May 09, 2005


I’m obliged to a commenter (thanks, Antoni!) for drawing my attention to the works by Étienne-Louis Boullée and Jean-Jacques Lequeu that can be found at the Bibliothèque National de France’s Gallica web-site. Both men were visionary architects who imagined and planned grandiose buildings that would never be constructed (it was a follow-up search regarding ‘visionary architecture,’ by the way, that led me to discover the work of A.G. Rizzoli). I’ve gently lifted a few of Boullée’s designs from the Gallica site: these follow below—click on the images to see them enlarged:

'Opéra au Carrousel' (Élévation géométrale), design by Étienne-Louis Boullée (1781).


'Opéra au Carrousel' (coupe sur la longueur du théâtre), design by Étienne-Louis Boullée (1781).

Many of Boullée’s designs are monumental visions of neoclassical grandeur that often cross over into outright bombast. The following design, for a cenotaph in honour of Isaac Newton, is particularly striking: a greatly-magnified version of the Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome, but built around an enormous spherical planetarium…

'Cénotaphe de Newton,' design by Étienne-Louis Boullée (1784).


'Cénotaphe de Newton,' design by Étienne-Louis Boullée (1784).

The following designs are for another projected cenotaph, this one a truncated cone atop a pair of concentric circular platforms, ringed around with funerary cypresses. If that weren’t monumental enough, Boullée envisaged this structure as just the centrepiece of a much larger whole.

'Cénotaphe dont la pyramide est ronde,' (Élévation géométrale) design by Étienne-Louis Boullée (1780s).


'Cénotaphe dont la pyramide est ronde,' design by Étienne-Louis Boullée (1780s).

For more about Boullée’s life & work, the on-line exhibition at the Bibliothèque National de France looks like the best resource (although it’s in French only). In a profile of the architect at the Getty Museum’s site, we read that he ‘inspired generations of draftsmen, visionaries, and builders:’ an influence that, it seems, persists to the present day.

Posted by misteraitch at May 9, 2005 12:33 PM

Picture links in this piece don't seem to be working for me, just red crosses and when I click on them I get a 'page not found' message any ideas?

Posted by: paulm on May 9, 2005 11:26 PM

I’m note sure why that should be: I’m wondering maybe if it’s some character-encoding quirk, as the image file-names are in the format boulle1.jpg, etc., that is they contain an e-with-an-acute-accent character—whereas I normally stick with plain ascii in my filenames: I’ll try changing them tomorrow if I get a minute.

Posted by: misteraitch on May 9, 2005 11:50 PM

The works of Boulle play an important role in the rather pedant film The belly of an architect, by Peter Greenaway.

The picture links are working now.

Posted by: c_rancio on May 10, 2005 01:16 PM

I’ve seen that movie too—but so long ago that I’d altogether forgotten about any mention of Boulle.

The problem with the images was indeed related to character-encoding: they wouldn’t have shown up for anyone trying to view them using US-ASCII encoding. I’ve since changed the image filenames…

Posted by: misteraitch on May 10, 2005 01:39 PM

I am watching the Belly tonight, so the Boulle post came right on time.


Posted by: Loxias on May 10, 2005 02:32 PM

Thanks Mr H, they are working again, you may remember that in a previous posting I mentioned that your site reminds me of book i read in my youth
this posting reminds me that Boullee featured in that book too!

Posted by: paulm on May 10, 2005 08:56 PM

Dear Mr. H

each time I visit your page, I feel (in some way) in debt with you. All your post (all of them) are always interesting. The images from Rizzoli work were impressive. By the way, it was also searching for "visionary architecture" that I found Rizzoli work some time ago. But the images I found were very poor compared to yours.

Therefore, I think I should give you something in return.
Please take a look at:

Best regards,


Posted by: Antoni on May 10, 2005 09:59 PM

Building plans and architechtural sketches always inspire me - I think because they represent possibilities, more than realities.

As always, an interesting and beautiful entry.

Seriously, reading your blog is like studying art and philosophy - I love it.

