Dennis Goodwin + Writing + Art

Factory, Utopia

The Works of Claude-Nicolas Ledoux

by Dennis Goodwin

“If ever I drunk a full draught from that vessel of foaming spice, in which all things are well-blent:
If ever my hand fused the nearest to the farthest, fire to spirit, desire to suffering and the worst to the best:
If I myself were a grain of that redeeming salt that makes all things in the vessel well-blent:
—for there is a salt that binds good with evil; for even the most evil is worthy to be a spice for the final over-foaming—
O how should I not be rutting after eternity and after the conjugal ring of rings—the ring of recurrence!
Never have I found the woman by whom I wanted children, for it would be this woman that I love: for I love you, O Eternity!
For I love you, O eternity!”

Friedrich Nietzsche
Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Royal Salt

In Arc-et-Senans, France, one can find the gates to the underworld, a semicircular fragment of a parallel reality, an alchemical symbol, a tinderbox of revolution, a pastoral factory, a time crystal, and a prescient example of an artist defining an aesthetics of work. It can equally be said to be a lost relic of a fallen kingdom as a glimpse of an Edenic future. This is the saline royale d’Arc-et-Senans, the royal saltworks, which would in time develop in its master’s imagination into the seed of a utopian city. A jumble of geometric solids would litter the countryside in the shapes of a phallic pleasure garden, cubes of justice and memory, a cross between a cemetery and a planetarium, a perfectly spherical sheep pen, and a series of hallucinogenic country estates, all forming a ring around the original salt factory. This was an imperfect utopia: one with class, with kings, with workplace hazards. However, the novel juxtaposition of a factory in a utopia stirs present emotions as we seek to position ourselves on a trajectory of an alternative capitalism. It is through the logic of work we seek utopia: how to exploit our sacred gifts, to computationally distribute UBI, to dance on the tip of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If we don’t crack the world with the volcanic lightning of true creativity, we will die without being born. This fragment reminds us that we live in the present so that we may turn our factory world into a garden of meaningful work.

Saline royale d’Arc-et-Senans, France. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, 1785–8.

Saline royale d’Arc-et-Senans, France. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, 1771-8.

This work is the product of the mind of Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, royal architect, to the rapacious ferme générale tax farmers, of a pleasure hall at Versailles for the infamous Madame du Barry. All of which and more condemned him to unemployed irrelevance following the most consequential event of his lifetime: the French Revolution. He suddenly found himself on the wrong side of politics, the wrong side of history, and, in an age when art served the majesty of power: the wrong side of art. From his sudden uselessness, however, sprang a creative vengeance that saw him pluck from the world of forms, from that pristine region beyond physical space, an Ideal City.

Ledoux himself is something of a Platonic solid; a true understanding of his designs and philosophy keeps slipping from his impenetrably smooth surface. “The intellectual world for which [Creation] was made offers you a gradual ladder which receives the affliction of beings electrified by the celestial flame,” begins one passage in his magnum opus, L’architecture considérée sous le rapport de l'art, des moeurs, et de la législation, ostensibly describing his plan for the ideal cemetery. It concludes, logically, with: “A new world begins; chaos develops... nature had only one form in the whole universe: it was a coarse mass which contained the origin of everything.” Pages of such agitated meditations fill the volume.

In 1774, he began the best-known of his realized visionary works under the auspices of Louis XV: the construction of a royal saltworks in the Franche-Comté. Until the 20th century, salt was an important enough commodity that for millenia salt taxes were one of the primary revenue streams of empires as diverse as China and Venice, effectively standing in for today’s income tax. (And with the same resentment attached.)

The gabelle was the most domestic of the oppressions of the ancien régime. A tax on salt, each member of a household was compelled to purchase a weekly minimum from a government depot. Its rules and regulations varied wildly over the map of France due to the slow historical progress of exceptions, concessions and privileges. Smuggling abounded. Like most taxes of the ancien régime, in practice it was regressive. The nobility paid far less in taxes, due to an already outdated notion that they were granted this privilege by their nigh obsolete military function. The church paid no taxes. This latent sense of unfairness bred the resentment that would be an abundant resource for the Revolutionaries. And it was the saline royale that provided it.

Salt is readily available, or rather extractable, from any number of sources: oceans, beaches, pools, mines of rock salt, and so on. However, it requires tools and technology to wrest it from the earth, and in human history these were some of the first examples of such invention, from the fire and metallic pans that would distill the salt to the canals and aqueducts that watered the saline royale. The body requires salt but cannot produce it itself, almost like God unleashed us from the Garden with this missing urge, which, after many orders of effects, has led to the technologization of the earth. Salt adds no flavor, but only intensifies those already present. It is the addition of intensity, of salivation, of heightened senses, of enlightenment. Salt is the taste of human mastery over nature.

A microscopic photograph of a grain of salt.

A microscopic photograph of a grain of salt.

Villa Capra, “La Rotonda”, Andrea Pallado. Vincenza, Italy, 1566.

Villa Capra, “La Rotonda”, Andrea Pallado. Vincenza, Italy, 1566.

Salt itself takes the form of a blossoming mass of cubes. Each cube is a crystal of tightly packed atoms arranged in three dimensional space. A time crystal is a newly theorized structure that dilates this cube across time rather than space. Its constituent elements arrange themselves regularly in both space and time intervals, as if free will was a kind of gravitational force summoning the crystal into existence. Quantum gymnastics entangle the atoms of the crystal, allowing them to communicate backwards and forwards across time as easily as across space. The time crystal forms an elegant metaphor for the obliteration of cause and effect that allows memetic structures to control history. As Ledoux shouts in one of his tirades, “Insensitive atoms! Do you give thanks to the universal Soul which arranged this immense order with so much wisdom?”

