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critical reflections

François de Monville: le Colonne Détruite, Désert de Retz (1781-1785) from François de Monville: Cahier des Jardins Anglo-Chinois (Paris 1785)
The Désert de Retz
2024

Jacques Lemercier: Richelieu, Indre-et-Loire, 1631 engraving by Adam Perelle
Two Renaissance Towns: Two Seasons
2024

Granary, Grimentz, Valais, Switzerland, 16th century © Thomas Deckker 2023
Was Vitruvius Right?
2024

Aurelio Galfetti: Castelgrande, Bellinzona 1986 © Thomas Deckker 1996
Two Castles in Switzerland
2023

Nouveau plan de la ville de Paris 1828 © David Rumsey Maps
The Arcades Project
2023

Derelict Building, Kings Cross photo © Thomas Deckker 1988
Henri Labrouste and the construction of mills
2023

Claude-Nicolas Ledoux: Barrière St Martin, Paris (1785-1790) from Daniel Ramée: C.N. Ledoux, l'architecture (Paris 1847)
The Barrière de la Villette: the Sublime and the Beautiful
2022

Vauban: Neuf Brisach
Neuf Brisach: The Art of War
2022

Lucio Costa: Competition sketch for the Esplanada dos Minstérios, Brasília 1956
Did Lucio Costa know the Queen Mother?
2022

Vaux-le-Vicomte, Entrance Court, engraving by Israel Sylvestre
Vaux-le-Vicomte: Architecture and Astronomy
2022

Edzell Castle, Ground Floor Plan, from MacGibbon and Ross: The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland
Edzell Castle: Architecture and Treatises in Late 16th Century Scotland
2022

Capability Brown: Plan for Petworth Park from Dorothy Stroud: Capabilty Brown
The Upperton Monument, Petworth
2022

Isamu Noguchi: maquette for Riverside Drive c. 1961
Isamu Noguchi: useless architecture
2022

Jürgen Joedicke: Architecture since 1945: sources and directions (London: Pall Mall Press 1969)
Gottfried Böhm: master of concrete
2021

Thomas Deckker Architect: temporary truck stop, M20
Lorry Drivers are human, too
2021

Marc-Antoine Laugier: Essai sur l'Architecture
John Onians: 'Architecture, Metaphor and the Mind'
2021

Sir John Vanbrugh: Seaton Delaval, Northumberland (1720–28) from Colen Campbell: Vitruvius Britannicus vol 3 (1725)
Seaton Delaval: the aesthetic castle
2021

Jules Hardouin-Mansart: Les Invalides, Paris (1676) Section showing the double dome
The Temple of Apollo at Stourhead: Architecture and Astronomy
2021

Eric de Maré: Fishermen’s huts, Hastings (1956) © Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs Collection
Eric de Maré: The Extraordinary Aesthetics of the Ordinary
2021

Iannis Xenakis: score for Syrmos, for string orchestra (1959) © Editions Salabert E. A. S. 17516
Iannis Xenakis: Music, Architecture and War
2021

United Visual Artists: Etymologies 2017 © United Visual Artists
United Visual Artists
2020

Margaret Howell: Campaign 2020 © Margaret Howell
Margaret Howell
2020

Palaces of Darius and Xerxes, Persepolis, Iran
The Plans of Antiquity
2020

Cristobal Balenciaga: Skirt Suit, 1964 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Cristobal Balenciaga
2020

Mathias Goeritz: La serpiente de El Eco, 1953 © Sothebys
Mathias Goeritz: 'Emotional Architecture'
2020

Richard Serra: Weight and Measure 1992 © Richard Serra
Weight and Measure
2020

Tony Smith: Playround, 1962 © Tony Smith Estate
Tony Smith: Art and Experience
2020

Highway Construction © Caterpillar Archives
Landscape and Infrastructure
2020

Frank Gohlke: Lightning Flash, Lamesa, Texas © Frank Gohlke
Grain Elevators
2020

François de Monville: le Colonne Détruite, Désert de Retz (1781-1785) from François de Monville: Cahier des Jardins Anglo-Chinois (Paris 1785)
François de Monville: le Colonne Détruite, Désert de Retz (1781-1785)
from François de Monville: Cahier des Jardins Anglo-Chinois (Paris 1785) [1]

