From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814 – 1879) was a French architect and theorist, famous for his "restorations" of medieval buildings. Born in Paris, he was as central a figure in the Gothic Revival in France as he was in the public discourse on "honesty" in architecture, which eventually transcended all revival styles, to inform the emerging spirit of Modernism.
Viollet-le-Duc's father was a civil servant in Paris who collected books; his mother's Friday salons drew Stendhal and Sainte-Beuve. His mother's brother, Étienne-Jean Delécluze, "a painter in the mornings, a scholar in the evenings" (Summerson), was largely in charge of the young man's education. Viollet-le-Duc showed a lively intellect: republican, anti-clerical, rebellious, he built a barricade in the July Revolution of 1830 and refused to enter the École des Beaux-Arts. Instead he opted in favor of direct practical experience in the architectural offices of Jacques-Marie Huvé and Achille-François-René Leclère.
In the early 1830s, the beginnings of a movement for the restoration of medieval buildings appeared in France. Viollet-le-Duc, returning in 1835 from a study trip to Italy, was commissioned by Prosper Merimée to restore the Romanesque abbey of Vézelay. This work marked the beginning of a long series of restorations; Viollet-le-Duc's restorations at Notre Dame de Paris brought him national attention. His other main works include Mont St-Michel, Carcassonne, Roquetaillade castle and Pierrefonds.
Viollet-le-Duc's "restorations" frequently combined historical fact with creative modification. For example, under his supervision, Notre Dame was not only cleaned and restored but also "updated," gaining its distinctive third tower (a type of flèche) in addition to other smaller changes. Another of his most famous restorations, the medieval fortified town of Carcassonne, was similarly enhanced, gaining atop each of its many wall towers, a set of pointed roofs that are actually more typical of northern France.
At the same time, in the cultural atmosphere of the Second Empire theory necessarily became diluted in practice, and messages were mixed: Viollet-le-Duc provided a Gothic reliquary for the relic of the Crown of Thorns at Notre-Dame in 1862, and yet Napoleon III also commissioned designs for a luxuriously appointed railway carriage from Viollet-le-Duc, in 14th-century Gothic style (Exhibition 1965).
Among his restorations were:
- Churches :
- Sainte-Marie-Madeleine, Vézelay
- St.Martin, Clamecy (Nievre)
- Notre-Dame de Paris
- Sainte-Chapelle, in Paris (under Felix Duban)
- Saint Denis Basilica, near Paris
- Saint-Louis, in Poissy, France
- Saint-Nazaire, in Carcassonne, France
- Saint-Sernin, in Toulouse, France
- Notre-Dame de Lausanne, Switzerland
- Town Halls :
- Castles :
Influence on historic preservation
Basic intervention theories of historic preservation are framed in the dualism of the retention of the status quo versus a "restoration" that creates something that never actually existed in the past. John Ruskin was a strong proponent of the former sense, while his contemporary, Viollet-le-Duc, advocated for the latter instance. Viollet-le-Duc wrote that restoration is a "means to reestablish [a building] to a finished state, which may in fact never have actually existed at any given time." The type of restoration employed by Viollet-le-Duc was decried by John Ruskin as "a destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered: a destruction accompanied with false description of the thing destroyed."
This argument is still a current one when restoration is under consideration for a building or landscape. The past can never be faithfully recreated; but leaving a building to deteriorate pursuant to the 'status quo' theory is not faithful to the history either. In removing layers of history from a building, information and age value are also removed which can never be recreated. On the other hand, adding layers of history to a building, as Viollet-le-Duc also did (see illustration from Notre Dame de Paris above) allows current viewers to share a richer experience of the history of the building.
Throughout his career Viollet-le-Duc made notes and drawings, not only for the buildings he was working on, but also on Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance buildings that were to be soon demolished. His notes were helpful in his published works. His study of medieval and Renaissance periods was not limited to architecture, but extended to furniture, clothing, musical instruments, armament, geology and so forth.
All this work was published, first in serial, and then as full-scale books, as:
- Dictionary of French Architecture from 11th to 16th Century (1854–1868) (Dictionnaire raisonné de l'architecture française du XIe au XVe siècle) - Original Template:Fr icon language edition, including numerous illustrations.