The cube is a recurring obsession of Ledoux, often featured at the heart of his designs. “The form of a cube is the symbol of immutability,” wrote Ledoux, “one seats gods and heroes on a cube.” In this, Ledoux was primarily inspired by the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, whose cubic villas dot the Venetian countryside. Echoes of his influence can be felt primarily in the Anglophone world, from the English country estates of Inigo Jones to the pillars of American democracy from Monticello to the Capitol Building. Palladio was in turn informed by the Roman architect Virtuvius and his De Architectura, which emphasized the harmonious proportions to be wrought from geometry. Palladio flattered his wealthy patrons by designing them palazzos in the style of Vitruvius’ temples to the gods. The names of Trissano, Barbaro, Cornaro, and Pisano had replaced Mercury, Apollo, Minerva and Pluto. Each age has its own manifestation of “gods” and “heroes”– but nearby you will always find an artist giving them their cubes.

The chosen site for the Royal Saltworks was at the edge of the forest of Chaux, between the villages of Arc and Senans, nestled in the Val d’Amour of Franche-Comté. The valleys of the Jura, amongst which the forest of Chaux is situated, were carved by ancient glaciers in the last Ice Age. The salt lakes are a memory of an evaporated sea. Rocks have their own history, to which man contributes little. We continue to be fertilized by the past. It’s notable that Ledoux named his Ideal City after its forest. It is this land, the Franche-Comté, “free country”, in which Ledoux dreamed his saline dream.

It was once a palpable reality that the relatively recently annexed Franche-Comté would become the center of agricultural Western Europe, at the crossroads between the Rhône and the Rhine, and thus connecting their two seas: a kind of proto-Suez Canal. The salt– and with it, the royal finances– must flow. Not incidentally, the ascendancy of Franche-Comté would displace the rival, and Protestant, node of trade in the region, Geneva. The City of Chaux was to be the embryo of this dream, a design to flatter the Catholic mercantilists at Versailles and their pretensions to greatness. The Franche-Comté was to be colonized, as if it were the New World.

But the Revolution intervened on this dream, too. Today it appears as if France left the Franche-Comté in 1678: it is rural, agricultural, medieval. On a recent visit to its ancient capital, Dole, during the French rail strikes of 2019, its town square was full of les gillets jaunes protesting against a whole new roi and a new gabelle, on the intoxicating fuel that makes rural economy there possible.

Entrance, Saline royale d’Arc-et-Senans, France. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, 1785–8.

Entrance, Saline royale d’Arc-et-Senans, France. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, 1785–8.

The entrance to the saline royale emerges almost unannounced from the earth, giving it the appearance of subterranean birth. A massive portico completely outside of human proportions protects a grotto formed by a cascade of chaotically arranged stones. It’s as if supersized salt crystals had poured out of an invisible vestibule towards the visitor, excepting the arch of a small door. The stones are rough and unfinished, in apparent evocation of the walls of a salt mine. By contrast, the six Doric columns of the portico are smooth to the touch, pristine and logical. The whole effect is one of contrasts: between rationalism and chaos, light and dark, divinity and nature. Ledoux would have certainly been influenced by the theory of the sublime of his contemporary Edmund Burke, which sought to stir the deepest human emotions of terror and wonder in an age which already felt the intensity of human existence slipping into existential torpor.

Crossing the threshold that guards this temple of labor, the visitor finds themselves upon an expanse of green. A sandy path leads directly to the director’s house, or, turning right or left, leads down the gently curving paths of the semicircle past the workers’ quarters and gardens to the corners of the maisons of the managers and overseers. Completing the hard edge of the semicircle are the two workshops in which the grueling work of salt manufacture was performed, with the director’s house perched between them, commanding the authoritative view.

Director's house, Saline royale d’Arc-et-Senans, France. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, 1785–8.

Director's house, Saline royale d’Arc-et-Senans, France. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, 1785–8.

The director’s house appears as if it were whittled down from a giant cube. Its design converges with and diverges from that of the entrance: the six Doric columns are here again, but this time formed by the alternation of squat cylindrical and circular stones, which achieves with light and shadow the same dizzying optical effect as Sienese marble. The stone is rustic and unfinished. The terror of seeing the purity of forms in such flawed, terrestrial material makes it seem like a primitive cult attempted to spell in the alphabet of the gods. The column, an almost Platonic symbol of civilization itself for its geometrical contrast with the chaos of nature, is subverted to that very nature. Atop these columns stands a triangular pediment in whose center is carved a round, Cyclopean window. The pileup of shapes was no accident for Ledoux, who believed that, “[i]n these primary figures, the square, the circle, and the triangle… there consists the entire celestial harmony.” The general aesthetic is one of a Neoclassical barnyard.

Saline royale d’Arc-et-Senans, France. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, 1785–8.

Detail of stone salt vessel, Saline royale d’Arc-et-Senans, France. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, 1785–8.

Throughout the saline, walls that would otherwise be unadorned are punctuated every few meters by stone urns disgorging a lugubrious stone liquid, meant to symbolize the saline water pouring into the evaporating pans. The saltworkers were meant to remain cognizant of their exalted function in the royal apparatus by the kind of grotesques one would normally find adorning a church. Ledoux recognized that the economic machinery of the state was just as worthy of aesthetic celebration as its spiritual machinery. Two enormous workshops form vaunted stone caverns in which the infernal work of prying salt from water was conducted. In their original pre-industrial setting, the plumes of steam, exhaling the scent of the ocean so far inland, would have only been rivalled by church steeples as the sole feature of the horizon for miles around.

Engraving from L’Architecture considérée sous le rapport de l’art, des moeurs et de la législation. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, 1804.

Engraving from L’Architecture considérée sous le rapport de l’art, des moeurs et de la législation. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, 1804.

The contrast between the saline and its surrounding is stark. Its impression on the landscape cuts a rational scythe through the irrationalia of nature; a French garden factory surrounded by the English garden of Earth. All this was to be augmented in Ledoux’s embellishment of the saline into a fully fledged utopia during and after his imprisonment during the Revolution.

The alchemical symbol for salt.

