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Piranesi and Boullée: Two Artist-Architects Unmined by Game Designers

Visual artists are expected to place their work in a historical context, yet there seems to be an absent consciousness of the material that can be used for games' environments. Here are two artist-architects whose work game designers should know about.

Over the years, I’ve increasingly come to see videogames as fantasies of environment. Perhaps more generally and accurately, videogames are conveyors of potential and kinetic energy, and this is best realized through space; and so they are spatial fantasies. This is not a universal description. For example, text-based games are more resistant to such a classification, because the description of space is, as in the case of unillustrated literature, purely a responsibility of the player's imagination. Yet even a game like Tetris is about an environment: the rectangular arena designates the limits of where the action can happen, and within this arena, a player reacts to an evolving environmental geometry that is both uncontrollable (the falling blocks generated by the game) and user-created (the whims and tactics of the player's responses). One could even make the argument that a series such as Street Fighter is about the environment of bodies. Descriptive assignments may just depend on the interests of the person doing the assigning (think back to your professor who approached everything from their specialty), but I do believe that there is a legitimate case for videogames as first and foremost spatial fantasies.

I have also increasingly felt that videogames have deprived themselves of the vast artistic legacy that lies outside of their realm. Thousands of videogames later, it is an absurd fact -- and this is just one example -- that music written before the twentieth century has only been utilized several dozen times by videogame soundtracks, and it is all the more absurd now that games are prominent and technologically capable enough to feature live music. As the years go by, the material that is particular to videogames begins to look less like a rich internal legacy and more like an incestuous imaginative range, especially where contemporary mainstream titles are concerned. It seems to me that there is a popular pattern to the design of videogames where the core inspirational stimuli are pre-existing videogames, rather than that in addition to works in other artistic fields. One may be led to believe that I am asking for nothing more than citation of "great works" in a quest for the legitimization of videogames. This is not true. Videogames are already legitimized simply by their pervasiveness, and there is much more that can be done with our shared artistic legacy than reinforcing that it exists (yet reinforcement can have value, especially when it deals in art that has been institutionally maligned or ignored).

Dynamite Headdy: one of very few games to reuse pre-20th century music in the form of the March from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker suite.

This legacy that lies outside of videogames is not vast only in terms of quantity and media; it is also vast in the ways by which it can be interpreted and elaborated on. If videogames do have any noticeable involvement with the interpretation of other media, it is overwhelmingly through tie-ins to television programs and movies that are often little more than advertorial limbs added to the brands' bodies, carrying the unsavory label of "shovelware." These tie-ins are dependent upon the action-orientation of the source material to perpetuate videogames' habit of structuring themselves as gauntlets wherein the player kills an untold number of opponents along a path, or as collectathons where players run through spaces wallpapered by sights from the show/movie and peppered by themed amulets; and if the source material does not quite lend itself to this structure, it is made to fit (e.g., Alien 3 for the Amiga, Super Return of the Jedi for the SNES, Jurassic Park for the Sega Genesis, etc.). None of this is to say that these kinds of games cannot be entertaining -- there is some appeal to a technically well crafted game with pop-imagery; Konami's early 90s tie-in beat-'em-ups, for example, are admired by many players -- but it is to say that videogames' interpretive contributions mainly are profit-driven emboldenings of contemporary, moving-picture media.

Putting the claim of videogames as spatial fantasies and that of the low amount and diversity of games that respond to pre-existing material together, I would like to present two artists whom I believe developers should know about. The first is Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720 - 1778), who wished to reinvigorate Rome through monumental reimaginings of its ancient structures. However, due to the scope of his intentions, and an unreciprocated enthusiasm on the part of Rome’s citizens and planners (part of this had to do with a tenuous comparative debate over Greek and Roman architecture), Piranesi’s dreams were unrealized. Piranesi arrived in Rome at the age of nineteen, coming from Venice, where he had learned etching. In Rome, he was struck by the city's ruins and by contemporary painters, architects, and stage designers, such as the Bibienas and Giovanni Paolo Panini. Panini himself had come to Rome in 1711, and established himself as a painter of real and imaginary ruins. He went on to teach perspective drawing at an academy, and helped architects, including Jean-Laurent Le Geay, Nicolas-Henri Jardin, and Gabriel Pierre Martin Dumont, to present their projects in a picturesque, atmospheric manner. Piranesi was in conversational and creative contact with these people, and was soon to assert himself on his own terms.

