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The Story of Two Houses

Together, a fictional structure from a 19th-century novelette and the author’s real residence tell the intertwined tale of architecture and engineering.

Henry Petroski

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His latest book, The House with Sixteen Handmade Doors: A Tale of Architectural Choice and Craftsmanship (W. W. Norton, 2014), was released in May and is discussed briefly in the following column. Photos here and in the book are copyright © 2014 by Catherine Petroski. For more photos from the book see here.

Of necessity, the earliest engineers wore many hats. Imhotep, considered the inventor of the Egyptian pyramidal structure, developed a proficiency in nutrition and surgery to maintain a healthy and efficient army of workers. His medical observations and theories recorded in an ancient papyrus were unattributed for millennia, or else new medical doctors today would likely be reciting an Imhotepean rather than the Hippocratic oath. Ancient engineers were likewise indistinguishable from what we know today as architects. Vitruvius, author of the first-century BCE treatise on Greek and Roman architecture and engineering, has been variously identified as an architect, an engineer, and an architect/engineer. In fact, the professions were effectively one and the same for nearly two millennia after Vitruvius.

The discipline of civil engineering began to be distinguished formally from that of architecture only in the 18th century. That was when France began to establish a system of specialized engineering schools, led by the École des Ponts et Chaussées. In England, independent practitioners began declaring themselves civil engineers to distinguish themselves and their work from the military. By the middle of the 19th century in the United States, the exclusive American Institute of Architects was established; not long thereafter the American Society of Civil Engineers and Architects became simply the American Society of Civil Engineers.

2014-07PetroskiFp259.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageAround this time the growing distinction between engineering and architecture was discussed in a highly unusual book with the unassuming title The Story of a House, an English translation of the French Histoire d’une maison, written and illustrated by “Viollet-le-Duc,who no longer needed a first name or initial. Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc was born in 1814 into an intellectual middle-class Parisian family. He aspired to become an architect, but rather than following the traditional French route through the École des Beaux-Arts, the country’s national school of fine arts, he sought to learn the profession by gaining practical experience in the offices of working architects.

Viollet-le-Duc became famous in his lifetime for his restoration work on medieval churches, abbeys, and castles, including Notre Dame de Paris. He did not merely restore old structures to a prior state, however. He also added new features. He gave Notre Dame its flèche-like third tower, and he encouraged the addition of modern touches such as cast-iron columns and struts to Gothic masonry spaces. He wrote extensively about architectural history and theory, often illustrating his original ideas with his own drawings. Napoleon III commissioned him to design a luxurious railway carriage in the Gothic style. He was also supposed to design the internal structure for the Statue of Liberty, but did not complete it before he died in 1879.

Viollet-le-Duc’s Historie d’une maison was translated into American English by Boston lawyer-turned-author George Makepeace Towle, who became known as a translator of the adventure novels of Jules Verne. Towle titled Viollet-le-Duc’s work with the straightforward English translation The Story of a House. A British translation of Historie d’une maison was made by the English architect and Viollet-le-Duc enthusiast Benjamin Bucknall, who gave it the more descriptive title How to Build a House: An Architectural Novelette.

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