Viollet-le-Duc, architect and medievalist

The man chosen by Mérimée for major tasks of restoration was his many-talented friend, Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814-79).21 As mentioned earlier, Lawrence was strongly influenced by the voluminous writings of this architect and held him in high esteem. Nowadays Viollet-le-Duc (Fig. 4) is principally remembered for the restoration of Notre Dame cathedral and Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, the abbey church of La Madeleine at Vézelay, the château of Pierrefonds and the fortifications of Carcassonne. There is no doubt that he tended to over-restore and indulge his own fantasies. Criticisms of his restoration works by historians and architects rumble on to this day. Interestingly, Lawrence fully accepted the extensive handiwork of Viollet-le-Duc on the walls of Carcassonne and makes no mention of adverse opinions. On the credit side, one must recognize that Viollet-le-Duc saved many unique buildings from ruination and demolition.

Fig. 4 – Portrait of Viollet-le Duc by Félix Nadar, about 1879 (By permission of the Musée d’Orsay, Paris).

Lawrence’s theories hinged upon accurate dating of castle structures. Sometimes this must
have been difficult as a castle usually evolves slowly over centuries, with one form growing
into another. The ubiquitous Viollet-le-Duc had much to say about this process. He brought his vast knowledge of fortifications and siege craft to bear in a fictional account of the history
of an imagined fortified site over a period of more than two millennia, from its beginnings as
the oppidum of a Gallic tribe to its fate in the Franco-Prussian War.22 (The 1875 edition is notable for the quality of its illustrations.) In addition to initiating numerous building and restoration projects throughout France, Viollet-le-Duc was also a military engineer, acquitting himself with honour as a lieutenant-colonel in the defence of Paris in the winter of 1870-71 when the city was besieged by the Prussian Army. After France’s humiliating defeat, he still had a voice in high places and advocated a future philosophy of ‘defence in depth’. This policy prevailed and fortified zones were built behind the new eastern frontier; that is, facing the ‘lost provinces’ of Lorraine and Alsace. The soundness of this strategy was demonstrated when these forts, notably above Verdun, acted as a core of resistance to German assault during the Great War of 1914-18.

In the more peaceable architectural world, the theories and originality of Viollet-le-Duc are still respected. His motto was ‘function before style’. A similar principle, namely ‘form follows function’, would be expounded by Walter Gropius when he established the famous Bauhaus school of design in Germany (1919-33). Although Viollet-le-Duc’s philosophy derived from love and respect for the High Gothic style of the Middle Ages, he took advantage of the new materials of the Industrial Age and became famous for using inclined hollow columns of cast iron to support arches and domes. With an eye to the future, he advocated using iron-framed buildings with non-loadbearing façades; in time this principle would be seized upon by the First Chicago School of architects, enabling multi-storey buildings and skyscrapers to rear above American cities.

  1. AD Profile 27: Viollet-le-Duc, Architectural Design 3/4 (London, 1980); various authors provide a comprehensive analysis and survey of his life and achievements. His famed works are: Dictionnaire raisonné de l’Architecture Française de XIe au XVIe siècle (Paris, 1854-1868, 10 volumes): Dictionnaire raisonné du Mobilier Française de l’époque Carolingienne à la Renaissance(Paris, 1858): Entretiens sur l.Architecture (Paris, 1863-72) []
  2. E. Viollet-le-Duc, Annals of a Fortress, English translation by B. Bucknall
    (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low, and Searle of London, 1875).
    (Barton-under-Needwood: Wren’s Park Publishing, 2000: Introduction by Christopher Duffy) []