Responsibility of architecture

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“Mute”. In my opinion this is a terrible description to apply to a building, if you consider that the “responsibility of architecture- indeed of any public art - is to communicate”[1].

Yet a review of Tony Fretton's new embassy in Warsaw intended it as a compliment,[2] with particular reference to the way in which the building “is not intended to embody British values in its form”[3] and deliberately shies away from any political or national symbolism. It prefers to sit impassively in the diplomatic quarter of the city reflecting and dissolving into the apolitical sky and providing just a ghostly hint of the blast-proof bastion within.

The outline of the mullioned structure hints at an underlying system of classical proportioning, but any such symbolic rigour is refuted by the architect, for despite its elegant symmetry the form is dictated by program and technical detailing, upholding the notion that “traditionally architects - often in contrast to the general public- have privileged technical considerations over the question of meaning”[4], a belief resonating with the early Modernist ideology of ‘form following function.'[5]

Yet as Pevsner remarked, “every building creates associations in the mind of the beholder, whether the architect wanted it or not”[6] and the nod to the Miesian materials in the marble clad wall of the reception area together with the impeccable pinstripe of the bronzed mullion and glass gives the building a certain Saville Row style.

Thus dressed in an elegantly cut yet understated suit, the embassy assumes a dignified air in the curious no-mans-land which is the embassy district and stands as secular testament to “the design talent and interests of [Fretton's] office”[7] and their ability to fuse sustainable technology with carefully orchestrated phenomenological spaces, whilst subtly formalising a quietly composed national identity and a certain transparency and openness in diplomatic relations - this was surely what the ambassador was referring to when speaking of the building as “symbolising a relationship between Britain and Poland”.[8] But it's so dull and conservative with a whiff of the 1930s. It could house any major corporation, but faceless insurance underwriters spring to mind.

Ironically, it is this ambiguity of purpose which makes the building a critical success as it lends the structure flexibility, with regard to occupation, which assures its longevity as a use if the embassy officials decide to relocate, as in the case of the US chancellery in London. When, in 2008, it was decided that the American embassy would move from their residence in Mayfair, as it lacked the 30 metre exclusion zone in front of the building necessary to ensure its security, the problem arose of what should happen to the building.

Designed by Saarinen in 1955, one might have imagined a sensuously curvaceous structure in the manner of his TWA terminal alighting in Grosvenor Square, “its tangible walls, windows and roof representing those great intangibles of national identity, character and aspiration”[9], but under guidance to harmonise with the surrounding Georgian facades what appeared was a building which Pevsner described as a “decidedly embarrassing”[10] rectilinear mass clad in Portland stone. It is hardly surprising that there were fears that the building would be razed following the departure of the Americans as it really isn't particularly pleasing on the eyethe ‘straw-colored' anodised trim around the window frames and along the cornice does little to improve the facade, nor does it have any “distinguishable American flavour” [11] save for the enormous heraldic eagle which looms down from on high. But it seems that being the architect's only major commission in this country was reason enough to approve Grade II listing for the pattered façade as long as the building was “fit for purpose,”[12] which will doubtlessly mean that exclusive Saarinen-inspired duplexes will appear on the market in 2016, furnished with sets of elegant Tulip chairs.

But what kind of guiding principle for protecting good design is ‘fit for purpose'? The ethos seems increasingly one of utilitarian sobriety so that just a splash of colour or the use of a beautiful material becomes a guilty pleasure; the rhetorical potential of forms it is no longer regarded as a necessary consideration in the design process, unless it is to extol the sustainable credentials of the structure. In seeking to make the built environment relevant to contemporary society we seem to have decided that the expressive potential of form is an outmoded concept, but in doing so we are denying architecture its oldest and most valuable form of communication.

If one's goal is to build with only utility in mind then it is enough to be conscious of technical criteria alone. However, once aware of and responsive to the possible cultural influences on building, it is important that society's patterns of ritual be registered in the architecture.[13]

The change in emphasis was highlighted with the establishing of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) in 2000 whose mandate was to “promote design that is fit for purpose, sustainable, responsive to context, good looking, coherent, flexible and an expression of functional requirements”[14]. This entailed prioritising the social, environmental and practical elements of design over those pertaining to appearance and as such was an ethical response to an increasing awareness of the effect of buildings on their environment at both a local and global scale and it demonstrated a dawning realisation that the industry as a whole had to act in a morally responsible manner. This is not to say that iconic buildings have entirely fallen out of favour in contemporary society - as the ongoing construction of the Shard illustrates - but that landmark structures will only find support if they can demonstrate their environmental credentials.

As a result of having to justify its actions, the current practice is defined by a rather protestant ethic of material moderation and judicious technical innovation whilst the potential for the poetic form[15] as an agency of design is regarded as a frivolous aesthetic contrivance. With ‘appearance' relegated to a less prominent position in the hierarchy of priorities and one which is often driven by purely technical considerations (as was the case with Fretton's embassy) ‘meaning' has been left without a medium and thereby ceases to play an active part in the design; projects produced in schools of architecture, which must stand as indicators of the future of the built environment, oscillate between technical, formal and spatial considerations yet little attention is paid to the more poetic communicative potential of designs.


