Paper Architect: Jean-Jacques Lequeu

An insightful New York Times article from February 6, 2020 covers eclectic and eccentric paper architect Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1757—1826). The article is at

From the article: “In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, architecture found itself back at the drafting table. Clients got spooked (or went broke), construction rates plummeted in the United States and Europe, and young architects in particular had to find new ways to work. And so this past decade has greeted a welter of digital projects, performances, pop-up designs and “paper architecture,” by practitioners born too late for big budgets.

“These young architects are heirs to a deep tradition of architecture beyond building — and right now they can discover one of the greatest paper architects of a time before AutoCAD. Jean-Jacques Lequeu, more than two centuries ago, also saw his career upended by political shifts and economic crises: in his case, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. He, too, had to settle for a career of diminished scope, grinding out maps and renderings for a land registry office and other bureaucracies.

“But after hours, alone in his little Parisian bolt-hole, Lequeu (1757—1826) birthed on paper an architecture of wild grandiosity. Styles collided. Historical epochs blended together. European forms mingled with those of Asia and the Middle East. Classical restraint gave way to sensuous, sometimes racy ornament. Buildings became enmeshed with bodies: sometimes human ones, sometimes those of giant farm animals.

“…These painstaking sheets, capricious or perverse, steeped in powder blue and misty rose, are a remarkable achievement of the later Enlightenment — and yet they have much more to offer young architects today than a drawing lesson. When the building contracts dry up, you realize your one true client is desire.”

Architecture During Crisis

In times of uncertainty and turmoil, efforts toward sublime and beauty appear trivial in comparison to the necessities of shelter and functionality. Currently, the novel coronavirus pandemic is spreading at an exponential rate throughout the world and many people are suffering as a consequence. Constructions are being shut down indefinitely and architectural projects that are in the pipelines of many offices are poised to be put on indefinite hold or canceled due to problems of the economy and the realities of social distancing required to stop the spread of disease. An economic recession is on the horizon that can spiral down to another great depression.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a pyramidal diagram that organizes human needs from necessity at the bottom that supports higher activities above. For example, without the basic needs of food, the highest need for self idealization cannot be met. Philosophical inquires made by humans were supported by times of prosperity in which thinkers were allowed to spend time considering the nature of existence rather than going through the turmoils of simply existing.

Architecturally, great achievements such as the Pyramids, the Parthenon, and the Vatican were built with money from a period of immense prosperity and a product of a zeitgeist that reflected abundance and peace. Unlike other creative endeavors such as music, literature, and paintings, buildings require clients with deep pockets. Buildings of great importance not only negotiate issues of money, but also labor and materials along with logistics and codes. If the current crisis leads toward a deep economic downturn, the construction of exuberant buildings will likely be on indefinite hold.

In the upcoming period of downturn, there are two possible scenarios for making good architecture that does not betray the circumstances of the economy and the zeitgeist.

First is to focus on the fundamentals of the necessity of function while striving for visual effects that soothe the spirit. Examples are the buildings produced during the 1930’s America under the funding of Works Projects Administration (WPA). Public buildings built during that period under the direction of WPA were not sparse sheds but ornamented boxes with flourishes of Beaux-Arts influences. There is a conservative element to the projects from this period that looked back at the past as a time of prosperity. Built projects in the foreseeable future will likely be more conservative and restrained if the past depression is any indication for the future outcome. However spartan this approach might be, architects and clients must remember that WPA projects never forgot the importance of aesthetic qualities for lifting human spirit.

The second option is to pursue speculative architecture that escapes the bondage of immense capital investment. There is a place for cultural production in crisis to maintain a sense of humanity. This inclusive approach does not treat the arts as the pinnacle of a stacked pyramid, but sees beauty and sublimity as part of a holistic approach for living life without fear. What used to be called paper architecture, and now digital architecture, exists not to envelop the subject who enters the building but exists to enter the minds of the subject through imagination. The visual representation of unbuilt projects has reached a level of realism unthinkable even 20 years ago. Much as recorded mediums of music expanded its outreach and popularity beyond the immediacy of attending a concert, the proliferation of unbuilt projects over the internet can excite or soothe the minds of audiences experiencing it via the transmitted medium.

