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Folio: Viollet-le-Duc's ornamental side

A man of contradictions, the structural rationalist le-Duc was also a dab hand at ornamentation

French architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879) is less known for his independent designs – few in number and mostly derided by his peers – and more so for his equally controversial works of restoration. For him, restoration was not simply a means of fastidiously preserving an unyielding and unchanging icon, it was a means of appreciating how the traces of the old can interact with the new, how a structure could adapt to the modern world rather than simply tolerating it. In Le-Duc’s eyes, one of the most ornamental architectural styles – the Gothic – was what he termed a ‘logical, structural system’. Light skeletal forms bear the weight of ever-growing vaults, and the rich tracery that decorates them supposedly reflects their rational construction. This could explain the dynamism behind his own designs for ornamentation, appearing as if they themselves are serving some structural role. Shown here is a preliminary sketch for the lectern at Notre-Dame, a 25-year restoration project and one of the first practical applications of his theories. This Art Nouveau depiction of twisting marine life foliage could not be further from the austere rationalism that Le-Duc himself espoused. Antithetical it may seem, but there is much to be learnt from a mind in which structural rationalism and ornamentation were two sides of the same coin, not different currencies.

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