Étienne-Louis Boullée / by Maddison Colvin

Étienne-Louis Boullée was an 18th century French neoclassical architect whose designs were highly conceptual and physically extreme. His most famous buildings were never made. 

"Boullée sought to inspire lofty sentiments in the viewer by architectural forms suggesting the sublimity, immensity, and awesomeness of the natural world, as well as the divine intelligence underlying its creation. At the same time, he was strongly influenced by the indiscriminate enthusiasm for antiquity, and especially Egyptian monuments, felt by his contemporaries.

To bring geometric forms to life, Boullée depended on striking and original effects of light and shadow. He also emphasized the potential for mystery in building, often burying part of a structure." - Encyclopedia Brittanica

"His style was most notably exemplified in his ‘Project for a Cenotaph for Isaac Newton’ (above), which would have taken the form of a sphere 150 m (500 ft) high embedded in a circular base topped with cypress trees. Though the structure was never built, its design was engraved and circulated widely in professional circles.

‘Newton’s cenotaph was designed to isolate, to reinvent, the huge movement of time and celestial phenomena. Inside, the viewer is isolated too, on a small viewing platform. Along the top half of the sphere’s edges, apertures in the stone allow light in, in pins, creating starlight when there is daylight. During the night a huge and otherworldly light hangs, flooding the sphere, as sunlight. During the day, the “night effect.” During the night, day.'"

".... Boullée began to imagine an architecture of naked walls, ‘stripped of every ornament … light-absorbing material should create a dark architecture of shadows, outlined by even darker shadows’.

‘A taste for the monumental unadorned tombs of the Pharaohs may have been prevalent at the time but it was probably no coincidence that Boullée dreamed up his Temple of Death (above) shortly after Robespierre’s Terror had forced him to withdraw from Parisian public life. His earlier design for a Monument to Sir Isaac Newton is like a giant, unadorned white balloon, about to rise skyward. The Temple of Death, in total contrast, is sunk into the ground. It looks like a photographic negative, and its ornamentation is a mere punched-out absence – a series of black, square window openings. What was new about Boullée’s design was that instead of being based on living nature it was based on nature’s fleeting, distorted image: its shadow. What Boullée imagined was a monolithic plainness, dark surfaces swaying between flatness and endless depth. More than just romantic horror vacui, this was a premonition of the plain, smooth surfaces that would embody the rationalization of space in the dawning Industrial Age.

‘In the Modern Age it is usually the kaleidoscopic, shiny surfaces of the objects surrounding us that are most eloquent about our desires and fears. The indifferently plain, matt, monochrome, silent surfaces ubiquitous in modern society – industrial finishes in black, grey and anthracite; polished steel, sheets of plaster, pressed wood, plastic and aluminium; walls, streets, machines – are silently taken for granted as being neutral amid the glittering turmoil. Ever since Boullée, however, the reality has been that plain surfaces are not simply neutral objects in social space, but the very materialization of that space.’"  - Frieze Magazine

Some quotes from an essay by Boulleé on art and architecture (worth reading if you have the time):  "An edifice for the worship of the Supreme Being! That is indeed a subject that calls for sublime ideas and to which architecture must give character. But to give character to one's work, it is necessary to study the subject in depth, to rise to the level of the ideas it is destined to put into effect and to imbue oneself with them to such an extent that they are, so to speak, one's sole inspiration and guide. The aim of religious ceremonies is to induce a state of profound reverence. It is therefore necessary to use every possible means of inducing grandeur and majesty. Since man is always impressed by size, it is certain that a Temple built in honour of the Divinity should always be immense. Such a temple must be the most striking and the largest image of all that exists; it should, if that were possible, appear to be the universe. To be reduced to what is called necessity when designing a temple is to forget one's subject.

When I observed that a Temple should appear large, I was not referring only to its size. I meant to include the use of that ingenious technique which makes it possible to extend and enlarge the impression we have; this is done by juxtaposing objects in such a way that their overall effect is fully developed as we look at them, and by arranging them in such a way that we appreciate their multiplicity, the successive aspects in which they are revealed to us are removed continuously until we can no longer count them."

This is the seed of something I hope to develop in my own artwork in the next year. 



"The Belly of an Architect" - (1987) - An American architect comes to Italy to arrange an exhibition of Étienne-Louis Boullée's architectural work. Score by Glen Branca and Wim Mertens.