Until the crisis becomes unbearably difficult, humanity must be affirmed through continued engagement with beauty and the sublime. This struggle should manifest all efforts in both built and unbuilt projects and leverage depression into an opportunity for growth.

Modernist Imperatives become Decadence in Parasite

Reflecting on the failure of capitalist society to provide humane social housing, the film Parasite draws a stark contrast between the living conditions of the haves and the have-nots. The famed architect designed Park residence, where most of the film takes place, feels spacious and agreeable -but never awe inspiring or too exceptional. The modernist principles of good residential architecture such as natural light, views, fresh air, and uncluttered open floor plan are not shown as common features but as luxury commodities afforded only by the elites. Even art and furniture are available only to the rich Park residence and not in the half-basement apartment of the poor Kim family. If the Park residence contained common trappings of luxury such as gilded furnishing and overly ornate decorations throughout, instead of sparse modernist details, the film would have been less powerful in terms of driving the point that certain living conditions in the built environment are fundamental for a good life regardless of class or money. Instead of chasing decadence, the poor Kim family is drawn to life in the Park house for easily grasped improvements from their own squalid living conditions. The director commented he wanted to make a film focusing on the problem of inequality in Korea, but found out after the film’s release that the film was addressing a global problem.

Globally, architects who practice as service providers for the rich have little power in determining the living conditions of the lower class. More often than not, developer clients are driven by motives of profit rather than a sense of duty toward improving the lives of the eventual occupants. In America, the standard of low-income residential spaces is higher than in countries such as Korea. However, that improved standard has acted as a deterrence for constructing new low-income dwellings. With America’s planning and building codes (that mandate standard features of natural light, ventilation, fire safety, accessibility, water drainage, and plumbing and electrical standards) housing developments have ran into a standstill as developers focus more on building housings for the upper class rather than spend money on building habitable low to middle class housings –in order to gain a higher margin of profit from their investments. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that each housing development must go through an entitlement process full of resistance from existing home owners. Hence, massive homeless populations have formed against the backdrop of the practice of housing as an investment. Societal failure to provide safe and comfortable shelters is a problem that can only be addressed through political interventions. Only once such interventions are in place, ethical architecture can address fundamental issues of ideal living not as decadence for the few but as an imperative for the many.

Ecstasy of Saint Francis

Video link:

Motion graphic artist Agustin Vidal Saavedra uses After Effects to create a fascinating video of the painting “Ecstasy of Saint Francis.”

In western architecture, since the Christian adoption of a Roman invention, the dome has represented heaven. Heaven was thought to be in the sky above, and under visual observations the sky appears to be a dome. In the Bible’s Book of Genesis, God is said to have created heaven as a dome over a flat earth. After Pythagoras posited that the earth was not flat, and since Copernicus theorized against a geocentric universe, the architectural symbolism of the dome cast overhead as a representation of God’s overruling presence from heaven has been fraught with a sense of error. This sense of error reached its symbolic nadir when earth was observed from outer space in photographs taken by astronauts above its thin blue atmosphere.

In regards to representation of heaven using architectural domes, what is successful in Saavedra’s animation is that the artist creates a series of interconnected vertical passage though a montage of domes that terminates in outer space. The religious journey of a saint being taken up into heaven uses the motif of the dome not as heaven itself, but as a passageway to heaven and the afterlife. This animation is a great example of breathing new life to a symbolically depleted architectural formal gesture.

Bernd and Hilla Becher

During the latter half of the 20th century, the conceptual artists Bernd and Hilla Becher anesthetized mechanical and machinic forms through their extensive photographs of industrial buildings, mines, grain elevators, gas tanks, mills, and water towers.

