Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, Oeil Reflétant l’Intérieur du Théâtre de Besançon, 1784. Courtesy Bibliothèque Nationale de France
Inspired by the form of the earth, one shape has haunted architecture and its scientists, humanists and even utopians more than any other since time immemorial: the globe.
Text by Véronique Patteeuw
Perfectly shaped, shimmering from all sides and holding an impeccable balance despite the laws of gravity, the globe has been an object of fascination throughout architectural history. If the sphere represents both earth and the extra-terrestrial space of the universe, within architectural history it found itself at the crossroads of architecture and astronomy, geography, philosophy, science-fiction, entertainment, and even Utopia. From the Roman Pantheon to Boullée’s cenotaph for Newton, and from Buckminster Fuller’s Biodome to OMA’s City of the Captive Globe, architects have always been inspired by the shape of the earth, fascinated by the universe.
Étienne-Louis Boullée, Coupe du Cénotaphe de Newton, 1784.
Courtesy Bibliothèque Nationale de France
Étienne-Louis Boullée, Cénotaphe de Newton, 1784.
Courtesy Bibliothèque Nationale de France
The gods and the globe
When the Italian architect and surveyor Giambattista Nolli drew his iconographic plan of Rome in 1736, he presented all interior spaces as public domain, displaying the figure of the architecture and the ground it claimed. In Nolli’s plan, one building catches the observer’s attention immediately: an ancient Roman temple with a perfect circular plan. Thought to have been designed by Apollodorus of Damascus in around 125 for the emperor Hadrian, and dedicated to all gods, the Roman Pantheon astonishes by its impeccably balanced interior: a vault that could house a perfect sphere, of 43.3 metres (150 Roman feet) in diameter. The presence of the (absent) sphere produces a powerful spatial experience, enhanced by a giant eight-metre-diameter oculus joining the cosmos to the earth and the spiritual to the temporal. The absent sphere is articulated by five rings of sunken panels, evenly spaced in the ceiling and a checkerboard floor that accentuated the central geometric theme of circles and squares.
The Roman pantheon was not the first building that would use the form of the sphere. Two centuries before, the Italian agronomist Marcus Terentius Varro constructed an aviary in the form of a sphere. Located in Casinum, near Rome, the complex, an enclosure with high walls and netted roofs, recomposed a small paradise with a spherical dome engraved with astral signs used to measure time. Trees were planted around a series of water features. The complex was designed for guests who frequented the building and came there to dine. They experienced a device of contradictions: on the one hand they saw birds in well-lit cages all around them, on the other ducks wading in a pond. In its centre, a small island, which ancient astronomers considered to be the middle of the world. A tambourine-shaped table represented the earth. Here again, circles and squares seem to add to the spherical experience of the aviary.
The globe and revolutionary thought
Over time, scientists and artists imagined globes so big that they became true architectural projects. One could argue that the shape of the globe haunted architecture, its scientists, its humanists and even its utopians. The utopian aspect of the sphere was fully explored in the 19th century, most particularly by some of the leading architects of the Enlightenment, among them the Frenchman Étienne-Louis Boullée (1728–1799), whose large, monumental projects were especially influential. Although Boullée mostly realized small works for private and religious patrons, he emerged during the French Revolution as a theoretician and teacher at the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées and the Académie Royale d'Architecture, where he conceived of architecture as the possibility to construct the moral conscience of man.
For Boullée, architectural conception came with a certain radicalism. Combining Enlightenment philosophy, a profound love of radical geometry and a fascination for gigantic scale, Boullée imagined buildings in which he removed all unnecessary ornamentation, inflated elementary volumes, and favoured a distinctively abstract, geometric style. Regularity, symmetry and variety were the golden rules of his architecture. Antiquity remained an important source, mostly for the formal beauty it inspired, the system of orders it imposed, and the constructive logic it allowed. But he proactively used his fascination for historical precedents to mix classical elements with contemporary and hitherto unseen settings. If one would describe Boullée as a revolutionary architect it would be for two reasons. First, as an artist, Boullée criticized the architecture of his time and proposed bold, progressive and deliberately provocative solutions to the accepted tradition. His projects are often understood as utopian because they envision a new society, and to aspire a new sense of wellbeing for mankind. Second, Boullée also acted as a theoretician and elaborated important artistic policies for some of the French Revolution’s new institutions. From 1789 on, he widened the programmes of his projects to include monuments inspired by the revolutionary world: a national assembly, a municipal palace, a cemetery and memorials.