The alchemical symbol for salt.

The design of the Ideal City of Chaux rounds out the missing semi of the circle of the Royal Saltworks, completing the precise form of the alchemical symbol for salt. Alchemy, best understood as a science based on magical thinking, as systematized by Paracelsus, was a celebrated arena of thought amongst the flourishing humanist tradition of the 16th century. Paracelsus posited that the chemical composition of all metals formed from a trinitarian mix of sulfur, mercury and salt. Adding or subtracting any of which would fundamentally alter metal from one form into another, thereby illuminating a path of chain conversions from lead into gold. While he was wrong, he was consistently wrong, which was a novelty, and formed the basis of modern chemistry.

Ledoux would have likely been as familiar with alchemy as with Freemasonry, which is steeped in alchemical ideas of transformation. He designed several lodges and had an ambiguous relationship with an unorthodox lodge outside of Paris. Freemasonry is a brotherhood and mutual aid society who use detailed allegories to teach their members the importance of the four virtues: fortitude, prudence, temperance, and justice. To do this, symbols of work (such as a compass or ruler) are put to use in metaphors of building to illustrate the transformation members undergo to build themselves into more virtuous men. Architecture represents a civilizing transformation from outside to inside. In the French tradition, before performing such rites, an initiate may choose to self-isolate in a Chamber of Reflection. Objects for pontification inside the Chamber may include: a skull, a scythe, an hourglass, bread, water, sulfur, salt, an image of a cockerel (the constant companion of Mercury, harbinger of a new day, and ancient symbol of France herself), a candle, and the acronym V.I.T.R.I.O.L. painted on a wall. Visita interiora terrae, rectificandoque, invenies occultum lapidem: “visit the interior of the earth, and purifying it, you will find the hidden stone.”

If Ledoux’s factory was a temple of salt, the real Industrial Revolution built temples to sulfur. Sulfur dioxide is a byproduct of fossil fuel consumption, that, unlike carbon dioxide, is in fact an unnecessary byproduct: it is a pollutant inside a pollutant. It was Antoine Lavoisier, father of modern chemistry and discoverer of the elemental nature of sulfur and oxygen, who commissioned Ledoux, in the former’s capacity as a fermier général, to build his infamous wall. Lavoisier was subsequently guillotined along with the other fermiers in 1794.

Perhaps we need to complete the alchemical triad and imagine the temple of mercury, factory of mana. The Chinese first emperor Qin Shi Huang drank a potion of mercury and powdered jade on the promise of eternal life, before keeling over. The transformative properties of alchemy, Freemasonry, and chemistry were not perceived to be so distinct; in this age people were not as concerned with pseudoscience as they were with the wild possibilities of discovery. Previously darkened horizons, empty vales of whole continents of unthought thoughts became illuminated as the creeping light of rational inquiry spread across the earth. Artists, scientists and merchants were in fact more impressive explorers than those limited by the constraints of the physical Earth.

Perhaps as alchemy was the precursor to chemistry, so was the saline royale to the idea of the modern workplace, a natural laboratory to desublimate creativity into a sacred tool for summoning capital.

Ledoux’s other contributions to architecture run the gamut from a prison in the form of a Babylonian ruin, the radically equalitarian Théâtre de Besançon, a state-run wine sink with the layout of the Scutum Fidei, a palatial grain silo, and others. His designs bring out the alien in humanity’s occupation of the planet. Civilization seems like a mineral fungus which has domesticated humans to build ever more novel towers and cities of Babel.

But the building whose philosophical reverberations condemned him most was the mur des fermiers généraux, the suffocating vise of the Parisian tax farm wall. This age of absolutism was anything but. The collection of taxes, one of the main functions of today’s state, was farmed out to a private monopoly staffed by eminent nobles, a kind of feudal estate in finance instead of property. (Although even concepts like freedom at the time were conceptualized as a form of property.) The customs barrier stopped all incoming traffic into the capital for inspection and taxation as meticulous as it was Byzantine. Some of the depots still exist in the Place de Stalingrad and the Parc Monceau, but most were demolished, either by the Parisian mobs of 1789 or by Baron von Haussmann in 1860.

The structures were a morbid celebration of the crumbling of an outdated economic system, the stultifying edifice of a dysfunctional, gridlocked political and economic system loathe to cede power to the emerging consciousness of the bourgeoisie and their on again, off again allies, the masses. Such a system, such an ancien régime, dissolved like rock salt in the warm bath of the birth of modern capitalism.


UNESCO recognized the Royal Saltworks as a World Heritage Site in 1982 for its contribution to history as “the first architectural complex on this scale and of this standard designed as a place of work. This is the first instance of a factory being built with the same care and concern for architectural quality as a palace or an important religious building.” Factories had already been established in 18th century France, for silk, glass and textiles, but didn’t have the relentless logic of Fordism or any machinery whose power source was not human. The idea that labor deserved any conscious aesthetic at all was completely alien. Such was the verdict of Louis XV, who rejected a first design due its excessive use of columns. In addition, the original square shape of this design possessed no hierarchy: the chapel had equal placement to the bakery, both shrouded in corners. There was no correct perspective, no canonical interpretation, no fatherly vision.

The second, successful semicircular design is often compared to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. Hierarchy would radiate from the central perspective of the director’s house on the flat edge of the semicircle; the columns stayed. In some kind of concession, they were limited to the porticoed entrance and the director’s house. That seemed to satisfy Louis XV. From the 12ft walls surrounding the complex to the vegetable gardens to the workers’ quarters, to the forge and blacksmith, to the manufacturies themselves, work– and the life between it– would proceed orderly, like the music of the spheres. To Ledoux, the idea of living in such a space was an abstraction; the saline reflected an ideal, of working and living, whose conditions and details got in the way of the symbolism. The work of saline evaporation itself was infernally hot, and infrastructural concepts like ventilation hadn’t developed very far. Workers were frequently felled by disease and injury. The eye of science would wait until the next century to turn its enlightened gaze onto the plight of the worker.

