Eugène Viollet-le-Duc: Visions of an Architect

Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was a passionate, iconoclastic man who became one of the most influential architects of the nineteenth century. Generations have read his writings, followed his teachings and admired his buildings. Paris’s Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine has recently opened a new show that retraces the work of this inimitable and unparalleled figure.

Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was born two hundred years ago, in 1814, in central Paris, to a family at the center of French cultural life. Surrounded by architects and artists, young Eugène eschewed the academic training of the École des Beaux Arts. He drew, travelled, and learned from those around him, a voracious autodidact with a firmly positivist slant who would not be put in the mould of convention.

Viollet-le-Duc’s milieu cultivated a deep interest in France’s built heritage from all periods, not just Ancient Greece and Rome, and in its protection. Viollet-le-Duc would dedicate his life to developing an encyclopedic knowledge of the craft of building through the ages, of France’s built heritage and landscape, and of the principles and know-how that should guide the work of architects. Through his multi-faceted work his renown grew, even beyond his death, and he became a hugely influential figure in the architectural profession.

Eugène Viollet-le-Duc is best known for the architectural rehabilitation of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris and for projects of unabashed historical reconstitution like the Château de Pierrefonds. But his polymathic energy led him to many other activities. The great strength of the new exhibition is to present Viollet-le-Duc’s multiple interests in a balanced and comprehensive way in order to give us a glimpse into this extraordinary mind.


The exhibition begins with works that allow us to immerse ourselves in the intellectual and cultural context of Viollet-le-Duc’s youth. It is a world of brooding Romanticism, atmospheric and full of mystery, populated by the imagination of the likes of Hugo, Chateaubriand, and Mérimée.

It is a world rich with history and meaning, to be discovered through active enquiry. For Viollet-le-Duc, this meant long expeditions, often through extremely rugged terrain, that he would continue with unflagging delight throughout his life.  These treks were the opportunity to insatiably collect artefacts and make extraordinary drawings that capture the richness of the natural landscape. A number of these remarkable works are on view in the exhibition.

The natural world, including not just landscape but also animals and human anatomy, richly informed Viollet-le-Duc’s understanding of the rationality of form. This interest yielded numerous extraordinary drawings, but most importantly stood at the heart of his understanding of architecture.  This extremely pure and informed view of the logic of form is Viollet-le-Duc’s essential contribution to the history of architecture.


The exhibition naturally shows drawings and models related to Viollet-le-Duc’s great restauration projects: the Basilica of le Vézelay, the Sainte-Chapelle, Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Basilica of Saint Denis, the Basilica of Saint Sernin  in Toulouse and many more. These artefacts show not only the craft of the architectural restaurer, but also the imagination Viollet-le-Duc applied to the projects, sometimes controversially. Although this is far from the sole focus of the exhibition, we cannot downplay the role Viollet-le-Duc played in developing our understanding and our vision of the great works of French heritage.

The passion for France’s heritage would have another outlet. Toward the end of his life Viollet-le-Duc developed an idea for a new museum. He led an ambitious campaign to make castings of architectural components and ornementation around the country and, after the 1878 World Exhibition, convinced the government to use some of the vacant space to create a museum of comparative sculpture. This museum was the ancestor of today’s Cité de l’Architecture du Patrimoine, and the castings are those that visitors view daily on the main floor of the museum.


Perhaps the aspect of Viollet-le-Duc’s work of greatest interest to me  personally is his role as an architectural educator.

Viollet-le-Duc began teaching early in his career, but the decisive moment was in 1864, when he was invited by the Ministry to teach a course in the École des Beaux Arts, a course he was never able to give due to the opposition of groups of students. This led Viollet-le-Duc and some allies to launch an ambitious experiment in architectural education, a school fundamentally different to the Beaux Arts. This is yet another legacy of Viollet-le-Duc, since the school lives on today as the École Spéciale d’Architecture.

The other side to Viollet-le-Duc’s work to share and promote architectural culture was his writing. He wrote profusely, producing several masterpieces of architectural writing that remain as current and compelling today as they were the day they appeared. His Entretiens sur l’architecture (Discourses on Architecture) are a seminal work of architecture theory, a lesson in observation, logic and intelligence that inspired generations. His Dictionnaire raisonné remains an essential work to understand medieval architecture. Viollet-le-Duc also produced didactic works for a broader audience, such as the lovely Histoire d’une forteresse and Histoire d’une maison. The exhibition presents the handwritten manuscripts and original editions of many of these books – even the little placeholder sketches show the author’s care and skill in the production of these books. To see such documents is of course unforgettable for those who appreciate the value of these works.


Viollet-le-Duc is fairly well-known, at least in architectural circles, but usually not in a way that does justice to the full depth and complexity of the man. This exhibition and the accompanying book, Viollet-le-Duc, Les visions d’un architecte, edited by Laurence de Finance and Jean-Michel Leniaud, attempt to redress this situation and to draw out the many aspects of Viollet-le-Duc’s that can – and should – inspire us and inform our visions today.


Viollet-le-Duc, les visions d’un architecte is on view until March 9th, 2015 at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, 1 place du Trocadéro, Paris. The show will not travel, so you need to come to Paris to see it.

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