Museum  February 18, 2020  Allison C. Meier

Jean‐Jacques Lequeu's Fantastical Architecture

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Departement des Estampes et de la photographie

Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1757–1826), Temple of Divination, from Civil Architecture. Pen and black ink, gray wash, watercolor.

The French architect and draftsman Jean‐Jacques Lequeu was little-known and impoverished when he donated hundreds of his drawings to the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Six months later, on March 28, 1826, he died and obscurity lingered over his designs for fantastic, unbuilt architecture. Thanks to his work’s preservation in the French national library’s archives, Lequeu experienced a slow rediscovery in the 20th century and now a major retrospective is further bringing his unique visions to light.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Departement des Estampes et de la photographie

Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1757–1826), He Is Free, 1798 or 1799. Pen and black ink, brown and red wash.

Jean-Jacques Lequeu: Visionary Architect, on view through May 10 at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, features around 60 of his drawings. It follows a version of the exhibition at the Menil Collection in Houston and the Petit Palais in Paris.

Rendered in pen and ink with wash and watercolor, Lequeu’s subjects range from eccentric ideas including a stable shaped like a colossal cow and theatrical structures such as one for initiation into a secret society to erotic drawings where Lequeu meditated on the sculptural qualities of flesh. He brought together inspiration from human and animal anatomy and architecture from across the globe, whether Middle Eastern minarets or classical ruins, a mashup that was all the more remarkable for an artist who worked in solitude, rarely leaving his studio.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Departement des Estampes et de la photographie

Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1757–1826), Indian Pagoda of Intelligence, from Civil Architecture. Pen and black ink, brown wash, watercolor .

“Lequeu's work is virtually unknown to contemporary audiences,” said Jennifer Tonkovich, Eugene and Clare Thaw Curator of Drawings and Prints at the Morgan Library & Museum. “I think visitors will discover several things: Lequeu's ‘paper legacy,’ or the central role of drawing, which Lequeu used to convey his ideas about the possibilities of architecture; that reading books—from ancient to contemporary texts—played an essential part in Lequeu’s development of his projects; that despite his tremendous individuality, Lequeu was steeped in Enlightenment ideals and well-versed in the architectural developments of his time; that his interests reflect the curiosity and anxieties of his age, which saw the fall of the old regime and the emergence of a new order.”

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Departement des Estampes et de la photographie

Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1757–1826), Designs for a Temple of the Earth, from Civil Architecture, 1794. Pen and black ink, brown and gray wash, watercolor.

Indeed, Lequeu, while being singular in his strange designs, was very much formed by the tumultuous climate of a post-revolutionary France. Born in Rouen, he later studied architecture in Paris, but found his designs did not fit into the country’s needs in this era. Neoclassicism was the dominant trend rather than fantasias like Lequeu’s work; further stymying his success was the impossibility of erecting many of his proposals, such as the orb-shaped temple of “Supreme Wisdom” with its ceiling of stars. One drawing, a concept submitted for a new entrance gate to Paris, seems a model of patriotism topped by a huge Gallic Hercules wearing a Phrygian cap. The drawing was exhibited in the Hall of Liberty in 1794 when the bloodshed of the Reign of Terror was still raging. On the drawing’s reverse, Lequeu snidely wrote: “A drawing to save me from the guillotine. Everything for the fatherland.”

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Departement des Estampes et de la photographie

Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1757–1826), Geometric Map. Pen and black ink, watercolor.

Unable to find patrons to realize his designs, his day jobs in the employ of the French government focused on draftsman work, surveying, and cartography. This included maps for a changing Paris in the early 1800s when Napoleon was reorganizing the city. Lequeu still found an outlet for his creativity, using these same skills to draw an aerial view of a countryside landscape that is completely fictional. 

“Lequeu’s drawings envision the possibilities of architecture, often unbound by the realities of construction,” Tonkovich said. “In many of his works, he created structures with a deep concern for the surrounding environment—the air, flora and fauna, smells, sounds—that reveal a conception of architecture as an art that engages all of the senses. He was also largely free from academic conventions and was thus able to envision more innovative elements and materials, especially in his later drawings.”

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Departement des Estampes et de la photographie

Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1757–1826), Tomb of Isocrates, Anthenian Oratzor, 1789.

That passion particularly comes through in his dense annotations. These notes are not just about how a place might be built, but how it would be experienced. For instance, for the “Temple of Divination,” recalling the ritualistic spaces of ancient Greek priests, he added in one corner a recipe for a perfume to mask the unpleasant sulfur smell of the flaming river flowing into the structure. In another drawing, which interprets the legendary tomb for the Etruscan king Lars Porsena, he joined an illustration of the tomb’s interior labyrinth with a list of famous labyrinths drawn from ancient texts and travel literature. An erotic garden scene from 1810 has notes about the specific type of apple tree that should be planted beneath the hammock, inhabited in Lequeu’s drawing by two avid lovers.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Departement des Estampes et de la photographie

Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1757–1826), Tavern and Hammock of Love, from Civil Architecture. Pen and black ink, gray and brown wash, watercolor.

Why Lequeu dedicated himself to these designs that would never be built and scarcely appreciated outside his studio remains a mystery, yet there are glimpses of the architect throughout his work. In an upper corner of his drawing of a grotto in the “Cavern in the Gardens of Isis,” he sketched an idea for his own tomb, a small monument adorned with his draftsman instruments: a compass, crayon, and rolls of paper. It, too, was never realized.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Departement des Estampes et de la photographie

Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1757–1826), Underground of a Gothic House, from Civil Architecture. Pen and brown and black ink, brown and gray wash, watercolor.

Lequeu was working amidst some of the most cataclysmic years of France when the monarchy was falling, the guillotine was rising, and the whole city was being restructured into a modern metropolis. Although Lequeu’s work was not built as part of this national metamorphosis, that did not stop him from inventing worlds of pleasure and whimsy which came alive on paper through his incredible imagination.

About the Author

Allison C. Meier

Allison C. Meier is a Brooklyn-based writer focused on history and visual culture. She was previously senior editor at Atlas Obscura, and more recently a staff writer at Hyperallergic. She moonlights as a cemetery tour guide.

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