TRAPPN#80: Etienne-Louis Boullee

by jssckr

Etienne-Louis Boullée’s design for The Royal Library, a conversion of the Palais Mazarin, 1785
Etienne-Louis Boullée, Cénotaphe à Newton [the Newton Memorial], 1784
Etienne-Louis Boullee, Cénotaphe à Newton, 1784
Etienne-Louis Boullee, from his plans for L’Arche de Triomphe
“Where Boullée surpassed the younger architects is in his ability to achieve dramatic effect on the page through his handling of space and light, scale and perspective; though working with the same structural elements and within the established parameters of the building type, his vision is grander, more transcendent and sublime. Some have called him a megalomaniac, but it would be more accurate to say that Boullée has more successfully articulated the utopian character of the museum.

“The concept of ‘character’ was at the heart of all that Boullée and other late eighteenth-century architects designed. Indebted to the sensationalist philosophy of Locke and Condillac, the theory of character held that buildings must be expressive of their use, and that a mere glimpse of a building would reveal its significance. …

“Leaning heavily on Burke’s idea of the sublime, the architecture parlante of Boullée and his colleagues relied on certain forms, spatial relations, and effects of light and shade to trigger predictable and consistent responses in the beholder. … Boullée was much preoccupied with immensity and infinity on the subjective mind. Achieved through visual means, immensity transcended the initial feelings of fear and vulnerability it aroused to evoke a sense of profound wonder at the bounty of the universe and man’s ability to fathom it. Like Burke before him, Boullée used effects of nature to explain the sublime but his achievement lay in articulating an architectural equivalent to the feelings of awe we experience in the face of boundless oceans and mighty mountains. Transferred from nature to the built environment, immensity elevates the mind to a plan of abstract concepts, such as eternity, genius, and space. In his designs for noble public monuments, dizzying perspectives of columns, cavernous vaults, and glowing parabolas of light form a common vocabulary of the architectural sublime intended to dazzle and impress the beholder.”

— Andrew McClellan. “From Boullee to Bilbao: the Museum as Utopian Space.” Art History and its Institutions: Foundations of Discipline. Elizabeth Mansfield, ed. London, New York: Routledge. 2002.