The construction of one’s own character as a narrative device of self-expression is seen quite regularly; however, much rarer is the ability to both engage and express a narrative of one’s contemporary context through the construction of his or her own character. Seemingly shifting between architect, artist, and pornographer, Jean-Jacques Lequeu’s character is shrouded in uncertainty. Flipping through the work of Lequeu deposited in the National Library of France, one encounters a series of seemingly irrational self-portraits expressing different “characters.” These images have often lead to the assumption that he was either eccentric or delusional. This paper argues for the opposite; that is, when these self-images are examined within the architectural context of a pre-revolutionary France, they reveal Lequeu’s mastery of the construction of character as a narrative device.
Lequeu’s graphic work, whether self-portrait or sectional drawing, is a response to the development of the expression of architectural character. In the context of pre-Revolutionary eighteenth-century France, character was an emerging architectural language, often discussed by scholars through Étienne-Louis Boullée’s and Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s work. The idea of character and its evolution as an architectural language capable of evoking and impressing emotions on the public sphere emerged through the increasing destabilization and illegibility of existing classic architectural orders, the rationalization of expression, and exploration of geometrical composition and spatial sequences.
Lequeu expressed his talent as an artist from a young age. His early interest in drawing was fostered by his father’s profession as a cabinet maker. Lequeu quickly developed as a draughtsman, eventually gaining acceptance into the L’Académie des Sciences, Belles-Lettres et Arts de Rouen under the sponsorship of Julien-David Le Roy. He continued his development until the currents of the Revolution began to stir, which caused a temporary collapse in his professional career.1 This provided him the freedom to develop his own work, which became highly critical towards his contemporaries, showing extra contempt for Étienne-Louis Boullée. This work is where the construction of his character alludes to and reveals much about his context in eighteenth-century France. The first story he tells is of the destabilization of classical architectural orders and the emergence of architectural character.
Lequeu created the Symbolic and Tyrrhenian orders, as exemplified by his self-portrait column, which seemingly aimed to mock the architectural discourse of the classical orders; however he was actually reigniting the debate that followed Claude Perrault’s 1683 publication, Ordonnance for the Five Kinds of Columns after the Method of the Ancients, on the expression of beauty through the codified system of orders.2 Before Perrault’s challenge, beauty in architecture was to be exclusively expressed through its codified system of orders. Perrault challenged this system of the ancients by defining two types of beauty: positive and arbitrary. Positive beauty was achieved through the expression of material quality, execution of craft, and magnificence in size and symmetry. Arbitrary beauty was expressed through composition of form, shapes, proportion, and articulation. Perrault’s notion of arbitrary beauty had begun to re-emerge alongside the development of empiricist philosophy in the eighteenth century. The development in rationalizing experience as the producer of reason allowed Perrault’s arbitrary beauty to control expression through reason. Perrault’s notion of arbitrary beauty also allowed classical architectural orders to become increasingly ornamental which conflicted with their structural origins, an issue that would be taken up by Marc-Antoine Laugier and was widely debated through the battle of ancients vs. moderns. Reinterpretations of the architectural orders and columns challenged the symbol and language of a column. The obsession with the correctness of expressions in classical orders, also known as decorum, played a large role in attempting to rationalize Perrault’s arbitrary beauty.3 Architecture was becoming increasingly illegible in the context of eighteenth-century France, as the culture of consumption was causing misuse of the classical orders, thus reducing their legibility. Lequeu’s self-column challenged the contemporary expression in eighteenth-century France by both expressing himself as a column and embedding ambiguities in the allegorical references of the column.
