Editorial: Instaurare aut non Instaurare

by Duncan G. Stroik, appearing in Volume 36

Sometimes an architect should conserve what other architects have done, promote an architecture from the past and seek to bring it back to life. To do that, he needs to have humility in regard to historic monuments, but an ego in regard to the cultural elites and architectural profession who will battle him. In the mid-1800s, Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, the great nineteenth-century restorer of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, was one such architect. It was his flèche, an original design brilliantly in keeping with the rest of the cathedral, that burned and crashed through the ceiling in April. And he has been both lauded and vilified, in his life and since, for making Gothic architecture live again.

The fire in Paris during holy week has caused us to rediscover this self-taught architect and early father of the preservation movement. He was a prodigious artist, a talented archeologist, a defender of tradition, and a promoter of Gothic art and architecture. He was the great champion of a living Medievalism, yet he was an anti-clerical monarchist—who spent most of his career restoring Catholic churches. Go figure.

Viollet, according to Martin Bressani in his brilliant biography Architecture and the Historical Imagination, needs to be seen as an architectural revolutionary who allied himself with the leaders of the Romantic movement to reform French culture. These included architects Henri Labrouste, Louis Duc, and the other V’s (Félix Vauban and Léon Vaudoyer), as well as the highly influential author, Prosper Mérimée, who gave him the career-making commission to restore Vézelay Abbey. Viollet was not particularly successful in designing contemporary buildings. We can be thankful that his anemic scheme for the Paris Opera lost to Charles Garnier’s.

There is much to laud about Viollet, especially his championing of and restoration of Gothic monuments in France. The French and all the world are in his debt for his careful if controversial restorations of Notre-Dame, Amiens, Vézelay, Saint-Denis, Mont Saint-Michel, and Sainte-Chapelle. There is still much to be learned from the quality and methodology of these restorations, even if one disagrees about the necessity of erecting a hundred stone monsters on the roof of a cathedral. He was a man of many ideas empirically tested, and I offer three for your consideration:

First, buildings are not just a reflection of history, but are historical events in and of themselves. This means that less advanced cultures sometimes built greater monuments than their advanced cousins (who may never have built greatly). Thus during the Middle Ages, people built the greatest monuments in history, the Gothic cathedrals, in spite of the superstitiousness and misguided religiosity of their time. Whereas the enlightened modern age had produced mediocre and slavish imitations of Greek and Roman architecture.

Second, great buildings, especially the Gothic, need to be restored and appreciated anew. The goal of the restorations is not to express our modern age. The goal is to express the Medievalism that created them. To do this well, the architect has to give himself the mind and affections of the Gothic masterbuilder. Only when the contemporary architect becomes a Medieval can he design legitimate fourteenth-century additions to a thirteenth-century cathedral, or design new Gothic altars and monstrances, or rebuild an abbey church’s vaults or a Gothic nave in an earlier style.

Third, there are great practical challenges in reviving a lost style. Viollet writes that there will be copies and even bad copies until architects relearn how to speak the architectural language as their own. Reviving a style such as the Gothic includes reviving the methods of the construction, the ways of decoration, and training artists who can sculpt or make stained glass as well as the Medievals. It includes challenging the consensus. Whereas the Classicists of his day believed in the permanence of tradition and the Romantics believed in continual progress, Viollet advocated a break with recent practice and a reconnection with the medieval past.

Viollet was a pugilist. He fought for the revival of Gothic and against the academic Classicism of his time. In the realm of sacred architecture in France he was wildly successful, and the Gothic revival spread around the world. His theories of history, structure, and style influenced succeeding generations up through the founding fathers of Modernism.

Viollet’s written and built work is so important that it deserves to be seriously analyzed—and criticized—but also lauded today. His breakthrough restorations at Notre-Dame and elsewhere are historical events which need to be appreciated and restored. And we should give Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, this champion of medieval restoration, respect for reviving a dead language, even if it meant some mistakes along the way.