Imitation and ideal type: A study of eighteenth century French architecture

Seockjae Yim, University of Pennsylvania


Architecture is one of the most repetitive genres in arts. Repetition of a model is always a key issue in architectural activity. Imitation or mimesis is a basic concept for this issue. Understanding mimesis in architecture has two roles. Firstly, when an element is translated from past architecture, the imitation should be a creative re-creation. The element thus imitated should represent the historical characteristics of the culture in an age. Secondly, mimesis in architecture means ability to interpret artistic meaning of a model and to express it in architectural terms. The basic idea of mimesis was established during the time of ancient Greece. Plato and Aristotle played important roles in establishing it. Classical mimesis consisted of three modes of imitation: imitation of an idea, verisimilitude and fictive imitation. Until the late seventeenth century, the major issues of imitation were confined to the interpretation of the concepts of classical mimesis. During the late seventeenth century, there was a critical evolution in the role of imitation of architecture, which rejected the authorative dignity of the ancients. This can be labeled 'autonomous self-imitation'. The 'Quarrel between the ancients and the moderns' was an important event in the beginning of the modern period. Entries for the Louvre showed the transitional tendencies in this period. Eighteenth century French architecture is a good example for demonstrating how these two meanings of the mimesis operate in architecture. All the architectural activities in this period were directed toward finding ideal types to replace those of Italian Renaissance and Baroque. Imitation was one of the key issues in relation to this search for ideal types for a new modern period. Two major concepts shaped the role of imitation in architecture in this period: interpretation of the past, and conversion of ideal models into architectural language. Antiquity, Nature and human character were the models for the imitation. Two groups of architects showed opposite tendencies in the interpretation of past architecture. One group contended that exemplary models for the contemporary period could be found in past architecture; the other group tried to de-signify the classical language of architecture. In the second half of the eighteenth century, fictive imitation of human character led the theme of revolutionary architecture. The strategies of the revolutionary architects showed for critical digressions from classical rules. The historical importance of eighteenth century architecture is that attempts were made to overcome the contradiction of dual aspects by reconciliatory unification. Nature was imitated as a model for the reconciliation: reconciliation of a priori conceptual interpretation and phenomenality of the empirical world.

Subject Area

Architecture|Art History

Recommended Citation

Yim, Seockjae, "Imitation and ideal type: A study of eighteenth century French architecture" (1992). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9308686.