Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc 1814-1879
Born in Paris, France on January 27, 1814, Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc was a French architect and restorer, and is widely considered to be the foremost theorist of modern architecture. The son of the Sous-Contrôleur des Services for the Tuileries, grandson of a successful contractor, and nephew of a well-known artist and critic, Viollet-le-Duc, was, from an early age, exposed to the critical thinking and intellectual pursuits of the Parisian bourgeoisie. His parents, staunch royalists and rational classicists, held a Friday evening salon, while his uncle, Etienne Delécluze (1781-1863), a republican and romanticist, held gatherings on Sunday afternoons for figures such as the famous author Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870). Thus, Viollet-le-Duc was constantly surrounded by individuals who were deeply engaged with the construction and preservation of important sites, the promotion of a discourse on art and architecture, and, in a sense, the very shaping of the fabric of Parisian culture.
After receiving the baccalauréat at the age of sixteen from the Collège de Bourbon, Viollet-le-Duc announced his intent to pursue a career in architecture. Rejecting formal training at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in favor of direct experience, he took up work in the office of Achille Leclère (1785-1853). Between 1831 and 1836, Viollet-le-Duc traveled extensively throughout France, visiting the major sites of medieval architecture, and enhancing both his knowledge of and interest in the Romanesque and Gothic styles. In 1834, at the age of twenty, he married and also accepted a position teaching drawing at the Ecole de Dessin de Paris, and, in 1836, he embarked upon an eighteen-month long trip to Italy, where he studied and drew buildings, representative of the history and trajectory of Western architecture.
Having returned to Paris in 1837, Viollet-le-Duc was appointed auditor to the Conseil des Bâtiments Civils, which was responsible for the construction and renovation of all state buildings. During this time, he continued to travel throughout France, visiting and recording Gothic and Romanesque sites. In 1840, Prosper Mérimée, then serving as Inspecteur Général des Monuments Historiques, selected Viollet-le-Duc to restore the abbey church of the Madeleine at Vézelay. Two years later, Mérimée appointed Viollet-le-Duc as second inspector of the restoration of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. During the course of the restoration work, Viollet-le-Duc became close with his colleague, the first inspector, Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus (1807-1857), with whom he drafted a proposal for the restoration of Notre-Dame, Paris, and from whom he adopted the "rationalist interpretation of architecture in general and of Gothic architecture in particular" (Hearn, 4).
Already by 1844, when he had received the commission for the restoration of Notre-Dame, Viollet-le-Duc had developed his theoretical position and had begun to publish polemical writings on Gothic architecture. In these early essays he advanced his theories of the Gothic as a "logical structural system" (Hearn, 5). Viollet-le-Duc's studies of nineteenth-century iron structures greatly informed his emerging interpretation of the Gothic as a rational scheme of skeletal forms designed to bear the weight of the increasingly taller vaults. The simultaneous functionality and visibility of these skeletal elements, namely the ribs, arches, and vertical supports, was essential to his understanding of Gothic architecture. The visual reiteration of these particular forms, and, by extension, their utility within the overarching structure, was what provided the buildings with their aesthetic value. Even the decorative elements, such as blind arcades and bar tracery, derived their beauty from the visual evocation of their actual structural function.
Notre-Dame signals the first practical application of Viollet-le-Duc's theory of restoration with his series of creative and unprecedented modifications to both the structure and decoration of the cathedral. Viollet-le-Duc's restorations at Notre Dame have been the subject of much scrutiny, since they neither attempt to revive its original twelfth-century appearance, nor restore the building to its state at the end of the Middle Ages. Instead, they illuminate Viollet-le-Duc's personal desire to "reestablish it in a complete condition that may never have existed at any given moment" (Hearn, 6). His theory envisioned the restoration of buildings as a kind of re-imagination of the original, informed not only by the existing structure and its many layers, but also by an individual knowledge of history and form, coupled with a nineteenth-century understanding of the Middle Ages.
