Exterior of Boullée

Exterior of Boullée's imagined centotaph for Isaac Newton.


Boullée's rendering of his imaginery centotaph for Newton, view from above. Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Detail map of Paris, Île-de-France, France Overview map of Paris, Île-de-France, France

A: Paris, Île-de-France, France

"Paper Architect" Etienne-Louis Boullée Envisages In One Gigantic Reading Room the Entire "Memory of the World"

1784 to 1785
Bibliotheque nationale boul

Boullée's drawing of his imagined grand reading room for the Bibliothèque nationale, wash and black ink on paper, 1785-1788. BnF Ha-57-Ft 4. [Pl.36]

In 1785 French architect Etienne-Louis Boullée proposed a reconstruction of the Bibliothèque du Roi that would contain in one gigantic reading room the entire "memory of the world." The library was never built. Boullée seems to have been an architectural visionary, most, if not all of whose schemes were never realized. Thus he is sometimes called a "paper architect."

The year before, in 1784, Boullée designed an even more visionary cenotaph for Isaac Newton, who had been dead for 57 years. Boulée's drawing shows the outside of the Newton cenotaph. Except for the tiny trees, the drawing does not convey the enormous scale of the monument; the sphere would have been nearly 500 feet across and 500 feet high. Boullée envisaged that during the day sunlight would shine through countless small holes drilled through the top of the dome, so that from the inside, the interior of the dome would light up like the night sky. A detail from the previous drawing with tiny human figures are at the bottom provide a better representation of the scale of the design. At night the dome would have been dark, but there would have been a very large armillary model of the solar system hanging from the ceiling, with the sun shining brightly at its center. Thus when it was day outside, it would have been night inside, and vice versa— a clever and dramatic twist on the natural order of things. 

My thanks to William B. Ashworth, Jr. for bringing the drawings and thoughts about Boulée's cenotaph to my attention.

Boulée's drawings are preserved in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. 

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