Shot in the mornings, under an overcast sky to avoid shadows, the frontally photographed “objective” images are displayed on a grid, and always without extensive explanations for the function of the structures. One views the photographs of Bechers with an eye toward formal compositions, and not toward operational performances. Whereas the Constructivists and the Bauhaus Modernists theorized machine and industrial architecture in terms of progress, the Bechers often documented built objects nearing obsolescence and disuse, as if some of their subjects are ruins from the past. Through their photographs, they present technology without instrumentality -and this absence turns their subjects into art.

Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographs opens up a possibility to frame technology in terms of affect, and not as a measure of teleological advancements. Their documentations instill a sense of longing and poetry to functionalist structures that have outlived their usefulness: as beams, girders, trusses, domes, braces, towers, ducts, and pipes are displayed as formalistic components capable of eliciting emotional aesthetic responses. These machinic parts that are shown through their photographs parallel Vitruvius’ description of classical orders, as they generate formalistic effects rather than convey functionalist requirements.

Richie Hawtin

Richie Hawtin utilizes Allen & Heath Xone, K2 PlayDifferently Model 1 Mixer, Ableton Push, and an Antelope Orion 32+ to create spontaneously improvised compositions. The type of intense music showcased here is a departure from the sparse minimal techno he has been creating and performing for the past decade and more, and the mixture of digital soundbits and the analogue synthesizer in rapid sequences result in a music that would be impossible were it not for recent technological advancements. Hawtin’s music sets have strong overall cohesion yet relentlessly intricate progression of sounds making up the parts -much as good architecture has overall gestalt broken up by tectonic and formal interplay in a temporal sequence of spaces.

Bach Cello Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007

This is a video of Johann Sebastian Bach’s masterful composition, the Prelude to Cello Suite No. 1 in G major, explained in an easy to understand format. Architecture and music are the most abstract of all the arts -in the case of this musical piece, such intricate play between two musical keys, to create an elegant narrative, has lessons for architectural compositions of limited formal components.

Entangling Conscious Agents, Donald Hoffman

Donald Hoffman is a cognitive psychologist who argues for a formal theory of consciousness—the theory of “conscious agents”—that takes consciousness to be fundamental, rather than derivative from objects in space-time. This lecture begins by establishing that evolution for human perception lead to usefulness rather than for verification of absolute truths. Just as the perceptually “truthful” concepts of flat earth or geocentric universe were revealed to be fiction, the notion that consciousness arise from materialistic interaction (such as the synapses in the brain) is argued to be false. Instead, Hoffman argues that consciousness comes before biological interaction. This method of thinking tackles the issue of combinatory consciousness as a form of an entanglement in the quantum physic sense (the finding that certain particles behave as a single unified system even when they’re separated by such immense distances suggests the universe functions as a fundamental whole rather than a collection of discrete parts). To further explain entanglement of consciousness, Hoffman shows how a visual paradox of a necker cube is a digram for a basic form of entanglement that only exists due to our own “faulty” perceptual and visual interface. Hoffman provides mathematically explained panpsychist proofs for how consciousness agents interact with each other through interface.

If we see that architecture (both built and in images) is a form of consciousness interface, the act of making it “correct” in terms of styles or materials is revealed to be as fruitless as arguing that the earth is flat. Architecture, once cognizant of panpsychist concepts can become a new interface by proposing novel ways in which space and time interact with individualized consciousness. This absence of a single truth is a better expression of reality than a materialist world view. One way of doing this would be to examine the entanglement issue (such as a simultaneous duality of a necker cube) as a formal basis in which individualized perception of a form/space can have multiplicities of meaning and emotional effects that can be different, or even contradictory. If architecture were designed this way, it becomes a conscious agent in which panpsychist truth is revealed by making entanglement visible to the subjects through interface. It could be argued that unbuilt images of a project have the same agency as would a built project if the goal is to communicate universal complexity through visual means.

