Teorema 007: Cenotaph, in the shape of a pyramid, 1780–1790, 39 _ 61.3cm, Ink and wash, Etienne-Louis Boullée

Teorema 007: Cenotaph, in the shape of a pyramid, 1780–1790, 39 _ 61.3cm, Ink and wash, Etienne-Louis Boullée

With a similar penchant for drawing illusion as Piranesi, Etienne-Louis Boullée built little but as an educator, theoretician and illustrator, he was a dominant figure in neoclassical visionary/revolutionary architecture.

Boullée’s father was the Parisian architect, Louis-Claude Boullée, who encouraged his son’s education in architecture and drawing. Continuing his education in 1746, he studied with Boffrand, Lebon, and Le Geay, where he learned the architecture of the French classical tradition. Over the next several years (1768 to 1779) he designed numerous houses such as Pernon, Thun, Brunoy, and Alexandre, and he built or rebuilt Château Tassé at Chaville, Château Chauvri at Montmorency, and Château de Péreux at Nogent-sur-Marne, all in the proximity of Paris. Later in life, Boullée became a member of the Institut de France and was nominated a Professor of the Ecole Centrales (Kaufmann, 1955).

As discussed in the introduction, Boullée, along with Ledoux and Lequeu, have been united under the title of visionary/revolutionary architects. They were attracted to theoretical arguments, which they displayed in their fantastic and monumental illustrations utilizing geometric shape and symbolism. Boullée’s fantasy images demonstrate massive, dynamic forms, substantially larger and more impressive than the monuments of Greece and Rome (Kaufmann, 1955).

This drawing portrays a starkly simple pyramid with two unadorned columns, all bathed in stormy modeled light. Although all architectural illustration envisions the future, Boullée’s fantasy consciously moves beyond the realm of possibility into a simplicity and scale unrelated to function or technology. Fantasy as a concept evokes the magical and suggests an extended associative capacity, whimsical invention, divination, and the expansive qualities of pure possibility. The art historian David Summers writes that during the Renaissance, fantasia was related in meaning to invenzione. Although similar to the term ‘invention,’ its original meaning derives from a technical term from rhetoric. Invenzione was primary in the five-part division of rhetoric and consisted of ‘…the finding out or selection of topics to be treated, or arguments to be used’ (Gordon, 1975, p. 82). Although viewed from a later period, Boullée represents an interesting connection between creative inspiration and the development of argument. The fantasies were intended for his architectural treatise Architecture, Essai sur l’art, begun in 1780.

In this essay, he wrote about what funerary monuments or cenotaphs meant to him: ‘I cannot conceive of anything more melancholy than a monument consisting of a flat surface, bare and unadorned, made of a light-absorbent material, absolutely stripped of detail, its decorations consisting of a play of shadows, outlined by still deeper shadows’.

Boullée employed the atmospheric qualities of the wash to create dramatic lighting effects, giving grandeur to the otherwise simple pyramid. He may have been attempting to persuade viewers of his beliefs, subconsciously convincing them of the sketch’s possibilities, and of the argument as a theoretical position for architecture. Concerning the use of pyramids as a conscious choice for a theoretical discussion, he said ‘I have given the Pyramid the proportions of an equilateral triangle because it is perfect regularity that gives form its beauty’. The choice of the mystical shape of the pyramid for his cenotaph obviously connects it to the great society of the Egyptians, encouraging a comparison to the monumentality of his architectural ideals. The character of the atmospheric effect also ‘proves’ his theory by means of emotional seduction and positions this sketch as a powerful instrument of persuasion.

From Kendra Schank Smith, Architects Drawings, Architectural Press, Oxford, 2005

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