Amédée Ozenfant’s The Fundamentals of Art (1929)



free : evocative

Great art is art which ministers to our moral, affectional, and intellectual needs: the “useful” arts minister to needs that are purely practical.  They must not be confounded.  Despite their different modes of expression, Poetry, Painting, Music, Architecture have identical aims: to inspire us with lofty emotions.

Architecture has been wrongfully called “The Mistress Art.”  Bombast! Masterpieces in every art are all first, and as good as each other.  The lion is first among beasts.  Which is saying what? That a fine lion is better than a fine tiger? Why, a splendid cock is better than a moth-eaten lion.  Mozart, Phidias, Montaigne salute each other as equals in the Elysian fields.  There was an antiquated notion that paintings were to serve to decorate walls, so nowadays people still say that Painting is subservient to Architecture.  Do you think Shakespeare or Mozart bothered about the architecture of the place they would be played in? Certainly they had to obey the spirit of architecture, but their work was not limited by architecture.  All the arts are equal, given perfection as the standard.

More exactly: nowadays everything is confounded.  A building that serves its purpose, a monument worthy of the name, a rabbit hutch, and Notre-Dame.  Result: no one knows where he is.  This confusion is aggravated by those to whose interest it is to encourage it.  It must be delicious for the specialist to believe himself the equal of Phidias; he thinks Phidias was an artificer like him.  Alas! one word should have never defined both the artist and the specialist who designs the boxes we live in; for the latter is functioning as an engineer and not as artist, or at any rate his function should have been that of engineer, and not of artist.

“But still, the turning of a utilitarian building into something pleasant is surely an art?”

“Yes indeed, there is an art in making buildings attractive.  But it is a lesser art, and should be considered so.”

It is better to be a first-class engineer than a second-class artist.  Engineers [137] can be, after all, important personages.  Ettore Bugatti is greater than his brother, the late sculptor Rembrandt Bugatti.  But his motor-cars, though perfection today, will be old junk in twenty years, whereas the shattered Parthenon will serenely throne over the ages.

Let us call Architects, such as conceive edifices in the essential aim to create beauty: votive movements, temples, triumphal arches, tombs, etc.  For here they are as free as the poet, the musician, or the painter: and their chief function, too, is to evoke emotion in us.  Every means is good and lawful if it succeeds in stimulating us to lofty sentiments.


Phidias, was he sculptor or architect? Both at once.  Chalgrin, creator of the Arc de Triomphe, is a sculptor like Rude or, if your prefer, Rude is an architect like Chalgrin.  What a great art true architecture is!

Had it only been an object of utility, the sumptuous Parthenon would have been a sort of hall for the faithful: a strong box for treasure would have taken the place of the exquisite cella.  But what was wanted was a work of art that would move men, so fabulous sums were expended.  The Greeks knew that beauty is beyond price, and that a building is not a temple.

The house, the box for living in, must before everything be serviceable: it is a machine that functions, a tool.

Between the two poles of an architecture purely lyrical and one which is utilitarian, all types of hybrids can be found: architectures in which the lyricism dominates, yet where utility plays a certain part (such as palaces and luxurious residences).  And according as the useful is more present or more absent, so these constructions relate to one or other type.

Lean kind of architecture.  Lyric architecture slumbers, not because our epoch lacks great “plasticians,” but because the demand is, so to speak, nil.  All that is needed to be a Rembrandt or Stravinskii is genius, a bit of pencil and some paper: but no one can be an Ictinos at such small cost.  Our age is first and foremost utilitarian: it has reduced its architects to the role of specialists.  These wretches, lacking the demand for art, succeed in finding some pasture for their art by introducing it into their houses, factories, utilitarian edifices.  Somewhat as a sardine-vending poet might publish his verses on his tins.

Much better would it be for them to be content with being entirely useful, doing honest work, and allowing natural grace to blossom from objects adequate to their function, all the more perfect.

But what am I saying? What an error I am falling into! From the day we “won the war” thousands of splendid opportunities have arisen: [138] votive monuments to the fallen, Verdun.  And what has been made of them? Lyric creations, yes: but what sort of lyricism? Poverty-stricken! In exoneration of the “moderns,” they were not given a chance.

For the first time, doubtless, two eminent architects of the younger school dared “enter” for an official contest, the Palace of the League of Nations.  The firm of Le Corbusier-Jeanneret had that courage.

A lofty program was submitted to them: the construction of a monument which would symbolize to humanity the immense idea of organized Peace, war against war.  Magnificent program! Versailles was raised to the glory of one man, one sovereign, one nation: and at Geneva there was to be one great conception, universal, modern.

Official architects sent in their projects for ready-made palaces, ill-conceived, stupid, ugly.  Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret put forward a highly ingenious solution, sincere and striking.  In rejecting their suggestions the jury covered itself with ridicule.

Nevertheless, was Le Corbusier’s conception sufficiently lyrical for the Palace of Peace? His solution was a group of office buildings, harmoniously conceived and formal, rational administration units.  But it was not yet Architecture!





domestic and industrial: service!

“What fine houses are being built all over the place! Architecture really is the mistress art.”

“We are grateful to the architects for having given us airy houses.  They have conquered light for us: large windows, glittering eyes.  Bravo, and thanks again.”

For reasons whereof the understanding knoweth not nature causes us to be born, as it were, like hermit crabs, naked as worms.

Man, however, is differentiated from them by just a touch of fantasy in what affects his dwelling.  The hermit crab seeks for a shell left vacant by the death of its proprietor (which it sometimes provokes: the housing crisis, in fact).  Preferably it chooses some comfortable shell, and since there is nothing that better suits its needs, it generally takes up a temporary residence in elaborate whelk-shells, which must be terribly uncomfortable.  Mankind chooses its houses as women do their motor-cars, for the sake of the fitting.  The architect’s client, when he dreams of his future house, has a whole poem in his bosom.  He rocks himself with dreams of the perfect symphony he will dwell in.  He unburdens himself to some architect.  And the ordinary architect is all fire to be a second Michelangelo.  Under pressure, he puts up an ode in concrete and plaster that generally turns out very different from what the client brooded over: whence arise conflicts: for poems, particularly those engendered by others, are uninhabitable.  Oh, those fugues in the form of bathrooms, those sonnets of bed-chambers, the melody of boudoirs and dramas of water-closets!

A private house (everything is in these words).  Its cardinal virtues: as being impervious to cold and water, warm in winter, cool in summer, open to light, easy to keep clean and convenient to live in, are in no wise poetic unless common sense and utility be such.

(A few rare factories have merited the interest taken in them, for they are good factories, whereas most of the utilitarian structures of this age which claim to be remarkable are hideous: and there are quantities of them).


Confusing “art” with artistic, too many architects design charming façades and leave to “ghosts” the problem of working out the rest of a house, with difficulty inhabitable.  The façade, architecture’s spoiled child, should never be a mask.  The architect’s genius is in relating all the internal organs of the house, with a view to their most efficient functioning: and in conceiving the structure as an organism to which every part of it is both necessary and subservient.  Is that some particular trend of our minds? Certainly we have a very special satisfaction in observing, that in all respects a minimum of effort, has produced a maximum result.  In fact, I believe that therein lies the whole secret of power, for power that is not controlled is merely brutality.  No trimmings! Does a hard, strong hand tolerate jewels?

An antipathy to cosmetics would make the architect’s problem, if he desires to attain the ease of power, and the grace which emanates from what is true, infinitely more difficult.  What an arduous inventor’s task! Each square centimeter must yield its maximum, and the rooms must be exactly related if they are to be pleasant to live in: a perfect harmony which though much to be desired, is rarely attained.

In such an architecture it would be impossible to say that the plan had determined the elevation or vice versa: their interrelation is harmonious and organic.  To be true, I said: (and a habitation can be true, be it humble or sumptuous: for instance, the Petit Trianon).

In that definition all fine utilitarian architecture lies; in the breathing unity of masses entirely adequate to their function.  Decoration can be revolting, but a naked body moves us by the harmony of its form.  Thanks to certain of our architects, we have some houses that are splendidly naked.


The rational application of iron to the construction of utilitarian buildings enabled them more and more to develop according to the function for which they were intended (Crystal Palace, Labrouste’s Gare du Nord, Eiffel’s Viaduct at Garabit, La Galerie des Machines at the Exhibition of 1889, and Tower).

Then reinforced concrete, invented by Hennebique, came into being somewhere round 1886, and immediately gave proofs of its admirable faculty as a medium.

The extreme adaptiveness of this new material at once tempted the architects.  Right up to today, stone has been very much of an obstacle to the builder: (Roman cupolas took revenge on experiments too daring by [141] falling to earth).  But concrete, which could be run into molds, and made to overcome every obstacle, at first inspired the most disarming cement fantasias.

The annals of reinforced concrete demonstrate clearly the misunderstanding between the aesthetic of the material and the technic of handling it.  The engineer’s office, which, with its large windows, absence of ornaments, filing cabinets, etc. has become so sympathetic to us since 1900, gives birth to the most dreadful things the moment it goes outside its job to dabble in art.  The torpedo station at Hyères reveals one of the earliest aspects of true specialist architecture in reinforced concrete: there is something moving in this prototype of contemporary houses, completed in 1908.

Architects like Loos soon realized that after the debauches of the “modernity” in 1900 the most elementary good taste demanded more restraint.

The Perret brothers, before the war, professed similar ideas, and in certain of their constructions they used the new medium with great ingenuity, elegance, and intelligence.  (Witness the garage in the rue de Ponthieu, the skeleton of the Theatre des Champs Élysées, the Casablanca wharfs, etc.)  The Perrets were originators, and from their work has issued that school of architecture which has solved certain problems of efficiency, lighting, and heating.  Among the precursors must, for various reasons, be counted also Sauvage, Sarrazin, Tony Garnier, Lloyd Wright, [142] Berlage, Van de Velde, Gropius, Mallet-Stevens, and Le Corbusier, who, seconded by Pierre Jeanneret, vastly extended, familiarized, and purified the movement.

Many others could be named, for the architects of the modern school are by now innumerable.  Let us praise them all, for to them we owe our [143-144] pleasant houses: houses more than pleasant, significant, because of their impulse towards more conveniences, and so more elegance.

Seven years ago L’Esprit Nouveau started a campaign to rationalize the dwelling, the problem being how to strip off all that was unnecessary.  The majority of modern architects have rallied to the ideas then expressed.  Their praiseworthy desire is to create what is useful only, and yet the sensational tempts them.  Many, and not the least, invent feigned utilities for the pleasure of rationally solving the problems thus raised, as witness those balconies for urban haranguings.  Have they forgotten everything that is not organic is ornament, and notably that an affected severity is more false than frank decoration, and that pure form is not the same as the absence of any form?

The great undertakings of the Department of Roads and Bridges, utilitarian constructions, appear as impressive technical achievements.  The airplane hangars at Orly (Freysinnet), the immense dams of the Panama Canal, the automobile track at Montlhéry, are the latest masterpieces of this specialized art which is in no wise inferior to the great achievements of the Romans.  In some ways it is purer, more sensitive, more intellectual also: for it fulfills our ideals of efficiency and thereby provides a gratification that answers to the new intellectual needs of our epoch.  The magnificent Pont du Gard, Coliseum, and other utilitarian structures of antiquity had power, but not this majestic elegance.  We have our own Romans and our Negroes too.  What we are waiting for are our Greeks!





the object in relation to function

Natural forms are mechanistic, for they are the product of universal forces.  And these very forces are in their turn transformed by mechanism.  The honey-bee is a relay that nature uses: mankind, too, is really like the bee: machines are relays created by man, and the collaboration of men and machines creates natural objects which artificially we call artificial.  Doubtless the bee itself considers its honey artificial.  But does anything exist that can be called unnatural?

A machine that turns out good work is a healthy machine: its organs rigorously satisfy mechanical, therefore natural, laws.  Its products by degrees have become stereotyped because the play of forces is unchanging and their effect is to compel such products into certain shapes, their optimum.  But all this does not happen at once.  Mechanical evolution is comparable with natural evolution, the law of mechanical selection is comparable with the law of natural selection.  I went into these questions in L’Esprit Nouveau, and formulated this principle under the name of “mechanical selection.”


The powers of imagination and the intuition of great engineers cannot truly be called aesthetic.

