Between 1760 and 1789 French architecture enjoyed a most creative period. Part of its success had to do with an unprecedented building boom initiated by the crown and city government. Part also had to do with a loss of authority within the academic system, the new knowledge of Greece, and the general desire to experiment with new aesthetic ideas. A third and very important component of the formal innovation also had to do with the quality of young architects who emerged. Joining Soufflot as his generation's most gifted designer were a number of highly talented architects, among them Pierre Contant d'Ivry, Jacques Gabriel, Marie-Joseph Peyre, Charles De Wailly, Jacques-Denis Antoine, Jacques Gondoin, and Claude-Nicolas Ledoux.
Etienne-Louis Boullee was a prominent member of this professional generation. In his early years he was known principally as the architect of a number of elegant townhouses, beginning with the Hotel Alexandre (1763-6) and culminating with the grand Hotel de Brunoy (1774-9) along the Champs-Elysees. But he was also highly regarded as a teacher and elevated to the first class of the Architectural Academy in 1780. Two years later, he resigned from his official governmental offices and devoted himself to painting and to architectural theory. In the first regard - for which today he is most famous - he produced a bevy of ''visionary'' and highly imaginative designs, of which over 100 drawings still survive. In the second regard, as a theorist, he composed an explanatory essay, which he planned to publish with his drawings. The French Revolution interrupted these plans and it was only in 1957 that his essay was published, although it was widely known in its day.
Boullee considers character in a way different from Quatremere de Quincy, and in fact his ideas derive very much from the substance of his drawings. On the one hand he was very skeptical of Vitruvius (whom he regards as little more than a technician), the issues of the Blondel/Perrault dispute, and academic culture itself. He was also a sensationalist in his aesthetics and spoke of architecture as poetry, by which he meant a kind of poetry composed of symmetry, regularity, varied form, and character. This first selection of passages outlines what is essentially a theory of volumes under the play of light; its expression is its character.
In my search to discover the properties of volumes and their analogy with the human organism, I began by studying the nature of some irregular volumes.
What I saw were masses with convex, concave, angular or planimetric planes, etc., etc. Next I realized that the various contours of the planes of these volumes defined their shape and determined their form. I also perceived in them the confusion (I cannot say variety) engendered by the number and complexity of their irregular planes.
Weary of the mute sterility of irregular volumes, I proceeded to study regular volumes. What I first noted was their regularity, their symmetry and their variety; and I perceived that that was what constituted their shape and their form. What is more, I realized that regularity alone had given man a clear conception of the shape of volumes, and so he gave them a definition which, as we shall see, resulted not only from their regularity and symmetry but also from their variety.
Etienne-Louis Boullee (1728-99), 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. 86, 87, 89.
An irregular volume is composed of a multitude of planes, each of them different and, as I have observed above, it lies beyond our grasp. The number and complexity of the planes have nothing distinct about them and give a confused impression.
How is it that we can recognize the shape of a regular volume at a glance? It is because it is simple in form, its planes are regular and it repeats itself. But since we gauge the impression that objects make on us by their clarity, what makes us single out regular volumes in particular is the fact that their regularity and their symmetry represent order, and order is clarity.
It is obvious from the above remarks that man had no clear idea of the shape of volumes before he discovered the concept of regularity.
Once I had observed that the shape of a regular volume is determined by regularity, symmetry and variety, then I understood that proportion is the combination of these properties.
By the proportion of a volume, I mean the effect produced by its regularity, its symmetry and its variety. Regularity gives it a beautiful shape, symmetry gives it order and proportion, variety gives it planes that diversify as we look at them. Thus the combination and the respective concord which are the result of all these properties, give rise to volumetric harmony. [... ]
What then is the primary law on which architectural principles are based?
Let us consider an example of Architecture that has been imperfectly observed and lacks proportion. This will certainly be a defect but the defect will not necessarily be such an eyesore that we cannot bear to look at the Building; and nor will it necessarily have the same effect on our eyes that a discord has on our ears.
In architecture a lack of proportion is not generally very obvious except to the eye of the connoisseur. It is thus evident that although proportion is one of the most important elements constituting beauty in architecture, it is not the primary law from which its basic principles derive. Let us try, therefore, to discover what it is impossible not to admit in architecture, and that from which there can be no deviation without creating a real eyesore.
Let us imagine a man with a nose that is not in the middle of his face, with eyes that are not equidistant, one being higher than the other, and whose limbs are also ill-matched. It is certain that we would consider such a man hideous. Here we have an example that can readily be applied to the subject under discussion. If we imagine a Palace with an off-centre front projection, with no symmetry and with windows set at varying intervals and different heights, the overall impression would be one of confusion and it is certain that to our eyes such a building would be both hideous and intolerable.
It is easy for the reader to surmise that the basic rule and the one that governs the principles of architecture, originates in regularity and also that any deviation from symmetry in architecture is as inconceivable as failing to observe the rules of harmony in music. [ . . . ]
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