For Ledoux, there was no reason to suspend the aesthetics of divinity for the huts of labor. His vision was a society of hierarchy, authority, eternity, emanating from king to nobles, from nobles and their estates to the peasants who work it. And for the new class of society, who, from agricultural innovations, had simultaneously increased their number and been freed from the work of their villages? Ledoux was envisioning how factory and industry, how the new proletariat, could have fit beautifully into this sacred diagram. And why wouldn’t it? Contra Marx, it was aesthetics that could relieve the alienation of labor, for labor is sacred. The didacticism of his saltwater urn embellishments recall the social function of stained glass windows to illustrate the transformation of the mundane into the sublime. With the expansion of the Ideal City, this literalist streak would be fancifully applied to the homes of woodcutters, coopers, and river surveyors. The center of his utopia was not a chapel nor a palace but a salt factory– not church, not state, but the inexorable logic of labor.

This was the beta launch of the Industrial Revolution, rudely interrupted by a popular mob that demanded change and instead received petty political freedoms. Further reforms, to be sealed in blood, for a republic of virtue or a society of equals, were ultimately squelched. The already victorious bourgeoisie valued neither virtue nor equality.

The architect’s attention to places of work wouldn’t return until the modern era, in whose apotheosis we give witness to Foster + Partners’ Apple Park, the $5 billion headquarters of the world’s most valuable company. Nestled in its own once-forested valley, it is only ever photographed through the strange haze native to the Bay Area: parts fog, smog, and faint traces of burning cash. Like the City of Chaux, it forms a perfect circle, although without the characteristic center line that brings hierarchy to the saline royale; Apple Park mirrors the egalitarianism of Ledoux’s first design. This circle is one of glass and hardly any steel. The effect is one of almost perfect, continuous glass, but like most Apple designs, only if you ignore the very obvious: black dividing lines separating each curve and bizarre glossy concrete overhangs on each floor. Rather than design within constraints, just use the “reality distortion field” to pretend the flaws of such an approach don’t exist.

Apple Park, Cupertino, CA. Foster + Partners, 2017.

Apple Park, Cupertino, CA. Foster + Partners, 2017.

With seven cafeterias, a 100,000sq ft gym, and private medical service, the late Steve Jobs envisioned Apple Park as a “retreat” for employees, focusing on their mental, physical and ecological health. The central garden and surrounding acres are sculpted from native, drought-resistant plants and several orchards, recalling both the bucolic factory of the saline royale and the pre-Silicon existence of Santa Clara Valley as a primeval garden of apricot groves. This wistful mea culpa is as far as Apple is willing to go in its engagement with its surrounding environs. Employees fund the podcast economy in multi-hour commutes to ever more far-flung suburbs, displaced by the overwhelming gravitational suck of the world’s most expensive real estate market. Once you arrive on campus, you’re so aggravated by the traffic and pumped full of factoids that you never want to leave. Apple Park’s complete disconnection from the local economy evokes the other sense of “retreat”. It is the ultimate modernist statement in an era that’s long discredited modernist ideas. For this it truly deserves the epithet “spaceship”.

Life in this glass house, with its cacophonous open plan office spaces and dangerously transparent walls, seems clinically delightful compared to its mirror image on the other side of the supply chain. One Foxconn factory in the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou employs 350,000 workers who assemble iPhones for 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, at 350 iPhones every minute. Workers live, eat and work in the same permanently temporary factory city within the city, where your place of work is never out of sight in your precious off hours. This factory city paradigm, powered by migrant workers, is replicated across China, India, and Bangladesh, from electronics to plastics to fast fashion. This only describes the visible architectures of modern factory work, and not thousands of invisible modern day slaves. Machines stand by as a kind of mech of Damocles, waiting to obliterate the scourge of globalization. What comes next? Machines don’t do philosophy. The workers’ only escape seems to be in the parallel Earth of the digital, where everyone is an Old Testament God of their own domain. In the dark glow of our screens, our fantasies blossom, but in real life, all we dare to hope for is incremental improvement.

Back in Western, deindustrialized societies, work has continued to sublimate, as solid labor turns into airy knowledge working. Continuous employment turns into gig work, or even turning the performance of life itself into employment. Humans plug the gaps in the global economy that can’t yet be trusted to machines. Perhaps for such a new type of work, a new type of workplace needed to be born. This, at least, is the logic of WeWork, perhaps the modern factory we deserve.

Slide from the WeWork S-1, SEC.

Slide from the WeWork S-1, SEC.

WeWork’s “mission… is to elevate the world’s consciousness” by “chang[ing] how people work, live and grow”, according to its S-1 filing. WeWork leases some of the world’s most expensive urban real estate and converts it into posh coworking spaces for self-styled entrepreneurs, freelancers, small businesses, and exiled corporate “innovation labs”. There isn’t much of a business model. (As of this writing, I use the present tense charitably.) But like similar inherently unprofitable services, it functions as a sort of welfare for the upper middle class, as paid for by the upper class who have run out of reasonable investments in which to safely park their exorbitant cash reserves. For its privileged clientele, it fills the market gap between Starbucks and Soho House.

Like Ledoux with his saline royale, WeWork tries to reimagine the workers’ relationship with their place of work. WeWork provides “‘space-as-a-service’”: “[w]e start by looking at space differently: as a place to bring people together, build community and enhance productivity. Philosophically, we believe in bringing comfort and happiness to the workplace.” Similarly, for Ledoux, the salt workers would be “surrounded by the sweetest illusions”, although in a virtuous daze of mysterious origin, “sheltered from all costly distractions and Bacchic deliria that could disturb Hymen [god of marriage], and tempt or surprise laziness”. The sum total of his power over those who lived in his sumptuously curving workers’ quarters would be nothing less than strict conjugal fidelity. The worker “finds his pleasures, the consolidation for his labors, and the solution for all his needs” within the confines of the saline. The tool of control linking Ledoux to Apple to WeWork: you’ll be so happy here you’ll never leave.

