CLAUDE-NICOLAS LEDOUX, Les salines de Chaux
Francisco Martínez Mindeguía, Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya

General map of the city of Chaux’s surroundings. Preliminary ideas that determined the choice of places, the isolation of the houses and other establishments, obtained from the book L'architecture considerée sous le rapport de l'art des moeurs et de la législation, by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, in 1804

Ledoux (1736-1806) is considered, along with Etienne-Louis Boullée, a visionary architect resulting from the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Both are considered together, but they are not alike. Ledoux is much more pragmatic; his works are designed to be built, taking into consideration people’s needs. Boullée does not seem to share these interests. From 1771, Ledoux was the Commisioner of the Salines, and the king Louis XVI appointed him as his architect in 1773. He started writing and drawing this book’s sheets in 1775. The initial idea was to publish his projects for the Salines de Chaux. But, the Bastille falls in 1789 and he is dismissed; he was arrested by the revolutionary committee in 1793, accused of conspiracy, of working for Madame du Barry, and not clapping sincerely when Louis XVI was guillotined. The following period of inactivity allowed him to finish his book, published in 1804, two years before his death. Finally, the book lets him explain his ideas about architecture.

Ledoux took part in the reformist idealism of the second half of the 18th century, and he understands that architecture has to respond to the deep changes that were taking place from a new social and moral point of view. He sees himself as a philosophical architect, as Etienne-Louis Boullée, who was a contemporary of his did, too. One should bear in mind that this book is written from 1775 to 1804. It is the ending of the Enlightenment (1715-1789), the United States Independence takes place in 1775, and the beginning of the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen happened in 1789. These changes had repercussions throughout all the 19th century, even on the role of architects and their activities. Monarchies fell, and the bourgeoisie emerged, owing to the industrial revolution. The traditional urban model does not work anymore, and it is necessary to find a solution. Ledoux, very influenced by Rousseau’s theories, designed in the Salines a Community House that worked as meeting point for all sorts of people. He also made a Peace House or Happiness Temple, a sort of courts of law, where people do not go to jail, and differences are mediated.

In this book, the text and the plates are equally important, and sometimes they seem to be independent. What he designs for Chaux is the model of a new social and urban organization. The shape of the buildings indicates the activity that takes place inside them. The shape of the city is the community’s symbol, around a common center. This is the second project. The first one had a squared plant. It is not the definitive project either, since what was finally built is different. 

Ledoux does not propose a city integrated with the landscape. The lay-out resembles a Roman settlement, with the cardo and the decumanus, but the references go beyond that. The horizontal axis existed already; it is the path linking the cities of Arc et Senans. The vertical axis is new, totally straight and has no end, it crosses the Loue River, the Chaux and the Perrousse forests. The horizontal axis is the relationship with the place, and the vertical axis is the project, symmetry axis of the planning.

Ledoux states in his book:
The intersecting line of the highest diameter crosses the Loue River, some very large prairies, the city, the forest, the Doubs river, the Geneva channel, and the Helvetian fields; to the left, the Mosa, the Mosela, the Rhin, the Antwerp harbor, and the North Seas carry until the Siberian deserts the early fruits, so desired by our trading and our crafts. O, inexhaustible source of richness! You are the product of all the others, thanks to you the natural recognition of the nations becomes more vivid, thanks to you fortunes become regular, empires grow and reach their highest splendors.

The minor diameter aligns the streets of Arc and Senans, the forges of Roche, paper factories and chandleries; what an activity! Some polish steel, chisel copper, or blown glass; others melt the glittering metal which maintains nations’ rights (Akal, 1994, p. 72)…the horizontal axis is the basis of the resources; the vertical one is the progress and future. It is a very clear Cartesian structure.

Regarding the vertical axis, he says: follow the impulse that hounds you: go through the impenetrable labyrinth of the forest; run those wide paths that narrow and get lost in the void of immensity, those paths where light and shades, in their economic dispute, regulate the clarity suitable for feeling…(p. 73).

Those texts turn him into a visionary, but his drawings, too. This is one of the first ones in his book. It is a regular shape in the middle of a rural environment. The ground is plane, but there is a strange shadow that makes it seem as if everything where levitating over the ground. But the plant seems to be floating over the ground…

He states: Here is an isolated world inside the world itself; here is a working town which makes every seed that Earth …has promised to fertilize… grow …but he later specifies: I confess I had the need to do this exhibition in order to convince myself that a suspended drop of water could, by falling, promote industry and take it to world’s end. I agree that the exaltation of this idea may bring about, when feelings start to run high, considerations which a cold reason seem to drive away with maturity. I am even aware that it can host the delirious that the imagination suggests or favor accredits. But when I gather all the acquired knowledge regarding the Salines in Europe, I find nothing that justifies this rejection… (p. 74).

Ledoux also draws a perspective projection of the place,

Here it can be seen that everything is at the same level, but the center is more illuminated.

He says (p.73): A huge circle opens up before my eyes, a new horizon that shines with all of its colors. The mighty star stares nature audaciously, forcing weak humans to lower their eye-lids. You, productive activity, do not fear crossing over the burning line. Mother of all resources, without you nothing can exist, except for misery: you expand the influence that life gives: you cheer up arid deserts and melancholic forests.

He says (p.76): A perspective gathers in a frame all the points that sight can dominate but, the wider nature is, the more its imitation will dominate just a narrow circle. If it (nature) has given to any of our senses a scope that strengthens with exercise, if it was enhanced with the aid of glasses that reach for greater distances, it is not the same with freedom of conception since it cannot be limited by the view of the lands that get confused in the horizon: these fields that seem immense to us, are excessively narrow to it. The immensity of the skies is not big enough for its domain…

Ledoux is speaking about utopia, a plan for a new world, but the formal image is an evolution of Versailles,

An image of Versailles by Pierre Patel, as it was in 1668.

Finally, he says a very important thing: Unfortunate that who cannot see beyond what can be done….he is not capable of seeing beyond, no doubt he must not have been favored by the do-gooder star that fertilizes intelligence.

Recommended bibliography:
- Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, L'architecture considerée sous le rapport de l'art des moeurs et de la législation, 1804 (see Lenoir's edition, 1847)
- Emil Kaufmann, "Claude Nicolas Ledoux, a Pioner of Modern Architecture in the Eighteenth Century", Parnassus, vol. 8, n. 5, 1936, pp. 16-18
- Helen Rosenau, "Claude Nicolas Ledoux", The Burllington Magazine for Connoisseurs, vol. 88, n. 520, 1946, pp. 162-168.
- Emil Kaufmann, Tres arquitectos revolucionarios: Boullée, Ledoux y Lequeu, 1952, 1978
- Marc Grignon and Juliana Maxim, "Convenance, Caractère, and Public Sphere", The Journal of the Architectural Historians, vol. 49, n. 1, 1995, pp. 29-37.

© of the texts Francisco Martínez Mindeguía
Francisco Martínez Mindeguía is Profesor Agregado at the Superior Technical Architecture School of Vallès (Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura del Vallés), UPC
© by Ruth Costa Alonso, Francisco Martínez Mindeguía, and Antonio Millán: English translation.

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