Reflections abouts issues and prospects related to academic research by Daniel Le Couedic – 12/12

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

Reflections abouts issues and prospects related to academic research by Daniel Le Couedic, professor, Université de Bretagne Occidentale

translated by Xavier Froment

History isn’t a predictive science, yet it provides an optical prism which refracts the light of the present helping us to perceive its spectrum and giving us a greater comprehension. Trying to tell the history of the teaching of Architecture may seem a heuristic attempt, but the current state of affairs gives the endeavour a different perspective. A statutory restructuring of the ENSA which will also affect members of staff, is under way. Studying this evolution might help understand the intent. Moreover, previous studies show that the history of the teaching of Architecture provides greater understanding of the evolution of the discipline, of its fundamental dogmas and theories and improves our understanding of progressive changes within the profession. Thus we may wonder why research in this field has been so scarce, so occasional, so fragmentary and, moreover, so fruitless. The case of the study of regional schools is quite revealing : only Rennes, Nantes and Strasbourg attracted some interest, although combined they represent only 57 percent of the students of architecture. In the past, the Société Centrale refused to include Versailles and Paris into this type of calculation. [1].

This remark generally applies to the study of higher education. Its past was seldomly studied except for that of the most prestigious schools. Some of these, it should be remembered, have long been teaching architecture. The department of the Génie de l’École Polytechnique was the only school that taught it continuously from 1793 to 1994. [2]. The only book ever devoted to the genesis of modern French universities was published in 1983. It was American. Now is the time for someone to take over. [3]. Yet, some kind of awakening took place at the Sorbonne in 2011 with the organisation of one-day seminars devoted to academic archives. [4]. After all, lateness is relative. Should we put the blame on higher education which set architecture apart in 2006 when PRES were created and again with COMUE today ? 

Higher Education or something different ?

The question is not purely rhetorical. Schools of architecture, or teaching units as they were called at the time, only received an official “public service mission for higher education” in 1978. In 2005, their new denomination “Écoles Nationale Supérieures” was made official at last. The famous decree of February 19th 1962 had initiated this title but it was never implemented. The decree of December 6th 1968, which was a softer version of the presidential technical report it accompanied, tasked the schools with the teaching of architecture. Although it did not specify to which extent, they were implicitly instructed to co-operate with “other higher educational structures”.

The notion of higher education remains vague. It is assumed that it appeared in 1808 with the simultanuous creation of the Baccalauréat and the Université de France. The implementation was postponed until the 1815 imperial decree which made it compulsory to possess the Baccalauréat to attend University. This decree also introduced a grading system which initially gave order to the areas of Law and Medicine. It was not before 2005 that this grading system was applied to architectural academic studies, some 197 years later… It is worth mentioning that Preparatory Classes for engineering schools retained a special status. They could be attended without the Baccalauréat until they were turned into “Classes de Mathématiques Spéciales Postérieures aux Classes Secondaires” in 1852.

In this period of change, the teaching of architecture remained marginal. Entering a school of architecture required neither the Baccalauréat nor Preparatory Classes. Yet, it is not widely known that similar Preparatory Classes existed in Paris and in a few Écoles Régionales des Beaux-Arts. The distance between architectural teaching to Higher Education widened in 1868 when a decree instigated by Victor Duruy created laboratories in the universities that institutionalised research and turned university lecturers into de facto lecturer-researchers. This denomination went into common use from 1965 onwards and became statutory with the Savari Act of January 26th 1984. Soon but some fourty years later, the ENSA staff, in turn, will officially be granted this qualification.

At first, this statutory difference was probably not intentional, nevertheless, it was significant. It gradually turned into a principle. When Emile Trélat decided to create the École Centrale d’Architecture, a new organisation which would become later the École Spéciale, he explained that despite the indisputable merit he saw in the École des Beaux-Arts his decision had been triggered by the attitude of the students which he viewed as discouraging: “It had become a widespred view in every studio that an architect’s ability lay in his pencil, that he needed no teaching, that reading led to no enhanced knowledge, that probing the past thoroughly, studying the physical laws governing material sciences, knowing how to create balance and chemical sustainability in the choice of materials were impediments for the artist’s talent that might block his creativeness”.[5]. Most studio managers shared the same credo. They would speak ill of architectural study whenever it was considered pre-eminent over apprenticeship. In 1953, André Lecomte and Louis Aublet prompted a written report which suggested that the ENSBA theory classes should be suppressed. In 1958, Louis Aublet who had inherited the chair, set an example by giving no tuition. [6]

Yet, paradoxically, in spite of both the poisonous atmosphere and the immediate aggressiveness shown towards those who endeavoured to open new windows on the world, the ENSBA remained attractive to highly qualified teachers. Lucien Malavard is a good example. He was still filling the Quai Malaquais auditorium in 1969 when the School reopened after the 1968 uprisings. Specialising in fluid mechanics he developed the first calculator for the variable angles of attack for aeroplane wings. His reputation had brought him to the head of the Office National d’Études et de Recherches Aérospatiales. He had been elected to the Académie des Sciences but he kept teaching descriptive geometry at the ENSBA. He was not a unique case in Paris, it was the same in regional schools : their teachers were often members of learned societies. [7]. Hence, maybe we should consider the existence of “invisible teaching skills” alongside the general teaching practice and piece the two together.

