"One day we entered into the church of Notre-Dame; and he carried me in his arms, for the crowd was great. The cathedral was hung with black. My gaze rested on the painted glass of the southern rose-window, through which the rays of the sun were streaming, coloured with the most brilliant hues. I still see the place where our progress was interrupted by the crowd. All at once the roll of the great organ was heard; but for me, the sound was singing of the rose-window before me. In vain did my old guide attempt to undeceive me; the impression became more and more vivid, until my imagination led me to believe that such or such panes of glass emitted grave and solemn sounds, whilst others produced shriller and more piercing tones; so that at last my terror become so intense that he was obliged to take me out." (1)
|Rose Window at Notre Dame, Paris.|
Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc is often painted as a rational figure of the 19th century however a more accurate depiction would be a man of contradictions. He was undoubtedly a great and progressive theoretician, but there is no escaping that his built work was, in the words of some architectural historians and critics, ordinary at most, failing to live up to his own ambitions. He is also a highly emotional figure, he quarrelled with the institutions of his day throughout his entire career, in fact he spent most of his time sitting outside of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and yet he was more than happy to accept the Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of Britannic Architects in 1864. As I lay out some of his key thoughts on architecture I think it is important to keep the image of that young child, so moved by the rose-window, close to hand; for me it presents us with an invaluable insight into the mind of the man, I would even dare to say that this story alone could explain his interest in the Gothic, for which he has become so associated, indeed it may be his own way of acknowledging this.
Without wishing to fall into the trap of amateur-psychoanalysis which my opening statements have already brought me precariously close to I think it is necessary to explain that for this review I will be dealing with a reprinted edition of the English translation of Viollet-le-Duc’s Entretiens sur l’architecture (Lectures on architecture) translated by Architect Benjamin Bucknall between 1877 (Volume I) and 1881 (Volume II). Viollet-le-Duc is known to have been aware of the translation, with Bucknall making it clear in his Preface that he has carried out the translation with the sanction of the original author.
Bucknall holds Viollet-le-Duc in high regard, this much is clear from his Translator’s Preface, putting forward that Viollet-le-Duc shows us, the reader, “none of the various forms of Architecture can lay an exclusive claim to artistic excellence." (2) Consider this statement with the story of a young Viollet-le-Duc at the start of this paper and some of the aforementioned contradictions begin to manifest themselves. He is of course associated with the Gothic Revival style of the 19th century however for Viollet-le-Duc it is the methods—or arguably the rational design process—that he reads as the underlying theme of ‘Gothicism’, that he is advocating, not the architectural ‘style’. This point is reinforced by Bucknall when he advocates Viollet-le-Duc’s approach: “it is to analysis and the application of principles, and not to the imitation of forms, that we must look for a true revival." (3) If Bucknall is to be believed then Viollet-le-Duc is not so much interested in a revival of styles but a revival of methods, indeed Viollet-le-Duc sets out his own aims, in his Preface of 1860, as follows:
“If my lectures should have no further result than to induce in our students a respect for the past, and a habit of founding their judgment not on prepossessions but on careful and thoughtful examination; if, moreover, they should foster the spirit of method among artists, I shall have done good service." (4)Viollet-le-Duc is reacting against the prevailing attitudes of his time, when he will have witnessed a rehashing of previous styles for purely ornamental or typological effect, an approach taught openly in the leading schools of architecture. His aim then is to find the “Truth" (5) behind the styles and he does not “conclude in favour of one form of architecture of the prejudice of the rest". (6)
We have already heard a little about the life of Viollet-le-Duc but in order to better understand the man we require further details. Viollet-le-Duc was born in Paris in 1814; his father was an undistinguished civil servant and his mother, the daughter of a successful contractor. His uncle, Eugene Delecluze (his mother’s brother) played an important role in the life of the young Viollet-le-Duc; Delecluze was a painter in the mornings, a scholar in the evenings, a romantic and a liberal, opposed to his loyalist brother-in-law. Despite the differences between his father and his uncle, it was to his uncle that Viollet-le-Duc’s education was entrusted (along with his brother); Delecluze selected a school for the two boys that was headed by a radical anti-clerical republican. From any early age Viollet-le-Duc is known to have disliked school, preferring the long walks, lively readings and charades that Delecluze used to supplement his education. This had a lasting effect on the young Viollet-le-Duc, as Summerson notes, “When he left school, nothing would induce him to pursue a conventional line of conduct." (7)
|Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1979).|
At the age of 18 his mother died, this sever shock is said to have “goaded him to furious absorption in work—reading, travelling, writing, sketching.” (8) By the age of 19 he had fallen in love twice, with the first girl’s parents dismissing him for being too young, the second he married. It was around this time he became Professor of Composition and Ornament at a small, independent Ecole de Dessein (School of Design) in Paris.
