Petites Constructions Françaises

Architectural drawings always fascinated me. Especially when they date back to the 19th century. And when they are French, it’s even better. So I was very happy to find a portfolio with 26 specimens of ‘small French buildings’ (Petites Constructions Françaises). The portfolio was published by E. Thézard and son, in the French town of Dourdan. The town was in the previous Seine-et-Oise department, but has been swallowed by the greater Paris area. The department Seine-et-Oise has been split up in a number of smaller departments in 1964. Duordan now is the principal town of the ‘Canton’ Dourdan, which is a part of the department Essonne.

Architectural drawing for a town house, 1893.
Maison d’habitation, from the collection Petites Constructions Françaises (ca. 1893)
Architectural rendering of a 19th century French town house
Maison d’habitation, from the collection Petites Constructions Françaises (ca. 1893). Detail, ground floor.

The pleasantly coloured lithographs in the folder put us back in the final decades of the nineteenth century, when the stratification of the French middle classes demanded a certain variety of homes. The employee, the petit-bourgeous, the bourgeois, the hunter, the doctor, the architect, the lodger, the rentier, they all needed an appropriate place to live in. The drawings in the folder present a sampler of possibilities. They include sections of the buildings, plans, elevations, and drawings of specific architectural details. Everything rendered in soft, faded colours. The buildings have been selected by a committee of architects.

I haven’t had the time to do a more diligent search, but I found that E. Thézard, fils, had published several collections of illustrations about architecture and design in the late-nineteenth, and early twentieth century. They all more or less conformed to the same type of loosely gathered folded lithographs, held together by a cardboard portfolio, closed with ribbons.

Maison d'habitation, from the collection Petites Constructions Françaises (ca. 1893). Detail, roof, mansarde, and chimney,
Maison d’habitation, from the collection Petites Constructions Françaises (ca. 1893). Detail, roof, mansarde, and chimney,

The lithographs are a real feast for the eyes. They transport you to a past where the Paris ‘banlieue’ was populated with elegant eclectic buildings, and the streets were filled with horse-drawn carriages. There are still some pockets of 19th century architecture left, although the accompanying silence and elegant emptiness are lost forever.

Some loose pages from the portfolio 'Petites Constructions Françaises' (ca. 1893).
Some loose pages from the portfolio ‘Petites Constructions Françaises’ (ca. 1893).
Hunting lodge (Pavillon de Chasse) from the portfolio 'Petites Constructions Françaises' (ca. 1893).
Hunting lodge (Pavillon de Chasse) from the portfolio ‘Petites Constructions Françaises’ (ca. 1893).

The portfolio is incomplete, I think, but I haven’t had the time to dive into it and do a bit of serious research. I noticed that individual pages emerge in online auctions here and there, together with pages from other portfolios by the same editor. It would be a nice idea to visit Dourdan some day, to figure out where this publishing house was located. I found a lithograph that has found its way to the Metropolitan Museum. Images, very ornate, from the Bibliothèque de l’Ameublement, published by Thézard must have been very sought after. In an advertisement for the monthly magazine titled ‘L’Architecture Usuelle’, published in 1913 I found that the publisher’s Christian name was Emile. According to the accompanying description the publication of the periodical was interrupted in 1914 by the Great War, but was continued after the war and ran unto 1922.

I especially like the rendering of the hunting lodge (above) and the ‘architect’s house (below). They are just like the buildings you may have seen somewhere, passing the small towns in the larger Paris area, but failed to really look at attentively. Such buildings are still out there, albeit rare.

Architect's house (Maison pour architecte) from the portfolio 'Petites Constructions Françaises' (ca. 1893).
Architect’s house (Maison pour architecte) from the portfolio ‘Petites Constructions Françaises’ (ca. 1893).

In the town of Dourdan according to one source on the web the art publisher Thézard still exists. I, however, could not find any information to confirm this. Until, that is, a recent reprint of a number of plates from L’Architecture Usuelle, was returned by Google. Apparently the publishing houses of Thézard and Juliot, another big name in Dourdan, have been acquired by the publishing house Vial that specialises in art and architecture. The accompanying text informs us that Emile Thézard was active between 1860 and 1939, and started his own publishing house after leaving the Paris-based Dunod publishing house.