During the course of this essay I want to explore the role buildings play as a medium for the reflection and dissemination of ideas which come to define their cultural context. I propose to look at works which actively participate in the transmission of concepts which lie beyond the scope of technical requirement and thereby enrich their environment with what Coleridge called poesy.[16]

Part I

In order to assess the communicative capacity of architecture I believe it is necessary to take a cross-disciplinary approach which draws upon techniques used within the social sciences to analysis the process and structure of communication:

Chapter 1 Communication Theory : the ‘Shannon-Weaver Model' concerning the transmission of messages;

Chapter 2 Semiotics : the theories of Saussure and Peirce concerning the generation of meaning through sign systems.

Part II

I realise that a comprehensive study retrospective of the communicative capacity of architecture would be impossible in one lifetime, let alone in one (relatively) small essay. What I don't want to do is to rehash established theories concerning the various ways in which architecture has been used in support of a certain eidos, as I don't believe that I have anything significant to add to the argument that Gothic architecture was an eloquent exponent of medieval ecclesiastical dogma; or that the Arts-and-Crafts movement demonstrated the nostalgic yearning of the Victorians for a simpler, pre-industrial time; or that the monumental Neoclassicism employed by the NSDAP was a misguided attempt to appropriate the virtues of Ancient Greece. They are all quite fascinating areas but have all been excessively scrutinised; each subject warrants a very detailed individual study in order to find anything new to add to the existing body of work.

I believe that for the purpose of this essay it is sufficient to set the scene with a cursory overview of the exemplary ornamental and architectonic techniques devices employed in the civic architecture of Ancient Greece to promulgate their social, political and metaphysical ideasbeliefs,, in order to see how these devices were adopted, adapted or resisted in later periods.become familiar with the ornamental and architectonic techniques which were subsequently adopted and adapted according to the mood of the time. Then I intend to centre my study on a quirky blip in the evolution of architectural thought theory which I believe anticipated, or maybe even precipitated, a shift in the motives underpinning the design and purpose of the built form. I believe that Architecture Parlante could be considered not only as an advocate for the expression of purpose through form, but for speaking in the language of the people, directly to the people, about matters concerning the people - revolutionary indeed. way of thinking which has had a decisive effect upon both the communication of ideas and the development of architecture.

Chapter 3 Ancient Greece : the classical origins of didactic architecture

Chapter 4 The Advent of the Age of Reason : the beginning of the modern era

Chapter 5 Architecture Parlante : the pre-postmodernists

Chapter 6 Contemporary culture: a reappraisal of the Warsaw Embassy

via a look at the legacy left by the Revolutionary architects via Roadside architecture, the international style and postmodernism

Part II

Chapter 3 : The Classical Origins Of Didactic Architecture

The architecture of Classical Antiquity was a communicator by intention and separating the functional from the symbolic in these buildings is like chiselling frescoes off a Pompeian wall to examine the brushwork. Although the Ancient Egyptians and Mesoamerican civilisations used symbolic structural forms and applied decoration in an instructive capacity, the essential tenets of architectural semantics were first recorded by Vitruvius anticipating Saussure in his Ten Books when he stated that “ all matters, but particularly in architecture there are those two points: the thing signified and that which gives it significance.”[17]

Architecture as Classical pedagogy

Vitruvius was a Roman architect and engineer but posterity remembers him as the author of a treatise on the qualities underlying the composition of architecture in his own time and looking back to Ancient Greece, a period known in synthesis as Classical Antiquity. His findings are often summarised in the tripartite distinction of “firmitas, utilitas and venustas”, in other words they aimed to be structurally robust, fit for purpose and pleasing on the eye, however his identification of the symbolic capacity of their design reminds us that during Antiquity academic discourse became manifest in public architecture as a means of propagating philosophical and political concepts in a comprehensible manner, in order to transmit the ideas to the widest possible audience.

History as political propaganda

It has been suggested that the stylistic junction of column, beam and entablature in the Doric order subtly referenced earlier tectonic systems[18] and indicated a respect for traditional building methods; however it also served as a referential counterpoint which highlighted subsequent developments and improvements in architectural engineering - in this case was the petrification of organic material - which ensured the longevity and stability of the structure.

But in addition to the technological reference denoted by the structural ornament, there was a less obvious connotation which contained a politically motivated psychological imperative: this was to metaphorically link the permanence of the building with an implied intransience of their beliefs and of their political structure. This would serve as a riposte to feelings of temporality and flux which may be felt by citizens in the course of daily life, as the period which defined Greek classicism was not a stable, peaceful time but one defined by the wars. It was through wars between city states that Greece became the original superpower, politically assimilating the defeated regions beneath the Greek mantle and stamping them with a visual identity which could be seen as an early manifestation of branding.

