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ESSAYS / architecture

Nature Or Invention?

An Investigation Into The Roots Of Architecture

words:  Natalie Donat-Cattin

Essay originally written in 2015

Plan of Cenotaph of Newton, Étienne-Louis Boullée

Philosophers, scientists, artists, architects. These and many others are the prominent figures of the 18th century in France and Europe. Leading figures, whom with their thinking and charisma, are still remembered for their contribution to an époque of political changes, renewed ideals and revolutionary discoveries, in a period of time stretching from the Age of Enlightenment to the French Revolution. During this époque, the physical universe, no more alien and mysterious, finally begins to take shape and configuration, thanks to the excellence of Newton. This vibrant and evolving context creates the preconditions for the affirmation of man as an individual and as a thinker, aware of his abilities and means in a world of immense dimensions.

Architects find themselves in need to keep up with time, as architecture – more than other arts – indicates the need to be further investigated. Many questions are still awaiting for a definitive answer and the theorists crowd at a crossroads. Here, the many possibilities open up in front of them, all leading to different truths. Debate and dialectic become key weapons for every architect on a winding road towards an absolute truth. A question in particular seems to be the point of outlet in this meticulous research: is architecture an art of imagination or do its principles originate from nature?

Étienne-Louis Boullée, a French architect and theorist, approaches this archetypical controversy with the scrupulosity of the philosopher. Through a continuous research and study, he first discredits the ideas of Perrault, major supporter of architecture as an art of imagination, and then strives throughout his whole career to demonstrate that “l’architecture c’est mettre en oeuvre la nature1.”

Perrault, who lived before him, had already used in support to his thesis the comparison of the architecture postulates to those of music. He notices in these two disciplines a common point: proportion, and recognises it as the primary cause of their beauty. Subsequently, he finds in harmony, which originates from nature, the main evidence of his theories. If music is inspired by nature, architecture then, being a completely different art, cannot follow the same principles.

This argument does not convince Boullée which aims to prove him otherwise. He begins to write his manuscript Architecture, essai sur l’art – a volume collecting his work from 1778 to 1788, only published in 1953 – to expose and establish evidence of his convictions. The result is a modern and unusual architecture. An architecture that rejects functionalism and considers the construction an ancillary character, creating a strong antithesis with the tradition and Vitruvius. The link between the design experience and the theoretical reflection is the peculiarity of his contribution, and it becomes a key tool in the search for a way to free his thinking from the dead weight of dogmas and clichés.

Section of Cenotaph of Newton, Étienne-Louis Boullée

Boullée analyses architecture, dismantles it from its own principles, and reassembles it according to his own logic. During this process, he realises that the underlying problem of architecture is that – unlike the other arts – it has not yet reached perfection. It is still a mysterious discipline, full of questions which dig for its roots and make it unstable. An art that in some way has already got to that crisis, which the other disciplines, will reach much later, but Boullée is far from knowing what will happen in the future.

Art: this is how Boullée defines architecture, in order to underline its strong bond with nature. A simple but powerful word creating a stable base to develop his thinking. A point of departure and return. The soul of his system and proof of the authenticity of his architecture.

In refuting the thesis of Perrault, Boullée analyses the theories of Rousseau. A source of inspiration from which he distances himself. In fact, the philosopher interprets nature as something, to which man must necessarily strive in order to rediscover his primitive happiness and goodness. However, Boullée goes beyond this temporal and causal relationship. He rises to another level, far off time and space, and discovers the first principles of architecture in nature. Architecture becomes a direct realisation of nature and the architect the one to implement it.

Boullée argues that the games of imagination – of which Perrault talks – merely shows aberrations, nevertheless, with a natural origin. Images originated from nature but then altered and disfigured, irregular bodies unclear in their appearance and ideologically confusing. It is therefore necessary a return to simple, regular, geometric, brute2 forms, strictly related to the mathematical origin of nature. If these basic geometric shapes are those in which nature is manifested, then also architecture must be designed in a similar disposition. These arrangements, seeking order, occur at all understandable.

Carlo Lodoli had already claimed that architecture was to use the same scientific principles that Galileo Galilei had discovered in mathematics. Boullée supports and reinforces these ideas with a completely personal approach guided by an unfailing faith in his system. Emblematic figure in this research, he creates a method of scientific design in order to achieve an architecture driven by nature. He constitutes a logical apparatus in which he verifies with every project the absolute principles. Principles established by the nature and by the feelings arisen in every man’s soul in front of its greatness. This presupposes a confidence which illuminates the system being outside of it. Aldo Rossi defines it an “exalted rationalism3,” as it combines, on one hand, the system’s autonomy and, on the other, the experience’s autobiographical singularity.