Posted by: MissMeliss on May 11, 2005 04:37 AM

Boulle is standard-issue grandiose, and only underscores the weirdness of Achilles Rizzoli, which while fascinating at first becomes too monoxidated to allow looking at more than one image a month. The combination of OCD, mother-worship and miniature-mania send up a sad scent.

Posted by: R J Keefe on May 11, 2005 10:21 PM

In graduate school, when I studied architecture, one of the projects I worked on was the design of a cenotaph. When you first look at Boull's drawings they look so straightfoward and easy to implement... until you give it a go yourself. The question that no one in the class could come to terms with was how to give form to something that isn't there. A hospital or a bank or a museum all take their forms from the activities and artifacts that they house, but a cenotaph is basically a hollow shell. How then do you preserve this sense of emptiness while at the same time providing a meaningful structure that people who view it can relate to? And how do you do this without copying Boull? To this day I still struggle with the enigma.

Posted by: on May 13, 2005 09:16 AM

Not sure why my name didn't appear on the last comment, but here it is again...

Posted by: butuki on May 13, 2005 09:17 AM

Boulee in my opinion was less of a visionary and more of an architectural kingpin of kitsch. His infamous drawing for a penis shaped brothel is a good example. As for the rest of his designs it seems obvious to me that his obsession with strict geometric shapes, symmetry and exaggerated sense of scale produced on paper a glorious testament for an inhumane monumentality. The world is a better place without his pretentious, blind idealism.

Posted by: na on May 16, 2005 02:19 AM

No wonder why I couldn't find any related links on the infamous brothel; after all it was designed by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, one of the so called great-grandfathers of postmodernist architecture who was apparently "imprisoned by the revolutionaries after 1789 for his role in designing monuments and instruments of socio-economic-political oppression.." I apologize for the mix-up!

Posted by: na on May 16, 2005 04:26 AM

Let me defend the Greenaway film: I find Belly of an Architect to be an amazing film, explicitly linking Greenaway's obsessions of symmetry and taxonomy with classical and neo-classical sources. Boulee was the ideal choice, in that he presents one ideal of an inhuman (and imaginary) architecture that is obsessed with building an alternate space/reality to exist in. Highly recommended!

Thanks for the pictures; they're quite striking.

Posted by: Mr. Waggish on May 16, 2005 07:32 PM

Antoni—thanks for the link!

Mr Keefe—standard-issue perhaps, but still new enough to me that I’m interested. As for Rizzoli’s sketches, I can’t say I noticed any toxic effect from looking at them, and I found their scent rather less unpleasant than that of a good deal of the well-intentioned but miserably bleak ’60s & ’70s architecture I recall from my youth, whose architects no doubt had perfectly healthy relationships with their mothers…

butuki—I imagine that Boulle’s creations would be remembered less fondly had they actually been built. Their grandiloquence is appealing on paper, but would be oppressive in stone, I think.

na—I’ve seen Ledoux’s name mentioned in connection with Boulle’s in several places, so your mix-up is understandable. We can hardly wish their ideas to be unimagined, though, however pernicious their after-effects may sometimes be.

Mr. W.—What sticks in my mind about Belly of an Architect is that it’s the only one of Greenaway’s movies of the four or five I’ve seen, that I unreservedly enjoyed.

Posted by: misteraitch on May 17, 2005 12:42 PM


Posted by: JAIMITO on August 18, 2005 09:49 PM

most excellent site!!! Congratulations!!!

Posted by: Alexandre Costa Maia on October 22, 2005 05:15 PM

thank you very much for your valuable look into Boullee's work. fascinating stuff that i haven't had the opportunity to study in any depth. i recall a beautiful tome published while i was in architecture school on Ledoux, Boullee, and Leque that i lusted after, but couldn't justify purchasing.

one note, the address on your link to the Getty Museum site with the brief biography has changed. the one you have is now out of date. here's the new address:

please continue your excellent work. i look forward to seeing more of your investigations.

Posted by: Andrew Raimist on January 28, 2006 08:51 AM
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