Pass the Salt — and the Classical Ideal
One of the great pleasures of watching the Tour de France (a current nightly addiction) is seeing modern cycling in a setting of great classical architecture. The most vivid backdrop so far was last week’s ninth-stage start at the famous
late 18th century salt works at Arc-et-Senans, Besançon (photo courtesy estrepublicain.fr). This remarkable complex of buildings (the one above was a theater) arose as part of an early utopian idea for a factory town, when salt was a precious commodity as an agent for food preservation and to improve taste, and a royal monopoly. Though these three riders are understandably oblivious to the robust Doric order behind them, they are chatting, ironically, beside an early example of what scholars call “architecture parlante” or “talking architecture,”
designed by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, and completed in 1778. The aerial view shows the semi-circular layout and the architect’s interest in geometric order (photo courtesy salineroyale.com). In his excellent book European Architecture 1750-1890, architectural historian Barry Bergdoll explains that architecture parlante was about expressing the identity and profession of the client “through the manipulation of architectural symbolism.” Here that meant using a rustic Doric order (because Doric signified a utilitarian function at that time) and an orderly — i.e. geometric — layout with “an arc of residential and service buildings facing the salt production sheds and the director’s house along the diameter.”
Among the most expressive, or loquacious aspects of the Salt Works are the ornamental sculptures of saline water just before crystallization, as shown in this image, courtesy Miami.edu — which could also represent the occasional cramping that cyclists experience…Hydrate! Hydrate! Classical architecture has always embodied large ideas and associations — order, knowledge, Greece and Rome — so it’s easy to see how an architect like Ledoux would take imagery to an
extreme, as in his design for the keeper of a river dam’s power source as a giant sluice gate (never built; image courtesy Arch 672: Smart Surfaces Studio). It could be a progenitor of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater at Bear Run, Pennsylvania for Edgar Kaufmann — only River Keeper Kaufmann actually ran a department store.
As it happens, Thomas Jefferson arrived in France in 1784, not long after the salt works and other buildings by Ledoux had been completed, and soaked up the classical vibe (if not the salt) from daily walks in Paris, as an insightful and
beautifully printed new book by historian Diana Ketcham and photographer Michael Kenna — Thomas Jefferson’s Paris Walks (Arion Press, 2012) — demonstrates. According to Ketcham, Jefferson was most attracted to
Neoclassical buildings like the new palace for the Prince de Salm, from 1787, with its monumental portico and long rows of columns along a court of honor (photo courtesy Arion Press). Upon his return from Paris in 1796, Jefferson
redesigned Monticello, no doubt prompted by what he saw in France. Monticello’s high blocky entablature and balustrade wrapping the brick wall above the windows like a tightly cinched cummerbund may have derived from the grand double entablature at de Salm. You can see echoes of the colonnade arrangement in his much later plan for The Lawn (central quad) at the University of Virginia.
The classical portico idea remains popular to this day. A recent, much
simplified version, is Plan 492-8, by architect-sculptor Michael Curtis (part of our Signature Studio Collection), with its pedimented front porch. Inside of course, the layout is very contemporary, with the kitchen-dining room
and master suite opening to a spacious deck. Such a design would suit a site in neighborhoods where the language of classical architecture is still spoken. And in New Urbanist communities like Seaside, Florida or Stapleton, Colorado, which are classically inspired and where garages are usually on rear alleys, the main streets would be safer for cyclists!