Walter Benjamin reads Sigfried Giedion, Bauen in Frankreich (1928)

From The Arcades Project, pg. 40:

Old name for department stores: docks à bon marché that is, “discount docks.” <Sigfried> Giedion, Bauen in Frankreich <Leipzig and Berlin, 1928>, p. 31.

Evolution of the department store from the shop that was housed in arcades. Principle of the department store: “The floors form a single space. They can be taken in, so to speak, ‘at a glance’.” Giedion, Bauen in Frankreich, p. 34.

Giedion shows (in Bauen in Frankreich, p. 35) how the axiom, “Welcome the crowd and keep it seduced” (Science et l’industrie, 143 [1925], p. 6), leads to corrupt architectural practices in the construction of the department store Au Printemps (1881-1889). Function of commodity capital!

Cover to Giedion's Bauen in Frankreich (1928)

Cover to Giedion’s Bauen in Frankreich (1928)

Pg. 153.

The first act of Offenbach’s Vie parisienne takes place in a railroad station. “The industrial movement seems to run in the blood of this generation — to such an extent that, for example, Flachat has built his house on a plot. of land where, on either side, trains are always whistling by.” Sigfried Giedion, Bauen in Frankreich (Leipzig and Berlin <1928>), p. 13. Eugène Flachat (1802-1873), builder of rail-roads, designer.

On the Galerie d’Orléans in the Palais-Royal (1829-1831): “Even Fontaine, one of’ the originators of the Empire style, is converted in later years to the new material. In 1835-1836, moreover, he replaced the wooden flooring of the Galerie des Batailes in Versailles with an iron assembly. These galleries, like those in the Palais-Royal, were subsequently perfected in Italy. For us, they are a point of departure for new architectural problems: train stations, and the like.” Sigfried Giedion, Bauen in Frankreich, p. 21.

Pg. 154:

“The complicated construction (out of iron and copper) of the Corn Exchange in 1811 was the work of the architect Bellangé and the engineer Brunet. It is the first time, to our knowledge, that architect and engineer are no longer united in one person…Hittorff, the builder of the Gare du Nord, got his insight into iron construction from Bellangé. — Naturally, it is a matter more of an application of iron than a construction in iron. Techniques of wood construction were simply transposed to iron.” Sigfried Giedion, Bauen in Frankreich, p. 20.

Apropos of Veugny’s covered market built in 1824 near the Madeleine: “The slen­derness of the delicate cast-iron columns brings to mind Pompeian wall paintings. ‘The construction, in iron and cast iron, of the new market near the Madeleine is one of the most graceful achievements in this genre. One cannot imagine anything more elegant or in better taste…’ Eck, Traité.” Sigfried Giedion, Bauen in Frankreich, p. 21.

“The most important step toward industrialization: mechanical prefabrication of specific forms (sections) out of wrought iron or steel. The fields interpenetrate: …in 1832, railroad workers began not with building components but with rails . Here is the point of departure for sectional iron, which is the basis of iron construction. [Note to this passage: The new methods of construction penetrate slowly into industry. Double-T iron was used in flooring for the first time in Paris in 1845. when the masons were out on strike and the price of wood had risen due to in­creased construction and larger spans.]” Giedion, Bauen in Frankreich, p. 26.

The first structures made of iron served transitory purposes: covered markets, railroad stations, exhibitions, Iron is thus immediately allied with functional moments in the life of the economy. What was once functional and transitory, however, begins today, at an altered tempo, to seem formal and stable.

“Les Halles consist of two groups of pavilions joined to each other by covered lanes. It is a somewhat timid iron structure that avoids the generous spans of Horeau and Flachat and obviously keeps to the model of the greenhouse.” Giedion, Bauen in Frankreich, p. 28.

On the Gare du Nord: Here they have entirely avoided that abundance of space which is found in waiting rooms, entryways, and restaurants around 1880, and which led to the problem of the railroad station as exaggerated baroque palace.” Giedion, Bauen in Frankreich, p. 31.

“Wherever the nineteenth century feels itself to be unobserved, it grows bold:’ Giedion, Bauen in Frankreich, p. 33. In fact, this sentence holds good in the general form that it has here: the anonymous art of the illustrations in family magazines and children’s books, for example, is proof of the point.

