Sunday, January 18, 2015

Viollet-le-Duc Wanted to Restore a Mountain

Towards the end of his life, Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879) wrote an architectural study of the Mont-Blanc, a high peak of a massive mountain range that rears up to grip the borders of France, Switzerland, and Italy. He gathered the measurements and findings of eight summers of observations, over 500 drawings and sketches, and a lifetime of hiking into this marvelous work, which sings with his precision and conviction. In these days, when everything is symptomatic of my most embroiled feelings about France, I can simultaneously marvel at the hubris of the project, and be moved almost to tears by his simple, poetic admission that "Nous sommes si petits." ("We are so very small.") In these days, when I am thinking about scale on, well, multiple scales, and when I am fully engaged in the Counting Down of Days until the appearance of Jeffrey Cohen's much-anticipated book on Stone; an ecology of the inhuman, a few minutes' foray into Viollet-le-Duc's calls out.

The image above is from the fantastic, exhaustive, and beautifully documented exposition up at the Cité de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine in Paris until March, 2015 (and which we were able to see just before we left). The emblem of the exposition is this cool poster depicting Viollet-le-Duc as a kind of steam punk hero (a brilliant resonance with the futuristic (and very steampunk-y show, Revoir Paris, which is up concurrently at the Cité), and indeed, the show focuses mostly on his urban and architectural projects. In its small room devoted to Viollet-le-Duc's love of nature and hiking and plein-air sketching, it re-opens the wild possibility of an architectural study of a mountain. In the introduction to the study, he has the mountain speak to its human interloper - which reminded me of Cohen's brilliant move in giving the mountain a voice in his postmedieval essay, "Stories of Stone," which considers (and radically shifts) both temporal and physical scale - something Viollet-le-Duc explores and asserts, even as he uses rational, extrapolated measurements to bring the mountain "down" to human scale, or at least to a scale available to human perception. When up in the mountains, Viollet-le-Duc writes of being "au mileu d'un monde qui n'est pas fait pour lui" ("in the middle of a world that was not made for him") - I remember this feeling so vividly as a kid growing up in Switzerland and going on hikes (never up the Mont Blanc - heavens! - but in many of its foothills). That here was complete, breathable alterity or (in my kid brain) that I was on another planet altogether while walking on my own. In Viollet-le-Duc's introduction, the mountain mocks the human (calls him "chétif!" - sickly), and mocks his dams and tunnels especially, these small attempts to get around the vivid, solid truth of the mountain. It ultimately tells the human to be on his way, that there is nothing for him here. And yet, Viollet-le-Duc asserts, we climb. He admires England and its willful, crazy climbers, attaining to heights whence they too often never return. He wishes France had more of them. His final life's work will be to perform a meticulous architectural study of the parts of the Mont Blanc annexed to France (oh the riches of critique here!).

I love the work both for its folly and for its science. It's one that I'll be reading with my geologist friend over the next few weeks, as the text is the meeting of many worlds (and a study, and a new chapter). His statements about perception and scale flashed out at me: "Puis il faut dire que de fréquents séjours sur les hauteurs donnent aux yeux une expérience de l'échelle réelle des objets que ne peut posséder le voyageur visitant pour la première fois les altitudes. C'est en cela que le dessin l'emporte toujours sur la photographie." ("It has to be said that frequent journeys to the mountain heights furnish your perception with an experience of the real scale of the objects, one that a first-time visitor to these heights wouldn't have access to. It's in this that drawing will always carry the day over photography.") Answering the question of an imagined interlocutor as to why an architect would busy himself with a geological structure, he answers: "Analyser curieusement un groupe de montagnes, leur mode de formation, et les causes de leurs ruine... c'est, sur une plus grande échelle, se livrer à un travail méthodique d'analyse analogue à celui auquel s'astreint l'architecte praticien et archéologue qui établit ses déductions d'après l'étude des monuments." ("To turn an analytic curiosity upon a group of mountains, their means of formation, and the causes of their ruin.. is, on a greater scale, to give yourself over to a work of methodical analysis analogous to that which a practicing architect and archeologist strives for in establishing claims after the study of monuments.")

That "les causes de leurs ruins" caught my eye and I looked for why he would claim that as part of his study. I found it in the very final pages of the work, in an impassioned eco-activist speech against the diversion of water flow, the building of tunnels, and the excess of hiking parties. The juxtaposition of the two drawings at the head of this post is not so much a before-and-after as a "what is now" and "what could be." And so here is what could be if the human could understand the mountain. In the end, Viollet-le-Duc reveals, his study exists so that the human can understand the mountain not just to leave it alone, but no, rather to help it do what nature won't do and the human aggravates: "La nature, rigoureusement fidèle à ses lois, ne fait pas remonter la pente au caillou que le pied du voyageur a précipité dans la vallée, ne resème pas la forêt que notre main imprudente a coupée,  lorsque la roche nue apparait et que la terre a été entraînée par les eaux des fontes et des pluies, ne rétablit pas la prairie dont notre imprévoyance a contribué à faire disparaître l'humus." ("Nature, rigorously loyal to her own laws, does not make the pebble roll back up the mountain once it has been kicked in the valley by a traveller, it doesn't resow the forest that our imprudent hand has cut down, when the naked rock appears after the soil has been eroded by water sources and rain, it does not re-establish the prairie which our improvidence has robbed of its fertile ground."). And so all of those calculations and observations and drawings are purposeful and activist science. "Si ces pages peuvent contribuer à éveiller l'attention du public sur ces questions... si elles peuvent provoquer chez les ingénieurs une attitude attentive et pratique de l'aménagement des cours d'eau dans les montagnes, si elles font admettre dans les administrations compétentes que ce n'est pas dans les bureaux, mais sur le terrain, qu'il faut essayer de résoudre ces problèmes, nous nous considérerons comme largement payé de nos fatigues, de nos peines et de nos sacrifices." ("If these pages can contribute to the awakening of the public on these issues... if they can provoke an attentive and practical approach in engineers to the issue of the sustainability of water ways in the mountains, if they make competent administrators realize that it's not in offices, but rather on the ground, that we need to resolve these problems, then I will consider myself largely repaid for my fatigue, my effort, and my sacrifice.") The transposition/transition from care and restoration of architecture to that of mountains appears seamless in the mathematics of Viollet-le-Duc's calculations - the transition of scales is elegant and rational - but his claim to care for and restore a mountain (I can't say "remains unfathomable" because it's anything but after all those calculations) continues to defy expectations. Good for him.

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