Étienne-Louis Boullée, (born Feb. 12, 1728, Paris,
Francedied Feb. 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
(177479). 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 A.-T. Brongniart, J.-F.-T. Chalgrin, J.-N.-L.
Durand, A.-F. Peyre, and L.-M. Thibault. In all, he taught
for over 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 Boullées
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
Boullées extensive use of symbolism. For example, his
Palais Municipal rests on four pedestal-like guardhouses,
demonstrating that society is supported by law.
Boullées emphasis on the psychology of
the viewer is a principal theme of his Architecture, essai
sur lart, 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.