Boullée’s Forgotten Fountain | SMArchS Thesis

In the mid-1780’s a mature Etienne-Louis Boullée (1728-1799) was commissioned to redesign the royal library of the French monarchy. His proposal was expressed through twenty-six architectural drawings, but the scheme was never built. These drawings were among the last that the French architect produced. Shortly after his death Boullée fell into obscurity and remained largely unknown well into the twentieth century. He was resurrected by historians Emil Kaufmann, Helen Rosenau and Jean-Marie Pérouse de Montclos but their publications feature only modest written synopses of the redesign of the Bibliothèque du Roi.

Scholarship has since canonized these synopses. Today’s historians generally agree that Boullée produced three unique elevation drawings depicting the library’s primary facade and new entrance. Each drawing is recognized as a distinct yet equally feasible alternative. In this thesis I propose that only two of the three elevation drawings correspond to the library’s primary facade. I assert that the third elevation drawing—the one depicting twin figures of Atlas—was intended to be situated opposite the library’s new entrance and conceived to frame an urban plaza and house a public fountain. This thesis demonstrates that in our haste to allegorize Boullée’s unbuilt redesign of the Bibliothèque du Roi we failed to adequately interrogate the architectural drawings he produced. In this thesis I unearth drawn and built architectural artifacts evidencing Boullée’s forgotten fountain.

My method of inquiry hypothesizes that the same discursive tools can be used to both produce and critically interrogate orthographic drawings. The practice of search in this thesis yields discovery, not through the investigation of an historical work of architecture as it relates to history, but rather through the investigation of a set of drawings as they relate to design.

The thesis culminates in two parts: (1) a 229-page book offering textual and graphic forms of analysis and (2) a forty-minute performance titled “Nights I Dream of Boullée” designed for the ACT Cube blackbox theater at MIT.