Photograph by Richard Kelly, who holds copyright. Not for use without permission.
In the early nineteenth century, the dawn of the Restoration movement, which preserved for us a legacy of the great buildings of the Middle Ages, Viollet-le-Duc made a name for himself by restoring some of the most cherished churches in France--including Notre Dame in Paris. Because of this experience, he came to see Gothic as the highest and best expression of architecture in western culture and decided to document all it had taught him. His Discourses on Architecture would become the book that Frank Lloyd Wright gave to one of his own sons, saying, "All the architectural schooling you'll ever need is in these volumes, and anything else you need to learn you can learn from me."
What impressed Viollet-le-Duc most about Gothic architecture was the rationality of its design. He was convinced that the cathedrals he restored had evolved out of a purely problem-solving approach to building great Christian basilicas. He never wrote about Notre Dame, whose restoration was his crowning achievement, as anything other than a building, as anything but architecture. He had no religious interest in the building. He was fascinated by how it had gone up and was put to use but wasn't concerned at all with the cultural impulses that lent significance to what went on inside. This concern for form before meaning typified his theory of architecture.
His rational method of design has been adopted by innumerable modern architects. He believed that you shouldn't have rules about making a design, that you should never start with a preconceived image. Always let a building grow out of its function. Let it take shape as straightforwardly as possible. Employ the most economical way of solving your problem: not the cheapest, but the one using the least number of structural members. This had an amazing impact on the development of modern architecture and the assumption that a building ought not have anything that isn't absolutely essential.
Begin by knowing what you want to do with the building. If designing a house, first consider what kinds of rooms will be needed, how many family members will need to be provided for, what lifestyle they lead, and so on. We call this assessment the "program" for a building. Start from whatever space is the most important to the family and work from there. Determining the kinds of spaces one needs, and the sequence in which they should be arranged, leads to developing a rational plan.
Viollet-le-Duc asserted that the structure needs to grow of its own accord. Once a plan is developed, think about what kind of roof it should have and what kind of supports that roof will need.
He encouraged the use of new materials, especially those that could be industrially produced. If stone was to be used, for example, it should not only be quarried, but also cut into the right shape and delivered ready to be put on the building. For the first time, buildings didn't need to be made just out of stone to be considered handsome. They could include metal and glass and stone and wood--all together.
Surprisingly, he insisted that decoration was absolutely essential, but only as a natural outgrowth of the structure. It should be the final touch, a logical destination, and not just tacked on. That's why Frank Lloyd Wright's ornamented designs looked fussily old-fashioned to modernists who went for streamlined, undecorated architecture.
In the end, Viollet-le-Duc admitted that the designs he developed with this method were pretty boring. He was like Moses standing and looking into the Promised Land, unable to go there himself. He had envisioned an architecture movement that he just couldn't reach. But he trusted that by applying his principles, the next generation could.
Although he never explicitly stated that they held the key to this new era, he advanced guiding metaphors that have been inspiring designs ever since. One compared the evolution of a building's elements to those of a natural organism, like fingers and a thumb cooperatively forming a hand. Another metaphor compares a building to a machine, with each component serving its purpose and nothing more. The most important early-twentieth century architects did in fact use these metaphors. Wright talked about organic architecture throughout his life, and the Bauhaus school in Germany as well as Le Corbusier in France valued buildings that functioned like efficient machines.
The early modernists were also captivated by Viollet-le-Duc's obsession with progress and innovation. Acting at the end of World War I, they were eager to cut themselves off from their parents' generation and say that historical baggage is something that we just don't need. Modernism actually set out to make a cultural break from history, and its architecture was for people who had a resolutely optimistic notion of the future.
After World War II, movements like New Brutalism and High Tech marked a shift to exaggerations of Viollet-le-Duc's concern for explicit and rational structure.
There were also reactions to his method that disrupted the ever-widening ripple of his influence. Some post-modernists, in fact, focused on the very thing that his theory of architecture left out--the cultural impulses behind a building and the way it fits into a human environment. Then, deconstructivists, in clear opposition to his rationality, asserted that the experience of being in a building should be open ended. You should be fully conscious of your existence within a human construction, constantly making discoveries and reevaluating the environment and your place in it. If the building looks as if it's casually assembled or coming apart, so much the better. It's like getting your head into a new kind of music that makes everything else seem bland and predictable. Once you're used to it, everything else seems boring.
I anticipate one more reaction to his work based on the development of a feminist theory. Many people, especially women, have written about gender issues in architecture, but no one has come up with an actual feminist theory. If abstract rationalism is seen as a hypermasculine method of design, the feminine concern for the sanctity of human relationships could someday become the heart of a new architectural theory.
Another reaction has come in the form of many twentieth-century engineers actually debunking some of Viollet-le-Duc's theories. Yet what he got wrong were principles that enabled us to accomplish such feats as building skyscrapers. He thought, for example, that the stone skeleton of Gothic cathedrals had an elastic quality, that a tremor of the earth or enormous wind pressure or anything that might cause a building to move or to deform could be corrected by elasticity. It turns out that medieval architects never entertained that idea. But Viollet-le-Duc's misperception became the basis for the frame of a skyscraper--a steel cage in space that can deform and go back to its original shape. It's one of those wonderful moments in which a mistaken idea becomes the basis for another reality.
Viollet-le-Duc had such a pervasive influence that even the things that don't stem from his ideas are reactions against them. Whether you follow him, oppose him, or from time to time visit 60-story buildings swaying in the wind, you just can't get away from him.