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architectural art and engraving
Piranesi

Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879)

Born to a well connected Parisian family living in an apartment in the Tuileries, Viollet-le-Duc first studied Renaissance architecture in Italy before returning to France and a lifelong love of Gothic engineering and decoration. His appointment in the 1840s to head the Office of Historic Monuments was the perfect combination of the right man for the right job. What the effects of time had not already degraded, the French revolution nearly destroyed fifty years earlier as the buildings of church and state had become targets of mob violence leaving the great Gothic structures shattered wrecks.

Viollet restored Notre Dame, Hotel de Cluny and other Medieval icons in Paris as well as the cathedrals of Amiens and Saint-Denis, the cities of Avignon and Carcasonne, and numerous city halls and chateaux.

He understood that Gothic architecture derived its beauty from the artful expression of its structure. That the engineering of a building was as beautiful a visual exercise as its decoration . When Louis Sullivan later insisted that "form ever follows function," he may have been recalling the principles of Viollet-le-Duc.

As he mastered the vocabulary of the Gothic, he utilized new materials of the industrial age in a manner that correlated to Medieval construction. While not authentic to the period, his techniques updated the ethos of Gothic structural expression. Later historians vilified Viollet's use of machine age building materials and artful rearrangements as a revisionism of historical reality. Today he has become a verb in modern French, as "to Viollet-le-Duc" means to heavily restore an ancient structure.

His political influence during the Second Empire of Napolean III enabled his architectural firm to assume a major role in the reconstruction of Paris. And his family's friendship with the Empress Eugenie meant that his competition design for the new Opera house nearly won over that of Charles Garnier. While reconstructing the ancient castle of Pierrefonds into a summer retreat for the Emperor, Viollet saw the Second Empire collapse and his firm relegated to restoring provincial city halls. He devoted much of his time to teaching and writing, producing encyclopedias of French architecture and lectures on modern construction that were later found in the libraries of the great architects of the modern movement.

He was awarded a medal by an international jury for his Lausanne Cathedral restoration designs at the 1872 Vienna World Exposition. His retirement to Switzerland developed into a careful study of the Alps, what Viollet-le-Duc considered the perfect structural expression of stone.

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Pierrefonds Castle design by Viollet le Duc
Design for Mural
Pierrefonds Castle
watercolor on paper
c. 1860
11 x 14 inches
Link to Paris: Building Splendor
Link to Louis Villeminot Biography page

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