Friday, June 17, 2011

The Architectural Alphabet

In their May issue, our friends at Architectural Digest featured our Architectural Alphabet note cards, bringing a mass influx to our website, for which we're extremely grateful, and we thought it would be a good thing to explain the project here for these visitors.

Our previous exhibitions and books have investigated both the lighter and serious sides of architectural history, from chinoiserie garden pavilions to the château of Versailles, and in 2008 it seemed the perfect juncture, after nearly two decades documenting the rich and varied patrimony of European and American architecture and gardens, for a bit of play—for our own five-fingered exercise.

Our touchstones for the abecedarium, which is also a limited-edition book prefaced by the interior designer Charlotte Moss, were the Ancien Régime and the Grand Tour—the de rigueur Italian sojourn of the European aristocracy and its architects. The English, the most adventurous voyagers, flocked to Florence, Rome and Naples in the 18th century to discover for themselves antiquity and its Renaissance interpretations, and the wealth of Italian painting, sculpture and decorative objects that embellish the interiors of Britain’s great country houses—and occasionally the architecture of the houses themselves—testify to the passion, enthusiasm and acquisitiveness of these peripatetic lords. French nobles, spellbound by Versailles and terrified by the prospect of absenting themselves from its eternal tedium only to face the prospect of lost position and favor upon their return, were far more reluctant to cross the Alps and instead sent their abbés and architects. German princes followed the English example and gladly abandoned their tiny principalities for months and even years at a time for the charms of Italy.

Among the most fascinating byways of architectural history are fantasy projects, designs drawn exclusively for the joy of composition, and one should also include the enduring passion for composing decorative vases, drawn by architects and designers such as Michelangelo and Charles Le Brun, to cite but two artists fascinated by their forms and decorative vocabulary. Whether doodled in the margins of drawings or published as engraved portfolios, the creative impulse, even for such an ostensibly minor subject as a garden vase, required no commissioner to justify itself.

Quite often in garden architecture, fantasy projects differed from built work only in degree, and occasionally not at all, as designers took the idea of the garden as an alternate universe to unparalleled extremes, peopling it with structures and scenes of marvelous strangeness. Festival architecture, transient papier-maché fantasies erected for court amusements, regularly transmuted to carved stone, and stone itself was supplanted by lathe and wood in the last, turbulent decades of the Ancien Régime, as transience itself became a rage.

To pay homage to this remarkably fecund period, we freely combine the architectural and the decorative, much as rococo interiors often featured painted boiserie panels of fantastic scenes, such as the famed Grande Singerie at the château of Chantilly by Christophe Huet. And there are numerous allusions to the work of other French artists, such as Watteau, Boucher, Pillement, Desportes, Hubert Robert, Lancret, and Oudry, who together have shaped much of posterity’s visual perception of the eighteenth century.

So in the end, this alphabet is a play upon the vocabulary of the architecture and decorative arts of the Ancien Régime and the Grand Tour, intended for children of all ages. The vignettes evoke the fantasy and exoticism that inspired the architects and garden designers of the period, reference its themes and its symbolic repertoire, for the period was also the end of a great age of allegory and allusion, which the Enlightenment would soon extinguish.

A key to the letters: Acanthus, Balustrade, Chinoiserie, Vase, Kiosk, Ruin.

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