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ÉTIENNE-LOUIS BOULLÉE…

art and life…

the unbuildable Temple of Death…

by DENNIS COOPER

‘One night in the mid 1790s the architect Etienne-Louis Boullée took a walk in the forest at full moon. Suddenly he noticed his own shadow moving among those of the trees. ‘What did I see?’ he wrote in his memoirs. ‘A mass of objects detached in black against a light of extreme pallor. Nature seemed to offer itself, in mourning, to my sight.’ 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 (c. 1795) shortly after Robespierre’s Terror had forced him to withdraw from Parisian public life. His earlier design for a Monument to Sir Isaac Newton (c. 1785) 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.’ — Jorg Heiser, Frieze

Boullée promoted the idea of making architecture expressive of its purpose, a doctrine that his detractors termed architecture parlante (“talking architecture”), which was an essential element in Beaux-Arts architectural training in the later 19th century. His style was most notably exemplified in his ‘Project for a Cenotaph for Isaac Newton‘, 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.‘ — The Ingoing

Boullée’s ‘Monument intended for tributes due to the Supreme Being’ is an expression of the metaphorical, emotional, and symbolic aspects of the architecture’s purpose. Function, shape, setting, lighting, and even scent were all considered in an effort to realize the unique character of the monument within a defined aesthetic environment. Boullée believed that a building’s “character” should be poetic and evoke an appropriate feeling in those who experienced it. For example, the strong use of symmetry in his drawing – not only in the buildings, but in the pyramid-shaped mountain as well – is intended as an image of clarity, order, and perfection. The monument thus becomes a metaphor for the divine nature of the Supreme Being. In a passage of his treatise Boullée also describes the setting for this monument:

…the whole would be decorated with all that is most beautiful in nature; the buildings would be mere accessories, the base of the repository formed by a superb open-sided Temple crowning the mountain top. The Temple precincts would consist of fields of flowers exuding their sweet smell like incense offered to the Divine Being… This beautiful place would be the image of all that ensures our well-being; it would fill our hearts with a sense of joy and would be for us a true earthly Paradise.’ — James Wehn, My Art Canon

Boullée’s ideas had a major influence on his contemporaries, not least because of his role in teaching other important architects such as Jean Chalgrin, Alexandre Brongniart, and Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand. Some of his work only saw the light of day in the 20th century; his book Architecture, essai sur l’art (“Essay on the Art of Architecture), arguing for an emotionally committed Neoclassicism, was only published in 1953. The volume contained his work from 1778 to 1788, which mostly comprised designs for public buildings on a wholly impractical grand scale.

‘Boullée’s fondness for grandiose designs has caused him to be characterized as both a megalomaniac and a visionary. His focus on polarity (offsetting opposite design elements) and the use of light and shadow was highly innovative, and continues to influence architects to this day. He was “rediscovered” in the 20th century.’ — Helen Rosenau

In Peter Greenaway’s 1987 film The Belly of an Architect, the main character Stourley Krackite is not only obsessed with celebrating an architect (Etienne-Louis Boullee) who never finished a building, but he is also consumed with representations of the body part whose rebellion will lead to his eventual demise: his belly. Kracklite photocopies the stomachs of representations of architectural greats (the emperor Hadrian, Boullee) and draws his ailments in order to illustrate his pain for his doctors. Kracklite’s fascination with Boullee seems appropriate in that it mirrors his own creative impotence; in the scene in which Kracklite catches Caspasian in the act with his wife, one cannot tell if he is enraged because his conjugal property is being stolen, or because Caspasian is using his model of a Boullee lighthouse as an enlarged surrogate phallus.

‘The fact that his two image obsessions somewhat mirror each other in form (as the repeated form in Boullee’s sketches is a dome quite reminiscent of Kracklite’s bloated belly) marries his creative life and impending death and solidifies the reality that it is likely Kracklite will go the way of Boullee and die without many major constructions to carry his image forward into the future.’ — Caitlin Mae Verite

(DC’S  6.6.10)

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