The Search for a Revolutionary Architecture

After the French Revolution, the architect Étienne-Louis Boullée produced wildly ambitious building designs that were never realized. His ideas influenced both the Right and the Left — and raised the question of whether a revolutionary architecture is possible.

A sketch of architect Étienne-Louis Boullée's plans for Cenotaph for Isaac Newton, 1784. (Wikimedia Commons)

Étienne-Louis Boullée, born in Paris in 1728, is remembered as one of the greatest architects of all time, even though the majority of his most iconic designs were never actually constructed. Steeped in the neoclassical style, which emerged in Rome but matured in France in the years leading up to the French Revolution, he began teaching at the prestigious École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées when he was only nineteen years old. His income secured through teaching, Boullée was able to devote himself to theoretical questions about the nature and purpose of architecture, questions working architects — bound by spatial and financial limitations, not to mention the tastes of their clients — could seldom afford to ask.

Grand Designs

Boullée grew up in a time that saw extensive debate over the relationship between architecture and other art forms, with some wondering if it ought to be considered an art at all. In his 1746 treatise The Fine Arts Reduced to a Single Principle (Les Beaux-Arts réduits à un même principe), the philosopher Charles Batteux argued that the imitation of “la belle nature” was the object of all artists except the architect. The primary function of a building, Batteaux argued, was not to evoke an emotion or convey an idea but to provide a service. Functionally, architecture was more akin to a bed or a couch than a painting or a poem.

Boullée disagreed. In his essay Architecture, Essay on Art (Essai sur l’art), which remained unpublished until 1953, he imagines what the art of architecture could accomplish if its practitioners consider not only the function of a building but its cultural significance. “To give a building character,” his essay reads, “is to make judicial use of every means of producing no other sensation than those related to the subject.” Funerary monuments, in addition to housing the dead, should induce feelings of “extreme sorrow,” something Boullée’s designs achieve via their use of light-absorbent materials, shadows, and bare walls, creating “an architectural skeleton” similar to the skeleton of a tree in midwinter. His source of inspiration was the Egyptian pyramids, which “conjure up the melancholy image of arid mountains and immutability.”

Tombs of noteworthy individuals Boullée burdened with an additional task: to inspire respect for and celebrate the achievements of those buried inside them. His hypothetical Cenotaph for Isaac Newton, who died a year before Boullée’s own birth, is shaped like an enormous sphere because the late mathematician’s law of gravity “defined the shape of the earth.” Inside, holes in the ceiling would, in broad light, create the illusion of a night sky.

Although images of Boullée’s architecture frequently surface online, the theory behind his fantastical designs — and its relevance to the French Revolution — remains unexplored. This is puzzling, as many of the designs discussed in Essay on Art are dedicated to revolutionary ideas and institutions. Take, for example, his thoughts on the Cult of the Supreme Being. Established by the lawyer-cum-revolutionary Maximilian de Robespierre in 1794, the cult, revolving around an unnamed god of rationality, was once intended to replace Roman Catholicism as the official religion of the French Republic.

Like Newton’s Cenotaph, Boullée felt that temples built for the divinity had to inspire “astonishment and wonder.” This could be accomplished with size, which “has such power over our senses” that even a deadly volcano possesses a subliminal beauty. Complementing size was light, which, when originating from a source unknown to the onlooker, would emulate the grace of the godhead itself.

Of the numerous palaces mentioned in Boullée’s essay, only one was intended for a sovereign. The others are dedicated to republican ideals such as justice, the nation, and the municipality. He designed each palace to inspire reverence for its subject. The Palace of Justice, containing the parliamentary courts, excise boards, and audit offices, rests atop a small prison — a “metaphorical image of Vice overwhelmed by the weight of Justice.”

The National Palace, more of a symbol of the strength and unity of the French Republic than a functional administrative building, would have used giant tablets of the constitutional laws as walls along with, at their base, rows of figures representing the number of republican provinces.

The Municipal Palace contained the magistrates of Paris’s districts. Designed in 1792, when Boullée was sixty-four, it would have featured large entrances and connections between galleries to signal its accessibility to all. Notably, each of these palace designs was endowed with a sense of majesty hitherto reserved for monarchs.

Boullée’s architectural style matches what Victor Hugo defined as the French Revolution’s own artistic style in his 1874 novel Ninety-Three, with “hard rectilinear angles, cold and cutting as steel . . . something like Boucher guillotined by David.” Boullée’s designs certainly match the tone of French painting and architecture produced in Year II (roughly 1793, according to the French Republican calendar), which Anthony Vidler, a professor of architecture at Cooper Union in New York, describes as a “stern, stripped, almost abstracted form of neo-Classicism.”