The recognisable typology of the temple maintained a superficially cohesive identity through its replication across the empire - albeit in slightly adapted forms as the development of Orders diversified the aesthetic language - and the continuity of form was intended to inspire confidence in the Grecian identity and to imbue the populace with a sense of civic pride.

Mythology as allegorical realism

Situated at the heart of the Athenian Empire, the Acropolis was a cluster of civic and religious buildings which came to stand as monuments to the ideals of Greek civilisation following their redevelopment after the Persian sacking around 450 BC. This Golden Age of the Classical period is associated with the leadership of Pericles, under whom democracy flourished and artists and artisans rose from being dirty sweaty labourers to being held in high regard for the quality and refinement of their workmanship.

The period is marked by an artistic shift from the flatter abstract reliefs and sculptures of the Archaic period to a more naturalistic modelling of the body, which artfully demonstrated the play of muscles under diaphanous moulded drapery and suggests a physical dynamism caught in the moment. Chief amongst the new breed of artists was Phidias whose monumental statue of Athena for the Parthenon was celebrated for its idealised representation of the female figure which owes much to the Platonic notion of Forms. It was under Phidias' guiding influence that the mode of expression for sculptural decoration was established for the exterior of the Parthenon.[19]

It reads as a compendium of stories: the metopes stand alone as individual narratives whose three dimensional quality animates the carving and adds sensual dynamism to the bestial and human figures; read consecutively they become part of a sequence of dramatic chapters depicting mythological battles between goodies and baddies, such as those illustrating the war between the Olympian gods and the Giants or the Lapiths versus the Centaurs, whose heroic fantasy has much in common with contemporary computer games and extracts form Harry Potter; however there also more obvious allegories, such as the battle between the Amazonians and the Athenians, which gives a nod towards the recent defeat of the Persian invaders and blatantly heroicises the Athenian people.

The line between allegory and reality is murky and indistinct as at this time the pantheon of gods possessed a corporeality which is lost to contemporary observers; devotion to the gods, although in the domain of religious belief, was an integral part of everyday life. Thereby although the frieze illustrates a romanticised version of the annual Panathenaic procession to the temple, replete with muscular athletes and the fairest of maidens, it references an activity in which the majority of citizens would participate. The decoration presents an idealised reflection of the people and exemplifies their devotion to the Athena, thus it engages with its audience, flatters them, inspires them and reminds them of their duties and their beliefs.

Social order reflected in the cosmos

Classical architecture also professed to illustrate wider philosophical truths posited by thinkers at the Lyceum and the Academy, where the esoteric questions pertaining to mans place in the universe were discussed. One of the great metaphysical challenges to Classical thinkers was the search for a rational explanation to the mysteries of the universe beyond a simple mythological story. I have no intention of trying to summarise the mind-boggling array of queries which the philosophers sought the answers to, but in essence they wanted to know why things were just so and whether there was an answer to life, the universe and everything, to coin a phrase of Douglas Adams'.

Plato proposed that tangible reality was merely a shadow of Ideal eternal Forms outside the physical world and that we should base our understanding of the universe on the eternal models realised through empirical evidence rather than on the imperfect copies derived through sensation. In the Timaeus he proposed an idea indebted to Pythagoras' mathematical theory of Harmonic Correspondences, which saw order and truth in proportions, exemplified by mathematical ratios and pure geometric shapes. He illustrated this idea as the Composition of the Soul and extended it to an understanding of the relation between all things, including man, in the universe.


In order to provide a physical manifestation of Plato's concept of a divinely proportioned universe, the Golden Ratio was used as a guide to the dimensioning of columns and was a primary influence on the relationship between relative parts of the Parthenon - it has even been suggested that the term Phi, used to denote the Golden Section, was after the sculptor Phidias. Whether the mathematical symbolism was this precise is debatable, but the idea that number patterns and rational geometry could be applied to buildings in order to create balanced and harmonious compositions, illustrating a philosophical hypothesis, became the methodology driving Classical architecture, for as Vitruvius stated unequivocally, “no temple can without symmetry and proportion achieve reasonable form unless its elements are in a certain ratio to each other, like limbs of a well-formed human being.”[21]

The temple architecture showed universal relationships in a microcosm, yet they also used structural and spatial devices to make social distinctions whereby the relative permeability of the cella, pronaos and colonnades systematically created an explicit hierarchy of scared and profane spaces, of degrees of privacy and public space without recourse to signage or barriers (most of the time). The pragmatic function of the temple was as a focal point for devotion to a particular deity whose statue was held in the cella, but it was not intended for internal worship and was designed primarily according to its external effect - raised up on a podium to assume a lofty position in relation to the surrounding buildings, the approach to a temple was literally and metaphorically a progression from the base level of everyday life, upwards towards the realm of the gods.

