The Beauty of Necessity

"Forma, beauty. Beauty is form. A strange and unexpected proof that form is substance. To confuse form with surface is absurd. Form is essential and absolute; it springs from the very guts of the idea. It is beauty; and truth is manifest in all that is beautiful."
Victor Hugo

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The Jourdan Chris Marker university residence, Owner: Logis transport, RATP Group / Project manager: Eric Lapierre Expérience, Architects. © Filip Dujardin

Éric Lapierre

Septembre 4, 2021
16 min.
Modernity has jettisoned all styles, and with them the notion of esthetics. This shift is likely associated with academicism and to an antiquated way of considering history as a succession of variations in form resulting more from trends born from the fancies of the time rather than from ways of life and modes of production changing as a result of deep historic shifts. Intense debate on architecture and urban esthetics has regularly flared up among Parisian officials and practitioners, since at least the nineteenth century. Esthetics are generally most talked about during times when the drafting and expectations of truly novel urban planning regulations are discussed. The present period is no exception, given that a new debate on esthetics is arising and informing the studies that will lead to a new environmental urban planning scheme for Paris—one that will decisively make the French capital evolve during the coming energy transition.

City over Esthetics

At a time when we are addressing such weighty issues as protecting the planet and the potential survival of the human species, esthetic considerations may seem secondary. The reverse is true. The recent pandemic should have convinced even the most reluctant citizen of the importance of beauty, and that living in proper housing is nice when all is well, but simply essential when times are challenging. And who would ever consider that an ugly home could be good? Esthetics indeed implies questions of values, and that is what is being considered when discussing the new urban planning scheme. As with many other technical aspects of our lives, urban planning schemes are above all cultural products or documents that convey values. The 1902 scheme supported the metropolitan development of Paris. The scheme of 1961 intended to integrate the value of modern urban space, though with an optimism that bordered on self-deception and that of 1974 marked a comeback of humanism as well as a sometimes rather forced return to the values of the traditional city. With the benefit of hindsight, these two last debates were in fact no more than two sides of the same coin. Indeed, the 1961 scheme intended to force a change in the nature of the Parisian urban fabric towards arrangements that were deemed more modern (such as increasing building heights and their lack of observance of the historical street alignments), while that of 1974—officially approved in 1977 as a land use plan—intended to return to the historical principles of the creation of public space, by observing rules closely modeled on the Haussmanian model. This was the project that was openly advocated by François Loyer, the historian to whom the Atelier parisien d’urbanisme (Apur)—the Paris Urban Planning Agency—had entrusted with the “study on the Parisian landscape” aiming to lay the groundwork for the new urban scheme.
The discussions at the time focused more on the city than on architecture itself, and it seemed that esthetic issues bubbled up more when discussing the buildings rather than the city, which itself was generally the focus. In Paris, discussions of a more technical nature or related to landscaping were being discussed as opposed to the purely esthetic. Indeed, Loyer and the drafters of the land use plan of 1977 always insisted on the global coherence of the urban landscape and on the forming of homogenous groups of buildings. They therefore devoted considerable attention to controlling heights and abiding scrupulously to them and without thought to street alignments, thus safeguarding this kind of coherence of landscape. The Haussmanian period that inspired them indeed shines unrivalled in its capacity to create a coherent urban landscape. The architecture itself, however, was only of limited importance. In Haussmann’s opinion, the urban logic always dominates the architectural logic, which is reflected, for example, in the forced decentering of the dome of the commercial court to make it the vanishing point of the perspective towards the south of Boulevard de Strasbourg and Boulevard de Sébastopol, or, simply, the relatively massive architecture of the Haussmanian building itself, which of course does not reduce in any way its unparalleled ability to create coherent urban organisms.
The 1977 urban planning scheme has upheld this relative withdrawal of architecture for the benefit of the whole that characterized a large part of French architectural philosophy over the final thirty years of the twentieth century. In 1987, Bernard Huet wrote a famous article entitled “Architecture against the city [1]” in which he contrasted the city(a collective work carried out over the long run and, as such, supposed to act as the purveyor of core values) to architecture (a private activity of the short term, and thereby considered almost suspect). These analyses, based on a biased reading of the theories of Aldo Rossi, are key to why architecture has long been regarded as forming part of a whole, and not as a form that, whatever its capacity, has its own unique, free-standing features.

