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.
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).