Ledoux, Claude-Nicolas (1736–1806)

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LEDOUX, CLAUDE-NICOLAS (17361806), French architect. Ledoux was among the most prominent architects of the final decades of the ancien régime. Although few of his buildings are extant, engravings of them and of his unrealized projects continue to draw the attention of architects and theorists interested in their inventive forms, symbolic expression, and social vision.

Ledoux's career exemplifies the increased social and professional mobility of architects in the second half of the eighteenth century. Born into a merchant family of modest means in a provincial town, Dormans (Marne), Ledoux received a classical education in Paris as a scholarship student at the Collège de Dormans-Beauvais from 1749 to 1753. He subsequently apprenticed as an engraver and studied architecture at the private École des Arts, directed by the eminent architectural educator, Jacques-François Blondel (17051774). He reportedly completed his professional training in the atelier of Louis-François Trouard (17291794). Ledoux deftly established his career through contacts among alumni of the collège, the architects and amateurs affiliated with Blondel's school, and a circle of musicians and artists at Versailles that opened to him in 1764 when he married Marie Bureau, the daughter of an oboist in the court orchestra. From the 1760s, these overlapping networks led to a wide range of challenging and profitable private and public commissions as well as his appointment to the royal academy of architecture in 1773. His royalist associations, however, led to his professional ruin and imprisonment (17931795) during the French Revolution.

Ledoux began his practice as neoclassicism was emerging as the preferred style among trend-setting designers and clients, and he made a place for himself among them. In 17711773, he achieved fame with two commissions, a pavilion at Louveciennes for Madame du Barry (17431793), who had recently become Louis XV's mistress, and a house and private theater in Paris for Marie-Madeleine Guimard (17431816), a prominent dancer at the Opéra. Both women sought to use patronage of architecture and art to legitimize their place in society, and Ledoux responded to their ambition with buildings attesting to their (and his) discriminating and adventuresome taste. He shared the interest in Greco-Roman architecture that constitutes a defining attribute of neoclassicism, but his formal sources and theoretical intentions went beyond the revival of antiquity. His teacher, Blondel, instilled an enduring appreciation for the grandeur and compositional logic in the buildings of François Mansart (15981666) and a conviction that architects must infuse their designs with an expressive character appropriate to their purpose. Ledoux pursued this attitude by exploring typology and the ways by which architecture can convey meaning. His investigations into the fundamental characteristics of building types paralleled the classificatory efforts of scientists, such as Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (17071788). His study of meaning engaged him with contemporary theories of perception, including Edmund Burke's (17291797) writings on the sublime. Ledoux's formal language was informed by a lifelong interest in three-dimensional geometry and also by the compositional vocabulary of Andrea Palladio (15081580), which he learned through study of Palladio's Four Books on Architecture (1570) and English neo-Palladian architecture.

Public commissions were an important part of Ledoux's practice from the beginning of his career. In 1764, he obtained a position in the royal department of water and forests (Département des Eaux et Forêts) for which he designed churches, fountains, and bridges. This experience sparked an interest in the economics, social organization, and architecture of rural life and brought him into contact with physiocratic reformers. In 1771, his patron, Madame du Barry, facilitated his appointment as architect-engineer for the saltworks (salines) in eastern France administered by the corporation of tax farmers (Fermiers Généraux). From 1775 to 1780, Ledoux realized a new saltworks, the Saline de Chaux, at Arc-et-Senans (Doubs). His master plan and architectural designs systematically addressed the technical, social, and symbolic dimensions of this important industry. Subsequently, he expanded the project into a visionary scheme for urban and rural development, which he presented in his treatise, published in 1804. Ledoux's work for the Fermiers Généraux included projects in Paris; notably, one of the first commissions for a large office building (begun 1783, never completed) and the master plan and buildings for a wall around the city (begun 1784) intended to regulate the collection of customs duties. Four of his toll stations (barrières) remain today. Among his commissions for public buildings outside Paris were the municipal theater in Besançon (17711784), an unrealized project for the city hall of Neuchâtel, Switzerland (1783), and the Palais de Justice and prisons for Aix-en-Provence (designed 17791786), begun in 1787 but completed to the designs of others.

