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Eugène Viollet-le-Duc

[vyaw-le-luh-dyk]
Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (January 27 1814September 17, 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 moving spirit of Modernism. Sir John Summerson considered that "there have been two supremely eminent theorists in the history of European architecture—Leon Battista Alberti and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc" (Summerson 1948).

Early years

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, Eugène Délécluze, "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 Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Instead he opted in favor of direct practical experience in the architect’s office of Jacques-Marie Huvé and of Achille-François-René Leclère.

Architectural restorer

Restoration work

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 into national attention. His other main works include the 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 a set of very attractive, if perhaps not terribly historically accurate, pointed roofs atop each of its many wall towers.

Viollet-le-Duc applied the lessons he had derived from Gothic architecture, seeing beneath the atmospheric allure that drew his British contemporaries to especially what he conceived of its rational structural systems, to modern building materials such as cast iron. He practiced as archaeologically precise (for his time) a style of restoration as he could manage, but his own designs were remarkably innovative. His approach to both medieval and modern architecture was severely rational, in keeping with his own unsentimental appreciation of the Gothic achievement.

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:

Restoration of the Château de Pierrefonds, reinterpreted by Viollet-le-Duc for Napoleon III, was interrupted by the departure of the Emperor in 1870.

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 and in removing layers of history from a building, information and age value are also removed which can never be recreated.

Legacy

Some of his restorations, such as that of the Château de Pierrefonds, were highly controversial because they did not aim so much at accurately recreating a historical situation as at creating a "perfect building" of medieval style. 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 Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí was strongly influenced by the Gothic architecture revival of Viollet-le-Duc.

An exhibition, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc 1814–1879 was presented in Paris, 1965.

Publications

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 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) (fr:Dictionnaire raisonné de l'architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle) - Original 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.

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 idealised defence 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.

Later life

In his old age, Viollet-le-Duc moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, where he constructed a villa (since destroyed). He died there in 1879.

Notes

References

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