For a while Viollet-le-Duc remained a “a man without opportunities” and this was to remain so until 1838 when, at the age of 24, he was nominated ‘auditeur-suppleant’; being charged to report on the condition of the Abbey Church of Vezelay in 1840. Summerson explains that this was made possible on the back of a “movement which had been gathering strength for some years suddenly discovered in him [Viollet-le-Duc] its ablest and wisest protagonist. That movement concerned the scientific study and preservation of monuments of medieval France.” (9) This movement owes much to the work conducted by Arcisse de Caumont, founder of the Societe des Antiquaires de Normandie, who published a great work on Norman architecture in 1830—inspired in part by work conducted in England, including Britton’s Cathedral Antiquities (1814), and the work of Pugin, Le Keuz and Thomas Rickman. Following from de Caumont there was also Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, “in which a great medieval building was made the hero of a novel, dominating the story with patriarchal grandeur, and making Gothic architecture touch the reader’s imagination in a way it had never done before.” (10) We have already seen that Gothic architecture had a profound impact on the life of Viollet-le-Duc, arguably it permeated his entire life, and enabled him “to construct a vast and elaborate theory of ‘rational’ architecture.” (11)
In the following years Viollet-le-Duc would go on to work on Notre Dame itself, preparing an initial report with Lassus in 1844, and being selected by a special commission to direct the restoration of Notre Dame on March 11th of that year. Work began in 1845 and would continue until 1864. In 1846 Viollet-le-Duc was appointed head of the Office of Historic Monuments and in 1849 he was made a knight of the Legion of Honour, part of a commission appointed to choose artists for sculptures on the Louvre exterior.
The prupose of this paper is not to focus on his other achievements, needless to say that Viollet-le-Duc’s career post 1838, and before his death in 1879, consists of numerous building projects: 45 built works (17 of which still exist), including the structural study for the Statue of Liberty, New York (1874-78); and 44 restoration projects. It was also highly decorated by the institutions of other nations globally, including the American Institute of Architects in 1870.
The importance of Viollet-le-Duc to European architectural theory is eloquently expressed by John Summerson when he states that:
“There have been two supremely eminent theorists in the history of European architecture—Leon Battista Alberti and Eugene Viollet-le-Duc. They were successful for this reason. They constructed towers of thought—the lighthouses, let us say—at points in history where such towers were very particularly needed. … Viollet-le-Duc his at the point where the romantic movement of the early 19th century was passing into the age of criticism.” (12)Early on in his Preface Viollet-le-Duc describes a 19th century professional landscape that is not at all unfamiliar to that of the 21st century: “In the present day “specialities” alone are recognised. … Each is confined within a narrow sphere, beyond which he cannot pass without losing a great part of his importance in the eyes of the public.” (13) The notion of specialisms arose in the 19th century and continued through into the 19th century as the various built environment professions were stratified and codified, each staking out their own territory (it also reflects a wider societal trend wherein the Arts and Sciences are separated, or better defined as various different sub-categories). By the time that Viollet-le-Duc is writing and practicing the narrowing of professional spheres in the eyes of the public is well underway. It is something he seems to resent, claiming that “it is evident that my range seemed too wide, seeing that it has been so vehemently contested.” (14) He would perhaps cite this is one reason for his professional struggles and clashes with the various different institutions of his day.
“Independence of mind was absolutely essential to him—he confesses as much in his diary, and it was perhaps this ability to confess, this self-knowledge, which enabled him to direct and balance his energies so well. The enjoyment of independence is always enhanced by a consciousness of something to be independent from—it is stimulating to have an object of despite in one’s mind’s eye. Now such an object Viollet-le-Duc did not lack for a moment—it was the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.” (15)Only once did Viollet-le-Duc have direct involvement with the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, an institution he railed against (even refusing an offer of entry when he was younger), and it did not end well. He was appointed by the Government to draft a new constitution for the Ecole, tasked with, amongst other things, bringing the curriculum up to date. His then radical ideas about the education of an Architect were not well received by those at the Ecole, who were aghast when he was appointed Professor of History of Art and Aesthetics in 1864. Summerson describes the reception of Viollet-le-Duc at the Ecole as thus: “At the first lecture, hisses, boos, cat-calls and a shower of halfpennies greeted the Professor.” (16) It is during this brief stint though that Summerson suggests modern architecture may have in fact been born, when during one lecture a moment of silence gripped the audience as Viollet-le-Duc “Drew a parallel between the ability of the Greeks to give form and shape to their mythologies and the potential ability of the 19th century to express such concepts as the power of steam and electricity in an analogous way.” (17)
Lectures on architecture
Viollet-le-Duc produced two great literary projects, the first published in 1854, when he was 40, is the famous Dictionnaire Raisonnee de l’Architecture Francaise du XIe au XVIe Siecle (or more simply a ‘Rational History of French Architecture from the 11th to the 16th century’). The Dictionnaire is the prime example of Viollet-le-Duc employing his rational criterion to the study of architecture, with “only the purely sculptural parts of Gothic architecture … actually admitted to be ornamental.” (18) Never does he arrive at a “complete and final estimate of the style” which is exactly why this work is important to the study of architecture. (19) His second great literary work is the Entretiens sur l’Architecture (Lectures in Architecture).