Greek temples had an agenda whose breadth of scope affirms the adage that architecture is “the dictation of the general idea of an epoch, those marvellous books which were also marvellous edifices.”[22] They were consciously suffused with metaphorical allusions which “fixed all [the] floating symbolism in an eternal, visible, palpable form”[23] and instructed the citizens in their history, their mythology and their place in society, in addition to their primary function which was to provide venues for various activities. The comprehensive language which the architecture established became synonymous with good government, high intellect and military prowess, establishing a rhetorical syntax which marks out architecture as a carrier of meaning.

The universal principles of traditional architecture - harmony, firmness, utility - are concordant with the fundamental goals of all significant human establishments. In great cultures they are the chosen means of wise polity and civilising action. In the whirlwind of all things human they are the guarantors of social bond, stability and peace, the visible realisation of a common moral world.[24]

Chapter 4 : The Advent of the Age of Reason

If architecture transmits the ideas and highlights the priorities of a society then this is ably demonstrated in the Beaux-Arts tradition as it originated under Louis XIV in 17th century France and in its subsequent adoption in the civic architecture of the New World. The French Baroque was defined in literature and fine art by the popularity of metaphor and allegory, spilling over into architectural aesthetics as a tool of political propaganda, in order that France demonstrate and retain her position as the centre of political power and affluence in Europe.

The Ancien Regime saw itself as the successor to the political and philosophical mantle of Antiquity, adopting the underlying tenets of Roman architecture which had re-appeared during the Renaissance, then adapting and embellishing them to reflect the monarch's role as divinely appointed Sun King. In a declaration that size definitely matters, Versailles was transformed into a sprawling luxurious party palace replete with 1500 dancing fountains, a zoo and a Venetian canal complete with gondolas. Its Baroque immensity demanded that the building be divided into clearly defined wings flanking the highly ornamented central block in order to break down the scale of the massing and alleviate any sense of monotony across the breadth of the façade. In support of this, variety and decorative flourishes were added with the placement of statuary and urns, setting the scene for the development of the style into the ornamental frivolity of the Rococo. Whilst the exterior structure was embellished with petrified swags, scrolls and volutes, interiors were swathed in rich brocade fabrics offset by ornate detailing and gilded furniture, upon which louche young men draped their languorous forms, scratched their wigs and decried the ennui of their situation.

When Talleyrand looked back nostalgically at the era, murmuring wistfully that

c'est le siècle qui a forgé toutes les armes victorieuses contre cet insaisissable adversaire qu'on appelle l'ennui... celui qui n'a pas vécu au dix-huitième siècle avant la Révolution ne connaît pas la douceur de vivre,[25]

he was referring to the sensuously decadent creativity which flowered across Europe in the arts, from poetry to music and from painting to gastronomy, catering for the physical and intellectual appetites of the noble classes: this was the era which produced Bernini's ‘Ecstasy of St Theresa' and Rubens' sensual fleshy nudes; it was the period in which churches became theatrical venues and gastronomy became an art form,

I have very often seen the king eat four plates of different soups, an entire pheasant, a partridge, a large plateful of salad, mutton cut up in its juice with garlic, two good pieces of ham, a plateful of cakes, and fruits and jams.[26]

Yet it was also the dawning of the Age of Reason, initiated by the publication of Descartes' ‘Discourse on Method' and Newton's ‘Principia Mathematica,' which combined to suggest an alternative world view that threatened the stability of the Ancien Regime. As the subsequent Enlightenment philosophies of Locke, Hume and Kant were translated and disseminated across Europe, outside the curlicued gates the fortunate poor ate chunks of bread off wooden platters and began to wonder why they should pay for the fabulous food piled high on the Sevres dishes of the nobility. Successive decades saw a growing discontent at the social and political inequality which gradually garnered support from social reformers working within the Arts who used the baroque traits of metaphor and allegory to critique the situation.

One of the most notorious and celebrated writers of this time was Voltaire who produced more than 200 literary, philosophical and scientific works but is best remembered for his polemical novel ‘Candide' secretly published in 1759. In it he traces the character's fall from a state of naive optimism and his gradual disillusionment when faced with the hardships of the world, satirising not only the pampered ruling class but contemporary religious dogma and intellectual concepts. Dressed in simple witty text, the barbed observations were made accessible, thereby posing a threat to the educated elite and Voltaire was exiled from France on several occasions rather than face imprisonment for the dissemination of seditious libel.

Similarly, Diderot was hounded for attempting to put together a comprehensive encyclopaedia which would “encompass not only the fields already covered by the academies, but each and every branch of human knowledge.”[27] But if such a breadth of knowledge was readily available to the lower classes they would be empowered, upward mobility would become a reality and the strict societal hierarchy based on the three Estates of the Realm would be threatened. However in 1772 the ‘Encyclopedie' was eventually published in its entirety... and then came the storming of the Bastille.

