|Marc-Antoine Laugier's Essai sur l'Architecture (1753) was one of the most influential architectural books of its era, because of the striking manner in which it rewrote the story of mankind's first building.
Laugier envisioned a golden age in which men lived in close contact with nature. He depicted man lying on a sparkling carpet of grass beside a tranquil stream, thinking of nothing else but peacefully enjoying the gifts of nature. Nature's fearsome power surfaces only when he lies out in the sun for too long and becomes uncomfortably hot. This prompts him to move in search of shelter. He goes first into the forest, which shelters him satisfactorily until bad vapors and then rain begin to upset him. Next he locates a cave and initially feels well pleased, until he decides the air there is no good and that it is too dark. Finally he finds some fallen branches, erects them in a square, lays others horizontally across them, and builds a leafy pitched roof over those. With this little hut, architecture is invented.
Laugier wrote that he wanted the image of this hut to lodge firmly in the minds of both architects and spectators as a standard by which to judge all buildings. This aim was illustrated in the famous engraved frontispiece to the second edition (1755) of the book (see image), which showed a reclining personification of architecture directing a flame-headed genie of inspiration towards the hut.
From this primal hut Laugier abstracted three categories of architectural elements, ranked on a scale from essential to unnecessary. Essential were columns, lintels, and pediments, all of which had a structural function. Next were those elements that were structurally unnecessary but still served a need, such as walls, windows, and doors. In the third category Laugier included everything else in architecture, all of which he claimed was added by caprice and should be characterized as "faults." The rest of his first chapter explained how to apply this schema in the design of modern buildings. In sum, Laugier's account transformed Vitruvius's poetic mimesis into a literal, rationalistic mode of imitation intended to exert direct control over everyday practice.