Claude Nicolas Ledoux, architect of the Enlightenment

Claude Nicolas Ledoux, architect of the Enlightenment

Claude Nicolas Ledoux, architect of neoclassical art and visionary of the Age of Enlightenment, through cubism, surrealism is recognized today as one of the very first architects of its time. Inspired by antiquity, he draws volumes with precise and balanced geometry. His credo was the well-being of man in a healthy organization of work. Precursor of the Utopian current, it has become a myth. Pierre Kast immortalized him in his film "The Cursed Architect" in 1953 and in his novel "Happiness or Power".

The beginnings of Claude Nicolas Ledoux

Ledoux was born in 1736 in Champagne. First a student at the Collège de Beauvais in Paris, he then studied architecture in the school of Jacques François Blondel. In contact with members of the Royal Academy of Architecture, he was called upon to fit out an apartment in the private mansion of Baron Crozat de Thiers, place Vendôme. Inspired by Trouard returning from Rome, his buildings will have an antique aesthetic, with lots of columns. In 1764, he built a rather colossal Palladian style mansion for President Hocquart on the Chaussée d'Antin. Three years later, he was entrusted with the restructuring of the Hôtel d'Uzès rue Montmartre, of which we can see the woodwork of the company lounge at the Carnavalet museum.

While being appointed architect engineer of Water and Forests in 1764, he continued to document himself and made a trip to England between 1769 and 1771 where he became familiar with Palladianism (Venetian architecture) and the Serliennes (three bay windows whose central one is topped by a bow). Many buildings designed by Ledoux are in the same Palladian style, adorned with a peristyle, such as the Madame du Barry pavilion in Louveciennes, inaugurated in September 1771.

Rising through the ranks, and especially because the nobility began to lack money, as well as under the protection of Mme du Barry, he took up the post of commissioner of the Salines de l'Est, then was appointed inspector of the Saltworks of Lorraine and Franche Comté, he finally entered the Royal Academy of Architecture in 1773, thus becoming the king's architect and architect of the Ferme Générale where he was able to build a salt loft in Compiègne.

His dream: the city of Chaux

From 1773, Ledoux thought, drew, modified and constantly perfected the plans for his ideal city: the city of Chaux, named after the neighboring forest. After several plans presented to Turgot, they are accepted by Louis XV and Trudaine. The realization can begin, Ledoux is finally at the head of "his site" at the Royal Saltworks of Arc et Senans, until 1779. In his ideal city, he aspired to create an environment with a rational and hierarchical organization of work. , made for men and for their work, an innovative conception of architecture intended to make society better. A town in the countryside, located between the La Loue river and the forest. According to Rousseau's principles "man is perfectible and if he is corrupted, it is through the immorality inherent in urban societies". A “green” city was needed, with plantations aligned in three rows, bordering the roads of the province, and buildings integrated into nature to the best of their environment.

La Saline is the heart of an ideal city, drawn in a circle around the factory. On the straight line, the administrative buildings are in the center with the director’s pavilion and the chapel, so the workers remained in their “small town” even for the office. Opposite the Director's House is the guard building. On each side, in an arc, the farrier, the gabelle, the cooperage, the forge, the clerk and the homes of the workers called the berniers. Each worker had a small vegetable garden.

In this ideal city, everyone had to be seen: the manager by the employees; employees by the manager.

In his modern project, he did not include a prison. He believed that the natural-plant or mineral environment should allow the man responsible for his acts to meditate on their consequence, to repent and to amend himself. He used Rousseau's principle "man is perfectible, capable of perfecting himself through his own experiences, through his own sensations".

Ledoux at the Ferme Générale

Among his accomplishments, he was in charge of mansions, operas, prisons. But still buildings necessary for social life such as the covered market, the public baths, the gymnastic house, universities, hospices, convalescent home, tolerance, the panarethéon or temple of virtue, the pacifère or temple of peace.

