Salt heritage site hosts cultural and study centre

An 18th Century saltworks in north-eastern France has been turned into a major venue for exhibitions and cultural events. The site, with its revolutionary design of ten buildings arranged in a large semi-circle, was the brainchild of royal architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux. It joined UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list in 1982.

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“Our audioguides offer foreign visitors a trilingual service year-round, guide visitors in the winter, and enhance the quality of visits for those unable to follow our guides.”
Isabelle Sallé, head of culture and heritage, Saline Royale d'Arc-et-Senans

Located in the Franche-Comté region, the Royal Saltworks of Arc-et-Senans annually produced up to 100 000 tonnes of salt. It now attracts many urban architecture researchers and thousands of visitors.

Industrial utopia

Historically, salt was much sought-after for preserving meat and fish. Far from the sea, the easiest way to obtain it was to mine or extract the mineral from salty soil. This happened in several Franche-Comté towns, among them Salins-les-Bains, where brine was pumped from deep wells and boiled to produce salt.

When forests providing wood for these boilers became depleted, a decision was taken to build a new saltworks nearby, overseen by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux. After six years of planning and construction, the new factory started operations in 1779, using water piped in some 20 km from Salins-les-Bains.

Ledoux’s original utopian vision, of a saltworks plus social facilities such as a hospital and school, never fully came to fruition. But the complex’s neatly arranged neoclassical buildings, including one flanked by two 80-metre wide saltworks, plus a prison and bakery, prefigured purpose-built industrial architecture. Renovated in the 1970s, the site continually improves facilities and hosts significant annual events, some partly funded by two ERDF programmes.

A seasoned centre for culture and tourism

Since 1972, guided by the Claude-Nicolas Institute, the site has served as an international centre for reflection on the future. The institute – with members including local authorities, businesses, public and private bodies – has also converted it into a European cultural meeting centre that hosts seminars, exhibitions and heritage studies.

Thanks to EU funding, the site improved its reception facilities and introduced modern audioguides. Between 2001 and 2003, it also created fourteen 18th Century style vegetable gardens and hosted two major exhibitions – on wood and artisans, and on design in architectural heritage.

Under the Franco-Swiss Interreg III programme, which is also part of the ERDF, the site linked up in 2004 and 2005 respectively with the city of Lausanne and Neuchâtel Canton. Actions focused on highlighting city public spaces and on gardening techniques and training.

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