Jean-Jacques Lequeu: Visionary Architect. Drawings from the Bibliothèque nationale de France

The Morgan Library & Museum, New York City

January 31–September 13, 2020

by J. Cabelle Ahn

Figure 1. Installation view of Jean-Jacques Lequeu: Visionary Architect. Drawings from the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The Morgan Library & Museum, New York. Photo by the author, 2020.

Architects and scholars Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown introduced the idea of the “duck” and the “decorated shed” in their influential and controversial publication Learning from Las Vegas (1972).1 These two rivaling concepts speak to the continuity and disjunction between the architectural interior and the exterior. Venturi and Brown question the accepted relationship between space, structure, program, and ornament by undertaking a close study of the Las Vegas Strip and its gaudy monuments. Preceding Venturi’s “duck” by two centuries, the architectural designs by Jean-Jacques Lequeu are equally reminiscent of the campiness of the Strip. Cow-shaped barns, butter churns atop gothic spires, a gate groaning under the weight of an oversized Gallic Hercules, temple entrances carved in the shape of smoke—these are some of the tame offerings by the enigmatic French architect, whose career spanned a period of great political instability. While none of his proposals were realized, the sheer eclecticism of his architectural inventions has posthumously invited adulation and interrogation, from his canonization as a forerunner of twentieth-century modernism to suggestions that he might have been Marcel Duchamp’s (1887–1968, France) alter ego. The exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum, however, evades modernist preoccupations to firmly root him in his contemporary moment as well as within the machinery of the French Enlightenment.

The exhibition at the Morgan is the final iteration of a show first mounted at the Petit Palais in Paris, which was almost entirely drawn from the collection of drawings Lequeu donated to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF) six months before his death. Less than half of the drawings from the Petit Palais travelled to the Morgan, and the reduced format and the new layout promote a different narrative—a difference encapsulated in the title change from Builder of Fantasy to Visionary Architect.

Figure 2. Installation view of Jean-Jacques Lequeu: Visionary Architect. Drawings from the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The Morgan Library & Museum, New York. Photo by the author, 2020.

The show examines five aspects of Lequeu’s graphic production: his physiognomic preoccupations (fig. 2), his unpublished architectural treatise (Architecture civile), his responses to the French Revolution, his erotic drawings, and his ingenuity as an engineer. His unconventional designs for civic infrastructures and the unrestrained fantasy behind his speculative projects spotlight his deviation from the monolithic dogma of architectural conventions established by the Royal Academy of Architecture in Paris. By beginning the exhibition with his portrait and physiognomic studies, the Morgan exhibition immediately highlights how his approach to drawing was rooted in his interest in the body over academic doctrine—an interest echoed in a separate section displaying his erotic drawings.

Figure 3. Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1757–1826, France). Hermitage Gate; Drinking Den of the Arid Wilderness; The Rendezvous of Bellevue (n.d.), from Architecture civile. Pen, watercolor, and wash drawing. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Département des estampes, Réserve, HA-80 (2)-FOL, pl. 55. Image © BnF.

Architectural drawings are particularly governed by graphic requirements in terms of color, shading, and compositional perspectives.4 Lequeu was undeniably well-versed in both architectural theory and technical draftsmanship. Plate 55 from the Architecture civile (fig. 3), which Duboy once speculated to be a preparatory study for Duchamp’s Bottle Rack (1914), reads as an index of his architectural erudition. The rustic hermitage likely references the origin of architecture as naturally borne of tree trunks, a standard feature in architectural theory since Vitruvius. The diverse forms and subsequent shadows on the façade of the Bellevue confirm his mastery of sciography—a technique of shading in orthographic projections, often in grey wash.6

Figure 4. Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1757–1826, France). Detail from Dairy (n.d.), from Architecture civile. Pen, watercolor, and wash drawing. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Département des estampes, Réserve, HA-80 (2)-FOL, pl. 59. Image © BnF.

The Morgan’s rearranged array of sheets from Lequeu’s Architecture civile particularly emphasizes how he reinterpreted the eighteenth-century notion of convenance (architectural decorum). The sequential display of his projects ranging from an invented architectural order featuring a chained aristocrat to a minimalist spherical “temple of equality” reveals how Lequeu responded to the erosion of legible architectural codes during the French Revolution. In the successive section, the exhibition stresses the sensorial specificities of his buildings. The side-by-side presentation of the gothic dairy covered in cow udders (fig. 4) and the cow-shaped stable (fig. 5) are not only emblematic of Venturi and Brown’s “ducks,” but also of his architectural eclecticism.

Figure 5. Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1757–1826, France). Design for a Cowshed in the Shape of a Cow; Gate to the Hunting Grounds (n.d.), from Architecture civile. Pen, watercolor, and wash drawing. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Département des estampes, Réserve, HA-80 (2)-FOL, pl. 74. Image © BnF.

For Lequeu, it was not enough that form followed function. Instead, all five senses were to be engaged. Nearly all of the drawings are replete with annotations in his tidy bureaucratic hand. Where pertinent, the exhibition didactics helpfully point out several of his written remarks that range from quotes by Voltaire, Herodotus, and Pliny; self-compiled lists of animals, wines, and tree species; and recipes for perfume and pastes. An example is a recipe included in his hunting-gate design (fig. 5) for “Pierre de porc” (Pork Stone), which was a paste that would make the gate smell of urine and rotten egg, thus sensorially conveying its function. Additional translations of Lequeu’s notations might have further clarified his peculiar fixation on the smell, taste, sound, and tactility of buildings, which mirrored the period’s preoccupation with sensationalism.7

Figure 6. Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1757–1826, France). Elevation of Pulpit for Saint-Sulpice (1788). Pen, watercolor, and wash drawing. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Département des estampes, Réserve, HA-80 (E)-FT 4. Image © BnF.