As the new class of administrators and financiers emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, an excessive boom in building followed. Due to their constant misuse and appropriation by the emerging merchant class, the classical orders were losing their historical legible codification.4 The classical orders were becoming decorative, which undermined architecture’s role in representing social status. Lequeu used the context of illegibility to cast multiple narratives into his columns for the Symbolic and Tyrrhenian orders. The Symbolic order, which he portrayed as a statue of himself, referenced the nature of the codified classical orders as a Renaissance language of symbols. The Tyrrhenian order represented a few important architectural myths and associates the order with the narratives of Euclid, Jiram, Samson, and Tyrrhenus.5 The narratives told by these columns created ambiguity in expression of the column as it could be referencing any or all of them at once. For Lequeu, this was a cynical reference to the increasing illegibility of the classical architectural orders. Finally, the shape of the capital profile drawn in the Tyrrhenian order is drawn in two ways, concave and convex. This small detail brings out another development of architectural character told through the study of physiognomy and his self-portraits.
In relationship to the destabilization and increasing illegibility of the established architectural orders, the rationalization of expression due to increasingly popular empiricist philosophy further developed the language of architectural character. Lequeu’s physiognomic drawings are the outcome of a continued process of understanding the ability of architectural expression to provide a way to produce sensation. This ability was heavily influenced by Charles Le Brun’s depiction of expression in the human face.6 Le Brun, a seventeenth-century painter, worked to rationalize the expression of figure’s faces in paintings so they could be used to clearly depict the narrative of the painting. Looking at a few of Le Brun’s drawings of fright, joy, attention, and esteem, we can see his process to rationalize these expressions through understanding the facial lines and geometry that produces them. Le Brun’s drawings relate the practices of physiognomy to painting, continuing earlier studies by the sixteenth-century scholar Giambattista della Porta and others. The study of physiognomy aimed to relate meaning and emotion to facial expressions. In Le Brun’s drawings, he aimed to use this rationalization to create clear narratives about the figures for the viewers. Lequeu, building from these processes, used the expressions in his self-portraits to create increasingly convincing different characters.
Through the study of physiognomy, Le Brun developed a distinctive correlation between eye brow positions and particular emotions. This was extremely important as a means to rationalize emotion using shape and line.7 Lequeu’s drawings also engaged the studies of Petrus Camper’s 1791 Dissertation sur les varietes naturelles. Similar to Le Brun, Camper proposed that emotions could be conveyed by artists in control of facial lines. Specifically, Camper referred to a “facial angled” which allowed artists to convey all emotions.8 This premise would be developed as a means to rationalize the expression of architectural character by Jacques-François Blondel and Germain Boffrand, the teachers of Boullée, Claude Nicolas Ledoux, and Lequeu.
In 1745, Germain Boffrand wrote about the relationship between classical orders and their character:
Although architecture may seem only to be concerned with what is material, it is capable of different genres, which make up, so to say, its forms of speech, and which are animated by the different characters that it can make felt. Just as on stage set a Temple or Palace indicates whether the scene is pastoral or tragic, so a building by its composition expresses that it is for a particular use, or that it is a private house. Different buildings, by their arrangement, by their construction, and by the way they are decorated should tell the spectator their purpose; and if they do not, they offend against the rules of expression and are not as they out to be.9
To Boffrand, all emotions could be expressed in architecture through their composition, construction, and decoration. In describing this process he claims, “It is not sufficient that a building be beautiful, the spectator has to feel the character that the building must impart, so that it appears joyful to those for whom it should communicate happiness, and serious and sad to those for whom it should command respect or sadness.”10 According to Boffrand, through the use of a line—concave, convex, or straight—an architect could evoke expression, referencing Le Brun’s eye brow line as a tool for rationalizing the expression of emotion. Lequeu learned these techniques through his teacher, Boffrand.
The process of trying to rationalize architectural character as a new language was continued by Jacques-François Blondel, who described sixty-four building genres and types, including the form and decoration of each. For Blondel, thirty-eight characters could be expressed in buildings. These characters ranged from sublimity, nobility, freedom, femininity, firmness, virility, lightness, elegance, delicacy, the pastoral, naïveté, to mysterious, grand, bold, terrifying, dwarf, frivolous, licentious, ambiguous, vague, barbaric, flat, trifling, and impoverished.