Form as a Purveyor of Values

The esthetics of the city is naturally also enmeshed with the esthetics of the buildings that constitute it, and it is now time to move away from the peculiar idea that the formal quality of architecture ultimately has little to do with the quality of the city itself. There must be a common understanding regarding the fact that, whatever its primary determinisms, all architecture consists, at the end of the day, of defining the form of buildings. From that perspective, considering form is no trivial issue. Indeed, form is the horizon of all human activity. Whatever the domain, the production that is most highly valued is both the most efficient, and also the most formally accomplished. In the field of mathematics for instance, out of any two demonstrations, the most concise one will always be regarded as the most “elegant,” following the traditional expression. This is a formal question, which stands entirely independent from the measurable efficiency of the demonstration itself. In the field of sport, the athlete that scores the most points is always admired, but not as much as the athlete scoring with a flourish, who we’ll be inclined to describe as being an artist.
Facade of the palladian basilica de Vicence, dite Palazzo della Ragione (Italie), Andrea Palladio, architect, 1549-1614.
Form therefore conveys values, and architecture offers a powerful demonstration of this. What I mean by form is the externalizing of internal needs. Or, in other words, “form is substance,” as Victor Hugo put it—form results from the fact that it rests, so to speak, on values. I do not mean the expression of superficial and arbitrary whims, which some absent-minded people often confuse it with, but the condensation of values thoughtfully manifested. When we contemplate the façade of the Palladian Basilica in Vicenza, made up of a series of Serlian windows set in white stone, we enjoy a sight that is esthetically pleasing as the proportions, and the grace of the repetitive round arches and columns that are easy on the eye. Had it been built in concrete, we wouldn’t be as touched. Not because concrete in itself would be less pleasing than stone, but because these forms wouldn’t address the same imperative needs of static construction, peculiar to block masonry, and would therefore not carry the same meaning. In this façade, what is pleasing to the eye is the result of a clear-cut answer to basic requirements that are difficult to satisfy. On the one hand, the stonework is classical in its design, while its finesse resonates with the gothic buildings it surrounds. At the same time, it solves the technical challenge related to the poor bearing capacity of soil. Palladio was chosen as architect due to the fact that he was the only one capable of controlling the technical expectations of the project. That said, these forms also result from the constraints related to block masonry construction—arches are the most efficient form of openings in load-bearing walls, for example. Finally, in order to make the irregularity of the existing façades imperceptible, the round arches are regular, while the size of the rectangular openings of the Serlian windows varies. And that is the set of values that we contemplate in the façade—this intelligence deployed to answer, in one go, the measurable necessities, and that tends to make us forget their necessity through a superior project which, in this case, is that of the characteristic humanism of the Renaissance. Authentic beauty is manifested through form, and it cannot be dissociated from the values it conveys, to the substance that underlies its definition. Neither art, technique, nor science, architecture has its own specific beauty that flows from this confluence, in the equations formed by the project conditions in the broad sense of measurable and unmeasurable values. Beauty forms part of the latter—it cannot be measured, yet it is among the primary functions that must be addressed by architecture.

Environmental Virtue, An Opportunity for Architecture

Let us return to the current situation of Paris. Taking into account environmental issues thrusts architecture back into the heart of the matter. Indeed, though environmental issues can also be addressed at city scale, they cannot avoid questioning the formal definition of the buildings themselves—in terms of geometry, proportions, materiality, location, production methods, and so on. Accounting for approximately 40% of France’s greenhouse gas emissions and 45% of its energy use, construction necessarily has a large role to play in achieving a more sensible relationship to nature.
Architects will have to do with less technical means and a larger set of constraints. This situation represents a unique opportunity for architecture in general and for the esthetics of Paris in particular.

