The Good and the True: paradigms of the Golden Age and the Ideal City

To find a coherent and systematic thought in the “western” tradition which relates the field of aesthetics with the field of politics, i.e. of the rules and conditions of human life in society, one should go back to Greece, and in particular to Plato and the neo-Platonists who established powerful links between aesthetics, metaphysics, and politics, or rather the virtues which must be the pillars of social life, a relationship at the heart of the problematics of western art.

One of the best introducers to platonic idealism is Plotinus, a philosopher born in Egypt at the beginning of the 3rd century, five centuries after Plato’s death, who later settled in Rome. Plotinus wrote a series of 54 treatises, the Enneades, one of which is titled “On beauty”, and another one “On intelligible beauty”. It is telling that emperor Gallienus entrusted Plotinus with the creation of a city in the region of Campania, which would have taken the name of Platonopolis, and where one would have lived according to the rules and laws drawn from Plato’s works. The project was never executed, of course. Those treatises are intended to be about metaphysics rather than aesthetics, but carry nonetheless major aesthetic ramifications.

To start with, Plotinus characterizes beauty. He says that for visible or perceptible objects, beauty consists in symmetry and measure, meaning proportion, and that there is no beauty in simple forms but only in composed ones. These ideas come from Plato, who considered the number to be the highest degree of knowledge (The Epinomis), and meditated at length about proportion and harmony (Timeos), inspired by Pythagoras (c. 580 to 500 B.C.) according to whom “everything is arranged in accordance with the number” (in Ieros Logos, a work attributed to Pythagoras). These ideas were then passed on by a number of thinkers such as  Nichomacus of Gerasa (1st century A.D.) who left the only comprehensive treatise on the theory of Numbers to reach us from the Antiquity.

We can also mention Philolaos, a follower of Pythagoras who managed to survive the massacre around 450 B.C. of the primeval community which was established by Pythagora’s disciples in Sicily, in Crotone. Philolaos states that harmony is the unification of what is distinct and the reconciliation of what is discordant. Plotinus thought that each virtue is a beauty of the soul, and that all that is formless may receive a figure and a form; however, as long as it is not participated by a Reason or an Idea, it remains ugly and distant from the divine order. It is the Idea which coordinates in a whole any being composed of many parts. Taking the example of architecture, Plotinus says that a house may be considered beautiful because its external, visible reality is the materialization of its internal Idea distributed among the stones and other features which constitute its visible multiplicity.

One can now elaborate on the identity of the Beautiful and the Good, which are but two hypostases of the One, the divine principle. For the Greeks, the fields of ethics and aesthetics are one: Good is the same as Beauty, or rather they are inseparable. In the Republic, Plato considers the Good as the principle which informs, which structures the system of Ideas. He compares it to the sun. The Good organizes Ideas and makes them knowable just as the sun illuminates all natural beings and makes them live.

In The Open Society and its Enemies, Karl Popper notes that, for Plato, politics is the royal Art, and an art as eminent or more than music, painting or architecture. The statesman composes the State that it governs out of love for Beauty. Plato writes : “Never will a State know happiness if it was not drawn by artists who work in accordance with the divine model… Such artists will use the State and the character of people as a canvas that they will start to clear up, which is not easy. In any case they will be different from common legislators because they will only accept to take care of an individual or a State in order to design their laws once they will have received it cleared up, or made it such themselves”. That is to say when they will have erased what existed before, including memories and traditions, even if, as Plato will say in The Statesman, if they have to kill or exile such and such. We are faced with a form of radicalism, of “aesthetic extremism”, that will have a long posterity and is of course denounced by Popper. However, this text brings to light an interesting aspect of some fundamental similarities between art and politics, which may be comprised in the general concept of harmony.