While the Morgan exhibition invites close consideration of Lequeu’s graphic prowess, there are a few sheets from the Paris exhibition that are particularly missed. One is Lequeu’s design for the pulpit of Saint-Sulpice (fig. 6). His design of a globe instead of a shell vertically attached to a pillar, as was custom, demonstrates his early departures from academic constraints and would have explicitly linked him to his eighteenth-century contemporaries.8 Additionally, many of the pornographic anatomical drawings that belonged to the restricted section at the BnF (dubbed later as “L’enfer” [hell]), did not travel to the United States, which dampens the physiological and psychosexual dimension of his architectural praxis.9 Yet, the Morgan’s focus on Lequeu’s role as a “visionary architect” rather than a conveyor of fantasies stresses his unbound graphic imagination rather than positing them as unnatural curiosities.

In the Encyclopédie, the architect and professor Jacques-François Blondel (1705–1774) asserts that “a good architect is not an ordinary man,” and that he must be accomplished in literature, history, mathematics, stereotomy, technical drawing, as well as “an inborn aptitude, intelligence, taste, enthusiasm, and creativity.”10 Lequeu’s drawings reveal that he was an extraordinary architect who went above and beyond Blondel’s requirements. His strange, poignant, and absurd drawings thus challenge and naturalize the unnatural role of the architect during this period of political transformations in France.


J. Cabelle Ahn

J. Cabelle Ahn is a PhD Candidate in History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University and the current Samuel H. Kress Predoctoral Fellow at the Drawing Institute of the Morgan Library & Museum, NY. Her dissertation is titled “Multiple Exposures: The Exhibition of Drawings in Eighteenth-century France.



1. In contrast to decorated sheds, Venturi and Scott Brown termed buildings whose form explicitly referenced their function as “ducks,” a nickname inspired by The Long Island Duckling drive-in that was literally in the shape of a duck: “The duck is the special building that is a symbol; the decorated shed is the conventional shelter that applies symbols,” Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steve Izenor, Learning from Las Vegas, rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA, and London: The MIT Press, 1977), 87.

2. See Emil Kaufmann, Von Ledoux bis Le Corbusier: Ursprung und Entwicklung der autonomen Architektur, (Vienna and Leipzig: Rolf Passer, 1933); see Philippe Duboy, Jean-Jacques Lequeu: une énigme, (Paris: Hazan, 1987). Sol LeWitt and Claes Oldenburg additionally studied Lequeu’s drawings via the 1967 exhibition Visionary Architects, a presentation of eighteenth-century French architectural drawings that was supported by the Menil Foundation which travelled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

3. The exhibition in the Petit Palais (December 11, 2018March 31, 2019) was curated by Corinne Le Bitouzé and Christophe Leribault in collaboration with Laurent Baridon, Jean-Philippe Garric, and Martial Guédron, and is accompanied by the following catalogue: Laurent Baridon, Jean-Philippe Garric, Martial Guédron, and Corinne Le Bitouzé, Jean-Jacques Lequeu, Bâtisseur de fantasmes, (Paris: Norma, 2018). The exhibition subsequently travelled in a reduced format to The Menil Collection (October 4, 2019–January 5, 2020) which was co-curated by Édouard Kopp and Kelly Montana. The Morgan show was curated by Jennifer Tonkovitch, Eugene and Clare Thaw Curator of Drawings and Prints. The entire collection of Lequeu’s drawings at the BnF have been digitized and the Morgan show is presently accompanied by an online exhibition.

4. An important eighteenth-century manual for architectural drawings was Nicolas Buchotte, Les règles du Dessin et du Lavis, (Paris: Charles-Antoine Jombert, 1721).

5. Anthony Vidler, “Rebuilding the Primitive Hut: The Return to Origins from Lafitau to Laugier,” in The Writing of the Walls: Architectural Theory in the Late Enlightenment, (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1987), 7–22.

6. Similarly suggested by Valérie Nègre in Baridon, Garric, Guédron, and Le Bitouzé, Jean-Jacques Lequeu, bâtisseur de fantasmes, 78.

7. Eighteenth-century sensationalism was spearheaded by Condillac and later by Le Camus de Mézières in architecture. See also Lequeu’s posthumous inventory for a glimpse at his sources in Werner Szambien, “L’inventaire après décès de Jean-Jacques Lequeu,” Revue de l’Art no. 90 (1990): 104–107.

8. The drawing responded to an open concours which was held to replace the provisionary wooden pulpit designed by Giovanni Niccolò Servandoni. The commission was eventually awarded to Charles de Wailly for his Bernini-esque design.

9. For more on this, see Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, “Lequeu’s Corpus: Lascivious Architecture,” in Self and History. Essays in Honour of Linda Nochlin, ed. Aruna D’Souza (London: Thames & Hudson, 2001), 25–42.

10. “Un bon architecte n’est point un homme ordinaire . . . les dispositions naturelles, l’intelligence, le goût, le feu & l’invention,” Jacques-François Blondel, “Architecte,” Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 1 (Paris: Briasson, 1751), 616.

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