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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

The Royal Saltworks

Updated: May 13, 2022

"It is for the architect to oversee the principle: he can activate the resources of industry, husband its products and avoid costly upkeep; he can augment the treasury by means of the prodigal devices of art."

Claude Nicole Ledoux, 1804, L'Architecture considérée sous le rapport de l'art, des mœurs et de la législation (Architecture considered in relation to art, customs and legislation)

The Jura Mountains stretch along most of the French-Swiss border. The mountains are comprised of predominately limestone folded and compressed due to the Alpine uplifting. Their rocks have yielded a wealth of fossils and lend their name to the Jurrasic Period of geological time. The limestone attests to the region having been once a shallow sea. This geologic history has endowed the region with an abundance of a valuable commodity: salt. Underground water seeps through vast halite seams and emerges at the numerous salt springs throughout the area. These springs were the source of salt extraction since the Neolithic period. The region's economy was centered on the salt trade.

Salins-les-Bains is located in a small valley cut by the River Furieuse. The site was occupied by both the ancient Celts and the Romans. Since at least the 12th century, there have been saltworks at Salins-les-Bains. The briny water was pumped up from the wells and into large pans. Salt extraction required boiling the saline water over wood fires. Men raked the evaporated salt to the side, gathered it into additional pans, and then set it aside to dry. The salt industry made Salins-les-Bains the economic center of the French-Comte region. Salt was so vital that a formidable system of defensive forts protected the valley. Not only that, but the largest of the saltworks, the Grande Saline, was a fortified city unto itself. Production buildings, workshops, accommodations, taverns, chapels, and prisons were within its walls. By the 17th century, Salins-les-Bains produced 14,000 tons of salt a year.

Like elsewhere, salt was necessary for flavoring and preserving food in France. It was also a critical source of income for the French monarchy. Since the 15th century, the crown had imposed a gabelle - a salt tax. The gabelle applied to all private and commercial purchases. There was regional disparity on how the tax was levied, and there were exemptions for the nobility and clergy. Salt production and distribution soon developed into a state monopoly. Producers brought salt to regional salt houses where government-appointed officials sold it. The "salt of duty" was a legal obligation, imposed mainly on peasants, that citizens should buy a specific amount of salt each year regardless of need.

Map of the Salt Tax

During the 16th century, the French government farmed out the job of collecting the various taxes, tariffs, and duties. These tax farmers, the Ferme Générale, contracted individually with the crown and stipulated the farmer's share of the income collected and how much needed to be handed over to the Treasury. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV's influential financial minister, consolidated the tax farm contracts to simplify the system and increase the amount of money going into the Treasury in 1680. During the first quarter of the 18th century, all the existing tax farms had been gathered under one contract. Forty Fermiers Généraux held a guaranteed contract with the crown. Needless to say, they became extremely wealthy and powerful. Headquartered in Paris, the Ferme Générale conducted itself like any corporate entity.

By the middle of the 18th century, the forests around Salins-les-Bains were being depleted of the fuel needed to heat the saltpans. Wood had to be gathered farther away, adding to the production costs. On top of this, the salinity of the brine being pumped was starting to go down. The Ferme Générale, which oversaw the management of the saltworks, contemplated a more mechanized and efficient means of extracting the salt. Yet part of the problem was that the narrow valley in which Salins-les--Bains resides was too narrow for expansion. They explored the possibility of moving the saltworks away from the source of the salt. The French architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux would suggest placing a new factory near the bountiful forests of Chaux.

Claude-Nicholas Ledoux

Son of a merchant, Ledoux was born in Dormans-sur-Marne in 1736. Having gained an education in Paris, he worked as an engraver before studying architecture under Jacques-François Blondel, one of the most prominent teachers of French architecture. He then went on to study under Pierre Contant d'Ivry and Jean-Michel Chevotet. These masters were noted for utilizing a restrained form of the Roccoco style in their designs. The Roccoco was an early 18th-century outgrowth of the Baroque in art, architecture, and other decorative arts. It is characterized by being highly ornamental with scrolling curves, gilding, pastel colors, and trompe l'œil as a means to create illusions. The two master architects also designed in the "Goût grec" (Greek taste) style. The mid-18th century saw a renewed interest in Classical Greece and Rome spurned on by an increase in archeological finds. It was under d'Ivry and Chevotet that Ledoux was introduced to classical architecture. He also became familiar with the work of Andrea Palladino, the great Renaissance designer of Italian villas.

