French architect, archaeologist, rationalist, scholar, and theorist, author of the influential Dictionnaire raisonné de l'architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle (published 1854–68, with a definitive edition of 1875) and the important Entretiens (Discourses) on architecture (1863–72). The Dictionary helped to consolidate the course of the Gothic Revival in France (one of its aims was to promote Gothic through logical exposition), and it was scoured for details in England and Germany: Burges noted that all the English Gothic Revivalists of his generation ‘cribbed’ from Viollet-le-Duc, though probably not one in ten ever read the text. The fine illustrations helped to create an international taste for French Gothic, especially of the early period. Under the aegis of Prosper Mérimée (1803–70), dramatist, wit, and Inspector-General of Historic Monuments, Viollet-le-Duc established a reputation as a restorer of medieval buildings, notably the Madeleine, Vézelay (1840–59), Sainte-Chapelle, Paris (from 1840—with Duban), and Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris (1844–64—with J. -B. -A. Lassus). It was primarily through the study and restoration of historic buildings such as these that the Gothic Revival gained momentum in France, not least through a system of training instigated by Viollet and his colleagues. From 1844 he restored Carcassonne, including the walls and fortifications, but this, and especially his work on the Château de Pierrefonds, Oise (1858–70), drew criticism for their dominant, drastic, and conjectural natures.
His interpretation of Gothic was as a rational style, the construction clearly defined by buttresses and flying buttresses supporting ribs and vaults, the whole essentially a skeletal system, with curtain-walls and webs really non-structural infill. Forces were transferred to the ground by these systems, and this notion of Gothic became widely accepted, especially by apologists for the much later Modern Movement (even though surviving ruined Gothic buildings might sometimes have prompted different conclusions). In his Entretiens he suggested similarities between iron structures and Gothic systems, and proposed new techniques to design framed buildings that would be a modern equivalent of Gothic. His ideas had a profound effect on many architects, including Perret and Frank Lloyd Wright, especially his insistence on the importance of structure, purpose, dynamics, techniques, and the visible expression of these. In particular he saw parallels between the giving of form to myths in Antiquity and the possibilities in C19 to express mechanical power. Such views made some critics see him as a proto-Modernist, and there can be no doubt about his influence on the architectural worlds of the Continent and the USA.
He published Dictionnaire raisonné du mobilier français de l'époque carolingienne à la renaissance (Analytical Dictionary of French Furniture from the Carolingian Period to the Renaissance—1858–75), Histoire de l'habitation humaine depuis les temps préhistoriques jusqu'à nos jours (History of the Human Dwelling-Place from Prehistoric Times to the Present—1875), and many other works, including L'art russe, ses origins, ses éléments constitutifs, son apogée, son avenir (Russian Art, its Origins, its Constituent Elements, its Zenith, its Future—1877), translated into Russian (1879), which may have had some influence on Constructivism. As an architect, his work was often aesthetically somewhat coarse, even clumsy, as in the elephantine Morny Tomb, Père-Lachaise Cemetery, Paris (1865–6), and the ungainly Church at Aillant-sur-Tholon, Yonne (1864–7), while his somewhat drastic reconstructions of historic fabric helped to spur William Morris to found the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) and encourage the beginnings of the conservation movement.
Subjects: Architecture — Decorative Arts, Furniture, and Industrial Design.