French architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux was one of the first Neoclassical architects in France. An expert in town planning, he used his expertise to design domestic architecture – homes, apartment, and the like. He was so interested in urban planning and the improvement of society, that he was branded a utopian.
Ledoux was born in Dormans-sur-Marne as the son of a merchant from Champagne. From a young age, both his mother and grandmother encouraged him to pursue drawing and refine his natural skills for drafting. At the age of thirteen, he began his studies in Classics at the Collège de Beauvais. Interestingly, his education was funded by the Abbey of Sassenage. Ledoux graduated at 17 and immediately took employment as an engraver, but after four years he began an architectural apprenticeship under Jacques-François Blondel, who remained a source of inspiration in his career.
By the 1760s, Ledoux was already receiving commissions for residences and town houses, including the Hôtel d'Uzés (1767) in Paris and the château of Benouville (1768). He began to develop a dramatic flair in his work, which was evident in his Hôtel de Hallwyl (1764-1767) in Paris which was a renovation of sorts. In order to meet his client’s low budget, he reused portions of the old building and even painted a colonnade on the blind wall of the building. This garnered much praise and cemented Ledoux’s career.
Like his peers, Ledoux was strongly influenced by the Italian engraver Giovanni Battista Piranesi and his view of antiquity - a romantic viewpoint infused with elements of fantasy. This heavily influenced Ledoux’s work, as seen in the grandiose scale of his buildings. For example, his tollhouses in Paris (of which there were over 40) were massive and overlaid with Doric or Tuscan columns. The four that remain standing in Paris today only give a glimpse of what the landscape was like 200 years ago.
During the French Revolution, Ledoux was accused of being a royalist sympathizer – ironic because he was an early adopter of destroying traditional architecture for the new forms he endorsed. Sadly, this accusation meant the demise of his career, and Ledoux was forced to retire as an architect. So from his permanent vacation, he began to compose books on architectural theory, continuing to push his ideas through books rather than in buildings. But things were never the same for this once celebrated architect.
Ledoux died in Paris at the age of 70, undeservedly shamed.