A plate from the Prima parte di Architettura e Prospettive series

In 1743, Piranesi published his first suite of etchings, the Prima parte di Architettura e Prospettive, and in 1745 the Varie Vedute di Roma Antica e Moderna. In 1748 came the Antichita romane de tempi della repubblica e de primi imperatori, which established him as a skilled recorder of old and new buildings in and around Rome. Some more peculiar works followed -- the plates of the Grotteschi, tumbling rococo arrangements that were influenced by Piranesi's contact with Tiepolo in 1744, and the fourteen plates of the Invenzioni capric de carceri, the first version of his well-known, theatrical prison designs. For several years at one point, Piranesi excavated and measured ruins, and used his imagination for what he could not inspect himself. In 1756 he began to issue the Antichita romane, which eventually ran to two-hundred plates, each measuring two feet across.

He authored other projects as well, such as the thirty-eight plates of Della magnificenza ed architettura de’ Romani (an attempt at demonstrating that Roman architecture was far richer than Greek) and the Diverse maniere d’adornare i camini (plates strangely and inventively depicting fireplaces with Egyptian and Tuscan ornamentation). With just a casual survey of the etchings and an awareness of their number, it's abundantly clear that Piranesi was determined to present an unprecedented magnificence in European architecture -- whether his proposals were taken seriously or not. As he himself wrote, "I need to produce great ideas, and I believe that if I were commissioned to design a new universe, I would be mad enough to undertake it."

A plate from the Antichita romane series, showing the foundations of the Theater of Marcellus

In one respect, Piranesi's etchings are explicit propaganda built upon nationalism and nostalgia for a bygone era of supposed glory, and the social qualities which he and others attached to, and believed could be instilled by, ancient Roman architecture (of course, this opens up the debate over if all architecture, as the most public of arts, is propaganda of a sort). In another, they are preservational recordings (Piranesi may have used a camera for some of his pursuits, had the technology existed, but would it have entirely supplanted his drawing practice?). In yet another, they are imaginative reactions to a pre-existing legacy themselves, either in the way that Piranesi added onto what he could not see, or constructed vistas made up of the disparate structures and ornaments he was looking at.

For me, Piranesi's art holds the same fundamental appeal that it did back when I came across it a decade ago -- as sublime built landscapes that seem, in their enormousness and fertile detail, to be worlds unto themselves; as landscapes of Earth but, somehow, not on Earth. Despite any of their propagandistic aims, the plates are calls for imaginative exploration (how can anyone glance at the plate above and not want to climb around that stonework?), and I find it impossible to believe that this imaginative appeal -- of the actual architecture and the etchings' two-dimensional universes -- did not form a part of the foundation for Piranesi's enthusiasm. Projects with a purely political motivation do not have the time for flights of fancy, such as the Invenzioni capric de carceri series, that Piranesi devoted much of his creative energies to. It is obvious that he had an obsession, separate from nationalism, with architecture's emotional invocations.

A plate from the Invenzioni capric de carceri series

Along the lines of my question posed about the camera, Piranesi's less pragmatic and more original compositions cause me to wonder if he would have seen videogames as a space to explore his ideas. It was common practice in his time to place detailed, gesticulating figures within built or natural environments to better convey scale, and there is no reason to think that Piranesi did not use this trope partly with the same intent; but his figures may also be there as a second-hand way for him to have interacted with the drawn environments. Merely translating Piranesi's art into an interactive world offering nothing more than itself would be interesting to some degree, but there is also such a variety of intended and unintended intellectual content embedded in his oeuvre that could be explored. I have already described Piranesi's environments as "sublime"; as we increasingly find ourselves living in a metaphysically conscious world and one that designates places as tourist attractions, on top of offering the conveniences of navigational services like Google Maps, two questions that might be asked are: Is the experience of the sublime possible in modernity? and If videogames can be seen as new, "tactile" worlds that we individually and collectively discover, might they also be seen as a new frontier? These questions, and more, could be developed into narratives and supported by an interpretation of Piranesi's type of sublimity.

