The speculative challenges of festival architecture in eighteenth-century France


Eric Monin

Translated by Nick Hargreaves and Christine Macy


Bonnemaison, Sarah; Macy, Christine. Festival Architecture (The Classical Tradition in Architecture) (pp. 155-157). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Even today, the feasting and splendor of public festivals in eighteenth-century France evoke an image of a frivolous and lavish monarchy. The excess of these events, however, should not disguise the political aims behind them, which required them to be magnificent in direct proportion to their diplomatic importance. City-sponsored public festivals were meticulously documented in sumptuous anthologies offered as diplomatic gifts. Representations of the events were embellished by narratives laden with superlatives, accompanied by descriptions of crowds tirelessly celebrating the glory of a sovereign who was always the centre of the celebration (Monin 2005a). The cries, the colors, the music, the distribution of wine and foodstuffs, the luxury and abundance expressed in all the festival arts were generously illustrated and carefully planned with the dignity and respect appropriate to an orderly and hierarchical society.

Yet the potential for disorder or subversive behavior that was always present at public festivals required that the crowds be contained, the entertainments controlled, and the installation of temporary structures in the city closely supervised. For behind the panache of these large spectacles lay a precise, faultless organization. The power of these ephemeral events— linked to the artistic virtuosity of their creators— would have come to nothing without the rigor of a complex and well-considered system of event production. The temporary transformation of the city and the new uses to which it was put, the production of a completely reorganized environment filled with sensory stimulation, and the introduction of festive time disconnected from the rhythms of everyday life, all required mastery of event planning. No festival is improvised. Even a festival called on short notice required time for planning and preparation.

Spatial control

Eighteenth-century public festivals in France, as in other European cities, continued a tradition that had already been brilliantly elaborated in the Renaissance and the seventeenth century (Jacquot 1964 and Lecoq 1982). By the dawn of the eighteenth century, however, these projects assumed a new dimension in the context of an emerging policy for urban beautification, which was to lay the foundations for the reorganization of urban space in the Age of Enlightenment. Rapidly growing cities suffered from streets congested with traffic and the piecemeal development of water, sewage and other functions needed for their ever-growing populations (Barles 1999). Incapable of integrating these new structural requirements, large cities became synonymous with discomfort and dissatisfaction (Etlin 1977). At the same time, cities were regularly decried for the poor quality of their public buildings that did not reflect the artistic ambitions of their rulers. This misfit between rapidly growing cities and the aesthetic aspirations of their ruling elites governed the considerable transformations that were to mark the history of Western cities. Streets were widened, squares created, openings cleared to connect crucial points, and water and sewage systems organized (Guillerme 1990). Fountains flourished (Massounie 1995), quays were built to simplify the unloading of ships, and nuisances identified and banished from the cities (Patte 1769), while principles of decency and accommodation (bienséance and convenance) guided the artistic production of architects responsible for the construction of new public buildings (Szambien 1986). Nourished by much theorizing (Fichet 1979), this policy of urban beautification was put into practice with the introduction of a rigorous regulatory framework that aimed to correct the long-term development of the city, aided by the grand projects and major public works of the central government (Harouel 1993).

In this rethinking of the city— which made it a subject for reflection and an arena for action— one must consider public festival projects among the body of urban experimentation that accompanied the Age of Enlightenment. The issue of transforming the city occupied a central position in all these projects, and included efforts to reorganize urban functions and to introduce new urban landscapes reflecting the latest fashion (Monin 2005b). These considerations affected the work of those organizing the festivals. Although the choice of a festival site may have depended on a long-established practice, each project required specialized planning considerations— the aim being to provide a large public with the possibility of enjoying, under good conditions, a festival dedicated to a king or a prince who would actually be at the event. The size of the site, its accessibility and layout had to be designed to accommodate large crowds and avoid congestion resulting from the temporary constructions built for the occasion, and sufficient openings had to be provided for crowds to circulate safely through the site.

The weight of tradition occasionally countered this logic; for example, municipal squares of cities with growing populations were often too small to handle the expected crowds. To compensate, festival organizers turned to natural amphitheaters formed by the rivers crossing through the main cities of the realm: in Paris, Lyon, Nantes, Lille, Strasbourg and Grenoble, the Seine, Sône, Loire, Deûle, Ille and Isère rivers became the stage settings for festivals. Public grandstands and viewing platforms were built on the riverbanks, and crowds massed on quays, at windows and on rooftops. Prized by festival designers, riverbank sites made the assembly of large crowds possible, as evidenced by the head counts published on completion of these events. The compendium published for the festivals held in Paris for the marriage of Louis XV’s eldest daughter Marie-Louise-Elisabeth (known as Madame Première) to the Infante Don Felipe of Spain, stated that 500,000 people lined the Seine River to see the festivities (although one must be cautious when using these figures, since an estimate of 1745 cites 600,000 people in attendance) (GDA, C 3638). For the 1782 celebration of the birth of the Dauphin, Pierre-Louis Moreau estimated that his placement of the fireworks machine on the bank of the Seine River allowed a third of the city’s population, or 280,580 persons, to view the display (NA, K 1017: 273). As an inspiration for this festival, he recalled his earlier proposal for the banks of the Seine, establishing a direct link between permanent and ephemeral transformations (Moreau 1769). The Place de Grève was completely redesigned in its form and decoration. Reorganized to lie perpendicular to the Seine, it was closed off to the north by a monumental gallery providing a wing to the main façade of the Htel de Ville. Organized after the raising of the Place des Canons and the extension of Quai Pelletier, this festival provided an opportunity to temporarily realize a beautification project that had never been carried out.

At that time, the Place de Grève was still the showplace for the expression of municipal power, with the Lord Provost and city council members offering, for example, prestigious guests the keys to the city (Le Moël 1984). This obligatory visit was accompanied by a more or less complicated staging that might culminate in fireworks viewed by the honored guest from the balcony of the building. To celebrate a military victory, the signature of a peace treaty, or the birth of a prince, the Htel de Ville and houses of council members were decorated and illuminated and the Place de Grève was carefully prepared for the ceremony. The construction of a fireworks machine along the axis of the city hall, flanked by colonnades that formed wings to the building, and the installation of illuminated yew trees and tapered pedestals to light the square, all contributed to rectifying the irregularities of the site. In any case, regularity, layout and harmony were the keywords governing the installation of these ephemeral projects.

Lights arranged in lines appeared to straighten out winding streets and introduced regular patterns on the street level of houses lacking order and harmony. In November of 1744, the city of Paris celebrated the return of Louis XV from a military campaign by lining the Marché Saint-Paul with chandeliers of Suresnes lamps supported on posts laid out “at a suitable distance so that the rue St-Antoine could be extended the same width (across the market square)” (NA, H2 1861). Below Place de Grève in Place des Canons (a location traditionally reserved for working-class festivities), a “hall of light” was created by garlands of lamps and steel wire chandeliers suspended from the posts outlining the area of festivities.

The main purpose of such posts, barriers, frameworks and lights was to organize the festival space. The intention was to set limits, draw contours and precisely outline the site where the festival was to take place. But it was first necessary to identify an “attractive site” (Blondel 1771: II, VII 282)— that is, a place known for its formal and aesthetic qualities— before setting up the festival. In 1782, for his project constructed on Place de Grève, Moreau had no hesitation in “enlarging the site to receive and place their Majesties and the Court as suitably as possible.”( Gazette 1782: 46) Festival designers were only able to engage the city by exerting considerable efforts in their designs to overcome the constraints of urban space. One solution that promised to overcome all these difficulties presented itself on the occasion of the competition organized for the new Place Louis XV (Garms 2003). A large number of the entries proposed schemes adapted to large festivals: Beausire l’Aîné proposed creating a large square opening onto the Seine River adjacent to the Htel de Ville that would be able to hold a considerable number of people; Cardon imagined a bridge linking the Ile de la Cité, Ile Saint-Louis and Place de Grève able to contain “a vast crowd that would be placed comfortably and without danger” (Granet 1962: 51); Contant proposed rebuilding the Htel de Ville on Quai Malaquai, fronting a square that “would be very useful for holding public festivals” (Granet 1962: 199); and finally, Servandoni, using antiquity as his source, proposed an amphitheatre outside the city able to hold “a prodigious number of spectators” (Patte 1765: 211).

