In a print dated 1698, the French engraver Sébastien Leclerc (1637–1714) illustrated the forms of knowledge that became part of the doctrine of academic practice during the reign of Louis XIV. Flanked by columns of the Corinthian order, an open court offers space for experimentation, demonstration, and debate. To the left, students gather around a half-draped globe, while those to the right trace the heliocentric movement of the planets. Such inquiries demanded accuracy and precision, in the pursuit of which academicians employed new tools and techniques: compasses, scales, and telescopes are scattered farther to the right, their half-opened state suggesting constant use. These actions implied no less than the collapse of episteme and techne—thinking and doing, a distinction dear to Aristotle and his followers—and the embrace of
Leclerc’s image serves as an apt introduction to the research undertaken during this fellowship year, in which I studied the complex relationship between French academic architectural theory and the reality of building sites and craft practices at the end of the seventeenth century. How, my dissertation asks, did the codification of the building trades, the regulation of construction, and project financing influence the formalization of architecture as a discipline during the reign of Louis XIV? From assembly to materials, from measurement techniques to the organization of labor, my aim is to describe the ways in which the realms of expertise and material know-how intervened in architecture as both discipline and profession during the Grand Siècle. What informs the questions posed throughout my dissertation are the connections between high and low, between intellect and practical experience, which were forged in the context of French absolutism and the centralization, systematization, and mobilization of the arts and sciences it engendered.
To paint this picture in terms of theory and practice, the project is composed of four thematic sections, each structured according to a concept then undergoing conceptual reorientation: precision, stability, matter, and commodity. Central and often surprising
These publications also marked architecture’s empirical reorientation, whereby rationalized experience constituted knowledge. Consider, for instance, a practice like the toisé, or precise assessment of materials for contractual purposes. According to the Académie française, the word meant “to measure by the toise” (six French
Such maneuverings were not without consequences. If Leclerc’s image hinted at