February 12: The Architect of Shadows

2016/02/12 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1728 Étienne-Louis Boullée was born.

The eighteenth century saw one of history’s great flowering of Neo-Classicism, and no where was it pursued with more vigor and diversity than France.   Charles-Louis Clérisseau, Ange-Jacques GabrielClaude Nicolas Ledoux, Jean-Jacques Lequeu, Richard Mique, Pierre Rousseau,  Jacques-Germaine Soufflot, and Charles De Wailly each occupies a special position on a continuum with deep and serious archaeology on one end and flights of theoretical fancy on the other.  Definitely veering to the theoretical limits of that line, Boullée (d. 1799)is one of the greats: not only in French Neo-Classicism, but just plain old architecture, anywhere, anytime.

Born in Paris, Boullée learned how to do Neo-Classicism from some of the greats, including Jacques-Francois Blondel and Germain Boffrand.  But he didn’t go out and build; his fame rests on the work he completed in the decade following his fiftieth birthday while holding a professorship at the École nationale des ponts et chaussées.  An unusual achievement in a most unlikely place: Les Ponts is, technically speaking, a technical school, where you went in the eighteenth century to learn how to design bridges and roads.  It was there that Boullée developed his particular approach to Classicism: on the one hand, reductive,  removing most traditional ornament from volumes that he defined with supra-clarity.  On the other, it was intensified, especially in terms of scale and profound contrasts of lighting.

Boullée communicated his ideas in a short book of theory that remained unpublished until the mid-twentieth century and through giant intense drawings; it is for these unbuilt (and largely unbuildable) works that he is known.  Most famous among them is the 500-foot sphere above, the Cenotaph for Sir Isaac Newton (1784), which conjoins the tiered structure of an imperial mausolea (complete with cypress trees) with the ideal sphere of the Pantheon (x 350%); he swapped its oculus  for an impossibly bright, zillion-footcandle lamp hanging in the center of the sphere.  The cenotaph comprises precedents from Classical antiquity and technological enthusiasm from his own period all in the service of memorializing a towering intellect from the Age of Enlightenment.

Boullée claimed that his approach was the result of his studies of the ancients and nature and the desire to create public buildings that were “to some extent poems:” they were to arouse sensations as language might.  Boullée strove for a speaking architecture (architecture parlante) that communicated broad impressions as a text would.  Because of the centrality of this kind of impression, he elevated the act of thinking and drawing over building:

In order to execute, it is first necessary to conceive.  Our earliest ancestors built their huts only when they had a picture of them in their minds.  It is this product of the mind, this process of creation, that constitutes architecture and which can consequently be defined as the art of designing and bringing to perfection any building whatsoever.  Thus, the art of construction is merely an auxiliary art which, in our opinion, could appropriately be called the scientific side of architecture. (Introduction, Architecture, Essai sur l’art)

This apparent snubbing of construction, exemplified in his impossible drawings, accounted (to some extent) for the disregard shown to Boullée in his lifetime and a century and a half after–and it raises questions not just about this most extraordinary Neo-Classicists, but enduring issues about the very nature of architecture itself, then and now.

Similar charges might be, and have been, made against recent architects who lived on fame spun out of competitions for buildings that were never to be built.  Unlike Boullée, who did not live into a period that wanted, could build and/or could afford his ideas, Zaha Hadid has survived to see her ideas cast into built form all over the place.  Should we then distinguish between her built and unbuilt work as architecture and not-architecture?  Were her ideas “architectural” before she realized them?  Is architecture dependent for its definition on technical matters alone?  Is that why Boullée had room to think and draw and write in a school for civil engineers rather than the hoity-toity architecture school in Paris?  Is it only architecture if it has a vapor barrier and can keep the rain out?  Is it architecture if it expresses an idea that reaches beyond the nuts and bolts, the wind and the rain–if it’s poetry in lines or stone or steel?  To be real architecture, do we have to be able to stand inside of it?  Can it be real architecture in our heads, like a poem?

These questions bring to mind that great philosopher Dumbledore, who had a very clear understanding of things that aren’t realized in a concrete way.  If things only happen on paper, or happen in our heads: why on earth should that mean it is not real?

Read all of Architecture, Essai sur l’art here

image: Cenotaph for Sir Isaac Newton (from this source)

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