The phrase was originally associated with Claude Nicolas Ledoux, and was extended to other Paris-trained architects of the Revolutionary period, Étienne-Louis Boullée, and Jean-Jacques Lequeu. Emil Kaufmann traced its first use to an anonymous critical essay with Ledoux's work as the subject, written for Magasin Pittoresque in 1852, and entitled "Etudes d'architecture en France". In Ledoux's unbuilt plans for the salt-producing town of Chaux, the hoop-makers' houses are shaped like barrels, the river inspector's house straddles the river, and an enormous brothel takes the shape of an erect phallus.
The same year, McKim, Mead & White designed the nearby Farley Post Office Building with its famous inscription adapted from Herodotus: "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."
The civic architecture of Washington DC provides some of the most poetic and most verbose inscriptions. Beaux-Arts architect Daniel Burnham is responsible for the Washington Union Station (1908), with its inscription program developed by Harvard president Charles William Eliot. It includes over the main entrance this paean: "Fire: greatest of discoveries, enabling man to live in various climates, use many foods, and compel the forces of nature to do his work. Electricity: carrier of light and power, devourer of time and space, bearer of human speech over land and sea, greatest servant of man, itself unknown. Thou hast put all things under his feet."
Beyond such inscriptions, in the United States the concept of architecture parlante likely reached its zenith in the Nebraska State Capitol (1922) and the Los Angeles Public Library (1925), both by architect Bertram Goodhue. With their extensive architectural sculpture programs, tile murals, painted murals, ornamental fixtures and inscriptions (Goodhue worked with a sort of multimedia repertory company of artists, like the sculptor Lee Lawrie), both of these buildings seem particularly eager to communicate a set of social values.
Postmodernism has seen a revival of these ideas. Terry Farrell's eggcup-surmounted headquarters for TV-am in London and the book-shaped towers of the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, can be seen as examples.
Buildings that speak: Carl Laubin's paintings of Ledoux's 'architecture Parlante' are a fine celebration of the bicentenary of the architect's death.(Claude-Nicholas Ledoux)
Dec 01, 2006; One anniversary that has been little celebrated this year is the bicentenary of the death of the French 'revolutionary' architect...
Streamlined: if architects ought to learn from machines, why are attractive buses scrapped, and buildings given doorways that trip people up?(ARCHITECTURE)(Viewpoint essay)
Feb 01, 2006; A sad farewell ceremony took place in Oxford Street just before Christmas when the last red double-decker Routemaster bus on a...