The Cenotaph of Newton, among all his buildings, probably best sets out Boullée’s thinking. Indeed the simple complexity of the structure can be easily understood from the sections – usually always the most representative type of drawing of Boullée’s edifices. The design of this mortuary temple leads him to consolidate his philosophy and to reach the pinnacle of his research, where this unravels.

“Con questa temporalità svelata dalla luce, l’architettura classica nata da un’idea a priori, tutta chiusa in un pensiero geometrico, ritorna ad essere natura; possiederà anzi un valore di cosa naturale, ferma nel tempo ma avvertita nella luce del tempo4.”

Architecture reveals itself as an entity fully depending on nature, its laws and its becoming.

The relationship of Boullée and Newton reminds of the one of Lodoli and Galilei and the Cenotaph of Newton is just a mere metaphor of the world discovered by Galileo and Isaac, a nature governed by mathematical laws. Trapping his ideology into a bare and perfect sphere, Boullée does not only want to represent Newton the scientist, but also Newton the man, everlasting in the memory of his discoveries, but mortal in his human condition. This is not only a temple for Newton but a temple for death. A temple capable of enclosing the whole universe as well as all the emotions perceived by mankind in front of its immensity and in front of death. One might almost consider Boullée a precursor of the sublime: in the cenotaph, our spirit would like to embrace the universe, but at the same time we feel so small. Crushed by gravity above us, lost in the infinity beyond us.

Interior of the Temple of Neptune, Giovanni Battista Piranesi

The spherical shape already has a strong relationship with Boullée and with the return to Greek antiquity – and mainly to the Doric style. Indeed, in those years, the riches and beauties of ancient Greece were rediscovered: an idyllic world for too long forgotten. The temples of Paestum become key images that draw inspiration in Europe, thanks to the work of artists, art historians and architects like Piranesi, Winckelmann, Soufflot and Leroy.

The Cenotaph of Newton, not presenting any architectural order, is the last step of the process of formal simplification initiated by the use of the Greek Doric. This simplification aims to a final reunification with nature.

Among all geometric shapes, the sphere represents the nature’s mathematical conception in the most exhaustive way. Symbol of the cosmic order, of the universe – like in the platonic philosophy – and of the individual astral bodies, it has always enclosed more than one metaphorical meaning. Being all the surface points equidistant from its centre, it constantly looks perfect at our eyes. No optical effect can diminish its beauty.

It is also the only geometrical shape which incorporates the three properties of the regular bodies, indicated by Boullée as regularity, symmetry and variety, respectively sources of beauty, order and diversity. The sphere, perfect among all natural forms, originates a type of perfect architecture, an idealised manifestation of nature in all its aspects.

The viewer’s gaze slips on its surface without encountering discontinuous elements. Dazzled by its majesty, he has no perception of its limit, fully embracing its infinity. The smooth, simple, continuous profile delights him. Attracted by its plainness, he looks back at the surface several times and, like if stuck in a strange trap, its magnificence seems to increase every time. Magnificence exalted on the outside by the indefinite number of cypress trees. Like allegorical columns, they surround the sphere, creating a threshold in between the landscape and the built work.

“It was in the abode of immortality, it was in heaven that I wanted to place Newton5.”

Section of Cenotaph of Newton, Etienne-Louis Boullée

The viewer can get to the gravity centre of the edifice through an opening in the basement. Here there is the tombstone, lit by a starry night or by a shiny day. The light gives life to different effects in a game where the results are pairs of oxymorons: black and white, solid and void. Small holes on the top half of the sphere, generating the celestial bodies and the constellations, alternate with a large central illumination source, a mysterious armillary sphere. In the sectional drawings, in particular, it becomes clear this strong contrast between the outside and the inside. The starry vault recreates the universe and places Newton as a man at the centre of his discoveries, eternally gravitating on him.

Newton is the core and the reason of this funerary monument. Everything revolves around him and refers to his theories. Despite that, every Boullée’s building hides a dualistic approach. There are always aspects that go beyond the particular and get lost in the universal. Aspects which do not only relate to the main character of the building, but that can be traced back to the archetype of that edifice. Aspects designed to make the viewer confront deep sensations. Feelings closely linked to the Earth and to a direct experience, logical and sentimental at the same time, of nature. It almost seems like Boullée wants to stop a precise moment of the architecture, but also come across it in the present, in the days, in the seasons. Something that belongs to time, but raises above it.