The drastic constraints of the architectural response to the environmental crisis form a rare opportunity to rebuild the architectural disciplines in a way that would serve the esthetics of a future Paris well.  

Let us first make a few assumptions.
First, that the matching decline in procurable energy sources and existing resources will result in a general reduction in available means that can be used for building purposes [2].
Then, let us posit that architectural rationality aims to produce, through the project process, both a building as a built form and the theoretical and conceptual narrative that establishes the ground rules for creating this form. At the same time, it confers special meaning on it. In other words, the ultimate function of the project process is to create a theoretical narrative, a conceptual context that makes it possible to rationally justify, within the limits of a given project, provisions which would be irrational in another context. The art of the architect consists in imagining productive contradictions that will make his work meaningful, and then to solve them through appropriate reasoning. The particular poetics of architecture rely on this resolution. Such an approach opportunistically accommodates any new necessity of any kind in order to turn it into an expressive element.
The colorful façade of Centre Pompidou on Rue du Renard, for example, would be ridiculous if it were made only of fake tubes—and even if actual tubes had been moved outwards of the building on the architects’ whim. However, the fact that the structure and the main circulation, which are generally located within buildings, is also brought outside, adding to the legibility of the steel framework. This tells us that the device aims to produce a plan freed from all subjection, which is immediately understood as a possible solution for a place dedicated to contemporary art.
Rogers and Piano wanted to make a building that looked like a machine—as if Cedric Price’s Fun Palace had been finally produced. Based on the analysis of the data on the site and the program, they constructed the narrative that enabled them to justify this initial desire. The disruptive nature of the building is fully in line with a history of French and Parisian architecture. This constructive rationalism is defined by Viollet-le-Duc as the possibility of basing the architectural expression of a building on the means employed to produce it. And the co-visibility between Centre Pompidou and Notre-Dame de Paris further reinforces this connection.
Due to the fact that the productions are located in the public space and fit into the flow of an architectural culture that is under continuous reworking, architecture must exemplify collective values. The condition of intelligibility of its products rests on the economy of means. This consists of dedicating the minimum amount of resources to a given task—as required by the contemporary environmental condition. It is also an esthetic category that realizes the possibility of creating relevant forms [3]. The drastic constraints of the architectural response to the environmental crisis form a rare opportunity to rebuild the architectural disciplines in a way that would serve the esthetics of a future Paris well.

A Shareable Architecture

In a world transformed by digital technologies, which increase the flow of information while distancing it from the material world, architecture as a built reality is reinforced in its material dimension (concrete and stable) and in its ability to sediment time. It has a greater role to play in defining places and in society’s relationship with the material world. This dimension is certainly one of the aspects on which the esthetics of Paris will be able to build on in the future. Accordingly, it is now crucial that architecture be intelligible to those who want to take the trouble to understand it. This is not to mean that its experimental, exploratory character must be rejected, but, on the contrary, it must be captured beyond the particular tastes of individuals. Pierre Reverdy, the surrealist poet, offered a perfect summary of this ability that architecture has to produce our collective inscription in time: “A work generates interest over a duration that is perhaps directly related to the inexplicable portion it contains. Inexplicable doesn’t mean incomprehensible however.” The architectural esthetics of Paris ought to produce intelligible constructions in order to reinforce architecture’s ability to establish a common, shared cultural background, which is needed for social cohesion.
With the economy of means, therefore, being at the crossroads between the environmental response and architectural esthetics, the sustainability of architecture lies well beyond mere technical responses and questioning the very nature of the medium. In order to be sustainable—that is to satisfy a series of quantifiable environmental criteria while equally remaining relevant over time (as accomplished works are)—the architecture of a future Paris will have to pose esthetic questions such as the one raised by Reverdy.

The Specific Character of the Esthetics of Paris

How can we then define the esthetics of Paris? Paris is a heterogenous city unified by Haussmann’s endeavor. Haussmann’s genius was to tack a network of new roads onto the existing city in order to adapt the French capital to the times. He also directed Paris towards its future in such a way that, without such inputs and judging from the panorama of European cities, it would probably have been much more mistreated by postwar projects. Between the meshes of this unifying and hierarchical network, the earlier urban forms continue to exist, creating a unique urban organism to which the Haussmannian homogeneity confers a great coherence, without deriving this continuity to the detriment of the historical heterogeneity and the variety of landscapes. Paris is a double-edged city—it is possible to travel throughout it while having a continuous experience of a city of the nineteenth century, but as soon as we leave the Hausmannian boulevards, we enter another time, another space—such as that of the hôtel particulier mansions of Faubourg Saint-Germain, or the quaint faubourgs with their serial courtyards.
In spite of its wide spectrum of types and landscapes, and the severity with which Haussmann sometimes tacked his network on the existing urban fabric, Paris nevertheless is in no way a brutal collage. Its overall colorimetry and its primarily mineral façades produce a rhythm across the landscape of Paris and there are very few collisions. Even Boulevard Raspail and Rue Réaumur, two of the most demonstrative roads of the city, blend in a sort of unity. Even buildings with an openly modern style, such as the headquarters of the Fédération française du bâtiment designed by Raymond Lopez and Raymond Gravereaux on Rue La Pérouse, the headquarters of Agence France-Press by Robert Camelot and Jean-Claude Rochette on Place de la Bourse, or Jean Nouvel and Emmanuel Cattani’s Fondation Cartier on Boulevard Raspail fit into the Parisian landscape through their rhythms and materials. These works rely on the historic force of Paris and restore it via reasoned novelties. This unified heterogeneity, which is highest in terms of type and relatively lacking in terms of form and colors, is certainly what characterizes best the esthetics of Paris.

Fédération nationale du bâtiment, facade rue La Pérouse, Paris 16e, Raymod Gravereaux and Raymond Lopez, architects, Jean Prouvé, engineer, 1948-1951. © ADMM Fédération nationale du bâtiment, facade rue La Pérouse, Paris 16e, Raymod Gravereaux and Raymond Lopez, architects, Jean Prouvé, engineer, 1948-1951. © ADMM

Could we speculate on the esthetics of a future Paris?

