Thursday, November 19, 2009


Étienne-Louis Boullée (1728-1799) was a visionary architect who produced large scale drawings of buildings and monuments. These imaginary buildings were not commissioned or ever realized, in almost every case. He made the meter-wide drawings of his own accord and used them as teaching aids. They're all remarkable, for how they capture real environments, real weather and shadow, despite never existing.

In 1784 Boullée designed an incredible thing: his Project for a Cenotaph for Newton. (A cenotaph is a symbolic tomb, a kind of monument, to someone deceased. It comes from the Greek kenos "empty", and taphos, "tomb.")


Newton's cenotaph was designed to isolate, to reinvent, the huge movement of time and celestial phenomena. Inside, the viewer is isolated too, on a small viewing platform. Along the top half of the sphere's edges, apertures in the stone allow light in, in pins, creating starlight when there is daylight. During the night a huge and otherworldly light hangs, flooding the sphere, as sunlight. During the day, the "night effect." During the night, day.


In words to Newton, Boullée said "[I am] surrounding you by your discovery." But everything is inverted, contained, and disorienting. So, overwhelming, sublime.

There are enough truths: radiating light, enveloping darkness, the sphere, the truth that environment is whatever you can't see out of, but each of the truths is subverted here, enough to produce some terror, a sense of the temporary. It moves you (me), it's exciting, and beautiful, and takes your breath. Even though it's just paper; even if it were impossible to actually realize, which it isn't now.

Some more on Boullée.
Eliasson, Room for All Colors, 2002.
(The internet does nothing justice that is supposed to envelop your body completely, but imagine it for fun.)
Richard Serra, for more modern truths, disturbed.

(Newton's actual cenotaph was designed by someone named Kent and it looks much more like a tombstone. It isn't much bigger than a person, it wears leaves made of marble, and an idealized version of Newton himself sits on top of it, reclining, as if on a chaise.)

4 comments:

Anthony said...

Thank you for this. Quite wonderful

PBR Street Gang said...

Thank you so much. Ashley and Traci you are inspiring. Author Neal Stephenson writes thousands of pages on Newton in his three-volume The Baroque Cycle. Facinating and often hilarious stuff

PBR Street Gang said...

Sorry, misspelled "fascinating."

afraidofnames said...

"There are enough truths..."
Aye.