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The vision of an architect
To celebrate the bicentennial of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc’s birth, the Cité de l’architecture has chosen to reach beyond the archeological heritage, with a new reading by Jean-Michel Leniaud.
Monographic exhibitions unveil the often-multifaceted work of artists, but also the spirit of creators.
In 2014, while in Paris the Centre Pompidou has consecutively put on display two of the most important architectural figures of the second half of the 20th Century – Bernard Tschumi and Frank Gehry – the Cité de l’architecture & du patrimoine is looking back at the 19th Century, with Viollet-le-Duc: Les visions d’un architect (Viollet-le-Duc: the Visions of an Architect), the first major retrospective dedicated to the great French master since 1980.
To celebrate the bicentennial of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc’s birth (1814-1879), the Cité de l’architecture & du patrimoine has chosen to reach beyond the archeological heritage and controversies. Attempting a new reading, Jean-Michel Leniaud, curator of the show and director of the École de Chartres, focuses on Viollet-le-Duc the artist, revealing the genius of the architect and its creative process. Thus, the exhibition presents the less known and the more unexpected aspect of Viollet-le-Duc’s career: the visionary character of his work, something between positivism and romanticism, dedicated to a political and esthetical project. As recalled by Antoine Picon in the exhibition catalogue, there is much more in Viollet-le-Duc’s writing than a mere deployment of a certain constructive reason that would have prefigured the Modern Movement. And that is, amongst other thing, what this exhibition is there to prove.
The exhibition’s trajectory is divided into height sections or sequences that unveil Viollet-le-Duc as a highly complex personage: extremely rational but also plethoric and fanatic at time. Focusing on the artist in the global sense, the show refers to a well-connected character who pursued an uninterrupted career drawing, building, teaching, restoring, and many other things.
The sequence begins with a biographical section including many different portraits of the architect, a man devoid of any strong political conviction that went through the upheaval of his century without even having to interrupt his career. Follows a section on romanticism and the travelling through France. An autodidact, Viollet-le-Duc was not educated in the Beaux-Arts system but learned by following his uncle, Delécluze in practical and diverse experiences, in particular travelling. Another section of the exhibition focuses on the initiatory Italian journey (1836-1837), a tour that will have a real impact on Viollet-le-Duc’s education. In that section visitors can learn about the reconstruction of Taormina’s theatre, the discovery of the façade of the dodge palace and the visit to the Sixtine Chapel, a life-long source of nourishment for his reflections.
An entire room is also dedicated to the Sainte Chapelle’s restoration, a project from which Viollet-le-Duc will develop many of the technical skills that will later lead to the creation of Art Nouveau. The next section, “Architecture, a living organism”, shows Viollet-le-Duc’s inspiration from nature. “At the hearth of his theoretical reflection on style is Viollet-le-Duc’s idea that an analogy can be drawn between architectural creation and the laws of nature”. In this room, visitors can admire all sorts of depiction of monsters and bats but also numerous aquarelles of Etna and the Alps and a fascinating 1/40 000 map of the Mont Blanc drawn by Viollet-le-Duc in 1876.
Of course, the exhibition also addresses the restoration of Notre-Dame de Paris, which represented, in 1842, the opening of an immense building site that lasted for twenty years and was meticulously reported in a dairy of work, also part of the archival documents on display at the Cité. A section on middle age and one on education continue the sequence, which ends on a reconstruction of two exhibition walls from the Musée de sculptures comparées (Museum of Comparative Sculpture) open in 1879 in the Palais de Trocadero, today home of the Cité de l’architecture.
The man who wrote, in his Dictionnaire raisonnées: “To restore an edifice is not to maintain it, repair it, or remake it; it is to reestablish it in a complete state that can never have existed at a given moment” is here under study through a myriad of documents, many of which come from the rich collection of the Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine. Amongst paintings, books and other memorabilia, stand some pieces that alone are worth the visit. Amongst others, a stunning series of anamorphic photographs of the castle of Pierrefonds realized by Auguste Chevalier in 1866, a beautiful testimony of the spirit of the time. Also notable are the photographs of some ephemeral architecture – realised by Viollet-le-Duc in Notre-Dame the Paris, in occasion of baptism of the imperial prince in 1856 – or a stamp-like size ink drawing of piazza San Marco, sketched by Viollet-le-Duc in 1837.
If offering an insightful view on the man as artist, Viollet-le-Duc: The visions of an architect, unfortunately remains in the past. Yet, now that restoration and conservation are once again at the center of the architectural debate, why not proposing a leap forward, looking at some of Viollet-le-Duc’s influences on the present?