A public can only arrive at enlightenment slowly. Through revolution, the abandonment of personal despotism may be engendered and the end of profit-seeking and domineering oppression may occur, but never a true reform of the state of mind. Instead, new prejudices, just like the old ones, will serve as the guiding reins of the great, unthinking mass.”[28]

Chapter 4 : Architecture Parlante

Architecture is not the product of materials and purposes - nor by the way of social conditions - but of the changing spirits of changing ages.[29]

The difficulty in viewing architecture as a communicative art form alongside the more portable Fine Arts is in regard of the time it takes from conception to completion. Whereas an emotional response could be immortalised on canvas within a year or even a few months, a building might take several years to appear on the landscape. That this longevity of process is unwittingly associated with an equivalent longevity of any embedded concepts makes it an ideal medium for the propagation of political ideas- as demonstrated by the notions still evoked by classical architecture- yet conversely limits its capacity to embody more ephemeral or idiosyncratic ideas as the moment will have passed before the foundations are completed. However this is not to say that plans for avant-garde buildings are not drawn up, for Zaha Hadid exemplifies the belief of every paper-architect that perseverance will pay off in the end.

The question of whether architectural design influences or is influenced by shifts in society is a chicken-and-egg debate as despite the commonly held belief that art forms are the product of their environment it could be argued that the dawn of the Renaissance came prior to the Reformation, the symptoms of the Baroque came earlier than the absolute monarchy and the origins of Modernism predate the political anarchy of the 20th century.[30] Accordingly, the stirrings of social unrest can be seen in architectural proposals produced before the politics became manifest in everyday life.

Towards the end of the Ancien Regime a small informal group of visionary architects emerged who started to produce plans for buildings erring on the fantastic. Although the aesthetics of their buildings were quite different, their motives were in accord in seeking to produce an “emotionally charged neoclassicism”[31] which aimed to communicate a rich theoretical subtext in an accessible manner.

Whereas Palladio had followed Vitruvius' ideas promoting harmony through proportioning, refining and building upon the idea of a hierarchical social order reflected in an architectural one, Ledoux, Boullee and Lequeu looked at the potential of the built form to embody the spirit of “reorientation and reorganization”[32] inherent in pre-revolutionary philosophies and in doing so pre-empted many of the radical architectural shifts of the 20th century.

Written plainly, Ledoux investigated the potential of town planning to inspire social reform and moral improvement; Boullee experimented with the theatrical effects of light and shade on the juxtaposition of pure forms and Lequeu explored the darker recesses of the mind in order to infuse pragmatic design with a poetic dimension. Yet their projects were anything but plain.


Although none of these men were lauded at the time, Ledoux was the most high profile of the three architects, due to his influence within the royal court and to the partial completion of an ‘ Ideal City' at Arc-et-Senans. Having been appointed inspector of the Royal Saltworks in the Franche-Comte in 1771 Ledoux took it on himself to redesign the manufacturing complex near the forest of Chaux according to a rational geometry which would maximise efficiency. Having trained under Blondel he was familiar with the Beaux-Arts aesthetic yet this was tempered by a more Laugierian belief that beauty resided in “uninterrupted lines that do not allow the eye to be distracted by harmful accessories”[33]. Thus the saltworks was designed as a “theatre of production”[34] built about a semi-circular core, resembling a roman amphitheatre, which he claimed was not only aesthetically superior to a rectilinear block formation but drew the shortest line between any 2 points within the complex.

In his treatise ‘Architecture Considered In Relation To Art, Morals And Legislation', started in 1780 but only published in the aftermath of the French Revolution, Ledoux frames his intentions for the project as a realisation of Masonic Ideals consistent with Enlightenment priorities; the Grand Loge de France was founded in 1738 as a “philanthropic, philosophic and progressive institution [dedicated to] the search after truth, the study of universal morality, of the sciences and arts and the practice of beneficence” [35] and proposed that its members work towards the moral improvement of society through good works.

Accusations of dark conspiracies were levelled at the Freemasons in part because of their ritualistic meetings, cloaked in secrecy: these were defined by the use of cryptic symbolism drawn from the tools used by the stonemasons, from whose medieval guild the society evolved; yet suspicions were also raised, most particularly in France, by their motto of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity' which was later adopted by the Jacobins; however despite persecution the fraternity insisted that it was simply a society dedicated to the “science of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols”. [36]

Thus as both a speculative and operative mason it was natural that Ledoux would see an easy relationship between rational planning, symbolic design and social reform (as would Washington in his modeling of the new capital of the United States). His plans for a proposed expansion of the salt works demonstrate a desire to celebrate the practical skills of the workers and to provide them with moral inspiration, using rational geometry and architectural form as a communicative tool, for geometry may very properly be considered as a natural logic ; ... Moral and religious jdefinitions, axioms and propositions have as regular and certain dependence upon each other as any in physics or mathematics. [37]

