PRINT February 2020



Jean-Jacques Lequeu, Ad naturam imago Rothomagae, 1773, pen, ink, and wash on paper, 17 1⁄2 × 12 5⁄8".

IN JULY 1825, eight months before his death, the French architect Jean-Jacques Lequeu donated several hundred of his meticulous pen-and-wash drawings to the Bibliothèque Royale in Paris (now the Bibliothèque Nationale de France). Representing more than four decades of work, and spanning the fall of the Bourbon monarchy, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic era, and the Restoration, Lequeu’s corpus reveals a maximalist artistic vision unlike any other. Made in near-total isolation in a cramped Parisian bachelor pad furnished with little more than a table and chair, a mattress, and a lone coffeepot, his drawings include magnificent designs for imperial palaces, Revolutionary monuments, and rustic garden pavilions—none of which was ever built, despite his dogged efforts to attract clients—along with illustrated drawing manuals, pornographic images, and physiognomic self-portraits.

At Paris’s Petit Palais in 2018, Lequeu received his first retrospective, with a faux-spooky installation that paid homage to the architect’s fascination with gothic horror novels and Freemasonry. (Discreet partitions and trigger warnings were in place for the naughtier pictures.) A reduced version of the show traveled to the Menil Collection in Houston, and a third iteration, also smaller than the one at the Petit Palais, is currently on view at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, an institution whose founder, like Lequeu, was passionate about the medium of drawing and its expressive possibilities.

Jean-Jacques Lequeu, Il tire la langue (He Sticks Out His Tongue), 1777–1825, pen, ink, and wash on paper, 13 5⁄8 × 9 1⁄4".

As in life, virtually no one paid attention to Lequeu in the century after his death. In the 1930s, the Viennese architectural historian Emil Kaufmann came across Lequeu’s library bequest and decided to include him in several publications devoted to the late-eighteenth-century architects Étienne-Louis Boullée and Claude-Nicolas Ledoux. In Kaufmann’s opinion, the work of these three visionary designers prefigured the geometric abstraction of Le Corbusier and other international modernists. Presumably to make Lequeu’s busy drawings better fit this stripped-down schema, Kaufmann published some of them without their copious annotations—in which Lequeu provides rambling lists of building materials, topographical descriptions, and other arcane commentary.

Jean-Jacques Lequeu, L’etable et la porte du parc de plaisirs de la chasse (Cow Barn and Gate to the Hunting Grounds) (detail), 1777–1825, pen, ink, wash, and watercolor on paper, 17 1⁄2 × 12 1⁄8". From “Architecture civile” (Civil Architecture), 1777–1825.

Yet even with these texts cropped out, it’s hard to imagine how Lequeu could have been viewed as a protomodernist, at least by Kaufmann’s definition. Later scholars like Philippe Duboy, whose monograph Lequeu: An Architectural Enigma was published in 1986, would place him in the Surrealist camp, although Duboy notoriously went even further, proposing that Lequeu’s body of work had been tampered with, and partially fabricated by, the artist-prankster Marcel Duchamp (most scholars dismiss this claim, and there is no hard evidence supporting it). More recently, architectural historians and critics have associated Lequeu’s designs, such as his cow barn in the shape of a cow, with postmodern icons like the “duck” cited by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour in Learning from Las Vegas (1972).

What is interesting about Lequeu’s attitude toward “Oriental” design is that it is not “Orientalist” in the classical, Saidian sense.

Either way, Lequeu has seldom been seen as a product of his own time, and all three versions of his retrospective seek to redress this fact. The exhibition’s wall labels and accompanying catalogue flesh out key aspects of his biography, noting that though he was an outsider for much of his life, Lequeu did receive academic training; he also worked briefly in the office of esteemed architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot (and later for Soufflot’s nephew, on whose behalf he oversaw the furnishing of the Parisian Hôtel de Montholon) and became part of a public atelier during the French Revolution, designing ephemeral structures for political festivals. The didactics indicate, too, how Lequeu’s obsession with physiognomy, represented by his fascinatingly opaque facial studies, and with sexual difference—evidenced by his drawings of genitalia of every variety, hermaphrodites, and figures of ambiguous gender—are wholly in keeping with the late-Enlightenment attempt to define and classify, even if they ultimately underscore the limits of that endeavor.

 Jean-Jacques Lequeu, Elévation géométrale du temple de la terre (Geometric Elevation of the Temple of the Earth), 1794, pen, ink, wash, and watercolor on paper, 13 7⁄8 × 20 1⁄4". From “Architecture civile” (Civil Architecture), 1777–1825.

Like other early-modern architects, Lequeu’s drawings explore analogies between bodies and buildings and the erotic, multisensory dimensions of architectural design. In his annotations, he often describes in compulsive detail not only how buildings look but also how they feel, smell, and even taste—which admittedly sounds weird until you read Nicolas Le Camus de Mézières’s Le génie de l’architecture, ou L’analogie de cet art avec nos sensations (The Genius of Architecture; or, The Analogy of That Art with Our Sensations, 1780), a building treatise informed by eighteenth-century sensationalist and materialist philosophy, or Jean-François de Bastide’s La petite maison (The Little House, 1758). The latter text, a libertine novella centering on a marquis who bets a young ingénue that he can seduce her by taking her on a tour of his “pleasure house” (maison de plaisance) outside of Paris, contains descriptions of scented walls and furnishings, a mechanical dining table that drops through a trapdoor, and a mirrored boudoir disguised as a trompe l’oeil forest that readily call to mind the drawings of Lequeu. Some of the architect’s more whimsical designs, in fact, are not so different from the pleasure pavilions and garden follies that were actually built at the time, among them a summerhouse in the shape of a giant “ruined” column erected circa 1780 for Parisian nobleman François Racine de Monville’s suburban garden estate. Lequeu included a nearly identical design for a belvedere in his unpublished book of drawings “Architecture civile.”

