Étienne-Louis Boullée

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Étienne-Louis Boullée (February 12, 1728 – February 4, 1799) was a visionary French neoclassical architect whose work greatly influenced contemporary architects and is still influential today.



Born in Paris, he studied under Jacques-François Blondel, Germain Boffrand and Jean-Laurent Le Geay, from whom he learned the mainstream French Classical architecture in the 17th and 18th century and the Neoclassicism that evolved after the mid century. He was elected to the Académie Royale d'Architecture in 1762 and became chief architect to Frederick II of Prussia, a largely honorary title. He designed a number of private houses from 1762 to 1778, though most of these no longer exist; notable survivors include the Hôtel Alexandre and Hôtel de Brunoy, both in Paris. Together with Claude Nicolas Ledoux he was one of the most influential figures of French neoclassical architecture.

Geometric style

It was as a teacher and theorist at the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées between 1778 and 1788 that Boullée made his biggest impact, developing a distinctive abstract geometric style inspired by Classical forms. His work was characterised by the removal of all unnecessary ornamentation, inflating geometric forms to a huge scale and repeating elements such as columns in huge ranges.

Boullée promoted the idea of making architecture expressive of its purpose, a doctrine that his detractors termed architecture parlante ("talking architecture"), which was an essential element in Beaux-Arts architectural training in the later 19th century. His style was most notably exemplified in his proposal for a cenotaph for the English scientist Isaac Newton, which would have taken the form of a sphere 150 m (490 ft) high embedded in a circular base topped with cypress trees. Though the structure was never built, its design was engraved and circulated widely in professional circles. Boullee's Cenotaph for Issac Newton is a funerary monument celebrating a figure interred elsewhere. Designed in 1784, for all its apparent originality, it actually derives from contemporary archaeology. The small sarcophagus for Newton is placed at the lower pole of the sphere. The design of the memorial creates the effect of day and night. The effect by night, when the sarcophagus is illuminated by the starlight coming through the holes in the vaulting. The effect by day is an armillary sphere hanging in the center that gives off a mysterious glow. For Boullée symmetry and variety were the golden rules of architecture.

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