All the different sorts of architectural production should bear the imprint of the particular purpose of each building, all should have a character determining their general form, and announcing the building to be what it is. It is not enough for the distinctive character to be indicated only by the attributes of the sculpture. . . . It is the fine arrangement [disposition] of the general masses, the choice of forms, and an underlying style which gives to each building a bearing which suits only those of its sorts.11
In this passage, Blondel reiterated Boffrand’s notion that each particular building imprints its purpose and would do so through its character.
Up to this point, architectural character was understood to express the entire range of emotion within the limits of convenance, or the suitability of architecture to its owner.12 Originally acting as a respect for decorum and the suitability of a building’s design to its function, the emerging expressive qualities of architecture became described as character.13 This is important in relating the language of character back to the destabilizing of the classical orders. In Michel de Fremin’s 1702 Memoires critiques d’architecture, he claimed the building should reflect the social status of the owner and should not make the mistake of deceitfully suggesting a higher social position for its occupant than merited. Fremin states, “I have one more word to say about what I mean by convenance for the condition of those for whom the building is built, it is the science of avoiding anything that does not suit the dignity or status of the master, when this is not followed inconvenance occurs.”14 This misrepresentation was precisely what was happening in eighteenth-century France as the new emerging merchant class was able to build architecture that was originally solely expressive of the elite.
Functional aspects of buildings also depended directly on convenance because any failure to portray the owner’s social status honestly could disrupt the accord that should exist between form and its function.15 For Blondel, caractère, or character, emerged from convenance when social status passed to the background.16 This was only able to happen in the context of the emerging consumption economy in France. The nobility gradually lost their power to represent status, ceding it to merchants and financiers. The growing illegibility produced the emergence of an autonomous architectural expression, freed from its obligation to signify rank and its classical origins. With this autonomy, architecture turned to emerging understandings of sensationalism and sequential experience as producers of character, setting up the context for Lequeu’s more architectural drawings.
In the drawing Cross Section of a Subterranean Gothic House, Lequeu’s work engages the expression of character. He does so through the sequential experience of space by allegorically referring to the three-stage initiation of Terrasson.17 The section starts with the first initiation called Cerebrus, symbolized by the three-headed dog. The occupant then moves onto the second stage of initiation, fire, composed of a furnace with torture devices. The third stage passes through the initiation by water, through a river with ornaments of a boat wheel before finally leading to the last initiation of air at the entrance of the Temple of Isis.18 These sequential initiations drawn by Lequeu were meant to show that not only was architecture able to produce a character, but it could also craft a narrative throughout a section. Instead of continuing to produce character through the typical orders, Lequeu developed sectional qualities that directly told the narratives of the scene he was setting. This allowed others to read the section and understand the precession through the space as the initiation. While others like Nicolas Le Camus de Mézières had expressed that similar to the picturesque garden, architecture could evoke different emotions through different spatial sequences; Lequeu pushed this to show that architecture could create its own narrative that could be engaged directly through the sectional drawing.
In the design for the Tomb of Porsenna, Lequeu composes a series of primitive shapes to form the design. This drawing referenced the use of geometric composition to produce character. In this process, most notably for Boullée, who believed that geometry facilitated expression because geometry was able to impress upon the senses. Pure geometries were able to evoke certain feelings and impress upon a viewer’s senses, ultimately producing direct feelings of joy, or terror. Boullée’s beliefs emerged in relationship to the development of empiricist philosophies of the time. Boullée’s work in this sense was much influenced by Nicolas Le Camus de Mézières. Le Camus de Mézières had discussed proportion and mutual composition in terms of the buildings mass as a way to produce a sound, elegant, and delightful harmony through its arrangement. To Le Camus de Mézières, good proportions were founded on correct, immediate, and apprehensible relations, and that people could understand the relations of objects and be affected by the composition. Le Camus de Mézières initially described this in terms of the architect’s ability to set the scene of their building:
If he wishes his building to set a calm and gentle scene, he must combine masses that do not differ too widely; he will see that they must not have too much variety and relief and that the prevailing tone must be one of tranquility and majesty; the contrasts of light and shade must be well regulated, for any excess of either would be harmful. Nothing better conveys the character of mildness than shadows that become less dense and they grow longer.19
He continues on to describe how scenes of harshness, simplicity, majesty, and terror can be controlled and stimulated by the correlation between compositions of shapes and the light and shadow that is produced across their surface.
