The Royal Saltworks of Arc-et-Senans is a network of functional buildings, but it is also of a new and remarkable architecture. The architect, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, sought to create a work allying rationality and aestheticism.
The Royal Saltworks was laid out in a semi-circular plan (with a radius of 185 metres), the same as the curve “traced by the course of the sun” (Claude-Nicolas Ledoux). Five buildings comprise the arc and five others the diameter. Between the buildings, nine pathways cross the interior radius, converging at the director’s house in the middle of the semicircle.
In addition to its undeniable aesthetics, the spatial configuration responds to technical requirements. Movement between buildings takes less time due to their arrangement around the half-circle and by the judicious choice of their relative positions. Also, the isolation of the different buildings was designed in accordance with health and security constraints. The spread of any fires was thus avoided and air could flow freely, as was obsessively advised by the hygienists of the period.
The Royal Saltworks is also a work of architecture that is marked by the artistic expression of its architect. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux created a monumental stage bearing the imprint of rationality and symbolism. Inspired by the great models from Antiquity, he adopted their geometric principles and their rigour. From the site itself, to the buildings, the shapes harbour a perfect regularity. Barrel vaults, triangular pediments, columns, crosswalls (carved lines to mark the position of foundation stones)…are so many redundant elements which nevertheless give the royal factory its harmony.
Ledoux was also an artisan of light. He handled the forms and textures of stone to create a changing design of shadows and lights. Smooth or rough, round or square, salient or hollow, the stones offer up a constantly changing surface in the rays of the sun, engaged in a permanent game with the heavenly body.
Luminous, spacious and perfectly ordered, the Royal Saltworks seems to obey the reign of reason, marking a profound distinction with respect to the Grande Saline of Salins-les-Bains with its architecture stratified by centuries of evolution.
The sober and powerful architectural statement chosen by Ledoux also confirms the absolute power of royalty. The house of the director, the representative of the king, is, as such, the object of all respect. Columns adorn its façade, giving it an impressive and imposing allure, a symbol of authority. The edifice is higher than the other buildings, conferring upon it an effect of domination that is already designated by its central position in the general plan of the saltworks. What is more, the oculus, in the centre of the pediment, alone symbolises the omniscience of the master who, like a supreme being, sees and oversees all.
The director’s house also includes a chapel, where the yoke of domination and inequality is expressed to this day. The authorities attended services (compulsory) from a tribune and galleries while the workers were seated in an immense stairway that served as a nave, their gaze directed towards the altar at the summit.
All seems, finally, to show just how firmly Ledoux grounded the saltworks within the royal regime, its religion and its hierarchical organisation.
The construction of the Royal Saltworks of Arc-et-Senans was also the occasion for Ledoux to reveal himself as an urban planner and to express his social and philopsphical ideas.
More than a factory, the saltworks also provided accommodation for its personnel. Workers, tradesmen, administrative personnel, the direction…everyone was provided with lodging for himself and his family. Different buildings were designated for different professions, located as near as possible to the workplace. Workers and their families were thus housed in “les berniers”, the two buildings closest to the salt production workshops. The tradesmen, barrel makers and blacksmiths, occupied identical buildings where the barrel-making and blacksmith workshops were found. The administrative personnel lived in the western building where their offices were located. With this paternalistic system, the Royal Saltworks became a precursor of the accommodations in working class housing projects of the industrial era.
The workers’ lodgings consisted of twelve rooms with four beds each and a large common room equipped with kitchens and an enormous fireplace. Outside, vegetable gardens were provided for the workers. For Ledoux, these accommodations were happy homes allowing the men to enjoy a healthy and moral life. They lived in the country, surrounded by their families, spending their leisure time gardening or meeting with their friends for evenings around the central fireplace.
The reality, however, was something quite different and the happy home of the worker appeared to be only an idyllic vision on the part of the architect. The workers were over-exploited and under-paid, and their living conditions were, all in all, mediocre. The accommodations were small, poorly heated and lacked light. The single central fireplace had to suffice to heat the entire locale. The rigours of the Franc-Comtois winter, however, forced Ledoux to revise his plans and to provide more fireplaces.
In spite of the virtues of its architecture, the Royal Saltworks was not a masterpiece in the eyes of all. Inside and out, it was the source of complaints and of a marked hostility. The records of grievances remain as testimony. It must be said that the Royal Saltworks were at the heart of an oppressive political system that was economic and fiscal as well as geographical. To the tax on salt, hated everywhere, abuses in connection with forest exploitation had to be added. The saltworks undertook expropriations and transgressed the rights of community use. Due to the repeated passage on the roads by the many carts, the road surfaces were damaged thus disturbing the activities of other users. An excellent symbol of the arbitrariness of absolutism, the saltworks was the focal point of many tensions.