I'm most concerned in this article about promoting the idea of videogames which react to external material in a way that informs them on a fundamental and pervasive level, but perhaps the question should be asked: Have any videogames, in any small way, been influenced by Piranesi? With videogames' history of secretive development cycles and the increasing size of their teams (and thus of points of authorial intent), it's hard to say. Writers have occasionally referenced his art, mostly that of the prisons, in relation to first-person shooters like Halo, Quake, and Unreal (such as in Lev Grossman's 2007 article for Time, "Video Games: The Man in the Mask"), but these comparisons are strained, and make generalized equivalences between large, dark, semi-industrial spaces. The magnetic power of Piranesi's etchings comes not just from their scope and rendering; it also comes from their architectural specifics. When Piranesi has chosen to depict the arch of a bridge in his "Ponte magnifico" print, he has also chosen to depict an arch ring that is an austere, smooth band of lines, to make radiating headstones that hook into big, cleanly stonework, and to to tier the piers' plinths, making them monstrous stairs of a sort. To make this kind of distinction isn't to demand nothing less than slavish imitation, but it is to say that Piranesi's etchings would not have their affect without their Roman and Neoclassical traits -- traits which, like any other, are open to mutation.

A view of the Boletarian Palace from the Playstation 3 game, Demon's Souls

Speaking personally, the only videogame that has both given me a strong suspicion regarding the influences of its level designers and distinctly reminded me of Piranesi's vistas is From Software's 2009 title, Demon's Souls, especially in the cases of its Boleterian Palace and Stonefang Tunnel sites. Although the Boletarian Palace is, at its heart, a medieval fortification, the mixture of its austere Roman elements, larger than life structures, and occasional views where one can see nothing but a dense, unfolding expanse of arched and towering structures places it eerily close to what one might see in Piranesi's Prima parte di architettura e prospettive series. Even more eerie than that is Stonefang Tunnel, whose initial interior section is a dark, steamy maze that blends Roman stonework with industrial contraptions that include water wheels and furnaces. It's about as close as one could get to Piranesi's carceri in a videogame without the inclusion of their chains and drawbridges.

Of the carceri: while the presence of mechanisms and inhabitants in the etchings implies a productive rationale, no meaningful aim can be discerned. Rooms of purpose are ignored in favor of endless linkage, of eternal transition. No definite entrances or exits are in sight, and stairs wind about on their own terms. Despite there being the buzz of creative momentum, the Roman-industrial frenzy of forms and their prisonic features turn the momentum into delirium. It is almost as if the architecture has assumed a consciousness, dictating its development to the people and causing them to lose sight of a former, more humane intent. Taking all of this in, one may get the sense of the carceri being purgatorial zones.

It feels appropriate to now move on to the second artist, Étienne-Louis Boullée (1728 - 1799), whose best known work is often sepulchral. Boullée built little during his career; among the few examples are the Hôtel Alexandre, the Hôtel de Brunoy, and four houses near Paris that included the Château de Perreux (none of these projects, excepting the Hôtel Alexandre, has survived into the current century). He made most of his living reputation as a teacher, later opening an atelier where he taught for fifty years, out of which came renowned French architects such as Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart and Jean Chalgrin. Posthumously and presently, Boullée is almost entirely known for the designs he made in the last two decades of his life that are at once beautiful and monotonous, adulatory and pretentious, futuristic and ancient. One of the many interesting things about these designs is how unexpected their qualities are when considering the preceding span of Boullée's career, and how much they went on to occupy Boullée's time, even as he continued to assume minor official commissions and temporary posts. A more cynical perspective might say that they were a histrionic attempt on Boullée's part at capital-G Greatness, but Boullée could not have expected that most of these designs would be built, no matter the size of his ego. Rather, I think the images can be viewed as a person's intensifying pictorial intrigue with symbolism, mystery, and order.

