Feminist Archaeo-geologies: Retrieving Alexandrine Sureda from Eugène Viollet-le-Duc’s Mont Blanc archives

Paper presented at The Power of Sources in Architecture Research and Practice, Panel 3: Canon and Episteme

 

(excerpt)

Through an examination of various documents and omissions in the Fonds Viollet-le-Duc, housed at the Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine (MAP) in Paris, France, this paper presents the retrieval of lost voices in nineteenth-century French architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc’s study of Mont Blanc. This examination and recovery recasts a canonical biography and demonstrates the power inherent in archival material, its selection and acquisition, and its retrieval, reconfiguration, and transcription. This power is applied by both the keepers of archival documents (here, the Viollet-le-Duc family and the French national archives) and their users (the researcher, historian, designer) to construct, establish, and destabilise historical narratives.

Viollet-le-Duc’s Mont Blanc investigation was carried out late in his career, between 1868 and 1876. While the architect is better known for his architectural restorations, here he attempted to restore the mountain to its original, primitive form — the most ambitious reconstruction of his career. He endeavoured to explain Earth’s geohistory by rationally deducing its structure and recomposing it through the archetypal monument of Mont Blanc. More than other works in his oeuvre, this investigation is presented as the work of a singular author, produced by a sole man observing in the field. The study was completed at a time when the architect had isolated himself from the academy and even, to a degree, from French society following his traumatic experiences at the École des Beaux Arts in 1863 and in the Franco Prussian War between 1870 and 1871.1

However, in reality this geological work circulated through and was shaped by different voices, including those of mountain guides, locals, naturalists, and others largely absent from the archive and historical accounts. Among these ‘other’ voices is that of Alexandrine Sureda — notable not only for being a woman but also for the intimacy of her relationship with the work and architect. Sureda is described alternatively as Viollet-le-Duc’s secretary, companion, and even collaborator, yet her presence in the archive is vague, obscured by acquisitors’ decisions and a lack of attention on the part of researchers.

Through a close reading of the correspondence, field notes, drawings and sketches in the Fonds Viollet-le-Duc, Sureda and other figures are found in various relations to the architect. We see these “others” at precisely the moment that they connect with Viollet-le-Duc. It is through this contact with the architect, or with power as French philosopher Michel Foucault writes, that these “others,” who would otherwise have disappeared from history, are able to leave behind traces.2 Through his public roles (including as Inspector General of Diocesan Buildings in France) and as a well-connected member of French society (socially and professionally), Viollet-le-Duc possessed power and influence throughout his career. This power is reflected in personal accounts contained within his archive and by its very existence and careful preservation.3 While Viollet-le-Duc’s legacy ensured the collection’s status, the power preserved in the archive is taken up in a new form by its collectors, minders, and users, whose choices of selection, inclusion and omission shape the knowledge held of historical events. Major power is wielded in telling stories. They can reinforce dominant narratives or can recover alternative, expanded histories of the field to illuminate the network of bodies and circulation of ideas within which dominant figures worked. As scholar Donna Haraway writes, “Redistributing the narrative field by telling another version of a crucial myth is a major process in crafting new meanings. […] Destabilizing an origin story is perhaps more powerful in the deconstruction of the history of man than replacing it with a more progressive successor.”4 Architectural theorist Hélène Frichot describes the urgency and relentless nature of this task: “If the ‘absence’ (of women, the Other, any ‘other’) at the centre of the discipline demarcates a place cleaned of clutter and mess, then this noise and dirt, which is part and parcel of “the lived difficulty of everyday life” (Butler cited in Coleman 1996, xv), must be restored. Like housecleaning, the work of restoring minor voices in architecture, design and art, as elsewhere, is unending. Elbow grease is required.”5

Frichot’s idiomatic reference to manual labour speaks to the manual work involved with retrieving this clutter and mess from remaining archives and material evidence. This paper is concerned with both restoring the minor voices of ‘others’ to Viollet-le-Duc’s Mont Blanc study, and with examining the methods of how we do this work in archives – mediating and transgressing the power they hold, through our own agency as their users. My work draws on Haraway, Frichot, and other feminist theory together with the methods of science historians Lorraine Daston and David Sepkoski to develop a feminist archaeo-geological methodology with which I investigate the Fonds Viollet-le-Duc.6 This work is not strictly historical — it is propositional. The archive constantly oscillates between past and present, what was and what is, and directly influences our future decision-taking. […]

References

  1. Middleton, ‘Viollet-Le-Duc et Les Alpes: La Dispute Du Mont-Blanc’, 101–2; Bressani, Architecture and the Historical Imagination: Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-Le-Duc, 1814–1879, 455–57.
  2. Foucault, ‘Lives of Infamous Men’, 282.
  3. The final acquisition of Viollet-le-Duc’s archive was described by the Ministry of Culture as being of “major interest to the national heritage” and was valued at 1.6 million euros in 2007 when acquired by the MAP from the Viollet-le-Duc family. See: ‘Acquisition of the Viollet-Le-Duc Fund Thanks to Sponsorship from the Eiffage Group’.
  4. Haraway, ‘Primatology Is Politics by Other Means’, 491.
  5. Frichot, Dirty Theory: Troubling Architecture, 28.
  6. I draw particularly from Lorraine Daston and David Sepkoski’s discussions of methods of reading Earth as archive, and science historical methodologies in: Sepkoski, ‘The Earth as Archive: Contingency, Narrative, and the History of Life’; Daston, ‘Introduction: Third Nature’; Daston, ‘The Sciences of the Archive’.