Newspapers and the internet are each wonderful things which every now and then combine to produce something more delightful.
Ten years ago, writing in The New York Times, John Tierney tried to discern what kinds of articles made it onto the paper’s most emailed lists, based on research conducted by the University of Pennsylvania. He found more stories about science than he would have expected, particularly about new discoveries, which is the news of science. “Perhaps most of all, readers wanted to share articles that inspired awe,” he concluded.
“You’d see articles shooting up the list that were about the optics of deer vision,” said Penn researcher Jonah Berger.
God has blessed these Times readers with being the kind of people who could be awed by deer vision, and we are blessed with their company. Curiosity underlies a republic of letters, which we hope we still are. And awe and delight are kissing cousins.
We were delighted, for example, when we recently discovered the work of the French paper architect Jean-Jacques Lequeu, because we happened to see online a Times review of a show of Lequeu’s work at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City (running through May 10). Then our delight gave way to awe, and then delight again.
Lequeu designed many buildings of which few were built, and it might have been just as well. His drawings have seldom been seen outside France.
Born in Rouen in 1757, he won a scholarship to study architecture in Paris, where his designs and those of fellow architects became grander and less realistic, with no expectation they would be realized. Just reading about them can be like sampling the magical realism of Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine writer. Here is Times art critic Jason Farago describing Lequeu working on “Tomb of Isocrates, Athenian Orator”:
“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.”
In Lequeu’s ink rendering of the tomb, the monument is surmounted by a stone sheep, which for some reason is being ridden by a mermaid, who looks like a bachelorette astride a mechanical bull. And all of that is predicated on a mistranslation. What else could hold the weight?
It is impossible not to wish the tomb had been built, as well as Lequeu’s cow-dairy. Both are examples of what Lequeu would have known as parlante, or “speaking,” designs, as with a temple of knowledge he planned, the mysteries of which could be unlocked by entering through a keyhole-shaped doorway. This is the vernacular architecture of a dream, anticipating surrealism by more than a century.
What one cannot help wondering is whether Lequeu’s life was otherwise conventional – one more delightful mystery for which we neither need nor want an answer. It is enough to know one person was in the world who could see that way.