An elevation of a conical cenotaph for an unknown person, influenced by Johan Fischer von Erlach's A Plan of Civil and Historical Architecture

In 1780, Boullée prepared a series of designs for the rebuilding of Versailles. Only the last of these -- the grand projet -- survives, and shows a vastly extended building of solemnity and unreasonable proportions. With shrunken finances and a king who wished to avoid large architectural projects, it was rejected. After this, in 1781, came also-rejected designs for a theater and a church. Between the two, it is more obvious why the church didn't make the cut: it is enormous to a nearly unappreciable degree. Its interior, a section of which can be seen below, would have required three-thousand columns alone.

A project for a museum in 1783 is even grander and more transparently a kind of temple. Space has exploded, and the particular details of the columns, steps, and vaults are now just airy, broad accents. The architecture has become a cosmos unto itself, all-embracing and unconcerned with human conditions, much less the idea of hosting artifacts. This projected design is perhaps where Boullée's uninhibited leap into the sublime began. But despite the unrealistic material, structural, and labor demands of these and other spaces, Boullée was not naive or an anachronist: he owned texts on physics and astronomy, reacted to other structures and illustrations, debated with contemporaries' ideas, and worked from a coherent set of theoretical principles, involving light and the sensorial invocations of forms, which are laid out in part by his Architecture, Essai sur l'art.

An interior view of a church for the "cult of the supreme being"

Boullée's designs are disconcerting as often as they are beautiful, much moreso than Piranesi's ever are. At least in Piranesi's carceri there is an irregularity and volume that saves the images from being overtly morbid, perhaps because it better fends off a clear awareness of repetition. Alternately, even the cleanliest of Boullée's fantasies offer something more terrible that comes from their scale, stylistic severity, setting, and function. Putting Boullée's images together gives the idea of a desertic world of structures that want to keep their occupant(s) in as much as they want to keep others out, and yet it is difficult to even imagine that this world has occupants, so regular are its landscapes and so huge its buildings. It seems to be a world where a people's exaltations, fears, and desires have outgrown them.

This is obviously an interpretation that trends towards science-fiction or the absurd. Boullée meant for his sites to have been built by humans, for humans, on Earth -- but to recognize this in fact lends the architecture a more disquieting edge. The magnifying of the funerary monuments in turn magnifies an implicit argument, which is: "How can such greatness of the deceased be disputed when it is so exemplified by the splendor and size of this dedicatory structure?" Again, we are in the realm of propaganda. What sort of authority could be behind the making of these structures? And what sort of economic, social, and cultural power would it have to wield to support, or enforce, such endeavors? Were we to continue down more sinister paths in these thoughts, we might consider the Volkshalle, an unrealized monumental building planned by Hitler's architect, Albert Speer -- perhaps the thing that has, to date, come closest to being one of Boullée's fantasies accomplished in reality. It's certainly not difficult to compare it to the aforementioned church; and it is similarly not difficult to compare another of Speer's projects, the Cathedral of Light, to the interior of Boullée's museum, where light seems to be just as much of an architectural element as the grounded, classical structures.

