In an effort to expand on the traditional rationalist interpretation of Viollet-le-Duc, this article explores his ideas of progress and history. Viollet's "reason" is described as a dialectical structure which develops in time, unfolding through history. From his description of the origins of architecture to his account of the great periods of mankind, Viollet's philosophy of history presents an ideology of freedom; and through it he attempts to demonstrate humanity's progressive transformation of a nature originally hostile to man into a new world in harmony with him. The historical dialectic follows three distinct stages: Asian civilization (theocraty), Antiquity (aristocraty) and finally Christianity (democraty), which is a synthesis of the previous two. Such trinitarian rule is basic to the dialectical process itself. It underlies not only Viollet's philosophy of history but also his philosophy of nature (theory of crystals). Technique is the realm of human activity which, for Viollet, best speaks of man's dialectical engagement with the world. Viollet's central notion of style defines a technical activity; an object endowed with style must result from the struggle between the real (the world of nature and tradition, the given facts from which human action starts out) and the ideal (the world of human aspirations and progress). Style is an expression of dialectical synthesis. It is in his description of the difference between Greek and Gothic architecture that Viollet's historical dialectic comes through most clearly. Greek architecture, for Viollet, is the first instance of an architecture which seeks to free itself from the enslavement to tradition. The static nature of Greek structural principles, however, still reflects a fatalistic vision of the world. In contrast, Gothic architecture is the birth of a radical spirit of invention which seeks to subjugate totally both nature and tradition. The principle of equilibrium basic to its structural organization is an example of man's cunning play with the forces of nature. It embodies the "Christian rule" which leaves to man his free will and the responsibility for his own works. Christianity is the last stage in the historical dialectic where man becomes "a creature in the image of the Creator."
- Copyright 1989 The Society of Architectural Historians