November 15: Triple Threat

2016/11/15 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1850 Victor Laloux was born.

Born smack-dab in the middle of the most interesting century, Laloux could be said to span the interests between academic Classicism and modern methods of metallic framing, if there was such a divide to be spanned.  So don’t say that.  Instead, consider Laloux as proof positive of the facility of some nineteenth-century (and later) architects to draw from an increasing store of tradition and make scrupulous use of innovations as each served the overarching goal of a beautiful, serviceable building.

Laloux had the best education that an architect could want, beginning at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and concluding at the Villa Medici in Rome.  When he commenced practice in Paris all kinds of great projects were hurled at him, and he responded by knocking a bunch of stunners out of the park.  He became especially well-known for monumental public projects like town halls (here’s the one at Tours right here) and train stations (there’s the one at Tours above), all of them designed on traditional Beaux-Arts planning and design principes and exploiting the capacity of metallic structures that allowed the introduction of vast windows and skylights.  His most famous building, the Gare d’Orsay in Paris, was successfully adapted as a museum–yes, that one–and provides a spectacular setting for art made during the first five decades of Laloux’s life.  In addition to his own fabulous work, Laloux contributed to the profession and broader world by running one of the premiere ateliers in Paris (cool people like George Howe studied there, showing again how flexible the Ecole’s methods are).

Extraordinarily famous in his lifetime, Laloux may be unique in sweeping the highest honors awarded to architects in his homeland France (the Prix de Rome, 1878), in the United States (the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal, 1922) and England (the Royal Institute of British Architects Gold Medal, 1929).  So why have you never heard of him?  Nor Sir Aston Webb, recipient of the AIA’s first Gold Medal, who was born in the previous year?  That’s the funny thing about history: it’s not just a record of the past, but an interpretation of it.  Consider also that Laloux was born in the same year as John Wellborn Root (who won nothing in his short lifetime, completed relatively few buildings, and didn’t have time to teach anybody anything,  but was awarded the AIA Gold Medal posthumously) and one year before the inauguration of the Crystal Palace in London.  The Muse assumes you’ve heard of Root and the Crystal Palace.  Even though Laloux (d. 1937) outlived them both, they have been celebrated by historians and critics for whom, perhaps, it is easier to write about more overt, allegedly heroic, seemingly game-changing work, than to consider the nuanced elegance of an architect who could do all things with aplomb.  In spite of their actual nationality, historians tend to be Roman at heart, and as such  are only partially preservationists: they regularly exercise their powers of damnatio memoriae to tell a story that reflects a favored image (if sometimes artificial) of themselves into the future.

Image: Gare de Tours (from this source)

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