Philosophy of Panpsychism

Architect Louis Kahn famously advocated seeking the spiritual essence of a tectonic element by asking a brick “what do you want to be?” (The brick answered it wanted to be an arch). Related to the spirit or consciousness of the inorganic, Philosopher Phillp Goff explores the philosophy of panpsychism, through which he seeks to counter materialist and quantifiable metaphysics of physical science, by examining the possibility that consciousness is universal and it exists from an atomic level to that of the universe. The academic papers that are available on his website lays out the arguments against dualist separation of mind and body, as he explains subjective qualities of consciousness from human to animal, then to the inorganic. 

Goff argues that micro level parts have their own consciousness and the body is a collective coming together of these micro consciousness into a macro level whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. This elegant philosophy is applicable to the part to whole question of architectonics and also to the idea that architecture can be an open ended consciousness that interfaces with the consciousness of the subject/user. That is to say, architecture has a soul and it can affect yours.

Panpsychism does a good job of showing that the ontology of architectural creations have a spirit/consciousness that is manifested in form. As a basis for an architectural theory, this is not to say that these forms have to mimic an organism in a biomorphic form (after all, the brick wanted to be an arch). If the concept that inorganic forms can be constituted of macro level consciousness sounds too new-age, the argument can be restricted to state that architecture is an extension of human spirit and it affects the human soul through interface. 

This interface of consciousness existing between the object (architecture) and the subject (user/observer) can be applied to unbuilt projects existing only in images or texts, since an argument can be made that the unbuilt project is an extension or an offspring of the consciousness of the author. Therefore, in terms of architecture, panpsychism is applicable to the transference of concepts and not limited to the materials that constitute a built building. This way of thinking has correlation to deconstruction and structuralist way of viewing the universe in terms of texts. The groundbreaking new way of seeing available through panpsychism is that these texts are consciousness inherent in the inorganic rather than existing separate from physical reality.

Architecture of Military Forms

Functionalism suggests austerity and engineered efficiency over issues of aesthetics or expressive formal qualities. However, in both architecture and military functionalism, there is a contradictory tendency to seek the opportunity for formal expressions beyond that of pure performance. Utilizing Deconstructionist mode of thinking that involves language, architect Peter Eisenman states that architecture is a “building with a sign of a building.” The need for designs to communicate, influences even the most functionalist forms, when designs are taken beyond the realm of pure utilitarian applications such as factories or grain silos. This tendency for functionalism to betray its own desire for pure efficiency, through expressive formalism, will be examined in architecture and the military.

A diagram of Napoleonic War hats by illustrator Andre Jouineau shows a variation in headwear as a system of communication. The bright colors utilized for the hats helped distinguish each other during the thick fog of gunpowder that enveloped the battlefield. Form does follow function in terms of legibility, but the varying shapes, materials, and sizes of each uniform indicate the taxonomy of forms beyond that of pure legibility.

A collection of U.S. Navy’s squadron logos shows a similar tendency for expressiveness in terms of aesthetics. These logos are emblazoned on uniforms, buildings, aircrafts, and on the architectural elements such as doors as devices of identification and signification. In terms of performance, an aircraft should be difficult to spot by the enemy. The colorful and often aggressively cartoonish icons of the squadron logos on aircrafts betray this basic function. The fact that squadron identifiers (such as the text “VFA-125”) are stenciled on the aircrafts means iconic squadron logos serve a function beyond efficient identification. The functions of these are ornamental signification pertaining to a humanist desire to locate art in what could be a dehumanizing business of warfare. This parallels architecture’s desire to signify beyond the performative requirements of shelter and stability. Such concerns of expressive formal appearance influenced the selection of Lockheed Martin’s X-35 over Boeing’s X-32 in the Joint Strike Fighter program for the F-35. Given a similar performance of both aircrafts, the bias over formal expression influenced the selection of sleek X-35 over the rotund X-32. The images of both aircrafts are posted above. It is easy to judge one over another in terms of which better signifies speed and aggression.

