Sigrid de Jong's Rediscovering Architecture is about several things at once. Most evidently, it is a book about a group of three famous, if not iconic, archaic Greek-Doric temples: Paestum's Temple of Hera I, built around 530 BCE, the oldest and most idiosyncratic of the three, commonly referred to in the eighteenth century as the Basilica because visitors could not believe such a peculiar building had been a temple; the Temple of Athena, constructed ca. 520 BCE, the smallest of the three; and the Temple of Hera II, built ca. 460 BCE, the largest and the most conventional. At the time of their rediscovery around the middle of the eighteenth century, these structures were met with a variety of reactions, including vivid and often dismissive descriptions expressing everything from astonishment to distaste. These temples did not resemble any buildings with which eighteenth-century visitors were familiar; Paestum turned accepted ideas of classical architecture upside down. De Jong notes, for instance, that it is known that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, upon arriving on the site of these porous limestone temples with their rough columns, was at first uncertain whether he was seeing rocks or ruins. And Antoine Vaudoyer, visiting Paestum in the summer of 1787, found the temples “of heavy and clumsy character,” with “the form, the grace and subtlety of Hercules” (47). The temples were the subject of captivating drawings and paintings, as in Thomas Hardwick's sketchbooks and William Turner's dramatic watercolors (many of which provide beautiful illustrations for this book), and of lavish publications. Between Gabriel-Pierre-Martin Dumont's Suitte [Suite] de plans (ca. 1750) and Paolo Antonio Paoli's Paesti (1784), mid-eighteenth-century authors produced no less than seven monographs on the temples of Paestum.
De Jong's book is also about the life of the temples in eighteenth-century architectural thought. Rather than starting from an analysis of built forms, it unfolds from the human responses to them. Paestum generated half a century of controversy, mainly in France, England, and Italy. These debates revolved around the central concerns of eighteenth-century architectural, artistic, and aesthetic thinking, among them ideas about primitivism, the beginnings of civilization, and the origins of architecture. One could argue, and De Jong does convincingly, that Paestum functioned as a testing ground for eighteenth-century architectural discourse. Some themes even originated there, often because preconceptions were overturned in light of Paestum's unusual buildings. De Jong reconstructs the site's preeminent and crucial role in architectural aesthetics and artistic debates by considering visitors who encountered Paestum in very different ways. She offers extended and detailed examinations of a diverse range of sources, including letters, diaries, books, drawings, paintings, and engravings—many of them rarely or never before published and all attractively reproduced here. Through this evidence, she shows how visitors’ engagement with Paestum often developed in several stages, marked by the interactions of theory and experience. De Jong's main hypothesis is that the perception of Paestum did not alter as a result of changing architectural ideas; rather, architectural thought evolved alongside and on the basis of the experience of Paestum.
The third layer of Rediscovering Architecture concerns architectural experience. De Jong's emphasis on varied encounters with and perceptions of Paestum is what makes this book different from earlier treatments. It is also what makes the book stand out from most other scholarly publications on eighteenth-century architectural discourse; its significance extends far beyond the time period under consideration. Obviously, the book investigates an era in which the direct experience of architecture acquired a central position in architectural theory, as in the ideas and writings of Jacques-François Blondel, Julien-David Le Roy, and Sir John Soane, to name a few. The oeuvre of Giambattista Piranesi, who was also involved with Paestum, would be unthinkable without these developments. The impact of architecture on the beholder became an essential component of the value placed on a building. De Jong's meticulous analysis of this process provides insights that have important implications for architecture well beyond the eighteenth century. Such studies of architectural experience are rare.
The structure of the book, which is divided into three parts, each comprising two chapters, reflects the diversity of travelers’ responses to Paestum. The first part, “Aesthetic Experiences,” analyzes written and visual records of visitors’ impressions in light of two prominent aesthetic concepts of the period: the sublime and the picturesque. Many accounts of “sublime” experiences drew on the immediate sensations evoked on the spot and were in fact ahistorical. This book is unusual in the prominence it gives to such feelings, which were the result not of established knowledge but of the intense reactions of overwhelmed viewers, whether they were architects, writers, or sculptors. The author proves that in architecture, much as in Turner's watercolors, the sublime cannot exist except through experience. Yet being there in the flesh did not lead to immediate comprehension, nor did carefully constructed prior knowledge help visitors to understand the site. Rather, as De Jong states, on encountering Paestum, “everything [one] knew no longer seemed relevant” (48). Moreover, “the architecture of Paestum could not be taken in at a single gaze, as in the classical theories—on the contrary. The vastness and infinity so clearly delineated in the theories of Burke were to be experienced in the extent and spatiality of Paestum. Knowledge from books and engravings was not useful when it came to experience of the reality: … It had no place in the powerful impressions of the sublime that Paestum imprinted on [the] mind” (48).
In the second part of the book, “Experiences of Movement,” De Jong follows travelers as they entered the temples and experienced a sequence of responses, which they then disseminated in texts, engravings, and paintings. This approach provides groundbreaking insights, since few existing studies offer clues about how to analyze writings that are rooted in physical space. Heinrich Wölfflin, of course, was one of the few early art historians to write about the bodily experience of architecture, and his Prolegomena zu einer Psychologie der Architektur shows how our experience of and relation to architecture are rooted in our physical being. As De Jong notes, “It was exactly this break with conventional interpretations, arising from Paestum's lack of functional or iconological context, that launched an awareness of the process of observation” (135). Hence, even more than in the preceding section, she focuses here on the intense physicality of visitors’ actual experiences at Paestum. Such experiences were possible because the temples were still relatively intact: “They were not the kind of remains that had to be reconstructed in the mind. One could actually feel the spatiality in the monument an sich” (135). In this part of the book, De Jong shows how entering the ruins in the flesh, as opposed to occupying them in the mind, resulted in something entirely different from the eighteenth-century theoretical discourse on ruins, in which the remains of architecture caused spectators to reflect on themselves, their lives, and their character. She then turns to the artist who pictured the temples most realistically, Piranesi, and argues that his etchings “eventually made explicit what eighteenth-century visitors actually knew but had not expressed before: real Greek buildings had very little to do with the Renaissance version of classical architecture” (166).
This argument is further developed in the third part, “Contextualising Experiences.” Here De Jong investigates reflections on the past to which Paestum gave rise and the influence of the site on a rethinking of classical architecture as a design model. She starts from an investigation into the concepts of primitivism and of origin as invention in the context of architecture, issues she has also addressed in an earlier publication titled “Piranesi and Primitivism.”1 Next, she discusses the temples as possible, or rather impossible, examples for modern—that is, late eighteenth-century—building. De Jong accurately calls this section “Paestum Exported.” By singling out and exporting limited features of the temples, one arrives at an “architecture without experience,” which shows “the poverty of selecting nothing but an order from the architecture of Paestum” (259).
In this way the author leaves us with a double paradox. The first one she addresses in the context of her discussion of the sublime, where she argues that the sublime could achieve what accepted architectural theory could not: it could be used to make sense of what she calls “the paradox of Paestum.” The spatial quality and the ahistorical, primitive character of Paestum were precisely what made the experience of the site so disruptive to classical canons and ideals of beauty. The paradox of Paestum is that “a direct experience of the temples … , which had themselves been constructed in antiquity, served to undermine the claims of classicism to aesthetic supremacy” (65). A second paradox concludes the book's third part, where De Jong observes that in the process of “exporting” Paestum, its experiential dimension was stripped away: “Paradoxically, while in one sense knowledge increased, in another genuine comprehension of Paestum … disappeared in the process of abstraction, and the version disseminated to the public … was emasculated and generalized” (261).
This wonderfully edited and richly illustrated book points to some thought-provoking contradictions in eighteenth-century architectural thinking, while stimulating rumination about our relationship with—our experience of—any built architecture. By using architectural experience as a focal point, Rediscovering Architecture not only extends our understanding of Paestum and of complex trends in eighteenth-century thought but also elucidates the cultural meaning of buildings and the impact of a building on the beholder while stimulating reflection on our own contemporary engagement with architectural space.