Monday, March 3, 2014

The Vandals of Toulouse

I started our last post about one week ago and only published it yesterday.  I hadn't intended to write so much about bricks but the details seemed to become relevant as I went along.  This is somewhat fortuitous because on Saturday I came across a church that grabbed my eye and, as it turns out, was designed by an architect who also created the first industrialized brickworks in Toulouse.

The Église St. Jean-Baptiste d'Ondes is the parish church of Ondes, the next village after our neighboring village of Grenade-sur-Garonne.  It's a small place but is home to a few interesting buildings, one of which is a "haunted mansion" style house that sustained severe fire damage a few years back.

What struck me about the church were two things, the Tetragrammaton in the pediment, a triangle in glory, and the obelisks flanking the facade.

We have traced the use of free-standing architectural elements to delineate the entrance to sacred space back to the Egyptian use of two obelisks at the front of their temples.  This was picked up by the Phoenicians, who used two pillars instead of obelisks.  According to legend, it was Hiram Abiff, Phoenician architect, who used them in his design for Solomon's Temple.  The tale of Hiram and his murder by three unworthy laborers is an important story in Masonic lore.  A Masonic Lodge is ostensibly based on descriptions of Solomon's temple and thus, has an entrance clearly demarcated by two pillars called Jachin and Boaz after their Biblical ancestors.  But we've talked about all this at great length before. (See labels: obelisk and/or pillars).

I was tooling about with a friend when we ran across the church; i's design, atypical of the region, caused us to speculate about the date.   The friend suggested 19th century and I agreed, placing it at about 1830 or even a bit earlier, maybe 1810.  I also wondered if I was mistaken in seeing obelisks these church towers.  This close-up show that the edges of the obelisk are bevelled somewhat, so in a sense they are octagonal.  What struck me was the decorative element at the corner, a scallop or flower-like ornament which almost certainly has a name; but my days of intensively memorizing the architectural orders and their elements have been over for more than 20 years and besides, I don't think we ever got around to this one.

Does anyone have any idea what this element is called?

As luck would have it I saw some movement in the library across the street.  It turns out a ladies' knitting circle was just wrapping up but the most outgoing of the ladies talked to me a bit.  Apparently the church is rarely opened and she didn't know when it was built.  But this was a library, and she had a book in hand, toot sweet.

She leafed through the fat, self-published tome and voila, there was a lot of information about the church.  It was designed by one August Virebent (1792-1857) and work began in 1839.  Kudos for me!  This is pretty much exactly contemporaneous with the peak of the career of Urban Vitry (1802-1863).  Vitry, who we've discussed on LoS in several posts, was city architect of Toulouse from 1830 to 1843.  He put more typical obelisks at the entrance to his Terre Cabade cemetery (approved 1832, opened 1840) and designed a massive obelisk to commemorate the Battle of Toulouse (1814), constructed between 1835 and 1839.

This book also mentioned that one of the Virebents had married a Vitry; Wikipedia reveals that August Virebent's father Jean-Pascal (1746-1831), was not only Vitry's predecessor as city architect (from 1782 to 1830) but also his uncle.  August Virebent and Urban Vitry were cousins.

Both were men of their times, using classical elements liberally in their work.  Virebent was known especially for his use of caryatids and other sculptural motifs on his facades.  The "obelisks" on St. Jean-Baptiste church remind me of Vitry's tomb, the only photo of which I have is unfortunately too cropped to truly grok the similarities.  But the following photo of the Vitry-Bezat (I'm not entirely certain of the second name) family mausoleum is instructive.

You'll notice that the corner elements on the mausoleum are almost identical to those on the church.  So we can see that Virebent's flourish was part of the standard vocabulary of the time--for Vitry and Virebent at least.  Though this isn't "proof" of anything, it does support my reading that these towers on the Église St. Jean-Baptiste are (or refer to) obelisks.

