Pyramid, by Van der Hart
“It is too literal,” people continuously keep telling me about the architecture presented on Eikongraphia. “A building that is a hat, is a confused building”, a friend even told me last week. This critique might be the consequence of presenting the iconographic object directly next to the image, the icon, it refers to. The buildings are however not confused, the tunnel-visioned architects and critics are. The irony (!) is that those who oppose a literal reading of the object, are the ones that read it literally, and even read this blog too literal.
The iconography top 10 chart is dominated by architectural projects that use – some more literal, others more abstract – the iconography of the pyramid. One might question whether or not a pyramidal building is an iconographic object or not, but most of these objects are named ‘pyramid’ – Peace Pyramid, Luxor Pyramid, Transamerica Pyramid, Louvre Pyramid – to typify their form. Iconographic buildings are characterized by the fact that their ‘strange’ forms are named, either by the public or by its users. For now I have never heard of a building that is called ‘the box’. So I would say a pyramidal building is iconographic, it even seems to be the most powerful iconography in architectural history.
In that light it is not that surprising that at the end of the 18th century, and beginning of the 19th century, a ‘hausse’ of pyramidal building were designed, none of which was build. It was a time in which architects looked back into architectural history to find the essence, or core, of the discipline. For the first time in architectural history after the Romans, architects looked back to the Egyptian architecture, fueled by new archeological information that was published at the time. In this post I present some of these designed pyramids. And to represent this pyramid period I will take one project, to elaborate on.
In 1814, the Dutch architect Abraham van der Hart designed a pyramid for the competition for a monument in honor of Napoleon on Mont Cenis. He was not the only architect that came up with a pyramid, as the entry of Giannantonia Selva shows an almost similar pyramidal form. Some historians suggest that the steep form of the designed pyramids was the result of a disinformation; at the time people thought the Egyptian pyramids were this steep, as some illustrations with bad perspectives showed steep pyramids. I don’t know about that. Striking is however that most of the designs of this period show a steep pyramid, it might as well been fashionable at the time. Truthfully eclectic the design of Abraham van der Hart features next to the Egyptian pyramid a Greek/Roman temple front and a Gothic interior. The iconography of the pyramid seems appropriate for a monument for an emperor, just as the original pyramids celebrated the Egyptian kings.
The most well known designers of these monumental and utopian pyramids is Etienne-Louis Boullée, who designed a series of pyramids, among other monumental forms as bowls. The pyramids Boullée designed were all cenotaphs, a tomb or a monument erected in honor of a person or group of persons whose remains are elsewhere. Remember that the remains of the Egyptian kings were almost never not found inside the pyramids that were build in their honor.
The British critic Hugh Pearman sees a deliberate echo of these utopian 18th century designs in the recently finished Peace Pyramid in Astana, Kazachstan, designed by Norman Foster. The reference is however somewhat ironic – from a cenotaph to peace. In the light of the Kazachstan dictatorial regime: is peace related to death? Are the most peaceful religious leaders, dead ones? Is the pyramid meant to ‘bury’ all religious frictions? These speculations are too farfetched. The pyramid is also a symbol for the male, as we all saw in The Da Vinci Code, among other meanings.
Fascinatingly the design-problems that come with a pyramid are two centuries after Boullée still the same. How to fit an interior into this form? And – o my god – where do I put the entrance? The Egyptian pyramids had no entrance, that way avoiding the problem, and Norman Foster practically does the same by displacing the entrance into the grassy hill on which the pyramid stands. Other options include making a plinth, as Boullée, Engel, and Van der Hart do, making a different object in front of the pyramid, as Meyn and Selva do, or just poking a hole into the pyramid, as Pei did at the Louvre.