Ruskin and Viollet-Le-Duc: Conflicting History and Memory

Ruskin writes of the inevitable beauty that accompanies the passage of time. The scars created through decay and weathering create a certain irreplaceable value, the likes of which are otherwise unattainable. The notion of restoration, to Ruskin, would be considered a dishonest undertaking hiding these present truths under layers of speculative material. Similarly, Viollet-Le-Duc acknowledges the dangers of undertaking a restoration project—the act of restoration itself is destructive in how it terminates a phase in a building’s existence, and in turn, much of its original aesthetics and materials. Viollet-Le-Duc’s philosophy, however, is that restoration, if handled correctly with apt research, is an appropriate means of achieving another kind of honesty—one that may be more revelatory as to the purpose, appearance and structural integrity of a building. As Ruskin believes, “It is as the centralisation and protectress of this sacred influence, that Architecture is to be regarded by us with the most serious thought. We may live without her, and worship without her, but we cannot remember without her.” According to this view, architecture is inherent to communal memory of civilization and time period. This notion, however, is inherently flawed in that buildings are not capable of lasting forever, and neither can their ruins. This begs the question, is memory only as durable as its integral architecture? And if so, should memory fade just as buildings do? Or is Ruskin’s notion inherently flawed and the best way to remember is through Viollet-Le-Duc’s idea of expert restoration?

Although there is no definitive answer to these questions, it is acceptable to regard them through multiple viewpoints. One lens through which to answer these questions is how memory is used in contemporary society. As Jeff Olick writes, collective memory becomes the amalgam of how minds work together in society, and it is through this medium that values are placed and that legacy is created and endures. Moreover, Pierre Nora believes that there is a distinctive difference between history and memory, with memory being more appealing to nostalgia. The difference between Viollet-Le-Duc and Ruskin may very well represent this same distinction: Ruskin with his philosophy of brutal weathered integrity represents the notion of history, whereas the preservative, research-oriented restoration beliefs appeal more to memory and represent the emotions and appeal of buildings that once were. Accordingly, Nora also believes that memory triumphs over history in the social collective realm. According to this method of analyzing the philosophies, the ideology of Ruskin simply appears less pragmatic in modern society than that of Viollet-Le-Duc.

The question indeed becomes increasingly more complicated when one begins to consider the next phase of memory and history—with the digital age in great prosperity and documentation practiced substantially more frequently than before, will memory always persevere over history? It seems as though with the presence of photo storage and high quality digital cameras, collective memory and history have become substantial yet it is impossible to discern if one will continually triumph over the other. Regardless, the practices of Ruskin and Viollet-Le-Duc present two distinctive manners of viewing and handling historic fabric and while Viollet-Le-Duc’s ideology helps us remember and interact with the past, Ruskin’s is strongly integral with it.

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