In 1854, Viollet-le-Duc published his ten-volume work entitled Dictionnaire raisonné de l'architecture française du XIe au XVI siècle (Dictionary of French Architecture from the Eleventh to the Sixteenth Century). Drawing upon the studies and fine illustrations of sites Viollet-le-Duc had made during his various tours throughout France, this comprehensive text presented both his general understanding of Gothic architecture and his knowledge of particular buildings. Alphabetical entries detailed the specific elements of structure and decoration in individual monuments, and elucidated the more general topics of architectural forms and techniques. His interpretation of the Gothic relied upon an essentially cerebral view, in which the beauty of its architecture was founded upon a methodically rational approach to construction, rather than a concern for aesthetic or iconographical design. He claims that the impetus for Gothic architecture was the desire to build high vaults, and that the characteristically Gothic elements of a monument, both structural and decorative, developed out of functional necessity and the state of medieval building techniques and materials. In essence, form followed function.
During this time, Viollet-le-Duc also began to write a series of historical essays, which were compiled and published in the 1863 volume titled Entretiens sur l'architecture (Discourses on Architecture). In this work, he discusses three emergent models in the history of architecture: the Greek Doric temple, the complex structures of imperial Rome, and the Gothic cathedrals of medieval France. The Doric temple was conceived of as a purely rational approach to the organization of structure, in which each individual element was logically linked to its adjoining parts and to the overall structure, and in which the architecture itself was shaped by its method of construction instead of its general function as a building. In contrast, Roman architecture began with a set of functional necessities, which were solved through the arrangement of structural elements and spaces of varying size and shape, which were then overlaid with a "luxurious, but irrelevant veneer of Greek forms" (Hearn, 9). Viollet-le-Duc viewed Gothic architecture as a fusion of these two earlier models, and presented the Gothic cathedral as a wholly rational structure designed to fulfill a functional program, in this case, the liturgy. He also saw the French Renaissance chateau as carrying on this dual emphasis upon functionality and rational design, but vehemently opposed the neo-classical palaces and houses erected during the Baroque era, which he saw as appropriating symmetrical facades for purely aesthetic reasons, with little to no regard for the functional requirements and rationality of the structure. This emphasis upon function, rationality, and transparency in both structure and purpose, drawn from the medieval world, would ultimately serve as the basis for his conception of a modern architecture.
Renewed interest in preservation efforts has revived Viollet-le-Duc's theories of restoration and sparked a re-evaluation of his somewhat controversial modifications. Although his restorations have often been interpreted as arbitrary or unconventional, they were in fact guided by a strong desire to retain traces of both old and new, and to present the building as a site of change and adaptation, rather than as a static and immutable monument.
FSU, MA student
Bercé, Françoise and Bruno Foucart. Viollet-le-Duc: Architect, Artist, Master of Historic Preservation. Exhibition catalogue. Washington D.C.: The Trust for Museum Exhibitions, 1988.
Bressani, Martin. "Notes on Viollet-le-Duc's Philosophy of History: Dialectics and Technology." Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 48 (Dec., 1989), 327-350.
Johnson, James R. "The Stained Glass Theories of Viollet-le-Duc." The Art Bulletin, 45 (Jun., 1963), 121-134.
Murphy, Kevin D. Memory and Modernity: Viollet-le-Duc at Vézelay. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.
Reiff, Daniel D. "Viollet-le-Duc and American 19th Century Architecture." Journal of Architectural Education, 42 (Autumn, 1988), 32-47.
_____. "Viollet le Duc and Historic Restoration: The West Portals of Notre-Dame." Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 30 (Mar., 1971), 17-30.
Viollet-le-Duc, Eugène-Emmanuel. The Architectural Theory of Viollet-le-Duc: Readings and Commentary. Edited by M. F. Hearn. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990.
Bibliography: Works By Viollet-le-Duc
Taken from Bercé, Françoise and Bruno Foucart. Viollet-le-Duc: Architect, Artist, Master of Historic Preservation. Exhibition catalogue. Washington D.C.: The Trust for Museum Exhibitions, 1988.