We can relate such considerations to the theology of Suger, which inspired the architecture of the French cathedrals of the so-called gothic style. For Plotinus, the divine is the source of beauty which the soul craves to reach, or to be reunited with. The greatness of the soul lies in its contempt for all things from this lower world; once purified it becomes again Idea and Reason, intangible and beautiful: at a higher, which we may call spiritual level, or level of ideality, there is an identity between the being of Good and the being of Beauty. These ideas are very remote from the fundamentals of Christianity in that they reflect a dualism, but they have been nonetheless extraordinarily influential in the theology of Christianity for many centuries.

By means of the three following equivalences, we are thus getting close to one of the founding paradigms of western utopias:

Beauty = harmony = proportions, “numbers”

Beauty = virtue, Good

Good = Sun, light

It would be mistaken to think that such paradigms have only structured the worldview of some circles of ancient Greece; through the theology of light of Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite, it has prospered during the Middle Ages and perhaps even more during the Renaissance. There is a vast tradition of hermetic inspiration which connects reforms here-below with heavenly transformations, human will and divine virtue, terrestrial harmony and celestial order. Giordano Bruno considered himself as a true prophet and philosopher of the “Copernican liberation”, propagating a heliocentric vision which opened the way to possible utopian miracles. For him, the reordering of celestial images would lead eventually to a general reform of humanity. In the Heavens, one may read a political-religious message which laws will shape human society: they will protect the poor, rein-in the tyrants, foster the arts and sciences for the common good.

Bruno is among the first to elaborate about the astronomical revolution of the planets as a metaphor of the social revolution, of a radical change of human societies through the destruction of the old order, based on the occultist tradition which became so much in favour in Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries. In this tradition, the Sun, Gold, Truth and Goodness are all symbolically united; therefore the Copernican theories seem to provide a coherent explanation in both astronomical and cosmological terms, the revolution of the planets being seen as the symbol of an alliance between man and the universe. In Concerning Cause, Principle and Unity (1584), he writes:

O wandering stars, see that I too will take the circular path, together with you, if you shall open the way”.

Bruno greets a mobile Earth able to renew itself and be born again. The revolution of the planet is the wheel of change. After evil and damage comes the time of a better world.

These ideas which permeate intellectual circles will meet the realities of architecture and urban planning. The Renaissance is soon faced with an urban problem, inherited from mostly dirty, chaotic medieval cities. For a man of the Renaissance, the city is an image of the world in its totality, a microcosm according to the neo-platonic terminology, a model of the universe just as the cathedral was a reflection of, or at least a finger pointed at, the Heavenly Kingdom.

The progress of mathematics and the rediscovery of the Greek works which relate to harmony and proportion led many to conceive of architecture as a model of Reason, a victory over Chaos, a victory of the demiurgic man over natural elements. This can be said of urban planning as well as of the architecture of gardens.

Utopia is by itself the symptom of an aspiration to a better and just world, a “docta spes” or conceptualized hope.  It is however its very nature to cease being such once translated into reality: that is the paradox of the Ideal City. Indeed, the Ideal City is ideal because the aesthetic reflection of those who conceived it led them to create it as a formal equivalent to the utopias upon which they are based. This translation requires a theoretical urban-architectonic basis. After the Antiquity itself, the formulation of such a theory emerges for the first time during the early Renaissance.

The city of Thurii (Θούριοι), in southern Italy, was founded around 444 B.C. at the initiative of Pericles, and in accordance with the urban conceptions of Hippodamus of Miletus who was also, says Aristoteles in his Politics, a theoretician of the State. Thurii must have been a kind of Ideal City reflecting the democratic ideal, in the ancient sense of this political concept. It is now thought that the projects carried out by Hippodamus of Miletus are a development of the theories of Pythagoras, and that the orthogonal grid design which characterizes the “Hippodamian Plan” is to represent ἰσονομία, the rule of equality, of equal distribution in space.

There is a temporal coincidence between the first modern architectural theory, Alberti’s De Re Aedificatoria, written in 1452 and published in 1485, the construction of the first Ideal City, Pienza, which starts in 1459, and the first major literary equivalent, the Utopia by Thomas More (1516).

