Sunday, June 26, 2011

Étienne-Louis Boullée - Sliding Doors

Cénotaphe à Newton (1784, sphere of 150 m or 500 ft in diameter)

I was doing some serious time-travelling this morning, way way back into distant antiquity: my first degree in fine art.

I was browsing one of my trusty but now metaphorically yellowing course books for a unit I took on C20 architecture, naturally from the aesthetic rather than engineering perspective. As Isipped my coffee (I wonder why 'sipping' seems such a tea thing?), I was flicking through the tome in question, my Charles Jencks's 'Modern Movements in Architecture', and was put in mind of megalomaniac and a visionary C18 architect Étienne-Louis Boullée (1728-1799).

Boullée's abstract geometric style, inspired by C17 and C18 French Classical architecture, took geometric forms to a giagantic and simplified scale. His proposed works that were devoid of ornament and used light and shadow and a sense of movement in highly innovative ways.

Cénotaphe à Newton: Interior

'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.'

Entree du cimmetiere (c1780-90)

The French architect was interested in making architecture expressive of purpose, an approach his detractors termed 'architecture parlante' ('talking architecture').

Interior space is opened up to flow from one functional area to another rather than such areas being closed off in descrete separate 'rooms'.

By now you can see where this is heading!

Cénotaphe de Turenne

Cénotaphe égyptien (c1786)

Of course Boullée's work was re-discovered in the late C19 and early C20, influencing architecture, even as recently as that of Aldo Rossi (1931-1997) ...

... in his Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht ...

Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht

You'll also know Rossi from his designs for Alessi ...
'La Cupola' Espresso Maker

'Il conico', 1986

'La conica', 1982

However, apart from a number of private houses designed beween 1762 and 1778, none of Boullée's large scale works were ever built, though his designs in engravings were circulated widely in professional circles.

I can't help having a sliding doors moment, wondering about the course of C19 architeture had it moved forward on Boullée's ideas and not taken to its various backward-looking Gothic/Rennaissance/electic diversions.

PS: Boullée recently-ish popped up unexpectedly at the movies. In Peter Greenaway's film 'The Belly of an Architect' (1987), whose main character, Stourley Krackite, is obsessed with celebrating the C18 French architect's work.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Oscar Wilde Reaches Across Time

After recently posting on gay hero Quentin Crisp, there seemed a kind of follow on logic for one on Oscar Wild as recently I came across the only recording of the poet and playwright's voice. In which he recites nearly two verses from the fourth canto of 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' ...

In Reading Gaol by Reading Town
There is a pit of shame,
And in it lies a wretched man
Eaten by teeth of flame,
In burning winding-sheet he lies,
And his grave has got no name.

[And there, till Christ call forth the dead,
In silence let him lie:]

No need to waste the foolish tear,
Or heave the windy sigh:
The man had killed the thing he loved,
And so he had to die.

As we all know, Wilde was imprisoned in 1895 for two years with hard labour after the follow-up trials to his failed attempt to sue the Marquess of Queensbury for the calling card libel of 'For Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite'.

'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' was written in France in Berneval or Dieppe on or about 19 May 1897 and was initially published under the the name 'C.3.3' - for cell block C, landing 3, cell 3 of Wilde's incarceration.

Wilde in Exile in France c1900

The poem was inspired partly by the hanging in 1896 of a fellow prisoner, Charles Thomas Wooldridge, for the throat-cutting murder of his wife - 'The man had killed the thing he loved, And so he had to die.'

I am fascinated to know the particular character of the poet and playwright's voice, as it must give a clue to the delivery of those deliciously paradoxical aphorisms we love to find occasion to remember and perhaps quote ...

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

A man's face is his autobiography. A woman's face is her work of fiction.

A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.

A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.

Ambition is the last refuge of the failure.

A man can't be too careful in the choice of his enemies.

Alas, I am dying beyond my means.

All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his.

All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.

Wilde seems much more theatrical and arch than I would have imagined, even taking into account the performance tradition of the time. In this context and in retrospect, Lord Olivier used to make fun of this earlier style of delivery, likening it to singing arias in opera.

Curiously and incidentally, Wilde's voice reminds me more than a little of the vocal manner of a particular group of older queans I knew as a kid in London and so has a further resonance for me.


This audio recording, imaginatively at least, lets me know this great writer just a tiny bit better. There is something of the quality of the living breathing human voice that reaches across time and emotionally connects up.