Obviously, in the 1960s this was not sufficient for those who were demanding both Higher Education skills in architecture and opportunities of research. Therefore, quite often they had to go elswhere. From 1968, they would usually choose the Institut de l’Environnement. [8]. In 1970, this need for a change in both behaviour and practice, led to the famous Report on Architectural Research by André Lichnérowicz, who, strangely enough, was a mathematics teacher. He sensibly recommended the decisive creation of both the Architectural Research Service (SRA) and the Architectural Research and Development Committee (CORDA).

The weight of the profession

A second field of study is to look at the relationship between teaching and the profession and the impact they had upon each other. The divorce between the two had occured much earlier according to Alcide Vaillant, a cacique of the Société Centrale. In 1919 he started the chorus saying that the School was to blame for having cut itself from the profession. [9]. The diagnosis behind this split still needs in-depth study, but a shared responsibility seems pretty fair. Actually, each time an important educational institution was created, the profession participated in every debate that concerned architectural education. It was the case for the Société Centrale, the SADG and the Association Provinciale, then for the Order and the UNSFA. The debates were fierce about the right of practice and the subsequent prerogatives attached to the degree. There was also much debate about the low numerus clausus generated by the ENSBA and the de facto opportunity to create regional schools. More recently the debate was about the establishment of a “professional clergy”. Membership of which would authorise working as an auteur.

Shared responsibility cannot be denied. A mutual desire to maintain a special status based on tradition was viewed by many as the definite way to support a truely liberal profession. Julien Guadet was the leader of the reform protest of 1863. For a while he was the voice to this protest. He had declared his “hatred for proscriptions” and showed mistrust in related disciplines (archeology included). Their scientificity seemed limiting in his eyes. He disapproved of the School’s studios because they had been placed recently under the supervision of the State, which he considered unduly intefered. [10]. His wish for a School to remain separate from the State was partially granted : outdoor studios lasted until 1968. Over this period, architects, who were absolute supporters of liberalism, did not tolerate what professionals of Medicine and Law had cautiously accepted : to closely work with the State in specific and mutualy beneficial circumstances. Professors of Medicine work as liberal professionals in Public Care. For the Law, as Jacqueline Gatti-Montain put it, it is “a relationship between a public juridical institution and a knowledge”.[11].

The mythical idea of a liberal professional in architecture had a corollary : it made the École des Beaux-Arts a peerless school. This explains why the enacting of a reform of the École Impériale et Spéciale des Beaux-Arts in 1863 by Napoleon III was a wasted opportunity. That same year, Victor Duruy, who had become Minister of Public Education, undertook a reform of french universities. These simultaneous reforms might have led to a natural rapprochement between the School and other structures. The School had been pulled off the supervision of regional education authorities. New disciplines such as Geology, Physics, Chemistry and Accounting were now being taught there. This drew it closer to the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers. [12] ; Moreover the creation of a degree was considered and it was finally created in 1867. Therefore, no obstacle remained but the will of the most elitist and conservative wing of the architectural profession who did not want, as we saw, that the School should join the general higher education system. They feared it would annihilate its “mystery”. Tradition aims to consolidate a community, it implies initiation, fears transparency and favours the legendary qualities. This might be the reason why the method of teaching architecture before 1968, is still poorly known in terms of content, techniques and formal protocol. Most written works of reference about the ENSBA have focused on painting and sculpture when architecture was almost always left aside. Alexis Lemaire’s book of 1889 devoted only 38 pages out of 403 to architecture. Alain Bonnet’s essay written in 2016 on the reform of 1863 did not give it much attention either. [13].

In these research conditions, the history of teaching architecture is only found in specialised publications concerning the names and awards issued : the annual report of medals, printed periodicals chronicling the Grand Prix and diplomas, exhibition catalogues… The history of the profession was no more fortunate. There were only a few studies such as Jean-Pierre Épron’s perceptive research, the exploration of the SADG by Marie-Jeanne Dumont and Denyse Rodriguez Tomé’s thesis mostly devoted to the 1880-1905 period. [14]  Both areas need further study because the shadowy and stormy relationship between education and the profession, which never was excellent, endured. This relationship was decisive in the creation of regional schools viewed as the “daughters of the Association Provinciale”. [15], It was also significant when the creation of the Architects Order was devised between1924 and 1940. The Order specified the requirement of a degree to be a member. This prerequisite legitimised the schools of architecture. This remained a necessary condition until April 10th 2007 when a capacitation for project management in its own name certificate (HMONP) gave life to the practitioners’ license, the creation of which had been much debated by the future founding fathers of the Société Centrale, since 1840.