Viollet-le-Duc originally prepared his lectures as part of an intended course for pupils he would deliver at his own studio. In the Author’s Preface Viollet-le-Duc gives the impression of a conspiracy led against him by “Certain Professors of the Ecole des beaux-arts and of the Bibliotheque imperial [whom] wished to do [him] the honour of attacking [his] “tendencies” by preventive measures.” (20) He reports that rooms were suddenly made unavailable to him and audiences deterred, with the ‘establishment’ of the time deeming what he wished to teach as “dangerous”. Viollet-le-Duc’s combative nature or rebellious streak, as outlined in the short biography previously, comes across strongly here although at times it seems he has a ‘chip on his shoulder’. Nevertheless he saw fit to publish his lectures anyway, presenting 20 in two volumes, 10 in each, in 1863 and 1872 (the second after the resolution of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 in which Viollet-le-Duc served), with an ‘Atlas’ of accompanying plates.
The wide breadth of topics covered by Viollet-le-Duc in his lectures further reinforces the image of a cross-disciplinary professional, working across boundaries, more akin to the broader definitions of architectural practice found in earlier treatises (although he never goes as far as Vitruvius as including military machines). This placed him in a difficult position described by him as thus:
“Either my teaching must limit itself to the circle to which I am supposed to be restricted, and will thus rest on too narrow a basis, and in fact be more dangerous than useful; or, in advancing beyond that circle, I shall lose the confidence which every author or professor ought to inspire in those who read or listen to him.” (20)Lecture I
The questions posed in the title of this first lecture are designed by Viollet-le-Duc to act as an introduction to the subject of architecture and its relationship with the wider world, including the other arts and sciences, but also civilization and society as a whole. To open this discussion Viollet-le-Duc asks “Is man in becoming civilised, refined, tolerant, moderate in his tastes, and well-informed,—such in fact as our social conditions can make him,—thereby rendered more apt and capable in the domain of Art?” (22) He is attempting to lead the reader into a natural response of “yes”, that the changing world view that accompanies higher levels of civilization would in fact lead to a great appreciation and rendering of art. This though is not so, Viollet-le-Duc goes onto argue at length that the two are in fact separate and that one does not lead to another. To illustrate his point he draws upon the example of the Roman Empire, contrasting the brutality of the colosseum, an uncivilized act in the eyes of the 19th century, with the “admirable monuments” they were also building. (23) He draws similar examples from Greece, the works of Christianity as a whole, and through to the middle of the seventeenth century, with the burning of people for accusations of sorcery at the stake sanctioned by Parliaments, all the while producing great works of art.
For Viollet-le-Duc to separate civilization and art as two distinct categories, not interdependent, is highly important in order to justify his interest in the Gothic, produced at a widely ’uncivilized’ point of history (the argument is that the uncivilized acts of Greece, Rome, et al are over looked). For Viollet-le-Duc then:
“The point of interest when the arts are in question is, not whether such or such a period in history of humanity was more or less civilized,—or, if we will, more of less barbarous,—than another; but whether the period under consideration was more or less favourable to the development of the arts. … The Value of Art is independent of the element in which it originates and flourishes. Art cannot be barbarous, for the simple reason that it is Art.” (24)Of course, there is something in this discussion where Art is separated from morality, that Art is amoral, but this is never directly dealt with by Viollet-le-Duc.
