The teaching of architecture in the twentieth century, a little known story by Marie-Jeanne Dumont – 11/12

Seminar : “Writing the history of architectural education: documentary sources and challenges”
Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, February 19, 2016

The teaching of architecture in the twentieth century, a little known story by Marie-Jeanne Dumont,  Belleville National School of Architecture
The École des Beaux-Arts : prestige, decline and oblivion

translated by Xavier Froment

Fascinated by the prestige of the École des Beaux-Arts, as it operated back in the XIXth century, art historians might have overlooked what happened in the first 67 years of the twentieth century, which they considered, at best as a continuation, or as a genuine decline. For their part, architects, overwhelmed by the grudge they held against the institution they once attended before scathing it, painted quite a negative and widely spread picture of it. That of a place ensnared in old habits such as annual awards, the Prix de Rome and dreaded studio managers who would appoint their best students as their successors after they became Prix de Rome themselves or even sons-in-law. A school filled with busts pilling up on the reading desks of the library, pseudo-antiques in numbers and ancient relics on every wall. The premises had been cared for with a respect viewed as a lack of courage (graffiti on the Batiment des Loges included). Its cultural heritage was felt as oppression an its luxury as compromise. It was viewed as a quaint and almost ridiculous place clinging to its studio slang, its brass band, its anthem (Le Chant des Pompiers which can be heard once in a while although rather scarcely nowadays since only architects aged over 60 may have had the opportunity to learn this amusing song), its annual ball and cocktail parties, its male chauvinism and its anti-intellectualism. In short, it embodied all that we hated. Theory teachers from the fifties seemed so far behind their XIXth Century predecessors : Gromort beneath Guadet, not to mention Gutton. Booklets of competition project published by Vincent et Fréal disclosed antiquated drawings wich looked one hundred years old : antique colour washes grown surrealistic, utterly outmoded sketches of pavillions and palaces and useless monumental arrangements. Indeed, these abstract mind games hardly could satisfy the issues related to the urban planning of the post war boom. Neither could a wish for continuity satisfy the craving for drastic change. Amidst the sudden uprisings of May 1968, the history of the École des Beaux-Arts took a gloomy twist : it became the dark side of twentieth century french architecture. Everybody agreed with the fall of an institution embarrassed by elitism and convention, whose only reason to exist seemed to arouse shame in comparison with American Universities.

In the seventies, the shame associated with the École des Beaux-Arts became a doctrine and the hatred it aroused channelled every decision. The directors of the School removed every plaster statue, even the monumental life-size fragments of the Parthenon and the Jupiter Stator Temples and the emblematical Melpomène muse which gave its name to the exhibition room for projects. Its imposing disproportionate height had inspired twenty generations of students. They took down the medaillons and paintings, removed school furniture, closed down the museum and stripped the library of its most precious books. The Minister contributed to the stripping down by ordering the regional restitution of an architectural fragment utterly symbolic of the school : the famous Arc de Gaillon on which Felix Duban had built his educational methods for the teaching of history. In every corner the past was neutralised and erased. Folklore and brass bands from the old days were banned. New schools were built on radically different principles in far-flung places whilst other countries sent their intellectuals to the fields. The teaching of architecture underwent a drastic cultural revolution burying its past in the process.

The consequences of professionalisation and decentralisation

Despite an indisputable apathy, from the end of the nineteenth century a slow transformation had been set in motion. It had been triggered by external constraints and a necessity to adapt. First was the creation in 1867 of the Architecture Degree at the request of the students mostly from the regions. It is little known that it was the students who asked for the creation of this degree. They invented the D.P.L.G. (« a state-recognized diploma », uncommon qualification in France at the time). They forced this through to government. They negociated with government departments that this degree would create new job opportunities. This received no praise nor support from the School who, from its proud artistic point of view, scorned : « degrees are not for Art ». « Painters and sculptors do not graduate, why should architects » ? Former students supported (and sometimes financed) professionally orientated courses. Through their Alumni Association (State-Recognized Architect Society – S.A.D.D.), they organised the integration of the younger generations and thus gave the profession its modern structure. Without the students’ persistency, the French Architecture Degree could not have been born at this time and would not have endured. The May 1968 students calling for the separation of education and profession did not know at the time that they were trying to severe a link their elders had been fighting so hard for.

After the profesional concerns were resolved, the major concern of the first decades of the twentieth century, was to adapt the number of students to the needs of the country. The idea of correlating the number of students in Architecture with foreseeable national needs both in terms of private and, mostly, public procurement building contracts was first considered in 1890. It took some ten years of talks for this this idea to give birth Regional Schools. These were created in a spirit of centralism hard to concieve nowadays. At the time, this seemed the best way to ensure a national scope for the newly created degree. The new Regional Schools were directly supervised by Paris. Once again, this was a reform not instigated from within the schools nor from the government but from the pressure of local professional associations.

In the inter-war period, the school had to face the proliferation of degrees and the appeal of new teaching methods : first Les Arts Décoratifs, then Anatole de Baudot’s École de Chaillot and, finally, the École Spéciale d’Architecture which was becoming increasingly famous thanks for a while to Mallet-Stevens but most significantly to Henri Prost, its Director, who employed Auguste Perret in 1930. The school had to compete with Le Corbusier’s prestigious atelier and headquarters, 35 rue de Sèvres. He proudly tought a much higher and more functional architectural thinking to young students from all over the world. There were also engineering schools educating flocks of architects to confront and master the evolving modern techniques.

