The Poetry of Public Spaces, the Architecture of Shadow, and How Trees Inspired the World’s First Planetarium Design – Brain Pickings

by Jeremy

Nineteen years after the publication of Isaac Newton’s epoch-making Principia — in England, in Latin — the prodigy mathematician Émilie du Châtelet set out to translate his ideas into her native French, making them more understandable in the process. Her more-than-translation — which includes several of her mathematical corrections and clarifications of Newton’s imprecision, and which remains the only comprehensive edition in French to this day — popularized his ideas in France and, from this epicenter of the Enlightenment, spread them centripetally throughout the rest of the Continent, rendering Newton himself an emblem of the Enlightenment the sweep of which he never lived to see.

blake newton
Newton by William Blake (Tate Britain)

Not long after Du Châtelet’s 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 Newton’s spell. Determined to honor Newton with a worthy cenotaph — a memorial tomb for a person buried elsewhere — he designed a sphere 500 feet in diameter, taller than the Pyramids of Giza, nested into a colossal pedestal and encircled by hundreds of cypress trees, giving it the transfixing illusion of being both half-buried into the Earth and hovering unmoored from gravity. It was also, in essence, the world’s first domed planetarium design.

boullee newtoncenotaph7
Image courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The cenotaph was a touching gesture in the first place — a Frenchman honoring a genius born of and interred in England, a nation with which Boullée’s own had been in near-ceaseless war for centuries, with those tensions at an all-time high at the time of his design, thanks to the American Revolutionary War. Doubly touching was his choice of a sphere: One of Newton’s most revolutionary contributions — the mathematical inference that because gravity is weaker at the equator, the shape of the Earth must be spherical — had defied France’s most incredible son, René Descartes, who maintained that the Earth was egg-shaped. When Boullée was still a boy, a young Frenchman — Émilie du Châtelet’s mathematics tutor — had joined a dangerous Arctic expedition to prove Newton correct. Two centuries later, in the wake of the world’s grimmest war yet, a queer Quaker Englishman would do the same, risking his life to defend the epoch-making theory of a German Jew — the theory of relativity that ultimately subverted Newton. Another world war later, Einstein himself would appeal to what he called “the common language of science” — that truth-seeking contact with nature and reality that transcends all borders and nationalisms, the impulse that animated Boullée’s bold homage to Newton.

boullee newtoncenotaph5
Cenotaph side cross-section. Image courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

While governed by the philosophy that “our buildings — and our public buildings in particular — should be to some extent poems,” Boullée also believed that science could magnify the poetry of public spaces, which must at bottom reflect the principles of the grand designer: Nature. A century before the teenage Virginia Woolf wrote that “all the Arts… imitate as far as they can the one great truth that all can see,” Boullée insisted.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment