The triumvirate of Utopian Neoclassical architects, Étienne-Louis Boullée, Jean-Jacques Lequeu and Claude-Nicolas Ledoux would have an major influence on Modern architecture in the 20th Century, as well as being hailed by the Surrealists as precursors, particularly Ledoux, who held notably progressive and egalitarian ideals for his time.
The Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans was conceived by Ledoux as the first phrase in the construction of an ideal city near the forest of Chaux. Ledoux thought that luxury shouldn’t just be confined to the nobility, it should also be used in the building of a workshop or a barn. The grandiose buildings were laid out in a circle, houses for workers were palatial and the forges had Doric columns. Unfortunately, but not altogether surprisingly Ledoux had to abandon work on the Royal Saltworks in 1778 before its final completion.
This didn’t deter Ledoux from envisaging ever more audacious and grandiose projects for his ideal city though. All public buildings such as the Pacifere (Temple of Concilation), the Oikema (House of Pleasure) were based on the theory of pure forms; pyramid, cube, sphere, cylinder. Statues would be erected for the sake of their effect on perspective or the casting of shadows.
In 1784 Ledoux was selected to design the Théâtre de Besançon. Among his radical and innovative designs was the introduction of seating for all patrons, (a right previously reserved for the nobility), and the screening of musicians in the orchestra pit.
The figure of Jean-Jacques Lequeu, with his bizarre architectural fantasies, disconcerting self portraits and obscenely lascivious figures is an enigma. In some respects Lequeu seems very much of his time, a Utopian Neoclassical architect working in the tradition established by his more famous revolutionary contemporaries Claude-Nicholas Ledoux and Étienne-Louis Boullée, whose visions also largely existed only on paper, forever unbuilt, and yet also strangely Modern, indeed Post-Modern. This Proto-Surrealist aspect of Lequeu led one art critic to conjecture that Marcel Duchamp himself altered Lequeu’s work while working in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, in order to create a suitable precursor as well as enacting some form of recondite revenge on Le Corbusier. Unfortunately for this rather droll conspiracy theory, Duchamp worked at the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève and not at the Bibliothèque nationale.
The little we do know about Lequeu does nothing to dispel the mystery. Born in Rouen he worked under several architects in that city, carrying out projects on civil and religious buildings. He won a scholarship to study in Paris where he remained for the rest of his life, living above a brothel. He prepared a book that was to remain unpublished, Architecture Civile; however the projected buildings and gardens with their phantasmagorical blending of Classical, Egyptian and Chinese styles, monstrous Rococo excesses of ornamentation and wanton disregard of expense bore no relation to prosaic reality and Lequeu’s career stalled. He found work in the civil service as a surveyor and cartographer until his retirement in 1815. During the Revolutionary period he entered competitions organised by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where the various architects out-did each other in envisaging ever more grandiose schemes.
Towards the end of his life Lequeu, finding himself broke tried to sell his drawings without success and decided to donate 800 works to the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Dying in penury in 1826 it is discovered that his wardrobe contains a large collection of expensive women’s clothing, quite in keeping as Lequeu had produced two self portraits in drag.
The more explicit pornographic material mouldered in the the Enfer (Hell) section of the library. The Petit Palais, Paris recently held the first ever retrospective and the website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica, has the entire Lequeu oeuvre online.
I have below some of the mind melting architectural drawings, a few of the startling self portraits and a little of the explicit erotica, though in a sense almost everything, especially architecture, is erotic and libertine in Lequeu’s work.