¬¬¬¬Dictionnaire raisonné de l'architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle. Paris, B. Bance, A. Morel, 1854-1868, 10 vol. [Morel's name replaces that of Bance beginning with vol. 7]
Essai sur l'architecture militaire au Moyen âge. Paris, B. Bance, 1854.
Lettres adressées d'Allemagne à M. Adolphe Lance, architecte. Paris, B. Bance, 1856.
Monographie de Notre Dame de Paris et de la nouvelle sacristie de MM. Lassus et Viollet-le-Duc. Paris, A. Morel, 13 p., 63 pl.
Description du château Pierrefonds. Paris, B. Bance, 23 p., pl.
Description du château de Coucy. Paris, B. Bance, 23 p., pl.
Dictionnaire raisonné du mobilier français de l'epoque carolingienne à la Renaissance. Paris, B. Bance, A. Morel, 8 pts. in 6 vols., illus.
La Cité de Carcassonne (Aude). Paris, Gide, 52 p., fig.; Paris, Vve A. Morel, 84p.; fig.
Lettres pour la Sicile, à propos de événements de juin et de juillet 1860. Paris, Vve A. Morel, 166p., illus.
Entretiens sur l'architecture. Paris, A. Morel, 1863-1872, 2 vol.
Intervention de l'état dans l'enseignement des Beaux-Arts. Paris, A. Morel, 62 p.
Résponse à M. Vitet, à propos de l'enseignement des arts du dessin. Paris, A. Morel, 1864, 48 p. [Response to the article by L. Vitet: "De l'enseignement des arts du dessin," La Revue des deux mondes, November 1, 1864.]
Mémoire dur la défense de Paris, septembre 1870-janvier 1871. Paris, Vve A. Morel, 239 p., 12 pl.
Simple dialogue pour servir d'introduction au Mémoire sur la défense de Paris. Paris, Vve A. Morel, 1871, 31 p.
Description du château d'Arques. Paris, Vve A. Morel, 16 p.
De l'étude de la géographie et de la topographie dans l'armée. Paris, J. Dumaine, 22 p., fig. [Excerpt from the Journal de sciences militaries, May 1872.]
La fortification passagère dans les guerres actuelles. Paris, J. Dumaine, 19 p. fig. [Excerpt from the Journal des sciences militaries, 8th series, vol. 2, 1872.]
Histoire d'une maison. Paris, J. Hetzel, 260 p., illus.
Monographie de l'ancienne église abbatiale de Vézelay. Paris, Gide, 31 p., illus. [Archives de la Commission des monuments historiques.]
Méthode d'enseignement du dessin applicable aux écoles professionnelles ou industrielles proposée par les membres du Comité de redaction de l'Encyclopédie d'architecture. Paris, A. Morel.
Histoire d'une forteresse. Paris, J. Hetzel, 368 p.
"Nouvelle carte topographique du massif du Mont-Blanc," Bulletin de la Société de Géographie, July 1874. Text of the report to the society at its meeting on 28 March 1874.
Histoire de l'habitation humaine depuis les temps préhistoriques jusque nos jours. Paris, J. Hetzel, 372 p., illus.
Le massif du Mont-Blanc, étude sur sa construction géodésique et géologique, sur ses transformations et sur l'état ancien et moderne de ses glaciers. Paris, J. Baudry, 280 p., illus.
"L'architecture," in the Dictionnaire encyclopédique et biographique de l'industrie et des arts industriels de la France contemporaine. Paris.
L'art russe, ses origines, ses elements constitutifs, son apogée, son avenir. Paris, Vve A. Morel, 261 p., illus.
Histoire d'un hôtel de ville et d'une cathédrale. Paris, J. Hetzel, 284 p., illus.
Le siège de La Roche-Pont. Paris, J. Hetzel, 109 p., illus. [Extract from L'histoire d'une forteresse.]
Histoire d'un dessinateur, comment on apprend à dessiner. Paris, J. Hetzel, 304 p., illus.