See also Architecture ; Buffon, Georges Louis Leclerc ; City Planning ; France, Architecture in ; Mansart, François ; Neoclassicism ; Palladio, Andrea, and Palladianism .


Primary Sources

Gallet, Michel, ed. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux: Unpublished Projects. Berlin, 1992. Translation of Architecture de Ledoux: inédits pour un tome iii (1991).

Ledoux, Claude-Nicolas. L'architecture considérée sous le rapport de l'art, des moeurs, et de la législation. Paris, 1804. Reprint edited by Daniel Ramée, Princeton, 1984.

Ramée, Daniel, ed. Architecture de C. N. Ledoux. Princeton, 1984.

Secondary Sources

Braham, Allan. The Architecture of the French Enlightenment. Berkeley, 1980.

Gallet, Michel. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux: 17361806. Paris, 1980.

Vidler, Anthony. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux: Architecture and Social Reform at the End of the Ancien Régime. Cambridge, Mass., 1990.

Richard Cleary

Ledoux, Claude-Nicolas

views updated May 14 2018

Ledoux, Claude-Nicolas (1736–1806). Prolific French Neo-Classicist, he is regarded as one of the greatest architects of his time, although very few of his works survive. He studied under J. -F. Blondel, and his earliest works were elegant paradigms of the Louis XVI style. These include the Hôtel d'Hallwyl, Rue Michael-le-Comte, Paris (1766), the Château de Bénouville, Normandy (c.1764–c.1770), the exquisite Hôtel d'Uzès, Rue Montmartre, Paris (1768), and the ingenious Hôtel de Montmorency, facing the Boulevard Montmartre and the Chaussée d'Antin (1769–71—with a diagonal axis and elliptical salon). From 1771, however, he worked for Madame du Barry (1746–93) for whom he built the charming Pavillon de Louveciennes (1771–3), one of his first essays in a pure Neo-Classical style, with interior decorations perfect examples of their time. At the Hôtel Thélusson, between the Rue de Provence and Rue de Chantereine, Paris (1778–83—demolished), he created an approach via a gigantic rusticated astylar Doric arch, and surrounded the house with an informal garden in the ‘English’ style, complete with rock-work constructions. His command of stark geometry evolved further at the semicircular theatre at Besançon (1775–80—burnt 1957), with its Greek Doric colonnade inside, and at the extraordinarily tough Salines (Salt-Works) d'Arc-et-Senans (1773–8), built in his role as Inspecteur des Salines de la Franche-Comté. Banded columns, simplified rigid geometry, and primitivist qualities emphasized by the unfluted Greek Doric columns were something new. The complex formed the centre-piece for his Utopian town of Chaux (published in L'architecture considerée sous le rapport de l'art, des mœurs, et de la législation (Architecture Considered in Relation to Art, Standards, and Legislation—1804 and 1847)), in which simplified, stripped Neo-Classicism was the language, with allusions to all sorts of stereometrically pure geometries, including Egyptian pyramids, a phallus-shaped brothel, a hoop-shaped house for a cooper, and even spherical structures. Allied to this were routes passing through various mnemonic devices, clearly Freemasonic in origin and intent. Although Chaux (meaning ‘lime’, the binding agency of masonry and therefore an allusion to a programme of Freemasonic connections) remained mostly a strange and wonderful dream, Ledoux was able to realize many of his most advanced ideas in the series of Barrières or toll-houses erected around Paris (1785–9), including the Rotonde de la Villette, with its mighty drum on unfluted Greek Doric serlianas, set over a square plan to each elevation of which are attached square Doric columns, and the grimly powerful Barrières of Passy, Longchamp, l'Observation, and Chopinette. Here was ‘primitive’ Neo-Classicism at its starkest and most sophisticated, among the greatest architectural creations of C18.


