This article was originally published on September 10, 2014. To read the stories behind other celebrated architecture projects, visit our AD Classics section.
Minuscule clusters of visitors ascend a monumental stairway at the base of a spherical monument rising higher than the Great Pyramid of Giza. An arc of waning sunlight catches a small portion of the sphere, leaving the excavated entry portal and much of the mass in deep shadow. Bringing together the emotional affects of romanticism, the severe rationality of neoclassicism and grandeur of antiquity, Etienne-Louis Boullée’s sublime vision for a cenotaph honoring Sir Isaac Newton is both emblematic of the particular historical precipice and an artistic feat that foreshadowed the modern conception of architectural design. Rendered through a series of ink and wash drawings, the memorial was one of numerous provocative designs he created at the end of the eighteenth century and included in his treatise, Architecture, essai sur l’art. The cenotaph is a poetic homage to scientist Sir Isaac Newton who 150 years after his death had become a revered symbol of Enlightenment ideals.
Beyond representing his individual creative genius, Boullée’s approach to design signaled the schism of architecture as a pure art from the science of building. He rejected the Vitruvian notion of architecture as the art of building, writing “In order to execute, it is first necessary to conceive… It is this product of the mind, this process of creation, that constitutes architecture…” (1). The purpose of design is to envision, to inspire, to make manifest a conceptual idea though spatial forms. Boullee’s search was for an immutable and totalizing architecture.
Paris during Boullée’s lifetime (1728-1799) was the cultural center of the world as well as a nexus great transformation. Pre-Haussmanization streets were the breeding ground of class strife as poor crops and costly wars led to financial crisis. Enlightenment ideals, particularly notions of popular sovereignty and inalienable rights, influenced the rise of malcontent and eventual revolution (2).
Although Boullée completed a number of small-scale built commissions for private and religious patrons, he was most influential during his lifetime in academic roles at the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées and the Académie Royale d'Architecture. Boullée rejected the perceived frivolity of sumptuous Rococo design in favor of the rigid orders of the Greeks and Romans. Driven by his search for pure forms derived from nature, he looked back into history to the monumental forms of cultures that predated the Greeks. Transcending mere adulation of historical precedents, Boullée remixed classic elements at a scale and level of drama previously unachieved.
For Boullée the sphere represented perfection and majesty, creating soft gradations of light across its curved surface and having an “immeasurable hold over our senses” (3). For Newton’s cenotaph a 500 ft diameter sphere is embedded within a three-tiered cylindrical base, giving the impression of a buried volume. Boullée smartly completes the figure of the sphere with a flanking pair of curved ramps.
A single grand staircase leads up to a round plinth. The drawings privilege impact and atmosphere over legibility of the layout, for example showing a small exterior door on the second level above a band of crenellation yet illustrating no means of access. Narrow flanking stairs provide an exterior connection between the second and uppermost terrace. Closely spaced cypress trees, associated with mourning in Greek and Roman cultures, circumscribe each level. The spherical entry portal at the lower level gives way to a dark, long tunnel that runs below the central volume. Rising up as it approaches the center, a final run of stairs brings visitors into a cavernous void. Here at the center of gravity lies a sarcophagus for Newton, the sole indication of human scale in the interior.
Boullée creates an interior world that inverts exterior lighting conditions. At night, light radiates from an oversize luminaire suspended at the center point of the sphere. Vaguely celestial in form, its light spills through the long the entry tunnels. During the day, a black starlit night blankets the interior. Points of light penetrate the thick shell through narrow punctures whose arrangement corresponds with locations of planets and constellations. A seemingly inaccessible corridor with a quarter-circle section rings the perimeter.
The sections begin to suggest a negotiation of forces, as the dome appears to attenuate or hollow out at the top and thicken towards the supports. The bare walls and lack of ornament create a sombre impression. Changes in tone and fog-like elements bolster the sense of mystery.
Although unbuilt, Boullée’s drawings were engraved and widely circulated. His treatise, bequeathed to the Bibliotèque National de France, was not published until the twentieth century. In The Art of Architectural Drawing: Imagination and Technique, Thomas Wells Schaller calls the cenotaph an “astounding piece” that is “perfectly symptomatic of the age as much as it is of the man” (4). Considered along with Claude Nicholas Ledoux and Jean-Jaques Lequeu the work of Boullée and his contemporaries influenced the work at the École des Beaux-Arts during the mid and latter nineteenth century. His works still inspire designers. For example, in 1980 Lebbeus Woods designed a cenotaph for Einstein, inspired by the Cenotaph for Newton.
Check out an English language translation of Boullee’s thoughts on the architect as artist, nature, and additional projects here.
- Etienne-Louis Boullée. Architecture, Essay on Art. Edited and annotated by Helen Rosenau. Translated by Sheila da Vallée. 82.
- Boullée, 86
- Schaller, 160
Kaufmann, Emil. “Three Revolutionary Architects, Boullée, Ledoux, and Lequeu,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, 42 No. 3 (1952), 431-564
Rosenau, Helen. Boullée’s Treatise on Architecture. London: Alec Tiranti Ltd., 1953.
Pérouse de Montclos, Jean-Marie. Etienne-Louis Boullée (1728-1799): Theoretician of Revolutionary Architecture. New York: George Braziller, 1974.
Boullée, Etienne-Louis. Architecture, Essay on Art. Edited and annotated by Helen Rosenau. Translated by Sheila da Vallée. Accessed at http://designspeculum.com/Historyweb/boulleetreatise.pdf
Schaller, Thomas Wells. The Art of Architectural Drawing: Imagination and Technique. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1997.