RADU MACOVEIOpinion

JEAN-JACQUES LEQUEU: architecte revolutionnaire or proto-postmodernist?

14 January 2014
Thematic House, London

 

When Charles Jencks answered the bell and invited me in, I entered the Post-Modern project par excellence: the radically eclectic Thematic House. We soon sat in the cozy Sundial Arcade in whose shadows one can read time. The place addressed the very conversation I had entered the house for: are the origins of Post-Modern narrative and iconography in the work of the French architecte revolutionnaire Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1757 – 1826)?

 

The Sundial Arcade in the Thematic House, London
Image credit: charlesjencks.com

Radu Macovei: The question arose with one particular drawing – Lequeu’s “Subterranean Labyrinth for a Gothic House” which is based on the story of an Egyptian prince who undergoes initiation through trials of fire, water and air. Anthony Vidler, in “The Writing of the Walls,” points out that Lequeu’s work is not architecture parlante, but rather écriture architecturale because Lequeu takes non-architectural elements and makes them architectural, and vice-versa. In this sense, the architecture Lequeu creates on paper has a strong narrative quality.

 

The Subterranean Labyrinth of the Gothic House
Image credit: Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Charles Jencks: There’s a search for ritual in Lequeu’s drawing and particularly peculiar about the Gothic house is the presence of Egyptian corbelled rooms with classical details. The high tradition of Egyptian architecture was the architectural promenade, the word Le Corbusier uses. You’re moving through spaces in sequence, light-dark-light-dark, and you’re moving into ever-smaller spaces, important for initiation. The best part of Lequeu was the narrative of movement. The ritualistic tradition is broken when society breaks down and in a Revolution, society completely breaks down. The people, who are so disoriented, try to re-derive an iconography based on broken practices: Lequeu is trying to do a half-pagan, half-revolutionary, half-Christian, half-Egyptian architecture; it’s completely hybrid.

 

Lequeu painted a wide variety of self-portraits.

 

Emil Kaufman, who writes about him in the 19th century, talks about his asymmetry, but what is striking is his symmetry actually. Lequeu may stack elements asymmetrically, but his things are very formal, like face-buildings or face-houses. Since a lot of his portraits are mimicking other people, things, characters, he is the Cindy Sherman of the 18th/19th century. In a sense he is kind of mocking it all; using stereotypes because he’s not an architect. He doesn’t build, and he doesn’t care to build. He is an impostor; he doesn’t deal with the art of architecture which is to always transform a necessity and a structural element into another meaning. What he does is to manipulate the meaning on the surface. It doesn’t mean it’s not profound, however. It’s serious. He suffered from being a rather humourless person. But that’s always very funny; people who take themselves so seriously. Le Corbusier, I thought, was one of the great clowns of the 20th century. It’s very moving to care so much about something that you turn it into this thing, like “Le Corbusier” which was one of his four pseudonyms. And Lequeu, who kept changing his name to mean tail or cock (la queue or le coq), is like Le Corbusier.

 

The Dairy House – “face-building” – and the Hen House – “an architectural joke”
Image credit: Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Lequeu’s Self-Portrait as a Woman; Cindy Sherman’s History Self-Portrait as Madame de Pompadour
Image credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France, germanartbooks.de

Humour seems to be an integral part of every project of Lequeu’s. The project of the cowshed is ‘Venturian’ in its humour: a cow walks in a cow. In the “Henhouse”, the hen on top could be the real animal or a sculpture. Another humorous project is the “Temple of Silence” where, in the elevation of the façade, the sculptures of muses seem to be rushing out of the temple, while, in the lateral section, they are revealed to be listening in through the walls. There is a sense of character to the narrative.

 

The Cowshed – Venturian Humour?
Image credit: Bibliothèque Nationale de France

The Façade of the Temple of Silence – Figures are fleeing
Image credit: Bibliothèque Nationale de France

The Section of the Temple of Silence – Figures are listening
Image credit: Bibliothèque Nationale de France

They are capriccios and his work could be interpreted as a satire, in the context of caricature. It’s between serious satire and whimsy.

 

I don’t think a lot is intentional on his side, but rather a form of intuitive story-telling. Is it also random?

 

Coleridge distinguished between imagination and fancy. Imagination is what a great artist does, which is to give you a dream, whereas fancy gives you a daydream. In other words fancy is whimsical, and it’s superficial, but can be very powerful and striking. Lequeu’s work does generate both imagination and fancy. Fancy is a kind of randomness; the links are weak, and it’s as if the outcome could have been completely different. Imagination is not random so much; it’s complex. In bad Post-Modernism, for instance, there is no reason for things to be put together.

Lequeu’s drawing tends to be superficial when you first look at his work. When you dig deeper you find it’s quite profound actually, and it has a very moving poetry to it. On a poetic level it’s very imaginative and you can find links between this Roman window and the darkness, and the uterus, the womb-like sexual connotations: every part of it is a great sex scene, an orgy of freemasonry. Not too far away, one could see water coming out of it, and the woman is the source. I think it’s wanking architecture and it’s beautifully sexy. She’s in a catacomb of death. The analysis shows there are deep links there. This is imagination. If I look at certain parts of his work and remember the attack on Post-Modernism and the iconic buildings – they called it gratuitous form-making. And it’s true. But there’s an incredible poetry to some of Lequeu’s work. This is the rescuing moment of Lequeu as a great failed artist. He was great, but he was a failure, no question. He was a great failed artist, not a failed great artist.

 

He is Free – Lequeu as a great failed artist
Image credit: Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Many of Lequeu’s drawings are in fact self-portraits.

 

The Winker is good for his whole fervour. It’s the Post-Modern wink, the angry serene. This is angry Post-Modernism. Duboy (Lequeu’s biographer) shouldn’t have stopped at Duchamp: Rem, Scherman, Messerschmidt, Paolozzi; Lequeu is in each one of them.

 

Lequeu looking in the Mirror: the Post-Modern Wink?; Rem Koolhaas: the Angry Serene
Image credits: Bibliothèque nationale de France, houston.culturemap.com

‘Frontispice’ of the New Method; Eduardo Paolozzi’s “Head of Invention”
Image credits: “Lequeu: An Architectural Enigma” by Philippe Duboy; emminlondon.com

The use of iconography in Lequeu’s work is indubitable and the way the architect employs it reveals a will to generate meaning. How does one reconcile iconography and the profession of architecture today?

 

My argument is that iconography is the freedom of architecture and architects don’t have too much of it because they have to do what the client says and what society says. If they don’t know they are free that way –  which many don’t – and don’t think about what the buildings symbolise – they end up making terrible mistakes. Their freedom must be insisted on and they must be responsible for their metaphors.

 

For more information:

Radu Macovei is a student editor of AArchitecture

Radu Macovei’s work on Projects Review 2012-13

Charles Jencks’ website