Monday, July 30, 2007

Three Voyages

Joseph Michael Gandy, Drawing for John Soane's Bank of England (1830)

On November 18, 1761, the British war frigate H.M.S. Deptford sailed for the island of Barbados in the West Indies. On board was William Harrison, son of John Harrison, a horologist and clockmaker who was currently embroiled in a legal and technical spat with both the Crown and the Royal Observatory regarding the accurate calculation of longitude. Harrison carried with him a chronometer simply called the H4, a cumbersome piece of equipment encased in an airtight brass casing that was set to the Royal Observatory clock in Greenwich. He hoped to win the £25,000 Longitude Prize, reserved for those who could build a chronometer so accurate that it would lose an acceptable, albeit minimal, amount of time over the 15-month voyage to the West Indies. Harrison was finally recognized as the winner in 1773. He died in 1776, just one year after Captain James Cook returned from his second voyage of discovery. Captain Cook carried a modified version of Harrison's chronometers on board.

In June 1792, two French astronomers embarked on a similar quest as Harrison’s. Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre and Pierre-François-André Méchain left Paris with a cache of scientific equipment (including the innovative Borda Circle), hoping to measure part of a longitudinal arc running from Dunkirk on down to Barcelona. Whereas Harrison sought an accurate measure of time, Delambre and Méchain wanted to establish an accurate measure of distance. The two French scientists wanted to demonstrate that the new measure – “the meter” – would be “one ten millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the equator.”

A little over 20 years later, in March of 1818, an extensive array of architectural fragments arrived on English shores aboard H.M.S. Weymouth. The Weymouth’s crew sailed from Leptis Magna, an archaeological excavation site on the Libyan coast of North Africa. The shipment contained architectural fragments from Roman antiquity: 22 granite columns, 15 marble columns, 10 capitals, 25 pedestals, 7 loose slabs, 10 pieces of cornice, 5 inscribed slabs, and various fragments of sculptured figures (for example, “Statue in halves Head and Feet deficient”).

These three episodes demonstrate an interesting trajectory of events mirroring contemporary developments in Enlightenment science and natural history. William Harrison's voyages to Barbados, as well as Méchain and Delambre's jaunt along the French meridian, exemplify one of the main characteristics of Enlightenment science in Western Europe: the ability to calculate, to rationalize the dimensions of space. Such experimentation was a necessary corollary to the mania for colonization, for the ability to measure space accurately expedited the process of dominium. Thus, for the crew of the H.M.S. Weymouth, an accurate chronometer would have to be indispensable to navigation, and by inference, to the proper securing of said architectural artifacts.

And although the unloading of artifacts from the Weymouth’s hold brings us closer to the true purpose of this post, at this juncture, the achievements of late-Enlightenment scientists and natural historians are considered alongside the exploits of contemporary architects. Architecture and science are forms of cultural and intellectual expression whose coexistence suggests an intermingling of sources and inspirations. It can be thus argued that the scientist influences the architect and vice versa. These two realms share a commingling of circuitry: the spark of innovation crosses frequently between the two, creating a literal and figurative livewire of intellectual activity.

The work of the English architect John Soane (1753-1827) and his draughtsman/renderer, Joseph Michael Gandy (1771-1843), thus takes on a special significance. Although the two men only collaborated on a single project, some of Soane's work must necessarily be considered along Gandy's, for we know as much about Soane the celebrated architect through Gandy the struggling artist. When considering these two men, we look in particular to Gandy's rendering of Soane's Bank of England as well as his depiction of the interior spaces of Soane's house at Lincoln's Inn Fields. These works present an analog to what the explorers, cartographers, and collectors previously mentioned faced. The carrying of an H4 chronometer necessarily involved the carrying of a chronometer set to Greenwich Mean Time -- thus Harrison in Barbados carried a temporal fragment of England along his voyage. Méchain and Delambre likewise carried temporal fragments of Paris en route to Barcelona and Dunkirk. The crew of the H.M.S. Weymouth carried physical fragments of Leptis Magna to England. All show an obsession with the collection and depiction of artifacts. And to further elaborate the point, to demonstrate how architecture and natural science were part of a common intellectual milieu, this post thus aligns the work of Soane and Gandy with that of a contemporary French natural historian and scientist – Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832). As will be shown, Cuvier’s particular contributions to natural history give us a basic intellectual framework for a possible understanding of Soane’s and Gandy’s passion for collecting and depicting architectural fragments.

