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Thursday24 July 2014

Building a Library 48: Discourses on Architecture by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc

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Discourses on Architecture
By Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, 1863, 1872

Robert Harbison picks 50 books that should feature in any architectural library.

Viollet-le-Duc is another of those insiders who insist that they are outsiders. He distrusts formal education, despises tradition and discards established notions, like the derivation of Greek temple forms from wooden prototypes. His analyses of Gothic structure were revolutionary, transferring excitement from spiritual flights to rational construction. Cathedrals were machines in which every element served its purpose, coming together in active unity, like an athletic body poised for movement.

This unorthodox view of Gothic structure led him to a proto-modernist aesthetic based on idiosyncratic ideas of sincerity: truth to the programme, truth to one’s materials, hostility to all deceit or disguise. The new market Halles of Paris are almost the only modern building he likes, praising their maker for not intending a work of art. He advises all architects to give up such aims in these unhealthy times.

The subject of restoration (a field in which Viollet did major damage) barely comes up in this book, but reading between the lines you can see that he regards a building as something like a conceptual model, more admirable the more consistent it is. In describing or drawing Gothic examples he usually suppresses irregularities, as he did when he got hold of live subjects.

One of the most charming passages is a speech he concocts for the architect of the Erechtheion answering a critic. Viollet loves this building for its asymmetry, wilder than the most freakish Gothic. In fact symmetry is a real bogey in this book; Viollet even singles out deviations on the classical facade of Notre Dame for praise, one of the very few times he reminds us of Ruskin.

His consistency can be eccentric too: he loves Greek architecture but hates classicism; in a scathing passage he mocks the idea of a Parthenon in the fogs and damps of Edinburgh.

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