Perhaps most famous for his role in the revival of Gothic architecture in France, this French architect was also known as a theorist – someone who wanted to remain honest and true to the history of European Architecture while leaving his own mark. He is in fact often said to have been one of the most influential theorists of the 19th century, and his work did not only impact France but also the United States and England.
Born in Paris in 1814, Viollet-le-Duc was the son of a civil servant in Paris (his father collected books) and his mother whose salons drew some of the greatest authors in Paris to its doorstep. But it was maybe his uncle who was left in charge with young Viollet-le-Duc’s education – a man who nurtured Viollet-Le-Duc’s intellectual, rebellious nature.
In 1830, Viollet-le-Duc refused to enter the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and instead chose to go into practical training with architects Jaques-Marie Huvé and of François-René Leclerc. That same decade, a movement that encouraged restoration of medieval buildings grew support in France.
In 1835, Viollet-le-Duc was ordered his first task of restoring the Abbey of Vézelay, a project that also launched his long-running efforts in restoring other historical buildings such as the Mont Saint Michel, Carcassone, Pierrefonds, Roqetaillade and most famously, the Notre Dame de Paris – which made him a national celebrity.
Some of Viollet-Le-Duc’s restorations caused quite a stir in France, perhaps because they were not all true to their original historical style and construction. Some modern conservationists thought his work was too free and colored by his own tastes and styles, while others would argue that in fact many of the buildings he restored would not have survived had it not been for his intervention. The same is true for historic preservation/restoration theories around the world – there are, and probably always will be, two opposing sides. One side will argue that restoration is an act of retention of what truly was, whereas the other side (that of Viollet-le-Duc) will argue that restoration is in fact an act of creativity that will create something new.
Those who hated Viollet-le-Duc’s work would say that he did not restore but destruct. But no matter which side you were on you would need to recognize that architects around the world would become strongly influenced by Viollet-le-Duc, one example being Spanish Gaudí.
Another thing that Viollet-le-Duc brought to the architecture scene was his unique take on materials. For the first time in history, people started to think of new materials for construction – such as glass, metal and wood in various combinations. He loved materials that could be industrially produced.
So, the next time you see a building you love or hate, remember that most things in architecture are today either born from this man’s ideas or a reaction against them. Whether you love or hate his work and influence, you’ll see it in most modern architecture today – all around the world.