Monday, 27 April 2015


^Crossing Pier showing the contrast before and after restoration

"Two kinds of nostalgia are not absolute types, but rather tendencies, ways of giving shape and meaning to longing. Restorative nostalgia puts emphasis on nostos (returning home)and proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps. Reflective nostalgia dwells in algia (aching), in longing and loss, the imperfect process of remembrance. The first category of nostalgics do not think of themselves as nostalgic; they believe that their project is about truth.”
Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia

In her book The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym posits nostalgia as the inevitable flipside of the coin of modernity, as a primary symptom of development in which the march forward only becomes psychologically acceptable through a turn towards the past, real or otherwise. Spaces of shared history are our universal panacea. Within this fundamentally modern condition she outlines two main responses. On the one hand there are those who reject the ambiguities, layerings and lacunae of history, and wish to return to an ideal origin, to the moment in which a building, a city, or a nation was in its primary, pure and unadulterated state. Those with this goal in mind see history spatially, as just one point in time, to be rediscovered, reconstructed, and inhabited. On the other hand there are those who embrace the passing of time, and the complex stratifications of adulteration and chance, who see signs of change as triggers for the contemplation of the temporary nature of all things man-made, both our ideas & values as well as our buildings. Those who prefer to reflect on the past in this manner see history as a continuum of change, and the very marks of time passing, the indeterminate nature of what came before and after, are the immeasurably valuable qualities that come with age.

Chartres, perhaps the most universally adored of the great gothic cathedrals from the astonishing 12th & 13th Century Ile de France building boom, is part-way through an extensive program of restoration that has pitted these two sensibilities against one another. The campaign’s intention is to remove 800 years’ worth of accumulated grime and reinstate a decorative scheme that was discovered under numerous later layers of paint and dirt. The caking of candle wax, paint and soot, including from a fire in the 1970s, was so textured and dark that the surfaces of the Cathedral were almost uniformly mistaken for exposed stonework. The consequently dark interior provided a dazzling contrast to the coruscating radiance of the stained glass, itself restored to a state of past-perfect chromatic uniformity amid quite some controversy. The layers and layers of decorative schemes, alterations, damage and grime no doubt had nothing in common with how the space looked on the day of its consecration, but the story they told of the intervening time, and the much admired aesthetic consequences of its restrained decay came to be much loved and intimately associated with our version of Chartres, a Chartres that provided something much needed in the 19th, 20th and 21st Centuries, a place to reflect on in the unknowable distances that both separate us from, and unite us with our past.

The restored ambulatory and choir areas, soon to be followed by the transepts, crossing and nave before 2017, look brand new and bright, with a beige ground covered in white lines that trace mortar joints that don’t always follow the actual coursing below, itself an interesting example of how visitor perception of the interior trumped any fidelity to material fact even at the time of the Cathedral’s opening. It is impressive for a moment, and then you remember you are in Chartres. The effect is well summed-up by John Lichfield when he asks us to “Imagine how you might feel if your great, great, great grand-mother was suddenly made to appear 20 years old again.”* The restorers intend that the Cathedral be experienced as had been originally intended. That intention is an impossibility, and the presumption that it can be achieved is a dangerous one. In the sciences, practitioners posit a theory, which may be generally accepted for a period, but as soon as experimental results disprove it, a new theory is proposed that explains the data. Truth evolves. The problem with the material pursuit of reconstructing supposed origins in restoration, such as the cleaning of Chartres, is that based on necessarily fragmentary and imperfect evidence, a theory (and that is all it is) is presumed as a final truth, and all evidence to the contrary contained within the accretions of time and the gaps in the earliest material, is systematically wiped out and lost forever as something that can be experienced spatially. In these instances Truth may not evolve, it is arrested, and visitors are permanently excluded from forming their own ideas about the building in the way they might when all the increments of 800 years are present in the space for them to interpret. The information regarding the original colour-scheme could be present in a guide as text, and become one layer of many that visitors may simultaneously experience, but when it erases everything else there is only one manner in which the building can be understood. It is a form of historical absolutism.

I am open to the reflex towards reconstructive nostalgia in architecture when the building is new. Nobody pretends that the full-scale replica of the Parthenon in Nashville is actually the original Parthenon. There is an honesty about internal paradoxes in that act, everyone is aware of an edifice’s newness, is aware that it is an illusion, and a communal act of imagination is required to validate the history it indicates, whether it be Disneyland (the materialisation of fictional histories) or the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow (the reinstatement of a previously erased past). However restoration to an existing historic building that eliminates the patina of history, and reinstates an illusory ideal moment in the past while using the rhetoric of scientific and historic accuracy, is an act of destruction in the name of an illusion, dressed up in good intentions.

We are all poorer for the restoration at Chartres, and have lost one of our greatest spaces for reflection on the passing of time, and things.


This article was published in edited form in the May 2015 issue of Apollo Magazine as part of the "Forum" series in which two opposing takes in an issue are placed next to one another. The article can be read here.

*John Lichfield, Bright future for a Gothic Wonder in the Independent, Saturday 05 September 2009

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