The future of the School was endangered by this competitive environment. The 1940 law creating the Architects Order was a breath of fresh air. Together with the Architecture Academic Reform introduced by Louis Hautecœur, this granted the holders of the degree a monopolistic access to the Order and therefore the profession. In so doing, it barred access to every other school, especially engineering schools and Les Arts Décoratifs. This privilege was given to the École des Beaux-Arts and in return it would academically reform and include a sort of doctoral program. This project was promptly discarded at the end of the war. Since then, the École des Beaux-Arts has had much latitude to pamper its flaws with neither fear of competition nor obligation to improve. This was probably the most notorious aspect of the 1940 law.

The consequences of the May 1968 aftermath

After May 1968, the dismantling of the École des Beaux-Arts and the creation of teaching units in architecture brought neither joy nor peace as one would have expected. Strangly, no one had foreseen that the abolition of the selection by entrance examination would attract so many baby boomers. Small teaching departments which still perceived themselves as ideologically coherent units within a few years started dealing with a deluge of undergraduates. This was indeed unsettling. Teachers were experiencing a unique moment of change and freedom. But even the most experienced ones, mostly in Parisian schools, were filled with panic when confronted with flocks of undergraduates from every background. Up until then, they had only had to deal with select generations of students of high caliber who had undergone years of training to be selected by entrance exam. The hectic turmoil of the early seventies would long be remembered. We should ask the survivors to describe the feeling of absurdity they experienced in front of this brutal reversal of values : project studios without projects, degree exams without sketches, stays in the Larzac as practical training, dialectical materialism instead of history, lotteries replacing exams, never ending strikes and emotional teachers refusing to teach in the name of inate creativity or permanent revolution. The academic programs, which marked a break with those of the old school, were supposedly tuned with contemporary society and the time but this was purely rhetorical since they did not adapt to the needs of public procurement. The School begun teaching the construction of low-cost-housing just as it was no longer needed. The mainstream academic model had brought immediate improvements such as the introduction of research studies but the scientific basis it was grounded upon, namely social sciences, was itself going through reformation and change. This model did not provide the expected stability. Many extremely popular disciplines in the seventies such as Habitat Sociology, Psychosociology of Space or Semiology simply vanished a few decades later. The teaching of history dominant until 1980 was reduced to an accessory at the begining of the third millenium. As for pluridisciplinarity, it remains a problem today. These were troubled times, students were left to themselves, their future uncertain. In the early seventies, twenty percent of the students attending the teaching departments were female. They were not as welcome in the way that would have been expected from such progressive teaching staff. Whilst the most prestigious engineering schools opened their doors to girls, female architecture students often had to justify their choice because some considered them out of place and dangerous to the institution. The feminisation of both student population and the teaching staff in architecture schools should be further explored considering its rapid growth reached massive proportions : in almost sixty years it went from zero to sixty percent.

Teaching as corner stone of the profession

The history of the schools was not just made by the teachers but also by the students. Surprisingly, French architects from both the twentieth and the nineteenth centuries keep vivid memories of their school years. All the architects agree that they usually enjoyed their school years, in particular in the École des Beaux-Arts. They willingly talk about these times and piously keep relics such as preliminary drawings, exam results, degrees, medals, menus from department balls, class photos, sketches, pictures and travel diaries. Such material from their formative years is often donated by their families to archives holdings. It is rarely acknoledged that the archives of associations and professional bodies are also interesting in their own right. Examples include newsletters such as that of the SADG, of the Association Provinciale or the Société Centrale, studio gazettes or the Bulletin de la Grande Masse (best known in the sixties under the name of Melpomène then Melp !). These written stories of school days can be found to culminate at funerals, through the burial orations delivered by former school mates who had often become life long friends. Those major speaches were published in the profession’s periodicals until the fifties. This noticeable phenomenon should not be overlooked. For two centuries, the École des Beaux-Arts really bound the profession.

French architects probably found their school years ar the Beaux-Arts so enjoyable probably because the students played a more important role there than they do today. Until 1940 students could determine the length and the rhythm of their studies. They decided when to stop and how long they wished to travel on their journey towards excellence. The students could choose to stay for one, five or ten years. The School was there to encourage and to help them to go as far as possible for as long as necessary and not to drive them towards the exit. This past situation is so different from the present one. Students are no longer bearers of hope for architecture. Future colleagues no longer provide personal support. Architecture students are considered as common university students whose future does not depend on the institution. They should be « processed » swiftly and smoothly through the system. It is certain that the present system will neither produce the same attachment, the same memories nor, in the end… the same archives.

Varied documentary sources, new lines of work and cross referenced sequences

To fully grasp the history of architectural schools and, broadly, the way they trained architects in France in the twentieth century, these questions should be probed and the varied documentary sources should be cross referenced : public, private, corporate, privately owned or professional body. Local and national circumstances should be reviewed and taken into context, and inside and outside factors (namely the profession and the schools themselves) investigated. Research has to navigate between local and personal knwoledge and elaborate methodology and provoke a dialogue between the witnesses of the past and the historians. In short, we have to consider all the levels of historiography and whatever the names theses levels are given : grand, small, micro or even nano history ! We have to bring together those presumed antagonists : memory and history. We will refer to them throughout our future research and this will guarantee the high quality of this bold initiative.


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