Slide from the WeWork S-1, SEC.

Slide from the WeWork S-1, SEC.

WeWork’s interior design acknowledges that start-up facilities have already devolved beyond self-parody and into the event horizon of gibbering, post-ironic brain failure and the heat death of all original thought. The more work becomes virtual and digital, the more we care about physical space. But clueless design agencies churn out physical spaces that resemble 3D renderings, with layouts conforming to the underlying snap grids of AutoCAD. Corporate artwork must be colorful and motivating, scraping keywords from behavioral economics dissertations to look up associated clip art to chuck into a GAN trained on the last 200 years of art history. “We help amplify and energize an enterprise’s culture, sparking innovation, enhancing productivity and helping the organization attract and retain talent.” Capital is ever more reliant on the etheric qualities of creativity and focus.

Into what void is this font of creativity poured? Corporations, too, feel the pressure to talk purpose. Revenue targets are reinvented as “missions”, marketing and brand strategy in the bull market are increasingly not what you signal to outsiders, but how you attract and retain insiders. The 10x engineer, the great man theory applied to two pizza teams, must be lured into a golden cage suspended high above reality, from which one falls with a golden parachute. Hence the offshoring of some of their teams into the hyperreality of WeWork. “Mission” is one of the most misapplied words in the corporate pantheon of misapplications. A mission needs a telos, but the logic of a corporation is continuous returns to shareholders. What would a utopian corporation look like? Perhaps it would take a form akin to a self-detonating NGO, one which has a quantifiable social goal and promptly disbands once achieved. Rather than the blonde latte anonymity of WeWork, perhaps the future of coworking lies in the blended nitro cold brew with hemp milk of an industrial commons, a maker village and an artists’ commune, inspired by Ledoux.

From the ashes of WeWork rises COVID-19, the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. As an unprecedented number of knowledge workers “WFH”, the home is now the site of the modern factory. The invisible hum of fiber and 5G replace columns of steam and smoke as telltale signs of productivity. Coffee shops and gyms once tried to assert ownership of the mysterious theoretical existence of a “third space”, as if it was a gravitationally detected ninth planet. Now there is just “one space”. Workers in this global experiment of home working report contradictory symptoms of inability to focus coupled with inability to log off. Children, pets, partially dressed spouses or roommates drift through the video background of the otherwise carefully manicured 16:9 area visible behind you. Notions of privacy and professionalism will inevitably be restructured, for better or for worse. Will we tolerate bringing our whole selves to the assembly line? Far from life invigorating work, it is always insidious logic and aesthetic of work that blobs into the totality of life.

Work is often lonely, dull, and necessary for feeling like you are not just a victim of time. Work is sacred because it is a sacred fight against the demiurge, who created this foul earth to disguise the brilliance of the true godhead. From Ledoux’s petrified saltwater urns and vegetable patches, to the corporate “retreat” of Apple’s office park, to the free beer and prosecco taps at WeWork, to the virtual backgrounds of Zoom meetings, we have an innate urge to imbue earthly toil with something of the divine spark. We make factories for living, temples for work.


Engraving from L’Architecture considérée sous le rapport de l’art, des moeurs et de la législation. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, 1804.

Engraving from L’Architecture considérée sous le rapport de l’art, des moeurs et de la législation. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, 1804.

L’Abri du Pauvre is an engraving in Ledoux’s L’architecture that sums up his view of the role of the architect to society. A man huddles naked and alone underneath a tree on a tiny desert island. Dwarfing his figure and his island is a vast expanse of serene waves disappearing into a hazy horizon. This vista is irradiated by divine rays from a complex of clouds inhabited by god-like figures in togas striking group poses. One holds a caudecus, another a trident, a third a spear. The engraving is a metaphor for the ennobling function of the arts and sciences on man’s impoverished natural state. “The architect is there, surrounded by clouds,” Ledoux fantasizes.

In his expanded concept of the City of Chaux, Ledoux envisioned that “[on] the vast field where I have placed all the kinds of buildings that social order demands, we will see important factories, daughters and mothers of industry, giving birth to popular assemblies. A city will rise to surround and crown them.” That this crown would form a circle seemed obvious. Plato’s Atlantis was carved from a mountain, and featured three moats with three rings of land divided into ten sections. Vitruvius’ City of Winds was set on a grid rotated at an angle adjusted to block malignant vapors and set within circular walls. Curved battlements were ideal to repel the enemy, for Vitruvius’ function of a city was the protection of its populace. For The Ideal City of Chaux, the function was the cultivation of its citizens’ virtue. This term, somewhat exhausted in our time by the intervening centuries, aspires to a kind of universal, scientific ethics which postmodern relativism has abandoned. “Man is perfectible,” wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “and if he is corrupted, it is by the immorality inherent in urban societies.” Unlike WeWork’s urban, and Apple’s suburban, visions for work, Ledoux’s vision was rural in nature.

The ultimate layout of this natural city is somewhat ambiguous. The Pacifère, a hall of justice (although, Ledoux argued, his virtuous city would hardly need one), takes the shape of a cubical fire temple shrouded by billowing incense. A temple of memory forms a squat cube with a two-story double portico cornered by minarets straight out of Isfahan. Somewhat bizarrely, on two fronts, a temple of memory is dedicated exclusively to women, with friezes ascending the four towers celebrating the greats among their ranks, and Ledoux wished to be buried here. A somewhat perfunctory church exists elsewhere. (Its central geometrical solid is a domed cylinder, not a cube.) Each building in its engraving is surrounded by anonymous pastures, like the perspective grid in an expanse of midtone gray that is the default environment of 3D modelling software. The featureless planes of the buildings give off the eerie quality of computational uncanny. In each, its architecture parlante is mean to speak for itself: the pureness of forms was a kind of scientific derivation of the specific moralizing function of the structure.