The Désert de Retz

I became fascinated with the Désert de Retz while a student at the Architectural Association School. I visited it long before it was renovated and its centrepiece, the Colonne Détruite, was still a ruin. The Colonne Détruite was actually a ruin of a ruin, as it had been built deliberately as a ruin - a ruined column.
François de Monville: le Colonne Détruite, Désert de Retz (1781-1785) © Thomas Deckker 1984
François de Monville: the Colonne Détruite, Désert de Retz (1781-1785)
© Thomas Deckker 1984
The state of the Colonne Détruite at my visit, as an agricultural store. Incredibly it was a family home until 1949.
The Désert de Retz was built between 1781-85 by François de Monville as a landscape of pavilions, to be a country retreat outside Paris. This form of landscape garden originated in England in the 18th century, exemplified in gardens such as Stourhead (c. 1740-80) for the banker Henry Hoare, or Petworth (c. 1751-63) for the Earl of Egremont. In their archetypal form these gardens were intended to represent and recreate a mythical classical past, or Arcadia, by mixing 'natural' landscape with small buildings derived from Roman temples. These were idealised in the paintings of Claude (whose 'Landscape with Aeneas at Delos' Henry Hoare owned). While Stourhead was Arcadian, evoking a purely classical past, the Désert de Retz was one of the more exotic and contained pavilions in a variety of architectural styles. This exoticism was not unknown in England - William Chambers built a 'pagoda' at Kew Gardens - but was much more popular in Europe where it was generally called (in French) 'Anglo-Chinois". [2]
Henry Flitcroft: Temple of Apollo, Stourhead, seen across the lake © Thomas Deckker 2013
Henry Flitcroft: Temple of Apollo, Stourhead, seen across the lake
© Thomas Deckker 2013
There were 2 reasons that the Colonne Détruite may have been seen as transgressing architectural boundaries. The first was that de Monville was actually living in a garden pavilion, rather than looking at it from the window of his house. The other was that the correct use of the Roman orders codified by Vitruvius in De architectura was central to how architects and patrons conceived of the art and science of architecture (it was not yet a profession) during the Renaissance and Enlightenment, in particular of the design of public buildings. While the orders themselves were subject to the strictest governance, how they were used and combined was very flexible: art history has identified various theories and practices such as High Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque and Neo-Classicism in these periods. Claude Perrault, one of the leading figures of the French Enlightenment, translated Vitruvius into French and wrote a treatise on the correct design of columns. [3] He strongly supported a more flexible and elegant use of the orders, however, rather than remaining faithful to Vitruvius, in the 'quarrel of the ancients and moderns' among architectural theorists in mid-seventeenth century France. For the celebrated East Front of the Louvre (1667-74), he used paired fluted Corinthian columns on the East Front, which became a model for French architecture until the French Revolution.
Claude Perrault: Ordonnance des cinq especes de colonnes selon la methode des anciens (Paris 1683)
Claude Perrault: Ordonnance des cinq especes de colonnes selon la methode des anciens (Paris 1683)

