What were the contributions of Boulle, Durand and Ledoux around and after the French Revolution?
The five hundred feet tall sphere hits you straight in the face.
To put that size into perspective, this sphere is taller than the pyramid of Giza. It is surrounded by two large barriers and dozens of cypress trees. On the inside, at the lower pole of this massive vault, is a seemingly small sarcophagus. The vaulting has holes in it, corresponding to different constellations. Hence, during the day, depending on the position of the Sun, the insides of the sphere lights up like the night sky. At night, the armillary globe hanging in the centre lights up the interiors like the day.
This sphere is Sir Isaac Newton's, a man and a symbol of The Enlightenment. The design ensures that the sky, the Sun and the stars emerge from Newton's sarcophagus. As he defines it, probably because symbolically he does– sitting under a tree, he defined how everything moves, from a human all the way to the stars, making seminal contributions to optics, mechanics, and mathematics. The spherical form of the cenotaph is a poetic homage to man, the age and its ideals.
Wondering why you cannot recall seeing any images or references of this marvellous monument? This is probably because it was never built. However, many of its inked and washed drawings were engraved and circulated in the late 18th century. The architect, Etienne-Louis Boullée, had many such buildings in his portfolio. Structures that were simple in concept yet evoked grandeur but were too vast ever to be realised.
Boullée was born in Paris. He was a part of the visionary generation of architects who played a key role in developing the language of Neo-Classicism. Most of his career was devoted to creating imagery and drawings that projected terror and tranquillity but were superimposed by a strong social character. In his published compilation, 'Theory of Bodies,' he claimed the sphere to be the most beautiful and natural body. Like in the cenotaph, he used light as the most prominent character in all his designs, evoking a sense of mystery and divinity.
While Boullée sketched his masterpieces, the French were struggling for salt. The government was experiencing an economic crisis. Leaning on its necessity and the variety of its uses, the French government imposed a gabelle, a tax on salt. Meanwhile, it was being extracted from everywhere- all big and small springs were being exploited. The process of obtaining salt was cumbersome; it had already started depleting the forests. A new method of extraction - more mechanised and efficient, was required. In 1771, Louis XV appointed Claude-Nicholas Ledoux as the Commissioner of Salt Works of Lorraine. (What? Oh, you are wondering where have you heard the name before!)
Ledoux was Boullée's contemporary and a fellow pupil of Blondel. After surveying many different salt works, Ledoux set out to design a factory from scratch. The first plan was not designed on any particular site. Still, it was truly ambitious with complex interconnected structures that housed the factory, storage and even the living quarters of the workforce. The revised plan rectified the errors and took it further. His design incorporated an ideal city in the shape of a circle, with a semicircular complex to reflect the hierarchical organisation of work. Although the king commissioned the plan, the whole city was never materialised. Only the semicircular Salt Works was constructed.
Ledoux was the most visionary architect of his time. His work symbolised the enterprise's product and managed to portray the process of production systems of the labour force. His work propagated ideas that later evolved into mixed-use and adaptive reuse design styles, especially in industrial built environments.
Ledoux was a man of many talents and liked to work on fictitious architectural typologies as well. He linked architectural physiognomy to the social intentions of the institutions, their social purpose and virtues. Through this, he created an architecture that was arbitrary and reconstituted fragments of classical elements. He was a visionary and a great scholar who served the government during the French Revolution. As a consequence, he was imprisoned, and his works were demolished.
Boullée was a theorist, practitioner, and teacher himself. He was a supporter of the new Republican ideas that were purported through the revolution, Boullée's work was in line with the sentiments of the French Revolution. Albeit that, Boullée could not refrain from his obsession with the grand and omnipotent scale. Because of this, he rejected ideas like Jean-Jacques Rousseau's 'rural utopia.’
After the colossal disarray caused by the revolution, the grandeur and authority of structures became a political necessity. Colbert's Royal Academy of Architecture was shut down to be replaced by Ecole Polytechnique, an institution devoted to the design of public works. But the revolution had taken an obvious toll on the economy. The demand for grand designs came with the added constraint of cheap delivery.
One of Boulle's pupils, Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand, came up with a new triad: economy, simplicity, convenience. For him, the 'character' of a building did not hold much value. All forms and types could be reduced to a standard series of parts that could be combined in different permutations and combinations. He formed a 'universal matrix' that simplified the modular systems of the antiques.
Durand used this technique to spread Boullée's influence by economising his ideas. He created a building methodology to achieve affordability by realising economically appropriate structures. He proposed standard plans and variable elevations to achieve vast platonic volumes through suitable character within reasonable cost. In his way, he created one of the first architectural design catalogues. His work propagated the ideas that later evolved into standardisation and modularity in architecture and design.
Through the contributions of Boulle and Ledoux, we see arbitrary re-entering Neo-Classicism. The function had now stepped beyond the constraints of antiquity and was forming its own shape and importance. And finally, through the works of Durand, architecture gradually started snowballing towards Modernism.
About the Writer
Pranjal Maheshwari is an undergraduate architecture student at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Bhopal. He has interned at Rethinking The Future (RTF), India Lost and Found (ILF) by Amit Pasricha, and Sandal Kapoor Associates.
About the Editor
Falak Vora is an architect, architectural historian, writer and essayist. She is a graduate of the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London (UCL), UK and Sarvajanik College of Engineering and Technology (VNSGU), Surat. She has experience working at Aangan Architects, Eternity Architects, Wall Space Architects, Studio i!, Guallart Architects and The Universidad Politécnica de Cartagena (UPCT).
About the Illustrator
Itika Atri is an undergraduate architecture student at the Deenbandhu Chhotu Ram University of Science and Technology (DCRUST), Murthal (Sonepat). She is a writer, illustrator and graphic designer. She has experience working as an Architectural Journalism Intern at Rethinking The Future (RTF).