Radical bourgeois architects in
the age of reason and revolution
Emil Kaufmann’s classic 1952 study,
Three revolutionary architects:
Boullée, Ledoux, and Lequeu
See also the image gallery included at the end.
In honor of the Platypus Affiliated Society’s Radical Bourgeois Philosophy summer reading group, I thought I would devote a blog entry to the celebration of radical bourgeois architecture. I’ve been writing a lot of posts related to the subject of the revolutionary avant-garde architecture that followed October 1917 in Russia and in Europe, so I think that it might be fitting to take a step back and review some of the architectural fantasies that surrounded that other great revolutionary date, 1789, the year of the glorious French Revolution. The three utopian architects whose work I will be focusing on here also happen to be French — perhaps not coincidentally.
Étienne-Louis Boullée (1728-1799), Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (1736-1806), and Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1772-1837) were each architects and thinkers whose ideas reflected some of the most radical strains of liberal bourgeois philosophy, with its cult of reason and devotion to the triplicate ideals of liberté, égalité, and fraternité. The structures they imagined and city plans they proposed were undeniably some of the most ambitious and revolutionary of their time. At their most fantastic, the buildings they envisioned were absolutely unbuildable — either according to the technical standards of their day or arguably even of our own.
The first two utopian architects mentioned above, Boullée and Ledoux, were also renowned theorists and teachers of the neoclassical style that developed in eighteenth-century France. Indeed, between them they trained some of the most brilliant neoclassicists of their age. The French architects Jean Chalgrin, Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart, and Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand were trained by Boullée, while Ledoux helped teach the influential Lithuanian architect Laurynas Gucevičius. Most of their own work that was actually built worked within the more traditional parameters of neoclassicism, and attests to their total mastery over the style.
But beyond their admiration for the Greek, Roman, and Renaissance styles from which they drew their primary inspiration, both Boullée and Ledoux were drawn into utopian speculation. In flagrant defiance of all the Vitruvian and Albertian dicta on feasibility and practicality, each drew up plans for impossible structures. Immersed as they were in an age of scientific, intellectual, and political revolution, Boullée and Ledoux each bore the imprint of their times. The radical ideas they encountered and revolutionary events that they witnessed gave them both the impression that a new world was forming before their eyes, in which the space of limitless possibility could open up.
Disavowing many of the ornamental and columnar principles on which neoclassical architecture was based, both Boullée and Ledoux reverted to extremely simplified geometric shapes — spheres, tetrahedra, unadorned arches, etc. Boullée even included a rectangular oculus (if an object so shaped can still be called an “oculus”) in his sketch for a Metropolitan cathedral. These were stripped of any decorative features and displayed in their raw profundity. Stunning examples of both architects’ visions of spheroid structures can be seen in Boullée’s Cenotaph to Newton (1784) and Ledoux’s House of agriculture (1770), pictured above.
Many of the buildings designed by Boullée in particular were dedicated to the great personalities or concepts that characterized the Enlightenment. Besides his proposed building in honor of Newton, Boullée also envisioned a “Monument intended for tributes due to the Supreme Being” in 1794, just after Robespierre announced the foundation of Le culte de l’Être suprême. Boullée was extremely excited to give the concept concrete shape. “An edifice for the worship of the Supreme being!” he exclaimed. “That is indeed a subject that calls for sublime ideas and to which architecture must give character.” Ledoux, who had amassed great wealth constructing buildings for the aristocracy under the Ancien Régime, was imprisoned for several years during the Revolution. He thus had an understandably bleaker view of such Jacobin innovations as Robespierre’s cult.
Some of the buildings and objects that Ledoux depicted were even more abstract in their meaning and unbuildable in their design than Boullée’s celebration of Newton or the Supreme Being. For example, in one his last sketches published in 1804 in a compilation of his engravings, Ledoux portrayed a cosmology of the clouds, as it were, floating above the cemetery of the city of Chaux, a city which he had originally helped to plan. A miniature representation of the Earth, seemingly propped up on a cloud, is surrounded by a number of smaller planetoids that circle it in orbit. Suspended in air without support, they would almost seem to resemble a collection of aerostatic spheres, not unlike the famous hot-air balloon unveiled by the Montgolfier brothers in 1783. With its geocentric model, Ledoux appears to grant the buried cemetery inhabitants a Ptolemaic afterlife.
Ledoux was not the only one thinking of the afterlife, however. In 1794, following the execution of Robespierre and Saint-Just in the Thermidorean Reaction, Boullée felt the Revolution had been betrayed. As his mood grew ever more morbid, he began to ruminate increasingly on the idea of death and entombment. He recorded in his diary a terrifying vision: “A mass of objects detached in black against a light of extreme pallor. Nature seemed to offer itself, in mourning, to my sight. Walls stripped of every ornament…[a] light-absorbing material should create a dark architecture of shadows, outlined by even darker shadows.” It was in this spirit that Boullée composed drafts for yet another one of his unrealizable masterpieces — “The Temple of Death” (1795). The sketch of the pyramidal tower of its exterior and his representation of the spherical tomb encased therein were shown earlier. Boullée’s most haunting depiction, shown above, is probably the blackest, however. Whereas the interior to his earlier “Cenotaph to Newton” was shown as flooded with an artificial internal light, the reimagined interior of his shows the darkness of a tomb dwarfed at the bottom of an immense chamber, wrapped in perpetual night.