The exterior of a circus or arena, flanked by obelisks

Of course, Boullée had his own aims, just as Speer had his. Historians Robin Middleton and David Watkin write, "In [the 1780s and 1790s] [Boullée's] long-suppressed ambition to be a painter finally surfaced in the form of demands for a poetic architecture of a vague ennobling symbolism, recalling the immutability of death, light, dark, and the stark geometry of the sphere, cube, and pyramid." And in his Essai, Boullée wrote, "Our buildings, especially public buildings, ought to be, in some way, poems." In this sense (and noting Boullée's interest in the ideas of gardening theorists in the 1770s, such as René Louis de Girardin), Boullée approached architecture as a fanciful environment that stimulated the mind with its formal qualities and interactions with light. His buildings' functions retreat as secondary, or simply nonexistent, concerns; aesthetic affect is supreme. These aims stand against Speer's, which were explicitly linked to the Nazi regime, nationalism, and social concerns. Yet a variety of parallels between the two men's work remains. It is no coincidence that both draw upon a Greco-Roman legacy of Greatness for their concepts and visual material (Boullée designed a tomb for Sparta; compare Italo Gismondi's model of Rome to Speer's for the Welthauptstadt Germania; etc.). Both also produced designs clothed in a language of power and immortality that is not so different from the tenor of today's corporate skyscrapes which, through their hugeness and harshly repetitive formalities, acquire a monolithic character of irreproachability, almost as if they are a priori forms.

These are ideas that hardly need further elaborating on to demonstrate their capacity to inform interesting narratives and environments in videogames. We could ask the same question we did of Piranesi's images here: are there any videogames influenced by Boullée? Answering this in the positive or even unsure is strangely harder than in the case of Piranesi, despite Boullée's designs being more evidently modern with their simplified forms, sparing details, and flattened surfaces. One may, however, be reminded by the prior musings on buildings as faceless, authoritative statements of the Citadel from Valve's Half-Life 2, which stands far above every other structure in City 17 and is the game's official edifice for its Big Brother character and its climactic environment. But the Citadel really owes its look and impact to material such as Antonio Sant'Elia's Città Nuova and other modernist, industrial imagery tied to twentieth-century developments in metropolitan design. One may also be reminded of Thatgamecompany's Journey, wherein players traverse a desert towards a mountainous monument. Giorgio de Chirico (also an inspiration for Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, the latter of which is often compared to Journey) remains the only visual artist named by Journey's team as an influence, though, and the monument is most easily read as an archetypal object of fateful allure.

A charcoal drawing by the Futurist architect, Antonio Sant'Elia

Perhaps readers will be able to make connections that I have been unable to make, either through my own ignorance or the arbitrary constraints of this essay. In the wake of my criticism directed at mainstream practices of insularity, it would be negligent to not mention that a more bountiful and cross-fertilizing creativity, architecturally involved or not, has been happening for some time within independent development. As a recent example, there is Studio Oleomingus' Somewhere, an exploration game set in India around the turn of the last century that, in its thematic convergences of architecture and literature (Sukumar Ray's writings), has the hint of Borges; and as a popular example, there is Number None, Inc.'s Braid, which sees the player utilizing time-altering abilities in fragmented environments, and was partly inspired by game designer Jonathan Blow's reading of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities (some arguing can, of course, be done over how much Blow's inspirations are evident, and to what extent inspirations should matter when they are used more as conceptual launchpads than as guiding beacons throughout development). These two examples are worlds apart from Electronic Arts' Dante's Inferno, where literature is used as a lazy, self-defeating way to create a setting for another murderlust videogame and as an oily pretension to "historicity."

A lot of this essay has been devoted to introducing Piranesi and Boullée, and speaking of their work from a personal perspective, with the minority of the text focusing plainly on videogames, but I hope this can be understood and appreciated as my intent. Working off of a sense that Piranesi and Boullée (and a great deal of other artists, popular or unsung, some mentioned herein) are unknown by most game designers, I felt that it was most important to express what I see asvaluable in either's imagery and to let the article's platform and its audience contextualize it in some way. As I see it, part of videogames' maturation process involves expression that gets beyond homages to other videogames. Although there is no reason to consider the latter sort of expression to be inadmissable, there is also no reason for it to remain the dominant sort, and allowing it persistent creative control will do nothing but limit videogames in every regard. Breaking out of this paradigm requires, in part, developers becoming aware of, and responding to, the legacies that surround them. Enthusiasm and richer ideas are sure to follow.

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