When it was finally built at the western end of the Jardin des Tuileries, Place Louis XV seemed to offer the appropriate solution. Yet as fate would have it, during the fireworks display held for the birth of the Dauphin in 1770, a terrible accident caused by a panic in the crowd led to the death of several hundred Parisians. This disaster led to a complete rejection of the site for public festivity; none of the site’s other qualities could compensate for the public’s fear of its surrounding moats. The festival tradition returned to the center of the city, at the Place de Grève. Yet this attempt proved that durable structures and ephemeral projects could coexist, and anticipated the development of public infrastructures (Chaudoir and Ostrowetski 1996: 80). However, such coordinated planning was not the norm. More commonly, festival organizers struggled to overcome the city’s many imperfections. Backed by an array of municipal decrees aimed at controlling dangerous practices and behaviors, festival organizers were engaged in a risky undertaking with an uncertain outcome, as they set in motion measures that disturbed the usual patterns of city life and aimed to transform the city’s image.

An appraisal of the festival site was the first step towards resolving its logistical problems. To orchestrate the safe movement of crowds converging towards the festival site, traffic management plans were drawn up to chart the flows of goods and people. Instructions were circulated prior to the event in the form of municipal decrees enacted specifically for the occasion. Occasionally, festival organizers mandated separate circulation routes for coaches and pedestrians. For the 1784 launching of the Flesselle aerostat in Lyon for example, the city architect Jean-Antoine Morand dictated parking along the route for coaches traveling from the city center to the festival site. On their return, vehicles had to continue their route across country before circling back to the city. Similarly, in 1770 the engineer Perronet took exceptional measures to control the flow of people attending the festival for the striking down of the new Neuilly bridge, keeping them away from the parking area reserved for royal and palace coaches, and controlling all the traffic in an enlarged perimeter around the festival site (Figure 7.1):

we imposed such a strict organization from the outskirts of Paris and on the roads around Neuilly over a distance of two leagues, that one could arrive without confusion and leave in the same manner and this meant that there were no accidents: this was much more difficult closer to Paris given the considerable number of coaches and crowds drawn by the presence of the King, the wooden bridge used by everyone to pass onto the other side was narrow and the place where this event was to take place very enclosed.

(Perronet 1783: 98)

Wooden barricades were positioned around festival sites to channel the movements of the crowd, reduce accidents, and prevent people from falling into the river and drowning. For example, the estimates for the list of carpentry work to be erected in Paris in 1749 to celebrate the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle included several items concerning the construction of “barriers necessary for the safety of the public on the day of the festivities” (NA, K 1009: 2122).

Employing both appeals and prohibitions, a regulatory framework aimed to control all parameters that might hinder the smooth running of the event. The law accompanied and controlled the actions of the festival organizers, prepared the groundwork for the festival and preserved the city and its inhabitants from risks associated with the event. The use of space was also subject to specific rules. Inhabitants did not have the right to erect scaffolding or stands that might obstruct the space occupied by the festival. To reduce fire risks, it was forbidden to throw firecrackers or launch rockets and should these rules be infringed, those responsible were subject to heavy fines or punishments: “Fathers and mothers are responsible for their children, school headmasters for their students, masters for their servants” (Lecler du Brillet 1738: t. VI, 149).

The issue of public order, however, went further than restrictions on public behavior, it also affected the organization of the festival sites. The entries of kings, princes and ambassadors into cities provide the best illustration of this. The care invested in the composition of these processions and the richness of their retinue testified to the centrality of these events in the political life of the realm, and their pomp and circumstance figuratively represented royal power to the public. The routes taken by these formal entries needed to be wide enough for state coaches drawn by six or eight horses, while still accommodating considerable crowds. As a result, processional routes used the widest and straightest roads (Monin 2006). Generated by the rhythm of events inherent in the kingdom, festivals drew out an urban geography that was dictated by the demands of political events. In that regard, public festivals pushed ideas about the city forward into the reality of the Age of Enlightenment with more acuity than any urban embellishment project.

Lastly, organizers had to consider the pleasure of the spectators. Good visibility was essential to fully appreciate the fireworks and festival illuminations. Organizers had to keep this in mind as they laid out the site and designed its embellishments. Squares were transformed into theaters surrounding fireworks machines or in front of illuminated façades. In Nantes, the façade of the new commodities exchange was regularly used as a lit backdrop for the public festivals taking place in the square facing the building. The wings of the Place de la Bourse were decorated by pilasters crowned with a continuous cornice “connected to one another by a balustrade and a string of lanterns” attached to the trunks of two rows of elms leading up to the building (LADA, C 700: 24). Using the urban structure of this site, this illumination accentuated the geometry of the square and overlaid it with an avenue, temporarily modifying the city.

Many ephemeral projects used similar devices to transform urban spaces for festivals. When Madame de France visited Lyon in 1749, Place Louis-le-Grand became the stage for illuminations intended to draw attention to the statue of Louis XIV by underlining the balustrades and accompanying the fountains livening up the square (LMA, AA 145: 49). In 1759, Jean-Antoine Morand, the city architect, proposed increasing the size of the setting by building four porticos along the outer edge of the square. Designed for the king’s entry into the city, this project, which was never built, was intended to produce, “seen from a certain distance […] the same effect as the Trianon in Versailles” (LMA, AA 144: 44). In the center of the square, around the statue of Louis-le-Grand, Morand completed his composition by “using a circular plan, the same arcades crowned by a balustrade similar to the square’s boundary” (LMA, AA 144: 44). In a similar manner in Paris, Rue de la Ferronnerie was frequently transformed into a “vast gallery” embellished by two rows of porticos positioned in front of the houses, forming a straight aisle leading to a monumental decoration built against the houses on Rue Saint-Denis (Ruggieri 1802: 270) (Figure 7.2).

These examples show that the framed gallery was the leitmotiv for many festival designs, one that allowed festival organizers to correct imperfections of the ground floor. This device was a remedy for the “state of negligence, confusion and disorder” of cities, so lamented by Abbot Laugier (Laugier 1753: 209). To address these problems and to compensate for gaps in the decoration of buildings, Laugier had proposed substituting “the horrible hovels that clutter, narrow and disfigure most bridges […] by large and attractive column-supported porticos located at both sides” (Laugier 1753: 230). We are thus brought right to the heart of the problem represented by urban beautification: the definition proposed by the Encyclopaedia suggests to what degree festival projects might participate in this logic of transformation—“ beautifying means artistically adding to objects that might be uninteresting in themselves, forms or accessories to render them interesting, agreeable, precious, etc.” Having identified the weaknesses and irregularities of urban festival sites, their organizers took measures to correct faults by adding elements to reconfigure urban squares into new spatial and aesthetic orders. Such rectifications, straightening of irregularities and concealment of chaotic buildings allowed organizers to present exemplary urban arrangements. In this way, festivals played as important a role in the reform of urban space as did more durable beautification projects during the Age of Enlightenment.

Nonetheless, numerous critics virulently attacked public festivals as wasteful and pointless extravagances. Voltaire regretted that the sums swallowed up by festivals were not reserved for urban beautification, contrasting the comfort and magnificence of the city with the organization of “small fireworks displays taking place opposite a shoddy building on a little square used for the execution of criminals” (Voltaire 1750: 78)— a criticism that was echoed two decades later by Louis-Sébastien Mercier (Mercier 1776: t.I, 47– 8). But it would be unjust to consider these ephemeral projects as mere substitutes for permanent beautification projects, disconnected from the urban problems of the period. Although they were only temporary installations, it was precisely their capacity to act directly and immediately on the form of the city that won over the officials from the provinces who were often responsible for approving these works. Such festivals expressed the power of the central government in public spaces more rapidly than, for example, the commissioning of monumental statues in city squares.

Controlling effects

Controlling space went hand in hand with controlling the new points of view provided to the public. In his Cours d’architecture, Jacques-François Blondel insisted on the need to define an appropriate distance to appreciate the illuminations “especially [when they] are to be found at the end of a large road, an attractive allée, a canal, etc.” (Blondel 1771: II, VII 277). This concept of “standing back” (point de distance) contributed to the notion of the “viewpoint” which, at that time, held an important place in the development of the idea of urban beautification. In the Encyclopaedia (relying in part on definition given in the Daviler dictionary), the viewpoint is “the spot where one stops at a given distance to fully enjoy the most advantageous aspect of a building.” The siting of ephemeral projects was clearly dictated by this visibility criterion when they were placed at the ends of streets, aligned with traffic routes, in the center of squares and extending their openings, erected on bridges, positioned at high points of the city or anchored in the middle of rivers. In Paris, the aesthetic and visual qualities of the Seine River between the Pont-Neuf and the royal bridge were regularly incorporated into festivals. This is how architect Jean-Nicolas Servandoni justified choosing this site for the marriage between Madame Première and the Infante Don Felipe of Spain, in 1739.