In this study, attention will be drawn also to short lived or aborted experiments which could reveal secret expectations. One exemple was the intent to create a Postgraduate Architects Corps emulating the original one of the École de Chaillot. This was planned during the last months of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s Presidency. The Institut Français d’Architecture was an original project. The President, probably enlightenend by the september 14th 1974 memorandum by Ricardo Bofill, (who was quite influential at the time and advocated for a “highly qualified body for postgraduates”) [16] , called it respectively “the ENA for architects” and the “counterpart to the Academy of Louis XIV”. [17]. It was reminiscent of the wishful creation of an higher education architecture department within the ENSBA on July 28th 1941 which was effective for one year only.

These remarks and suggestions add up to the ones Marie-Jeanne Dumont previously made. Chosen among many other possible remarks and suggestions, they should give a taste of the vast and promising field of investigation to be had.


[1] Amouroux Dominique (dir), Le livre de l’Écoled’Architecture de Nantes, Gollion, InFolio, 2009.
Châtelet Anne-Marie, Storne Franck, Des Beaux-Arts à l’Université, enseigner l’Architecture à Strasbourg, 2 volumes : Histoire et mémoires et Dessins, Strasbourg and Paris, ENSAS and Éditions Recherches, 2013.
[2] Belhoste Bruno & Alii, La formation polytechnicienne, 1794-1994, Paris, Dunod, 1994.
[3] Weisz George, The emergence of modern universities in France, 1863-1914, Princeton, Princeton university press, 1983
[4] Jean-Noël Luc, Stéphanie Méchine, et Emmanuelle Picard, organisateurs de ces journées, donnaient pour premiers jalons de la recherche sur l’enseignement supérieur français les livraisons de L’Histoire de l’Éducation (2009) et du Mouvement social (2010) consacrés respectivement à « L’enseignement supérieur » et aux « Mutations de la science et des universités en France depuis 1945 ».
[5], consulté le 18 février 2016.
[6] Gutton André, Conversations sur l’architecture : De la nuit à l’aurore, Saint-Léger-Vauban (Abbaye Sainte-Marie de la Pierre-qui-Vire), Zodiaque, 1985, Tome 1, p. 270.
[7] Georges-Robert Lefort, qui fut successivement et parfois simultanément professeur de composition décorative, de construction pratique et de théorie, chef d’atelier et directeur de l’Ecole régionale d’Architecture de Rennes, était ainsi membre assidu de la Société d’émulation des Côtes-du-Nord
[8] Jeanne Quéheillard a recueilli des témoignages sur l’Institut de l’Environnement, qu’elle a partiellement mis en ligne sur, webmagazine produit par le CAPC musée d’Art contemporain et l’École des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux.
[9] Vaillant Alcide, Théorie de l’architecture, Paris, Nouvelle librairie nationale, 1919.
[10] Thomine Alice, Largier Françoise, « Guadet, Julien », notice créée le 25 février 2013 par l’INHA sur le site
[11] Gatti-Montain Jacqueline, Le système d’enseignement du droit en France, Lyon, Presses universitaires de Lyon, 1987.
[12] Cf. Nègre Valérie, Architecture et construction dans les cours de l’École centrale des arts et manufactures (1833-1864) et du Conservatoire des arts et métiers (1854-1894), in Bibliothèques d’atelier : Édition et enseignement de l’architecture, Paris, 1785-1871, Paris, INHA, 2011.
[13] Lemaistre Alexis, L’École des Beaux-Arts dessinée et racontée par un élève, Paris, Firmin Didot & Cie, 1889. Bonnet Alain, L’enseignement des arts au XIXe siècle : La réforme de l’École des Beaux-Arts de 1863 à la fin du modèle académique, Rennes, PUR, 2006.
[14] Dumont Marie-Jeanne, La SADG : Histoire d’une société d’architectes, 1877-1939, Paris, SFA, 1989. Rodriguez Tomé Denyse, « L’organisation des architectes sous la IIIe République », in Le Mouvement social, n°214, 2006, pp.55-76.
[15] Utilisée une première fois par Lucien Lefort en 1910, l’expression fut consacrée en 1926 par Maurice Génermont.
[16] Cf. Langereau Eric, L’État et l’architecture, 1958-1981 : Une politique publique ?, Paris, Picard et Comité d’Histoire du ministère de la Culture, 2001.
[17] « Interview de M. Giscard d’Estaing accordée au Nouvel Observateur du 29 septembre 1980 à propos de la politique architecturale, Paris, Palais de l’Élysée »,, consulté le 18 février 2016.

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