On Imitation

by Lucien Steil

John Czarnecki, Corinthian Capital

It is difficult to add anything substantial to Quatremère de Quincy’s Essai sur la nature, le but et les moyens de l’imitation dans les beaux-arts (1823)1 and Dictionnaire Historique de l’Architecture (1823–33),2 for Quatremère excels in precision and comprehensiveness as well as in depth. His genius proves to be universal. Let me therefore make a case for a conscientious study of his original writings and encourage genuinely original architects and artists to learn from authentic sources. Abandon yourselves, dear readers, to the plaisir du texte. Vitruvius’ Ten Books of Architecture, Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture, the Abbé Laugier’s An Essay on Architecture, Alberti’s Ten Books of Architecture, Quatremère de Quincy’s On Imitation, Ruskin’s The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Tessenow’s Handwerk und Kleinstadt, Schumacher’s Der Geist der Baukunst, Karl Gruber’s Die Gestalt der Deutschen Stadt—these are all works of great beauty, in ideas and concepts as well as in genius of writing, expression, composition and style.

The first principle of imitation would thus be to study the originals—to study them radically as first works and to consider them as if nothing was to come after. Nothing is more invigorating and refreshing in times of confusion than to go back to origins. Learning is always a quest for original knowledge: “The first step we have to make is to examine, if we are allowed the term, the genealogy and relation of our ideas, the causes that have given rise to them, and the characteristics that distinguish them: in a word, to return to the origin and generation of our knowledge.”3


Origin and Originals


Luxembourg City, Promenade de la Corniche, Photograph by Author

Leon Krier writes: “Architecture (Arche-tectonike) means literally ‘form of origin.’ If this definition is relevant for the architecture of any organism and structure, it is fundamental for architecture as the art of building. It is not that the principles of architecture reach into an immemorial past, but that their origin is forever present.”4

Heidegger argues: “Origin here means that from and by which something is what it is and as it is. What something is, as it is, we call its essence or nature. The origin of something is the source of its nature.”5

The reconstruction of architecture is not concerned with pastiches of any kind but with the rehabilitation of originality. Amidst the debate on the aesthetics of fragments and the poetics of conceptual and constructional inconsistency and confusion, there are imperative reasons for reclaiming the Classical ideals of integrity, harmony, beauty and reason, for questioning the reality of modern architectural production and ideology and re-establishing the legitimacy of architecture as an artistic and intellectual discipline. This means celebrating originality as a nostalgia for origin rather than opting for the euphoria of amnesia. Origin refers, of course, to historical and geographical as well as mythological and cultural realities but in a truly generative way.

The true forms of origin are reconstructed by a process of imitation as originals. By its constant reflection of origin, imitation becomes the legitimate source of originality. Establishing a creative dialogue between origin and originals, it allows for invention of permanence and permanence of invention. In a context of continuity, originals themselves become legitimate objects of imitation. They represent the immense patrimony of architecture, the most genial and original inventions of mankind, accumulated through millennia of imitation. This nature of imitations is the reality of architecture.

However, one crucial question remains unanswered: if imitation is the very issue of architectural invention, and if origin is the very object of imitation, what then is this origin? Many treatises have investigated these beginnings and constructed a theory of origin. A comparative reading of the classic authors, such as Vitruvius, Alberti, Laugier and Quatremère de Quincy, is highly recommended in this context, but it is also fascinating to consult minor authors and historians to study the history of beginnings and so search, in Joseph Rykwert’s words, for “the memory of something which cannot but be lost.”6 Let me make some comments on this question, basing most of my reflections on the authority of the ancient authors. Architecture is without a model in nature. There is no “natural house” or “natural city.” The invention of architecture is not an instinctive reaction to being in the world. Architecture is not a survival issue. In the beginning, man found shelter in places which nature offered him graciously. Later, these different places were synthesized in the invention of architecture. Forms, spaces, materials and natural laws were all assimilated in this immediate confrontation with nature. Nature is thus at the beginning of architecture. Sky, sun and stars, elements, geology, the flora and fauna, elaborate structures and complex shapes, and last but not least, all those natural shelters which existed as a part of the natural world long before man appeared: nests, caves, hives, shells. All this great complexity, diversity, contrast and plurality in nature has forever stirred man’s imagination and emotions, as well as his philosophical and scientific curiosity. Has it also raised the nostalgia of architecture? Man must have tried very early to materialize and symbolize his relationship with nature. Does architecture not finally achieve the reconciliation of man and the universe by consecrating man’s home and the homes of his God?7


The Imitation of Nature

Quatremère de Quincy writes: “It is nature itself in its abstract essence which is taken as a model. It is the order of nature which becomes its archetype and genius.”8

