Boullee Architecture Essay On Art Form

Étienne-Louis Boullée (February 12, 1728 – February 4, 1799) was a visionary Frenchneoclassicalarchitect whose work greatly influenced contemporary architects.


Born in Paris, he studied under Jacques-François Blondel, Germain Boffrand and Jean-Laurent Le Geay, from whom he learned the mainstream French Classical architecture in the 17th and 18th century and the Neoclassicism that evolved after the mid century. He was elected to the Académie Royale d'Architecture in 1762 and became chief architect to Frederick II of Prussia, a largely honorary title. He designed a number of private houses from 1762 to 1778, though most of these no longer exist; notable survivors into the modern era include the Hôtel de Brunoy (demolished in 1930) and the Hôtel Alexandre, both in Paris. His work for François Racine de Monville has apparently also vanished but his probable influence on Monville's own architectural works as seen at the Désert de Retz speaks for itself. Together with Claude Nicolas Ledoux he was one of the most influential figures of French neoclassical architecture.

Geometric style[edit]

It was as a teacher and theorist at the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées between 1778 and 1788 that Boullée made his biggest impact, developing a distinctive abstract geometric style inspired by Classical forms. His work was characterised by the removal of all unnecessary ornamentation, inflating geometric forms to a huge scale and repeating elements such as columns in huge ranges.

For Boullée regularity, symmetry and variety were the golden rules of architecture.

Cenotaph for Sir Isaac Newton[edit]

Boullée promoted the idea of making architecture expressive of its purpose, a doctrine that his detractors termed architecture parlante ("talking architecture"), which was an essential element in Beaux-Arts architectural training in the later 19th century. His style was most notably exemplified in his proposal for a cenotaph for the English scientist Isaac Newton,[1] who 50 years after his death became a symbol of Enlightenment ideas.[2] The building itself was a 150 m (500 ft) tall sphere, taller than the Great Pyramids of Giza,[3] encompassed by two large barriers circled by hundreds of cypress trees. Though the structure was never built,[4] Boullée had many ink and wash drawings engraved and circulated widely in the professional circles in 1784.[5] Boullée's Cenotaph for Isaac Newton is a funerary monument celebrating a figure interred elsewhere. The small sarcophagus for Newton is placed at the lower pole of the sphere. The design of the memorial creates the effect of day and night. The night effect occurs when the sarcophagus is illuminated by the sunlight coming through the holes in the vaulting. This gives the illusion of stars in the night sky. The day effect is an armillary sphere hanging in the center that gives off a mysterious glow. Thus, the use of light in the building's design causes the building's interior to change its appearance.[6]

Salon for the Hôtel de Tourolles[edit]

The boiseries, still often dated in the mid-1760s, were discussed in the issue of L'Avant-coureur for 21 January 1761, and so must have been carried out about 1758-59 (Eriksen 1974:298 and pl. 35). The Hôtel in the Marais district remodelled for Claude-Charles-Dominique Tourolle survives (the rue d'Orléans is now the rue Charlot) but the salon's boiseries and chimneypieces were removed in the mid-nineteenth century to a house in the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré now in the possession of the Cercle Interallié. Round-arched mirrors over the chimneypieces and centering the long wall in a shallow recess are disposed in a system of stop-fluted Ionic pilasters. White marble draped caryatid therm figures support the chimneypiece's tablette. There is a full architrave under a dentilled cornice. The white-and-gold ensemble would still have been fully in style in 1790.

Hôtel Alexandre[edit]

The Hôtel Alexandre or Hôtel Soult, rue de la Ville l'Évêque, Paris (1763–1766), is the sole survivor of Boullée's residential work in Paris. It was built for the financier André-Claude-Nicolas Alexandre.[7] In its cour d'honneur four Corinthian columns embedded against a recess in the wall plane create an entry (now glazed). Flanking doors in the corners of the courtyard have isolated architraves embedded in the wall above their plain openings, while above oval bull's-eye windows are draped with the swags of husks that became a common feature of the neoclassical manner. The garden front has a colossal order of pilasters raised on the high basement occupied by the full height of the ground floor.


Boullée's ideas had a major influence on his contemporaries, not least because of his role in teaching other important architects such as Jean Chalgrin, Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart, and Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand. Some of his work only saw the light of day in the 20th century; his book Architecture, essai sur l'art ("Essay on the Art of Architecture), arguing for an emotionally committed Neoclassicism, was only published in 1953. The volume contained his work from 1778 to 1788, which mostly comprised designs for public buildings on a wholly impractical grand scale.

Boullée's fondness for grandiose designs has caused him to be characterized as both a megalomaniac and a visionary. His focus on polarity (offsetting opposite design elements) and the use of light and shadow was highly innovative, and continues to influence architects to this day. He was "rediscovered" in the 20th century and has influenced recent architects such as Aldo Rossi.

