“Sublime spirit! Vast and profound genius! Divine being! Accept the homage of my weak talents…Oh Newton ”
AD Classics: Cenotaph for Newton / Etienne-Louis Boullée
Minuscule clusters of visitors ascend a monumental stairway at the base of a spherical monument rising higher than the Great Pyramid of Giza. An arc of waning sunlight catches a small portion of the sphere, leaving the excavated entry portal and much of the mass in deep shadow. Bringing together the emotional affects of romanticism, the severe rationality of neoclassicism and grandeur of antiquity, Etienne-Louis Boullée’s sublime vision for a cenotaph honoring Sir Isaac Newton is both emblematic of the particular historical precipice and an artistic feat that foreshadowed the modern conception of architectural design. Rendered through a series of ink and wash drawings, the memorial was one of numerous provocative designs he created at the end of the eighteenth century and included in his treatise, Architecture, essai sur l’art. The cenotaph is a poetic homage to scientist Sir Isaac Newton who 150 years after his death had become a revered symbol of Enlightenment ideals.
Beyond representing his individual creative genius, Boullée’s approach to design signaled the schism of architecture as a pure art from the science of building. He rejected the Vitruvian notion of architecture as the art of building, writing “In order to execute, it is first necessary to conceive… It is this product of the mind, this process of creation, that constitutes architecture…” (1). The purpose of design is to envision, to inspire, to make manifest a conceptual idea though spatial forms. Boullee’s search was for an immutable and totalizing architecture. Boullée creates an interior world that inverts exterior lighting conditions. At night, light radiates from an oversize luminaire suspended at the center point of the sphere. Vaguely celestial in form, its light spills through the long the entry tunnels. During the day, a black starlit night blankets the interior. Points of light penetrate the thick shell through narrow punctures whose arrangement corresponds with locations of planets and constellations. A seemingly inaccessible corridor with a quarter-circle section rings the perimeter.
Newton’s Cenotaph Has Finally Been Built, But in VR
A group of digital artists from Ball State University used Sansar to construct a digital replica of Newton’s Cenotaph—one of the most awe-inspiring neoclassical structures to never have been built. “The building is really at this preposterous and fantastical scale,” director at Ball State’s IDIA Lab John Fillwalk told me in a phone interview. IDIA Lab is a division within Ball State’s College of Architecture and Planning that explores the intersection of digital and physical design.
“With this technology, you can build the impossible, or at least the impractical,” said Fillwalk. It had been a long-time aspiration of his to digitally assemble Newton’s Cenotaph in some shape or form, and Sansar provided a convenient way to bring the unrealized work of architecture to life. “It would take an enormous amount of labor to do something like that in reality,” Fillwalk said. “And the engineering to pull it off would be an outstanding undertaking.”