Monday, January 27th, would mark the 200th birthday of French structural engineer Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc. Famed for his structural rationalism and pioneering use of iron, he in many ways foreshadowed modern architecture and engineering. However, he is also highly controversial for his historically inaccurate renovation work, which makes up most if not all of his extant constructions.
Originally, Viollet-le-Duc studied classical art under his uncle, a famous art critic. He was in a good position to enter the neoclassical Ecole de Beaux-Arts school of architecture. The Ecole was the most influential body in architecture worldwide at the time, and has come to be almost universally identified with 19th-century Paris especially as well as other cities in Europe and the United States. Important buildings include the Opera Garnier, the Petit Palais, Grand Central Station, and parts of the Louvre. However, Viollet-le-Duc chose not to attend the Ecole due to its aesthetic rigidity. The architecture of the Ecole was always heavily classical with large amounts of Graecian ornamentation. Grand columns and arches contrasted with simple utilitarian spaces. Viollet-le-Duc rejected this style and instead looked back to Gothic architecture.
Why did Viollet-le-Duc choose to make this risky move away from the dominant Ecole? He may have been influenced by the writings of British architect A.W.N. Pugin, who argued that the Gothic Style should be revived because it was grounded in faith and was therefore a more “moral” architecture than the neoclassical style, influenced by the classical pagan temples. He may also have been influenced by events leading up to the 1848 French Revolution. The nationalistic fervor may have been what led Viollet-le-Duc to adopt the Gothic Style, begun at St. Denis in France. In any case, he quickly gained prominence due to his renovations of Gothic churches. He had advanced knowledge of structural physics which he used to save crumbling buildings like the church of La Madeleine in Vezelay. In 1844 he was appointed to renovate France’s most famous church, Notre Dame de Paris. He left his mark in many parts of the church both outside and inside. The famous gargoyles, which many visitors believe to be medieval, are in fact additions made by Viollet-le-Duc. Although his Notre Dame renovation made him highly recognized, he drew ire for creating an overly romantic and sham image of the past. This was also seen when he renovated the walls of Carcassonne, adding Disney-like conical towers.
However, what set Viollet-le-Duc apart as a great engineer were his writings and unbuilt projects. While other gothic revivalists like the aforementioned A.W.N. Pugin simply built anachronistic structures that would not have been out of place in the middle ages, Viollet-le-Duc made an effort to create a modern Gothic style that utilized engineering innovations. In his books, Entretiens sur l’Architecture, he envisioned never-before seen uses of iron structures. Metal poles gracefully support Gothic domes and vaults, creating vast spaces. Structure is expressed for aesthetic purposes, as it was a century later by modernists. Had any of these designs been built, they would be engineering and architectural landmarks. Unfortunately, Viollet-le-Duc’s career was cut short in part by the Franco-Prussian War, which was disastrous for France. He died in 1879, but one could argue that his influence lived on long afterwards.
Below are drawings from Entretiens sur l’Architecture
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