A commission to decorate a military cafe in Paris in 1762 brought the young Ledoux notoriety. Through the rest of the 1760s, he became the fashionable architect for French high society by designing country homes and townhouses. His early work retained the influences of his mentors and their version of the Roccoco style. However, by the end of the decade, Ledoux introduced more classical elements such as columns, porticoes, rotundas, and temples. His designs became more ambitious. He secured the patronage of Madame du Barry, the mistress of King Louis XV. He was appointed the Commissioner of Saltworks for the Lorraine and Franche-Comte region through her influence in 1771. In this capacity, he was charged with inspecting the various saltworks of eastern France, including Salins-les-Bains. This allowed him to study the operations firsthand with the goal in mind of building a factory from scratch. Madame du Barry also secured him a position in the Royal Academie of Architecture. He had also done work for the Ferme Générale. These positions allowed him to receive a commission to build a brand new saltworks.

Ledoux created an initial design before officially winning the commission. Ledoux's plan was unconstrained and ambitious with no particular site in mind. Because of its grandiose nature, the crown rejected the project. In 1773, Ledoux presented a second design for the saltworks, and this time the king approved the project. With this plan, he had a site in mind. The new factory would be built on an open plain near the forest of Chaux, which had an ample supply of wood. There were objections, but he reasoned that it would be easier to transport water than wood. Indeed, a new canal had been built recently in the area. The new site was Arc-et-Senans along the Loue River about 12 miles (20 km) from Salins-les-Bains. The architect conceived an integrated workplace arranged around a semi-circle with the main entrance, workshops, forges, and worker quarters along the arc. The buildings for salt extraction flanked a director's office on the circle's diameter. All the facilities faced inward to the center. The design was more open-air than the original, leaving ample space between structures. Behind the worker quarters were vegetable gardens.

With the Royal Saltworks, Ledoux breaks entirely from the Roccoco of his masters. His simplified design created squat yet massive structures. The buildings were rustic versions of classical forms. Ancient Greek temples inspired the main entrance with its Doric columns. One entered through the colonnaded portico into a false grotto that evoked the origins of the salt in the region. The entry also served as a guardhouse and prison for the complex. The columns framed the view of the imposing Director's Office with its colonnaded facade. The belvedere of the office had a large round window, an eye to observe the entire operation of the site. Decorative elements alluded to the natural ingredients of salt and water. The workhouses where salt extraction took place had cathedral-like ceilings. Heat and fumes from the fires rose and then were vented out dormers to create a healthy environment for the workers.

Ledoux's plan went beyond the actual saltworks. His original concept was a complete circle to build an ideal city. He wedded the spirit of classical architecture with the French Enlightenment. He envisioned an ideal community where humans coexisted in harmony with themselves and with nature. He wished to create a place where workers lived close to their jobs and spent time with their families. All the essentials of life would be close at hand and available to them. Not unlike the master-planned communities of today. The layout aimed at facilitating economic production and the health and welfare of the workers. He wanted it to be a utopia of communal and industrial life. In this way, he foreshadowed the factory towns of the Industrial Revolution and the social planning of thinkers like reformer Jeremy Bentham and utopian Robert Owens.

The Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans was completed in 1778, but the entire city envisioned by Ledoux was never constructed. Ledoux did other projects for the Ferme Générale, including a series of tollhouses to collect customs owed upon entry to Paris. The general populace of France had long disliked the Ferme Générale and the gabelle. This was one of the grievances underlying the French Revolution. Ledoux's association with the Ferme Générale made him a target of the Revolutionaries. He was swept up in the Reign of Terror and sent to prison in 1791. While imprisoned, he began to write his philosophy on architecture. Since 1773, he had made engravings of all his design concepts and now wrote the text to accompany each one. Among these were the engravings for his ideal city. They are fantastical, innovative, and visionary, yet would be impractical to construct. Upon his eventual release from prison, he gathered up all his work. He published it under the title L'Architecture considérée sous le rapport de l'art, des mœurs et de la législation (Architecture considered in relation to art, customs and legislation) in 1804. Ledoux died in 1806.

Claude-Nicolas Ledoux has been considered a pioneer of the emerging Neoclassical movement of the late 18th century. His work influenced a younger generation of architects like the British-American Benjamin Latrobe, the designer of the United States Capitol building. Much of Ledoux's work was destroyed during the Revolutionary period, and the Royal Saltworks is one of the few remaining projects that survived. On the verge of obscurity, he was re-discovered in the early 20th century, and his writings and engravings went on to inspire the Modernist movement in architecture. The Royal Saltworks ceased operations in 1895, and after WWII, there was a concerted effort to preserve the site. It was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982.


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