Ledoux: Das Theater von Besançon in einer Pupill

Art and design style preferences cycle like the seasons—in architecture modernism was clearly the wave from roughly the 1950’s-1980’s—but the cycles don’t always seem random and can often be tied to world events. Ideas shape design, and in the 18th-19th century neoclassical wave looked to Ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration partly to reflect changes in how people wanted to live. In the 1700’s Claude-Nicolas Ledoux was on the forefront of several emerging influential French “utopian” Neoclassical architects of note not for their buildings, but for their thinking and works on paper. The french revolution altered what people were thinking about, and in turn what they designed.

The Ideal City of Chaux, Ledoux, 1773

In addition to being influenced by the classics and symmetry, Ladoux was also taking inspiration from the natural world and how he could translate it into buildings. In the circular house about you can see echos of the eye, a face, even the concentric rings of Saturn or of a tree. Ledoux also wrote a book about how architecture influenced culture,  Architecture considered in relation to art, morals, and legislation.

Claude Nicolas Ledoux, ariel for the Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans, began 1775

Ledoux imagines a mausoleum for his ideal city project, clearly influenced by celestial bodies

Claude Nicolas Ledoux, early French Utopian Neoclassical architect 1736-1806

Rotonde de la Villette, Paris, designed by Ledoux

One of the strangest characters in architectural landscape, Jean-Jacques Lequeu promising career faded after the revolution. However, his drawings of buildings unfettered by restraints of budget or feasibility (also some arguable pornographic figure studies) had an undeniable influence on art. Most of his drawings are housed at the Bibliothèque nationale de France and many artists had access to them for study, notably Marcel Duchamp and it is not hard to see the influence Lequeu had on the Dada movement.

Elévation géométrale du temple de la terre

3 self portraits

Lequeu, il est libre, 1798

Another French architect of note during this time was Étienne-Louis Boullée. He began as as a traditional classical architect before the wave of Neoclassicism evolved. He designed a lot of homes, but most were destroyed. He is most known for his cenotaph for Sir Isaac Newton that is a thing to behold. The building itself was a tall sphere surrounded by cypress trees. One of the features was that the design would have created the effect of switching day and night. The sunlight would come through holes in the ceiling mimicking the appearance of stars in the daytime. At night, the hanging sphere would put off a glow creating a daylight effect.

It is easy to think about Buckminister Fuller’s work almost two centurys later realizing some of these conceptual ideas.

Richard Buckminster Fuller Geodesic Dome for 1967 expo in Montreal

Another work shaped by the end of one regime and beginning of another—the Bolshevik revolution in 1917—Vladimir Tatlin planned The Monument to the Third International, or Tatlin’s tower. Unbuildable and impractical for a war-torn country, Shklovsky called Tatlin’s tower design. “The monument is made of iron, glass and revolution” and although he never admitted the influence, artists beginning in the renaissance represented the tower of babel in a visually similar way to Tatlin’s design.

A rendering of how the tower might have looked if built

Cornelis Anthonisz, The Fall of the Tower of Babel, etching 1547–early towers shown more fractured before the spiral took over in the later depictions.

Abel Grimmer, The Tower of Babel, 1604

Gustave Doré, The Confusion of Tongues, 1865

Tatlin’s model in his studio

Tower built for an exhibit in London, 2011

When you look, it is hard not to see history as a continuum of design. Tatlin’s tower never ends up as intended–but remains as an idea, numerous scaled models all over the world and in miniature scale in a corner of a postage stamp. Long after buildings crumble, ideas don’t disappear but go on entrenched in the continuum of visual language we have used since the beginning.

Stamp from 2000