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.
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.
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.