Etiennelouis boullEe

from Architecture, Essay on Art (c.1794)

Perhaps the most famous of Boullee's visionary designs is his cenotaph for Isaac Newton, a gigantic spherical monument dedicated to his theories and lit by apertures cut into the upper portion of the vault. It plays perfectly into Boullee's symbolism of forms and exploitation of mysterious sources of light. These two excerpts are followed by concluding remarks to his essay, entitled ''Summary Reflections on the Art of Teaching Architecture.''

Etienne-Louis Boullée, from Architecture, Essai sur l'art [Architecture, essay on art] (c.1794), edited and annotated at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris by Helen Rosenau, trans. Sheila de Vallée, published in Boullee & Visionary Architecture, New York: Harmony Books, 1976, pp. 107, 115.

Sublime mind! Prodigious and profound genius! Divine being! Newton! Deign to accept the homage of my feeble talents! Ah! If I dare to make it public, it is because I am persuaded that I have surpassed myself in the project which I shall discuss.

O Newton! With the range of your intelligence and the sublime nature of your Genius, you have defined the shape of the earth; I have conceived the idea of enveloping you with your discovery. That is as it were to envelop you in your own self. How can I find outside you anything worthy of you? It was these ideas that made me want to make the sepulchre in the shape of the earth. In imitation of the ancients and to pay homage to you I have surrounded it with flowers and cypress trees. [ . . . ]

The form of the interior of this monument is, as you can see, that of a vast sphere. The centre of gravity is reached by an opening in the base on which the Tomb is placed. The unique advantage of this form is that from whichever side we look at it (as in nature) we see only a continuous surface which has neither beginning nor end and the more we look at it, the larger it appears. This form has never been utilized and it is the only one appropriate to this monument, for its curve ensures that the onlooker cannot approach what he is looking at; he is forced as if by one hundred different circumstances outside his control, to remain in the place assigned to him and which, since it occupies the centre, keeps him at a sufficient distance to contribute to the illusion. He delights in it, without being able to destroy the effect by wanting to come too close in order to satisfy his empty curiosity. He stands alone and his eyes can behold nothing but the immensity of the sky. The tomb is the only material object.

The lighting of this monument, which should resemble that on a clear night, is provided by the planets and the stars that decorate the vault of the sky. The arrangement of the planets corresponds to nature. These planets are in the shape of and resemble funnel-like openings which transpierce the vaulting and once inside assume their form. The daylight outside filters through these apertures into the gloom of the interior and outlines all the objects in the vault with bright, sparkling light. This form of lighting the monument is a perfect reproduction and the effect of the stars could not be more brilliant.

It is easy to imagine the natural effect that would result from the possibility of increasing or decreasing the daylight inside the monument according to the number of stars. It is also easy to imagine how the sombre light that would prevail in this place would favour the illusion.

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