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Romantic Deliria: on Viollet-le-Duc's architectural vision

This exhibition portrays the rather dry father of Structural Rationalism as a complex, contradictory and fascinating character, unveiling his enormous influence both on contemporaries and the nascent Modern Movement

2014 marked the 200th birthday of French architect, theorist, medievalist, rationalist and restorer Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, which Paris’s Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine is commemorating with the first major retrospective of his work in 34 years. At the opening, lead curator Jean-Michel Leniaud explained that he and his colleagues had deliberately eschewed portraying Viollet-le-Duc as the ‘restorer of the nation’s heritage’ or as the ‘inventor of modernity’, just as they had avoided the ‘controversy’ that emerged in the reassessments of the 1980s (which Leniaud feels is now ‘outdated’). Instead, in keeping with the Cité’s brief to produce a show that will entertain a wide public, the curators set out to give us ‘a portrait of a great artist’. In place of the rather dry theoretician, peremptory rebuilder and even drier architect we may remember from our architectural-history classes, the retrospective paints an entirely different picture of Viollet-le-Duc, getting up close and personal to achieve its ends.

The premise behind this approach is made clear in the very first room, which is largely devoted to portraits of Viollet-le-Duc: to understand the work you have to understand the man. And it instantly becomes clear what a multifaceted character he was, from the pomaded young dandy in an anonymous photograph of c1844 to the grand old savant captured by Nadar a year before his death, in 1878, via the urbane and mondain courtier in Napoleon III’s imperial retinue, the enthusiastic mountaineer in full Alpine gear, or the eccentric designer decked up at home in the costume of a medieval architect (as portrayed by his long-time collaborator, the sculptor Adolphe-Victor Geoffroy-Dechaume).

Letters and doodles add to the portrayal, revealing his talent for wicked caricature and his generosity as a correspondent. Images of key figures in the architect’s life round out the picture. Two were of particular importance: Etienne-Jean Delécluze, his uncle, a very well-connected painter, writer and art critic who was largely responsible for Viollet’s education; and Prosper Mérimée (shown as the fictional Spanish actress ‘Clara Gazul’ in a drawing by Delécluze), who, as Inspecteur Général des Monuments Historiques, commissioned the 25-year-old architect to restore the abbey church at Vézelay, and who was close to Eugenia de Montijo, future empress of the French.

Viollet-le-Duc refused to study architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts, calling it ‘a mould for architects: they all come out almost exactly the same

Viollet-le-Duc refused to study architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts, calling it ‘a mould for architects: they all come out almost exactly the same’. Instead, after taking articles with architect friends of his father’s, he completed his education through travel. These youthful journeys have been meticulously reconstituted for the exhibition: the annual trips through France between 1831 and 1835, and the long journey to Italy of 1836-37. Beautifully accomplished drawings and watercolours were the treasures he brought back, and are one of the highlights of the show.

As well as landscapes and architecture recorded as he found them, there is also his ‘restoration’ of the antique theatre in Taormina, which, rather than resulting from careful archaeological examination in the manner of Prix de Rome envois, came to him in a flash while on site (and was thus criticised for its improbability).

Another ‘restoration’ is to be found in the room devoted to his passion for mountains − a proposed restitution of Mont Blanc in its initial, pre-‘ruin’ state − while the section on animals throws light not only on the fabulous bestiaries he created at Notre-Dame and the Château de Pierrefonds but also on his interpretation of Gothic structure as an architectural skeleton.

‘The plates to the Entretiens [Viollet’s most famous book along with the Dictionnaire Raisonné] are extremely original, but aesthetically they are none too attractive. As an architect Viollet-le-Duc had in fact little merit. Time and again you are struck by the discrepancy between the consistency and daring of his thought and the looseness and commonplace detailing of his original buildings, for example, Saint-Denys-de-l’Estrée, Saint-Denis (1864-67).’ Such was the verdict of Fleming, Honour and Pevsner in their 1966 Penguin Dictionary of Architecture. Indeed Penguin was consistently critical of Viollet’s talents at the drawing board, its Dictionary of Design and Designers (Simon Jervis, 1984) informing us that, ‘As a designer Viollet-le-Duc was disappointingly dry and timid. His polychromatic decorations for Notre-Dame … are incoherent … his metalwork is unimaginative, his furniture … is lacking in vigour’, and patriotically preferring William Burges, ‘a far superior designer’.

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Perspectival elevation of the cathedral in Lausanne, Switzerland, one of Viollet-le-Duc’s last ‘restorations’, in which he ‘returned’ the building to the ‘Gothic Ile de France’ style. The reconstruction involved substantial demolition work, including the original lantern, which was replaced by a more historically suitable spire

While the exhibition makes no attempt to rehabilitate Saint-Denys (indeed Viollet’s original architecture is entirely absent), it does make a very good case for a reappraisal of his design talents. The furnishings for Notre-Dame are superb (especially the enormous lectern), and while inspired by the past do not slavishly copy it, in keeping with Viollet’s view that restoration was all about aiming for an ideal that may never actually have existed. The same approach guided his splendid reliquary for the crown of thorns and his reliquary-bust of St Louis. Napoleon III’s imperial train, meanwhile, is characterised by a wealth of intricate decor that is nonetheless light and airy, quite unlike the riot of purple plush favoured on the other side of the Channel. Likewise, Viollet’s furniture for projects like Pierrefonds manages to be at once ornate and simple, while the handsome, practical pieces he designed for his own personal use display only the most minimal ornament, arguably anticipating 20th-century developments.

Viollet-le-Duc is best remembered as the father of Structural Rationalism, which grew out of his analysis of Gothic stone structure and his call to treat new materials such as iron with the same logical rigour that medieval builders had used when designing in stone. The traditional view is thus of a positivist figure who, applying rationalism to the architecture he was passionate about, drew reasoned conclusions. The exhibition turns this analysis on its head. The portrait it paints is of a quintessential Romantic, nourished by exoticism and troubadour tales, who had hallucinatory experiences − like a childhood one at Notre-Dame where he heard the rose window singing to him, quoted in full by the curators. The ‘visions’ of the exhibition’s title are thus nothing less than ‘Romantic deliria’ which were the ‘very sources of his genius’, pure imagination that he rationalised after the fact (as at Taormina).

While the show may not ultimately persuade us that Viollet was quite as great an artist as Leniaud would have us believe, it brings to life and elucidates a complex, contradictory and fascinating figure whose influence was enormous, both on contemporaries and the nascent Modern Movement. As Burges himself said, ‘We all cribbed from Viollet-le-Duc.’

Viollet-le-Duc : Les Visions d’un Architecte

Where: Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, Paris
When: 20 November 2014 - 9 March 2015

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