Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The King’s Salt


The Saline Royale (Royal Saltworks) at Arc-et-Senans was an Enlightenment project of the architectural genius Claude-Nicolas Ledoux. At a time when salt was an ultra-precious commodity and a source of enormous income for the French crown, Louis XV signed an edict in 1773, authorizing the construction of a salt production center on the edge of the Forest of Chaux. There, wood abounded to fire the evaporation pans, and brine could be piped from the underground salt springs about a few kilometers away.

Ledoux envisioned an ideal city, where the workers would live and labor in a harmonious and healthful environment, with everything they wanted and needed to live wholesome lives while they created wealth for the King. Their surroundings were certainly beautiful, built in Ledoux’s classic style, based on Palladio’s principles of symmetry and balance.

As it often turned out with such endeavors, producing wealth for the crown turned out not to be as pleasant an activity as Ledoux imagined. Though they boasted a doctor on the premises and unlike many of their French contemporaries, they had food and shelter for their families, spending one’s days boiling brine into salt crystals turned out to be a caustic occupation. Ledoux’s design provided the workers with plots for gardens, where he imagined they would spend their off hours growing vegetables and breathing fresh air with their wives and children. Instead, in reality, salt workers were exhausted and sick.

Production at the site continued through the French Revolution, until 1895. After that, the buildings fell victim to lightning, decay, and even dynamite. By the 1930’s, however, efforts were afoot to restore and preserve them. In 1982, UNESCO listed them as a World Heritage site.

The Saline Royale that began as a ideal in Ledoux’s mind became a kind of hell for the workers who toiled there, and finally now exists as the serene and marvelous place their creator dreamt it would be.

Annamaria Alfieri

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