Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand, Systematization and Composition

Recueil et parallèle des édifices de tout genre, anciens et modernes
Précis des leçons d’architecture données à l’École royale polytechnique
Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand
Paris, France
48° 51′ 24″ N, 2° 21′ 07″ E
19th Century

Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand was an architect and professor who developed a process of architectural systematization based on a square frame. His theory is augmented by numerous architectural references, organized by typology.

Rationality, social utility and standardisation

Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand (1760-1834) was a French architect and professor of architecture, pioneer of rationalist architecture. He was a student and then assistant of the illustrious Etienne-Louis Boullée, advocating economy in construction and a certain utilitarianism. Thanks to his links with Boullée, he became a professor at the Ecole royale polytechnique (Polytechnic School) as soon as it opened in 1796. Teaching was the major part of his career, a teaching that is detailed in a two-volume work Précis des leçons d’architecture données à l’École royale polytechnique (Précis of architectural lessons given at the Royal Polytechnic School, 1802).

The quest for a constructed social equality

For Durand the primary purpose of architecture is its social utility. The convenience (i.e. stability, hygiene and suitability) of an edifice, as well as its economy (i.e. regularity and simplicity) form the efficiency of the project. The economy in construction is therefore the efficiency of the project, the clear technical planning as well as the means of execution. It is the conjunction of these considerations that allows the architecture of a building to guarantee a social utility.

The architect must take into account in his project the whole of an imaginary egalitarian society whose cohesion can only be achieved by the benefits that its members and its products draw from each other. He anticipates here sociological reflections of the beginning of the 20th century and the consideration of the individual and his place in society.archit

Architectural systematization

According to Durand, the architectural translation of these principles is only possible through systematization. He developed a method that established a square grid as the basis for the layout of the walls and load-bearing parts. Then, different constructive groups are added in the frame containing the program, a process similar to a building set. The basic grid determines the constructive system, which can be composed of walls, arcades, interior courtyards etc.

Durand used grid paper, which was little used, as a support for his standardized drawings. His course provides a complete method from a square grid that can form a house with nine squares for example, but also public buildings. Standardization also makes it possible to constitute a universal fund of architectural and constructive “elements” to be combined to conceive any kind of building. It frees itself from any symbolic expressive value, from traditions, from the context of the site, to concentrate on the rationality and the economy of the project put at the profit of a common social utility.

The history of architecture as a basis for standardisation

JNL Durand is a rationalist theorist who makes the systematization of architecture the solution to guarantee the balance of a project. Nevertheless, he is not in a tabula rasa approach, avoiding to free himself from the rich and constantly evolving history of world architecture. In 1800 he published Recueil et parallèle des édifices de tout genre anciens et modernes (Collection and parallel of all kinds of ancient and modern buildings), a vast history of past world architecture, an imaginary museum, a collection of archives and references that distance themselves from the architectural events of the time.

A Manual of Historical Patterns

From the title page, the ambition of the collection to explore the historical motifs of world architecture is presented. Illustrations of the major creations of universal architecture are interspersed between 4 coats of arms representing the 4 continents as they were identified at the time (Asia, Europe, America, Africa).

The projects are presented in the form of plans to the same scale and sometimes elevations. In Durand’s theory, the plan remains the main tool for analysis and construction of the project. The collection insists on typologies and shows a form of pre-standardization in the history of architecture or at least a repetition of motifs. The plans presented are often symmetrical, organized around a central, framed space. Putting together studies of architectural motifs or buildings from around the world with the same functions supports the idea of a systematization of architecture. The interest of the collection in the teaching of Durand is that it shows that he does not turn his back on the history of architecture to inscribe his theory. He considers the five classical orders and reuses them because their construction was the result of a complicated and logical historical development. Durand only reclaims these patterns to support his approach. In a way, he rationalizes a heritage of architectural motifs by systematizing certain elements in order to make an architecture of social utility.

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