This vast canal is bordered by spacious quaysides and superb buildings that, when taken together are able to hold, much like the tiers of an amphitheatre, a vast number of people. There has never been a better location for a great festival and none that could have a better effect.

(Description 1740: 2)

Ending with a view of the Pont Neuf, the backdrop to this perspective represented an ideal stage setting for Servandoni to construct a monumental fireworks machine in front of the equestrian statue of Henri IV.

The siting of ephemeral constructions along processional routes had to be calculated according to points of view. A memorandum written in anticipation of the visit to Bordeaux by the Infanta Marie-Thérèse in 1745 and attributed to Servandoni, clearly develops the principles underlying the location of these projects:

As a general rule, important monuments are planned for a city in such a way as to give their best effect when seen in perspective […], therefore there is no doubt that any badly placed edifice will lose a large amount of the reputation it deserves. As a result, its author will gain far less renown because, although ordinarily it will be said to be attractive, it will not have been seen from the artist’s point of view […]; in other words, everything that is decoration, even decoration that will only exist for a few days, should be visible to the public without fearing they will die in the effort. (GDA, C 3638) Servandoni’s design for this event scrupulously integrated these principles. One of the various constructions distributed along the Infanta’s processional route was a square-shaped triumphal arch in the city’s moat, “pierced in all directions by four arcades […] through which one discovers the tree-lined streets and buildings forming the most attractive district in the city” (GDA, C3638). Simultaneously a beautifying object and a machine used to frame and stage the city of Bordeaux, this construction illustrated the architect’s inventiveness and foresight. The design was deliberate and controlled. While the triumphal arch bearing the decorations complies with the rules of good architecture, Servandoni uses the unique form of the arch to create tableaus that bring together disparate perspective views, thereby turning this construction into a pivotal point, a centre of urban composition that entirely renews the meaning of the urban landscape.

The anonymous author of a project proposed in 1770— which unfortunately was never carried out— for the marriage between the Dauphin and Marie-Antoinette on Place Louis XV also proposed establishing a large number of visual relationships between the royal square and the neighboring districts, as if the site of the festival had become the point of departure for a visual conquest of the surrounding landscape. The festival spilled out from Place Louis XV and crossed the Seine to the opposite bank to involve other districts (Projets 1770: 26). But the project went much further: proposing to visually link the two river banks by constructing mirrored illuminations that would underline the north-south axis across the ensemble:

The illuminations of these two facades could be linked [the author was discussing the two colonnades on Place Louis XV] by providing a point of view at a sufficient distance that would look down the royal street separating these two buildings […]. This would be answered by an identical device on the other side of the river which would be mirrored by its counterpart on Rue de Bourgogne, assuming that these two streets run in a straight line, something that we doubt. The illumination of Rue Royale would represent a mock-up of the portal to the future Madeleine church; opposite, on Rue de Bourgogne, there would be a matching portal. (Projets 1770: 42– 3)

The spatial investment was based on a visual and landscape composition. Thanks to Place Louis XV and the terraces of the Tuileries, the view projects the city, a capital freed from its physical limits, towards the west and the countryside beyond. The third day of the festival described by this narration proposes an illumination which “would be continued […] beyond the top of the mountain, and the gates of the Barrière de Chaillot. A superb decoration in the form of a triumphal arch would be erected at the top of this mountain” (Projets 1770: 26). These latter proposals prove that festivals were also able to anticipate the city’s development by becoming the tool of a spectacular simulation.

Controlling the viewpoints of an ephemeral layout meant controlling the visual effects that transported the public into the festival’s phantasmagorical universe. This postulate was essential as it allowed the planned effects to be precisely designed and made best use of the money spent. In other words, work was concentrated on the visible parts of the project. It was this principle that anchored public festivals to the world of performing arts. In most cases, timber scaffoldings held in place painted canvas stretched on frames (Monin 2003). The aim was to produce the illusion of a sumptuous architecture which would magically replace day-to-day urban settings. Pushed by time, limited by the means invested, festival organizers found their inspiration in the universe of theater decor, both in terms of installation techniques and expected effects (Rabreau 1978). In his search for rules able to define an architecture that would stimulate the senses, Le Camus de Mézières understood the need to borrow the concept of effect from the theatrical world (Le Camus de Mézières 1780: 5– 6). The best theater sets did not merely depict where the action was taking place, but communicated all the sensations appropriate to the setting. Highly impressed by the dioramas invented by Jean-Nicolas Servandoni (Servandoni 1739), Le Camus de Mézières explained how the architect:

knew how, in a silent spectacle, to make the public feel the effect of the sun’s burning light. […] there were almost no shadows, the sky glowed red, the land arid, a lighting effect that seemed to set the air afire; all these elements produced an illusion from which none of the spectators could escape; there was almost a feeling of suffering, we were subjugated by the power of art. (Le Camus de Mézières 1780: 6)

Illusion drove this art, and the skills of all the artists involved gave form to the phantasmagorical universe of the great baroque festivals. As in the theater, trompe-l’oeil painting played an essential role in creating the illusion (Zorzi 1977). Specifications and estimates detailed how color should be used to emphasize areas in relief and how the imitation of noble materials could trick viewers into believing the effects. In Bordeaux, the triumphal arch constructed in relief and erected by Servandoni was “so well built and so perfectly imitated stone that, without touching it, one could be completely fooled by its appearance” (GDA, C3638). For these public festivals, bronze, gold, Genoa marble, white marble, violet marble, green marble, alabaster, agate, emerald and lapis-lazuli invaded the cities of the kingdom … thanks to paint. For the most important projects, constructions were erected in relief, with stretched canvases used for the flat surfaces and columns, pilasters and pediments protruding into the foreground along with plaster or cardboard statues that gave volume to the setting. In this specific case, Servandoni preferred the restraint of forms to the fantasy of color. In Bordeaux in 1745, as in Paris in 1739, he specified that “a uniform stone color be used to cover all materials that had been employed in the construction of the edifice” (Description 1740; GDA, C 3638). Frequently employed for the decoration of orchestra rostrums and wine fountains, this solution emphasized the monolithic nature of the works. Occasionally, a combination of these two systems was used to reflect a hierarchy between the visible and hidden faces of the construction, as in the decoration for the temporary Temple of Hymen planned in 1747 for the western tip of the Ile de la Cité in Paris on the occasion of the Dauphin’s second marriage. Richly colored architectural reliefs were to face the Seine River where the performance was to take place while, to the rear, “the face overlooking the road was to be given a treatment of rusticated stone painted on canvas” (NA, H2 1861). Imitation marble or stone were not only used to simulate richness and luxury. They were also used to introduce an idea of stability and longevity corresponding to the aesthetic principles of the age (Plate 7a). At that time, duration was essential if buildings were to bear witness to the grandeur of a sovereign’s reign, and constructions able to face the future without weathering acquired the status of monument (Wittman 1997). In Monuments érigés en France à la gloire de Louis XV, Pierre Patte, discussing the construction of the Sainte-Geneviève church, reaffirmed the durable nature of the building which, from the moment it was designed, incorporated an important commemorative value, “The precautions we take in everything we do to ensure the perfect completion of this latter monument should render it eternal” (Patte 1765: 7).

What legitimacy could be accorded to public festivals within this context? How could a festival emerge unscathed from a debate that ceaselessly underlined the imbalance between what was durable and what was ephemeral, a debate which contrasted the wisdom of well-considered investments to the extravagance of public festivals? The solution lay in the ever-greater effects offered to citizens. Festivals created their own monumentality out of surprise, extraordinary beauty, dazzling effects, resounding thunder and lightning; they were designed to impress and leave an indelible memory. The simulation of noble materials even depicted the wear of time: in Rome in 1729, the edifices erected on Piazza Navona for the birth of the Dauphin were richly decorated with trompe-l’oeil “in imitation aged and worn marble to give an impression of antiquity” (Daudet 1731: 299). But of what use was an imitation marble that revealed the wear of time without the figurative representation of an architecture that strictly obeyed “the rigorous rules imposed by past masters” (GDA, C3638)? Volutes, fully arched arcades with their archivolts, freestanding columns crowned with pediments, pilasters with their bases, capitals, triglyphs, metopes and mutules, entablatures incorporating architraves, friezes and cornices ornamented with modillions and rosettes, cradled arcades forming a barrel vault enriched with regularly placed alcoves, acroteria crowned by balustrades and vases were imitated using wooden planks, cardboard, plaster and daub.