Pg. 155:

Through the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, architecture is linked with the plastic arts. “That was a disaster for architecture.In the Baroque age, this unity had been perfect and self-evident.In the course of the nineteenth century, however, it became untenable.” Sigfried Giedion, Bauen in Frankreich <Leipzig and Berlin, 1928>, p. 16. This not only provides a very important perspective on the Ba­ roque; it also indicates that architecture was historically the earliest field to out­ grow the concept of art, or, better, that it tolerated least well being contemplated as “art” — a category which the nineteenth century, to a previously unimagined extent but with hardly more justification at bottom, imposed on the creations of intellectual productivity.

The dusty fata morgana of the winter garden, the dreary perspective of the train station, with the small altar of happiness at the intersection of the tracks — it all molders under spurious constructions, glass before its time, premature iron.For in the first third of the previous century, no one as yet understood how to build with glass and iron. That problem, however, has long since been solved by hangars and silos. Now, it is the same with the human material on the inside of the arcades as with the materials of their construction. Pimps are the iron up­rights of this street, and its glass breakables are the whores.

“The new ‘architecture’ <Bauen> has its origin in the moment of industry’s forma­tion, around 1830 — the moment of mutation from the craftsmanly to the industrial production process.” Giedion, Bauen in Frankreich, p. 2.

Pg. 156:

It must be kept in mind that the magnificent urban views opened up by new constructions in iron — Giedion, in his Bauen in Frankreich (illustrations 61-63), gives excellent examples with the Pont Transbordeur in Marseilles — for a long time were evident only to workers and engineers. | Marxism | For in those days who besides the engineer and the proletarian had climbed the steps that alone made it possible to recognize what was new and decisive about these structures: the feeling of space?

Pgs. 175-176:

Exhibitions. “All regions and indeed, retrospectively, all times. From farming and mining, from industry and from the machines that were displayed in operation, to raw materials and processed materials, to art and the applied arts, In all these we see a peculiar demand for premature synthesis, of a kind that is characteristic of the nineteenth century in other areas as well: think of the total work of art. Apart from indubitably utilitarian motives, the century wanted to generate a vision of the human cosmos, as launched in a new movement.” Sigfried Giedion, Bauen in Frankreich <Leipzig and Berlin, 1928>, p, 37. But these “premature syn­theses” also bespeak a persistent endeavor to close up the space of existence and of development. To prevent the “airing-out of the classes.”

Apropos of the exhihition of 1867, organized according to statistical principles: (” To take a turn about this place, circular like the equator, is literally to travel around the world, for all nations have come here; enemies are coexisting in peace. Just as, at the origin of things, the divine spirit was hovering over the orb of the waters, so now it hovers over this orb of iron.” L’Exposition universelle de 1867 illustrée: Publication internationale autorisée par let commission impériale. vol. 2, p. 322 (cited in Giedion, <Bauen in Frankreich,> p. 41).

Pg. 214:

On the exhibition of 1867. “These high galleries, kilometers in length, were of an undeniable grandeur. The noise of machinery filled them. And it should not be forgotten that, when this exhibition held its famous galas, guests still drove up to the festivities in a coach-and-eight. As was usual with rooms at this period, at­ tempts were made — through furniture-like installations — to prettify these twenty­ five-meter-high galleries and to relieve the austerity of their design. One stood in fear of one’s own magnitude.” Sigfried Giedion, Bauen in Frankreich <Leipzig and Berlin, 1928>, p. 43.

Pg. 391:

Attempt to develop Giedion’s thesis. “In the nineteenth century,” he writes, “construction plays the role of the subconscious.” Wouldn’t it be better to say “the role of bodily processes” — around which “artistic” architectures gather, like dreams around the framework of physiological processes?

Pgs. 406-407:

The house has always shown itself “barely receptive to new formulations.” Sig­fried Giedion, Bauen in Frankreich <Berlin, 1928>, p. 78.

Museums unquestionably belong to the dream houses of the collective. In con­sidering them, one would want to emphasize the dialectic by which they come into contact, on the one hand, with scientific research and, on the other hand, with “the dreamy tide of bad taste.” “Nearly every epoch would appear, by virtue of its inner disposition, to be chiefly engaged in unfolding a specific architectural problem: for the Gothic age, this is the cathedrals; for the Baroque, the palace; and for the early nineteenth century, with its regressive tendency to allow itself to be saturated with the past: the museum.” Sigfried Giedion, Bauen in Frankreich, p. 36. This thirst for the past forms something like the principal object of my analysis — in light of which the inside of the museum appears as an interior magnified on a giant scale. In the years 1850-1890, exhibitions take the place of museums. Comparison between the ideological bases of the two.