Ledoux might have sampled this metaphysical take on architecture from one of his attested inspirations, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a prime specimen of the Renaissance incunabulum, an early printed illustrated book. In the Hypnerotomachia, a lovelorn Poliphilo chases the object of his desire through a dream landscape of temples, ruins and gardens to an ultimately inconclusive ending. Architecture itself is the dream, the nightmare, the language that defines our experiences. Poliphilo crosses thresholds, slithers down passageways, climbs ruins, contemplates a tomb. We experience time through our relation to space, and each experience is discrete because of its novel spatial and temporal coordinates. Architecture is a rite for the death and birth of experiences. Architecture is a time crystal.

The Ideal City of Baltimore, Fra Carnevale or Leon Battista Alberti, c. 1480-1484.

The Ideal City of Baltimore, Fra Carnevale or Leon Battista Alberti, c. 1480-1484.

The anachronistic montage of the Ideal City is mirrored by another Ideal City: three, in fact, paintings with an unknown provenance, although it is oft speculated to be the work of Leon Battista Alberti, a Renaissance polymath who is sometimes also given credit for the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. The paintings are important art historical works as early exercises in perspective. In the Ideal City of Baltimore (named after its current, not depicted, location), the richest of the three scenes, the viewer stands in the midst of a vast, almost empty plaza, terrifying to human scale if it were ever to be realized. All lines converge beyond a bronze fountain in the middle ground to a flight of marble stairs pointing to a triumphal arch, through whose central vault one spies an ochre tower set against distant purple mountains. Flanking the arch are, to the left, an intact Coliseum, and to the right, the octagonal Baptistery of Florence. The overwhelming impression is one of inhumanity, like a distant alien race assembling its deduction of the average human habitat through Renaissance radio signals echoing through the empty halls of space. There’s something about the conscious emulation of ideal that gives off the shimmering effect of hallucination. After all, what was the final calculation of the mysteries of perspective but the human conquest of nothing less than infinity and eternity?

Platonic solids intersect in haphazard combinations on an endless plane of nature in forced perspective throughout the Ideal City. “Like a floating city put on a flowing plane, I assumed to see... an ark keeping humankind, which has become booty of the Deluge,” wrote Ledoux. Circles and grids, cubes, spheres and cylinders, dance in rings within rings in the crownlands of Ledoux’s imagination. The pouring of salt seals the alchemical wedding of opposites. One feels in this city that one can find love in the time of eternal recurrence.

“Its surroundings will be embellished with dwellings dedicated to rest, pleasure, and planted with gardens to rival the famous Eden,” Ledoux dreamed. Each laborer would occupy a living quarters that functioned as an ode to his own métier. Just as the saltworkers had their urns, the lumberjacks would live in a chopped pyramid in a wooded glade; the coopers’ quarters would resemble the interior of a barrel; the river surveyors would live in a structure cradling a cylindrical aqueduct of water blissfully rushing through the middle of their home. This impulse was inherited from his idol, Jacques-François Blondel, who wrote that “architecture should bear the imprint of the intended purpose of each building, all must possess a character that determines their general form and that announces the building for what it is.” Ledoux envisioned these “[a]sylums of the laborious craftsman, the villages and the boroughs will add to the beauty of the glance by the contrast of their simplicity.”

However, this utopia would not be without class. “The poor man’s house, with its modest exterior, will enhance the splendor of the rich man’s hotel,” Ledoux noted. One such estate returns to the cube, this time framed by huge towers, like the Hagia Sophia took HGH, atop a Bablyonian maze of stairways. Another seems like an exquisite corpse of a zoetrope, the Coliseum and a lighthouse. A third consists of two obelisk shapes with their heads cut off connected by three floors of porticoed walkways. Even a more sober design of a steepled rectangle has a large triumphal arch inexplicably carved through the middle of it. Their general characteristic is that of failed Minecraft experiments with no sense of proportion. Nevertheless, something hypnotic emanates from them. The magnetic appeal of a Ledoux design is that in his misapplication of classical architectural tropes he keeps perfect symmetry.

Engraving from L’Architecture considérée sous le rapport de l’art, des moeurs et de la législation. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, 1804.

Engraving from L’Architecture considérée sous le rapport de l’art, des moeurs et de la législation. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, 1804.

In human scale, the façade of the Oikèma, temple of pleasure, hardly arouses suspicion. From the front perspective, a curved portico of feminine Ionic columns deposits revelers from inside the temple back into the satisfied virtue of the City. From the back, two semicircular wings bulge from the smooth, linear body of the main structure. From this base of curved galleries emerges a long hallway lined with private rooms. In the head is an ovular foyer dubbed salon. Yes, this temple of pleasure, this brothel, is shaped like a penis.

A state-run brothel may seem like an odd addition to a city of virtue. But for Ledoux, “[t]he Oikèma presents to the boiling and fickle youth that it attracts depravity in its nudity, and the feeling of the degradation of the man reviving the dormant virtue, leads the man to the altar of the virtuous Hymen which embraces it and crowns it.” Its function was to terrorize people into virtue by the frank admission of sex, paradoxically repressing desires. In this it anticipates the modern conundrum of the inverse relationship between sexual liberation and the frequency of sex itself. Indeed, the 2nd century Gnostic theologian Carpocrates “taught his followers to perform every obscenity and every sinful act. And unless one proceeds through all of them, he said, and fulfils the will of all demons and angels, he cannot mount to the highest heaven or get by the principalities and authorities.” Virtue is not the abstention from sin, but its full embrace.

