French architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was born on January 27, 1814. He’s famous for his rather free interpretations of historic restorations. One could say that his early years were bohemian. He was mostly educated by an uncle who dabbled in painting and lived with the family. Young Viollet-le-Duc’s first construction project may have been a barricade during the revolution of July 1830. He turned up his nose at an education at the prestigious, but conservative, École des Beaux-Arts choosing instead practical training in the offices of two architects.
Viollet-le-Duc was in the right place at the right time when a wave of interest in restoring medieval buildings swept through France. This became his life’s work and he was kept busy at one project after another. His most prominent restorations were Notre Dame de Paris, the walled town of Carcassonne, and Mont Saint-Michel, the town built on a rock off the French coast.
The architect didn’t stop at restoring buildings as they were. He was willing to add little embellishments that weren’t necessarily original or even historically possible for the period. For instance, he stuck the spire tower on top of Notre Dame. The chimera, wrongly referred to as gargoyles, are probably the element we identify most strongly with the great cathedral, and yet they are completely inauthentic inventions of Viollet-le-Duc. At Carcassonne, he topped the towers on the city wall with pointed roofs that would have felt more at home in the north of France. His style was known as neo-gothic. He executed gothic motifs but in modern materials such as brick and cast iron. While he worked, he made copious notes that he published in a series of books on furniture, art, and architecture. One of his theories was that materials should be used “honestly.” Essentially, he proposed that form should follow function long before the modern age popularized the slogan.
He fought in the Franco-Prussian war and his experiences led him to write Annals of a Fortress. The theories that he expressed there influenced French military history right up to the Second World War.
Today’s phrase is a quotation from Viollet-le-Duc philosophy of design, “le style est comme le parfum d’un état primitif des esprits” (luh steel eh come luh parfuh dun aytat prim-e-teef dayz espree). This means “style is like the perfume of an original state of mind.” While Villet-le-Duc’s methods may not be universally applauded, he certainly did have an original state of mind.
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