Boullée’s Cenotaphs

Étienne-Louis Boullée-Cenotaph for Newton
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Cenotaph for Newton

In my post on the enigmatic French architect Jean-Jacques Lequeu I mentioned two other Utopian revolutionary Neoclassical architects whose visions remained largely on paper, Étienne-Louis Boullée and Claude-Nicholas Ledoux. As both architects produced interesting work in their own right and help situate Lequeu in the correct historical, intellectual and aesthetic context I felt follow up posts were necessary, starting with the originator of visionary architecture, Étienne-Louis Boullée.

Born in 1728, Boullée reacted against the frivolous decadence of the Rococo by returning to Classical forms (hence Neoclassicism), removing all unnecessary ornamentation and developing an abstract geometric style. Boullée stated that regularity, symmetry and variety were the golden rules of architecture. Another defining feature of Boullée’s projected work was it monumentalism, designed to invoke the sublime.

Boullée’s most famous work is the Cenotaph for Newton, a gargantuan monument consisting of a sphere taller than the Great Pyramid, to the idol of the Enlightenment. He also planned other Cenotaphs and tombs.

Boullée ink and wash drawings make great use of shadow, this combined with his potentially endless interior spaces reminds me of Piranesi’s influential imaginary prisons.

Peter Greenaway’s 1987 film The Belly of an Architect centers on an American architect staging an exhibition in Rome on Boullée. At one point a character remarks that Boullée’s work seems like a vision of Hell and I have to agree, though Boullée remains something of a hero of the Age of Reason.

Below are images of planned projects, including the Cenotaph for Newton, and two pieces of music from The Belly of an Architect.

Étienne-Louis Boullée-Interior of a Library
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Interior of a Library
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Temple
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Temple
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Split plan showing interior and from above
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Cenotaph for Newton Split plan showing interior and from above
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Cenotaph for Newton
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Cenotaph for Newton
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Cenotaph for Newton
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Cenotaph for Newton-Night Effect
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Cenotaph
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Cenotaph

 

15 thoughts on “Boullée’s Cenotaphs

      1. I see that and agree. The Newton sphere: I envision myself insect size within the sphere. And the library… dizzying. He does have the mastery of shadow. And the clouds/sky he includes in the exterior drawings just add to the jaw dropping awe. This is a fabulous find!

        Liked by 1 person

  1. My first reaction is being overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of these projects . I do find beauty in the perfection of the designs. Intriguing minds Mr C, perhaps they were before their time? I enjoyed the links, the Struggle for pleasure (the Belly of the Architect) was esp beautiful.

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    1. The projects were certainly vast and undoubtedly ahead of their time. Boullee was a major influence on mid century 20th architecture. Dubiously Albert Speer was an admirer, but architecture is the one form of aesthetic practice that fascists and tyrants excel in, as a walk around Rome proves. The movie is worth a watch, very 80’s Euro Art house, the music is beautiful, especially the struggle for pleasure.

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      1. excellent point re Roman architecture and how fascists and tyrants revel in over embellishments ( Mar-A-Lago and the Trump Tower are great examples) I plan to watch the movie, the music that I previously mentioned is so beautiful.

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      2. Don’t get me wrong Rome is a supremely beautiful city and probably the most architecturally interesting city in the world, however it was built by Emperors and Popes. The Typewriter building is an incredibly bombastic building. It is probably the most accessible of Greenaway’s films and you can tell that he started out as a painter. Agreed about the gaudy excesses of Trump Towers. The Gulf States are another example of showy ostentatiousness.

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  2. Rome is one of the worlds most beautiful cities. The architecture is breathtaking and as you have stated intended for the tastes of emperors.
    We do have our share of ostentatious architecture though we had no emperors until recently. Smiles.

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    1. Don’t forgot that Rome was a Republic for around 400 years before it became Imperial. I always thought America was a re-incarnation of Rome, the same homogenizing drive. Trump seems like a character out of Petronius or Suetonius.

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