April 29: Architecture or Revolution

2016/04/29 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1773 King Louis XV signed the edict authorizing the construction of the Saline Royale.

As a highly valuable commodity, salt was taxed and regulated by the crown; its manufacture deserved architecture that expressed its status in French culture.  The new saltworks built at Chaux were planned to be an improvement on the traditional system (that relied on evaporation) through their mechanized processes and the overall planning of the operation.  Architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (1736-1806) turned his Enlightenment mind and Neo-Classical taste to the problem of a complex organization comprising workers’ housing, a house for the director, administrative offices, a chapel, stables, and the great saltworks proper: two buildings measuring about 240 by 85 feet in which the drying ovens, heating pots and salt stores were maintained.  Ledoux arranged the different elements according to their hierarchy, which was expressed in the strong formality of a half-circle.  The whole plan imposed geometric order on the salt-making process.  Individually, each building was articulated in Ledoux’s particular brand of Neo-Classicism, based in clear, clean geometries, simple proportional relationships, bold quotations from Classical antiquity (oftentimes the way-back Greek world: Stuart may have loved Athens; Ledoux preferred Paestum) and sometimes vernacular forms, and the occasional whimsical invented ornament.  Together, they have a clear aesthetic character, although individual functional parts of the whole (like this and this and this) distinguish the diverse functions of the place.  The expression of the activities housed within–named by the French architecture parlante–is “spoken” through details like the “grotto” that drips briny water.

One of the great Neo-Classicists, Ledoux was adopted (hijacked?) by Modernists in the mid-twentieth century, made over as an architect more interested in geometry and pure form than precedent and fussy detail.  This is, of course, nonsense.  To Ledoux and his generation (including Sir John SoaneThomas JeffersonB. Henry LatrobeRobert Adam and Charles-Louis Clérisseau,) manipulation of, or expression within, the adopted parameters of Classicism may have been a goal, but never was it an interest to ignore the heritage of Classicism. Even so, by mid-century Ledoux and a few other French architects were labeled as “revolutionary;” and we suppose you can see a formal link between him and Le Corbusier if, maybe, you leave the book on the other side of the room, take off your glasses, squint, and can thus only see white blobs.  (This approach will also make petits fours and Bibendum reasonable points on the timeline, proving that indeed Le Corb was the culmination of centuries worth of French culture.)  But seriously, if Ledoux’s work was a “revolution,” it was painfully short-lived.  This is especially true in his particular context in the French capital, where “revolution” meant something a little more serious in the late eighteenth century than architects trying out new ideas.  Because of his royal connections, Ledoux was imprisoned for a time during the Revolution, only narrowly escaping the guillotine.  Many of his works, because of their patronage, were destroyed during his life.

Revolutionary architecture, out to upset the baguette cart?  Non.  Spectacular, creative, interesting work within the marvelous and elastic language of Classicism that allows so many personal expressions within its stretchy parameters?  Absolument.

Image: the plan of the Saltworks (from this site)

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