If we take as an example the city described by Leonardo da Vinci in the so-called Manuscript B of the Institut de France, we are reading about a city built on two levels, autonomous one with respect to the other, in which the upper streets are reserved to gentlemen while the lower ones are for the use of carriages and the “amenities of the people”.

Leonardo defines in some detail the function of each level, based on social class distinctions. It is a clear example of aesthetic considerations made to correspond to a political design of the city. The point is how to replace the medieval city, which had been growing for centuries in a disorganized manner, by a new city planned according to a rational design, the question being of course which principles and criteria should drive this rational approach, since “reason” must be given a something upon which to build and develop; and that something cannot be discovered by reason alone, since it would otherwise be common to all times and places.

Obviously, the concept of Leonardo with its luminous upper level and toiling lower level are a reminiscence of the Platonic and neo-platonic correspondences between the State and the human body, between the political and the architectural structure, among others. Plato’s Republic was indeed translated many times during the 15th century, both in Florence and in Milan. In the Codex Atlanticus, where Leonardo provides advice to Ludovico il Moro, the duke of Milan from 1494 to 1499, for the embellishment of his city, we may observe that “beauty” corresponds to the ideal functionality of a rational form, where space is put at the service of the demands which are made by human nature.     

For the man of the Renaissance, there are seminal reasons, immanent mathematical laws which man must discover within himself, in his being, and which allow him to introduce his own works into Nature, adjusting as he should to the rationality which govern the whole. Therefore the Ideal City is both natural and rational, built according to Man’s measure.

Urban planning treatises talk of hygiene, public security, defense; and beyond those concerns we perceive the epidemics, the mutinies, plunder and famine: such treatises are also inevitably imbued with political thought, as urban planning cannot be separated from the politics and social constraints of the time.  

No less important is the fact that these texts from the early 15th century present the city-state as the ideal form of political organization, by contrast with ancient and medieval conceptions of large imperial – indeed sometimes universal – political organizations. This is a city which discovers the secret of peace and freedom through the coexistence of, and balance between, different sorts of powers and autonomies; it has no interest in vast religious programs or political conquests, but mostly contemplates the solution to concrete matters. Consistently with the little they know or assume from the city-states of ancient Greece which they intend to emulate, the political and cultural elites see the Ideal City as the one which the Greeks supposedly achieved by conforming to reason and nature.

In his Historiae Florentini populi, Leonardo Bruni, Secretary and historian of Florence and one of the first translators of Plato and Aristoteles, extols the small state as the ideal of the urban merchant class. For him, Florence and its political institutions represent the ideal type of the just and harmonious polis. Bruni also considers that there is an intimate correspondence between the socio-political structure and the architectural structure, and he promotes a concept consisting in concentric circles very much in line with the sixth book of Plato’s Laws. Bruni’s city is no imaginary construct as it is identified with an existing city and regime which he only aims at improving by applying more rationality. When comparing the literature of the 15th and the 16th century, it is obvious that the former extols the virtues of existing cities such as Florence, Venice or Milan, with the occasional advice to improve upon the existing status, while the latter becomes really utopian, to use an oxymoron… In the meantime, a long string of war and disasters had unfolded, with Italy having become the battlefield between the Kingdom of France and the Habsburg Empire, and large political entities having come back on the front stage with a vengeance.  

The 15th century holds a great confidence in the virtue of man, his capacity for building the city in accordance with reason. What was felt most attractive in the work of Plato was precisely the rationality of the just state, and justice is the supreme symbol of a functioning city. In Florence, when the gonfalioniero, who is the main civil authority, takes on his assignment, he must pronounce a public eulogy of justice, analyze its essence, and clarify his understanding thereof. The aim is of a justice able to insert the human order into the natural one, to build human law upon natural law.

