Architect Spotlight: Ferdinand Cheval

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January, 2017

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Here at J-Tech, we know that the basis of building a beautiful home is passion. When we install new windows, doors, roofs, or do any other home improvement project in Lincoln, NE, we work with the homeowner to understand the overall feeling they want in their home and figure out which designs will be most beneficial to that overall aesthetic. This week, we’re putting the spotlight on an early architect who understood the passion and care that goes into each stone in a home’s foundation. Ferdinand Cheval lived through the turn of the 20th century in France. This week, we’ll outline his life and the steps which led to his lasting fame in the world of architecture!

Step One: Divine Intervention

In the rural town of Hauterives in 1879, a French postman made his rounds as normal. It was not unusual for Ferdinand Cheval to trip over stones during his delivery route, as the town lays on rocky terrain laced with fossils and porous limestone. However, one day, Ferdinand found sudden inspiration as he fell over a peculiar rock. He examined his “stumbling block”, and decided to take the stone home. The next day, he returned to the same spot to search for more beautifully shaped rocks. At the time, he had no idea the course of his life was about to be drastically altered. After collecting a small handful of beautiful stones, Ferdinand believed his discovery was a divine sign.

Ferdinand Cheval

Step Two: Three Decades of Stone Collection

Ferdinand set off on a journey to create a “fairy-like palace beyond imagination,” also known as the ideal palace ( or “Palais idéal” en Français). Collecting rocks, concrete, limestone, and wire, he began his journey to fulfill his assignment from the heavens. For 27 years Ferdinand gathered stones in his pockets. Every day while on his mail route, he discovered the most beautiful stones, sometimes deviating from his path by many miles. Eventually, his wife became unhappy with constantly mending his trousers. Realizing his pockets could no longer suffice, Ferdinand brought buckets on his mail routes. However, carrying the buckets along with the mail to be delivered became exhausting and unrealistic. For the last few years of collecting, a wheelbarrow seemed practical.

Over the almost 30 years of collecting stones, he stored materials in a sort of rock garden, inducing curiosity from the neighbors. Many people discouraged his mission, and people laughed at him, stating that he was a fool for filling his garden with stones. Not only was Ferdinand generally uneducated, he lacked a fundamental understanding of construction and architecture. How could a regular old French postman craft such a palace?

Step Three: Birth of a Star

His adventure from the heavens finally came to completion, and Ferdinand’s beautiful Palais idéal put the small French town on the map. People from all over the world visited to see the beautiful creation, and Ferdinand became a world-renowned architect. As he sat out to accomplish, his palace was “fairy-like and beyond anything imaginable.” The detail in his construction appears to have received inspiration from artists such as Picasso, André Breton and André Malraux. To this day, architects are perplexed as to how such a simple man could construct such beauty.

Ferdinand Cheval

Step Four: Telling the Story

Ferdinand wrote an autobiography after learning of the interest in his process and expertise in architecture. He broke his construction down into the years (34), days (9,000), and hours (65,000) he spent on the construction. In the autobiography, Ferdinand invites readers into his life beyond the palace. His hardships, wisdom, ignorance, frustration, and passion all lace the pages. Those looking to delve deeper into this architectural wonder should consider investing time reading Ferdinand’s autobiography. After completing his book in 1924, Ferdinand Cheval died two days later in Hauterives.

Final Step: What Can We Learn from Ferdinand?

At the base of architecture there is passion. Despite lacking experience and education, Ferdinand successfully constructed his Palais idéal, and it has remained on its sound foundation for the past century. With persistence and ambition, accomplishing the impossible became possible. In the homes, offices, churches, and other buildings we create, there should always be passion at the core. When it comes to construction, beauty can be found even on a mail route. “Since Nature provided me with sculptures I shall become an architect and a mason” -Ferdinand Cheval

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