In 1750, Jean-Jacques Rousseau won first prize in an essay contest sponsored by the Académie de Dijon. His essay, Discours sur les sciences et les arts, was basically an extended condemnation of the things in its title. In the state of nature, he argued, life had been simple and people had been good – until someone made the stupid mistake of trying to improve things by inventing the arts and sciences. Suddenly, people were unequal, life was complex, and things were generally worse in every way.
Three years later, Marc-Antoine Laugier published Essai sur l’Architecture (I’ve remarked on the entertainment value of the extended title elsewhere.) In the primitive hut, Laugier argued, things had been simple, and architecture had been good. Then architects went and mucked things up by inventing such architectonic chimaeras as pilasters, square columns, and the placing of columns atop pedestals. In short, architecture became more complex and generally worse in every way.
Preceding this list of “defects,” Laugier’s Essai retells the hypothetical trials and tribulations of a man whose circumstances appear similar to those one might imagine in Rousseau’s state of nature:
Let us consider man in his first origin without any help, without other guide, than the natural instinct of his wants. He wants an abiding place. Near to a gentle stream he perceives a green turf, the growing verdure of which pleases his eye, its tender down invites him, he approaches, and softly extended upon this enameled carpet, he thinks of nothing but to enjoy in peace the gifts of nature: nothing he wants, he desires nothing; but presently the Sun’s heat which scorches him, obliges him to seek a shade.
We know what happens next: Laugier, apparently having reached the limits of his narrative creativity, steals the plot of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. First, the primitive man seeks shelter under a tree, but the rain penetrates the leafy canopy and he gets wet. Next he hides in a cave, but it’s too dark, and the air is musty. Finally, driven by the “inattentions and neglects of nature,” he turns to architecture as a last resort.
But if times seem tough for our primitive man, they’re tougher for Laugier’s argument. In his origin story, shelter is the first “need” which goes unmet by nature. Laugier, however, wants architectural principles to accord with the natural order – the one he just argued architecture necessarily suspends. In an attempt to resolve this apparent contradiction between origin and teleology, Laugier declares that good architecture consists in “the imitation of [nature’s] proceedings.” There is, of course, quite a difference between the descriptive claim that “architecture is part of the natural order” and the normative claim that “architecture should imitate the natural order,” but the latter is problematic even apart from this comparative context. Since Laugier describes architecture as the consequence of nature’s insufficiency, the reintroduction of nature as architecture’s proper muse is somewhat baffling.
Laugier’s conflation of “is” and “ought” is exactly coincident with the need for a mimetic accommodation of their inherent contradiction in the context of his argument. Moreover, it reflects the divergence between Rousseau’s and Laugier’s narratives. Rousseau’s state of nature operates historically (even if this history is a hypothetical one.) By comparison, Laugier’s state of nature is an ahistorical set of conditions; if they are broken out of necessity, they will be restored through proper imitation.
Today, at least from a scientific and philosophical standpoint, this paradigm has been inverted. Mimesis of nature is generally viewed as arbitrary, or it cloaks itself in the “performative” dimension of biomimicry. Meanwhile, today’s post-humanist scientism postulates that the conceptual opposition of Nature and Culture is false: everything is always-already acculturated, and part of what we might describe (admittedly with a slightly different and less mystical meaning) as “the natural order.” But it doesn’t seem coincidental that the diminution of pseudo-deductive rationales for design and the ascendency of inductive justifications based upon “effects” and “performance” have reintroduced a set of distinctly Rousseauian anxieties. The pessimism surrounding politics today, our concerns about the future of the environment, and our conflicted view of scientific and technological “progress” resonate with Rousseau’s cautionary reflections on the assumed Goodness of civilization in eighteenth-century France. We have, interestingly, come to the same conclusion as Rousseau: we don’t have the utopian option of waking up tomorrow and throwing off these trappings, so we’ll do what we can to live with them.