Photo Essay

Photo Essay: National Identity Expressed in Architecture

Written by: Eliott Sistac

Forming a national identity is a process indispensable to the concept of a nation. Inseparable from the theory of nationalism, the formation of national identity is used by governments to gain legitimacy by claiming the national and political units of the state should be congruent. As a member of the first parliamentary session in the early days of Italian unification, Massimo D’Azeglio, claimed “We have made Italy: now we have to make Italians.” Massimo D’Azeglio understood that if Italy was to remain unified a bond must be created between the state and civil society. To create this bond, states use a variety of tools to strengthen the collective identity of the nation, be it in the shape of a constitution, a national anthem or in the construction of national monuments. Thus, the state employs nationalist tools at its disposal to give significance and value to its activities.

American Anthropologist Clifford Greetz calls these tools ‘cultural devices’, which nationalist ideologies use to exercise collective self-redefinition. These devices can be described, celebrated or used to tangibly express epochalist hope into specific symbolic forms, therefore, attributing meaning to the formation and consolidation of the collective “we” of the nation.

For our concern, the cultural devices that this photo essay will investigate will be buildings, monuments and specific styles of architecture which are used by a government to strengthen nationalist spirit of the nation. Firstly, as the philosopher Nelson Goodman notes, in his essay “How Buildings Mean”, we must consider how architecture conveys meaning – in our case nationalist meaning- before we can address the issue of what meaning it is conveying. Goodman identifies four significant ways by which buildings convey meaning; denotation, exemplification, mediated expression, and metaphorical expression.

In the following pictures I will apply Goodman’s terms to explore how political units of modern nations invest time and capital in varied efforts to innovate, build or preserve buildings and monuments, or in Greetz’s terms ‘symbolic forms of collective identity’. Through legislation, France has ensured the protection of historical ‘monuments’, and used it as a modernising force in the name of the ‘national interest’ in building the ‘nation.’

World renowned, the Eiffel Tower seems a logical place to start. When the Tower was built in 1886, the bold and, at the time modern architecture of the Tower was widely regarded as revolutionary, symbolising French industrial genius. Today, its bold design towering over the grey zinc roofs of the city, is, as Goodman would note, a mediated reference portraying France as a powerful modern nation, therefore earning it its title of the ‘symbol’ of French Identity. The angle the Tower has been pictured from emphasises its grandeur, illustrating its importance as a cultural device in forging French national spirit.

Our second image shows the Richelieu Wing of the Louvre in renovation. The large scale of the renovations contrasted with the people standing in front of them, which represents the sizable efforts of the French government in preserving historic and cultural monuments. The advertisement on the scaffolding displays a painting of the personification of the French Republic, Marianne, waving a French flag in the setting of the Revolution, and reads ‘Avec la France qui avance.’ (With France moving forward). The painting of Marianne thus uses metaphorical expression to remind bypassers of the national symbol of French identity, as well as the creation of the French Republic. Meanwhile, the quote besides the painting directly denotes the rich future ahead of the nation, thence consolidating French national identity.

Legislation protecting buildings and monuments such as the Louvre stems from a long nationalist tradition started in the 1790’s. The destruction of historic monuments by revolutionaries resulted in a movement advocating for the protection of buildings in the name of ‘national-identity’. The Abbé Grégoire’s report to the Convention Nationale in 1794 called for ‘national objects’ to be safeguarded under the pretext of being the property of every Frenchman.

Today we can read signs such as the ones in this photo; in front of the scaffolding surrounding the Eiffel Tower under maintenance, the sign reads “2eme Campagne de Peinture et de Décapage de la Tour” (2nd painting and stripping of the Eiffel Tower). Such signs can often be seen on the Eiffel Tower before an event is hosted on the Champ De Mars, at its feet. As the ‘Symbol’ of French Identity, the Tower hosts events from festivals, Bastille day fireworks to Covid-19 memorials. As Goodman acknowledges, a symbolic function is not always an aesthetic one. At times, a monument may signify only what it stands for. In this case, the Eiffel Tower stands as the embodiment of French nationals’ voices and a lifestyle.

