Claudel and architecture

In the profusion of Paul Claudel’s interest and intellectual curiosities, architecture, which is relatively rarely referenced, occupies however a place which is not at all meaningless: the sharpness of the glance that the poet opens on the world which an occupation as a diplomat has brought him to literally pace up and measure the sense of shape, the thought about fullness and emptiness, the liking for elevation, spiritual of course, but broadly materialized:

“Huge religious effort in the Middle-Ages, of which we still live on. Once at least the enormous weight of the matter had been lifted “Journal March 22 1920) as many elements which in some way build up the following reflections.

Some themes : matter, material, particularly the earth and even more than that the stone, essential elements for men’s constructions : about the house, the wall, the column or the flying-buttress, otherwise already tell about the cathedral (and we will not forget the roof!).

Beyond the construction of a particular building, of a specific edifice, the poet’s interest enlarges on the city walls, on the town, even on the necropolis. It is in fact the whole urban space, past or present, and even future. To this earthly man (birth and childhood in Tardenois), then a sea man (two full years on the oceans) if we count the length of his about twenty of his great maritime crossings, between his different and often faraway appointments and the metropolis, the modern city often appears as dangerous, oppressive; he hates Paris and neither Boston nor Hamburg and even Praga (in its modern part) find grace to his eyes. But the Chinese city, labyrinthine and crawling, fascinates him (stays from 1895 to 1909). And the reflection on urbanism is not missing, in the later texts. Perhaps is the city to be destroyed in order to be rebuilt differently? One must note that stability, for Claudel, gets on fairly well with instability, construction with destruction, order with disorder, even anarchy. See La Ville (first version 1890) exactly capital of the Capital, district of the Districts… a subject which is rarely tackled on the French theater. It remains to contemplate it in its spiritual and religious even prophetic size: the Town its also Rome (Urbi and Orbi) and Jerusalem (Heavenly Jerusalem).

a privileged subject: Claudel as an ‘’architect’’ is more specifically and more concretely interested is, no doubt, in the cathedral architecture, basilica, abbey church, in short of the religious edifice, production of the human community in God’s honor, his Father and Creator, place of ‘’the dwelling of god with men’’ (domus Dei, Dom, Duomo, casa Dei, Chaise-Dieu) where matter and sense, form and spirit, combine. One will here remind the fact that the Paul Claudel’s very step-father is no other than Sainte-Marie-Perrin Notre Dame de Fourvière basilica’s architect (as well as the gathered family host in the patriarchal Hostel castle).

It is at these edifices that Paul Claudel devotes the essential of his analysis of architecture; they are those which he puts into dialogue between them (Chartres, Strasbourg, Vézelay, Beauvais, Anvers, Amiens, Le Mans, Caen, Solesmes, Laon, Reims, Rouen, Notre Dame de Paris, du Sablon, Vigo – visited in photography) and represents in many passages of his Journal or in fragments of his theater works; thus the Mala Strana church at Praga, necessary at the first stage of the third day of the Soulier de satin, or those of Rome at least present in the second day, stage 6 (ibidem) or in the Père humilié. Without failing to forget the cathedral to be built by Pierre de Craon, the L’Annonce faite à Marie’sarchitect. It seems impossible to propose here a hierarchy or even an order. And difficult to mention the entire aspects presented (the confucean temple and the far-eastern sanctuaries find also here their place).

To keep in mind at least two recurrent and essential facts: verticality and light which raises up in Claudel the strongest enthusiasm and wonder and that he combines in this fine expression: “supreme effort of the vertical enthusiasm and of this rising towards the light”. When the architecture raises the matter towards the spirit.

But Claudel perhaps remaining, in the public or posterity eyes, a dramatic author, one could not exclude his scenographer qualities, linked to a determining experience, one of the discoveries of the experimental and innovative stage of Hellerau, near Dresden.

Indeed, the scenography is by itself a reflexion on the architecture of the stage, of the scenery: and the dramatic author who since his early beginnings (1888) wrote without the hope to be played, who has just seen that he was created for the first time (Christmas 1912, it appeared to be L’Annonce faite à Marie by Lugné-Poe, that is to say revealed to himself at the stage, would make him from now on willingly dramatist, inventor of forms of the representation of his own text, after having found in Hellerau, in 1913 (Dresden is not so far from Frankfort where he is, at that time, French consul), conditions as well innovative than ideal at his eyes. As a matter of fact, after having discovered in July all the talents of Adolphe Appia, Émile-Jacques Deleuze, Dorn and Salzman, gathered in an unforgettable Gluck Orpheus,

He sees some months later the same device out into service of his own Annonce (Verkündigung translated in German): practicables, stairs, dismantled stage with floors, perfect lightings. Here again, in this “cathedral of the future” as he calls the Hellerau Theater, the evidence and the wealth of verticality are imperative and will remain in his memory. See between other examples Jeanne au bûcher, Le Livre de Christophe Colomb, and even the ballet L’Homme et son désir. A ballet danced on a stage of 3 or even 4 floors…: one measures the originality of the remarks.

World architecture: Claudel’s geography

But the architecture, for this observer, trained eye, has an additional dimension. Beyond the human constructions and arrangements, he sees the matter and the line becoming movements, streams, unfolding’s, superposing’s, structure: so is it the whole of the landscape on earth that is analyzed. Architecture, according to Claudel, applies also to the world “geo-graphy”, from the bank up to the mountain, from the plateau up to the mouth.

“Coming from the horizon our ship is confronted with the world quay, and the emerged planet spreads out in front of us its huge architecture (‘’The earth seen from the sea” in Connaissance de l’Est)).

There we will have recognized the visionary glance of the great creator.

Monique Dubar


Michel Lioure “Claudel and the architecture” Travaux de littérature XII,2,1999

The Strasbourg Cathedral

L’œil écoute. Œuvres en prose Gallimard ; Pléiades p.309-311