In the late eighteenth century, the philosophical debate on time and the nature of history contributed to transform the Classical system of thought into a new one, where the idea of time and the consciousness of history invested all fields of human knowledge. This study examines architects' struggle with this debate, the way historical consciousness changed architectural theory and architect’s relation with writing.
In the 1770s, philosophers and writers concerned with posterity, Diderot, Rousseau and Voltaire, put together œuvres complètes intended to constitute a final image of both the work and the author, and destined to the future centuries. Architects, also concerned with posterity, started to look at the text as the privileged agent of historical survival, and the best way to ensure the transmission of their ideas. As an architectural work and an intellectual tool more versatile than the building, the treatise provided the opportunity to reopen and complete a life’s œuvre.
Through his teaching and treatises Jacques-Francois Blondel constituted the first 'body of doctrines' of French architectural theory. Blondel was acutely conscious of the importance for architects to write and transmit their ideas to the future generations. L'Architecture… of Claude-Nicolas Ledoux epitomizes the idea of œuvres complètes in architecture. Ledoux offered his treatise to a new public, that of the future and posterity. The book marks a decisive shift and an inaugural moment, from which a new power and meaning were ascribed to the written text. Beyond participating to a theoretical debate within prescribed boundaries, architects realized that the text could be the medium of historical survival and the site of architecture.