Functionalist architecture in buildings, other than those serving purely utilitarian needs, can be traced back to the early Modernist architect Adolf Loos, who proclaimed that ornament was a crime. With the absence of outright ornamental detailing, Loos designed architecture that has expressive qualities in proportion, the arrangement of massing, typography (in signage), and material choices. Rather than arrive at an overtly austere massing of boxes, Loos’ formal expressions betray the efficiency of pure functionalism. This is evidenced in his design for the Looshaus, shown above; while lacking ornamentation in terms of intricate details, the aesthetic excellence of the building is shown through a masterful arrangement of larger elements of architecture. It could be argued that Looshaus lacks ornamental details but does not lack aesthetic formal qualities. Loos’ buildings are never purely functionalistic.

An often misconstrued dictum by architect Louis Sullivan that “form follows function” also seems to place program and structural efficiency over the concerns of formal appearance of architecture. However, Sullivan utilized ornate detailing that deviates from the pure function through expressive formal articulations. In addition to ornamentation, Sullivan often utilized contrasting volume of space to emphasize grandiosity in public assembly areas –a technique of compression of space before expansion for contrasting emphasis. So what does Sullivan mean by “form follows function?” In regards to this, architect Wes Jones emphasizes the necessity of formal expressiveness in designs, that serve a need beyond that of pure utility, by differentiating a ‘building’ from ‘architecture.’ He writes: “Everyone is familiar with the phrase Form follows function. But what does it really mean? why form, why function, what do we mean by ‘follows?’ does it mean ‘comes after,’ or does it mean ‘takes its cues from’ or does it mean ‘subscribes to’ or does it mean ‘is less important than?’ The punch line is that this is all about legibility…  While architecture is an elective phenomenon, building is not. The difference between the two is what raises the issue of function following form. Both are first occasioned by a need, but architecture goes beyond the basic need for shelter or program accommodation served by ‘mere’ building, to set that effort in an explicit context of meaning, expectations of meaning. While the building’s form IS necessarily functional, architecture’s form goes further to SAY that about itself.”

A study into the expressive qualities in Functionalism has been taken up by architectural historian Spyros Papapetros, who explored military ornamentation in regards to the stately uniforms worn by German Emperor Wilhelm II in his book “On the Animation of the Inorganic.” There is an opportunity for architects to examine the parallel between military aesthetics and architectural formalism, as both are explicitly tied to the requirement of function and structural realities. While Vitruvius saw harmony in Firmitas, Utilitas, and Venustas as a fundamental triad of architecture, the concerns of Venustas (beauty) is what architects have the greatest difficulty articulating, as it exists outside the realm of quantifiable performance. It is ironic that the often unbuilt architectural projects dealing mostly with the qualities of Venustas are regarded with the military term avant-garde by the discipline of architecture.

It is well documented how Modernist architects of the 20th century, such as Le Corbusier, sought formal inspiration for architecture in naval vessels and aircrafts. Military technology with its massive state-funded research tends to create the most cutting edge contemporary designs. There are contemporary architectural opportunities in examining military technology and visual cultures, that are currently ignored by the discipline. With the goal of discovering opportunities for expression in architecture that overrides the functionalist agenda of pure performance, the interests of military and architectural formalism should be studied.

USS Abraham Lincoln

The deafening noise and the sheer magnitude of the machineries on an aircraft carrier is breathtaking. Extreme cantilevers, moving blast shield decks, huge elevators to move aircrafts, enormous column free spaces, and the pure monochrome color scheme are all architect’s dream realized on a massive scale. Architects have a history of examining naval vessels for architectural lessons: Jean Labatut,  professor emertius of architecture at Princeton University,  researched dazzle camouflage of ships for lessons in architecture.

Death Star

Images by others of the Star Wars Death Star (credits under each image), perhaps the most well known megastructure in popular culture. The geometrically pure form coupled with intricate detailing echos Étienne-Louis Boullée’s visionary drawings.