The depletion of natural and energy resources, as well as the necessary minimization of the carbon footprint of construction represents a paradigm shift worthy of comparison to, in the nineteenth century, the advent of steel and glazing that led to the revolution of the modern movement and the reinvention of space. It would be wrong, however, to view the current situation as the mere end of modernity and its abundance of inventions, and as a step backwards. The limitations given by this new emergent reality, and the social consensus on the necessity of addressing the environmental crisis most certainly represent an opportunity to reconnect with the greater narrative that architecture has been missing in recent years. Addressing this paradigm shift is also an opportunity for Paris to reinvent its esthetic in a way that is consistent with its own history.
The new environmental constraints offer many opportunities to experiment with polymorphic devices that are also new. First of all, they concern the relation to ventilation and natural light and, therefore, questions relating to the composition of plans and volume, the relation of rooms one to another, the relation between the inside and the outside, and so on. These questions are related to that of the ability of the buildings to change over time—to withstand time—and the design of the structures as well as the distribution of fluids in space therefore also need to be considered. Can a change of function easily be accommodated in the future? These questions are connected to that of lifestyle and comfort. Currently, the standards of comfort relating to indoor climate—that buildings must meet rest on the idea of a “perpetual Spring,” consisting in creating an atmosphere in the temperature range of approximately 20 to 27 °C—requires heating or cooling almost year-round, whatever the geographic zone under consideration. These climatic impositions bear a direct influence on the building design and have repercussions both in terms of space and energy use. A greater acceptance of warmth and cold would bear substantial preservations of resources and energy. Not heating or cooling all rooms equally for instance, would also provide spatial solutions to these questions
The current approach is to try to achieve comfort standards that come from the modern world. In terms of acoustics, wooden constructions must, for example, meet requirements that are easily achieved when building with concrete, which is a material that we know is not environmentally friendly. Achieving a level of performance defined based on the use of concrete currently penalizes the use of wood, due to its much lower density—mass being the main factor limiting the propagation of airborne noise. To ensure compliance with these acoustic constraints, the standards, therefore, lead to building hardwood floors so thick that they verge on profligacy, and also often implying doing away with a floor in order to fit in with the standard urban templates, thereby bringing down the profitability of such constructions. The issues of urban regulations are therefore also impacted. Likewise, fire safety standards, which are highly adverse to the use of wood, increase cost and lead times. Paris is, nevertheless, largely built using wood, be it in its lath and plaster walls or the hardwood floors of Haussmanian buildings. We now need to revise applicable standards in light of environmental priority. The philosophy that prevails stems from the technical means of the twentieth century, which has demonstrated both its functional efficiency and its incapacity to respect the environment and resources.
Construction, space, typology, adaptability, in-depth reflection on the economy of means, drafting standards, re-evaluating the idea of comfort, and, beyond that, of our lifestyles, as well as social significance of the whole, shows us the environmental paradigm shift imposes a global rethinking of the definition of architectural forms and their social significance. In the past, the advent of steel and then of glazing revolutionized architecture and led to the complete re-evaluation under which the modern movement emerged. We are currently at the very beginning of a change of the same order, which will involve profound, polymorphic changes, as we have already seen. This normally takes time, however, all markers signal that we have already delayed for too long. Given its size, its aura and its power, Paris could become the experimental field for this paradigm change. A new esthetic will no doubt emerge, which will form part of the historic flow of the city, if only because the materials capable of replacing concrete relate, to a large extent, to the static and tectonic world of the load-bearing masonry that accounts for a large part of the façades of Paris.
To retain the generosity and the convenience of space inherited from modernity, all the while adapting the production system to new requirements will require the invention of hybrid structures.

Fondation Cartier for contemporary art, Paris 14e, Jean nouvel, Emmanuel Cattani & Associés. © Philippe Ruault Fondation Cartier for contemporary art, Paris 14e, Jean nouvel, Emmanuel Cattani & Associés. © Philippe Ruault
The first constructive rationalism—the principles of which were outlined by Viollet-le-Duc during the nineteenth century and which has served as a concrete or metaphorical roadmap for modernity—tended to create structures that relied on the use of a single material. The new constructive “surrealism” will, in turn, produce hybrid structures in which each material will be used for its specific qualities—concrete or steel in limited quantities can, for instance, unlock a full plan or a principle in the building. Like the unified heterogeneity created by Haussmann based on a previously existing city, the architectural esthetics of the Paris to come will likely sprout from a structural and material hybridity at the scale of the buildings themselves—an important driver for the invention of new solutions. This future esthetic will be entirely placed under the sign of specificity and tailored solutions, not only spatially, but also with regard to the means employed, and Paris will re-engage, to some degree, with its own locality.

In the book "La beauté d'une ville" published by the Pavillon de l'Arsenal in 2021.

Éric Lapierre

Éric Lapierre is an architect, professor, theoretician, writer, and curator. His practice’s production, Experience, is an award favorite. His activities—construction, teaching (at EPF Lausanne, ENSA Paris-Est, Harvard GSD), writing—make him a significant participant in the international architectural debate.

1. Bernard Huet, “L’architecture contre la ville” [Architecture against the city], AMC, no. 14: 11 (December 1986).
2. On this topic, see Sébastien Marot, Agriculture and Architecture: Taking Tthe Country’s Side. Barcelona: Polígrafa/Lisbon: Lisbon Architecture Triennale, 2019.
3. Pierre Reverdy, Nord-Sud : Self Defence et autres écrits sur l’art et la poésie (1917-1926) [Self-Defense and Other Writings on Art and Poetry (1917–1926)]. Paris : Flammarion, 1975, 111.
4. Pierre Reverdy, North-South: Self Defence and Other Writings on Art and Poetry (1917-1926), Paris: Flammarion, 1975, p. 111.