These figurative representations conveyed the image of a learned architecture, and more licentious productions were in any case severely criticized by specialists who rejected fanciful experiments (Blondel 1771: II, VII 276). But, over and above these rules, festivals were settings for imitated finishes. In most accounts, such artifice was not discussed. To be sure, there were exceptions, such as a description of the Temple of Peace constructed in Lille in 1749 in which the author, either through clumsiness or excessive zeal, explains that the “columns, pilasters and entablature frieze are in imitation agate,” the plinth in “imitation rustic stone” and the crown elements in “different types of imitation white marble” (Description 1749; LML, 24642) (Plate 7b). In the Encyclopaedia, a paragraph in the architecture article is devoted to the concept of imitation architecture— architecture feinte— with this concept serving to represent:

all plans, projections and reliefs of a real architecture simply through the use of color, such as can be seen on several façades in Italy and on the twelve pavilions of the Château de Marly; or for the decorations of theatres and triumphal arches painted on canvas or wood, either as flat projections or perspectives for royal entries, public festivals, funeral processions, fireworks displays, etc. (Encyclopédie 1751: I, 618)

Like Michel de Pure, should one deduce that festivals “tricked and insulted” the public through the use of artifice comparable to “a house of cards, constructions made from paper”? (Pure 1668: 207) If there was deception, could it not be said that it was based on a tacit agreement between the public and the festival organizers? Was this architecture feinte capable of challenging the credibility of the spectators without disappointing them? How otherwise is it possible to explain the infatuation of citizens for these events, without taking into consideration the mixture of kindness and indulgence that seemingly motivated the public? (Monin 2005a)

The role played by festival audiences should not be underestimated. Both festival designers and the public expected a great deal from these ephemeral projects. Undoubtedly, the festive atmosphere and the distribution of wine and food stimulated a crowd’s exuberance and considerably increased its capacity to be impressed, as imperfections were erased by drunkenness and people’s senses aroused by a vast array of lights, sounds and smells. Intoxicated by such richness, the public willingly succumbed to the entertainment and gave free rein to its imagination. This was the moment when one could invert the order of things to create a sense of wonderment. As early as the seventeenth century, Father Ménestrier explained the success of public festivals as being the result of a pact controlling the diversity of energies brought together by the festivities. He evoked an expression of a joy that was “magnificent in its profusion,” “ingenious,” but “never disturbing” (Ménestrier 1660: 4). For him, it was decorum, or bienséance

that presided over all public ceremonies, that made them magnificent, that controlled their conduct; and that their success was owed to the majesty accompanying this pomp. They made use of various devices to insinuate themselves into the spirits of the spectators, often inversing the order of nature by making birds swim, fish fly and mountains and rocks dance (Ménestrier 1660: 5)

The scene of action spread far beyond the limits of specific architectural representations. All means were used to astound the public and encourage a sense of wonderment. The forces of nature were regularly called on to inspire enchantment or cause fright. The order of the seasons was inverted, mountains rose dramatically from city centers, and extraordinary creatures swam through the rivers while festival organizers prepared the confrontation of elements.

Above all, it was the presence of fire in the city that shattered all references of the citizens (Plate 7b). Taking place at nightfall, festivals became renowned for the sparkle of their lights and illuminations accompanying the simulated architectures. Countless chandeliers, illuminated trees, candelabras, torches, candles, Suresnes lamps, fire pots and lanterns were arranged on the approaches of the festival sites, to light the festivities or create architectural effects, giving birth to extraordinary and spectacular nighttime environments. Because there was little or no ordinary street lighting, the brilliance of these illuminations was all the more impressive. This is evident from the many accounts of these festivals that dwelt on the illuminations, often drawing disproportionate comparisons— for example, when myriad lights laid out around festival areas were seen to transform dark winter nights into “beautiful days” (Monin 2005a; NA, K 1017). For the Dauphin’s first marriage in 1745:

all the bourgeoisie and inhabitants of the city competed with one another in showing their joy, by placing splendid illuminations in front of their houses— one could have thought it a beautiful summer day, but never the night. (NA, H2 1861)

Associated with this profusion, paintings on sheer fabrics were stretched across windows and lit from within, illustrating the subject of the festival. Taken to an extreme, this technique allowed the creation of luminous architectures that shone at night like magic lanterns. In 1739, the temple of music designed by Servandoni and anchored in the middle of the Seine produced a surprising effect highly appreciated by Parisians:

It was entirely made from transparent fabric and lit from the inside by an infinite number of lights that had been artfully hidden and distributed. It produced a soft glow that was easy on the eye, fully revealing the contours and colors of the painting without being dazzled. (Description 1740: 5– 6)

Finally, fireworks played an essential part in the organization of public festivals. For Frézier, fireworks and ephemeral architecture were intertwined, “these two elements are interrelated, with the structures being designed for the fireworks and, reciprocally, the fireworks for the structures” (Frézier 1747: 449) (Figure 7.3). Dominated by the Italians, this art form presented displays that were the apotheosis of these large festivals. Frézier underscored the power of fire when he wrote, “it is one of those creatures on earth that has everything needed to move us through its light and its vivacity”( Frézier 1747: XI). During the seventeenth century, André Félibien des Avaux had already underlined how the festivals at Versailles offered a wonderful display in which fire, air and water were combined to become a new and extraordinary element “formed from a thousand sparks of fire that, like a thick dust or rather like an infinity of gold atoms, shone with the most glorious light” (Félibien des Avaux 1676). The fireworks showered from on high, catapulted through the air, floated on the water in dragons that spat a thousand flames before exploding, or plunged into the river before emerging as a twinkling outline. During the Revolution, Claude Ruggieri even tried to let off fireworks from hydrogen-filled aerostatic balloons! With their capacity to create explosive light, sound and olfactory effects, fireworks overwhelmed the city with their apparent violence and awesome power— although this too, was understood to be illusion, since pyrotechnicians were expected to control their displays to avoid accidents. Yet fireworks could be capricious and temperamental, particularly in bad weather. It was rare for an event to enjoy a “beautiful location, transparent waters and a temperate sky”; this would offer optimal conditions for a project (Blondel 1771: II, VII 282). In bad weather, it was sometimes wiser and simpler to abandon the festival and postpone it to the “first day of good weather” (LADA, C700: 37).

Music was another effect employed to create the fantasy world of public festivals. Considerable efforts were made to create sound landscapes at the scale of the street, the district or, occasionally, the entire city. Dozens of orchestras accompanied these illuminations, wine fountains and the temporary halls erected in the city, producing an extraordinary multi-level musical lattice. The festivals organized to celebrate the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1749 or the Dauphin’s wedding in 1782 distributed twenty-five orchestras across the city, while the public festivities of 1752— held for the Dauphin’s convalescence— were accompanied by twenty orchestras comprising over two hundred musicians.

Occasionally, music accompanied the flow of processions, thereby contributing to inscribe a new geography of dynamic sounds. The choice of instruments, but also the number of musicians in the orchestras, reveals the priorities for this musical engagement of the city. Generally grouping together a dozen musicians, these orchestras were located on the main public squares, in the middle of major intersections and next to the wine fountains. The orchestras placed in temporary halls erected for the Dauphin’s marriage in 1745 each had twenty-five musicians, while the 1739 celebration of the nuptial of Madame Première placed a symphonic orchestra of 180 musicians on the tiers of a floating music room in the middle of the Seine, conducted by François Francoeur and Jean-Ferry Rebel (Description 1740: 5). With their violins, cellos, basses, fifes, trumpets, musettes, drums, kettledrums, hunting horns and oboes, the intonations of the bands gave a powerful rhythm to the night.

Orchestral stages were timber structures supporting benches for the musicians, painted canvases depicting the festival themes and a richly decorated backdrop at the rear (Figure 7.4). These basic but solid constructions allowed the musicians to be seated at levels appropriate to their instruments, with the violins, cellos and wind instruments positioned lower down and the kettledrums to the sides. Raised on scaffolding, not only was the orchestra more visible, but it could be heard from a greater distance. And of course, audibility governed the placement of these orchestras as much as did public circulation and the requirements of dancing. As there were no technical means to evaluate the acoustic impact of these choices, effective orchestra location relied on precedent or the advantageous use of sites with obvious acoustic qualities (Monin 1999). Rivers were particularly appreciated as sites, since they multiplied lighting effects across the surface of the water and amplified sounds as well. In Paris in 1722 and 1739, in Nantes in 1722, and in Lyon in 1759, orchestras were set up on the Seine, Loire and Sane Rivers to heighten the pleasure of citizens thronging the quaysides.