Bibliography: Works Published in Collaboration with Other Authors
Description de Notre-Dame, cathédrale de Paris, by E. Viollet-le-Duc and Guilhermy. Paris, B. Bance, 132 p.
Promenades artistiques dans Paris et ses environs, under the direction of MM. Viollet-le-Duc, Lassus, and Ravoisie. Paris, Guillaumot.
Wagons composant le train impérial offert à l'Empereur et l'Impératrice par la Compagnie de chemin de fer d'Orléans, by E. Viollet-le-Duc and C. Polonceau. Paris, B. Bance.
"Notre-Dame," in Paris dans sa splendeur. Paris, Charpentier.
Cités et ruines américaines, collected and photographed by Désiré Charnay, with text by E. Viollet-le-Duc. Paris, Gide and A. Morel, 2 vol.
"Les églises de Paris," in Paris Guide. Paris, Libr. Internationale, A. Lacroix, Verboeckhoven et Cie. First part.
Habitations modernes, selected by E. Viollet-le-Duc, with the assistance of an editorial committee of the Encyclopédie d'architecture and the collaboration of Felix Narjoux. Paris, Vve A. Morel, 1875-1877, 2 vol.
Viollet-le-Duc and Gothic Style
Viollet-le-Duc distinguished between between styles and style. "Styles" allow us to distinguish and classify various schools and epochs -- by this definition, Meyer Schapiro addessed the problem of styles rather than style. Viollet-le-Duc, on the other hand, chose to concentrate on style. In other words, whereas Schapiro tells us what the art historian extracts from the work of art, Viollet-le-Duc dares to tell us what the artist put into that work. His final definition is deceptively simple: style is the manifestation of an ideal based on a principle. As an example of this, we may consider the way an artist looks for the most salient points of physiognomy in his human subject and reduces and exaggerates a caricature.
But architecture, Viollet-le-Duc tells us, is not an imitative art like painting or sculpture (Hans Sedlmayr thought otherwise) -- it is an art of human creation. Such is our creative deficiency that we are obliged to proceed as nature proceeds in the things she creates, with the same submission to natural laws. When the first man turned a circle in the sand he did not invent it -- he discovered a figure already existing. Opposite angles at the base of an equilateral triangle did not need to be discovered in order to be equal.
Architecture, that most human of creations, is an application, then, of principles born outside of ourselves -- appropriated through observation of nature. This is why Vitruvius said that an architect must be in possession of most of the knowledge of his time. Creation is developed in a logical way. In the beginning there were numbers and geometry. Style is only able to enter into the work when it operates in accordance with such fundamental principles. Architecture is compelled to observe the imperatives that rule it--to seek the elements and the principles on which it is based and to deduce the consequences that will follow. An architect has no need of inspiration without recourse to reason. Nature always proceeds with logic and precision and never discovers the undiscoverable or the absurd, finding what kind of body or form was suitable for any particular purpose.
The ideal shape for the organization of the masses of the earth's surface is a pyramid with four faces made of equilateral triangles. Such forms are apparent in granite and in basalt. "From the largest mountain down to the finest crystal, from the lichen to the oaks of our forests, from the polyp to human beings, everything in terrestrial creation does indeed possess style, that is to say a perfect harmony between the results obtained and the means employed to achieve them." The creations of nature are always beautiful -- form delineates object and makes it understandable for the purpose for which that object was produced. From the leaf we can reconstruct the form of the tree, from the architectural member we can derive the form of the building. When harmony obtains between the form, the means and the object, the work has style. Style is the visible sign of the unity and harmony of all the parts that make up the whole work of art. Style originates, therefore, in the application of reason.
Following these principles, a form of architecture was created, Gothic, where no stone could be removed without compromising the entire structure. Medieval lay masters, having mastered their materials, were able to erect huge vaulted spaces on slender points of support, introducing light in such a way that it constituted a kind of painting. The result was both unity and appropriateness -- the creation of architecture where each kind of building -- church, castle, manor, bourgeois dwelling -- had its appropriate form.
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