The severed arms of the semi-circle were extended to create an elliptical hub “la forme est pure comme celle que decrit le soleil dans sa course” [38] which housed the manufacturing processes, around which the institutions and accommodation necessary for fostering an enlightened urban society were scattered within a “Rouseauian nature”[39]. Within the masterplan was the ‘Pacifiere' which would operate like a family court in the resolution of minor disputes; it was proposed as a plain cube, raised on an unadorned plinth and topped by a cylindrical rotunda thereby illustrating his belief that pure forms demonstrated pure ideals whilst decoration was an “artful coquette”[40] and anticipating the motives and formal qualities of Corbusian Purism. However the most exotic of Ledoux proposals was the ‘Oikegama' which demonstrated his idealistic libertarianism in a venue dedicated to the moral education of young men: it would be a place where uninhibited carnal activities would be facilitated in the belief that eventually the young men would become disillusioned and realise the fruitless and unsatisfactory nature of wanton sexual congress. However it is not the naivety cloaked in high-minded principles which raises a smile but the beautifully clean sculpted lines which inscribe the stylised phallic footprint of the building.

Ledoux was emphatic that that “un edifice qui s'empreint de l'emanation du sujet qui l'autorise”[41] and the houses in Chaux stood as cartoon manifestations of the activities of their inhabitants: the river inspector's house straddled the river like an oversized cylindrical sluice whilst the barrel-maker's house was etched with great cooper's hoops. Yet there was no sense of irony in the designs as would be the case in the Roadside architecture and Post-modernism of the 20th century, since his aim was not to stereotype or to mock but to individualise the masses by highlighting the roles they played in society, however mundane.


Boullee's agenda however was less to do with the pragmatics of daily life than with the potential within the built form to heighten poetic sensations in keeping with the early stirrings of Romanticism. Like Ledoux, he believed that “a building can be considered perfect when its decoration corresponds to the kind of building to which it is applied and when its layout corresponds to its function”[42] which meant that funerary and commemorative projects were most numerous in Boullee's portfolio as they were least encumbered by practical requirements and most significant for their atmospheric evocation.

He was motivated by an evangelical enthusiasm for the philosophy of the Age of Reason, fusing the concept of the Sublime which Burke characterised as an “infinite extent, daunting obscurity, and overpowering scale”[43] with abstracted geometric forms, devoid of any extraneous ornamentation, as “these are not, like other things, beautiful relatively but always and absolutely.”[44] His proposal for a Cenotaph for Newton of 1785 - a great 150m diameter sphere resting in a circular base topped with cypress trees was arguably the first example of monumental public architecture designed without reference to a classical vocabulary and although never realised, was circulated as an engraving in architectural circles, but accompanied by gasps of awe or hoots of derision, one wonders.

In contrast to Ledoux's structures which could be regarded as radically exaggerated examples of stripped down Neoclassicism, with the stacking of volumes still reminiscent in elevation of Greek architecture, Boullee promoted the elementary solids as vehicles of meaning in their own right without recourse to the assimilation of any established architectonics. In h is method, if not his aesthetics, followed the Palladian example in which “the artist works first in the intellect and conceives in the mind and symbolises then the exterior matter after the interior image, particularly in architecture,”[45] but it was his use of ‘double-coding' in order to communicate to both the intelligentsia and to the common man which indicated a new world perspective: in cutting a stylistic swathe through the frivolous decorative facades which decorated the rectilinear structures of the 18th century, Boullee was attempting to reflect the spirit of logic and reason exemplified by scientific principles; in modelling a magnificent duck, to borrow Venturi's phrase, in which the “architectural systems of space, structure, and program are submerged and distorted by an overall symbolic form,”[46] he was using architecture as a literal metaphor which could be understood by the most uneducated man.

Sublime mind! Prodigious and profound genius! Divine being! Newton!

You have defined the shape of the earth; I have conceived the idea of enveloping you with your discovery... a sepulchre in the shape of the earth. [47]

Despite his predilection for describing inflated platonic forms his enthusiasm for reason was not reflected by any desire for practical functionalism as advocated by the Modernists a century later, but was focussed upon reflecting the intangible poetic aspect of the scientific discoveries, demonstrated through “the art of creating perspectives through the effect of volumes”. [48] Whilst the exterior of the Cenotaph exhibited “a continuous surface which has neither beginning nor end”[49], the cavernous interior penetrated by a single ramped entrance was a theatrical space, top lit by star-shaped punctures. He envisioned that the visitor would experience it a place where as “the hand cannot confirm what the eyes see; one is overcome with the palpable sense of infinity, and in accordance with this sense one understands the magnitude of Newton's discoveries.[50]

Although his designs for vast awe-inspiring buildings were adopted as precedents for the monumental schemes of the Third Reich and Stalinist Russia, the desire to use the formal qualities of architecture in order to evoke a metaphysical atmosphere anticipated the move away from superficial aesthetics towards phenomenological design which came in the aftermath of Heideggerian philosophy, “configuring physical fabric around real and imagined experiences.”[51]


If we are to agree with Ledoux that “taste demonstrates what is good or bad of he who exercises it” [52] then Lequeu was at best enigmatic. He is perhaps the least remembered of the three architects as his work is only accessible through a collection of drawings and writings held at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and these are curiously disorganised in their cataloguing and controversial in their content.