Wherever it took place, music transformed the day-to-day life of the public. It helped citizens to immerse themselves body and spirit into the event— even weighed down by feasting, spectators could not but be affected by orchestral music in city streets. Dancing made people feel lighter, their pains forgotten as the music took hold. We need only read the incredible description of the festivals organized in Nantes in 1729 for the birth of the Dauphin, where “nothing was more curious and surprising than a dance that had been secretly prepared by negroes and negresses with instruments from their country, expressing their dances with all the subtlety and bizarre appropriateness of their nation” (NMA, AA 59: 12– 64). And people, like the music itself, were orchestrated. Their movements were planned as spectators were protected, sheltered and, depending on their status, more or less comfortably installed. In 1739 and 1745, the courtyard of the Htel de Ville in Paris was entirely covered by a giant oil-cloth canopy to protect the guests of a masked ball from inclement weather, a device frequently used by festival organizers in Paris (Description 1740: 19). Six large entertainment buildings constructed in the capital in 1745 were also covered with oil-cloths to “protect the public from heavy rainstorms,” as it was occasionally necessary to “take over from nature” to assure the success of these exceptional projects (NA, H/ 2/ 1861: 159; Description 1730: 4). Particular precautions were taken for princes, princesses and representatives of royal power, such as the tents erected to “protect the ladies from the evening dew” for the Grenoble celebrations of the marriage of Louis XV (GMA, AA47). Mesh screens could be installed outside viewing windows to protect august audiences from stray fireworks— there being a far-from-negligible risk of accidents. Such an incident was recounted by one present at an event organized on the Place de Grève in 1729, “After supper, there was a magnificent fireworks display and the serpent from a rocket entered through the window where the king was to be found, brushed past his cheek and went on to burn Monsieur de Maurepair’s wig” (NMA, II 44: 153).

However, it was necessary to await the Revolution to see any real concern shown for the comfort of the public and even then it was not entirely innocent. While Revellière-Lépeaux proposed installing “convenient benches laid out in such a way that everyone has a clear view” for national celebrations on the Champ de Mars and placed a roof over the spectators to shelter them from inclement weather, it was also to avoid disturbing the patriotic impulses of the spectators and encourage them to remain concentrated and attentive to the ceremonies (Revellière-Lépeaux, an 6: 9). Similarly, in his Projet de Cirque National de Fêtes annuelles, Poyet proposed protecting citizens gathered on the Champ de Mars from bad weather by large tents “below which spectators would be comfortably seated, entirely protected from the inconvenience of the rain and the heat of the sun” (Poyet 1792: 10– 11).

Festivals disrupted the city, transformed the way it was appreciated by its citizens and modified relationships. This heterotopia was based on an immersion of the public in an environment disconnected from day-to-day logic (Foucault 1984: 46– 9). Constructed through the skilful assembly of myriad different devices, this new reality enveloped spectators, transporting them body and soul into an intentionally reconstructed world. It also posed significant challenges to festival organizers— weather and fireworks being the most difficult to control. There were many unknowns that could potentially ruin a festival, and only the rigor and know-how of the artists involved in these colossal undertakings made it possible to overcome these obstacles.

Making full use of available skills and know-how

Painters, draftsmen, joiners, carpenters, locksmiths, roofers, glaziers and fireworks experts were brought together under the management of a festival organizer responsible for detailing these projects and then carrying out the operations necessary for their installation. Simultaneously an architect, theater decorator and entertainment promoter, the person in charge of these delicate, expensive, politically sensitive events needed to have exceptional qualities. He needed to prove he was at ease in numerous areas of competence that demanded a wide range of knowledge and experience. Familiar with the tools, materials and techniques used for theater scenography, he had to understand the capabilities and limitations of imitation architecture— architecture feinte. As an architect, he had to know how to build supporting structures and be aware of the rules governing good taste and the principles of classical architecture. These skills, developed through drawings and models (Siemienowicz 1651: 381), allowed him to design festival projects much as he would architectural proposals.

Cost estimates from the era reveal that these professionals provided detailed breakdowns of the materials needed for the ephemeral constructions. The festival organizer was also responsible for completing the project on time— a production schedule that was often extremely compressed, for events that in themselves would only last a few hours.

Accurate scheduling required a thorough understanding of the logistics of each phase of the project, and organizers had to coordinate the movements of each trade on the festival site to minimize the nuisance to the life of the citizens. In other words, although they were in effect completely transforming the city, they had to do this without disturbing the functioning of urban space. And the great public festivals of the eighteenth century had to be reversible— every aspect of their creation recognized this assumption. They employed lightweight materials that were easy to assemble and dismantle. The framed scaffoldings were pre-fabricated elsewhere and parts marked before delivery, so that when the edifice went up rapidly on the festival site, it contributed to the effect of surprise evoked by Amédée-François Frézier, “we gather [the various parts of the edifice] very quickly, which gives it the additional quality of being a sudden and miraculous construction” (Frézier 1747: 452). At the end of the event, the constructions were dismantled just as quickly— bearing witness to a “certain grandeur”— to free up the space and return the city to its usual state (GDA, C 3638). Speed and precision were the key words characterizing this laborious ballet that brought in a large number of workers to carry out myriad handling tasks (NA, K 1013: 163).

The construction of a Hymen temple or a fireworks machine required vast amounts of materials to be taken to the public squares saw the risk of increasing the clutter on the sites where the festival was to take place. Several hundred or even thousands of pieces of wood were occasionally moved to city centers to give shape to these imposing constructions. When the Dauphin visited Bordeaux in 1745, nearly 5,000 pieces of wood were delivered to the contractors responsible for the construction of the triumphal arches, the Trajan’s column, stables, temporary city hall venue, embarkation pontoons and fireworks machine (GDA, C 1042). Several hundred northern pine boards from Danzig, Prussia and Sweden invaded the city for the construction of these gigantic projects. The framework for the fireworks machine erected in Paris in 1757 to celebrate the birth of Comte d’Artois comprised 818 parts, all of which “raised carefully and diligently to be completely vertical on all four sides and with the cut-outs perfectly aligned to put the boards in place” (NA, K 1013: 163).

For perhaps surprisingly to some (Lecoq 1993: t.VIII, 25), these lightweight, rapidly assembled constructions were built solidly to insure the safety of both workers and audiences for the events. With respect to the framework for theater structures, Frézier commented that “the solidity of the assembly could not be neglected because, whether covered with fabrics or boards forming the decorations and thus exposed to the winds, they could be toppled by an unexpected gust” (Frézier 1747: 451). In his pyrotechnical treatise published in 1802, Claude Ruggieri recalled these precepts. For him, “solidity is the most important factor to keep in mind” when it comes to frame assemblies (Ruggieri 1802: 177). Commissions were specially mandated to assure the solidity of the works. Beausire, the general controller of buildings for the City of Paris authorities was regularly called on to check the solidity of tribunes erected on the Place de Grève. In 1729, as a timber-framed room commissioned by the Spanish ambassadors collapsed during its construction due to bad weather, it had to be inspected in great detail by M. de Cotte, the king’s first architect, as well as by the lieutenant general of police dispatched by the City of Paris authorities (Daudet 1731: 150). Likewise, the six ballrooms built in the capital for the first marriage of the Dauphin in 1745 were visited during their construction:

in the presence of the said carpenters who built them, by the Master of Carpentry Works of the said city, by the civic officials responsible for master carpenters in this city, and by Hiérme Gaudrier, one of the king’s carpenters— charpentier ordinaire du roi. These persons shall jointly produce an exact and detailed report and provide their opinion to the State in writing and in the proper form concerning the cover over the City Hall courtyard, the entire construction of the six public rooms and, if need be, an assessment of their complete solidity, in strict accordance with current accepted practice. (NA, H/ 2/ 1861: 150– 1)

Festival Architecture: Introduction


Bonnemaison, Sarah; Macy, Christine. Festival Architecture (The Classical Tradition in Architecture) (p. 9). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.


Sarah Bonnemaison and Christine Macy

What is festival architecture?

