A polymath, Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le Duc (b. 1814–d. 1879), is best-known today as a restoration architect and champion of the Gothic style whose influential theoretical writings on form and function collected in the ten-volume Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle (translated loosely as The Foundations of Architecture; 1854–1868) and the two-volume Entretiens sur l’architecture (Lectures on Architecture, 1863–1872) exerted a profound influence on modern architects such as Victor Horta, Antoni Gaudí, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright. An independent thinker who refused the normal French path to architectural legitimacy—training at the École des Beaux-Arts—the talented draftsman took advantage of his personal and family connections—including Prosper Mérimée, Ludovic Vitet, Baron Taylor, Jean-Jacques-Marie Huvé, and Jean-Baptiste Lassus—to obtain the knowledge, training, and commissions that would transform him into the preeminent 19th-century French restorer of monuments. Much criticized in the 20th century for having intervened too aggressively in well-known restoration projects such as the Church of the Madeleine at Vézelay, the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, and the walled city of Carcassonne, the increased accessibility of archival sources has allowed 21st-century scholars to reassess his entire body of work, setting his voluminous writings and correspondence against the intellectual, cultural, and administrative context of his time, a period in which Viollet-le-Duc and other self-trained specialists laid the foundation of what would become the academic field of medieval studies. His restoration theories and influence have been well studied since his death, but his many complementary activities, particularly his prolific attempts to popularize architecture and history for the masses, have yet to be systematically explored in any language. Viollet-le-Duc was not just one of the first historic preservationists, he was also a talented draftsman, archaeologist, architect, engineer, public administrator, teacher, theatrical set designer, international exposition organizer, city councilor, journalist, children’s book writer, military strategist, and ecologist.
There are hundreds of articles devoted to Viollet-le-Duc’s individual restoration projects and the influence of his theories, but few works assessing the entire body of his work. Gout 1914 represents the first book-length biography of Viollet-le-Duc. While overly deferential to his subject, Gout’s approachable prose and liberal illustrations still make this book one of the most helpful general introductions to the architect’s personality, diverse professional activities, theory, and influence (up to 1914). The architect’s reputation went into a steep period of decline in France in the 1930s as new studies of the engineering principles of Gothic architecture revealed errors in his pioneering theories, and as the seemingly decorative excesses of his restorations fell out of fashion with the rise of modernism. Middleton 1958 brought renewed attention to his work in the Anglophone world by resituating Viollet-le-Duc among the earliest thinkers to take serious interest in the Gothic as a “rational” style. Baridon 2010, which similarly focuses on Viollet-le-Duc’s “scientific” influences, provides a concise and impartial overview of the strengths and weaknesses of Viollet-le-Duc’s theories and his influence on art history in general, extrapolating conclusions from a 1992 thesis. Bercé 2013 provides a liberally illustrated comprehensive overview of Viollet-le-Duc’s major spheres of activity. Bressani 2014 reveals Romantic and positivist impulses as intertwined, in the most comprehensive and wide-ranging intellectual biography of the man and his work yet published in French or English. Hearn 1990 and Viollet-le-Duc 1990 critically situate representative excerpts in English translation of the architect’s most important writings.
Baridon, Laurent. “Viollet-le-Duc, Eugène-Emmanuel.” In Dictionnaire critique des historiens de l’art. Paris: Institut national d’histoire de l’art (INHA), 2010.
This concise and impartial article focuses on Viollet-le-Duc’s contributions as an art historian while emphasizing the remarkable diversity of his nearly 130 publications (not counting administrative reports, editorials, or promotional texts). In addition to situating Viollet-le-Duc against the international intellectual climate of his time (debates about positivism, race, nationalism, anthropology), it features a chronological list of his administrative appointments and a good select bibliography with hyperlinks to digitized volumes in the INHA collection.
Bercé, Françoise. Viollet-le-Duc. Paris: Editions du patrimoine, 2013.
A lavishly illustrated French-language overview divided into chapters representing Viollet-le-Duc’s activities as “Architect and Restorer,” “Architect and Decorator,” “Modern and ‘Engaged’ Architect,” and his “Critical Fortunes and Misfortunes.” The helpful annex provides an annotated list of his major works and restorations, as well as a solid bibliography.
Bressani, Martin. Architecture and the Historical Imagination: Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, 1814–1879. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2014.
The definitive study of Viollet-le-Duc’s work to date, this comprehensive study addresses the paradoxes between Viollet-le-Duc’s writing and his practice, proposing that the man was an “emblematic figure of Romanticism,” an artist who learned how to “heal” crumbling monuments through the restoration commissions he accepted. Not willingly “modern,” as one might suspect from his late embrace of iron construction, he was instead compelled to “repossess” and “relive” bygone history by applying (“reenacting”) medieval techniques to modern materials.
Gout, Paul. Viollet-le-Duc, sa vie, son œuvre, sa doctrine. Paris: Champion, 1914.
The first biography of Viollet-le-Duc, the liberally illustrated book, although overly respectful of its subject, still serves as one of the best general overviews of his personality, working habits, and the diversity of his professional activities (sections are devoted to the “writer,” “historian,” “archaeologist,” “draftsman,” “decorator,” “architect,” “military engineer,” “geologist,” “thinker,” and “patriot/public man,” and an entire third part to his theoretical writings [doctrine]). Available online.
Hearn, M. F. The Architectural Theory of Viollet-le-Duc: Readings and Commentaries. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990.
A useful English-language introduction to Viollet-le-Duc’s voluminous writings. Brief translations of passages from a variety of works are grouped according to four major themes: the history of architecture (from Greek to Gothic), the creative process, modern architecture, and restoration. Each passage is helpfully contextualized with regard to its initial publication.
Middleton, Robin. “Viollet-le-Duc and the Rational Gothic Tradition.” PhD diss., Cambridge University, 1958.
Drawing upon Viollet-le-Duc’s family papers, this work situates his work historically, as an expansion of and reaction to 18th-century architectural thought and practice, notably that of Cordemoy and Soufflot. A helpful appendix lists all of Viollet-le-Duc’s original drawings. Volume 1 (of 3) has been digitized and is available online.
Viollet-le-Duc, Eugène-Emmanuel. The Foundations of Architecture: Selections from the Dictionnaire raisonné. Translated by Kenneth D. Whitehead. New York: Braziller, 1990.
Long excerpts from four articles from the Dictionnaire raisonné: “Architecture,” “Construction,” “Restoration,” and “Style,” with an introduction by Barry Bergdoll situating the author with regard to debates between Gothic Revivalists and the École des Beaux-Arts.
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