Amongst these monuments, the cenotaph for Isaac Newton is probably Boullée’s most emblematic project. This funerary monument, conceived by Boullée in 1784 and erected in memory of Isaac Newton, consists of a 500-foot-diameter sphere surrounded by a cylindrical pedestal. The sphere seems to be floating and buried at the same time. Three bases surrounding the sphere hold the whole composition together and enable stairways to reach the upper levels. The bases are planted with curved lines of trees that accentuate the relation between sphere and base, between globe and earth. An excavated ground-level passage enables visitors to arrive at the centre of the sphere, where they can admire from a pedestal a constellation of stars or a gigantic clock. Indeed, two versions of the Cenotaph project were designed: one with a daylight-filled armillary sphere at the centre, a thick vault and a wide esplanade around the mausoleum; the other with a celestial vault that becomes thinner at the top and with a narrower base.
Ledoux’s pursuit of monumental architecture continued in such projects as the Chapel for the death and the Cenotaph for a warrior, a grave with the proportions of a massive monument and a frieze made of gigantic silhouettes of armed soldiers. But most striking of all is his project for a Public Library, a basilica with an immense semi-circular vault with zenith lighting above a central study and reading space. The centre is left empty to accentuate the mass of the cylindrical volume of the library. The supporting walls incorporate the bookshelves on three superimposed levels. For Ledoux, architecture had a pedagogical scope. For him, the school of architecture is a school of reason and progress, where the new knowledge of nature and the history of mankind is presented in a dialectical way, from the origins of civilization to recent scientific discoveries. Here shines the genius of Newton.
Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, Maison des Gardes Agricoles, 1804.
Courtesy Bibliothèque Nationale de France
Globes for an ideal city
While Boullée articulated his utopian vision for the future of society through these large public monuments, his contemporary Claude Nicolas Ledoux (1736–1806) would use his architecture to build for all of humanity. As one of the favourite architects of the Ancien Régime, Ledoux worked with great success for the French aristocracy in the years preceding the Revolution. But after — or because of — the French Revolution, Boullée changed course radically, wanting to house the poor and claiming an ideal city for a new world. Ledoux’s most important project, the Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans, is a complex dedicated to the salt industry. While Ledoux’s first plan for the complex was a composition of buildings arranged around an immense square, linked to each other by porticoes, his second plan proposed a semi-circular complex that reflected a hierarchical organization of work, forming a perfect semi-circular plan reminiscent of the radiant sun. Although King Louis XV had approved of this second plan, only half of the complex was realized: the diameter and a semicircle of buildings for the saltworks.
After the (partial) completion of the project, Ledoux proposed to build an ideal city around the factory, called Chaux. The project — although never realized — testified to an architectural encyclopaedia where each function of society was characterized by a specific spatial form. Ledoux’ catalogue of architectural elements was based on a series of geometrically pure forms (cube, sphere, cylinder, pyramid) that affirmed to a great extent his so-called Architecture Parlante, an architecture that overly states its function. The house of the water inspector, for example, is a large cylindrical volume embedded in a grand pedestal and incorporating both a river and a small waterfall. The barrel manufacturers’ workshop, positioned at the crossroads of four routes, is another telling example. On the one hand, the square plan contains square rooms positioned at its four corners and a central fireplace; on the other, the elevation and section present a series of immense concentric circles surrounding a circular orifice. Gathered in space, the four wings form the intersection of two cylinders whose facades are decorated with concentric (perfect) circles that refer to the circles or hoops needed to secure the barrels for salt transportation. The house of pleasure is composed of twelve rooms coupled with baths for the pleasure of men and women, all attached to a perfect circular galleria. The entrance and the series of anti-chambers and salons are arranged in a phallic-shaped plan, leaving us in no doubt as to the complex’s function.
If the aesthetics of the globe permeate many of the projects for this ideal city, it is the housing for the agricultural guards, designed by Ledoux for Meaupertuis, that takes the most ideal form: a perfect sphere, embedded in a sunken rectangle, and accessible through a series of stairs positioned on all four sides.
