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The History of Human Habitation: Ancient Domestic Architecture in Nineteenth Century Europe

Shelley Hales

Charles Garnier’s exhibition L’Histoire de l’habitation humaine, designed for the 1889 Exposition Universelle, included several reconstructions of ancient houses. Most famous for the new Paris Opera House, the architect created 44 ‘reconstructions’ of past house-types arranged along a street to allow visitors literally to walk the world. His ancient houses are largely forgotten by Classicists, but they offer great insight into a recalibration of understanding of the nature and value of the relation between antiquity and the modern world in the later nineteenth century, documenting an ethnographic turn that allows us to look back at the century’s domestic reconstructions through a different (and perhaps less comfortable) lens.

In his subsequently-published accompanying narrative, the ethnographic played as large a part of Garnier’s explanation of these homes as the architectural and aesthetic (qualities that had dominated response to earlier reconstructions), as he distilled into each model the ‘characteristic’ domestic features which he felt best reflected a culture’s ideologies. The houses were notionally (if not physically) organised in three categories: prehistoric, historic, and contemporary primitive. The ancient world featured in the second category, itself subdivided between primitive civilizations (including the Egyptians and Etruscans) and those arising from Aryan invasion (conveniently allowing Gallic architecture to sit alongside the Greek and Roman). Classical Antiquity was represented by a Greek, Roman and, most innovatively, a Gallo-Roman house; their ancestry conveyed by the presence of an Etruscan house and their trajectories in west and east demonstrated through Romanesque and Byzantine houses respectively.

On one level, Garnier’s classical houses reflect the culmination of a sequence of reconstructed ancient houses in Europe. From the mid-century, international exhibitions had provided a major venue for the display of ancient domestic culture, most obviously the Pompeian Court (Sydenham Crystal Palace, 1854), but also the Maison Pompéienne, built in Paris as a ‘private’ home but intimately connected with the Expositions Universelles. In many ways, Garnier’s houses and reactions to them reflect the kind of debates and display techniques with which these predecessors had been associated. Like them, his houses were equally feted and berated for their fakery and toy-like nature and plunged antiquity into an eclectic melange of exoticism and familiarity. Like them, they reflect the intriguing reliance of the relentlessly totalising, public and grandiose Expositions and Exhibitions on private, individual experience. In this exhibition, the essential characteristics of peoples across the whole world could be expressed through domestic dwelling, the houses of antiquity pressed into service alongside novel temporal and geographical neighbours; the African, Chinese, Aztec, and Indian.

But this mode of display not only potentially changed the force of those responses but opened to challenge the assumptions on which his classical houses’ predecessors had been created. Pompeii was displaced by Roman Gaul; emphasis on painted interiors gave way to that on function and façade; and stress on cultural specificity threatened to alienate rather than close the gap between past and present, even as the inclusion of Gaul suggested a more precisely nationalistic link between them. The hopes once expressed for the architectural influence of the Pompeian Court on modern design were implicitly dashed – even more so the possibility of residing in a Maison Pompéienne in contemporary Paris. Garnier, an admirer of the Maison, ended up inadvertently reflecting its vehement detractors in implying its ‘unliveability’. Within two years the Maison Pompéienne would disappear forever.

In this paper, the fascinating accounts of Garnier’s lost houses offer a means of exploring the ways in which the physical resurrection of the domestic past became a powerful means of literal and metaphorical place-making for visitors to Exhibitions in Britain and France throughout the nineteenth century. They provide an opportunity to articulate more closely the changing perceptions in European culture both of the roles of these reconstructions and of the nature of antiquity’s relationship to contemporary personal and national identity.

Session/Panel Title

Re-Creating the House of Pansa

Session/Paper Number

7.2

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