BIOGRAPHY OF CLAUDE-NICOLAS LEDOUX
Claude Nicolas Ledoux (1736-1806), King’s Architect, and architect in the Enlightenment period.
Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, who can be considered to have been an “architectural poet”, was born in 1736 in Dormans, in the Champagne region, France. He studied drawing and engraving, and discovered the theory of Architecture at the Jacques François Blondel school (1705/1774). His first assignment was the creation of a lavish interior for the military café in Paris. This work revealed his taste for narrative iconography and his ability to implement modest projects in a monumental manner. In 1764, Ledoux was appointed Architect Engineer at the « Water and Forestry Commission », and over a period of about 10 years, he navigated between his countryside project sites (bridges, village churches), and his high society clients in Paris, (the Hallwyl and Uzès private mansions, as well as that of the Mrs Guimard, the dancer, and the pavilion of Mrs du Barry in Louveciennes). Following this, he was appointed Inspector of the Saltworks for the Lorraine and Franche-Comté regions, and architect of the Tax Services (la Ferme Générale). In this position, he overviewed the major building site of the Arc-et-Senans Royal Saltworks (1774 to 1779), and then the Besançon theatre. The last state-commissioned project that he managed, from 1785 to 1790, was the construction of the Paris surrounding walls, the “enceinte des fermiers généraux”, with its 54 urban tollhouses, that, until the middle of the 19th century, marked the entrance points into Paris. These tollhouses, all built differently but in a monumental manner, were meant to symbolise the taxpayers’ civil adherence to the city authorities of a “policed” capital. However, the ‘highly expensive’ aesthetic designs and the utopian idealism of the architect then came to a head-on collision with the Revolution. Ledoux was imprisoned under the ‘Terror’ period, and died in 1806.
Ledoux’s personality stood-out among his fellow architects of the end of the 18th century because of his originality, variety, scale, and the universality of his ideas. In later times, the myth of the “accursed” artist or the “revolutionary” architect, spread because a significant part of his buildings were destroyed, and because the 19th century expressed its contempt for the Enlightenment period art, and it was forgotten; however, Ledoux’s work, close to the encyclopaedic thinking and the moralising and sensualist sensibility of the 18th century, was well understood and admired by the dignitaries of his time. His relationships with poets of that time, in particular the abbot Jacques Delille (1738/1813), with the physiocrats and certain reformists of the nobility and high-ranking financiers, as well as his affinity with the worlds of music, theatre and the arts, show his encyclopaedic view, and accelerated his rapid ascension in the field. However, it was not until 1804 that he published the first volume of a huge work entitled « Architecture considered in relation to the arts, morals, and legislation » (“L’Architecture considérée sous le rapport de l’art, des mœurs et de la législation”), in which the Arc-et-Senans Royal Saltworks were presented as the point of departure for a vast urban project: an ideal city built around an integrated production site.
Through this architectural project, Ledoux tried to offer solutions for urban and social issues at the time: traffic, health, social balance, and urban equipment. The market halls are an example of how Ledoux attempted to contribute to a better distribution of goods in the city, and put a stop to vending stalls in the streets. Another example is the numerous types of “houses”: country dwellings, artist venues, guards buildings, butchers’ and coal outlets etc. Each building was dealt-with in a monumental manner with symbolism in its shapes. Like Etienne Louis Boullée (1728/1799), he had an educational vision of the city where architecture is not only construction art, but also poetic art; it is “sentimental”, and speaks through effects that are imitated from nature in order to transmit their civic and pedagogical virtues to all.