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Beyond architecture, a builder of lusty fantasies
Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1757–1826), Temple of Divination, from Civil Architecture. Pen and black ink, gray wash, watercolor Bibliothèque nationale de France, Departement des Estampes et de la photographie.

by Jason Farago

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- 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 bolthole, 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.

Nearly 60 of his voluptuous, perfectionist pen-and-wash drawings (out of some 800) have traveled from the National Library of France for “Jean-Jacques Lequeu: Visionary Architect,” a bewitching exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum. (The show follows a larger show at the Petit Palais in Paris; another version was seen last year at the Menil Drawing Institute in Houston.) 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.

‘Draftsman’s Tools,’ 1782
Lequeu was born in Rouen, in the north of France, into a family of carpenters. As a teenager he entered into a drawing school, where he won several prizes, and later moved to Paris to work for a neoclassical architect. In 1780, after his patron died, the unemployed Lequeu began making drawings that he imagined could serve as a sort of textbook he called “Civil Architecture.” Here he shows us a plate overhead and straight on, like the plan and elevation of a building, as well as his brushes, compasses and straightedges. In the top-right corner, among other rich annotations — Lequeu would soon become obsessed with captions — is a cosmopolitan shout-out to Chinese black ink.

‘Design for a Living Room at the Hôtel de Montholon,’ 1786
In the years before the Revolution, Lequeu seems to have had on-and-off employment for aristocratic clients, whether as an architect in his own right or merely as a draftsman. We know he oversaw the interior design of this Paris hotel, although even here he was producing drawings that would never be realized. This living room, with its heavy red curtains and giant caryatids framing the chimney, was one of several that were ultimately scrapped.

‘Tomb of Isocrates, Athenian Orator,’ 1789
Outside his door, peasants complained about the price of bread; up the road, revolutionaries stormed the Bastille prison. But inside his little garret near the Louvre, Lequeu in 1789 was turning to a wilder and more whimsical sort of architecture. This vision of an ancient Greek funerary monument draws from a description by Plutarch — but he got the translation wrong and somehow understood that the tomb had a giant sheep on top. It’s one of numerous examples of animals being subsumed into stone and mortar; later, Lequeu would design a dairy in the shape of a giant walk-in cow.

‘Designs for a Temple of the Earth,’ 1794
Lequeu entered the public works administration after the Revolution, and, with Louis XVI’s head carted off, he seems to have wholeheartedly embraced the values of the new republic. He began designing monuments to martyred revolutionaries and abstract temples to equality — and even as their rational forms (the sphere, the column) embodied Enlightenment virtues, he tricked out their facades and interiors with riotous ornament. This massive spherical temple, dedicated to “Supreme Wisdom,” would have featured a massive representation of the globe on its exterior and the heavens on its ceiling.

‘The Great Yawner and He Sticks Out His Tongue,’ undated
For a man who built practically nothing, Lequeu was inordinately concerned with public recognition. He left to what’s now France’s national library numerous self-portraits like these: one with his mouth indecorously agape, another showing his tongue like a patient at the Charenton asylum. Are these pictures of an individual or reductions to a psychological type? Self-loving, self-loathing? Lequeu’s self-portraits have, above all, an obsessional detail that he also brought to his erotic drawings, where he depicts genitalia with as much clinical detail as Corinthian columns and ceremonial doorways.

‘He Is Free,’ 1798-99
The Morgan’s show, sadly, has only a little X-rated Lequeu, but it’s not entirely prudish; you’ll find one exacting study of a woman’s rear end, her thighs and buttocks helpfully labeled. And there are strange, wonderful architectural drawings, like this one of a semicircular niche from which a nude woman leans out to free a songbird. (The drawing’s title appears as a fake ancient inscription: It’s French but written with Greek letters.) From one perspective she may just be a classicized pinup model, but consider also the four mascarons at bottom that frame the tumbling nude. This is an architecture in which flesh and marble get confused for one another, and bodies become enwrapped in the built environment.

‘Tavern and Hammock of Love,’ c. 1810
He was hardly the first paper architect: Think of Giovanni Battista Piranesi with his gloomy imaginary prisons, or Étienne-Louis Boullée with his haunted infinite libraries. But Lequeu went farther into the realms of the imaginary than any of his contemporaries — and where Piranesi and Boullée preferred shadows, Lequeu reveled in light and pleasure. This design for a guinguette, a kind of suburban bar and cabaret, features columns in the shape of wine barrels and corners like wedges of cheese. To its right you’ll find a hammock reached by a rope ladder, and two lovers making very good use of it. Lequeu, in the caption, even specifies the trunks on either side: Assyrian apple trees, bearing fruit of “an incredible sweetness.”

‘Indian Pagoda of Intelligence,’ c. 1815-20
Lequeu’s paper architecture also exhibited a global curiosity, and he drew numerous imagined buildings that brought together European, Middle Eastern and Asian motifs — such as this Mughal-influenced tower, topped by a fanciful minaret, whose walls Lequeu pictured slathered with milk and sugar. But, except for an early trip to Italy, he almost never left Paris. After his retirement from the Civil Service in 1815 he withdrew into his imagination, constructing temples, towers and love palaces for a more stable world than the one outside his tiny studio. Outside, the capital rumbled from republic to empire and back to monarchy. Inside Lequeu had built entire cities, where lust and logic go hand in hand, and architecture is a marriage story between the brain and the body.

Jean-Jacques Lequeu: Visionary Architect

Through May 10 at the Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Ave., Manhattan; 212-685-0008,

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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