For Alberti, the physicality of buildings is what lends a concrete existence to the polis, the city as a community bound by laws and political institutions. The energy and dedication with which rulers such as Cosimo de Medici or Pope Nicholas V planned and carried out the construction and embellishment of their cities could not be understood separately from the underlying social developments of their time.

Antonio di Pietro Averlino, known as Filarete, born in Florence in 1400, is the author of a Treatise of Architecture in 25 books, dedicated to Francesco Sforza, the Duke of Milan. He is the first “modern” to elaborate the detailed plan of an Ideal City, called Sforzinda, in which all buildings are designed to organically respond to human necessities.

However, these rational projects were to collide with historic processes. Reading 15th century documents, one can see how the theme of chance takes root and expands, how wariness grows about the possibilities of humans, how the demotion or crumbling of the great cities of the Antiquity is attributed to fate. As the century goes by, prophecies of misfortunes and renovation, of disasters and redemption proliferate. The Florence of Savonarola, mystical heir to Jerusalem, is very far from the Florence of Leonardo Bruni. Rigorous rational thinking, austere discussions about institutions taxes, the correct width of streets and height of buildings, are progressively replaced by a vision of new Jerusalem, solar cities, universal monarchies. The 16th century is one of emergence of imaginary republics which, in the midst of invasions and imperial wars, represent a manner of anachronic attempt to safeguard the illusion of the survival of small city-states.

Hope lies in the advent of a new century where humanity will be free of all forms of servitude, emancipated from the class hierarchies which the model of platonic republic or the Aristotelian state tended to reinforce. These hopes, these aspirations will find a response in the Solar City of Tommaso Campanella or the New Atlantis of Francis Bacon.

It is Leon Battista Alberti who gives the city its theoretical dimension of an artwork; he is the one who states that all future cities will need to be planned. In his masterwork on the Italian Renaissance, Jakob Burckhardt coined the phrase of “the State as an artwork”. This is a time when city and state are virtually interchangeable terms.

Let us have a look at the particular case of Pienza, today a small city in the hills of Tuscany. Pope Pius II (1405 – 1464), Enea Silvio Piccolomini, transformed with the help of Alberti his birth city of Lorsignano in the Ideal City project of Pienza. Of course, he has these monuments built for the glory of his family. This is apparent through the presence of his coat of arms alongside the insignia of the papacy on many of the buildings of Pienza and Siena. At the root of the restructuring of this small city is the will to build a monument to himself and his family. We do not see in Pienza the concrete translation of any political ideal, but rather of the ideals of the Renaissance man. The pope continues the tradition of the Roman emperors as founders of cities. To some extent imperial Rome is, in the imagination of that time, the ideal of the city, its golden days, the ones of domination over the known world in terms of civilization ; it is also a hope which endured through the whole Middle Ages of the resurgence, the restoration of the greatness of Rome which had acquired a mythical status. It is not by chance that the pope elects the name of “Pius”, a clear allusion to Virgil’s Aeneid where Aeneas, the mythical father of Rome, says: “sum pius Aeneas”.  

The architect of Pienza was Bernardo Rossellino, a florentine, probably suggested to the Pope by Alberti himself. Most of what could be build in Pienza was around the main square, of trapezoidal shape, where we can read a new relationship of powers between the four main buildings, the Palazzo Piccolomini which stands for the Pope and the Prince all at once, the cathedral, the municipal palace, and the episcopal palace, all united in a quasi-scenographic arrangement. It is noteworthy that the church is oriented north-south, rather than the usual east-west of the Christian symbology. We have left behind the intellectual context of the Middle Ages, and the orientation of the church has been subordinated to a formal rather than symbolic necessity; it is now part of a balance of institutional powers when before it would have stood clearly in the centre of the square. A square which is conceived both as an aesthetic object and a reminder of ancient Rome: in his Comentarii, Pius II calls it the “forum”.   

