Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Saline Royale (Royal Saltworks) is a historical building at Arc-et-Senans in the department of Doubs, eastern France. It is the only building actually constructed of what was to become the Ideal City of Chaux. It is next to the Forest of Chaux and about 35 kilometers from Besançon. The architect was Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (1736–1806), a prominent Parisian architect of the time. The work is an important example of an early Enlightenment project in which the architect based his design on a philosophy that favored arranging buildings according to a rational geometry and a hierarchical relation between the parts of the project.

UNESCO added the "Salines Royales" to its List of World Heritage Sites in 1982.

Today, the site is mostly open to the public. It includes, in the building the coopers used, displays by the Ledoux Museum of other futuristic projects that were never built. Also, the salt production buildings house temporary exhibitions.

Claude Nicolas Ledoux

On September 20, 1771, Louis XV appointed Ledoux Commissioner of the Salt Works of Lorraine and Franché-Comté. As Commissioner, Ledoux was responsible for inspecting the different saltworks in eastern France. This gave him an opportunity to see many different saltworks, including those at Salins-les-Bains and Lons-le-Saunier, and to learn from them what one might want if designing a factory from scratch.

Two years later, Madame du Barry supported Ledoux's nomination to membership in the Royal Academie of Architecture. This permitted him to style himself as Royal Architect. (He was already the architect for the Ferme générale, the private customs and excise operation that collected many taxes on behalf of the king, under 6-year contracts.) It was on the basis of his positions as Inspector of the Saltworks and as Royal Architect that he received the commission to design the Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans.

The first plan

Without even having received any request from the king, Ledoux decided to design a saltworks. The project was something of an abstraction as he had no site in mind. This also freed him give free rein to his imagination. He presented the resulting project in April 1774 to Louis XV.

Unconstrained by any practical considerations, the project was ambitious, innovative, and a break with traditional approaches. What Ledoux did was to impose a rigid geometry on the overall design. The buildings were placed around the edges of an immense square, and linked to each other by porticoes; no building stood in isolation. To speed connections between buildings, Ledoux introduced covered arcades that linked the midpoints of adjacent sides, forming a square within the square. Columns abounded. The buildings themselves were replete with them, and 144 Doric columns supported the covered arcades.

Ledoux's plan envisaged that the central square courtyard would be where the factory would keep its firewood. At each corner of the square, and at the midpoints of each side stood two-story, square buildings that would house the various parts of the operation. In front were the quarters for the guards, a chapel, and a bakery. On the sides were workshops for the coopers and other workmen. At the base was the factory itself. Gardens were to surround the site to provide the workers with a supplement to their income. Lastly, a wall would surround the entire complex to protect it from theft.

It was the project's grandiose vision that blocked its realization. No industrial building of the period was equally imposing. The king rejected the project. He particularly objected to the extensive use of columns, features that he felt were more appropriate for churches and palaces. He also objected to the chapel being relegated to a corner.

In his own critical review of the project, Ledoux stated that he had put too much weight on the conventions of a factory to the neglect of symbolic aspects. The result was a flat, uniform design based on bi-lateral symmetry, rather than one that would have a marked center of gravity. The design also recalled the traditional communal buildings of the time such as convents, monasteries, hospitals, large farms, and the like. Furthermore, since ancient times, architects had recognized that plans such as Ledoux's were vulnerable to the spread of fire and not very hygienic, with throughout the day some part of the site being in the shade. Lastly, critics pointed out that the project did not take into account the geographic or geological constraints.

The second plan

Ledoux designed the semicircular complex to reflect a hierarchical organization of work. The complete plan included the building of an ideal city forming a perfect circle, like that of the sun. Louis XV had signed the edict authorizing the construction of the saltworks on 29 April 1773, and after approval of Ledoux' second design, construction began in 1775. The city was never started, however. All that was completed was the diameter and a semicircle of buildings of the saltworks.

In the second design, the entrance building sits at the midpoint of the semicircle and contains on one side guardrooms and on the other a prison and a forge. Other buildings on the semicircle include on the left, as one faces the entrance, quarters for carpenters and laborers, and on the right, marshals and coopers. At the center of the circle is the house of the Director, which has a belvedere on top. A monumental staircase led to a chapel that was destroyed by fire in 1918, following a lightning strike. On either side of the Director's house are the saltworks themselves. These two buildings are 80 meters long, 28 meters wide, and 20 meters high. They contain the drying ovens, the heating pots, the "Sales des Bosses", and the salt stores. At each intersection of the diameter and the semicircle sit buildings that housed the works' clerks. Behind the Director's house there is an elegant, small stables for the Director's horses.

The support of salt works by a state monopoly probably explains why this building is so grand. The gabelle was very unpopular and was one of the complaints that led to the French Revolution. The Revolution itself probably curtailed the building of the ideal city.

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