Reflecting on the origins of architecture, we may think of the Egyptian pyramids, the palaces of Babylonia or the temples of ancient Greece. But equally ancient, and equally significant to the history of architecture, were the temporary structures erected for religious rites in the ancient world. The tabernacle of the Jews, for example, was a portable enclosure of wooden posts and fabric, a place of sacrifice and worship that was carried through the wilderness during the Exodus, and that influenced the form of the temple in the tenth century BCE and all synagogues to follow. Like Abel to Cain, or the nomad to the farmer, ephemeral architecture offers another face to the history of architecture. If one were to map this “other” history in parallel to the more familiar chronicle of monuments and ruins, the relationship between these two kinds of architecture would be informative and at times surprising, in the way each has influenced the other— that Greek temples, for example, are stone versions of their wooden predecessors is just one instance among many.

This other history is not restricted to religious constructions, it also includes architectural works commissioned by rulers to celebrate and proclaim their reign. In the Europe of emperors, popes, and princes, all the major architects had experience in staging festivals at courts or in cities— Andrea Palladio, Inigo Jones, Gianlorenzo Bernini, and Niccolo Servandoni to name just a few. With the emergence of modern society, architects remained just as involved in staging world expositions and government spectacles: from the master planning efforts of Charles Garnier in Paris (1889), Daniel Burnham in Chicago (1893), or Albert Speer in Nuremberg (1933), to the more discrete contributions of Mies van der Rohe in Barcelona (1928), Le Corbusier in Brussels (1958), or Sverre Fehn in Venice (1962). Architects working on festivals were assured of a large audience for their efforts. They knew that spectacular effects or ingenious artistry in the design of a triumphal arch or elaborate stage setting might lead to later commissions from influential patrons. Festival architecture was designed to persuade and convince and for this reason, it has been, and continues to be, built in all the societies of Europe.

Archival records tell us that festivals and spectacles were well funded by the ruling classes in order to magnify and glorify their reign. All the arts were mobilized in the service of such events— be it a coronation or an investiture; a baptism, marriage or funeral of a privileged person. Poets and painters, musicians and dancers, masters of the culinary arts, fireworks specialists, sculptors, and of course, architects— all of these artists were called on to contribute to these events that also involved priests, heads of state, royal retinues, merchants, warriors, citizens, commoners, peasants, servants, and slaves.

Because state festivals were so important, they were generally well recorded, sometimes exaggeratedly so. Their themes were put down for posterity, persons of note were so noted, and magnificent processions were described by the number of participants, the richness of their retinue and the routes of their parades. The same could be said for the theatrical performances, scenography, choreography, menus, livery, fireworks, and all the other appurtenances of these events. As a result, the historian has a great deal of material to work with in attempting to understand events long past. But the study of festivals also poses certain frustrations. Most crucially, the architecture has long since disappeared. While the historian of built works can generally return to the subject of their investigation, freshly examining it to discover new or previously overlooked aspects, the historian of festival architecture must restrict her- or himself to the archive. And there too, the picture is not clear. Written records may lack images, etchings and broadsheets be misattributed, and accounts distorted by the bias of the chronicler. Sometimes one record directly contradicts another, depending on why it was made and for whom.

Architects’ view of ephemera and historians’ views on ritual

The modern distinction between solid and ephemeral creates an additional difficulty for the historian of festival architecture: its marginal position in architectural historiography. When permanent is set against temporary, the opposition, Jacques Derrida would argue, is not an equal one. Permanent architecture has long been viewed by architects and architectural historians as more significant and ultimately more central to architecture and its history. Architects are meant to design buildings that last. While ephemeral works have their place, their insubstantiality and their transitory nature give them attributes of being superficial, even fake. Yet ephemerality is the joker’s card in architectural history. Often, it is used as a foil to enhance the value of more durable constructions. Adolf Loos, for example, was outspoken on the value of permanence when he wrote that “only a very small part of architecture belongs to art: the tomb and the monument. Everything else that fulfils a function is to be excluded from the domain of art” (Loos 1985). In this assertion, Loos slyly insinuates that most architecture is not only utilitarian, but perhaps fleeting— at least when compared with the two categories of architecture he awards the status of art.

Yet in the mid-nineteenth century, architectural histories by Karl Bötticher and Gottfried Semper presented ephemeral constructions as the very origin of architecture. These theorists viewed it as the opposite of permanent architecture, as the first built sketches, so to speak, of buildings that followed. These new theorists saw architecture as an imitation, not of forms or styles, but of human action. According to Mari Hvattum, Semper was instrumental in developing this argument by placing ritual in the centre of both architectural form and the craft of architecture:

No longer a history of building types or orders, [this] was a history of the evolving techniques that brought architecture into existence and the human situations for which buildings were built. It was a history in which the primacy of structure was given over to the surface, and where the obsession with stability— so characteristic of eighteenth-century Neo-classicism— gave way to a new interest in the ephemeral. […] Unlike the neo-classical idea of architecture as a perpetual imitation of a […] primitive hut, these new theorists saw architecture as an imitation […] of human action. From this point of view, the ephemeral decoration of the altar, the precarious architecture of the procession or, in Semper’s words, the “haze of the carnival candles” (Der Stil vol. I, § 60), were not just phenomena at the margins of architectural discourse but constituting the very essence of architecture. Such ephemera were seen as primordial examples of the mimetic transformation from the ritual act to its built embodiment. As such, they were poetic works in the Aristotelian sense; works capable of setting into play a creative interpretation of human life and action.

(Hvattum 2002)

In short, for Semper, the origins of architecture lay in the universal human need to create order through play and ritual. “in the wreath, the bead necklace, the scroll, the circular dance and the rhythmic tone that attends it, the beat of an oar […] These are the beginnings out of which music and architecture grew.” From its ephemeral beginnings in ritual movement, the ordering activity of art is embodied in the artistic motifs, which in turn are fused in works of architecture.

(Hvattum 2004: 66)

More than a century later, Joseph Rykwert expressed some of this intuition in his The Idea of a Town, where he demonstrated how Roman towns were founded on elaborate rituals, and their forms— such as city walls, gate, and major institutions— were derived from those rituals (Rykwert 1976). His work contributed to a renewed interest in the relationship between festival and urbanism. Working in a much broader comparative spectrum, Spiro Kostof’s concern for the function of civic rituals in the analysis of urban form has influenced many historians working today (Kostof 1991). And of course George Hersey’s The Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture explores in detail the original significance of the classical orders, as rooted in the religious rituals of the ancient Greeks (Hersey 1988).

Caroline van Eck’s contribution to this volume tackles the issue of ephemera in festivals head on by focusing on ‘paper architecture’. She suggests the demarcation between virtual and real, between solid and ephemeral was not as clear in seventeenth-century England as we may think it is now. She begins her essay by informing the reader that only a few significant works of architecture were actually completed in Britain over the first half of the seventeenth century, while much ephemeral and “paper” architecture was produced. Looking at Henry Wotton’s treatise Elements of Architecture and the masque designs of Inigo Jones, she explores the concepts that viewers of that time may have used to understand such architecture. The important aspect, she suggests, for a seventeenth-century audience was that these works represented a view of architecture as politics by another means. In other words, they employed the classical rhetorical view of art not as an object of enjoyment for its own sake, but as a means of persuasion.

Maarten Delbeke’s essay tests the hypothesis that ephemeral architecture contributes to the signification and subsequent reception of permanent architecture. He explores the Roman jubilee of 1625 and the dedication of the new basilica of Saint Peter’s the following year, as two moments which frame ideas that were to be communicated by a new, giant bronze Baldacchino designed by Bernini for the center of Saint Peter’s. To do this, he analyses the significance of the ephemeral constructions built for the jubilee and the dedication— particularly the talamo, a portable shrine carried by the Arch-confraternity of SS Rosario— and explores their intended effects on Roman audiences and others who read reports of the festivals which codified and expanded their impact.

The essay of Nancy Stieber explores the question of fakeness and authenticity in relation to the conceptualization of a new architectural style in turn of the twentieth-century Netherlands. Willem Kromhout’s designs for Oud Holland at the Amsterdam World’s Fair of 1895 was an ersatz city involving the meticulous historical reconstruction of buildings from across the Netherlands— an extremely popular attraction that drew significant interest among his contemporaries. Yet, influenced by H.P. Berlage’s formulation of architectural style that critiqued historicism, Kromhout attacked the tradition of “fake” arches, as he designed the decoration of Amsterdam for the investiture of Queen Wilhelmina in 1898.