Photo by flikr user christine.petitjean:
I was pleased to learn that Virebent and Vitry were family and shared an aesthetic, but in light of my last post about the bricks used in local architecture, it's a happy coincidence the the younger Virebent was also known for being a briquetier, or brick manufacturer.  He developed and registered a patent for the ingredients and process of manufacturing brick; so, Virebent contributed to the Toulousain aesthetic at the most fundamental level.  His process made it easier to create bricks of varying dimensions that were both easier to cut and allowed for mortar to set better.  He also invented a machine that produced a finer, more solid and compact clay to produce a red or white brick-making material that made it easier to create decorative elements and reliefs based on brick.  Virebent is credited with being the first to industrialize the production of both humble bricks and decorative elements based on brick.  Form followed invention and today we see a multitude of forms in brick that had previously required the use of the slower and more expensive  technique of cutting stone.

Virebent's brick works seems to have continued to operate into the 1960's and the machines and processes used in the terra cotta industry today aren't much different from those he developed.

The first mention of a church at Ondes dates to 1538; it was dedicated to Notre Dame de l’Annonciation.  In 1613, the Archbishop of Toulouse judged that it was too small and authorized a replacement.  By the 1830's the church was in such a state of disrepair that instead of renovating it, a new construction was ordered.  The materials were found locally and the ornaments all came from Virebent's brickworks.  All the labor was performed by locals, for free, except for the artisans such as masons and carpenters.  The church was largely finished by 1848, but work on the decoration continued until 1866, by which time Virebent and Vitry were dead.

As for the title of this post, Vitry and the elder Virebent are largely responsible for the look of downtown Toulouse as it appears today, with two large thoroughfares forming a cross at its center.  It was rational and practical but the work, along with other urbanization projects, indiscriminately destroyed many of the cloisters and medieval streets that until then had characterized the center of town.  This earned Toulouse the title "capital of vandalism".

One man's "development" is another man's destruction, something that holds true today.  Toulouse is being transformed at a rate unseen since the days Vitry and Virebent were razing a good chunk of downtown Toulouse, for better or for worse, and a lot of these new projects are still using those red and white bricks.  Vitry and Virebent (the elder) are pretty much synonymous with the Toulouse style, sober and retrained with a strong neo-classical flavor and occasional Egyptian touches.  There is no indication, however, that they were Freemasons, so we can chalk this up to the wider interest in Egypt which spurred the ongoing revival that both preceded and followed their careers.


  1. "bricks of varying dimensions that were both easier to cut and allowed for mortar to set better"

    Not sure why I'm so interested in this brick stuff, but it seem to point back to technological improvements driving improvements in architecture. Ugg, bad sentence, that one. Trying to say that it's becoming easier and easier for people to make what they want to make, so as you go back further in time, objects seem more reflective of physical limitations/restraints, which seems kind of obvious, but when you push that back to brick-making tech, it seems so curious. I imagine these people picturing the structures they were going to build and their imaginations pushing up against the boundaries of what could actually be accomplished by mortar-less bricks that were silly thick. Well, they figure out how to make that cross design with the four "leaves" ... and then someone comes along and make better bricks!

    What made them easier to cut? The material they were made of, or some change in their dimension, perhaps less thick?

    And the ability to add mortar must've been because the old bricks had such a large "top", i.e., made such thick walls, that the mortar would never dry, so you had to have thicker bricks so that the stack wouldn't tumble?

  2. I can't really answer these questions. Starting backwards, I think they always used mortar but the improved brick had a better surface so it clug on better, more bonded? Interesting how even a dry-stacked wall is pretty solid, held in place by the weight. I've seen houses hear where the wals have come apart at the corners or have enormous fissures. The old guys don't hesitate to build on them because they put a "chain" of concrete on the top which keeps it all together. These walls may have no foundation and are full of cracks, but stay together due to their own weight. I've also seen walls which lean seemingly perilously but they put an iron rod thru it and anchor it to an opposing wall so the whole thing stays up. I never would have believed it.

    I think they were easier to cut because they were more compact and solid, thus crumbled less? I'm not sure.

    Also, according to Wikipedia, bricks date to about 7500 BC but weren't being regularly fired until 2900 BC or so.

    Another random thought; the Romans mastered covering large spaces with vaults and domes because they invented a kind of concrete. You can see this today in Toulouse, in arches, where the bricks seem to hand sideways in the air, held in place by concrete and the force of the brick being pushed together. Hard to visualize....I'll try to get some photos.


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