Saturday, August 08, 2009

The Monstrous Architecture of Revolution

It is perhaps unsurprising that the horror of political upheaval, of plebeian uprisings and the destruction of the old regime in the name of a new order, can be so transfixed by space and architecture, by threats to the material embodiment of order. Writing an admonitory 'Letter to a Noble Lord' in 1796, warning him of the beast across the channel, Edmund Burke added to his customary attacks on the mathematical and philosophical abstractions of revolutionary geometricians, with their grids destroying all custom, territory and religion, an attack on those 'chymists' who - limitless perversion! - conspired to turn the ruins of lordly manors into the ammunition for bombing more of the aristocracy's holdings to dust.

Their geographers, and geometricians, have been some time out of practice. It is some time since they have divided their own country into squares. That figure has lost the charms of it's [sic] novelty. They want new lands for new trials. It is not only the geometricians of the republick that find him a good subject, the chymists have bespoke him after the geometricians have done with him. As the first set have an eye on his Grace's lands, the chymists are not less taken with his buildings. They consider mortar as a very anti-revolutionary invention in it's [sic] present state; but properly employed, an admirable material for overturning all establishments. They have found that the gunpowder of ruins is far the fittest for making other ruins, and so ad infinitum. They have calculated what quantity of matter convertible into nitre is to be found in Bedford House, in Woburn Abbey, and in what his Grace and his trustees have still suffered to stand of that foolish royalist Inigo Jones, in Covent Garden. Churches, play-houses, coffee-houses, all alike are destined to be mingled, and equalized, and blended into one common rubbish; and well sifted, and lixiviated, to chrystalize into true democratick explosive insurrectionary nitre. Their Academy … [has] computed that the brave Sans-culottes may make war on all the aristocracy of Europe for a twelvemonth, out of the rubbish of the Duke of Bedford's buildings.

Half a century later, interrupting the historical narrative of Les Misérables to discuss the revolution of 1848, Victor Hugo too linked the horror of the uprising to its 'architectural' manifestation. His account of the barricades of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, an inadvertent paean to revolutionary salvagepunk, represents the other side of the reaction to the architecture of revolution - not destruction as abstraction and eliminative materialism, but the construction of an incomprehensible, monstrous edifice, the mass turning all the objects and ornaments of the reigning order into components of a frightening citadel, 'with a red flag affixed to it':

Of what was it built? Of the material of three six-storey houses demolished for the purposes, some people said. Of the phenomenon of overwhelming anger, said others. … Everything had gone into it, doors, grilles, screens, bedroom furniture, wrecked cooking-stoves and pots and pans, piled up haphazard, the whole a composite of paving-stones and rubble, timbers, iron bars, broken window-panes, seatless chairs, rags, odds and ends of every kind – and curses. It was great and it was trivial, a chaotic parody of emptiness, a mingling of debris. … The shouting of orders was to be heard, warlike song, the roll of drums, the sobbing of women, and the dark raucous laughter of the half-starved. It was beyond reason and it was alive; and, as though from the back of some electric-coated animal, lightning crackled over it. … It was a pile of garbage, and it was Sinai.


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