Meet the eccentric architect who envisioned the outrageous architecture of Las Vegas … during the French Revolution

If Las Vegas had been built during the French Revolution, the architect of choice would certainly have been Jean-Jacques Lequeu. Even today, the most outrageous buildings on the Strip look humble compared to renderings Lequeu drew in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Jean-Jacques Lequeu, Grotto of the Oceanids (Grotte des Océanides), late 18th century. Ink and … [+] Watercolor on paper, 12 1/8 × 17 1/4 in. (30.8 × 43.8 cm). Collection of the National Library of France. Photo: National Library of France, Dept. of Prints and Photography

National Library of France

Lequeu designed a fire temple and designed a “Hall of Morpheus” in which visitors could fall asleep with the fumes of sleeping pills. He planned monumental tombs for ancient Etruscan kings. He drew huge haunted houses with underground labyrinths and – as a reference to the kitsch on the roadside that Vegas became famous for – a barn in the shape of a cow with a milk jug balanced on its head. And then there were his pornographic statues.

None of this was ever built, if not for lack of effort. During the day Lequeu was a civil servant and employed by the French government as a cartographer and draftsman. His buildings and monuments, meticulously reproduced in more than eight hundred watercolor drawings, were designed in his spare time. He submitted them to competitions and presented them to potential customers. They survive today because he finally donated them to the French Bibliotheque Nationale, as he could not find a point of sale including publication. They remained in a deep camp for more than a century before being rediscovered by scholars in the 1930s.

A fascinating selection of Lequeus art is currently on display at the Menil Collection in Houston, which includes the first US retrospective of his work. In the exhibition title, he is aptly described as a visionary architect. While he was not unique in this regard – architectural visionaries Claude-Nicolas Ledoux and Étienne-Louis Boullée were also active during the French Revolution – no one had a vision like him.

Ledoux and Boullée were both pioneers of a strict neoclassical style that is considered the forerunner of modernism. Like Lequeu, their work has often been great – sometimes unbuildable – but the bizarre theatrics make him stand out. He also differs from the others in that his architecture on paper had no real impact on architectural history. Although his work has been said to anticipate movements from surrealism to postmodernism, there is no evidence that these movements were inspired by him.

Jean-Jacques Lequeu, The Tomb of Isocrates, Athenian Orator, 1789. Ink on paper, 18 1/2 × 16 1/8 in.  (46.9 × 40.9 cm).  Collection of the National Library of France.  Photo: National Library of France, Dept. of Prints and Photography

Jean-Jacques Lequeu, The Tomb of Isocrates, Athenian orator, … [+] 1789. Ink on paper, 18 1/2 × 16 1/8 in. (46.9 × 40.9 cm). Collection of the National Library of France. Photo: National Library of France, Dept. of Prints and Photography

National Library of France

Lequeu was not a visionary in the usual sense, but an anomaly eccentrically separated from historical trends. It is evidence of Lequeu’s imagination that his buildings remain sinister more than two centuries after they were designed.

Lequeu’s historical darkness offers architects and designers an unusual opportunity today. His visions can still become inspirations for new architectural masterpieces. His inventions can make the Las Vegas skyline even better. Or better yet, the ideas that have been in suspended animation for all these years can finally be fully explored in a contemporary context and hint at our future.

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