Setting the scene of the building here is similar to that of the increasing popular Chinese garden, which was heavily tied to the development of empiricist philosophy in France. The garden was viewed as a way of setting a sequence of moods, which Boullée’s work often referenced. For Le Camus de Mézières, the most important part of the composition was to give shape and life to the whole.
Even the most intelligent architect can hope to succeed only by adapting his design to the exposure of the Sun to the principal parts of his building. Like the skillful painter, he must learn to take advantage of light and shade, to control his tints, his shadows, his nuances, and to impart a true harmony to the whole. The general tone must be proper and fitting; he must have foreseen the effects and be as careful in considering all the parts as if he had to show a picture of them.20
Such claims were heavily influential for Boullée, who claimed compositions of masses produced sensation. In Architecture, Essay on Art, Boullée wrote: “To give character to a work is to use precisely the means needed to arouse those sensations alone that are required for the occasion. To understand what I mean by character of the effects stirred by different objects, look at the great tableaux of nature and consider how we are forced to responds to the impact made on our senses.”21 His continued use of nature and season in the description of varieties of mood show the relationship to the picturesque garden. As the definition of the relationship between shape and sensation developed, the language of character was becoming rationalized to the point that not only emotion but language could be communicated by the character of a building, assuming an understanding of the architectural language. Looking at Ledoux’s series of houses, for example the woodcutter’s house, which produced an understanding of the woodcutter’s place in society by his house appearing as a series of chopped logs started to show this emergence. This was a way to use the language of character to communicate to the illiterate to understand their place and represent their role in society. These developments of character are related to the emerging public sphere, remembering that the architectural codified orders were a way for the noble class to speak of their nobility to the lower classes, such as the Doric symbolizing public programs, for example the library. The modern public sphere was freed of the constraints of representation but consisted of a social space in which rational and critical discussions could take place discussions whose outcome did not depend on the rank or status of the participants.22 With the bulk of Ledoux’s work being on public buildings instead of housing there was a transition of convenance to character. More precisely, the application of convenance to building types whose place in a symbolic hierarchy was increasingly illegible, demanded a shift in what the character of a building should represent. This signified the change to express building decorum suitable to the social status of its owner by giving it an expression suitable to its function. The declining relevance of social status also highlighted unnecessary use of its representation. In the realm of architecture this shifted convenance toward the representation of function over rank, which shifted the legibility of architecture from the established codified orders to architectural character.
For Lequeu, this meant a cow shed should be a cow, as seen in his drawing for the The Cow Stable to the South Located on the Fresh Meadow. This design references the lineage of Ledoux’s work on metaphorical imagery and allegory in regard to a building’s character. Lequeu’s drawing was a cynical criticism of these concepts in the language defined by his contemporaries in trying to argue that objects themselves, in this case a large cow, were clearly understandable to a public and thus a large cow would communicate the buildings function of a cow shed. The drawing acts a representation of language because people who could not read, which consisted of a large portion of France at the time, would be able to understand what the building was and how it operated. To Lequeu, pure geometry was not as effective as communicating as a symbol.
If we revisit Lequeu’s self-portraits, it now becomes clear that his seemingly bemusing self-portraits reveal his ability to control the expression of character to produce seemingly different identities of himself. Through his physiognomy informed facial expressions, and his symbolic clothing to represent different class and backgrounds he drew characters of himself that truly produce different identities. While seemingly bizarre and fantastical, Jean-Jacques Lequeu’s work reveals his characters not as a sign of his own delusion; but instead representations of the ability to construct character as means to communicate narratives about the entire architectural discipline of his time. This ability can be seen in the way he drew ancient stories through columns, narrative sequences through sections, and communicate cynically through symbolic architecture. The collection of his work reveals the story of the shift from classical orders to architectural character as the means of expression throughout the eighteenth-century in France.
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