Jean-Jacques Lequeu, Pagode indienne d’intelligence et tombeaux (Indian Pagoda of Intelligence and Tombs), 1777–1825, pen, ink, wash, and watercolor on paper, 17 1⁄2 x 12 1⁄8". From “Architecture civile” (Civil Architecture), 1777–1825.

Another aspect of Lequeu’s work that links him to eighteenth-century concerns is its pluralistic, global view of architectural design. (Unfortunately, few of the drawings conveying that view traveled to the Morgan or the Menil.) His work includes numerous examples of “Indian,” “Persian,” “Moorish,” and “Chinese” architecture in the form of temples, pagodas, tombs, theaters, “cabinets of delight,” and garden kiosks. Like his contemporaries, Lequeu sometimes adopted a fanciful approach to depicting the architecture of exotic cultures, but many of his drawings are based on actual models and descriptions of Eastern buildings that appeared in publications like Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie (1751–66) and William Chambers’s Designs of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines, and Utensils (1757). (Chambers clearly exerted a strong influence on Lequeu, who donated his own copy of Chambers’s treatise along with his drawings to the Bibliothèque Royale in 1825.) What is interesting about Lequeu’s attitude toward “Oriental” design is that it is not “Orientalist” in the classical, Saidian sense. Instead of proposing binary divisions and racialized hierachies between East and West, as the illustrations for the contemporaneous Napoleonic publishing project Déscription de l’Égypte (1809–28) aim to do, Lequeu’s drawings highlight conceptual and material affinities across cultures—notably, a shared interest in pleasure and sensuality and a belief in the power of architecture to dictate behavior and shape desire.

Lequeu was an inveterate bibliophile, and his postmortem inventory shows that his small apartment housed hundreds of volumes, including standard architectural tomes by Vitruvius, Andrea Palladio, and Jacques-François Blondel. He also owned a French translation of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499), an esoteric architectural treatise about a young man who goes in search of his lost love amid a dreamlike landscape populated by fantastical buildings. Lequeu makes several references to the Hypnerotomachia in his drawings, but he invokes myriad other sources as well, many of which are not listed in his inventory. Often, he quotes or paraphrases these sources without acknowledgment in the annotations to his drawings, which, pace Kaufmann, are invaluable sources of evidence for understanding Lequeu’s approach.

Some of Lequeu’s annotations may appear to be the product of an eccentric mind that is slowly unraveling. In one of his designs for a Chinese kiosk, for example, he labels the banners flanking the structure with the enigmatic slogan THE TAILS OF WHITE COWS FROM GREATER TIBET. However, a quick Google search of this phrase reveals that Lequeu likely stole it from a seventeenth-century travel account of India written by the French physician François Bernier, who claimed that such tails were used to ornament the ears of prized elephants at the Mughal court. Additional Google searches of Lequeu’s annotations (fair warning: It’s easy to go down a rabbit hole here) yield a surprisingly diverse range of texts, from an early-eighteenth-century description of Makassar in Indonesia by the French polymath Antoine-Augustin Bruzen de La Martinière to the popular fantasy novel Séthos (1731). The epic story of an Egyptian hero who undertakes a series of quasi-Masonic trials to become leader of his people—a perfect foil for the increasingly marginalized and lonely Lequeu—Séthos was written by a sociable French priest named Jean Terrasson. In the novel’s preface, Terrasson tries to pass it off as an ancient Greek manuscript he serendipitously discovered “in the library of a foreign nation, extremely jealous of this type of treasure.”

What Lequeu’s annotations suggest is that he had both an archival impulse and a magpie imagination that connect him to certain strands of modern and contemporary artistic practice—Joseph Cornell’s shadow boxes, Mark Dion’s architectural follies, and Walid Raad’s historical fictions all come to mind—while leaving him distinctly eighteenth-century in sensibility. But they also conjure a melancholy vision of an armchair architect, sitting at home or perhaps in the same library where he would surrender his life’s work, thumbing year after year through thousands of pages of books and jotting down endless notes about places, buildings, and customs that he himself would never witness. In that sense, his practice also evokes the contemporary trope of the sad, alienated internet surfer, voraciously experiencing the richness of life as mediated through a screen and leaving comments or annotations on every page he visits. No wonder, then, that Lequeu went to such great lengths to bring the world as he saw it so powerfully to life on the page, a singular achievement that his longed-for public will now finally have the chance to enjoy. 

“Jean-Jacques Lequeu: Visionary Architect” is on view at the Morgan Library and Museum, New York, through May 10, 2020.

Meredith Martin is an Associate Professor of Art History at New York University and the Institute of Fine Arts.