After making this distinction clear he proceeds to set out the various different arts, and how these have changed over time. He begins with the “liberal arts” of the Middle Ages, explaining how some of these now rank as sciences—Theology, Astronomy, Geometry, and Medicine—and that in the 19th century art is “confined” to Music, Architecture, Sculpture and Painting (ranked in that order of age). (25) In his definition of architecture as art he makes it clear that there is also a distinction between building and architecture:
“Building a hut with branches of trees is not Art; it is merely the supplying of a material want. But to hollow out a dwelling in a declivity of soft rock;—to divide the excavation into compartments of different sizes according to the number and habits of the occupants;—to leave pillars for the support of the ceiling, and to enlarge them at the top for the greater security of the mass above; then gradually to cover these walls and pillars left in the solid with gravings and signs intended to commemorate an event, such as the birth of a child, the death of a father or of a wife, or a victory gained over an enemy,—this is Art.” (26)The argument is expanded further when he sets out that “Art is not dependent on Science; neither is it dependent on the political condition of a country.” (27) Here the illustration is drawn through analysis of the governments of the 19th century, which he argues are more complete and better organised than those of Greek and yet “this does not prevent the Iliad and the Odyssey from maintaining their rank as superior to all other poems" (28) In order to counter accusations that he wishes to carry “us” back to “barbarism” he once again calls for consistency in the historical analysis, that each age must be judged fairly and equally:
“Either the Arts follow step by step the material and moral progress of civilisation,—in which case, we live in the age most favourable to the Arts, since we enjoy the benefits of civilisation in a higher degree than any preceding period, and consequently we must regard all Art anterior to our time as relatively barbarous;—or else the Arts are independent of moral and material civilization, and in this case we have nothing to guide us in our preference of one form of Art to another but individual taste and caprice.” (29)The argument here relies on an understanding that the Art of the 19th century is not the greatest ever achieved and that the level of civilization is, thus the two cannot be in step. What is left is a familiar argument—seen in Perrault and Boullée—that Art is in fact judged by taste, and that taste is both individual and a result of societal pressures at that time. Viollet-le-Duc explains that “Acquiring taste is nothing else that familiarising ourselves with the Good and Beautiful; but to find it,—that is to say, how to distinguish it.” (30) In asking ourselves “Why is this building beautiful?” we must:
“…try to analyse all the parts of the work which charms us, that we may be able to proceed synthetically, when it is our time to construct. This analysis is difficult in the present day, perplexed as we are by prejudices, and by systems, every one of which assumes to be absolutely true.” (31)This is the first real indication of his method for understanding architecture, however he does not dwell on it, moving swiftly on, rather it is the entire approach with which he deals with the subject of architecture, illustrated through all of his lectures.
Having spent much of the Lecture discussing the conditions upon which Art is not dependent Viollet-le-Duc finally introduces the conditions that he believes Art is dependent upon. In so doing his answer seems at odds with his earlier distinction between civilisation and Art. He puts it that “the Arts develop themselves with vigour when they are, so to speak, riveted to the manners and customs of a people, and are their truthful expression.” (32) On the one hand then we have art as being independent of the civilization but dependent upon the customs of the people of that civilization, which surely are a constituent part of that civilization? Perhaps what he is trying to illustrate is his belief that the Arts should not be kept as separate institutions (his principal target here seems to be the schools); instead they should permeate every aspect of everyday life and not adopt a specialist language that can “no longer [be] understood by the multitude.” (33) As with Boullée the idea of ‘the public’ seems to be an important component of Viollet-le-Duc’s arguments.
In Lecture VII on The Principles of Western Architecture in the Middle Ages Viollet-le-Duc gives a historical account of the changing architectural style and methods of this period. Now I must confess that my reasons for choosing this Lecture are twofold: one, it illustrates his approach to rationally understanding architectures of the past; two, he makes reference to Gothic architecture in England, specifically Peterborough Cathedral (1118-1237).
Viollet-le-Duc is known to have visited Peterborough in 1850, between May 26th and June 21st, also visiting London, Cambridge, Oxford, Ely, Lincoln, Canterbury, Hampton Court, Winchester, Boston. From this we can say, with some certainty, that what Viollet-le-Duc writes about his based on his own observations.
