Few materials are as synonymous with modern architecture as iron. Writing with his typical polemical bombast, Siegfried Giedion famously championed its use in construction, claiming that it marked architecture’s radical transition from craftsmanship to modern industrial production. Yet, in the century preceding the Industrial Revolution, architects and decorators in Europe (and especially in France) incorporated the material into their built work with an altogether astonishing frequency. Elaborately designed stair railings, balconies, door knockers, and locks celebrated the material’s formal potential. This talk looks at the decorative use of iron in the baroque and rococo architecture of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries—a style and period that appears the inverse of Giedion’s hard-lined modernism. It argues that manufacturing initiatives tied to the war effort intersected with the period’s scientific theorization of matter to produce a materials-based approach to the design and making of ornament. What resulted was a profound re-conception of form itself, whereby exuberant curvilinear shapes in wrought and cast iron embodied nature’s most extreme potential as conceived in scientific terms.
Jason Nguyen is a postdoctoral fellow at the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in the Department of Art History and the School of Architecture. He researches the history and theory of architecture, landscape architecture, and urbanism during the early modern and modern periods, with particular interests in the relationship between theory and practice, the role of science and technology in design production, environmental history and theory, and social and aesthetic philosophies.
He received his Ph.D. in 2017 from Harvard University, where he completed a dissertation on architectural theory and its relationship with materials science, building technology, and the politics of absolutism in seventeenth-century France. The study forms the basis of his current book project, Architecture in the Making: The Art of Building in the Age of Absolutism. His work has been supported by USC, Harvard, the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art, and a Kress Institutional Fellowship at the Institut national d’histoire de l’art in Paris. Recently published articles include “Fire, Décor, and Heating Machines” in the Oxford Art Journal (December 2017) and “Building on Credit: Architecture and the Mississippi Bubble (1716-1720)” in Grey Room (Spring 2018). Forthcoming publications include an essay in an edited volume on the architect Antoine Desgodets (Spring 2019) and an article on the weathering of masonry architecture in the journal Early Science and Medicine (Fall 2019). Future research concerns the infrastructure of global speculative capitalism in the long seventeenth century and the relationship between architecture and natural disaster in the age of climate change. He trained originally as an architect, having worked from 2003 to 2009 at Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates.