Étienne-Louis Boullée: Fantastic Projects of the 18th Century

While classical architects measured out the exact proportions of columns, drew blueprints, dug the ruins in Herculaneum, and, in general, bored, Étienne-Louis Boullée erected Newton’s cenotaph, the giant building of the French opera and the Royal Library. But – on paper.

Étienne-Louis Boullée (1728-1799) was a French classicist architect. He started out as a draftsman and wanted to become an artist. But the profession of an artist was then poorly paid, and his father insisted that he move to the architecture class. The two principles, graphics and architect, fought in Bull throughout his life, which is especially noticeable in paper projects.

Bulle was a symbolist architect and visionary. Bulle anticipated not only his time, but also the architecture of modernism of the 20th century. These projects could only be realized with the help of technologies that appeared 200 years later. Bulle’s contemporaries built at this time something like this:

Arc de Triomphe Saint Denis. Architect Francois Blondel Bulles teacher.
Arc de Triomphe Saint Denis. Architect Étienne-Louis Boullée teacher.

But Bulle became famous for completely different projects. He is the author of symbolist or speaking architecture. The purpose of such architecture is not to embody the function of the building, but the concept, the idea.

Functionally, Bulle’s buildings are generally unusable, so none were built. All projects exist only on paper, but they interpret the ideological side of a particular building in a very diverse way.

Facade of the Louvre Palace. Architect Claude Perrault.
Facade of the Louvre Palace. Architect Claude Perrault.

Newton’s cenotaph, 1784

The mausoleum is an absolute sphere. Newton is the founder of natural philosophy, he has already been rated as an absolute genius. As conceived by the architect, the inside of the cenotaph sphere is perforated in such a way that during the day, when light rays penetrate, the starry sky with the moon and constellations looms on the sphere. Basically, it’s a planetarium. He draws channels in the thickness of the wall of this sphere, and sunlight penetrates through them for this perforation. The figurines of people are so small that at first glance they are not even noticeable.

Newtons cenotaph 1784.
Newtons cenotaph 1784.

And it has its symbolic meaning. Thus, the infinity of the universe and the insignificance of an individual person are contrasted. The sphere for Bulle is the embodiment of the universe, his favorite form.

National Library, Paris, 1785

A large-scale building, which in plan is a cross, and from the facade – a screen, a solid facade of columns. What is paradoxical, the two-flight staircase is placed FOR the columns! It turns out an inverted, illogical architecture.

National Library Paris 1785.
National Library Paris 1785.

Above the colonnade is a high attic, it is almost a third of the height of the colossal columns. It is decorated with a relief on antique subjects related to literature.

The interior was no less fantastically interpreted.

This is a reading room.

reading room.
Reading room.
3D reconstruction.
3D reconstruction.

The reading room is a long nave covered with a barrel vault. Bulle begins to think in pure volumes, pure form. In the lower part of the hemisphere there were storages of books in steps, and at the same time it was also a reading room. The stepped vault ended in a colonnade that led to the central space. Reminds me of Raphael and his School of Athens.

Bulle’s main idea was not to make it convenient for people to read or store books. He wanted the library to become the embodiment of world knowledge, the repository of world memory. Therefore, the artist sets such a scale, this dictates the ratio of human figures and colossal architecture. If it were not for Bulle’s treatise on architecture, his drawings would be very difficult to interpret. But, since its architecture is speaking, the concepts are detailed and fascinatingly described.

Most of Bulle’s drawings are made in the chiaroscuro technique, that is, with strong contrasts of light and shadow.

Below is a selection of the paper architect’s work for visual enjoyment.
Fortified city.
Fortified city.
Étienne-Louis Boullée The circus.
The circus.
Étienne-Louis Boullée Mausoleum.
Étienne-Louis Boullée Basilica.
Étienne-Louis Boullée Cenotaph.
Étienne-Louis Boullée Opera.
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