The nineteenth century provided all new creations, in every area of endeavor, with historicizing masks. This was no less true in the field of architecture than in the field of industry or society. New possibilities of construction were being intro­duced, hut people felt almost fear at the advent of these new possibilities and heedlessly buried them in theatrical decoration. The enormous collective appara­tus of industry was being put in place, but its significance was altered entirely by the fact that the benefits of the production process were allowed to accrue to only a small number. This historicizing mask is indissolubly bound to the image of the nineteenth-century, and is not to be gainsaid.” Sigfried Giedion, Bauen in Frank­reich, pp. 1-2.

Le Corbusier’s work seems to stand at the terminus of the mythological figura­tion “house.” Compare the following: “Why should the house be made as light and airy as possible? Because only in that way can a fatal and hereditary monu­mentality be brought to an end. As long as the play of burden and support, whether actually or symbolically exaggerated (Baroque), got its meaning from the supporting walls, heaviness was justified. But today — with the unburdened exterior wall — the ornamentally accentuated counterpoint of pillar and load is a painful farce (American skyscrapers).” Giedion, Bauen in Frankreich, p. 85.

Pgs. 423-424:

Le Corbusier’s houses depend on neither spatial nor plastic articulation: the air passes through them! Air becomes a constitutive factor! What matters, therefore, is neither spatiality per se nor plasticity per se but only relation and interfusion. There is but one indivisible space. The integuments separating inside from outside fall away.” Sigfried Giedion, Bauen in Frankreich <Berlin, 1928>, p . 85.

The intoxicated interpenetration of street and residence such as comes about in the Paris of the nineteenth century-and especially in the experience of the flâneur — has prophetic value. For the new architecture lets this interpenetration become sober reality. Giedion on occasion draws attention to this: “A detail of anonymous engineering, a grade crossing, becomes an element in the architecture” (that is, of a villa). S. Giedion, Bauen in Frankreich <Berlin, 1928>, p. 89.

Pg. 455:

The most characteristic building projects of the nineteenth century — railroad stations, exhibition halls, department stores (according to Giedion) — all have matters of collective importance as their object. The flâneur feels drawn to these “despised, everyday” structures, as Giedion calls them. In these constructions, the appearance of great masses on the stage of history was already foreseen. They form the eccentric frame within which the last privateers so readily displayed themselves.

Pg. 458:

“Apart from a certain haut-goût charm;’ says Giedion, “the artistic draperies and wall-hangings of the previous century have come to seem musty:’ <Sigfried> Giedion, Bauen in Frankreich (Leipzig and Berlin <1928>), p. 3. We, however, believe that the charm they exercise on us is proof that these things, too, contain material of vital importance for us — not indeed for our building practice, as is the case with the constructive possibilities inherent in iron frameworks, but rather for our understanding, for the radioscopy, if you will, of the situation of the bour­geois class at the moment it evinces the first signs of decline. In any case, material of vital importance politically; this is demonstrated by the attachment of the Surrealists to these things, as much as by their exploitation in contemporary fashion. In other words: just as Giedion teaches us to read off the basic features of today’s architecture in the buildings erected around 1850, we, in turn, would recognize today’s life, today’s forms, in the life and in the apparently secondary, lost forms of that epoch.

Pg. 459:

“In the windswept stairways of the Eiffel Tower, or, better still, in the steel sup­ports of a Pont Transbordeur, one meets with the fundamental aesthetic experi­ence of present-day architecture: through the thin net of iron that hangs suspended in the air, things stream — ships, ocean, houses, masts, landscape, harbor. They lose their distinctive shape, swirl into one another as we climb downward, merge simultaneously:’ Sigfried Giedion, Bauen in Frankreich (Leipzig and Berlin) , p. 7. In the same way, the historian today has only to erect a slender but sturdy scaffolding — a philosophic structure — in order to draw the most vital aspects of the past into his net. But just as the magnificent vistas of the city provided by the new construction in iron (again, see Giedion, illustrations on pp. 61-63) for a long time were reserved exclusively for the workers and engi­neers, so too the philosopher who wishes here to garner fresh perspectives must be someone immune to vertigo — an independent and, if need be, solitary worker.

Pg. 858:

Attempt to develop Giedion’s thesis. “In the nineteenth century,” he writes, “construction plays the role of the subconscious.” Wouldn’t it be better to say “the role of bodily processes” — around which “artistic” architectures gather, like dreams around the frame­ work of physiological processes?

One thought on “Walter Benjamin reads Sigfried Giedion, Bauen in Frankreich (1928)

  1. Pingback: The golden age of bourgeois portraiture, before the rise of photography | The Charnel-House

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