The Futurist Architectural Designs Created by Étienne-Louis Boullée in the 18th Century

If a painter is ahead of his time, his work won’t sell par­tic­u­lar­ly well while he’s alive. If an archi­tect is ahead of his time, his work prob­a­bly won’t exist at all — not in built form, at least. Such was the case with Éti­enne-Louis Boul­lée, who con­struct­ed few projects in the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry in which he lived, almost none of which remain stand­ing today. The best Boul­lée devo­tees can do for a site of pil­grim­age is the Hôtel Alexan­dre in Paris’ eighth arrondisse­ment, which, though hand­some enough, does­n’t quite offer a sense of why he would have devo­tees in the first place. To under­stand that, one must look to Boul­lée’s unbuilt works, the most notable of which are intro­duced in the video from Kings and Things above.

“Paper archi­tect” iden­ti­fies a mem­ber of the pro­fes­sion who may design struc­tures pro­lif­i­cal­ly but sel­dom, if ever, builds them. It is not a desir­able label, espe­cial­ly in its impli­ca­tion of will­ful imprac­ti­cal­i­ty (even by archi­tec­tur­al stan­dards). But as prac­ticed by Boul­lée, paper archi­tec­ture became an art form unto itself: he left behind not just an exten­sive essay on his art, but volu­mi­nous draw­ings that envi­sion a host of neo­clas­si­cal build­ings as ambi­tious in his time as they were unfash­ion­able — and often, due to their sheer size, unbuild­able.

These includ­ed an updat­ed colos­se­um, a spher­i­cal ceno­taph for Isaac New­ton taller than the Great Pyra­mids of Giza, a basil­i­ca meant to give its behold­ers an impres­sion of the uni­verse itself, a roy­al library of near-Bor­ge­sian pro­por­tions, and even an actu­al Tow­er of Babel.


For Boul­lée, big­ger was bet­ter, an idea that would sweep glob­al archi­tec­ture a cen­tu­ry and a half after his death. By the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, the world had also come to accept a Boul­lée-like pref­er­ence for min­i­mal orna­men­ta­tion as well as his con­cep­tion of what his con­tem­po­raries jok­ing­ly termed archi­tec­ture par­lante: that is, build­ings that “speak” about their pur­pose visu­al­ly, and in no uncer­tain terms. (You can hear more about it in the video below, a seg­ment by pro­fes­sor Eri­ka Nagin­s­ki from Har­vard’s online course “The Archi­tec­tu­al Imag­i­na­tion.”) When Boul­lée designed a Palace of Jus­tice, he placed a cour­t­house direct­ly over a jail­house, artic­u­lat­ing “one enor­mous metaphor for crime over­whelmed by the weight of jus­tice.” This may have been a bit much even for the new French Repub­lic, but for those who appre­ci­at­ed Boul­lée’s work, it point­ed the way to the archi­tec­ture of the future — a future we would lat­er call mod­ern.

via Aeon

Relat­ed con­tent:

The World Accord­ing to Le Cor­busier: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Most Mod­ern of All Archi­tects

The Unre­al­ized Projects of Frank Lloyd Wright Get Brought to Life with 3D Dig­i­tal Recon­struc­tions

What Makes Paris Look Like Paris? A Cre­ative Use of Google Street View

The Cre­ation & Restora­tion of Notre-Dame Cathe­dral, Ani­mat­ed

Why Do Peo­ple Hate Mod­ern Archi­tec­ture?: A Video Essay

How to Draw Like an Archi­tect: An Intro­duc­tion in Six Videos

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.