September 17: figuring out Viollet-le-Duc

2012/09/17 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1879 Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc died.

Viollet-le-Duc (b. 1814) is a hard baguette to crack.  His work and writing are deeply enmeshed in main movements in the nineteenth century, and yet he never fit very comfortably into any particular niche.

As a student, Viollet-le-Duc preferred the direct tutelage and practical experience of an architect’s office rather than attenidng the École des Beaux-Arts.  Later he would achieve a professorship at a smaller school, and there presented the Entretiens sur l’architecture (1858-72), on which (with the earlier Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture of 1854-68) much of his fame as a theorist rests.  His actual work as an architect was focused on “restorations” of medieval castles and churches rather than new buildings.  Although we cringe to over-use the well-worn “Janus-faced” analogy, it is appropriate here, as Viollet-le-Duc deftly drew from historical principles in the projection of new architecture.  His writing is especially potent (and dangerous) for its promotion of “truth” in programming and constructive processes.  While he was thinking of “truth” as a manifestation of rationality (an idea drawn/stolen from earlier writers, Ruskin and Pugin), later Modernists embraced the (foolish) notion that buildings actually had a kind of morality in their very plans and structure.  Meanwhile, his considerations of what might be done with iron might be seen to predict Art Nouveau, and certainly a number of those French guys read Viollet-le-Duc or, like architecture students today, at least looked at the pictures.

But for all the alleged modernity–the truth, the metal, the “rational” plans–a strong sense of antiquarianism runs through his work and writing.  Indeed, he was a kind of sloppy, unschooled antiquarian, but his interest in and reverence for the Middle Ages was for real.  So real, in fact, that he could only see a way forward with the new potentials of iron by looking backward, to the “equilibrated structures” of the medieval masons.  Like Pugin before him, Viollet-le-Duc celebrated those builders as true innovators, providing a sound model on which to tackle any new problem through their proven principles.  A proposal of his like the great hall above, an essay in masonry and metal, makes this point clear: a building for his own generation populated by folks in retro clothing just about six centuries out of date.

So what’s to be made of this restoration architect who made up too much of what he did to be taken seriously by preservationists?  This medieval-mason fan-boy who encouraged his peers to invent new structures based on the behavior of iron?  This theorist who was too practical to be bothered with the program at the École?  On a sunny day he’s a curious buckle that conjoins and constrains the pulsing variety of architectural change in the wonderful nineteenth century; most days, he’s an odd character, too imprecise and unfocused, too easily made the tool of one ideology or the other, never appearing really home, to be consistently helpful in any one place.

image: Viollet-le-Duc’s proposal for a masonry and iron building, first published in the Entretiens sur l’architecture (from this source)


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