Builder (1980);
Gallet (1980, 1992);
E. Kaufmann (1952);
Middleton & and Watkin (1987);
Placzek (ed.) (1982);
Rabreau (2000);
Jane Turner (1996);
Vidler (1987, 1990, 1995)

Claude Nicolas Ledoux

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Claude Nicolas Ledoux

In his neoclassic buildings the French architect Claude Nicolas Ledoux (1736-1806) revived the forms of antiquity but in a highly imaginative and often fantastic way.

Claude Nicolas Ledoux was born at Dormans-sur-Marne on March 21, 1736. Little is known of his formative years except that he trained under Jacques François Blondel. By the 1760s Ledoux was receiving commissions for country residences and town houses, including the Hôtel d'Uzés (1767) in Paris and the château of Benouville (1768), the latter famed for its staircase designed in a thoroughly classical spirit. The Hôtel de Hallwyl (1764-1767) in Paris with its illusionistic garden already announces the flair for the theatrical and the dramatic that characterized so much of Ledoux's work. His early dwellings were often of simple square form, showing the influence of Ange Jacques Gabriel and his Petit Trianon. Among Ledoux's so-called cube houses, the one designed for the dancer Maria Madeleine Guimard (1770) and the dining pavilion for Madame du Barry at Louveciennes (1771) are outstanding.

Ledoux, like many other architects of his generation, was strongly influenced by the view of antiquity of the Italian engraver Giovanni Battista Piranesi, which was essentially a romantic one strongly tinged with elements of fantasy. It was in large measure from Piranesi that Ledoux's fondness for the dramatic derived, as seen in the grandiose scale of many of his compositions and the forceful massiveness of his simple architectural forms. He designed 42 tollhouses for the city of Paris, which are of the greatest variety in plan and elevation but uniformly massive and overlaid with Doric or Tuscan orders of heavily rusticated columns. Only four remain to testify to Ledoux's powerful style, a style completely foreign to the delicacy of the dying rococo manner.

Among the architect's most imaginative achievements was his design for the royal salt mines at Arc-de-Senans (1775-1779) on the Loue River near Besançon. Very little is preserved of Ledoux's overall scheme. The gatehouse, comprising a deep portico supported by heavily banded Tuscan columns and placed against a background of rusticated rockwork, gives some insight into Ledoux's forceful style. His tendency toward fantasy was given full rein in certain of the houses designed for the project, including that of the surveyor of the Loue; it was conceived as a cylindrical form, with a stream flowing through its tunnel-vaulted center.

In 1780 Ledoux proposed houses of spherical shape for the park keepers at Maupertuis; and when asked to render plans for furnaces for a gun foundry, he drew them as pyramids. His love of simple geometric form is further seen in his theater at Besançon (1778-1784), where a Greek Doric colonnade is placed at the top of an amphitheater of semicircular form.

With the onset of the French Revolution, Ledoux was accused of being a royalist sympathizer; his popularity suddenly waned, and he was forced into permanent retirement. He turned to architectural theory, and for the remainder of his life he concentrated on principles which he hoped would lead to the building of an ideal city. His high-flown, imaginative, and essentially romantic ideas appeared in L'Architecture considérée sous le rapport de l'art, des moeurs et de la législation (1807).

It is ironic that Ledoux, who was among those opposing the French Revolution, was in fact one of the early artistic leaders who helped to destroy traditional forms and thus, indirectly, traditional authority. It is doubtful that when he died in Paris on Nov. 19, 1806, he knew how significantly he had affected the architecture of his time and that of the following generation.

Further Reading

Although there is no monograph in English on Ledoux, a valuable study which discusses his work and contribution to the architectural practice and theory of the period is Emil Kaufmann, Three Revolutionary Architects: Boullée, Ledoux, and Lequeu (1952). See also J. C. Lemagny, Visionary Architects: Boullée, Ledoux, Lequeu (1968). □

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Claude Nicolas Ledoux

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