Claude-Nicolas Ledoux By Anthony Vidler.Birkhõuser, 2006.160pp. ú23
On TV a few weeks ago, Dan Cruickshank paced around Ledoux's Saline Royale d'Arc-et-Senans, calling it proto-Modernist. Vidler argues that Ledoux's masterpiece equally inspired the architecture of the Third Reich and of PostModernism. More significantly, he suggests that Ledoux worked within a complex climate of Utopian idealism and autocratic social control, in an ancien rÚgime that was not the moribund despotism recounted in textbooks, but a living force for industrial and commercial progress.
The Saline and the later barriÞres around Paris attest to this.
The inuences on Ledoux are equally complex. His background was modest, though not humble, before he entered the +cole des Arts of Jacques-Franþois Blondel in 1753. His early work in town and country houses, of which the ChÔteau de BÚnouville is the prime survivor, shares the second-hand sources of Wren (whose buildings he admired), to which he then added details from Rome and freemasonry, evolving into a paradigm of the Enlightenment that sought both intellectual idealism and a means of social control.
Ledoux's appointment in 1771 as commissaire to the salt works of Franche-ComtÚ, Lorraine and Trois-+vÛchÚs, followed by appointments to the Ferme GÚnÚrale, France's main tax system, and to Aix-en-Provence, made him aware of the particularly Gallic form of Roman architecture in the most remote and industrial of France's provinces. Vidler conveys the horrors of salt production in giant furnaces that scalded and maimed workers; the agrarian domesticity envisaged by Ledoux; and a sense of the sublime in an architecture that was Classically ordered yet romantic in its imagery.
In his last years, vilified by the Revolution and imprisoned for a year, Ledoux became still more theoretical, evident in his projects for a great new town surrounding La Saline, and in the increasingly cryptic writings that he published in 1804.
This book grew out of an essay written by Vidler in 1985-6, first published in French. There have been few changes since; rather it has been glorified by the addition of superb colour photography, mostly of the incredibly photogenic Saline. In the latter part of the book, Ledoux's engravings of his unbuilt and theoretical projects take over, defining social order in buildings of increasing geometrical rigour, many having the character of masonic temples. A rare insight into Ledoux's preoccupation with freemasonry came from William Beckford, who visited his unorthodox lodge on the outskirts of Paris.
Above all, Vidler finds Ledoux eternally optimistic about mankind, his belief in the power of architecture to bring happiness and assuage crime unshaken by the Terror.
Super-cially a coffee-table glossy, this book has real depth.
It explores both the physical and intellectual world of Ledoux's times - however, the man himself remains a shadow.