We also note a hierarchy between the buildings, which is made apparent by the materials used with the hardest stone – the travertino – for the church, a sandstone for the episcopal palace and the Palazzo Piccolomini, and tufa, the softer material, for the municipal palace. The city reflects the world and the hierarchy of its powers.

The circle often represents the quest for the ideal form which organizes the city and its functions, giving it a life and a unity; it is also often associated to the checkerboard planning. In the Neoplatonic conception, the circle stands for the cosmos, the celestial world of ideas, while the square stands for what is terrestrial. Therefore, a square inscribed in a circle represents the totality of the universe.

This urban plan also holds a military value, and it should be remembered that architecture in a 16th century plagued by wars is to some extent a military architecture planned by engineers. It is the case of Bramante and Da Vinci, at the service of Ludovico il Moro, of Antonio da Sangallo in Florence, of Francesco di Giorgio for the Dukes of Urbino. After 1530, the whole of Europe becomes dotted with cities planned by military engineers. One can mention in Italy Sabbioneta and Palmanova, built between 1593 and 1600.

Sabbioneta in particular, the “new Rome”, nothing less, is erected between 1554 and 1588 for the Duke Vespasiano Gonzaga, one of the most singular characters of the 16th century in Italy. A soldier, a condottiere, he was educated by Giulia Gonzaga, one of the most cultured women of the Renaissance. And of course he reads Vitruvius’s De Architectura, perhaps the single most influential book on architecture ever written, later reformulated by Alberti in 1452. Vespasiano Gonzaga wished to translate his many readings and vast knowledge into reality, into a city which might represent a “happy State”. The project was born as a collaboration between Gonzaga, the architect Domenico Giunti and Girolamo Cataneo, the theoretician of fortifications and author of important comments on Vitruvius.

Sabbioneta brings us back to the old Roman structure of the cardo and decumanus which divide the city in four sectors, with different functions. All public buildings including the church, the ducal palace, the Palace of Reason and the theater are in the northwestern quadrant. In the southwestern quadrant one finds the caste and military quarters. The city was meant to be able to satisfy all physical, intellectual and spiritual necessities of its inhabitants. For instance, Gonzaga founded an academy which purpose was “not only to propagate the mechanical arts and what is useful for the protection of human life, but also and above all humanities and the scientia libera without which it is impossible to live well”. 

In reality, Sabbioneta reminds us of a theater set in which Vespasiano Gonzaga held the main role; indeed, the last building to be constructed was the magnificent theater by Scamozzi (1548 – 1616), the same who had built the famous Teatro Olimpico of Vicenza. In Sabbioneta’s theater, the perspective painted on the set corresponded to the archetype of the comic set defined by Sebastiano Serlio (1475 – 1554) in his Seven Books of Architecture. Serlio was the inventor of the stage perspective in his Second Book on Perspective published in Paris in 1545. He applies his concept to the three main types of sets inherited from Vitruvius, the tragic, the comic, and the satirical. The tragic one includes elements of the ancient city such as temples and arches, as we can see in Vicenza; the comic one includes private houses, inns and shops; on the stage of Sabbioneta, they were the exact representations of the city’s houses so that, as if by a game of mirrors, the set was the city, and the city was a set. By implication, life itself was thought of as a play meant to follow the rules which render its actors-citizens happy: was the set not designed for comic plays ? This is in a sense the ultimate phantasy of the Ideal City. The theater was inaugurated in 1590, one year before the death of Vespasiano Gonzaga. There was to be only one theater season…

As Serlio’s tragic set was mentioned, it is appropriate to examine a painting, now in the ducal palace of Urbine, which was always called “The Ideal City” (or more appropriately the Ideal City). There exists a similar one in the museum of Baltimore. This painting was traditionally attributed to Piero della Francesca, but is more likely to have been painted by either Francesco di Giorgio, the author of important treatises on architecture, or Luciano Laurana (1420 – 1479).