Lequeu is a shadowy figure about whom little is known for sure as much of the information regarding his training and his early works is self-documented and contradictory. However what is incontrovertible is that he was capable of exquisite pen-and-ink renderings which he used to produce “imaginative readings of the architectural tradition.”[53] According to Kaufmann, who is one the few academics to have made a detailed study of Lequeu, his technique was to combine classical styling with unclassical composition. He subverted the established tradition from within through plans for extraordinary buildings such as ‘the Rendezvous de Bellevue' and ‘the Porte de Parisis' which collaged disproportionately scaled elements drawn from Gothic, Classical and Egyptian sources. Whilst such a “melange assorti”[54] was in direct contradiction of Beaux-Arts teaching, he presented the incongruous structures as viable proposals through their traditional manner of representation.

Like Ledoux many of his plans were proposals for utilitarian buildings which he believed should literally describe their purpose and he equated ornamentation with literally dressing the building, as Venturi would explore 150 years later in his theory of the Decorated Shed. But whereas Ledoux and Boullee looked outside the Beaux-Arts tradition to rational geometry to dignify the masses, Lequeu chose to concentrate on the external aesthetics of the buildings rather than on social masterplanning or the phenomenological qualities of their interiors and this is made evident by the way in which he drew almost entirely in elevation. As Piranesi advocated “diverting symbols from their original meanings by recombining them”[55], so Lequeu built upon the classical model of architectural symbolism and looked to the zoomorphic and the exotic in order to appeal to the public whom he believed “seek for novelty.” [56]

His design for a cow shed is both beautiful and ridiculous, adopting the form of a cow as a stylistic trope which papers the skeletal structure rising bovine and majestic out of the landscape, clothed in a richly embroidered and fringed rug. But as with his design for a deer lodge topped with animal heads and those for an exotically embellished chicken shed and milking parlour, the overblown concern with heroicising the mundane tips over into ironic fantasy which undermines the sincerity found in Ledoux's designs for Chaux. It has been argued that Lequeu was following the classical tradition of architectural anthropomorphism which culminated in the caryatids of the erechtheion, but whereas the columnar females were politically motivated allegories it is difficult to justify the golden vase mounted on the back of Lequeu's cow despite the annotations surrounding the drawing.

Documents held in the Cabinet des Estampes reveal that he was an active supporter of Diderot's ‘Encyclopedie', not only producing adapted copies of some of the plates but demonstrated in the immaculate cursive script reminiscent of references and footnotes which pepper his drawings. However Duboy suggests that the text does little to clarify the drawings and is more a sign of his “unbridled mind;”[57] like the 20th century Dadaists Lequeu saw text as mark-making and a supplementary form of decoration which might compliment the drawing but may also add a deliberate sense of ambiguity through its irrelevant or ironic content.

The uneasy synthesis of communication and ambiguity is characteristic of Lequeu's work.

Identity and outward appearance was a matter of interest to Lequeu and several of his self portraits suggest that if not a transvestite he was rather ambiguous about his sexuality. He believed that “poetic meaning was concentrated in the face of architecture, dressed and made-up for seduction”[58] and this was elaborately and explicitly demonstrated in the ‘Temple to Venus Terrestre', a fantasy pleasure palace inspired by the ‘Hypnerotomachia of Poliphilio': this was an anonymous 15th century allegorical tale in which architecture and landscape are interwoven with a dreamlike erotica which follows the pursuit of sweet Polia by her ardent admirer through a landscape dotted with ruinous classical buildings. Despite his romantic intentions Poliphilio stops at these structures to analyse their properties, comparing their ‘liniamento' or underlying geometric scheme, with their ‘prattica' or decorative details - I would suggest that if Boullee and Ledoux were more concerned with the former, Lequeu found more pleasure in the latter.

His drawings suggest that the theatrical folly was a sumptuous bedchamber bedecked with a forest of Corinthian columns, detailed in the burnished ruddy tones of porphyry, opite and bronze.[59] The exterior of this venue for the consummation of their passion was hung with candelabra “in which some inconsumable material burned with a perpetual and inextinguishable fire...which neither wind nor rain could put out”[60] whilst beneath a trompe l'oeil sky, the divan was accessed from between a pair of ethereal loins. This attraction to provocative material and his interest in erotic physiognomy, which runs to many pages in his ‘Figures Lascives' and pops up in the margins of many of his architectural proposals, more than any plastic metaphorical literalism, has dissuaded academics from giving due attention to his body (!) of work, as with the paintings of Fuseli.