It also follows the general trend of Ledoux’s thought into subverting everything from labor to virtue and now sex under state control. From the gabelle to his ferme générale project of bringing the guinguettes behind the customs barriers in Paris, in order for the state to profit, vice needs to be legible. In this he was probably inspired by the writer Rétif de la Bretonne, specifically his Le Pornographe. Rétif was the archrival of the Marquis de Sade and was better known at the time, pumping out reams of direct-to-press libertine novels, amongst whose happy customers he counted Goethe and Kant. He was the inventor of both the neologism “communism” as well as the shoe fetish. Rétif argued that state regulation of brothels, would, among other things, improve the public health in this age of syphilis. The state’s interest in the direct control of sexuality would need to wait at least a century. Ultimately, the dissemination of pornography has proven to be a more effective model of state control than the Panopticon.

The French had a rich history of famous prostitutes in the royal sphere, often mirroring the function of eunuchs in Asia. Among these colorful figures we can count the Madame du Pompadour, the Madame du Barry, both maîtresse-en-titre to Louis XV, and the Marie Antoinette lookalike who duped a smitten duke into the elaborate Diamond Necklace Affair. (Both the necklace and the affair were rather elaborate.) Ledoux might have also been inspired by persistent rumors that in the first 11 years of Louis XVI’s reign during which his marriage remained unconsummated, he suffered from a painfully intractable foreskin. “We can be virtuous or vicious, like the rough or polished pebble, by the friction of what surrounds us,” according to Ledoux.

Plan for Maison des Gardes Agricoles. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, 1763.

Plan for Maison des Gardes Agricoles. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, 1763.

Engraving from L’Architecture considérée sous le rapport de l’art, des moeurs et de la législation. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, 1804.

Engraving from L’Architecture considérée sous le rapport de l’art, des moeurs et de la législation. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, 1804.

Ledoux reserved the perfect form of a sphere, for all its impracticality, for two designs with a somewhat ghoulish likeness: a sheep pen and a cemetary. The sheep pen (actually designed not for Chaux but for a model farm for an estate outside Paris) is set in a perfectly excavated rectangular pit, connected to the animal plane by a spindly arched staircase. Three portals allow access within the sphere. And in a dedication to form that’s almost hard to believe, Ledoux finds a way of integrating columns, two each, carved out of the sphere on either side of the portals. This UFO that abducts sheep by night defies all terrestrial logic of habitation. Its recessed placement makes it appear from afar as an erstwhile rising sun. The program of model farms instituted by the royal ministry in the hope of relieving persistent famines that terrorized the 18th century was one of many counterexamples to the stereotype of sclerosis in the ancien régime. It brought a scientific veneer to agriculture, which had largely relied on astronomy and folk knowledge. Although later histories would emphasize the mineral accumulation of the Industrial Revolution, it was the animals and vegetables of the Agricultural Revolution that did as much to transform the Earth into the one we’ve inherited today. If only the powdered wigs in Versailles had convinced the peasants to grow potatoes in the place of grain, the Revolution might have been avoided.

The cemetery, another perfect sphere, is dug into the pit of the quarry that supplied the City of Chaux with its native stone. It fills this space of displacement, of the environmental residue of creation, with a monument to death, the ultimate collapse of unlived timelines, relative to the observer. The experience of its interior would be that which “the image of nothingness could offer to the eyes: neither wood, nor meadows, nor valleys, nor rivers, even less the benefits of the sun which vivifies nature.” Ledoux contrasts his engraving of the cemetery with an even stranger engraving of the Earth and its planetary comrades, situated not in space but in the same terrestrial rays and artfully placed clouds as L’Abri du pauvre. Its label simply states that it, too, is an engraving of the cemetery of the City of Chaux. Perhaps the solar system itself is a graveyard, each planet a tombstone in earth, in gas, in storm, to a dead god felled by the introduction of gravity.

Each social function of a building demanded a new form, as with the huts of the laborers, the Oikèma, and the spheres of the divine flock and divine death. This conformed to the new power of discernment from the pyramidal eye of science being established by Ledoux’s contemporaries such as Lavoisier, as well as the naturalists Linnaeus and Buffon. These men held up a candle against the dark forest of nature, reviving the Adamic tradition of naming the animals as they were created. Nature, in all its original Lovecraftian horror, was dissected, tagged and monitored. Ledoux believed his work performed a similar enlightening function on human behavior. “Architecture is similar to the beneficent stars that light up the world,” he wrote. “What mortal, with this imposing aspect, does not feel all his smallness and does not bow down before the rival Architect of the Creator?”

Such was the subject of Bernard de Bovier de Fontenelle’s Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes, which primarily served as a popular educational tract on the discoveries of Copernicus as taught by a hopeful romantic to an inquiring marquise. Fontenelle speculates that the moon was once inhabited, and that it is possible to travel there in “chariots of fire”. A valley exists in which one could find everything lost on Earth. “It was assumed that mortals from one solar system could never have knowledge of the others, except perhaps in an afterlife,” he informs the marquise, although the cause of extraterrestrial life is one of celebration, for surely reason and virtue must reign, as it struggles here to do, somewhere in the universe. When night descended and the stars revealed themselves to the citizens of Earth, the world could indeed feel lonely. This was a world without the blinding certainty of electric light, only the flicker of a candle in an infinite space.

The Montgolfier brothers’ spectacular demonstrations of the globe aérostatique, the hot air balloon, was credibly thought to open a new epoch of air travel and warfare. The eternal French wet dream of an invasion of England seemed tantalizingly closer to reality. A royal demonstration was given in the gardens of Versailles in 1783. As with early space missions, there was some uncertainty as to the habitability of the heavens. The first manned flight was taken by animals, in this case a sheep, a duck and a rooster. The eyes of thousands lifted– to witness the achievements of science, not the king. One observer wondered if future generations would still consider the Assumption of the Virgin to be miraculous. Ultimately, the hot air balloon proved to be too fickle a means of transport or as a war machine. But for a moment it seemed to be the start of a new history.