If origin means the construction of the universe, the building of the world, there will be an original model (not immediately for architecture, but for imitation) for nature. “Creation means the repetition of the original creation,” writes Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane.9 This original creation is defined as the “transformation of chaos into cosmos.” To capture the essence of nature—the universal principles of cosmic order and harmony—is the objective of imitation. Imitation thus becomes the creative process synthesizing universe and nature into temples, houses, palaces, monuments and cities. The invention of architecture through the imitation of nature means then the original and imaginative synthesis of constructive, formal, harmonious, functional and ecological principles inherent in nature. “This order which in Nature is hidden and implicit, Architecture makes patent to the eye,” writes Sir Geoffrey Scott.10

The famous “primitive hut” is but a metaphor for the origin of architecture in nature. It is, however, the most radical and inspiring way of exploring the nature of architecture, emphasizing the mythical character of origin. What we reconstruct with the primitive hut has no memory; it itself becomes the original paradigm for architecture, the poetical evidence of archaic memories. The primitive hut is a mythical, philosophical and artistic reconstruction, an original model which can be imitated and is thus the very nature of architectural invention.

Quatremère de Quincy’s discussion of the “little rustic hut” is elaborate and complex. His model evolves from the cabane symbolique or the primitive timber construction defined as an “allegorical prototype,” through its refinement by “analogical imitation” of the human body. Architecture finally equals nature and becomes the “rival of its model.”

The Imitation, the Copy and the Pastiche

Leon Krier, Torre Bella Monaca, new neighborhood in Rome

This reading might be somewhat confusing to those who do not differentiate between copy, pastiche and imitation. Imitation is a truly inventive and creative process which combines the seriousness of true scholarship, the talent of true art, the intelligence of true inventiveness, the skills of true craftsmanship and the imagination of true creativity. Its objective is to create something new out of the synthesis of an original model. Imitation is the reconstruction of an original, whereas a copy is merely a reproduction of a precedent. They are thus fundamentally different in intention, artistic and intellectual process and result. Imitation is based on the critical, selective and inventive process of a living tradition, whereas the copy is concerned with the mechanical and literal replication of originals. Imitation addresses both essence and form, whereas a copy is interested only in appearance. Imitation is not concerned with similitude or dissimilarity: it has a much more profound understanding of originality, invention and of what architecture is and has always been; its preoccupation is to get to the essence of things.

A pastiche is a partial and imperfect copy, a simplified reproduction of dominant stylistic and compositional elements that lacks, however, the rigor and discipline of a real copy. Though a copy is interested only in appearance, it is a reproduction requiring the seriousness and skill of the craftsman, whereas pastiche is not so much interested in appearance as in the impression of appearance. For the pasticheur, anything is good enough to recreate impressions (there are, of course, true and false impressions, good and bad pastiches). Imitation in architecture deserves more attention in contemporary discussion. Architecture is expressive of civilization and its condition, at the same time both articulating memory and defining place. Architectural critics have been very quick to condemn authentic traditions, but, if more critical interest and attention were now given to the study of traditional architecture, its superiority  in  design  and  building,  its  modernity  in  ecological  and socio-cultural terms and its success in building a beautiful, comfortable and durable world would soon become clear.

Architecture has to depend on tradition, as appropriated by imitation. Neither Zeitgeist nor genius loci can be grasped by individuals or groups in specific periods without a historical distance. Too often, these poetical concepts are used for narrow historical interpretations and speculations. Any project in any historical period necessarily deals with time and place, and expresses its contemporary or modern situation. Both time and place transcend the limitations of the present and address the complexity of history and mythology. Tradition is history with a project, not history as an undifferentiated description of the past. It refers to the intelligence and creativity of past generations, as well as to memory—of the past and of the future. Imitation mediates actively between traditions and reconstruction. It contributes to the constant enrichment of architecture and city building by new originals. It is concerned with the nature of things, their true appearance, and it reestablishes economy, propriety and beauty as the first principles of architecture. Imitation actualizes the modernity of tradition in the context of reconstruction in which ecological, economic, humanistic and cultural concerns are intelligently integrated.



  1. Translated as An Essay on the Nature, the End and the Means of Imitation in the Fine Arts (London: Smith, Elder, 1837).

  2. Some chapters translated by Samir Younés in The Historical Dictionary of Architecture of Quatremère de Quincy: The True, the Fictive and the Real (London: Papadakis 1999).

  3. Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, Discours prélimínaíre to Denis Diderot, Encyclopédie raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, par une Societé de Gens de lettres.

  4. Leon Krier, “Architectural Design: Houses, Palaces, Cities,” Architectural Design (1984).

  5. Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought (1971), trans., Albert Hofstadter (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001).

  6. Joseph Rykwert, On Adam’s House in Paradise (Cambridge, Mass. and London, England: MIT Press, 1983).

  7. See Alberto Perez-Gomez, Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science (Cambridge, Mass. and London, England: MIT Press, 1983).

  8. Younés, The Historical Dictionary of Architecture of Quatremère de Quincy.

  9. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (Harcourt, Inc. 1959). Author’s translation from the French version, Le Sacré et le Profane (Etude Poche, 1988).

  10. Sir Geoffrey Scott, The Architecture of Humanism; A Study in the History of Taste (1914) (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999).

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2014, Volume 31, Number 2