Cuvier, Soane, Gandy: connected briefly

Cuvier becomes of interest primarily because he is a contemporary of Soane's and Gandy's. The Baron Cuvier’s life and career mirrored Soane’s own in several ways. For example, Soane displayed a bust of Cuvier in his house at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Soane was even knighted the same year that Cuvier was ennobled. Soane also alludes to the influence of Cuvier’s lecture style in his own Royal Academy Lectures. Cuvier's position as Professor of Comparative Anatomy mirrors Soane's position as Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy, where he was curator of a collection dedicated to "comparative architecture." Inspired by Cuvier, Soane mentions the importance of comparative architecture at the close of his Lectures on Architecture, while Gandy, influenced by both Soane and Cuvier, would attempt an impossibly large treatise entitled "Comparative Architecture." But to further the objective of this post, this narrative introduces three specific innovations by Baron Cuvier: the notion of functional integration, the belief in cataclysmic extinction, and the idea of revolution as a vital geological events. These three intellectual innovations are considered insofar as they parallel the work of Soane and Gandy.

Functional Integration

Cuvier saw organisms as integrated wholes. Each part's form and function were incorporated into the organism's entire body. This meant that no part could be modified without impairing the organism's functional integration:
[T]he component parts of each must be so arranged as to render possible the whole living being, not only with regard to itself, but to its surrounding relations, and the analysis of these conditions frequently leads to general laws, as demonstrable as those which are derived from calculation or experiment.
Unlike subsequent natural historians, Cuvier did not believe in the evolution of species. For him, any change in an organism's anatomy would make it unable to survive. To support his claim that organisms did not evolve, Cuvier demonstrated that mummified remains of animals brought back from Egypt were no different from their living counterparts. Each organism being a functional whole meant that any change in one part would destroy the delicate balance of nature. Each part of an organism, no matter how small, thus bore signs of the whole. And this made the reconstruction of organisms from fragmentary remains (using rational principles) entirely possible. Cuvier became famous for his ability to "assemble" organisms from fossilized fragments. Yet this ability was not immune from controversy, as "he based his reconstructions less on rational principles than on his deep knowledge of comparative anatomy of living organisms."

Section drawing of Soane's House and Museum at Lincoln's Inn Fields

Selections from Georges Cuvier's sketchbooks

Soane and Gandy: Functional Integration

Soane's House and Museum provides a suitable analog to Cuvier's mania for functional integration. If Cuvier is able to reconstruct whole biological specimens from few fragments, then what exactly does Soane "reconstruct" when assembling all the various fragments inside his home? Primary sources indicate that the seemingly disparate architectural and sculptural fragments throughout the house create, as the title of Soane's own 1827 book suggests, a Union of Architecture, Sculpture, and Painting. Soane's contemporary, the geographer John Britton, uses Soane's House and Museum as an example of such a union and states:
Archaeology is certainly most indispensably [sic] connected with [architecture], in order to familiarize the student with the models of antiquity, and to enable him to catch their spirit,and to emulate their principles of composition, whether generally, or with respect to details; and we may venture to affirm, that the more thoroughly the artists understands these, the less liable will he be to copy their beauties servilely, and to apply them indiscriminately; as he will at once be able to judge how far they ought to be modified, according to the peculiar circumstances of his own design.
Much like Baron Cuvier uses parts of animals to reconstruct the whole, Soane uses his collection of architectural fragments to create a cohesive historical narrative within the walls of his home. When viewed in relation to section, the various architectural and sculptural ephemera do suggest a narrative trajectory. Each floor of Lincoln’s Inn Fields forms a crucial part of this narrative. One author even suggests that:
[T]he narrative of the tripartite section is organized from the light and Apollo in the Dome above, to the characters occupying the middle strata of the Museum, and finally to the Crypt and mortality below. This backdrop is essential, recalling at once the cycle of the rise, meridian, and setting of the sun, an important allegory derived from classical mythology.
In conjunction with this tripartite structure, one must also keep in mind Chantrey’s bust of Soane, flanked by statuettes of Michelangelo and Raphael. Together, all elements combined suggest a true union of architecture, sculpture, and painting.


Cuvier, Comparison between Mammoth Jaw fossil and Indian Elephant Jaw (1798)

