Currently reading : The [semi] Sadistic Architect

The [semi] Sadistic Architect

6 January 2014

Author : helenlevin

The sadistic architect operates intending to instill fear in the audience, but the semi-sadistic architect operates intending to instill only initial, momentary fear in the audience. When that moment has passed, and the danger deemed non-existent, the audience will experience a beautiful relief, an understanding that, in 1756, Edmund Burke called “the sublime.”

We owe a great deal to Burke, as we know and accept now that aesthetics are a personal choice; that poetic beauty is all around us, found equally in the familiar and the unknown, the light and the dark. There was a time where this accepted duality did not exist. Across all fields it continues to take those willing to step outside of the accepted norms to bring respect to the darkness, even if it means making one’s audience momentarily afraid.

“An architecture of shadows outlined by even darker shadows”, was the vision of Étienne-Louis Boullée (1728-99), a post-Enlightenment / pre-French Revolution architect. He advocated for an artistic, poetic and nature-inspired approach to architecture, rather than a technical approach. To conceive of architecture that functioned with the same effect as nature, Boullée’s architectural proposals invoked the effects of the gloomy darkness of fall and winter and the infinity of the universe. In “Architecture, Essay on Art” he wrote:

You, surrender yourselves completely to all the pleasure that this sublime passion can procure…it is the passion that turns our pain into pleasure…Grandeur, too, always pleases us whatever form it takes, for we are ever eager to increase our pleasure and would like to embrace the Universe.





The proposals Boullée created of cenotaphs, chapels, monuments and cemeteries invoked winter, when “the light is sad and gloomy [and] the denuded earth has the appearance of an all embracing tomb.” None of the proposals were built and exist only as black and white prints, adding to the mysterious darkness of each work. The simple representational method using plans, elevations, perspectives and sections invites the potential of any field to poetically bring the darkness in.

Boullée mandated a prosthetic infinity and symmetrical clarity through the use of “regular” volumes: spheres, pyramids, squares. Using a regular volume created an infinite variety, a sphere being an immeasurable polyhedron and the smooth surfaces of monumental scale pyramids and cubes providing vertigo inducing vistas. Visual infinity in nature invokes both feelings of fear and awe at the spatial grandeur, “wandering so within immensity, in this abyss of extensions, man is annihilated by this extraordinary spectacle of inconceivable space.”

The sublime experience Boullée cultivated as an ode to nature did not truly have sadistic intentions. The fear required to experience the pleasurable beauty flirts at harm, but ultimately Boullée seemed interested just in showing this sublime potential for architecture. Peter Greenaway explored this fear/sublime transformation in the film The Belly of an Architect (1987), a dark and suspenseful story about a contemporary architect with a mysterious stomach ailment staging an exhibition of Boullée’s work in Rome. The film uses the monumental architecture in Rome to illustrate the disparity between human and built scale that is also found in Boullée’s work, additional visualization of the built environment needed to “turn pain into pleasure.”


All images available on the Gallica Bibliothèque Nationale de France website.

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