European Architecture Series
Eugene Viollet-le-Duc

Biography of French Architect, Noted for Medieval Restorations.

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Photograph of Fortifications at
Carcassonne. See the slate-covered
conical roofs which were added to
the towers by Viollet-le-Duc during
restorations in the 1850s.

Eugene Viollet-le-Duc (1814-79)


Viollet-le-Duc's Architecture
Restorations by Viollet-le-Duc
Building Designs
Other 19th Century Architects

One of the many grotesques on the
facade of the Notre Dame Cathedral
in Paris, which were added during
Viollet-le-Duc's restoration.

For a short guide, see:
Architecture Glossary.

Viollet-le-Duc's Architecture

One of the greatest architects of the 19th century, the unconventional designer, theorist and writer Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc is best known for his restorations of Romanesque architecture (Basilique Sainte-Marie-Madeleine, Vezelay) and Gothic architecture (Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris). Well educated in France and Italy, when he was only 24 he was given the important task, of restoring La Madeleine at Vezelay Abbey, an undertaking soon followed by restoration work in Sainte Chapelle (1241-48) and Notre Dame in Paris, the cathedral of Narbonne and St Denis. In 1853 he was made Inspector General of Diocesan Monuments and began work on his most important restoration, the historical city of Carcassonne. In this he followed two ideas, the desire to bring to light the authentic monument, and the conviction that the aesthetic value of medieval art, and most especially Gothic art, is a matter of its technical value and its architectural creativity. Some of his restoration work closely followed the work of medieval artists, as catalogued in his treatise Conversations on Architecture (1858-72); but he is more noted for combining historical fact with creative modification in order to create the perfect "medieval-style" building. He was the most prominent exponent of the Gothic Revival movement in France, thus going against the prevailing academic classicism - the Beaux-Arts style, which combined Renaissance with Baroque architecture - and he saw French Gothic as the model for a national style, emphasizing its constructional rationalism and, in so doing, for the first time formulating the equation between aesthetics and technique that would be fundamental to modern architecture of the 20th century. His other designs included the interior of the Statue of Liberty (1886), sculpted by Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904). Today, Viollet-le-Duc is regarded as one of the most influential figures of nineteenth century architecture, who had a major impact on the development of contemporary styles of Victorian architecture as well as 20th century design in Europe and America.

Note: For more details about 19th century Gothic Revival please see: English Gothic architecture.




Born in Paris, into a well-educated and well-connected family (his father was a civil servant, his mother hosted a weekly Salon attended by the writer Stendhal [1783-1842] and other luminaries), Viollet-le-Duc had a rebellious, unconventional temperament and - having decided on a career as an architect - refused to attend the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Instead he joined the architectural offices of Achille Leclere as a pupil in order to acquire direct experience of his chosen profession. He also took a number of trips around France, in order to study monuments from the French Middle Ages, along with Romanesque and Gothic art.

In 1836 he went to Italy to study Renaissance architecture from both the trecento and quattrocento, but on his return he was again drawn to his preferred French Gothic. He trained under the medieval archeologist Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus (1807-57), while helping him with the restoration of the Church of Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois (1838).

Restorations by Viollet-le-Duc

In 1839, the medievalist and Minister of Historical Monuments, Prosper Merimee (1803-70), a family friend, gave Viollet-le-Duc the prestigious commission of restoring the abbey church of La Madeleine (1840), at Vezelay. This was followed by the restoration of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris (1840) - a project he completed in collaboration with Jacques Felix Duban (1798-1870). After this, in 1845, he and Lassus were commissioned to restore the Gothic Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris, for which they were to design a new Gothic-style sacristy. Art critics hailed this appointment as constituting official sanction for the Gothic Revival style in France. Another of Viollet-le-Duc's important projects was to restore the abbey church of Saint-Denis (1846).

In 1848 - having established himself as an active and influential figure in the Ministry of Historical Monuments - he was appointed Inspector General of Diocesan Monuments, responsible for the archeological restoration of numerous medieval buildings, including the Synod Hall at Sens (1849), Amiens Cathedral (1849), the fortifications of the southern city of Carcassonne (1852), and Saint-Sernin, Toulouse (1862).

