Architecture Parlante

Architecture parlante, one of the diverse theories in architecture, was developed during the French revolution by prominent French architects like Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (1736-1806). Ledoux is considered the champion of the theory. 

The term architecture parlante is a French-language that means either ‘talking architecture’ or ‘speaking architecture.’ In both cases, it stands to eloquently render a straightforward ideology in the complex field of architecture. The theory strives to accentuate the obvious, spacious, and visually understandable purpose and function of architecture mostly from its formal appearance

Architecture Parlante is also considered an ideology that has brought a new narrative towards the buildings designed by architects and the end-user public. Architecture parlante is also a theory that embraces the ordinary communication among the structures, architecture in this case, in the built environment we are living. The theory argues that the culture of designing a building, space, or an urban area, etc… should start from liberating the piece from a misconceived purpose and identity. It promotes the designed element, whether an architectural masterpiece or a single structure, should end expressive of its existence not only by occupying space but more, by describing itself true to its original function and nature. The ultimate essence of the building akin to read should be what it is first, a way clearer and meaningful than being just a building. 

The theory seems to destabilize the fact some buildings were designed-with, a mystery. There is neither mystery nor discovery; with the routines of architecture parlante, everything should stand correct to its face value, be honest to its formal appearance, and give a meaning outside-in.

The use of metaphoric representation was also one of the bold ways the theory exploited to show an organic and original nature of a building and its manifested function. 

The theory or the thinking of the architecture parlante extensively uses ornamentation and decoration to establish effective visual communication, and informed understanding that is seen left out as another theory, minimalism, was born. 

The American starchitect and the champion of deconstructivist architecture Frank Gehry seems to relate to this theory as he believes and is quoted for his saying ‘architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness’. 

The way and the fact architecture speaks about its time, and the place is somehow expressive. It directly describes the identity and purpose that resembles the argument of the 17th century onward French architects. 

The ideology of architecture parlante is not typically abstract but uses an in-depth cocktail of the design and function analogies. It has brought a revolutionary character to buildings which are considered the only difference between buildings are their character and scale. Character transcends function to Express content didactically.

Here below are five outstanding examples that can describe the theory of architecture parlante. 

1. Claude-nicolas Ledoux’s Ideal City of Chaux

Place: France 

Year: 1773-1804 

Architect: Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s

The master architect of the ideal city of Chaux and champion of the architecture parlante theory, Ledoux was commissioned by King Louis XVI in 1773 and started in 1775, the ideal city of Chaux is formed with a complete circle that theorized about a place, a city, where humans and nature could coexist and live in harmony with one another that translates to sustainable design of the contemporary practice. The ideal city radial concentric city design takes the plan of the saltworks as a central point for its development, embodying an idea of communal life joined to that of new industrial urbanism. The exemplary work of Ledoux on the ideal city of Chaux clearly renders the theory of architecture parlante by featuring many independent buildings each playing a particular character and depict functional symbolism. House for the farmer, for the river supervisor, for the barrel maker, and for the woodcutter resembles the character of their functions in a strong formal boldness and appearance. 

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2. Étienne-louis Boullée’s French National Library

Place: France  

Year: 1785 

Architect: Étienne-Louis Boullée

The unbuilt French national library was designed by the French enlightenment and neoclassical architect Étienne-Louis Boullée (1728-1799). He is also a teacher and a theorist who originally wanted to be a painter and later joined architecture following the wish of his father. Boullée’s most buildings absolutely unbuildable either according to the technical standards of their day or arguably even of our own. For this reason, he was nicknamed ‘the paper architect’ by many. Boullée proposed a massive and staggeringly grand reading room (Bibliothèque- French word) that can depict and envision the cosmetic memory of the world. His vision in projecting an overhead concave mass concrete structure clearly and boldly akin the theory of architecture parlante through his aspiration of communicating the imaginative nature of the library’s function and the memory of the world. Boullée’s effort of abstraction of the geometric forms suggested by ancient works into a new concept of a monumental building that would possess the calm, ideal beauty of classical architecture while also having considerable expressive power.  

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3. Étienne-louis Boullée’s Cenotaph for Isaac Newton 

Place: France  

Year: 1784 

Architect: Étienne-Louis Boullée 

Boullée has designed a 152.4meters widened and the same length high monumental and spherical cenotaph for Isaac Newton. His drawings for the cenotaph clearly show the outer form of the monument which has almost enormous holes on the top of the dome to let natural light penetrate the inner spaces to render a night sky feeling in the inner spaces. His drawing’s bottom part for the cenotaph includes small and tiny human figures to show the scale and proportion of the structure. He primarily strived to exchange the interior feelings by proposing a large armillary over-hanged solar system that can render night inside when it was day outside and vice versa. In this aspect, his efforts to orchestrate an astonishing light drama and twist of the natural orders, he has implemented the theory of architectural parlante in the very best way. Boullée considers the phycology of the viewer as a principal concept for his buildings and monumental structure like the cenotaph on which he has emphasized a mystery through investigating the geometric forms of the cube, pyramid, cylinder, and sphere. His cenotaph was also a hollow globe-shaped sphere that directly translated to the nature of the cosmos and universe in general. 

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4. Beaux Arts of the New York Yacht Club  (Nyyc) by Whitney Warren; Warren & Wetmore  

Place: New York, US 

Year: 1901 

Architects: Whitney warren; warren & Wetmore  

The Beaux-Arts styled New York yacht club was designed by Architects Whitney Warren (1864-1943) and Charles D. Wetmore (1866-1941). The yacht club which is said to be the oldest and foremost yachting institution in the US was founded by eight yachtsmen to encourage yacht building and naval architecture to play impactful roles for the prosperity of naval science. The yacht club is clearly noticeable from the three streets mimicking the sterns of the Dutch galleons that spill stone waves over the window ledge. which first came to New York. The club building has a royal looking grill room that has heavy oak timbers and cast iron bolts that are intended to replicate the space below decks in a vintage sailing vessel. Here, the yacht club building interestingly provided a functional eloquence by inside-out showcasing the resemblance and depiction of the building’s purpose and its sailing vessel look of the naval science and architecture respectively as of the theory of architecture parlante.   

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5. Brown Derby

Place: Los Angeles, US 

Year: 1926  

The mini dome-shaped restaurant is founded by Robert Cobb, Herbert Somborn, and another associate. The building has a typical hat shape where people were invited to eat in the hat as many of the building was made in the shape of a giant, dapper caps. The dome can easily be overlooked resembling the relic of the iconic mid century architecture. The building is considered a roadside vernacular architecture that was famous in California. This kind of buildings was primarily designed to catch the attention of passer-byes and motorists; in this case, the visual expression and formal appearance philosophies of the theory architecture parlante. 

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Author

Nahom is an interdiciplinary Architect and built environment practitioner who strives to use the untapped potential of architecture and experiential design for working on the holistic betterment of livelihoods. He has an initiative which works to build and re-build proactive urban community in Ethiopia.

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