The globe’s phantasmagoric potential
French draftsman Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1757–1826) was inspired by the visionary models of Etienne-Louis Boullée and Claude-Nicolas Ledoux. His drawings, famous for breaking with every convention of symmetry, taste, proportion and artistic purity, testify to the concerns of his time. Lequeu proposed monumental public programmes, moralizing and reflecting a sublime ideal. This is what led Lequeu to enter, alongside Boullée and Ledoux, the circle of the so-called ‘Architects of Liberty’. Composed of Gothic and classical motifs, his houses propose a profound profusion of symbols, especially phallic ones. Indeed, erotic and pornographic motifs were common in his drawings. Lequeu was equally inspired by the globe of the planet. His Temple for the Earth, conceived in 1794, is a perfect sphere enclosed by fourteen columns and set on a three-stepped pedestal with massive steps from all four sides. Dedicated to supreme wisdom, as indicated by the engraving on the entrance portal, this temple proposed a learning centre avant la lettre, where a circular seating area positioned under a vaulted stellar ceiling enabled those inside to study the globe positioned at its centre.
The utopian projects by Boullée, Ledoux (and Lequeu) have inspired more than one architect in the 20th century. In 1906, Samuel Friede announced his plan to build the Coney Island Globe Tower. This 210-metre-tall ‘vertical theme-park’ would contain Brooklyn’s attractions in one giant globe in the air. Had the plan gone through, the structure would have contained restaurants (one of which would rotate), an observatory, the United States Weather Observation Bureau and Wireless Telegraph Station, a vaudeville theatre, the world’s largest ballroom, casinos, a hotel, a hippodrome, and a circus.
Oscar Newman, Plan for an Underground Nuclear Shelter, 1969.
Courtesy Kopper Newman
Richard Buckminster Fuller, Biosphere, Montréal, 1967. Photo D.C. Robidoux
In 1967, Buckminster Fuller, together with Peter Chermayeff, Terry Rankine, Ivan Chermayeff and Shoji Sadao, proposed a spherical geodesic dome as the United States pavilion at the Montreal World Exhibition. Of all of Fuller’s domes, the Biosphere, as it later became known, is perhaps the most spectacular. Its 76-metre diameter and 62-metre height make it a dominating building on the St Helen Island. And although, geometrically, the dome is an icosahedron, a twenty-sided shape formed by the interspersion of pentagons into a hexagonal grid, it is substantially more spherical than any simple icosahedra. Its tubular steel structure is welded at the joints and thins gently towards the top so as to optimally distribute forces throughout the system. What Fuller imagined in all its utopian lightness, Oscar Newman imagined as a dystopian potential. In 1969, the American architect and city planner proposed a massive underground sphere beneath Manhattan. The hollowed space, cleared out with nuclear explosions, would house a regular city with a grid of streets and buildings, several levels of further underground spaces, and giant ‘air filters’ reaching the surface. Within a perfect sphere, housing, work and leisure would be organized under an artificially lit sky where coco-cola dances as a permanent cloud in the firmament.
In 1978, Rem Koolhaas added his own fascination for the globe to architectural history. In the appendix to his Delirious New York, he concludes his celebrated retroactive manifesto with the ‘City of the Captive Globe’ (1972). In this project, each ‘island’ corresponds to a city block and represents Koolhaas’s theory of Manhattanism. The Captive Globe is suspended in the middle of the city, demonstrating that all ideologies contribute to the construction of the world, and nurture it; but equally that between the idea of the city and its reality, or, more precisely, between urban reality and its unconscious, there exists an inevitable gap.
Perfectly shaped, shimmering from all sides and holding an impeccable balance despite the laws of gravity, the sphere has been an object of fascination throughout architectural history: a means of tempting the gods in ancient Rome, the spatial articulation of the Enlightenment belief in the laws of nature, a key setting for an ideal civilization, or the protagonist of dystopian narratives. In each case, the sphere testifies to what Claude-Nicolas Ledoux wrote in 1804 in his L’architecture considérée sous le rapport de l’art, des moeurs et de la legislation: ‘Architecture is to masonry what poetry is to literature; it is the dramatic enthusiasm of the profession; we can only talk about it with excitement.’