The Ideal City (Urbino)
The Ideal City (Baltimore)

This painting makes the semiotic proximity between the theater set, the ideal city, and underlying ideology of linear perspective quite obvious. We do not know if this painting was meant to be a “serlian” tragic set; but there is no doubt that, during the Renaissance, a relationship existed between the Theater, the City and the State. The 16th century is a time of climax for public festivities; let us not forget that organizing them was Leonardo Da Vinci’s main job at the service of the Duke of Milan. Festivities are auxiliaries to power, the performance where politics is enacted. One could quote as an example the entry of Ferdinando de Medici and Christine de Lorraine in Florence for their marriage, in 1589, orchestrated by the well-named Buontalenti. This is a time when drama flourishes in Italy wherefrom it will spread all over Europe. Indeed, fingerprints of Italian drama are obvious in the work of Shakespeare, of whom the first mention seems to be in 1592. Many of his plays have their source in Italian novellas; the plot of Romeo and Juliet, for instance, is taken entirely from Matteo Bandello who borrowed it from Luigi da Porto’s novella written in 1524, on the basis of a Sienese legend. Plays such as La Mandragora by Machiavelli (1520), or Il Marescalco by Aretino (1533) met with considerable success, while the Commedia dell’Arte is already well structured by 1545 – 1550 around a fixed set of characters and the concept of improvisation from a short storyline.

Di Giorgio’s (or Laurana’s) painting, dated around 1500, presents the city as the solemn set of ceremonies, festivities, and ultimately power. The central building is a temple, a place of triumph perhaps, but not an actual church: it could be as well the temple of Reason, or of any form of transcendental Power; and only a power which we cannot identify, but which we can certainly perceive is capable of ordaining, planning, and execute such an urban set where no individual initiative seems to be allowed to break the general harmony. This is also an urban set which cannot be changed over time, as modifying one element would require to change the whole in order to maintain a harmony between the parts, and between each part and the whole. It is therefore eternal by design, or at the very least meant to reflect eternity.  

It is also a matter of the heroic imitation of Roman antiquity, considering that one of the dimensions of utopia during the 16th century is a return to the “archeological model”, the golden age of Augustus, the age of virtù in the complex sense of moral virtue and courage, strength and striving for the good.

Plotinus told us that the soul which gains access to the world of Ideas is perfectly beautiful, it is in direct contact with the ultimate Good, purified, adorned with all virtues. And indeed, there is always a close relationship between utopia and virtue, including in the utopias of the 20th century such as communism, or those of political ecology today. For Plato, beauty is always a vision or at least a reflection of the world Beyond.   

In the visual world, one of the characteristics of beauty is symmetry. Inherited from the monuments of Antiquity, and reflected in the human body itself, symmetry is necessary to monumentality, to the spectacular, the awesome, and usually associated to simple forms which have an internal symmetry such as the square, the circle, or the pyramid. Symmetry is an instrument of illusion, as geometrically engineered by means of the rules of linear perspective. It stresses the drawing rather than the colour, or the shading. The drawing as a paradigm of creation, the line which defines a here and there, a “visual being”, a rule. Without the line, nothing visually identifiable may exist, it is akin to the Logos which separates an object or a concept in the universe and thus creates it for the mind. One could say that the art of Piero della Francesca is the father of abstract constructivism, the great art of the 20th century utopia, perhaps the last of the sons of Plato. A utopia that will meet a rather tragic end, a tragedy reflected in De Chirico’s pittura metafisica as order inevitably breeds melancholy: the revenge of Dyonisos.    