Cuvier's most important contribution to biology was the establishing of extinction as a verifiable fact. This was an important intellectual development, as Cuvier's predecessors "believed for centuries that fossils were the remains of once-living organisms". Fossils may have represented life forms that no longer existed: for example, the Comte de Buffon (1707-1788) (one of Cuvier’s direct predecessors), wrote that "We have monuments taken from the bosom of the Earth, especially from the bottom of coal and slate mines, that demonstrate to us that some of the fish and plants that these materials contain do not belong to species currently existing." Such views did not rest easily with scientists, who refused to believe in the systematic extinction of species, or that adhered to the belief that fossils were remains of living species. For example, “fossil mammoths found in Italy were interpreted as the remains of the elephants brought by Hannibal when he invaded Rome.” Others thought that the unusual organisms then known only as fossils must still survive in unexplored parts of the world – according to one source “no less a personage than Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, speculated that mammoths might yet be found living in the American wilderness.” Cuvier had plenty to say on this matter. In a lecture before the National Institute of Sciences and Arts in Paris in 1796, Cuvier states:
It is evident that one cannot say anything demonstrable about the problem before having resolved these preliminary questions, and yet we hardly possess the necessary information to solve some of them. The studies of elephant bones published up until now contain so little detail that even today a scientist cannot say whether they belong to one or another of our living species, and of the enormous quantity of fossil bones about which so many writers have spoken, we have good drawings of only two or three.
Cuvier went on to publish detailed studies proving that fossilized remains of African and Indian elephants were different from living elephant species, thus "proving" that the fossilized remains belonged to extinct animals. Using a similar analysis, Cuvier proved that the similar remains of other animals (the giant ground sloth, the Irish elk, the American mastodon, et cetera) were unrelated to living counterparts, and hence extinct.

For Soane, extinction was not necessarily a fact, but a definite possibility. Gandy's drawing of Soane's Bank of England in an "idyllic landscape" is a projective history that visualizes the Bank as an element of a ruined, extinct landscape. The idea of the destruction of the Bank is valuative: we look to the use of the term idyllic landscape to connote a Romantic ideal and perhaps even a connection to the notion of the picturesque. Thus one author considers Soane's House in relation to his Bank of England:
Soane's house-museum may also be read as an experiment in the picturesque on a microcosmic scale, further inspired by his memories of eighteenth-century Rome, and conceived of as a series of incremental ruined fragments within a precinct. This formal organization can be observed in both the plan of the Bank of England and in the poché plan of the Soane Museum, where discreet walled-in compounds relate to one another, displaying picturesque composition. The character of both plans suggest that they would look equally magnificent as ruins.
We also look to the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich for inspiration. Whereas Gandy's commissions depict very little human activity, Friedrich's paintings depict an individual lost in the cosmos. Such examples suggest a nod to Cuvier's theory of extinction. As Cuvier predicted that no new species would be discovered, Gandy's painting of the Bank of England suggests that no further life will spring from this so-called idyllic landscape.

Periodic Revolutions

How exactly did Cuvier account for extinction? He believed that the destruction of species was a result of periodic catastrophes (or "revolutions") that altered the Earth's shape and biomass. For him, these “revolutions” had not only natural causes, but presented a vital geological problem. Cuvier never associated periodic revolutions with events from the Bible. However, some later geologists, notably Rev. William Buckland in England, suggested that the most recent revolution was the Biblical Flood. This remained a popular hypothesis until Louis Agassiz (who had studied with Cuvier) showed that the "flood deposits" were actually formed by glaciers.

Joseph Michael Gandy, rendering for John Soanes's London Commissioners' Churches (1820s)

We again look to Gandy's drawings for some corroboration of these developments. In particular, his drawing of Soane's London Commissioners' Churches suggests a periodic revolution, or catastrophe, and its immediate aftermath. In the picture, one set of ruins is strewn about, while another set obviously resembles a plan. With the ruins at the far bottom left of the pictures suggest a catastrophic event, our eyes move along the bottom and to the right, and seeing how he ruins reconstitute themselves into a plan. And thus we let our gaze follow the telemetry of the cathedral-like spires as they literally ascend in a sidereal drift.


This post considered some of the work by Sir John Soane and Joseph Michael Gandy in relation to contemporary scientific developments. Three specific theories by the French natural historian Baron Georges Cuvier provided a basic intellectual framework from which the relationships between early 19th century English architecture and late Enlightenment science can be teased out. More specifically, Cuvier’s beliefs in functional integration, cataclysmic extinction, and periodic revolution are mirrored in Gandy’s renderings of Soane’s buildings. But the parallels between Cuvier, Soane and Gandy lead to further investigations. For example, Soane’s work may mark a transition between the exacting rationalization of late 18th century architecture and the picturesque romanticism of the 19 th century. Such a development can be inferred from contemporary science, as Cuvier’s theories marked an important transition from Enlightenment era natural history to the evolutionary biology and Darwinism in the mid-nineteenth century. There are many ways in which contemporary architecture and science partake in a unitary intellectual milieu, yet hopefully this post has demonstrated one of many possible ways to make such a connection.

1 comment:

sevensixfive said...

I really like the thread traced from specimen -> fossil -> ruin -> plan -> back to specimen.

Makes me want to think some more about industrial architecture and urban decay, especially the way these show up in exploration/infiltration: always leading towards romanticism and analysis at the same time.