A Cenotaph for Newton: The Poetry of Public Spaces, the Architecture of Shadow, and How Trees Inspired the World’s First Planetarium Design

Nineteen years after the publication of Isaac Newtons epoch-making Principia– in England, in Latin– the prodigy mathematician Émilie du Châtelet set out to translate his concepts into her native French, making them more understandable in the procedure. Her more-than-translation– which consists of several of her mathematical corrections and information of Newtons imprecisions, and which stays the only detailed edition in French to this day– promoted his concepts in France and, from this center of the Knowledge, spread them centripetally throughout the rest of the Continent, rendering Newton himself an emblem of the Knowledge the sweep of which he never lived to see.

Newton by William Blake (Tate Britain) Not long after Du Châtelets untimely death, her legacy reached one of her most gifted compatriots– the visionary architect Étienne-Louis Boullée (February 12, 1728– February 4, 1799), who fell under Newtons spell. Identified to honor Newton with a deserving cenotaph– a memorial burial place for a person buried somewhere else– he designed a sphere 500 feet in diameter, taller than the Pyramids of Giza, embedded into a colossal pedestal and surrounded by hundreds of cypress trees, offering it the transfixing impression of being both half-buried into the Earth and hovering unmoored from gravity. It was likewise, in essence, the worlds first domed planetarium style.

When Boullée was still a young boy, a young Frenchman– Émilie du Châtelets mathematics tutor– had joined a dangerous Arctic expedition to show Newton proper. Another world war later, Einstein himself would appeal to what he called “the typical language of science”– that truth-seeking contact with nature and reality that transcends all borders and all nationalisms, the impulse that animated Boullées bold tribute to Newton.

Cenotaph side cross-section. Image thanks to Bibliothèque nationale de France.While governed by the credo that “our structures– and our public structures in particular– ought to be to some degree poems,” Boullée likewise believed that science might magnify the poetry of public areas, which should at bottom show the principles of the grand designer: Nature. A century prior to the teenage Virginia Woolf wrote that “all the Arts … mimic as far as they can the one great truth that all can see,” Boullée insisted:

No concept exists that does not stem from nature … It is difficult to produce architectural images without a profound understanding of nature: the Poetry of architecture depends on natural results. That is what makes architecture an art and that art sublime.

Architecture in the contemporary sense was then a young art, since the art-science of viewpoint was so unique. Newtons optics, derived directly from the laws of nature, had transformed it all. Boullée concerned define architecture as “the art of creating perspectives by the arrangement of volumes,” however a highly poetic art:

The genuine skill of a designer lies in integrating in his work the superb tourist attraction of Poetry.

The poetry of architecture, he argued, resides in utilizing viewpoint and light in such a way that “our senses are reminded of nature.” He translated the laws of nature, as clarified by Newtons optics and mathematics, to intimate that no shape embodies this serenade to the senses with higher power and accuracy than the sphere:

Aerial cross-section. Image thanks to Bibliothèque nationale de France.But my favorite part of the story is that Boullée discovered his developmental motivation, not only for the Newton cenotaph and however for his entire innovative viewpoint, in an uncommon encounter with trees– those profoundest of instructors.

Image courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.And so Boullée asserted his cenotaph for Newton on an enormous sphere that would communicate his supreme intent for the temple– to arouse in the visitors soul “feelings in keeping with religious ceremonies,” a sense of grandeur leaving them “moved by such an excess of sensibility … that all the faculties of our soul are disturbed to such a level that we feel it is leaving from our body”– a result constantly best achieved not by an enormity of sheer size and area however by a considered contrast of scales. No building, he observed, “calls for the Poetry of architecture” more than a memorial to the dead.

One night, heavy with grief, Boullée went for a walk along the edge of a forest. Under the moonlight, he observed his shadow. He had seen his shadow a thousand times previously, but the peculiar lens of his psychic state rendered it entirely brand-new– a living art work of “severe melancholy.” Taking a look around, he saw the shadows of the trees in this brand-new light, too, etching onto the ground the profound drama of life. The entire scene was suddenly awash in “all that is sombre in nature.” He had seen the state of his soul mirrored back by the natural world, as we so frequently do in those rawest minutes when we are stripped to the base of our being, grounded into our creaturely senses.

Symmetry … is what results from the order that extends in every instructions and multiplies them at our look until we can no longer count them. By extending the sweep of an avenue so that its end runs out sight, the laws of optics and the results of viewpoint provided an impression of immensity; at each action, the objects appear in a brand-new guise and our satisfaction is renewed by a succession of various vistas. By some miracle which in fact is the result of our own motion however which we associate to the things around us, the latter seem to move with us, as if we had imparted Life to them.

