Jean-Jacques Lequeu: Visionary Architect
Boullée, Ledoux, Lequeu—three French architects of the late eighteenth century, dreamers, revolutionaries, megalomaniacs at times, for whom the revolution came as a professional and near-personal catastrophe. Although they worked in the age of neoclassicism, and although interest in their productions was revived in the last century at the same time as interest in neoclassicism grew, they themselves were not, properly speaking, neoclassicists. They were innovative. They loved solid geometry—simple shapes, unadorned surfaces, unfamiliar idioms. Conical lighthouses, for instance. But then too they could be practical in a flashy way, inserting the equivalent of underground parking garages in their villas, where the horses and carriages of guests might await the after-dinner call. They liked the idea of buildings whose bases were half concealed in the earth, as those of many classical structures would have been in that period. And they shared the taste, common throughout the Europe of the day, for playful garden pavilions in exotic styles—twig houses, or that famous work of François Barbier, still standing in the garden of the Désert of Retz a few miles west of Paris: a house in the form of a massive broken column.
Above all they would have liked to build spherical structures, representing equality in all parts. Étienne-Louis Boullée (1728–1799) is celebrated for designing a spherical building that looks at first sight like a nuclear reactor but turns out to be a cenotaph for Sir Isaac Newton. He also made designs for a national library of quite astonishing size, with a single tunnel-vaulted and top-lit room where the library users and staff, on close inspection, are revealed as robed figures from Raphael’s School of Athens. Size mattered to Boullée, and his plan for the “restoration” of Versailles was to make it much, much bigger, as if size had been the problem all along. He believed that his buildings should be in some sense like poems, dreamlike exercises in an elevated style. In a way, the drawing itself, rather than the intended building, was the work of art.
It was remarked of this period of architectural drawings that architects strained to capture the attention of the public; that, in direct proportion to the proliferation of drawings, there was a diminution of opportunities for the architect to practice his skills. In the old days, it was complained, most architectural drawings were made with simple strokes of the pen, with hatching or wash illustrating the measurable proportions of the building. With the new style of drawing, a prison had to look like a prison—menacing and overwhelming. A morgue should look terrifying, full of gloomy shadows. The way a building sat in the landscape, the way it stretched out under the sky, the impression it made from a great distance—all these were now considerations for…
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