The Ideal City has occasionally manifested itself in a city of brick and mortar; but it is mainly a city of ideas, and these ideas materialized in the art of gardens which has known a new golden age during the Renaissance, after centuries of oblivion in Europe, except for medicinal gardens. Gardens are also theatre stages where the Prince, i.e. power in one guise or another, orders nature and society around himself, and re-enacts in a highly symbolic setting the drama of a social order as reflection of the cosmic order that guides it and justifies it. The performances, dances, and hunting that oftentimes follow festivities are no less a reminder and re-actualization of actual social and cosmic forces than, say, the bullfight was, in the days of the Bronze Age, a re-actualization of the immemorial fight between light and chaos which has survived until today without the awareness of its initial meaning. In the garden, the borders between theater and reality are blurred; it is a contact point between microcosm and macrocosm in a manner comparable to a church. The roles are ritualized, as prescribed by tradition and protocol; they are nonetheless binding on the “characters”. In the garden, which is designed as a metaphor of the cosmos, social life is the play. Harmony is restored.

Villa Lante (Bagnaia)

Of course, the Italian Renaissance is far from being the only time and place where the Ideal City has found fertile ground. As is well-known, Thomas More’s Utopia, published in 1516, was immensely influential, and indeed perhaps the most influential description ever of a utopian society, but it is short on architectural and urban planning details. Such is not the case of two of his 17th century followers, Johann Andreae who published his Christianopolis in 1619, and Tommaso Campanella who achieved considerable reputation with his City of the Sun written in 1602 and published in 1623. Both cities are conceived as places where utopian Christian societies may flourish, and both emphasise the importance of mathematics and astrology. As in the painting by Di Giorgio, both cities have a temple in their centre, from which the city is then deployed in accordance with a geometric pattern which is meant to reflect the harmonious structure of their societies. Christianopolis was square as the New Jerusalem described in Revelation 21:16, while the City of the Sun was circular, as our planetary system and as the symbol of Heavens.

Ideal cities took a different meaning with the Enlightenment, and the conceptions which were to lead to the French Revolution. The architect and theoretician Etienne Louis Boullée (1728 – 1799) writes, in his Essay on Art: “It is from symmetry, the image of order, that the constituent principles of architecture were born, since any disparity is revolting in an art based on the principles of parity”. His architecture is mostly experimental: he imagines all kinds of buildings, from triumphal arks to fortifications and cenotaphs, and will dream at the end of his life of an ideal city which would be designed as a “tree of knowledge”. From its centre, generous branches would grow and extend to all parts of the empire. Boullée wants architecture to be taught to everyone, and to become a compulsory topic for “all men who aspire to high position in the State”. Some of his drawings will inspire the Russian avantgarde of the 1920s.

Another key architect and theoretician to be considered is Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (1736 – 1806). In his treaty Architecture considered in relation to art, customs and legislation (1804), he dares write : “Doesn’t the architect possess a colossal power ? He can, within nature of which he is but a disciple, create another nature…” After his work at the Royal Salt-works of Arc-et-Senans, Ledoux starts dreaming of an ideal city, the city of Chaux.

Ledoux – Arc-et-Senans salt-works

Its drawings will be engraved before the Revolution, but published only in 1804 with his treaty. While he is building the salt-works, commissioned under the reign of Louis XV, he proposes to Turgot, a key minister of Louis XVI but also a physiocrat and the author of a dissertation On the Historical Progress of the Human Mind, to build a city around the salt-works. The program – which remained a project – is a true architectural encyclopedia where each function in human and social life finds a building adapted to its necessities. Chaux is devoted to the collective and harmonious effort of production. Using pure geometric forms, Ledoux puts together this architectural “catalogue” of forms meant to bring about “well-being, balance, harmony, happiness, human fulfillment in a healthy organization of work”, including among many other buildings the pacifère to resolve conflicts, the panaréthéon to teach virtue and morals, not to forget a “monument of gaiety”.

Project for the city of Chaux

Here Reason is celebrating itself, and made god; the god of rationality and human progress which is still celebrated today, though more and more grudgingly perhaps. In his book, Ledoux had placed an Exchange at the centre of the city; on the drawings, it was the salt-works. If not entirely out of the picture, God is sidelined, and so are the other traditional powers. The city is to be egalitarian in its structure as well as in its society, but in reality, isn’t Organized Work emerging as the new god, and Reason mistaken for metrics in all things?    

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