His other famous architectural restorations included: the 12th century Chateau de Pierrefronds (1858-85) in Oise (uncompleted at his death); Chateau de Vincennes (1860) Paris; Chateau de Roquetaillade (1850-70) near Bordeaux; Lausanne Cathedral (1874) Switzerland; and Chateau de Coucy (1875) Aisne.

As noted above, although Viollet-le-Duc initially executed his restorations in the original style of the building concerned, he soon began to add completely new elements of his own. While restoring Notre Dame Cathedral, for instance, he added a third tower, and to the fortified wall towers of Carcassonne he added a new set of pointed conical roofs, derived from the architecture of northern France. These tactics were heavily criticized by the eminent 19th century art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) who labelled it false and destructive. Viollet-le-Duc however was adamant that he was perfecting, not harming, the original medieval design.

Building Designs

All Viollet-le-Duc's original architectural designs for churches and other ecclesiastical structures were done in a Gothic style, as exemplified by the churches of Sainte-Gimer (1854-9), Nouvelle Aude (1855), Sainte-Denis-de-l'Estree (1861). Rather surprisingly, however, nearly all of his secular buildings were modelled on Renaissance designs, including elements borrowed from Giulio Romano (1499-1546), Vignola (1507-73) and Andrea Palladio (1508-80).

Writings on Architecture

An active theorist and historical researcher throughout his career, Viollet-le-Duc produced a mass of notes and drawings, illustrating his architectural ideas as well as his actual practice. His two greatest works - upon which his reputation largely rests - were the encyclopedic books entitled: Reasoned Dictionary of French Architecture 11th-16th Century (1854-68), and Reasoned Dictionary of the French Bank from the Carlovingians to the Renaissance (1858-75). Consisting of 16 volumes, these two treatises contained a wealth of exact structural data plus extensive design analysis, which provided the necessary intellectual impetus for the French Gothic Revival movement.

A third important book was his Conversations on Architecture (1858-72). Translated into English as Discourses on Architecture (1874-81) by the architect Benjamin Bucknall (1833–95), it served to systematize his architectural theories and contained details on the construction of iron skeletal frames, which had a huge impact on American architecture, most notably works by William Le Baron Jenney (1832-1907) and the Chicago School of Architecture (c.1880-1910). Other Americans influenced by his theories on Gothic design included Richard Upjohn (1802-78), James Renwick (1818-95) and Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959). In Europe, several of his "iron designs" went on to influence the Art Nouveau style, especially in the work of Hector Guimard (1867-1942), and would have been noted by Gustave Eiffel designer of the celebrated Eiffel Tower (1887-89) in Paris. According to Sir John Newenham Summerson (1904-92), the eminent British architectural historian, Viollet-le-Duc ranks alongside the great Renaissance pioneer Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72) as the greatest theoretician in the field of European architecture.

After a second career as a military engineer in the French army, employed in the defence of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1), Viollet-le-Duc retired to Lausanne, in Switzerland, where he designed and built his own villa (now destroyed). He died there in 1879.

Other 19th Century Architects

Georges-Eugene Haussmann (1809-91)
Radically changed urban layout of Paris
Charles Garnier (1825-98)
French architect, worked with Viollete-le-Duc and Gustav Eiffel
Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-86)
America's greatest Romanesque revivalist
Otto Wagner (1841-1918)
Viennese architect, famous for his ornamental designs
Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926)
Catalan architect, famous for Gothic/Art Nouveau biomorphic designs
Victor Horta (1861-1947)
Art Nouveau architect, noted for glass/cast-iron decorative elements
Joseph Maria Olbrich (1867-1908)
Founder member of Vienna Secession
Hector Guimard (1867-1942)
Art Nouveau architect famous for Paris Metro designs
Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928)
Architect, furniture designer, painter, arts and crafts champion
Peter Behrens (1868-1940)
Founder of Deutscher Werkbund; influenced Gropius, Corbusier, Van der Rohe

• For more about Gothic Revival architecture, see: Homepage.

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