding talent and defining taste.” The essay form enters into architecture at this moment, as Laugier attempts to outline why the rustic hut and the Maison Carrée excite in him such delight, and to communicate that delight to an audience that was explicitly not limited to architects.We are at a moment in architecture when the specialization of intellectual labor has created its own conventions—in particular a dissociation between architectural production and architectural critique.This is a rift that has gone by many names, and has produced an outsized atmosphere of anxiety, but has also found palpable shape in a discipline that increasingly sees its critical apparatus, if you will, existing to the side of architectural pedagogy and practice.