The Norman style for Viollet-le-Duc “is severe, methodical, scientific, powerful, elaborate in point of structure, but with less sculpture”. (34) Peterborough Cahtedral is undoubtedly of the Norman style, without English precedent or direct successor. It is perhaps important to briefly note that this is one of Viollet-le-Duc’s rare, lengthy forays outside of France; nationalism is an important theme of his writing. The following passage on Peterborough Cathedral is typical of how he describes buildings in his writings:
“The transept of Peterborough Cathedral, for instance, built about the middle of the twelfth century, is a perfect specimen of the Norman style in its best days—Plate XIII. We observe excellence in the masonry, and careful execution, but an absence of sculpture; a system of construction based on sound reason and knowledge, a delicate sense of proportion, mouldings of no great variety, but well designed for the place they occupy. Plate XIII. shows on the right, the system of construction adopted: the walls are solid in their lower part, ornamented on the interior by an arcading G, which is only a surface decoration. At the second range of windows, at I, the architect has reserved a passage in the thickness of the wall to facilitate the inspection and repair of the glazing. At the third range of widows the construction becomer still lighter; there the wider passage K forms a gallery open to the transept. Under each tie-beam of the timber roof, engaged columns, rising from the ground, divide the combination into bays. If this architecture departs more widely from Roman art than any other of the Romanesque period, it must nevertheless be confessed that wants neither grandeur nor science.” (35)In this short passage we clearly see the rational mind of Viollet-le-Duc at work, he is thinking through the construction as he sees it, finding the reasons for decisions routed in structural, practical or economic means. Later on in the Lecture, as he moves into the thirteenth century he shows that “it is impossible to separate the form of the architecture…from its structure; every member of this architecture is the result of necessity of that structure, as in the vegetable and the animal kingdom there is not a form of a process that is not produced by a necessity of that organism". (36)
The importance of structure and architecture can be found in Viollet-le-Duc’s discussion of triglyphs in his second Lecture. To begin he outlines a long held interpretation wherein, “Just as the triglyphs are taken for the ends of joists, so the rain-drip of the cornice is supposed to represent the rafter-ends.” (37) However, Viollet-le-Duc does not go along with this argument:
"We have too high an opinion of the good judgement of the Greek artists to allow that they could have committed so flagrant an offence against reason and common sense. … The Greek temples are buildings of stone in which the system of the lintel is worked out in accordance with reason and taste: why not take them simply for what they are? why content that Greeks, the inventors of logic—men gifted with refined aesthetic sensibility,—amused themselves with simulating in stone a construction of wood,—a thing essentially monstrous? … It is by explanations such as these of the derivations of Ancient and Medieval architecture,—more ingenious than well-considered—that the course of architectural study has come to be misdirected, and consequently the mind of the architect perverted. In explaining buildings we think it a commendable principle to take them for what they really are, and not for that which we should wish them to be. This supposition that the Greek temple is an imitation in stone of a wooden hut is of the same order as that which refers the architecture of our Gothic churches to the forest avenues of Gaul and Germany. Both are fictions well adapted to amuse the fancy of dreamers, but very hurtful, or at best useless, when we are called upon the derivations of an art to those whose vocation is to practise it. … The triglyphs fulfil the purpose over the architraves of a clerestory. They are uprights of stone, relieving the pressure on the architrave…by their separation and the space intervening between them.” (38)Constructing architecture
We have already seen that Viollet-le-Duc had a deep interest in Gothic architecture but for him it was not simply about adopting a new style. “The mere adoption of Gothic styles in place of Classic was not enough…if it could be shown that Gothic architecture was not merely emotionally exciting but more intellectually satisfying than the architecture of the schools—then there was a cause to be embraced, a battle to be fought.” (39) Central to this then is that the notion that the outwards appearance of a building should reflect its construction.
According to Dr Middleton, and highlighted by Pevsner, Viollet-le-Duc, in pursuing a rational argument for gothic construction, “was only following in the footsteps of earlier French theorists, of Delorme in the 16th century, Derand in the 17th, Cordemoy and Frezier in the 18th century.” (40) However in his Dictionnaire he goes far further than anyone previously.
He was the pioneer of exposing iron in masonry construction; “Labrouste had exposed his organ piers and iron roof construction in the Bibliotheque Ste Genevieve in 1843-50, and Boileau had built several churches with iron piers and iron ribs in the fifties, best-known among them St Eugene in Paris of 1854-5.” (41)
|Bibliotheque Ste Genevieve.|
John Summerson explains that during the 19th century there was a “fallacy that architecture is a matter of structure plus adornment.” (42) He aims this accusation at virtually all who follow Viollet-le-Duc—implying he was the instigator in this 19th century preoccupation—with his central issue being that even if the ‘technical’ is the primacy of Gothic architecture, rather than the aesthetic, to ignore this second element is dangerous. Summerson suggests that Viollet-le-Duc’s theory of rational architecture, of which considerations of structure and construction are key, in fact relies on a 19th century confusion between rationalism and materialism. (43)
Designs and built work
Within his Lectures Viollet-le-Duc makes reference to a number imagined works, however Summerson is highly critical of these, stating that the “weaknesses show as soon as he leaves the written word and begins to design.” (44) The designs included in the second volume of his lectures are intended to test, illustrate and elucidate his theory.
|Viollet-le-Duc's Concert Proposal.|
One such example is a design for a concert hall for 3,000 people, there are also designs for a town house and a country house. For Summerson these designs are “at once unattractive and fascinating.” (45) He praises the disciplined, daring, economical and ingenious nature of Viollet-le-Duc but is left feeling that what is in fact missing is style. He is a little more forgiving of Viollet-le-Duc’s willingness to make use of a new structural material in his designs—iron. Viollet-le-Duc “wanted architecture to conform with the conditions imposed by modern scientific discovery; he was ready to use cast-iron and to use it in forms appropriate to industrial production, with precision and economy.” (46)
For Viollet-le-Duc the materials of modern construction consisted of cast-iron, masonry, brick and timber—“an arsenal still half-medieval but lacking the homogeneity of that great age of masonry construction”—however Summerson hints at what might have been when discussing the development of reinforced concrete in the last two decades of the 19th century.