“Una ricerca del definitivo, di una condizione di silenzio6.”

Boullée names this: the architecture of shadows. The most human part of his architecture and the most autobiographical. The relationship with light becomes the way to bring back the feeling and to stir this through the study of nature.

“This kind of architecture made of shadows is a discovery that belongs to me. It is a new opportunity that I have opened7.”

Elevation of Cemetery de Chaux, Claude-Nicholas Ledoux

The cold winter lights create sad, dark images, reinforced by a bare architecture showing only its skeleton. The shadows, albeit soft, overlap and stratify on the spherical surface creating darker and darker patches. Black is the final shade, antithesis of the white material.

Ledoux, another French architect and theorist of the period, designed a cemetery in Chaux very close to the Cenotaph of Newton in the style, but very far from it in the ideologies. The building is stripped of decorations, son of the rationalisation process and of the architecture with no orders. Being a cemetery, it is designed to be a place of remembrance, a place of social research. It is the temple of memory against the temple of death of Boullée. It is the social structure against the individual monument. It is the pure architecture against the typological aspect of architecture.

Everything in Ledoux’s cemetery is about the building and there are no other hidden meaning. No more dualistic interpretations, like in Boullée’s one. The building is fully isolated in a solitary land. There is no threshold, no trees, no life, no direct relationship to nature, because the architecture already speaks for itself. Like for Boullée, the architecture is capable of arousing feelings in the people’s souls. Ledoux était partisan de ce qu’on a appelé depuis l’architecture parlante, says Léon Vaudoyer on Le Magazine Pittoresque. His ability is equal to Boullée but his taste makes him more imitable.

The interior of Ledoux’s sphere is not accessible, but three levels of openings look onto it and connect it to the exterior by a series of underground tunnels. No function takes place in there. Immensity reigns and the people silently spectate it. No more able to embrace it, like in the Cenotaph of Newton, they approach this world knowing they are not yet part of it. Only a small skylight fights between a perennial darkness to witness the only hope in the kingdom of death: the memory of the loved ones.

Perspective of Cenotaph of Newton, Etienne-Louis Boullée

It is thanks to the discovery of this buried architecture – and consequently of the shadow’s architecture – that Boullée manages to create a firm theoretical system, able to rebut the thoughts of Perrault. The wonder of his technical skill consists in this deep and integral adherence to nature in order to minimise the need for cultural contributions. A nature able to brings forth emotions to the viewer. Infatuated throughout his spirit and his human being, he directly interacts with architecture. Feelings take shape from a world of infinite correspondances, as Baudelaire will later write.

Nature drives us to the archetype of the emotion and the archetype of humanity making us all men and all equal in front of the monument, perceiving all the same sensations, joys, fears. All tiny in front of the death and the universe, but eager to learn.

1  Étienne-Louis Boullée, Architettura. Saggio sull’arte, Torino, 2005, Giulio Einaudi editore, p. XL.

2  The brute corps are the starting point of Boullée’s reserch: “J’ai commence mes recherches par les corps obscurs”. Étienne-Louis Boullée, Boullée’s Treatise on Architecture (London: Alec Tiranti Ltd., 1953). Edited by Helen Rosenau. p.34.

3  “Questo razionalismo esatato presuppone una fiducia che illumina il sistema ma ne è al di fuori”. Étienne-Louis Boullée, Architettura. Saggio sull’arte, Torino, 2005, Giulio Einaudi editore, Introduction by Aldo Rossi, p. XXV.

4  Étienne-Louis Boullée, Architettura. Saggio sull’arte, Torino, 2005, Giulio Einaudi editore, Introduction by Aldo Rossi, p. XXXVII.

5  “C’étoit dans le séjour de l’immortalité, c’étoit dans le Ciel que je voulois placer Newton”. Étienne-Louis Boullée, Boullée’s Treatise on Architecture (London: Alec Tiranti Ltd., 1953). Edited by Helen Rosenau. p. 84.

6  Étienne-Louis Boullée, Architettura. Saggio sull’arte, Torino, 2005, Giulio Einaudi editore, p. XVII.

7  “L’esprit toujours occupé de ce genre d’architecture après avoir essayé d’offrir le tableau de l’architecture ensevelie, il me vin tune idée nouvelle; ce fut de presenter l’architecture des ombres”. Étienne-Louis Boullée, Boullée’s Treatise on Architecture (London: Alec Tiranti Ltd., 1953). Edited by Helen Rosenau. p.82.


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