Claude-Nicolas Ledoux was the most famous and indeed the most gifted architect of his generation. No one better represents the dynamic energy of this era, and no one more seriously challenged the boundaries of classicism in both built and visionary works. But his life and his career were not always filled with happy moments; in fact he was arrested during the infamous Reign of Terror in 1793-4 and nearly lost his head on the guillotine. Forced into retirement after his release, he wrote this apologia of his career to vindicate his reputation. He published the first of four projected volumes two years before his sudden paralysis and death.
Ledoux's career falls into two well-defined phases. He was born in the province of Champagne and moved to Paris in the first half of the 1750s to study at the private school of Jacques-Francois Blondel. Ledoux entered private practice in the early 1760s, where he quickly established his reputation as the fashionable designer for aristocratic townhouses for the city's elite. In 1771 his interests shifted when he was given a government post as the inspector of saltworks for the eastern province of Franche-Comte. Between 1775-80, he built the small factory community at Arc-et-Senans, where he first explored an abstract, geometric, and rustic classicism that he simultaneously pursued in ideal designs for the city of Chaux. His building of the (hated) Paris toll houses between 1784-9 allowed another outlet for his experiments in reducing the classical language - at times to the point of pure abstraction - but they at the same time made him a very unpopular figure in revolutionary France. Ledoux's only published work, L'architecture consider sous le rapport de l'art, des moeurs, et de la legislation, was started in 1780 and conceived as a collection of plates that brought together his utopian designs for the city of Chaux with his various built works at the saline. The project with its magnificent plates grew in his mind during the 1780s, but the French Revolution of 1789 stalled the project. In the meantime Ledoux expanded upon the idea with a highly ornate allegorical foreword and introduction to his architectural fantasies. These introductory pieces are the closest Ledoux came to defining his theoretical outlook. The theory of sensationalism composes one base of his theory. Another is the inclusion of ''morals'' (moeurs) and ''legislation'' in the book's title, which - after his harrowing experience in prison - underscores his overall didactic or social-regulative conception of practice. Also prominent in his thinking is the role that freemasonry plays in his highly charged symbolism of forms. Critics of his work - especially of the rhetorical power of forms and ornamental elements - characterized his approach as architecture parlante or ''speaking architecture.'' The selection of passages from the introduction discusses architecture as the art most useful in shaping the morality and happiness of the human race. It is a utopian and utilitarian conception, certainly moderated by the social consciousness of the French Revolution.
Let nations raise the trumpet that sounds a general call to this beneficent competition! The architect will be prompt in coming, and his active and generous hand will pour forth to society the treasures for which he will be paid only with his ashes. Like the dew that brilliantly nourishes our fields, which is no longer celebrated after it has fertilized the
Claude Nicolas Ledoux (1736-1806), from L'architecture consider sous le rapport de I'art, des moeurs et de la legislation [Architecture considered in relation to art, morals, and legislation]. Paris: C. F. Patris, 1802, pp. 9-12, trans. Harry Francis Mallgrave.
abundant harvest of grain, his works will be reimbursed only through the immortality of his name.
Posterity will conserve and honor his memory. In his works - propagators of art - it will admire the great principles. The entire falsified amalgam, the particular fruit of circumstances, will disappear.
There, as with an elementary textbook, these principles will develop with their different results, everything will be confirmed by experience.
We will find there a series of simple and positive ideas, benevolent principles of the operations of genius; in the men fated to follow these tracks, it will powerfully assist their judgment in the choice of means and in the reasoning used to do it.
Note those immutable rules that have been collected there.
The salutary effect of the wind, the most favorable site must always precede and determine the manner and order of construction; we must build according to the temperature.
The dependence that too long perpetuated the vices of the conception will count for nothing, and we will not subordinate the favor of the site to comply with a usage that is considered dangerous.
We will not separate the unity of the thought from the variety of forms, laws of fitness, propriety, or economy. Unity, a type of beauty - omnis porro pulchritudinis est - resides in the relation of the masses to the details or the ornaments, in uninterrupted lines that do not allow the eye to be distracted by harmful accessories.
Variety gives to each building the physiognomy that is proper to it. It multiplies and changes this physiognomy according to the adjacent situations and to the planes leading to the horizon, and a satisfied desire in fact hatches a thousand others.
Fitness, which values richness and disguises adversity, will subordinate ideas to the localities, will reassemble the different needs with suitable and inexpensive exteriors.
Propriety will offer us the analogy of proportions and ornaments; it will indicate at first glance the motive of the construction and its use.
Economy of materials will deceive us about the real cost, thanks to the enchanting illusion that tricks the eye by the prudent combinations of art.
We will not forget symmetry; imbibed from nature it contributes to solidity and establishes parallel relations that do not exclude the picturesque, I say further, the bizarre that it must reject.
Who can neglect taste? To which we owe so many enjoyments, or the method specific to every idea.
Taste demonstrates what is good or bad of he who exercises it. True taste is without all mannerisms; it is not, as one believes, attached to the fugitive wings of the arbitrary or founded in fantastic conventions. It is the produce of an exquisite discernment which nature has placed in its favorite minds.
Method offers infinite meanings; it teaches us to connect the simplest things with the complex; it gives us the means to draw logical consequences.
Who has not experienced the despotism of beauty? That unexpected and thoughtless sympathy that commands our admiration and forces our senses into its empire. [ . . . ]
Decoration is the expressive character, more or less simple, more or less compound, that we give to each edifice. It distinguishes the altars that play for eternity with the Supreme Being, from the fragile palace that transitory power sustains. It breathes life into surfaces, immortalizes them with the imprint of every sensation and passion. It modifies the irregularities of fate, humbles presumptuous opulence, and relieves timid misfortune. It blackens ignorance, promotes knowledge, and in its just apportionment it gives to nations the luster that makes them shine, while plunging into barbarity those ungrateful or careless peoples who neglect its favors. This artful coquette, supported by the sweet arts of civilization, plays every role; it is alternatively severe or facile, sad or gay, calm or carried away. Her deportment is imposing or seductive; she is jealous of everyone, and supports neither the neighbor who offends her nor the comparison that would destroy her charms. Always surrounded by desires that group themselves within her rays, she isolates herself from the world. In her methodical retreat, she accentuates her rhythms with equal movements.
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