Letters in the Cabinet des Estampes written by Lequeu record his frustration at being overlooked for commissions

Awake! A clique has been formed in the Jury of the Arts set up by the National Convention ...A kind of architectural lunatic, the seventy-year-old Boullee is at the centre of it and has arranged everything to his advantage... and keep an eye on that humbug Ledoux, [61] which was presumably due to his disinterest in communicating authentic political or social messages. His interest lay in the fringes of society, as his mind wandered in the hinterland between reality and wild fantasy and as such even when he did try to conform, as with his design for a new architectural order, the level of artifice and pastiche seemed more pronounced than in his fantasy proposals. But as Kaufmann points out, Lequeu represented the libidinous and political desire for ‘ the new' inherent in pre-Revolutionary France and his “capricious metamorphoses of every-day features are far more stimulating than the insipid works of the Classicists.” [62]

  1. Wines J de-architecture, p36
  2. Long K Two-Faced Diplomacy AJ 22.10.09 pp24-33
  3. Ibid Long p27
  4. Rethinking Architecture p 164
  5. Sullivan L, The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered, 1896
  6. Pevsner A History of Building Types op cit Broadbent G Theorizing a New Agenda for Architecture p125
  7. Ibid Long K p32
  8. Ibid Long K p33
  9. Lewis M The World: About Face; Glass Walls to Bunkers: The New Look of U.S. Embassies NY Times 23.07.03
  10. Pevsner N op cit
  11. Belluschi P op cit Loeffler J The Architecture of Diplomacy The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (Sept 1990) p257
  12. Astragal AJ 29.10.09 p16
  13. Graves M A Case for Figurative Architecture op cit Theorizing a New Agenda for Architecture p86
  15. Ibid Graves p86
  16. Bright M The Poetry of Art Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 46, No. 2 (Apr. - Jun., 1985) pp 259-277
  17. Vitruvius op cit Theorizing a New Agenda for Architecture p133
  18. Gombrich EH The Story of Art Phaidon 1990 p48
  19. Ibid Gombrich p53
  21. Albert De Architecturra III/1.1 op cit The Architect, The Cook and Good Taste p23
  22. Hugo V The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Book V Chapter II. This Will Kill That.
  23. Ibid Hugo V
  24. Krier L New Classicism p12
  25. “it was the century which won the battle against the insatiatable enemy known as boredom... those who haven't lived in the eighteenth century before the Revolution do not know the sweetness of living” The Confessions of Talleyrand: The Circle of Mme du Barry
  27. Diderot Encyclopedie 1751 op cit
  28. Kant What Is Enlightenment 1784
  29. Pevsner op cit Wines J de-architecture p24
  30. Kaufmann Three Revolutionary Architects p512
  31. Boullee Essay on the Art of Architecture op cit Mallgrave
  32. Ibid Kaufmann p512
  33. Ledoux Architecture Considered In Relation To Art, Morals And Legislation 1804 op cit Mallgrave p217
  34. Vidler op cit Bergdoll B European Architecture 1750-1890 p101
  35. The Constitutions of Free Masons (1723, 1738) op cit
  37. Ibid The Constitutions of Free Masons (1723, 1738) op cit
  38. “whose form is reflected in the path of the sun” ibid Kaufmann p512
  39. Ibid Bergdoll p101
  40. Ibid Ledoux op cit Mallgrave p218
  41. “a building should visibly express its purpose” Kaufmann Three Revolutionary Architects 1952 p517
  42. Boullee Architecture, Essay in Art 1794 pub 1957 from Mallgrave volume I p215
  43. Burke A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful 1757
  44. Plato op cit Sharp D (ed) The Rationalists p131
  45. Barbaro op cit Wittkower Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism p65
  46. Venturi Learning from Las Vegas p87
  47. Ibid Boullee op cit Mallgrave p214Boullee Architecture, Essay in Art 1794 pub 1957 from Mallgrave volume I p214
  48. Ibid Boullee op cit Mallgrave p215
  49. Ibid Boullee op cit Mallgrave p214
  50. Ibid Boullee op cit Mallgrave p214
  51. Sharr Heidegger for Architects p98
  52. Ibid Ledoux op cit Mallgrave p217
  53. Perez-Gomez Built Upon Love p103
  54. Blondel op cit Kaufmann Three Revolutionary Architects 1952 p540
  55. Piranesi Diverse Manners of Ornamenting Chimneys 1769 op cit Duboy Lequeu p50
  56. Ibid Piranesi op cit Duboy p50
  57. Ibid Kaufmann p540
  58. Ibid Perez-Gomez p102
  59. Hypnerotomachia p212
  60. Ibid Hypnerotomachia
  61. Lequeu pamphlet in the Cabinet des Estampes op cit Kaufmann
  62. Ibid Kaufmann p552