- Dictionary of French Furnishings (1858–1870) (Dictionnaire raisonné du mobilier français de l'époque Carolingienne à la Renaissance.)
- Entretiens sur l'architecture (in 2 volumes, 1858–72), in which Viollet-le-Duc systematized his approach to architecture and architectural education, in a system radically opposed to that of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, which he had avoided in his youth and despised. In Henry Van Brunt's translation, the "Discourses on Architecture" was published in 1875, making it available to an American audience little more than a decade after its initial publication in France.
- Histoire de l'habitation humaine, depuis les temps préhistoriques jusqu'à nos jours (1875). Published in English in 1876 as Habitations of Man in All Ages. Viollet-Le-Duc traces the history of domestic architecture among the different "races" of mankind.
- L'art russe: ses origines, ses éléments constructifs, son apogée, son avenir (1877), where Viollet-le-Duc applied his ideas of rational construction to Russian architecture.
Architectural theory and new building projects
Viollet-le-Duc is considered by many to be the first theorist of modern architecture. Sir John Summerson wrote that "there have been two supremely eminent theorists in the history of European architecture—Leon Battista Alberti and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc."
His architectural theory was largely based on finding the ideal forms for specific materials, and using these forms to create buildings. His writings centered on the idea that materials should be used 'honestly'. He believed that the outward appearance of a building should reflect the rational construction of the building. In Entretiens sur l'architecture, Viollet-le-Duc praised the Greek temple for its rational representation of its construction. For him, "Greek architecture served as a model for the correspondence of structure and appearance." There is speculation that this philosophy was heavily influenced by the writings of John Ruskin, who championed honesty of materials as one of the seven main focuses of architecture.
In several unbuilt projects for new buildings, Viollet-le-Duc applied the lessons he had derived from Gothic architecture, applying its rational structural systems to modern building materials such as cast iron. He also looked at organic structures, such as leaves and animal skeletons, for inspiration. He was especially interested in the wings of bats, an influence reflected in his Assembly Hall project.
Viollet-le-Duc’s drawings of iron trusswork were innovative for the time. Many of his designs focusing on iron would later influence the Art Nouveau movement, most noticeably in the work of Hector Guimard. His writings inspired a generation of American architects, including Frank Furness, John Wellborn Root, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright.<
Military career and influence
Viollet-le-Duc had a second career in the military, primarily in the defence of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1). He was so influenced by the conflict that during his later years he was moved to describe the idealized defense of France through the analogy of the military history of Le Roche-Pont, an imaginary castle, in his work Histoire d'une Forteresse (Annals of a Fortress, twice translated into English). Accessible and well researched, it bridges the line between novel and historical document.
Annals of a Fortress strongly influenced French military defensive thinking. Viollet-le-Duc's critique of the effect of artillery (applying his practical knowledge from the 1870-1 war) is so complete that it accurately describes the principles applied to the defence of France up to World War II. The physical results of his theories are seen in the fortification of Verdun prior to The First World War and the Maginot Line prior to WWII. In more depth his theories are reflected by the French military theory of "Deliberate Advance", where the artillery and a strong shield of fortresses in the rear of an army are key.
Some of his restorations, such as that of the Château de Pierrefonds, have become highly controversial because they did not aim so much at accurately recreating a historical situation as at creating a "perfect building" of medieval style: "to restore an edifice", he observed in the Dictionnaire raisonné, "is not to maintain it, repair or rebuild it, but to re-establish it in a complete state that may never have existed at a particular moment". The idea and the very word restoration applied to architecture Viollet-le-Duc considered part of a modern innovation. Modern conservation practice finds Viollet-le-Duc's restorations too free, too personal, too interpretive, but many of the monuments he restored would have otherwise been lost.
The English architect Benjamin Bucknall (1833-95) was a follower of Viollet-le-Duc and in 1874-81 translated a number of his works into English to popularise his principles in Great Britain.
An exhibition, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc 1814–1879 was presented in Paris, 1965, and a larger, centennial exhibition, 1980.