Memories of Ledoux


Le mur, murant Paris, rend Paris murmurant. (The wall, walling Paris, keeps Paris murmuring.) [popular epigram from 1785]

[W]onderful improvements are making here in various lines. In architecture, the wall of circumvallation round Paris, and the palaces by which we are to be let out and in, are nearly completed... [Thomas Jefferson, Letter from Paris, August 14, 1787]

In the waning years of ancien regime France, the increasingly tyrannical Fermiers Généraux (Farmers- General) convinced Louis XVI to commission the construction of an 11 foot wall around the city of Paris. Over 14 miles in length, this mur (or enceinte) would regulate the collection of import tariffs (octroi) on specific agricultural products, especially wine, livestock, game, poultry, straw, wood, and coal. In order to sell these goods in the city – now covering over 300% more area because of the wall – a trader would need to pass through one of 45 tollgates or barrières, conveniently aligned to existing entryways to the city. This new system would require over 800 staff, including guards and tax collectors. The Fermiers Généraux commissioned Claude Nicolas Ledoux to design the buildings for each barrière that would provide housing, office space, and storage for tariff collection operations. Work proceeded at a rapid pace: designs commenced in May 1784, ground broke in June 1785, and 42 of the 45 projects were completed by 1790.

“Map of the Trigonometric Operations for the City of Paris,” from Atlas du plan général de la ville de Paris, Edmé Verniquet, 1796 (ETH-Bibliothek Zürich). First complete map of Paris to show l’enceinte des Fermiers Généraux. Verniquet needed eight years to survey the new boundaries of a greatly enlarged city. His commission was meant to reinforce a new standard of building codes and it marked a changing perception of the “city,” as a uni ed whole rather than a clustering of neighborhoods.

Partial metro map of central Paris with highlighted shape created by peripheral Lines 6 (green, southern half) and 2 (blue, northern half), connecting at Place de la Nation and Charles de Gaulle-Étoile stations. L’enceinte des Fermiers Généraux of 1790 almost exactly decided the placement of these critical metro lines, built at the start of the 20th century. A typical transect across the wall (from inside to outside) included a peripheral road, 11’ high wall, 39’ boulevard, and a 328’ zone where buildings were prohibited.

Just as fast as they were built, however, they became the hated symbol of the ancien regime: on July 10, 1789 (four days before the storming of the Bastille), 46 of the 55 completed structures that comprised the barrières were either attacked or destroyed. They had a relatively brief appearance in the urban history of Paris – by the end of Haussmann’s reconstruction, virtually the entire wall and less than a dozen of the tollgates remained. However, the infrastructural project has had a profound impact on the way Paris has grown outward.The wall’s path was literally used as the foundation for two of the city’s major peripheral metro lines and the public spaces that accompany Ledoux’s four surviving monuments are vibrant locations for public markets, protests, social gatherings, recreation, and leisure.They operate outside the realm of the city’s well-known and congested sites of mass tourism, providing a view into the rhythms and networks of a global cosmopolitan urban environment. 


Barrière de Chartres

At the main entrance to Parc Monceau (8th), the Rotonde de Chartres now serves as of ces for the city’s park staff and two public bathrooms. The park was first owned by the duc de Chartres, then by the duc d’Orléans, who commissioned Thomas Blaikie to create a picturesque English garden - for example, the park has ruins from a cathedral demolished in 1719. In 1860, the state purchased the site and hired Adolphe Alphand to transform it into a public park. The Monceau metro station is just 30’ east of the Rotonde and during my time there, the park was always full with people - exercising, on a lunch break, or for a school recess.

Barrière Saint-Martin

Perhaps the most familiar of the tollhouses to Parisians and tourists alike, the Rotonde de La Villette (19th) now houses a restaurant and several outdoor patio bars.The adjacent plaza is bordered by stone terraces shaded well by trees, making for ideal people watching and social gatherings.The Rotonde also faces the heavily strolled Bassin de La Villette and serves as a central node for Parisians biking to and from work in the 10th.The elevated metro line running just behind the Rotonde is well-disguised and hardly noticed. Upper levels of the building are reserved for large events, such as dinner receptions and weddings.

Barrière du Trône

Ledoux reserved a distinct monumentality to the tollhouses at the western and eastern entrances to Paris (Étoile and here, Trône). The two Doric columns still function as a grand eastern gate, a noticeable transition from the 10-lane Cours de Vincennes to the more dense network of bike, bus, metro, car lanes radiating out of Place de la Nation (12th). During my visit, the two main buildings were undergoing restoration. The site has dozens of park benches and shaded open space - very conducive to a lively conversation with an older French couple, who never knew that we were sitting right in the path of wall.

Barrière d’Enfer

Amongst the congestion of Place Denfert- Rochereau (14th) - the site of a major metro station, the entrance to the Catacombs, and cars circling the Lion of Belfort - sit two symmetrical tollhouses on either side of Avenue Leclerc, guarding the major southern entrance to the city. Currently they serve as offices for city employees. The east building is consistently wrapped by the line of tourists waiting to get into the Catacombs; the west building’s backyard is a public park, secluded from the noise by trees and bushes. Here I saw one of the only acknowledgments of the wall - a plaque stating “Old Wall of Paris, Constructed by Ledoux, 1785-1859.”