More recent assessments situate Boullée in the framework of the French Enlightenment as a whole rather than the French Revolution in particular, arguing that he wasn’t influenced by the latter so much as he was an influence on it. The shift from decorative baroque and rococo to austere neoclassicism far predated the storming of the Bastille, even if both processes originated from the same socioeconomic discontents. Boullée’s revolutionary aura derived not from political action but creative introspection, from the perceived importance of connecting form to function.

Architects of Revolution

Scholars have speculated that Boullée’s designs were never constructed due to doubts over his loyalty following the Revolution. In this case, his promise that the concept for the Palace of the Sovereign, created before Louis XVI’s execution in 1793, “could be adapted to other monuments not destined to be a Sovereign’s residence,” failed to convince his fellow citoyens that he was on their side and not — as some claimed — that of the royalists. Still, even if Boullée himself was indeed ostracized during this time, his architectural vision — which adapted the visual language of the ancien régime for the young republic — survived.

While aestheticians argued about the artistic merit of architecture, revolutionaries questioned its political relevance. On the eve of the French Revolution, public perception of architects and architecture — their place in the old world as well as the new one — was largely negative. Architecture, specifically in the form of large, intimidating buildings, was a physical manifestation of monarchic order. By this reasoning, dismantling the latter necessarily involved destroying the former, as evidenced by the storming and subsequent demolition of the Bastille, as well as the destruction or partial destruction of other structures in and around Paris.

Not all revolutionaries participated in this iconoclasm, however. Henri Jean-Baptiste Grégoire, a priest, campaigned for the protection of architecture dated to the “epoch of feudalism” — not because of its artistic or historic value but because, if left intact in “a kind of perpetual pillory,” it would preserve the face of tyranny as a warning for future generations.

Through his Essay on Art, Boullée helped shape a new, democratic architecture to replace its aristocratic predecessor. This democratic architecture did more than glorify the revolutionary cause; it envisioned what a civilization organized along the lines of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité could look like. Boullée’s Coliseum, a venue for national holidays and festivals based on its ancient Roman counterpart, would have been able to seat three hundred thousand people — half of the capital’s population at the time.

Under the monarchy, celebrations were often held at the Hôtel de Ville, a space “so restricted that there could hardly have been room for the carriages of the King and all his retinue.” For Boullée, public events only made sense if they took place in a venue large enough to accommodate everyone. His design includes covers sheltering people from both rain and sun, and a large number of broad staircases to ensure everyone could escape in case of an emergency.

Boullée showed similar concern for safety when designing theaters, which in his time habitually caught fire, causing countless deaths and injuries. Noting audiences could not enjoy themselves if part of them feared for their lives, Boullée designed his theaters using stone. The only flammable element, a podium made from wood, would be constructed above a water tank and submerged if set ablaze. Like the Coliseum, Boullée’s theaters had numerous spacious exits to allow for speedy evacuation.

Boullée’s impact on revolutionary architecture extends far beyond France. The scale and scope of his designs are echoed in the unrealized structures of other modernist revolutions on both the Left and the fascist far-right: the Monument to the Third International (also known as Tatlin’s Tower) and the Palace of the Soviets in Russia, but also in the Volkshalle of Nazi Germany. Conceived when the regimes they venerated were in their early years — Vladimir Tatlin’s design for Tatlin’s Tower was first unveiled in 1920, while Adolf Hitler sketched the Volkshalle sometime after his visit to Rome in 1938 — these overly ambitious construction projects are a reflection of a modernist zeal that was capable of taking protean forms.

But this same ambition also heralds the inevitable downfall of such movements, and today the impossibly large size typifying the work of Boullée and his devotees — a size that renders the individual human insect-like — is more often interpreted as dystopian than revolutionary.

Boullée’s influence on the visual culture of twentieth-century totalitarian regimes does not complicate his legacy as a revolutionary architect. On the contrary, the interest and resources both communist and fascist regimes have devoted to their respective architectural projects only reaffirms his at the time ridiculed belief that architecture’s power extended beyond functionality, illustrating ideas, evoking powerful emotions, and channeling those emotions into a political cause ­— reactionary or progressive. Boullée’s force cannot be stopped, only shifted in different directions.

If the French Republic had decided to build Boullée’s Cenotaph or Coliseum, it would have not only broken the architectural records of its time but those of our own as well. This, above any other reason, explains why they were not built and, in all likelihood, never will be. As historian Jules Michelet, born the year after Boullée’s death in 1799, put it, “while the Empire had its columns and Royalty had the Louvre, the Revolution had for its monument . . . only the void. Its monument was the sand, as flat as that of Arabia. . . . A tumulus to the right and a tumulus to the left, like those erected by the Gauls, dark and doubtful witnesses to the memory of heroes.”