Portfolio cover and architect's house (Maison pour architecte) from the portfolio 'Petites Constructions Françaises' (ca. 1893).
Portfolio cover and architect’s house (Maison pour architecte) from the portfolio ‘Petites Constructions Françaises’ (ca. 1893).

Well, I think the Musée de Dourdan at least merits a visit, some day.

Loose pages with hunting lodge and worker's house from the portfolio 'Petites Constructions Françaises' (ca. 1893). Some plans, and sections.
Loose pages with hunting lodge and worker’s house from the portfolio ‘Petites Constructions Françaises’ (ca. 1893). Some plans, and sections.
Section of the maison d'habitation, from the portfolio 'Petites Constructions Françaises' (ca. 1893). Some plans, and sections.
Section of the maison d’habitation, from the portfolio ‘Petites Constructions Françaises’ (ca. 1893). Some plans, and sections.

Giant low-poly bear

Some weeks ago the industrial port in our distant part of the country was visited by a gigantic cruise-liner. The appearance of the ship attracted quite a few interested people.

I saw it both by day, and by night. It was awe inspiring to see this contraption that could easily swallow a few medium sized apartment buildings. People were walking around, and through the zoom I discovered that technicians were working hard to put the final dots on the i’s.

On the upper deck an enormous bear put his paw on the roof of the pavilion. A very contemporary bear, because it is designed according to the ‘parlance of our times’, which is low-poly. The effect is quite interesting though.

Cruise ship with low-poly bear
Cruise ship with low-poly bear
technicians working to finish the details
technicians working to finish the details
The bear seen from another point of view
The bear seen from another point of view

Mildly Dystopian

Still-life with incense stick
Still-life with incense stick, water tank, and robot soap

Some days ago I was invited to give a guest lecture to students studying for an international cultural heritage masters degree. It was a nice to be addressing a group of attentive people again. The subject, ‘Authenticity in the Digital Age’, gave me enough leeway to make a broad movement from a philosophical point of view to a very down to earth practical approach. The relationship between physical artefacts and their digital representations, and the often emotional attachments that we have for physical artefacts that are close to the source of their creation, like first editions, signed copies, drawings, was one of the main strands of the lecture.

On my way back home I was thinking about digital born material, the immaterial cultural heritage of the near future. By its very nature it can never acquire the patina of ink stains, the grime of being picked up and put down, the scribbles and markings of a finished page that goes through the editing process. It is forever pristine, until it fades away with the obsolescence of its technological environment.

Back home I looked at the H0 models that my dad created approximately 45 years ago for his train-set, now abandoned and put away in cardboard boxes. Hundreds of lengths of rail, curves, switches, magnetic sensors, innumerable wound ends of electrical wires, and many plastic houses, and other props. I kept some of them in view. The nice thing about them is the complete absence of any economic value, or collector’s interest. They’re not pristine, but were handled many times, maltreated, broken, and repaired. They collected dust and grease, attracted nicotine and were battered by discarded tools.

The landscape these objects occupied was in perpetual development, it was never finished. When the first track, built in the basement, with hills, tunnels, and a real waterfall, was nearly ready, we moved. Then there was the second project, a large platform that covered a whole spare-room, and that could be hoisted to the ceiling because it was suspended. You had to position yourself in the center of the room when the landscape came down. A square hole in the center contained all the controls. The track had several levels and was immensely complex. Far too complex. Everything was controlled by electromagnetic switches that my dad created himself by winding copper spools. The central switch was an iron nail, embedded in a rectangular piece of red plastic. When a train passed a, self-made, sensor, the electromagnet-switch was activated and somewhere a railway point was changed. He spent weeks turning the copper spools and building the switches. Then he created hundreds of signal lights by painting the ink-tubes of empty ballpoint pens, mounting them with a small top piece with two tiny lights and a backplate which he cut from small sheets of metal. It was fascinating.

As soon as the project was finished, he dissembled the whole thing and kept everything, including the trains, in boxes. I suppose the journey was more valuable than the destination. The boxes are now in my care. I cleaned and re-packed everything and kept a few items in view, worthless and priceless.