A sphere is, in all respects, the image of perfection. It combines stringent balance with the most perfect regularity and the biggest possible variety; its type is developed to the maximum extent and is the most basic that exists; its shape is outlined by the most reasonable shape and, lastly, the light results that it produces are so wonderfully finished that they might not potentially be softer, more reasonable or more diverse. These distinct advantages, which the sphere stems from nature, have a countless hold over our senses.

This was the moment of Boullées artistic awakening– that moment of revelation when, as Virginia Woolf wrote in her charming account of her own creative awakening, something raises “the cotton wool of every day life” and we see the familiar world afresh. Boullée stated:

The mass of things stuck out in black versus the severe wanness of the light. Nature used itself to my gaze in mourning. I was struck by the feelings I was experiencing and right away began to wonder how to use this, specifically to architecture. I searched for a structure made up of the effect of shadows. To accomplish this, I imagined the light (as I had actually observed it in nature) returning to me all that my imagination could believe of. That was how I proceeded when I was looking for to discover this new type of architecture.

He called this brand-new architecture “the architecture of shadow.” His vision for Newtons cenotaph was its grand testament:

I tried to develop the greatest of all impacts, that of vastness; for that is what offers us lofty thoughts as we consider the Creator and offer us celestial feelings.

He attempted, more than that, to honor Newton on his own terms, by the essence of his genius:

O Newton! With the range of your intelligence and the superb nature of your Genius, you have actually defined the shape of the earth; I have actually developed the concept of enveloping you with your discovery … your own self. How can I find outside you anything worthy of you?

The contrast of scales– the smaller sized sphere of the lamp inside the massive sphere of the building– would dramatize the contrast of light and shadow, simply as the moonlight had actually done that eventful night of artistic discovery by the trees. Boullée thought about the play of light the vital aspect in this magic:

At a time long before easily available electrical light and light-projection, he leaned on Newtons optics to envision something that was part Stonehenge and part Hayden Planetarium. Unlike the modern-day equivalent, Boullées was a reversible planetarium– at night, the sole spherical light would irradiate the tiny holes from the other direction, making the dome appear as a self-contained universe if seen from above.

Side cross-section. Image thanks to Bibliothèque nationale de France.Too visionary for its period, the cenotaph was never constructed, but Boullées ink-and-wash drawings circulated commonly in the final years of his life, gasping both generating appreciation and merciless derision– the fate of the real visionary. With the publication of his insightful and impassioned writings nearly 2 centuries after his death, equated by Helen Rosenau, his vision went on to motivate generations of contemporary artists and designers with a brand-new way of considering the poetry of public areas and the relationship in between nature and human creativity.

It is light that produces impressions which excite in us various contradictory experiences depending on whether they are dazzling or sombre. If I could handle to diffuse in my temple spectacular light results I would fill the observer with pleasure; however if, on the contrary, my temple had just sombre impacts, I would fill him with sadness. If I could prevent direct light and set up for its existence without the onlooker knowing its source, the taking place effect of mysterious daylight would produce impossible impression and, in a sense, a genuinely charming magic quality.

In a belief expressive of another leaders lamentation– Harriet Hosmers astute remark that “if one knew however one-half the troubles an artist has to surmount … the public would be less ready to censure him for his drawbacks or sluggish advancement”– Boullée wrote of his critics:

Nobody is more exacting than a man who is not proficient with an offered art for he is not able to think of all the troubles the artist has to get rid of.

His ultimate satisfaction was not the reception or execution of his styles, but the limitless source of their motivation– the elemental wellspring of the imaginative impulse behind all art and all science, that richest and readiest benefit of our aliveness:

Newton by William Blake (Tate Britain) Not long after Du Châtelets untimely death, her tradition reached one of her most gifted compatriots– the visionary designer Étienne-Louis Boullée (February 12, 1728– February 4, 1799), who fell under Newtons spell. When Boullée was still a kid, a young Frenchman– Émilie du Châtelets mathematics tutor– had joined a dangerous Arctic expedition to prove Newton right. Another world war later, Einstein himself would appeal to what he called “the common language of science”– that truth-seeking contact with nature and truth that transcends all borders and all nationalisms, the impulse that animated Boullées vibrant homage to Newton.

Newtons optics, obtained straight from the laws of nature, had revolutionized it all. Image courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.And so Boullée predicated his cenotaph for Newton on an enormous sphere that would communicate his ultimate intent for the temple– to excite in the visitors soul “feelings in keeping with religious events,” a sense of grandeur leaving them “moved by such an excess of sensibility … that all the professors of our soul are disrupted to such an extent that we feel it is departing from our body”– a result always best achieved not by an enormity of sheer size and area however by a thought about contrast of scales.

The artist … is always making discoveries and spends his life observing nature.