Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Ledoux & the All-Seeing Eye

It is frankly a miracle—or at least a testament to his miraculous persuasive skills—that the architect Claude Nicolas Ledoux survived the French Revolution. Indeed, he was the Albert Speer of his day.

In his youthful prime, Ledoux (1736-1806) was architect to Louis XV’s mistress (and former prostitute), Madame Du Barry, to numerous exceedingly wealthy Parisian clients, and most incriminatingly to the detested royal tax collectors, or Ferme Générale, for whom in the late 1780s he built the Berlin Wall of its time, an impenetrable barrier that encircled Paris, erected to ensure that the taxmen received every last sous of their octrois—the internal duty on all goods entering or leaving Paris. (Below, elevations of the various customs pavilions Ledoux designed, all of them twinned, and many still standing in Paris today.)

His notorious "Wall of the Farmers-General," sixty grandiose tax-collection offices ringing Paris and linked by barricades, was denounced as a "monument to enslavement and despotism" and "the bastions of taxation metamorphosed into columned palaces," and was itself a major cause and symbol of the Revolution.

Ledoux, object of scandal and vitriol, was relieved of his duties in 1787, three years before the Revolution, and even Jacques Necker, Louis XVI’s newly appointed finance minister, disavowed the entire enterprise. Nonetheless, Ledoux escaped the guillotine and spent his final years burnishing his own reputation and redrawing his life’s work—achieving, with the advent of Postmodernism in the late 20th century, a fame only he himself envisioned.

The Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans

Ledoux's most famous work is today hailed as a visionary utopian scheme but is actually a direct outgrowth of his early work as a provincial architect-engineer. The impetus for a saltworks at Arc-et-Senans was due to a rich and easily worked seam of halite (rock salt), the proximity of inland waterways for transport and the nearby forest of Chaux, which provided the wood necessary to fuel the boilers to process the mineral salts.

The speculative scheme was conceived in 1773 by the powerful Ferme Générale, or association of tax collectors, who assured Louis XV's support and provided funding through the gabelle, a general tax on this essential commodity. His overweening confidence (he was after all an architect) led Ledoux to begin his first design before either receiving the king's approval or knowing the actual site selected.

Ledoux remarked that the plan of the saltworks "should be as pure as that described by the sun along its transit." (An interesting simile, coming as it does from a freemason, and his ideal plan, above, is the All-Seeing Eye incarnate.) Construction began in 1775 and operations began three years later. However, the venture never returned the profits its investors envisioned; production rarely rose above half of the projected volume and easily harvested tidal salt deeply undercut processed rock salt in price.

Nonetheless, the tax farmers were satisfied with Ledoux's work and, in a career move that nearly cost him his life, he was named official architect of the Ferme Générale, designing their Paris headquarters and overseeing the massive—and massively unpopular—project to encircle Paris with a tax barrier.

Ledoux was imprisoned during the Revolution and owed his life to the intercession of the painter David—who had been far more clever, befriending Robspierre and becoming a revolutionary leader, though he too owed his wealth to the aristocracy and particularly the patronage of the Ferme Générale.

Utterly disgraced in post-revolutionary France, Ledoux would never again work as an architect and devoted the remainder of his life to aggrandizing his work with a view to publication and vindication. His isolation fostered irrational but truly visionary schemes: the demi-lune plan of Arc-et-Senans, though a proven financial failure, was enlarged to a full circle, at least on paper, and about it Ledoux conceived the radially planned (think the Sun's illuminating rays), utopian worker's town of Chaux, with its remarkable collection of geometrically audacious (and masonically inspired) structures. If somehow the visual symbolism escaped notice, Ledoux made sure one understood his point by calling Chaux "a gathering of brothers."

Below, the Director's House, its pediment pierced by an oculus, creating the All-Seeing Eye of Horus.

Not so far different than...

... or...
... or...
... or...

... or even...

... or her occasional partner in crime...

One could go on indefinitely but by now we're sure you've gotten the idea. To quote the Grateful Dead, "What a long, strange trip it's been."

Early in his career Ledoux had—obviously—become a freemason, since in the late 18th century the majority of the French aristocracy concentrated at Versailles and in and about Paris had abandoned Catholicism for this occult brotherhood and the ambitious young architect rightly saw membership as a sure path to success. Even today, Le Point and l'Express, France's Time and Newsweek, devote at least one cover-story per year to freemasonry's enduing influence in French affairs:

Unsurprisingly then, Ledoux's architecture is permeated with Masonic symbolism. The pediment of the Director's Storehouse at Arc-et-Senans is also pierced by an oculus, the All-Seeing Eye of Horus (above, our elevational watercolor), and beyond his insistence on pyramidal forms and Egyptian-inspired proportions and massing, Ledoux's prediliction for the Palladian window motif evokes as much the columns Jachin and Boaz as it does the Venetian master, especially when typically allied with robust, crisply rectilinear rustication which, depending on its use, recalls either the checkered floor or the dressed ashlar. Ledoux's project for the Overseer's House at Chaux (how appropriate!) is the Eye of Horus in 3-D form (below). And on and on he went... Quite the obsession, truth be told.

Ledoux published the first volume of his ceaselessly redacted life's work in 1804, two years before his death. Though the text was dismissed as the ramblings of a madman, the plates of ideal cities and his radical vision of monumental architecture were widely admired by contemporaries.

Later generations simply ignored him, and it was not until the 20th century that he would be rediscovered as an architectural visionary by, successively, the Cubists, Surrealists and Postmodernists, and his work finally achieved the recognition and influence he sought. (Below, a section through the project for the Cemetery at Chaux, yet another and certainly the most literal of Ledoux's All-Seeing Eyes, its oculus/pupil fixed on the heavens.)

In 1926, some of the main buildings of Arc-et-Senans were dynamited, doubtless by an infuriated anti-mason, and were subsequently rebuilt. In 1982 the complex was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site.


  1. Great post. My favorite work of Ledoux was his redecoration of the Café Godeau now in the Musée Carnavalet. He was a architect ahead of his time, and seems to be privy to esoteric information. His occult symbols in his latter architecture is a little too modern for my taste but still great works of architecture.

  2. Dear Andrew, I really enjoyed this piece on Ledoux and your other article on the barrieres written in 2013, "Aux barricades, comrades!
    France toys with its next revolution." I have chosen to study the octrois barrieres and their role as an "injust and vexatious" tax under the Ancien Regime. What the daily burden of the indirect tax system meant to the artisans, smugglers, and wine merchants who assailed the barriers in July 1789. I've found many references to the Mur des Fermiers Generaux to being equated to slavery in the cahiers des doleances, but I am wondering if you would be able to tell me where you found the quotes calling the wall, a "monument to enslavement and despotism" and "the bastions of taxation metamorphosed into columned palaces." I know you wrote this quite a long time ago, but any help would be much appreciated. Thank you for your time.