Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Unstable Pterodactyl

"Ptérodactyle", from Viollet-le-Duc, Histoire d'un dessinateur: Comment on apprend à dessiner (Paris: Hetzel, 1879).

A strange drawing! Look at those huge, black eyes. Those claws—they can rip anything to shreds. At least the drawing of the bone structure aims at some kind of explanation—here we see how the wing membrane stretches from the metacarpal, the dotted line forming a rough hypotenuse that includes the radius and humerus. But wait! Look at its all-too-lizard-like head! Look at those sharp teeth! That forked tongue! This is not a dinosaur—it's a monster!

What is wrong with this picture? Why does this animal look more like a flying lizard and not a pterodactyl? Would it surprise you if I told you that it was drawn by, of all people,
an architect? It shouldn't.

In 1879, the French architect, theorist, and Gothic revivalist
Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc wrote
Histoire d'un dessinateur: Comment on apprend à dessiner (translated posthumously into English in 1881 as Learning to Draw: or, The Story of a Young Designer). The book is a quasi-novel—the near-Socratic dialogues between the young, artistically-inclined Jean Lopeau and Majorin, a factory worker and drawing instructor, are part-morality tale and part-treatise on drawing. The education begins when Majorin begins to admire a drawing of a cat by Jean. From that point, Majorin instructs Jean in the art of drawing using lessons culled from a variety of disciplines, including projective and descriptive geometry, anatomy, stereotomy, geology, and history. The point being, in the end, that Majorin wants to deploy such fields of knowledge to instill in Jean the ability to harness the powers of observation in service of the "industrial arts."

But let's get back to the image of our Pterodactyl. Majorin shows Jean a drawing of the dinosaur to make a point about comparative analogy. He shows drawings of bat wings and human hands to demonstrate to Jean how "nature herself has sought and tried all forms." In other words, the image places a premium on formal similarities between seemingly disparate objects: Majorin sacrifices any sense as to whether this was a correct anatomical drawing in service of a drawing lesson. This could be one of the many reasons why this creature does not look like a dinosaur.

Egid Verhelst II (1696-1749), Engraving of P. Antiquus, found by Cosimo Collini in 1784

But perhaps a better reason could be that in 1879, not very much was known about pterodactyls or other kinds of dinosaurs. The term "dinosaur" did not exist until 1842, when Richard Owen used the word to describe the bones of "great fossilized lizards" that had been found in England since 1815. By the time that Viollet-le-Duc wrote Learning to Draw, dinosaur remains were still being unearthed and catalogued. Pterodactyls, however, were only slightly more familiar. Fossilized remains of Pterodactylus had been found as early as 1784, and it was not until 1801 that the French naturalist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) not only suggested that it was a flying animal, but also gave it its more familiar name: "Ptéro-dactyle."

Samuel Thomas von Sömmerring, Ornithocephalus brevirostri, 1817

Viollet-le-Duc, Drawing of Bat, from Histoire d'un dessinateur (1879)

In other words, it is possible to look at Viollet-le-Duc's fanciful drawing of a "Ptérodactyle" as evidence of unstable knowledge. Like Cuvier, he labeled the flying creature a "reptile." Yet Majorin's implicit comparison of the Pterodactyl with the bat in Learning to Draw was a common, if incorrect one. Viollet-de-Duc was probably familiar with the debate between Cuvier and the German naturalist Samuel Thomas von Sömmerring, who, from 1812 to 1817, described his fossilized pterosaur remains as "bat-like" animals somewhere between birds and mammals. Perhaps, then, this is why Viollet-le-Duc himself included his famous drawing of a bat in Learning to Draw. Majorin was trying to tell young Jean that in seeing the wings of a bat, he was, in essence, seeing the wings of a pterodactyl. They were not alone. Everyone else seemed to be caught up in classifying this strange, flying reptile according to visual criteria. For Viollet-le-Duc, then, the powers of observation, manifested through a drawing exercise, could yield a kind of fertile investigation that did not have to rely on current developments in natural history or paleontology. In other words, Viollet-le-Duc was being an architect.

Viollet-le-Duc, Details of Bat, from Histoire d'un dessinateur (1879)

Today, leveraging such accusations against architects is easier than ever. Part of the reason is pedagogical. Architecture students have inherited a legacy of theoretical inquiry that came from outside the discipline. Architecture theory did not necessarily mean a theory of architecture, but rather, theory applied to architecture. Although this model is now under attack under the rubric of "postcriticality" (or if not under attack, subjected to untrammeled scrutiny) it is only one explanation of why architects were able to cull a canon of Western thought into their education. But if extra-architectural thinking destabilizes or denatures the discipline of architecture (a common concern among the postcritical set) this does not necessarily mean that architecture is a form of stable knowledge. The example of Viollet-le-Duc's bats and pterodactyls invite further discussion about the boundaries and thresholds of visual knowledge vis a vis architecture ... but more on that later.


Carl Douglas said...

VLD's relationship to theories of evolution is really interesting. He definitely employs an evolution-like schema quite often. But his evolution is always a bit approximate - it seems to me he had an approximate grasp of evolutionary ideas, but they were dated, and he missed much of the their subtlety. He gets stranded halfway between a theory of types and a theory of evolution. His approach to reconstruction is symptomatic: he claimed to be restoring things to be exemplars of their place in historical development rather than 'slavishly' following how they actually were.

Enthusiastic but not bothering to fully grasp the information available - sounds like an architect!

James said...

While I agree with the spirit of your comment Carl, I can't help but wonder if there are two things at play here:

1. Architects seldom in professional, or indeed professorial, life get to study out side their field in any great depth.

2. Even in the late 19th century (even now indeed) people were still grappling with the ideas of evolution and the paleontological record; it is not necessarily fair to criticise a reasonably educated, if somewhat misdirected set of theses.

I think it is instructive to allude to the fact that drawing as a method of study was tabled by an architect, but I think contemporary sources must be referenced and judged before a decision can be made on the ignorance or otherwise of VLD's assumptions.

sevensixfive said...

Enrique - are you also thinking of the Banham 'Black Box' essay? Architecture as a method, reducible to seeing and making through drawing. That's kind of a contemporary (1990?) source, right?

If architecture is a method, with visual organization and drawing in a tangle at its native core - what can other fields, like paleontology, which has its own methods and its own instabilities, learn from architecture? And vice-versa?


Carl Douglas said...

my last comment was just a snarky aside.

it struck me while doing some writing on VLD's developmental sequences that his understanding of evolutionary development corresponds to the popular late-nineteenth-century understanding of evolution, with its teleology and vestigial essentialism regarding species (cf. mary midgely for eg.). The state of the field of evolutionary theory by the end of the nineteenth-century was quite advanced in rejecting typology (in my understanding), and it isn't judging VLD anachronistically to point this out.

i'm interested in the extent to which VLD can be seen as a precursor to current morphogenetic-type processes.