|Garage at 51 rue Ponthieu, Paris (1905).|
Summerson suggests that this material, combining the compressive strength of cast-iron with the tensile stress of steel, would have provided Viollet-le-Duc with the same homogeneity afforded to the Medieval builders through masonry, whilst remaining modern and routed in scientific discovery. A garage at Rue Ponthieu in Paris designed by Auguste Perret in 1905 offers one possible ‘future’ for Summerson, for there is a “frame in a concrete opening, [with] a huge rose-window of iron.” (47)
To return to Viollet-le-Duc, in his concert hall proposal he proposes a polyhedron construction of iron members, with light iron ribs spanning between them, and an infilling of brick; this is “quite evidently, a paraphrase of a Gothic vault.” (48) What we see in the design and the connection details he proposes is an embryonic form of cast-iron construction, something not yet fully formed, you can see Viollet-le-Duc trying to work through the ‘problems’ but lacking a “vital unity which any one language posses.” (49) Viollet-le-Duc is not openly admitting to copying what he finds in the Gothic, instead he is trying to apply his rational process, developing a new rational language.
Pevsner points out that Viollet-le-Duc may not have recommended imitation but “in his own churches he practised it.” (50) Furthermore, he says that if you “examine some of Viollet’s designs for buildings and you find him devoid of the courage of his words and drawings, whether you look at houses by him or his design of 1860 for the Opera.” (51) These sentiments are echoed by Summerson. Pevsner does though offer a possible explanation for this ‘lack of courage’:
“…can one suggest that, as the Georgian age had been conventional in its architectural style, so was the Victorian, and the Radicalism became possible (for various reasons) only after 1890 or even 1900, but that radical thought always precedes the radical action – not only in the French Revolution?” (52)It can be argued then that of all Viollet-le-Duc’s great contributions to the architectural profession since the 19th century, his new constructions are not one of them—the same cannot be said for his restoration projects.
Preservation versus Restoration
In order to discuss his restorative works we must begin by comparing him to another great thinker of the 19th century, John Ruskin (1819-1900). The idea of preservation was arguably “invented” as part of a groundswell of modern innovation between the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution in England. (53)
|John Ruskin (1819-1900).|
Viollet-le-Duc is often portrayed as the rational thinker, Ruskin the emotional thinker, however this is to ignore statements made by Viollet-le-Duc himself, such as: “An architect who can listen to a melody or a poem, or view a sculpture or a painting, without experiencing emotions as lively as those he would feel in viewing a building, is not an artist, but a mere practitioner”. (54) For Ruskin though it is “all feeling, not reasoning.” (55) The differences between Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc are best epitomised through Nikolaus Pevsner’s article 'Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc: Englishness and Frenchness in the Appreciation of Gothic Architecture': “In 1830 Viollet was on the barricades; Ruskin’s social criticism never got near instigation to violent action, as William Morris’s did.” (56) Here we see the seemingly rational Viollet-le-Duc moved to emotional involved, whereas Ruskin is not. Furthermore “Ruskin was a speaker and writer, Viollet was a doer”. (57)
Compare the following two statements. For Ruskin (1849):
“Do not let us deceive ourselves in this important matter; it is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture.”For Viollet-leDuc (1855):
“To restore a building is not just to preserve it, to repair it, and to remodel it, it is to re-instate it in a complete state such as it may never have been in at any given moment.”(For Pevsner this statement from Viollet-le-Duc, taken from the Dictionnaire, shows that: “Nor was Viollet-le-Duc even as faithful restorer as one might have expected.” (58)
In spite of these differences they did share common approaches:
“Viollet-le-Duc wrote in 1852: ‘Who in the Middle Ages has produced these admirable monuments? Any privileged class? Not at all. The architect, the painter, the sculptor were “les enfants du people”. [The children of the people] Ruskin’s words in 1853 are similar: the building ‘is the work of the whole race, while the picture or statue is the work of one only.’” (59)Perhaps most importantly though “Viollet here appears wholly forward-looking, Ruskin wholly backward-looking”. (60)
His approach to restoration, as opposed to preservation, is perhaps surmised by the following statement: “The past is past; but we must search into it sincerely and carefully; seeking not to revive it, but to know it thoroughly, that we may turn it to good account.” (61) This approach stems from his belief in the thorough analysis of past architecture, highlighted earlier in observations about his approach to finding truth in the Arts, taste and what constitutes beauty, and also his analysis of cathedrals.