Peter Greenaway's film The Belly of an Architect (1987) concerns a fictitious architect who is staging an exhibition devoted to Boullée's work. The film contains many visual references to Boullée.



  • Boullée & visionary architecture ed. Helen Rosenau, Pub. Harmony Books, New York, 1976 ISBN 0-85670-157-2.
  • Boullée's Treatise on Architecture by Étienne-Louis Boullée, ed. by Helen Rosenau, pub. Alec Tiranti, Ltd. London: 1953 First Edition
  • Étienne-Louis Boullée(1728-1799: Theoretician of Revolutionary Architecture) by Jean Marie Perouse De Montclos, pub.George Braziller; ISBN 0-8076-0672-3; (February 1974)
  • Visionary Architects: Boullée, Ledoux, Lequeu by Jean-Claude Lemagny, pub. Hennessey & Ingalls; ISBN 0-940512-35-1; (July 2002)
  • Les Architectes de la Liberté by Annie Jacques, coll. “Découvertes Gallimard” (#47), pub. Éditions Gallimard; ISBN 2-07-053067-1; (November 1988) [In French]
  • A Dictionary of Architecture, James Stevens Curl, Oxford University Press (1999).
  • "Boullée, Etienne-Louis (1728 - 1799)", The Hutchinson Encyclopedia, Helicon (2001).
  • "Boullée, Etienne-Louis (1728 - 1799)", Crystal Reference Encyclopedia (2001).
  • Patricia Likos Ricci, “Lux ex Tenebris: Étienne-Louis Boullée’s Cenotaph for Sir Isaac Newton,” Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on the Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena, Magdalen College, Oxford University. (Bristol, U.K.: Canopus, 2005) 355-370.
  • Robin Middleton, "Boullée and the Exotic," AA Files, 19 (1990), pp. 35–49.
  • Svend Eriksen, Early Neo-Classicism in France 1974. (London: Faber) translated by Peter Thornton.

External links[edit]

Boullée, Deuxieme projet pour la
Bibliothèque du Roi
Hôtel de Brunoy, ca. 1780
Boullée, Cénotaphe à Newton (1784)

Étienne-Louis Boullée, (born February 12, 1728, Paris, France—died February 6, 1799, Paris), French visionary architect, theorist, and teacher.

Boullée wanted originally to be a painter, but, following the wishes of his father, he turned to architecture. He studied with J.-F. Blondel and Germain Boffrand and with J.-L. Legeay and had opened his own studio by the age of 19. He designed several Parisian city mansions in the 1760s and ’70s, notably the Hôtel de Brunoy (1774–79). Despite the innovative Neoclassicism of his executed works, Boullée achieved a truly lasting influence as a teacher and theorist. Through his atelier passed such masters as Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart, Jean-Franƈois-Thérèse Chalgrin, Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand, and Louis-Michel Thibault. In all, he taught for more than 50 years.

In his important theoretical designs for public monuments, Boullée sought to inspire lofty sentiments in the viewer by architectural forms suggesting the sublimity, immensity, and awesomeness of the natural world, as well as the divine intelligence underlying its creation. At the same time, he was strongly influenced by the indiscriminate enthusiasm for antiquity, and especially Egyptian monuments, felt by his contemporaries.

The distinguishing aspect of Boullée’s mature work is his abstraction of the geometric forms suggested by ancient works into a new concept of monumental building that would possess the calm, ideal beauty of classical architecture while also having considerable expressive power. In his famous essay La Théorie des corps, Boullée investigated the properties of geometric forms and their effect on the senses, attributing “innate” symbolic qualities to the cube, pyramid, cylinder, and sphere, the last regarded as an ideal form. In a series of projects for public monuments, culminating in the design (1784) for an immense sphere that would serve as a cenotaph honouring the British physicist Isaac Newton, Boullée gave imaginary form to his theories. The interior of the cenotaph was to be a hollow globe representing the universe.

To bring geometric forms to life, Boullée depended on striking and original effects of light and shadow. He also emphasized the potential for mystery in building, often burying part of a structure. This “poetic” approach to architecture, in some ways prefiguring the 19th-century Romantic movement, may also be seen in Boullée’s extensive use of symbolism. For example, his Palais Municipal rests on four pedestal-like guardhouses, demonstrating that society is supported by law.

Boullée’s emphasis on the psychology of the viewer is a principal theme of his Architecture, essai sur l’art, not published until the 20th century. He has been criticized as a megalomaniac, because of his tendency toward grandiose proposals, but these should be regarded simply as visionary schemes rather than as practical projects. In his desire to create a unique, original architecture appropriate to an ideal new social order, Boullée anticipated similar concerns in 20th-century architecture.

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