Festivals and the architectural object

There is a large body of art and architectural historiography on European festivals, especially state spectacles in the Renaissance and Baroque eras. In the art historical tradition, these studies focus on an architectural object— a royal entry, a triumphal arch, or a display built for fireworks— interpreting their architectural treatment and the allegorical iconography within a stylistic sequence. Les Fêtes de la Renaisssance for example, a three volume series edited by Jean Jacquot following a conference on the subject in 1956, remains a reference for art historians interested in Renaissance festivals; as the extensive writings of Marcello Fagiolo and Maurizio Fagiolo dell’Arco are for the Italian Baroque (Jacquot 1956; Fagiolo 1980 and 1997; Fagiolo dell’Arco and Carandini 1977– 8; Fagiolo dell’Arco 1997). Such studies generally focus on the artefacts built for an event and situate them within a historical and often stylistic continuum. In 1984, the architectural historians Werner Oechslin and Anja Buschow published Festarchitektur, focusing on the transformation of cities through ephemera built to express the spectacle of absolutism— primarily in the seventeenth century but also up to the present day. Rich in images and thought provoking, this book remains an important work on the historiography of European festival architecture. .The art historians Frances Yates and Roy Strong both see festivals as instruments of rhetoric and political power. Through their study of Renaissance and Baroque festivals, they interpret the meaning of festival architecture in the contexts of its production and reception. Yates, for instance, carefully analyzed a series of tapestries which represented the festivals of the Valois court in sixteenth-century France, by exploring the political context of these events and keeping the focus on their rhetorical agenda and the goals of those who commissioned them (Yates 1959). Strong’s Art and Power offers an overview of festival architecture from 1450 to 1650, analysing the representation of royal power as it is practiced in festivals across European nations

In this volume, Diane Ghirardo— like Strong and Yates— looks at royal entries, but she turns her attention to those created for noble brides. Elaborate entries for noble brides were among the few public celebrations of women in the Italian Renaissance. As such, these ceremonies occupied an important niche in the celebratory arrivals of important personages into Italian cities. Ghirardo examines the temporary constructions, from clothing to canopies to confectionary treats, created for bridal entries between 1473 and 1598 in the city of Ferrara. Through abundant detail, she is able to explore the network of symbols and meanings embedded in these events and what they reveal about gender, status, and the state.

Margherita Azzi Visentini’s essay discusses Venetian state spectacle in the San Marco complex— including the basilica, the doge’s palace, piazzas, and the wider basin— and traces the development of this exceptional urban ensemble over several centuries in relation to the state festivals which were held there. In an expansive and comprehensive survey of events, personages, architectural commissions, historical records, and painterly depictions, she convincingly argues that the Venetian Republic used lavish spectacles to assert its eternal glory in the face of political decline— bringing to light the rhetorical dimensions of festival architecture. Intriguingly, she also stresses that festivals were a central influence on the design of permanent architectural monuments by architects such as Bartolomeo Bon, Mauro Condussi, Andrea Palladio, Sebastiano Serlio, Jacopo Sansovino, and many others.

Festivals and urban form

Both Ghirardo and Azzi Visentini point to the interest of festival historians in the role of celebrations at the scale of the city and in urban design. Mona Ozouf’s influential work on French revolutionary festivals stands as a benchmark in this regard. She introduced new analytical tools, such as parade route typologies and the choreography of audiences, in her explorations of the didactic symbolism of ephemera built for state festivities in the first years after the revolution. These state festivals gave physical form to new ideas about liberty, transparency, historical memory, and the role of the public, as they helped to forge a new sense of national identity in a turbulent era (Ozouf 1988).

Eric Monin’s essay in this volume takes this wider perspective to the study of eighteenth-century French public festivals and their effect on officials responsible for urban beautification. He is able to show how, for a few days, festivals functioned as urban design proposals for improvements to the city, using alignments, regularity, mirroring, and other visual effects. Far from being merely ephemeral extravaganzas, Monin argues, these festivals worked deeply in the spatial imagination of governmental officials and of citizens.

The essay by Robert Weddle interprets the nightly light shows along the Seine River created for the 1937 world’s fair in Paris. As in Monin’s essay, it becomes clear that visual alignments are seen as an expression of urban beauty. Weddle argues that these ephemeral manifestations held an importance that transcended their sub-architectural status. The light and music festivities orchestrated by the architects Eugène Beaudouin and Marcel Lods for the fair exemplify one of the central theme of modernity— how to put technology to work in innovative urban designs.

Diane Favro’s essay presents ancient Rome through the lens of its Megalensis festival to show an intense reciprocity of viewing between spectators and monuments during the festival. We discover, for example, that Romans believed sculptures and buildings, as well as divinities, could see and feel; that statues were not only seen by their observers, but were understood to look back at them. In an extraordinary reconstruction of the sensorial experience of participants in these events— visual, aural, haptic, and kinetic— she shows how this festival was deeply integrated in its urban context and vice versa.

Contribution of other disciplines

To better understand the cultural and political dimensions of festivals, it is at times necessary to reach out to other disciplines, such as folklore studies, anthropology, and literary criticism. The search for larger patterns across time and place by structural anthropologists, for example, helps us to discern deeper relations between permanent and ephemeral constructions in urban life. Arnold van Gennep’s concept of “rites of passage” and Victor Turner’s metaphor of “liminality” are fundamental references in this regard. Although these works look for fundamental principles operating in festivals in synchronic, rather than diachronic terms, they offer useful concepts to the historian of festivals.

Van Gennep’s The Rites of Passage is an extensive study of traditional celebrations of life’s transformative moments such as birth, puberty, marriage and, death. Van Gennep believed that while rites of passage may differ in detail from culture to culture and one event to another, they share certain features and a common social function. Traveling to remote villages in the French countryside, he documented the different forms taken by essentially the same set of ritual practices. The result was a twenty volume work which remains an extraordinary document of rural customs and rituals in the early twentieth century, many of which are no longer practiced. He was the first anthropologist to propose that rites of passage share a common structure, composed of three phases he identified as separation, transition, and incorporation. In the 1960s, this theory was taken up by another anthropologist, Victor Turner, who applied the idea of personal rites of passage to a study of large contemporary rituals, from modern-day religious pilgrimages to youth gatherings such as Woodstock. The idea that such different events might share a common structure was appealing at a time when anthropology was influenced by structuralism. The value of van Gennep’s and Turner’s work lies in their awareness of the symbolism of space and place. In one example from Turner:

the passage from one social status to another is often accompanied by a parallel passage in space, a geographical moment from one place to another. This may take the form of a mere opening of doors or the literal crossing of a threshold such as the groom carrying the bride over the threshold of their new home.

(Turner 1982: 25)

The workings of rites of passage particularly interested Turner— he called these liminal, deriving the term from the Latin word for margin, or threshold. During a liminal phase, according to Turner, participants are stripped of their social status and removed from social structures. Yet, their secular powerlessness may be compensated for by a sacred power derived from the resurgence of nature when structural power is removed, and from the transference of sacred knowledge (Turner 1979).

Anthropologists have also tended to turn their attention to popular, rather than elite practices. This too, is useful for our study here, since most of the perspectives we have discussed so far have been of state-sponsored spectacles. Carnival is the opposite of this: it is power from the bottom up, an expression of subversive power that consumes and ridicules everything in its wake. The idea of carnival has been theorized in the twentieth century by Mikhail Bakhtin (in the field of literature criticism) and Natalie Zemon Davis, an historian who was influenced by anthropological studies and particularly by Turner. To a great extent these two scholars have outlined how carnival and the carnivalesque is viewed in scholarly circles today. Bakhtin saw in carnivals the authentic and utopian expression of “popular” power, immediate, empowering, and disrespectful. Carnival was the second life of the people, who for a time entered into the utopian realm of community, freedom, equality, and abundance (Bakhtin 1984: 9). Davis has a less idealistic but equally empowering view of carnival, seeing in it the possibility to present alternatives, if only fleeting, to rigid societal norms.

Christine Macy’s essay in this volume explores the capacity of disempowered groups to use the anarchic quality of carnival to forge a place of authority within the fault lines of closed social structures. Many historians treat the attack on carnival as a victory over popular culture, first by the absolutist state and then by the middle classes, a process which is viewed as the more or less complete destruction of popular festivities: the end of carnival. By the nineteenth century they argue, urban carnival was perceived as an offensive and threatening behavior of the lower classes, and was avoided by the urban middle class (Stallybrass and White 1986). Yet Macy shows the middle class in the nineteenth century, Basel, using carnival license to mount a directed assault on a social system that excluded them and to do this in the space of the city— effectively creating public spaces and a realm of public opinion that favoured their interests in the rapidly industrializing city. Through carnival, she argues, new immigrant groups succeeded in gaining citizenship and a base for political power in that closed society.

