No amount of careful philology will ever fully explain Boulleé’s extraordinary dream or evocative influence
Throughout the 20th century, numerous architects whose careers were cut short by the French Revolution have been re-entered one by one into history, their works studied and their reputations restored. But few have had the fortune of Etienne-Louis Boullée, a reluctant architect, with almost no surviving built works and with only drawings to support his claim to fame. Without the notoriety of his younger colleague Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, whose ostentatious tollgates surrounding the Parisian tax-wall were the object of Revolutionary fury, his death in 1799 passed almost unnoticed. And while Ledoux had managed to publish the first volume of his L’Architecture before he died, Boullée’s essay on architecture remained unpublished, and his drawings largely unremarked on by scholars for nearly a century-and-a-half. And yet, since the 1950s his reputation as one of the major and most original figures of the late 18th century has been firmly established as the elder statesman of the radical Enlightenment in architecture, if not of the Modern Movement itself.
‘If he had any reputation in the last years of the Ancien Régime it was as a teacher, supportive of his students ‘like a father’ wrote a biographer at his death’
During his lifetime, his contemporaries agreed, he was, unlike many of his peers, reluctant to promote his career or fame. Indeed, he was a reluctant architect, having been forced to abandon his love of painting by a practical father, and building few domestic commissions before settling for a career in academic administration and teaching. If he had any reputation in the last years of the Ancien Régime it was as a teacher, supportive of his students ‘like a father’ wrote a biographer at his death. He practised architecture with paper projects, beautifully rendered in pencil and wash, and only at the very end of his life, retiring to his country estate from the events of the Revolution, did he prepare them for publication with a text that even then insisted in its epigraph taken from his hero Correggio: ‘I too am a painter.’
Source: Bottom left: Photos 12 / Alamy. All others: Bibliothéque Nationale de France
Spanning the years 1784 to 1799, that is, through the last years of the Ancien Régime, the Revolution, the Terror, the Convention, to the rise of Napoleon and his expedition to Egypt, Boullée’s drawn projects display no direct political affiliations with any of the reigning doctrines or parties; rather they espoused a belief in scientific progress symbolised in monumental forms, a generalised Rousseauism derived from the Social Contract, a dedication to celebrate the grandeur of a ‘nation’, and, more often than not, a meditation on the sublime sobriety of death. Yet taken as a collection, as an almost encyclopaedic representation of the necessary institutions for an ideal state, and joined to the preface he wrote at the end of his life, Boullée’s late works may be interpreted as contributing to his underlying vision of an ‘ideal city’.
Like with Ledoux, this vision emerged gradually, and was the direct outcome of an active practice. Eight years older than Ledoux, Boullée left the Ecole des Arts of Jacques-François Blondel in 1746. He was immediately appointed a professor of architecture at the newly established Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées, under its director, the civil engineer Jean-Rodolphe Perronet, a position that, again like Ledoux, gave him access to public commissions, but more importantly, to a new vision of the role of building in the social and economic progress of a state and its territory. While his private commissions included religious buildings, and grands hôtels for a largely philosophic circle, his public works ranged from the construction of the Prison de la Grande Force (later to house Ledoux himself under the Terror), and, beginning in 1781 on his election to the Académie, projects for a new opera house, as well as a series of designs linked to real projects, but set as exercises for his students in the school of the Académie Royale d’Architecture.
In quick succession he produced elaborate schemes for a metropolitan church, or ‘basilica’ (1781-82); a coliseum (1782); a museum (1783); a cenotaph for Newton (1784); a palace (1785); a new reading room for the Royal Library (1784-85); and a project for a new bridge over the Seine (1787). In the late 1780s forced by severe illness – or political acumen during the Terror – to retire to his country house outside Paris, his last designs were accomplished after the Revolution: projects for a monument in celebration of one of the most popular of Revolutionary festivals, that of the ‘Fête-Dieu’, or Supreme Being; a monument to ‘public recognition’; a palace of justice, a national palace (1792) and a municipal palace (1792).
Hôtel Alexandre or Hôtel Soult, rue de la Ville l’Évêque, Paris, 1763-66, Hôtel de Brunoy, 1774-79, Metropolitan cathedral, Paris (unbuilt), 1782 Cenotaph for Isaac Newton (unbuilt), 1784
‘Yes, I believe that our buildings, above all our public buildings, should be in some sense poems. The images they offer our senses should arouse in us sentiments corresponding to the purpose for which these buildings are intended’
He shunned frivolous ornamentation, favouring the orders of Greek and Roman precedent, combining classic elements at a monumental scale for heightened dramatic effect. Regularity, symmetry and variety together were paramount, resulting in proportion, which he saw as ‘one of the chief beauties of architecture’
During the excesses of the Terror he expanded his oeuvre with designs for domestic architecture, ‘private architecture’, as opposed to the ‘grand genre’ of public architecture. He was open in his hatred of Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, calling the agents of the Terror, ‘perverse beings, tigers lusting for blood’ who wanted nothing but to destroy the ‘arts, sciences, and everything that honours the human spirit’. In silent protest, his ‘reconstruction’ of the Tower of Babel, based on Athanasius Kircher’s Turris Babel, took the form of a pure cone on a cubic base, with a trail of figures winding in a spiral, hand in hand to the top, a symbol of hope for the restitution of a common language and a unified people.
Finally, undated, but no doubt implicitly condemning similar excesses, were a series of extraordinary designs for funerary monuments, cenotaphs and cemeteries, in the form of pyramids, cones and temples, experiments in what he named as new genres of architecture: ‘buried’ architecture and an ‘architecture of shadows’ to be formed out of deep recesses cut in a stone that reflected no light.
Forgotten for most of the 19th century, he was rediscovered by the art historian Emil Kaufmann in the late 1920s. For Kaufmann, Boullée represented the fulfilment of the French and German Enlightenment in architecture. The pure geometries displayed in his projects for national institutions (cubes), monuments dedicated to Newton and Nature (spheres), funerary temples (pyramids) and lighthouses (cones), resonated with Kaufmann’s vision of a movement dedicated to abstract reasoning and individual autonomy. It was left to Helen Rosenau, another exile, to publish the first transcription and translation of his Architecture. Essay on Art in 1953.
Source: RIBA collections
It was this message of an ‘autonomous architecture that architects seized on in the postwar period: Philip Johnson cited his Von Ledoux as a source for his house at New Canaan; Aldo Rossi held him up as an example of a new typology. In the field of popular culture, Boullée was rapidly assimilated into the general excitement over ‘utopian’ architecture in the ’60s and ’70s as his Cenotaph for Newton became the ubiquitous poster-image for the Whole Earth and Spaceship Earth movements – a fitting destiny for an architect who had drawn up his spherical design after witnessing the first manned balloon flight over Paris.
That more recent historians have tried to demolish his claim to originality, prescient ‘modernity’ and theoretical radicalism is less an indictment of Kaufmann, and more a result of the shift to a historiography that refuses grand claims. But no amount of careful philology will ever fully explain his extraordinary dream world nor deny his evocative influence over generations of late-20th-century architects.
Illustration by Josephin Ritschel