Their products are predetermined, for the natural laws to which, with ever-increasing efficiency, we respond, by degrees bring about their definitive form.

Ten years ago every electric-bulb had a point, through which the air was drawn to make the vacuum: a point which interrupted light.  Someone thought of evacuating the air through the base, and so the point [152] vanished and the bulb became spherical.  Thus we like it better and it serves us better: but was there any aesthetic impulse behind all this? No! it was solely due to the automatic functioning of evolution!

Every substance is subject to laws that determine the form of its product.  As an instance, the connecting-rod of steel, having to transmit a given quantity of energy, must have its shape and size determined by mathematical calculation, based on the known resistances of the metal: a connecting-rod of bronze cannot possibly be identical with one of wood, steel, cast-iron, or any other substance.  Mechanical shapes thus illustrate the properties of certain bodies under given conditions.  The engineer cannot give free rein to his imagination, otherwise his connecting-rod will break.  This does not disprove the fact that artists do sometimes intuit what the form should be, though personally I prefer a good ready reckoner.  Think of the crazy coachwork invented by aesthetic body-builders when engineers were content merely to construct chassis! Even nowadays coachwork is not free from the same reproach, when the engineer has been aping the artist, and designing bodies.

Aesthetics, introduced into the sphere of mechanics, is always an indication of inadequacy somewhere.  Old-fashioned telescopes are aesthetic, but up-to-date ones whose capacity is infinitely vaster are in no wise so: and, what is even better, there is practically nothing to be seen.  A modern telescope is frequently a well, the bottom of which there is a mirror, neither more nor less exciting to look at than water in a puddle, while in the air somewhere, you have an insignificant eyepiece.

Motors, as in the Bugatti or the Voisin, bear witness to incontestable artistic taste, but the engineer’s freedom in this respect will become more and more respected.  The motor, starting from a certain principle, inevitably gets stereotyped, and the most efficient unit is the one that will inevitably be adopted everywhere.  When the time comes there will be a place for aesthetic invention, which serves to hide the absence of knowledge.


A mechanical object can in certain cases affect us, because manufactured forms are geometric, and we respond to geometry.  No doubt that is so, because intuitively geometry communicates to us a feeling that some higher dispensation is being subserved, which thus becomes a pleasure of the mind, and a feeling that we are satisfying the laws that govern our being.  All the same, its capacity for stimulating emotion is pretty limited.


But first of all we must be clear.  Mechanisms often have a certain obvious beauty, because the substances employed by us happen to be governed by relatively simple laws, and, much in the manner of graphs, they exemplify those laws.

The tendency towards electrification is creating machines that are practically formless, “castings” containing insignificant spools.  By the time we have got to disintegrating the atom, it may be that there will be nothing at all worth looking at.  Our mechanism is primitive, and that is why it still looks gratifyingly geometric.

Besides, certain substances like rubber, whose use is being widely [155] extended, are difficult to apply with precision: thus their forms are hardly “interesting,” for they bear objective witness to the imprecision of the calculations that dictated them.

There are beautiful objects (not to be too difficult over the significance of the word “beauty”).  But there is no object, or factory, or mechanism, or piece of furniture, capable of inspiring in us emotions comparable with those evoked by Art.  Has the most beautiful motor-car or the finest house an effect upon us equal to, parallel with, or equivalent to, some masterpiece of Art? When the Beethoven centenary was celebrated at Vienna, during the performance of Fidelio there was hardly a dry eye in the audience.  The Parthenon takes even the most insensitive man by the throat.  Has anyone ever seen a factory or piece of machinery that could move men to tears? The most elegant bicycle would be quite incapable of it,

And besides, it is really very striking how lovers of machinery by preference collect ancient implements long out of date.  Imagining they worship mechanism, in reality they offer sacrifice to a taste for antiques…and the aesthetic imperfections resulting from the primitive technic employed.

All that can be said is that a really efficient machine is more intriguing than one that is a failure, and a polished pebble more than a mere scrap of stone.  For certain forms are pleasant to us, others painful, and everything the intellect produces must be of interest to us.  But starting from this point, to place the machine on the pedestal of great sculpture, seems to me blindness, silly snobbishness, and ridiculous also.


~ by Ross Wolfe on August 31, 2011.

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