We have already seen how Viollet-le-Duc distinguishes architecture from simple acts of building, for Ruskin the distinction lies in the ornament and the craftsman, whereas for Viollet-le-Duc it is in the process of design, the designer. (62) “His restorations are now notorious among conservationists but his method of inductive analysis and interpretive reconstruction based on his comprehensive knowledge of medieval architecture continues to fascinate the architectural intellect.” (63) Furthermore “Viollet went on restoring and remodelling till he died, Ruskin could see a few years before Viollet’s death his principle of preservation instead of restoration coming to full fruition in the establishment of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.” (64) To compare their respective impacts is a difficult process however perhaps the following is most telling: “Ruskin said bitterly of the Dictionnaire—‘I ought to have written that book.’” (65)
The theme which runs throughout out the whole body of Viollet-le-Duc’s work, in the words of Summerson, is as follows:
“Architecture has to do mainly with the faculty of reasoning. Taste, properly understood, is simply unconscious reasoning. For the artist, however unconscious reasoning is not enough. … The architect’s education must, therefore, proceed in two stages. First, he must learn to analyse the masterpieces of the past; then he must learn to make his own synthesis, serving the conditions and using the materials dictated by his age.” (66)It is important to note here that his theory has nothing to do with Gothic architecture, or Classical architecture, or any architectural style in particular at all. For Viollet-le-Duc the modern architect must “analyse the masterpieces of the past, reduce them a process of argument, then apply argument to his own problems.” (67) For Summerson it is this which distinguishes Viollet-le-Duc from his English contemporaries whom he lays the following accusation: “not one of them was man enough to think his way through the romantic attraction of style to a philosophic point of view applicable to all buildings at all times.” (68)
If further evidence is needed to support the argument that Viollet-le-Duc was more than a proponent of Gothic perhaps it can be found here:
“The Greeks, then, will always remain the kings of Art. They have enlarged, and, more than this, have elevated the sense, the instincts, the passions, and the feelings of man in always approaching them by their nobler side. They are never vulgar, even in depicting the most vulgar actions and objects.” (69)The association between the Middle Ages and that of earlier civilizations, such as Rome, is highlighted by Summerson in the following statement: “The Middle Ages possess a traditional recollection of Rome but did not know Rome; the only threads which they held firmly in their hands were literary threads—textual threads.” (70) And:
“Thus, Gothic architecture, however striking may be its individuality and however great may be the temptation to oppose it to classicism as the embodiment of a different principle, is truly a continuation and development of the classical line, a metamorphosis of classicism, temporary and unstable, seeking its way back to permanence and stability as soon as the great creative crisis of the 12th-13th centuries had spent itself.” (71)Summerson notes that “Viollet proceeds to show that Greek, Roman and Byznatine are also, within their limits, rational architectures and, in fact, that all good architecture is rational.” (72) But:
“For what do we mean by a rational architecture? We may mean two things. We may mean an architecture which aims at fulfilling certain specifiable functions with the nearest approximation to absolute efficiency and economy. Or we may mean an architecture which seeks to express its function dialectically—to offer a visible argument to the spectator.” (73)Throughout this paper there have been numerous discussions on ‘taste’, without necessarily using this word. Taste though is something hybrid for Viollet-le-duc, revealing a contradiction in his own thinking wherein he attempts to have it both ways, that “taste is unconscious reasoning [and] it is arrived at through intermittent efforts of conscious reasoning”. (74) This is in part a reflection of his own life experiences, the prevailing romanticism towards Gothic architecture in the 19th century and, as Viollet-le-Duc would later uncover, his own hybrid sense of rationality.
It is also worth noting here that at various points in his lectures Viollet-le-Duc demonstrates a knowledge beyond the confines of the West, with references to architecture in India and Egypt, amongst other. (75)
Architects influenced by the work of Viollet-le-Duc and his methods include Antoni Gaudi and Hector Guimard, “while Berlarge’s Amsterdam Stock Exchange and Victor Horta’s Maison du Peuple remain the most important single testaments to the impact of his theories.” (76) Indeed Berlarge’s Exchange at Amsterdam (1898-1903) “followed, in a personal and local way, the principles exposed in the Entertiens.” (77)
It has even been argued that the great master of the modern architecture, Le Corbusier, essentially reproduces, in his famous book Vers une Architecture, arguments made by Viollet-le-Duc sixty years earlier: “The beauty of the machine, the importance of geometrical tradition, the lessons of the past in precision and logic”. (78) Of course the emphasis is different, “lighter and faster, adapted to an age of headlines and headlights.” (79) As recently as 2010 Rem Koolhaas framed Viollet-le-Duc as a key figure in his Cronocaos exhibit at the Venice Architecture Biennale, is seen re-borrowing 19th century arguments, repackaging them for a 21st century audience.