The essay by Sarah Bonnemaison shows the recurrent figure of revolution in the events that took place in Paris during May 1968, exploring its impact on French views of culture and street life. She uses this construct to present the revolt of May 68 as an urban festival, interpreting the unique mixture of celebration and political engagement that took place in the streets of Paris as an example of Turner’s liminal phase, acted out by a generation of young Parisians. The overturning of ingrained attitudes towards the street and what might happen there, realized in its most dynamic form in the barricades and protests of that month, carried over to an occupation of the abandoned central markets of Les Halles and later, in a more formalized manner, in the design of the Center Pompidou. She argues that May 68 and, in a more limited way, the new museum as a machine for showing art, reworked the festive ideal first developed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.


Each of the essays in this volume addresses significant issues raised by the study of festival architecture as it was developed in Europe. In different ways, they explore the dualities of ephemerality and permanence, issues around participation, the urban imaginary, and the rhetorical function of communicating to and convincing crowds— mostly in the service of ruling elites, but sometimes against them. What stands out is the public aspect of such events and their architecture and their power to generate spatial imagination. To restate the words of Semper, the “haze of the carnival candles” is not merely a phenomenon at the margins of architecture, rather, it lies at the essence of all architecture. For these reasons and more, festival architecture will continue to seduce architects and historians alike.


Bakhtin, M. (1984), Rabelais and His World, translated by H. Iswolsky, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Bötticher, K. (1856) Der Baumkultus der Hellenen, Berlin: Weidmann.

Davis, N.Z. (1977) Society and Culture in Early Modern France: EightEssays, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Fagiolo, M. (1980) La città efimera e l’universo artificiale del giardino: la Firenze dei Medici e l’Italia del ’500, Rome: Officina Edizioni. –––– (ed.) (1997) La festa a Roma dal rinascimento al 1870, Turin: Umberto Allemandi.

Fagiolo dell’Arco, M. (1997) La festa barocca, Rome: De Luca. –––– and Carandini, S. (1977– 8) L’effimero barocco. Struttura della festa nella Roma del ’600, Rome: Bulzoni.

Hersey, G. (1988) The Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture: Speculations on Ornament from Vitruvius to Venturi, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hvattum, M. (2002) “Essence and Ephemera, Themes in Nineteenth Century Architectural Discourse,” unpublished conference paper, Society of Architectural Historians Annual Meeting, Richmond, Virginia (April). –––– (2004) Gottfried Semper and the problem of historicism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jacquot, J. (1956) Les fêtes de la Renaisssance, Paris: Editions du CNRS.

Kostof, S. (1991) “What is a City?,” in The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings through History, London: Thames and Hudson, 37– 41.

Loos, A. (1985) “Architecture” (1910), in The Architecture of Adolf Loos [exhibition catalog], with essays by Sir J. Summerson, K. Frampton, D. Steiner and Y. Safran, London: Arts Council.

Oechslin W. and Buschow, A. (1984) Festarchitektur, Stuttgart: Verlag Gerd Hatje.

Ozouf, M. (1988) Festivals and the French Revolution, translated by A. Sheridan, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (first French edition 1976).

Rykwert, J. (1976) The Idea of a Town: TheAnthropology of Urban Form in Rome, Italy, and the ancient world, London: Faber and Faber.

Semper, G. (2004) Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts; or, Practical Aesthetics, translated by H.F. Mallgrave and M. Robinson, Santa Monica, CA: Getty Center (first German edition 1860– 2).

Stallybrass, P. and White, A. (1986) The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Strong, R.C. (1973) Art and Power: Renaissance Festivals 1450– 1650, London: Boydell & Brewer.

Turner, V. (1979) Process, Performance and Pilgrimage, New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company. –––– (1982) From Ritual to Theater: the Human Seriousness of Play, New York City: Performing Arts Journal Publications.

Van Gennep, A. (1960) The Rites of Passage, translated by M.B. Vizedom and G.L. Caffee, Chicago: University of Chicago Press (first French edition 1909).

Yates, F.A. (1959) The Valois Tapestries, London: Warburg Institute.


Festival Architecture (The Classical Tradition in Architecture)


Bonnemaison, Sarah; Macy, Christine. Festival Architecture (The Classical Tradition in Architecture) . Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.




2 The festive experience: Roman processions in the urban context – DIANE FAVRO


3 Festival bridal entries in Renaissance Ferrara – DIANE YVONNE GHIRARDO

4 Festivals of state: the scenography of power in late Renaissance and Baroque Venice – MARGHERITA AZZI VISENTINI Translated by Giovanna Fogli

5 Statecraft or stagecraft? English paper architecture in the seventeenth century -CAROLINE VAN ECK

6 Framing history: the Jubilee of 1625, the dedication of new Saint Peter’s and the Baldacchino – MAARTEN DELBEKE EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY


7 The speculative challenges of festival architecture in eighteenth-century France – ERIC MONIN Translated by Nick Hargreaves and Christine Macy


8 Marking time and space in the city: Kromhout’s decorations for the investiture of Wilhelmina in Amsterdam – NANCY STIEBER

9 Sound, light, and the mystique of space: Paris 1937 – ROBERT WEDDLE


10 Festival urbanism: carnival as an expression of civil society in nineteenth-century Basel – CHRISTINE MACY

11 Taking back the street, Paris 1968– 78 – SARAH BONNEMAISON

Thesis Restructured, Abstract

Urban villages is an integral part of the city as they provide one of the only affordable housing options for migrants in the city. However, in Southern cities like Guangzhou, municipalities use heritage as a method to consolidate power over the use of urban village land with the agenda of creating an image of modernity in the cultured protection of the past.

Using Authorised Heritage Discourse as a theoretical basis, this thesis analyses the use of heritage as a technique of power, especially through the definition of heritage in a foreign concept of ‘materiality’ and the separation between expertise and communities in the urban village. In this context, this dominant heritage discourse creates a legitimisation of a disregard for communities’ needs and paths the way for their displacement in urban village redevelopments.

This thesis argues that the dominant heritage discourse needs to be resisted because it refutes communities’ rights to the city, especially that of the migrants’. To change the system, what is needed is a demonstration of the value of communities.

The thesis points to the emergence of a subaltern heritage discourse focusing on intangible cultural practices has the potential to form resistance to the dominant heritage discourse. This is a system where value exists in the transmission of traditions, skills and processes. The centre of this discourse lies with ‘inheritors’ who are members of specific communities and hold the keys to particular cultural knowledge. In other words, they enable an overlap between ‘community’ and ‘expertise’.

The thesis argues for the urgency for an alternative regeneration method that uses heritage, in the form of cultural transmission of knowledge, as a technique to empower communities and hence enables their sustainable and continuous right to the city.

Castello di Sermoneta

Castello di Sermoneta has a plethora of fascinating construction details and small spaces waiting to be explored. 

The entrance to the castle is a series of gates, drawbridges and winding steps – designed to weaken the enemy’s attack. There are also a couple of ‘roof lights’ which are holes right on top of gates, so defenders could pour down hot oil and stones onto their unwelcomed guests in battle. 

What I liked the most about the castle is perhaps its deep windows, sometimes going up to 3 metres deep. 

What is peculiar about these windows is that even though it is a castle, a number of these alcove spaces are meant as quiet reading spaces for its residents (Pope’s relatives). So although it is an impenetrable castle from the outside, with its rough stones and guarded gates, on the inside, it gives an impression of peace and tranquility. 

Another space that I found different is the horse stables. Covered with straws on the roof to withhold heat in the underground room, the stable can hold twenty horses. It is probably the definition of a medieval stable. I could almost see the knights preparing for battle, sense the horses getting uneasy, smell the blood and sweat and feel the incoming doom. The eeriness of the arched stable is increased tenfold with the rough texture of the straw roof – giving it an almost grotto-like atmosphere.

The internal courtyard is a story in itself. There are at least five different types of facades looking onto the courtyard, each working with the individual building’s history, function and aesthetics. 

ICCROM Built Heritage Forum at Tongji: Third Day Site Visit

On the last day, we visited two buildings in Shanghai, one slaughter house built in 1920s and Shanghai Centre finished in 2015. The former was an Arts and Crafts building purpose built as a slaughter house. Made in concrete and with the architect unknown, the design was different from any building found in Shanghai.