L’an 2440 of Louis-Sébastien Mercier was the first science fiction novel to be set in the future, and one of the 18th century’s most popular books. As with all visions of the future, it is constrained by the time of the mind who created it. Mercier imagines that credit no longer exists, but the Holy Roman Emperor does. Most of the modest changes to society in the intervening 700 years are driven by a belief that virtue and rationalism would dispel human nature itself, the logical endgame of Rousseau’s perfectibilité of mankind. Future man enjoys paying his (voluntary) taxes. (Mercier would later say of the tax wall: “the lair of the tax authorities has transformed into a palace with columns,” and, “Ledoux! You are a terrible architect!”)

Somewhat after Ledoux’s death, although in keeping with the spirit of the times, a demon was born. This was Laplace’s demon, of Pierre-Simon Laplace, the creation of a theoretical intellect that could know the present position and trajectory of all the forces of nature. Because the present is simply the effects of the past and causes of the future, “for such an intellect, nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.” Not only were the dragons retreating from the map of the world, not only was chemistry about to fulfill alchemy’s promise to turn lead into gold, not only were the heavens about to be conquered as were the seas, not only were the ruins on the surface of the moon about to be explored by man mounted on chariots of fire, but the sum total of all knowledge, past, present, and future, was about to be exposed by pure reason.

The world of Ledoux never seemed closer to utopia, even if from our vantage point, the conditions of what could have been are inevitably obliterated by the history of what did. If utopia has never been realized, it at least makes us reflect on the poverty of our condition. It is the hallucination of the architect surrounded by clouds.


The Revolution was an unwelcome interruption to Ledoux. He likely would have continued his streak of lucrative commissions, royal and noble, in ever grander realizations. It all seemed inevitable, until it wasn’t. The possibility space collapsed to just one, the one we live in now. In Year II, Ledoux was imprisoned for his association with the ferme générale.

French Revolutionary prisons were notorious for their desperate orgies of the formerly ennobled; it was in this crucible that Joséphine de Beauharnais, the future wife of Napoleon, sowed the seeds of her future success by sleeping with the crème de la crème of French bankers, generals and politicians. (She was initially suggested as a suitable wife to Napoleon as a joke. Insiders were shocked when he took them up on this offer.) Ledoux, however, for all his pleasure gardens, did not fare as well. According to one of his fellow prisoners, all he ever thought or spoke of was “columns”. He remained too awkwardly close to the discredited royal regime, too radical to be accepted by emigré circles in foreign capitals. Suddenly, it must have seemed to him as if he no longer belonged to any history at all.

His infamous tax farm wall, which itself imprisoned Paris behind the circular Panopticon of the ferme générale, was so despised that its partial demolition preceded the total one of the Bastille in July 1789. His architecture was best known as the physical apparatus of state oppression, something without a good metaphor in today’s technology of invisible control, but perhaps, at a stretch, akin to a black site warehouse of NSA servers.

Rumor has it that it was the painter Jacques-Louis David who was responsible for sparing Ledoux’s neck from le rasoir national. Ironically, this might’ve been equally out of artistic compassion as financial gratitude; his father-in-law was greatly enriched by the construction of the tax farm wall. True or not, the two historical artists provide a rich contrast. David was a magician of political transformation. His Greco-Roman aesthetic was as easily appropriated by the monarchy as it was by the Republic as it was by the Empire. It spoke to an ancient, if fictitious, ideal of power which we project onto the past, that of order, of wisdom, of Apollonian pillars of light, in a continuous line from the foundation of Troy to Charlemagne to the kings of France. The past is as much a fiction as the future. The pervasive sense of history is loss, and a false premise in a crisis of meaning. For legitimacy, power had to reach back to the past. In our world, power often legitimizes itself by speaking of the future. In their time, David was able to weather the shifting winds of politics; Ledoux not so much. Power is the antithesis of utopia.

Although he avoided the guillotine for now, he continued to rot in La Force prison until the fall of Robespierre led to a general amnesty. Even in his own history he could not conjure up the passion to be a martyr of an idea. Once a favorite of Madame du Barry, now Ledoux turned to a new client: the future. And so he set his perfumed dreams to paper, of the union of Bacchus and Hymen, of the harmony of kings and proletariat, of UFOs of sheep, in his L’Architecture, in the dazzling decade in which Napoleon conquered the world. Ledoux died in 1806. A thousand year kingdom, a Revolution, an Empire, and now Ledoux himself, came and went. His saline would see five kings, five republics, two empires, and whatever comes at us next.

Living in history means living in an invisible architecture. We habituate navigating up and down stairwells, through doors, across fictional lawns; we gaze out windows that don’t exist. Our thoughts are defined by our environment. Sapir-Whorf is just the beginning of understanding the mysteries of our own delusions.

We can break free in the creative bursts in which our invisible constraints vanish. But what are the conditions for creativity? For Ledoux it was the complete shattering of normality. He was toppled from the pantheon, but rather than sulk in the past, he delighted in the future. It is the future that gave birth to his most timeless ideas.

Perhaps the secular stagnation we find ourselves in now is just the terminal condition of the stultifying paradigm of our present culture. Oversocialization via social media leads to a globalizing of norms, collapsing the intellectual, emotional and spiritual biomes of our world. In this incarnation, our mental models are perfectly engineered to prevent their replacements from being born. Power has mastered crisis. Crisis is just another tool in the arsenal of control, like freedom, justice and privacy. Such tools once helped man cultivate his garden, but now he just pantomimes his way through rot.

Utopia is calculus. It is the force of acceleration. It is the dream a dreamer dreams inside his dream, to wake him from his fitful sleep. History is biased towards those who survived to have the last say: the lucky, the unscrupulous, acolytes of raw power. Ledoux was none of these things. “Success”, however we define it, is a kind of anti-signal. Buried in the ashes of history are the unintentional mavericks, spectacular failures, hopeless dreamers, raving lunatics, all who rebel against time. History is a time crystal, a ring of recurrence, in which work, that eternal curse, gives us vital tools for living inside time.

Thank you to Pierre d’Alancaisez, Rut Blees Luxemburg and Anthony Vidler for their inspiration for this essay.

April 2020