Perhaps there is still some truth in Summerson’s summary of ‘modern architecture’ (1963) that “At the moment it [modern architecture] can show no theoretical basis whatever, beyond a handful of generalizations borrowed (unknowingly, very often, and at fifteenth hand) from Viollet-le-Duc, and a number of clichés which could be applied equally to most other styles of architecture.” (80)
As a final observation I would like to conclude with comments made by the editorial team behind the Architectural Design Profile on Viollet-le-Duc, writing in 1980, whom observed:
“His belief in the chantier or building site, as the centre of the architectural process, encouraging direct collaboration between architect, builder, craftsman and client in order to create a built environment responsive to individual and social requirements, has obvious present-day implications.” (81)Notes
The following was submitted to the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design as part of the Architectural Theory elective in Fall 2013, taught by Professor David Leatherbarrow.
1. Viollet-le-Duc., 1872. Lectures on architecture. Translated by B. Bucknall., 1877 (1987). London: Dover Publications. Lecture I, p. 22.
2. Viollet-le-Duc., 1872. Lectures on architecture. Translated by B. Bucknall., 1877 (1987). London: Dover Publications. Translator’s Preface, p. 1.
3. Ibid., p. 2.
4. Viollet-le-Duc., 1872. Lectures on architecture. Translated by B. Bucknall., 1877 (1987). London: Dover Publications. Author’s Preface, p. 6.5.
5. Ibid., p. 4.
6. Ibid., p. 7.
7. John Summerson, Heavenly Mansions and other Essays on Architecture, (1963). New York: The Norton Library. p. 137.
8. Ibid., p. 137.
9. Ibid., p. 138.
10. Ibid., p. 138
11. Ibid., p. 153.
12. Ibid., p. 135.
13. Ibid., p. 5.
14. Viollet-le-Duc., Author’s Preface, op. cit., p. 5
15. John Summerson, op. cit. p. 142.
16. Ibid., p. 143.
17. Ibid., p. 143.
18. Ibid., p. 147.
19. Ibid., p. 147.
20. Viollet-le-Duc., Author’s Preface, op. cit., p. 3.
21. Viollet-le-Duc., Translator’s Preface, op. cit., p. 5.
22. Viollet-le-Duc., Lecture I, op. cit., p. 9.
23. Ibid., p. 10.
25. Ibid., p. 11.
26. Ibid., p. 12-3.
27. Ibid., p. 14.
29. Ibid., p. 16.
30. Ibid., p. 29.
32. Ibid., p. 30.
34. Viollet-le-Duc., 1872. Lectures on architecture. Translated by B. Bucknall., 1877 (1987). London: Dover Publications. Lecture VII, p. 275.
35. Ibid., p. 279.
36. Ibid., p. 283.
37. Ibid., p. 52.
38. Ibid., p. 52-3.
39. Summerson, op. cit., p. 144.
40. Nikolaus Pevsner, “Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc: Englishness and Frenchness in the Appreciation of Gothic Architecture” in Architectural Design Profile: Viollet-le-Duc, 1980. London: Rizzoli. Introduction, p. 51
42. Summerson, Ibid., p. 11.
43. Ibid., p. 153.
44. Ibid., p. 154.
46. Ibid., p. 179.
47. Ibid., p. 185.
48. Ibid., p. 156.
49. Ibid., p. 158.
50. Pevsner, loc. cit.
52. Ibid., p. 52.
53. OMA: Coronocaos Preservation Tour, Design Boom [Online], 3rd September 2010. [First accessed: 2nd November 2013] Available at: http://www.designboom.com/architecture/rem-koolhaas-oma-cronocaos-preservation-tour/
54. Viollet-le-Duc., Lecture I, op. cit., p.20
55. Pevsner, op. cit., p. 50.
56. Ibid., p. 48.
58. Ibid., p. 51.
59. Ibid., p. 49.
60. Ibid., p. 52
61. Viollet-le-Duc., Lecture I, op. cit., p.32
62. Pevsner, op. cit., p. 49.
63. Architectural Design Profile: Viollet-le-Duc, 1980. London: Rizzoli. Introduction, p. 5
64. Pevsner, op. cit., p. 52.
65. Summerson, op. cit., p. 183.
69. Viollet-le-Duc., Lecture I, op. cit., p. 27-8.
70. John Summerson, op. cit., p. 23.
71. Ibid., p. 27.
72. Ibid., p. 150.
73. Ibid., p. 149.
74. Ibid., p. 152.
75. Viollet-le-Duc., Lecture I, op. cit., p. 13.
76. Architectural Design Profile, loc. cit.
77. John Summerson, Ibid., p. 184.
78. Ibid., p. 188.
80. Ibid., p. 196.
81. Architectural Design Profile, op. cit., p. 1.