Viollet-le-Duc, Eugène

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VIOLLET-LE-DUC, EUGÈNE (1814–1879), French architect.

Considered by many to be one of the most important theoreticians of architecture in the modern era, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc is renowned for his restorations of Gothic architecture in France during the nineteenth century. He began his professional career at a very young age with the Commission des Monuments Historiques soon after its formation as a government bureau in 1837. The commission was responsible for the classification of buildings as historical monuments, which rendered them eligible to receive credits from the state for their restoration and upkeep. Viollet-le-Duc quickly became the public and intellectual face of the commission, working alongside the director Prosper Mérimée, who was his close friend and lifelong supporter.

Viollet-le-Duc's most famous restoration projects were carried out under the auspices of the commission: the abbey church at Vézelay, begun in December 1839; the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris with Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus (from 1844); the abbey church of Saint-Denis (from 1846); the walled town of Carcassonne (from 1849); Amiens cathedral (from 1849); and the Chateâu de Pierrefonds (from 1858, and funded by Napoleon III's personal treasury). In addition to actual restoration work, Viollet-le-Duc was a prolific writer, with numerous books and articles to his credit. His famous Dictionnaire raisonné de l'architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle (Reasoned dictionary of French architecture from the eleventh to the sixteenth century), published in ten volumes (1854–1868), is his philosophy of gothic architecture in the form of a dictionary. These writings influenced modern architects, such as Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. Beginning in 1858, Violletle-Duc published the first volume of his equally ambitious but lesser known Dictionnaire raisonné du mobilier français de l'époque carlovingienne à la Rénaissance (1858–1875; Reasoned dictionary of the French bank from the Carlovingians to the Renaissance). His more forthrightly personal and polemical two-volume Entretiens sur l'architecture (1863 and 1872; Discourses on Architecture, 1875) contrasts his architectural pedagogy and epistemology with the given course of education provided by the state-run École des Beaux-Arts. As a true polymath his other writings ranged from a book on Mont Blanc in the French Alps to a series of pedagogical books/novels for adolescents and articles on politics and military strategy.

Although Viollet-le-Duc's reputation as a theorist of architecture has fared well over the years, his restoration practice has undergone significant reevaluations in the last century. Until the 1960s, his restoration work was vilified, the responses ranging from mild criticism to vitriolic attack.

Whereas architects of the modern tradition valorized his emphasis on a "constructive" relationship to the past—which has been reduced in historiography to Viollet-le-Duc's supposed championing of "structural rationalism"—others, such as the architectural historian Achille Carlier, severely criticized Viollet-le-Duc's interventionist approach to restoration. With the "fantastic" restoration of Pierrefonds serving as the prime example of his supposedly overzealous imagination, his restorations were taken to be "monstrous" in the literal sense of that term: producing a new entity out of the previous remains of the given building. From this perspective, Viollet-le-Duc was judged rather harshly in comparison to the anti-interventionist philosophies of restoration personified by John Ruskin and Marcel Proust (often conveniently overlooking the fact that both had a profound admiration for Viollet-le-Duc's work). Beginning in 1980, a more even-handed approach to Viollet-le-Duc's restoration work became the norm with the spate of catalogs and collected essays published to mark the centennial of his death.

See alsoParis; Ruskin, John; Schinkel, Karl Friedrich.


Primary Sources

"Ouvrages de Viollet-le-Duc." In Viollet-le-Duc: Catalogue d'exposition, 397–404. Paris, 1980. This section contains a fairly comprehensive bibliography of Viollet-le-Duc's publications including books, articles, prefaces, and work done in collaboration with other scholars.

Viollet-le-Duc, Eugène. The Foundations of Architecture: Selections from the "Dictionnaire raisonné." Translated by Kenneth D. Whitehead. New York, 1990. Includes good translations of some key entries in the Dictionnaire raisonné.

Secondary Sources

Bergdoll, Barry. Introduction to The Foundations of Architecture: Selections from the "Dictionnaire raisonné," by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. New York, 1990.

Boudon, Françoise. "Le réel et l'imaginaire chez Viollet-le-Duc: Les figures du Dictionnaire de l'architecture." Revue de l'art 58–59 (1983): 95–114.

Bressani, Martin. "Notes on Viollet-le-Duc's Philosophy of History: Dialectics and Technology." Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 48, no. 4 (1989): 327–350.

Damisch, Hubert. "The Space Between: A Structuralist Approach to the Dictionnaire." Architectural Design Profile 17 (1980): 84–89.

Lee, Paula Young. "'The Rational Point of View': Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and the Camera Lucida." In Landscapes of Memory and Experience, edited by Jan Birksted, 63–76. London, 2000.

Leniaud, Jean-Michel. Viollet-le-Duc; ou, Les délires du systéme. Paris, 1994.

Middleton, Robin. "The Rationalist Interpretations of Classicism of Léonce Reynaud and Viollet-le-Duc." AA Files 11 (1986): 29–48.

Murphy, Kevin D. Memory and Modernity: Viollet-le-Duc at Vézelay. University Park, Pa., 2000.

O'Connell, Lauren M. "Viollet-le-Duc on Drawing, Photography, and the 'Space outside the Frame."' History of Photography 22, no. 2 (1998): 139–146.

Summerson, John. "Viollet-le-Duc and the Rational Point of View." In his Heavenly Mansions and Other Essays on Architecture, 135–158. London, 1949. Reprint, New York, 1963.

Vinegar, Aron. "Memory as Construction in Viollet-le-Duc's Architectural Imagination." Paroles Gelées 16, no. 2 (1998): 43–55.

——. "Viollet-le-Duc, Panoramic Photography, and the Restoration of the Château de Pierrefonds." In International Viollet-le-Duc Colloquium, edited by Werner Oechslin. Zürich, forthcoming.

Aron Vinegar