When a barrel maker’s workshop is in the form of a barrel, or a river watchman sees a river flowing through bis house, we are dealing with “speaking architecture.” With his progressive social and architectural ideas Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, who appreciated classical literature and preferred to describe himself as an architect-philosopher, was among its most imaginative representatives. This French architect first learned his trade in Paris; his teacher, Jacques Francois Blondel, was a champion of Neo-Classicism. His first job, in local government, took Ledoux out of the capital.
From the Provinces to Paris
In the provinces of Burgundy and Champagne his responsibilities covered the construction of bridges, schools and transport routes, as well as farming matters and farmers’ living conditions. At the same time, the young architect made the acquaintance of high administrative officials, from whose ranks many of his later commissions came. When in 1764 Ledoux married the daughter of a court musician, his connections were definitively established: exchanging his administrative work for numerous commissions from the court, he could now settle in the capital and start building for the Paris nobility. Ledoux’ approach was eclectic, and he sometimes quoted from classical antiquity, at other times from the Italian Renaissance or French Neo-Classicism. In his facade for the Hotel d’Uzes, for example, he employed the Baroque, while for the Hotel d’Halwyll he drew upon Neo-Classicism.
In 1771 the 35-year-old Ledoux was engaged to build a salt works in the east of the country. Between Arc and Senans, near Besancon, he created from 1774 the Saline du Roi. Ledoux was not satisfied with a simple factory; he designed a whole ideal town for working people. Processing areas and workshops were to be grouped in a semicircle around the house of the director, and these in turn were surrounded by houses and public buildings such as churches and communal baths. Only part of his design was realized, but this already demonstrates the concept behind it: living and working were to be closely ‘inked. Simple geometric forms such as cubes, spheres and pyramids determined the design of the buildings. The salt works began operating in 1779, and more than 250 workers lived in Ledoux’ houses. He continued to dedicate himself to his ideal city, but many of his “speaking buildings,” expressing Utopian ideals in Neo-Classical forms, were never executed.
With the outbreak of the French Revolution, Ledoux’ public and private commissions dried up; in 1793, the former royal architect even spent a short time in prison. During his last years, he devoted himself to his writings on architectural theory, the first (and only) volume appearing two years before his death.