Still in his role as architect at the Ferme Générale, thanks to Lavoisier's idea, he takes care of the surrounding wall of Paris, called the "wall of the farmers general" with sixty pavilions of grants. This twenty-four kilometer barrier made it possible to limit contraband. Ledoux produced buildings called "the propylaea of ​​Paris", the architecture resembling a rotunda sometimes surmounted by a cross, or taking the form of a Greek temple, a column, another inspired by the pavilion of the Du Barry, but all of these works were based on Greek Doric. Fifty barriers were built between 1785 and 1788, then destroyed in the 19th century. But Ledoux was not liked: Louis Sébastien Mercier in his Tableau de Paris had these words "the treasuries of the tax authorities transformed into palaces with columns", and exclaims: "Ah! Mr. Ledoux, you are a terrible architect! ". Ledoux was therefore dismissed from his post in 1787.

Everything was stopped during the Revolution, when the first pickaxes were given. The grant was abolished in May 1791, and the buildings were no longer needed. In spite of everything, there are still those of La Villette, Place Denfert-Rochereau, the Monceau pavilion and that of the Place des Nations.

Under the Terror, he was imprisoned in the Force prison for eighteen months, "feeling too rich". Once released, he no longer had architectural projects and then began to write his work "architecture considered in relation to art, manners and legislation" accompanied by drawings he had sketched in 1773 , but constantly retouched and modified according to the evolution of its architectural style. The work was published two years before his death in 1806. This work focused on the architect's thoughts in order to obtain buildings always in the optics of a harmonious society.

A utilitarian conception of architecture

The city-factory of the royal saltworks of Arc-et-Senans was built by Claude Nicolas Ledoux between 1775 and 1779. Since 1970, its buildings have housed the International Center for Reflection on the Future. The director's house, whose entrance is adorned with a pediment supported by bossed columns, is located at the point of convergence of the various lanes which run through the plan in a semicircle. the city is today the only museum in the world dedicated to Claude Nicolas Ledoux

Sixty models are on display, retracing the projects of this architect. Some have emerged, but destroyed by time and man, others have remained only in draft form. You can discover theaters, mansions, a prison…). Some are utopian such as the town of Chaux, a pleasure house, industrial buildings.

Bénouville Castle is the major building created by Ledoux between 1769 and 1778. Built for the Marquis de Livry, located near Caen, the two facades feature Ionic columns enclosing the spans on three levels. On the garden side, the bas reliefs are decorated with war trophies. Inside, the majestic and colossal central staircase serves the first two levels with wide corridors.

The Hôtel Guimard, built between 1770 and 1772, was donated by Marshal de Soubise to Mademoiselle Guimard, principal dancer of the Opera. Located in the Chaussée d'Utin district, it is a sort of asymmetrical cube, with a winter garden in the center. Ledoux had even imagined installing a private theater above this central garden and had called on renowned artists for decoration such as Fragonard. This hotel of great refinement really made him known.

Constantly in the Doubs region, Ledoux was chosen to build the theater in Besançon, a city of 32,000 inhabitants with no such building. This was a first in design, the custom being that only the nobles were seated and the people remained standing. According to the Roman model with hemicycle and terraces, Ledoux thus provided for the “parterre” provided with armchairs for the subscribers, the officers installed on the first balcony, the nobles in the first boxes and the bourgeoisie in the seconds; finally the people could take seats in the amphitheater. Ledoux was again the first to create the orchestra pit. The theater was inaugurated in 1784, unfortunately destroyed in April 1958 in a fire, but was never rebuilt in this way.

Also in public buildings, he worked on the construction of the courthouse and the Aix en Provence prison. Work began in 1786 barely reaching the height of the ground floor but everything was interrupted during the French Revolution.

A monument is built in memory of Ledoux in the Jura area when you take the A39: the Porte de Bourneville or the Pavillon des Cercles. The Circles workshop or coopers workshop, designed by Ledoux, represents two intertwined barrels, the strapping being metallic to enclose the salt barrels. In his ideal city, the workshop was to be placed at the center of the four roads. Manufacturing on the ground floor and workers' accommodation upstairs.

For further

- Architecture considered in relation to art, customs and legislation: Writings and comments on art, by Nicolas Ledoux. Hermann, 2014.

- The Claude-Nicolas Ledoux model museum: Royal Saltworks of Arc-et-Senans, by Dominique Massounie. Hartpon, 2017.

- The Bénouville castle: A work by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, by Dominique Pain. Notebooks of Time, 2007.


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