Plate III. The plate shows a fluted column of the Doric Order similar to the lower part of the Colonne Détruite.
De Monville was certainly interested in architecture: he had a least one hôtel particulier (private mansion) in Paris designed by the architect Étienne-Louis Boullée, best known for his visionary schemes of sublime architecture. Boullée's only remaining Parisian hôtel, the Hôtel Alexandre, while certainly not as sublime as his visionary schemes, shows a tendency to break the rules of composition regarded as epitomising French aesthetic superiority. The giant order at the entrance supports not a temple front but a recess, surmounted not by a pediment but by an entablature.
Eugène Atget: the former Hôtel Alexandre (1763-66) by Étienne-Louis Boullée Source gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France
Eugène Atget: the former Hôtel Alexandre (1763-66) by Étienne-Louis Boullée
Source gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France
It is tempting to see the Colonne Détruite as prefiguring the French Revolution, when both the orders of classical architecture and divinely-ordained monarchy were overturned. Although a prominent figure of the Enlightenment, and possibly a Freemason, it is unlikely that de Monville attributed the significance that may be given to it in hindsight. Thomas Jefferson, United States ambassador to France at the time and future president, is known to have visited the Désert de Retz with his mistress Sally Hemings. Roman architecture was considered, in the United States, as representing Republican virtues rather than the Monarchy it was associated with in France. The oft-repeated claim that the garden design represents a Masonic initiation ceremony, if at all true, is likely to be little more than an interesting narrative drafted in to supplement the main ambition of a rural idyll in much the same way as the narrative of Aeneas visiting the underworld was drafted on to Stourhead.
François de Monville: le Colonne Détruite, Désert de Retz (1781-1785) © Thomas Deckker 1984
François de Monville: le Colonne Détruite, Désert de Retz (1781-1785) © Thomas Deckker 1984
François de Monville: le Colonne Détruite, Désert de Retz (1781-1785) © Thomas Deckker 1984
François de Monville: le Colonne Détruite, Désert de Retz (1781-1785) © Thomas Deckker 1984
François de Monville: le Colonne Détruite, Désert de Retz (1781-1785) © Thomas Deckker 1984
François de Monville: the Désert de Retz (1781-1785)
© Thomas Deckker 1984
Views from the entrance of the Désert de Retz to the column, and the base of the column. The original entrance was in the present location.
The base was completely hidden by undergrowth. At the time of my visit there was speculation that the entrance to the column was through a tunnel from the base, as part of a Masonic rite, but no evidence has emerged of this.
Etienne-Louis Boullée: Cenotaph for Newton (1784) Source gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France
Etienne-Louis Boullée: Cenotaph for Newton (1784)
Source gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France
Note the entrance through a tunnel into the centre of the sphere.
The very conventional entrance is a sure sign of an amateur architect. The form of the column, on a change in ground level exposing the base, has the potential for a very dramatic and unusual entrance.
François de Monville: le Colonne Détruite, Désert de Retz (1781-1785) © Thomas Deckker 1984
François de Monville: le Colonne Détruite, Désert de Retz (1781-1785) © Thomas Deckker 1984
François de Monville: the Désert de Retz (1781-1785)
© Thomas Deckker 1984
Little remained of the original interior.
Despite the transgression of setting up a house in a broken column, de Monville's influence on architecture was negligible. The now largely forgotten architectural theorist Antoine-Chrysostome Quatremère de Quincy, a strong advocate of neo-classicism, clearly understood the Colonne Détruite as a folly, or an ornamental building of no practical purpose, and private, while he saw Ledoux's barrières as bizarre, or the perversion of the rules of architecture, and very public. There was outrage among architectural theorists at the time at Ledoux's use of square columns, paired columns supporting an arcade in the drum, and a drum without a dome. The orders did in fact lose their central positon in architectural discourse. The architect Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand, pupil of Durand before the French Revolution and Professor of Architecture at the École Polytechnique after, made the column not a representative device but a structural and spatial armature for large open-plan spaces reminiscent of the new building type of the factory. Labrouste's Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève was entirely without exterior columns. This change in theory and practice can be seen as an architectural equivalent to what Thomas Kuhn called a 'paradigmatic shift' in the history of science, that is from one relatively stable set of beliefs on, for example, building types, construction, aesthetic goals, to another. [4]
Claude-Nicolas Ledoux: Barrière St Martin, Paris (1785-1790) © Thomas Deckker 1984
Claude-Nicolas Ledoux: Barrière St Martin, Paris (1785-1790)
© Thomas Deckker 1984
The barrières of the city of Paris, a wall and customs posts, were one of the immediate causes of the French Revolution. They were sacked and burned in 1789, 4 days before the fall of the Bastille.
The Désert de Retz has been beautifully, if partially, restored and is now the property of the commune de Chambourcy. The tranformation is remarkable and the condition when I visited is unrecognisable.

If one finds oneself in Chambourcy a visit would make a pleasant outing. The nearest railway station is Poissy, so it could be combined with a visit to Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye, another Arcadian pavilion. The Désert de Retz belongs to the vanishingly small group of buildings by amateur architects worth visiting for their architectural merit. It is a place of fantasy and dreams, worth appreciating in any form and condition.

Footnotes

1. These plates were also published in Jardins Anglo-Chinois by Georges Louis Le Rouge (Paris 1770-87)
2. Gustav III, King of Sweden, visited the Désert de Retz and made a copy of Monville's 'Tartar tent' at Drottningholm.
3. Claude Perrault: Ordonnance des cinq especes de colonnes selon la methode des anciens Paris, J.B. Coignard (1683). The extent of Perrault's contribution is controversial, but I am guided by Anthony Blunt in Art and Architecture in France 1500-1700 (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1988; 1st publ. 1953) p.332.
4. Thomas Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press 1962). Paradigm: “a cultural constellation of related ideas”.
Thomas Deckker
London 2022