Laugier’s ‘Essay on Architecture’ is a work which attempts to establish the principles of architecture as opposed to the measures and proportions present in architecture. The purpose of the essay is to explain the true spirit of architecture and to define rules and parameters for good taste and application of one’s talent. Laugier suggests that, until now, artists have been arbitrarily establishing their own rules, many of which rely on observation of ancient buildings as their bases and validation. The shortcoming of this method is that artists not only copy the beauty found in these buildings but also the mistakes and flaws. Without a set of principles it is difficult to distinguish between good and bad design, and the two consequently get confused. Imitators have also found incorrect flaws in examples, and due to their lack of original thought, they consequently led with error.
Artist should have the ability to defend and explain their work, and in order to do this they must follow firm guidelines. These principles allow for clear distinction when making judgements on good or bad products. It is not concrete enough to rely on instinct, this is where reasoning is necessary.
Reason and custom are two opposing functions. Custom is when good or bad qualities do not change over time and become an entrenched habit. Custom is fundamentally detrimental as it obstructs the progress of the arts. Many arbitrary rules are rooted in custom, art must therefore return to fixed principles in order to overcome custom.
The Greeks are the source of all that is perfect in architecture. This nation was extremely knowledgable in science and they invented everything connected to the arts. The Romans then took what they learned from the Greeks and attempted to turn it into their own. In their failure to succeed, they exhibited that a certain stage of perfection can only be imitated or rejected, not improved upon. Art and science possess clear objectives, but not every road to meeting this objective is equal. One road which leads directly to said end is superior to the others, therefore there is only one way to do something well.
After the Romans, fine arts was buried for centuries. Proportion was largely ignored and ornament was overused and under-analyzed. Stories in fretwork, shapeless masses and grotesque extravagance were present in Europe and are encapsulated in many cathedrals today. A return to the observance of sound rules and reestablished architecture in all its ancient authority occurred when proportion was closely observed and accomplished workmanship imitated. There was a departure from fancy ornaments of Gothic and Arabesque styles and a more virile and elegant ornament of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian were established. But again, as time passed, architecture managed to fall back into bad taste. It is the same in architecture as in all other arts, the principles are founded on simple nature and its ability to clearly indicate rules.
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