July 22: don’t let the powdered wig fool you

2012/07/22 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1713 Jacques Germain Soufflot was born.

People hear “Soufflot” and typically imagine something soft and sweet, delicate and fragile; something that might deflate if you make a big noise in the kitchen.  That of course is a “soufflé,” but most folks’ opinions of the architect isn’t that much different: he was all lace cuffs and marble volutes, oblivious to the harsh and tough realities of real building, one of those eighteenth-century fop-itect nancy boys.  Au au contraire, mon chou.  Soufflot was definitely a player in the generation that invented Neo-Classicism–but there’s not much dainty about that except for the occasional guilloche–,and those gents knew how to dress and pose–but they also knew how to investigate, invent, and really build.  Soufflot’s was the generation of initial scientific archaeology and the boom of the Industrial Revolution.  It’s to Soufflot’s credit that you don’t see the deep research and technical finesse of the buildings; you see elegance and beauty, light and color; the nécessités are hidden like the undergarments they are beneath and within the finely tailored frock.

Take his most famous building, the Church of  Sainte-Geneviève (the Panthéon) that he designed starting in 1755. No, just take its portico.  It’s a Roman temple front, but not just a copy of some pile of ruins.  Setting aside the whole matter of Soufflot’s treatment of ornament and proportions that differed from ancient practice, consider the structure.  Soufflot had researched antiquity enough to know that the Romans didn’t rest flat lintels on columns as they (and he) appeared to do; by the Empire they employed shallow arches to distribute the weight of the architrave to each column, making the structure more efficient (it’s right there at the Temple of Saturn if you bother to look for it).  Soufflot adopts that idea and catapults it into the industrial age, knitting his stonework together with enough iron bands to make Abraham Darby dizzy.

Just one petit exemple reminding us that Neo-Classical buildings, like their architects, are more than just a pretty face.

Image: construction diagram of the portico,  Sainte-Geneviève

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You are currently reading July 22: don’t let the powdered wig fool you at Clio’s Calendar: Daily Musings on Architectural History.

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