After Abbé Grégoire’s report – with the notable exception of Haussman’s greenlight to demolish medieval buildings in favour of ‘liberating’ the views of prestigious Parisian landmarks – French legislators passed a multitude of laws protecting French buildings and their, now iconic, architecture. Throughout the 1800’s and 1900’s the French ministry slowly gained grounds on the protection of ‘monuments classés’ in the name of national identity, at the expense of the concept of private property.

Haussman ‘liberated’ the view around the Opéra Palais Garnier by enlarging the Avenue de L’Opera. As seen in the photo to the right, at any point on the Avenue the eye is directed towards the Opera. In Goodman’s terms, the directional perspective created to draw the eye towards the Opera exemplifies the importance of the monument. Additionally, the shot was carefully selected for the arrow shape created on the floor by the lines on the road, to apply Goodman’s terms to the creation of meaning in a photo. The arrow acts as a mediated reference pointing to the importance of the Opera at the end of the road.

Another monument which Haussman was tasked with ‘liberating the view’ of is the Luxor Obelisk, in the photo, in renovation on la Place de la Concorde. Gifted by Egypt, the erection of Luxor Obelisk on Place de la Concorde is an example of mediated reference reminding onlookers of France’s National history and prestige. Consequently to Haussman’s work, the landmark can be viewed from almost any point on Paris’s ‘Royal Axis’. The Axis conjoins high culture and high capitalism from the Louvre, as the French national Cultural centre, to La Défense, the business centre of Paris, comprising a collection of modernist buildings at the end of the Axis. Similarly to the Eiffel Tower in its early days, the Axis represents the French nation’s modernity throughout history, from the classicism of the Luxor Obelisk, to the industrial ingenuity of the Eiffel Tower all the way to the modernism of La Défense. The Royal Axis illustrates French Identity throughout history.

Denotation is another way nationalist architecture conveys meaning, which Goodman identifies as “naming, predication, narration, description, exposition, and also portrayal and all pictorial representation.” It can be seen in Les Jardin Des Tuileries, the park in front of the Louvre, where a statue of André Le Notre stands besides the words “Auteur de ce Jardin de ceux de Versailles, Chantilly, Saint-Cloud, Meudon et des plus beaux parcs de Paris” (Author of this Garden of those of Versaille, Chantilly, Saint Cloud, Meudon and of the most beautiful parks in Paris). Here the meaning is conveyed directly by the words inscribed on the wall, and explicit praise of the multiple works done by André Le Notre, in an attempt to consolidate collective identity by creating a sense of pride amongst French nationals.

On a larger scale, Le Tombeau de Napoléon 1er, where Napoléon is buried at L’Hôtel des Invalides, is a perfect example of French classicism. The facade is made of stone and rests on a regular geometry of large columns, inspired by antiquity, in a colossal style. Also called ‘grand style’, the architecture is a reference to what is called le ‘Grand Siecle’ during Louis XIVs reign and not only exemplifies the importance of Napoleon but also France’s rich history. In other words, the design of the building and certain characteristics of its structure are illustrative of the building’s symbolic function.

Similarly referencing antiquity, the statues around Les Jardins des Tuileries, (Left to right): The statue of ‘Caïn Venant de Tuer son Frère’, the statue of ‘Cincinatus’, the statue of ‘La Nymphe’ also exemplifies French grandeur. At times, architecture can convey meaning in more than one of the four identified ways. Goodman calls these ‘Chains’ of meaning. Here the statues of renaissance classicism exemplify antique Greek architecture and in turn, indirectly refer to (mediated reference) antiquity heroism. While the average Frenchman might know little about ancient architecture, he will associate the style with French history, reminding observers of the longstanding history of France as a nation.

Using Goodman’s terms to identify how we attach meaning to objects, all the photos presented in this essay depict various ways architecture is used as a ‘cultural device’ to embody symbolic forms of French national identity. This process gives meaning to the actions of the state, thereby giving legitimacy to the formation of the nation by building a narrative with the nation-state as the dominant actor throughout history. As an ongoing process, as seen in the ‘Royal Axis’ of Paris, the Nation will build on this national historical narrative as a modernising force to consistently drive national sentiment in favour of the state’s development. The newest addition to the Axis, La Défense, is but a continuation of a long process of state building national identity. The development of Paris as a city will no doubt preserve, modernise and extend the Axis.


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