France’s ongoing effort to restore the 13th century Chartres Cathedral is a waste of time and the $18.5 million it’s costing. So says architecture critic Martin Filler, who blames restoration architect Frederic Didier for painting faux marble on the sanctuary’s limestone, complete with narrow white lines to imitate mortar between the masonry blocks. The upshot, Filler said, is that it makes the original relics look fake. (More about that in a moment).
Apparently, using paint as a restoration technique is Didier’s trademark. Chartres expert C. Edson Armi has faulted him for painting the interior of another of France’s medieval buildings – the 12th century Paray-le-Monial – in “fire-engine orange,” which he is said to have copied from some 15th century color patch.
Such criticisms wouldn’t have surprised Victorian age art critic John Ruskin, who famously wrote that any attempt at restoration is, by his definition, phony:
“It is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture. That which I have… insisted upon as the life of the whole, that spirit which is given only by the hand and eye of the workman, can never be recalled.”
Calling restoration a “lie,” Ruskin contended that it’s like making a model of a corpse that has the appearance of the shell only. What’s missing is the sweat of the hand that first made it.
As for Filler’s view that the faux marble at Chartres makes its authentic relics look inauthentic, I witnessed a similar thing at the now defunct Guggenheim Hermitage, a space in The Venetian hotel designed by architect Rem Koolhaas to house art loaned from the State Hermitage Museum in Russia.
Koolhaas styled the walls of Guggenheim Hermitage with oxidized Cor-Ten steel to match the reddish velvet walls of the Hermitage. But he overlooked context – Guggenheim Vegas’ locale. The hotel’s lavishly appointed gambling rooms that led to the museum looked more like a museum and the museum looked more like a storage room.
And In the company of Vegas’ campy mock-ups of famous places that reach to the pyramids of Luxor, Russia’s collection of modern easel paintings at Guggenheim Vegas looked downright dingy, like washed out reproductions. Only Vegas glitter and make-believe looked real.
I voiced this concern to Koolhaas at a press conference when the Guggenheim Vegas opened in 2002, but it went without response. Afterwards Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Russian Hermitage Museum, told me he shared the concern. He said he worried his one-of-a-kind treasures wouldn’t seem like one-of-a-kind in the glare of the resort’s replica frescoes and statuary: “I hope visitors to the Guggenheim Hermitage won’t see the work as faux.” But it did.
Moral of the story: The zeal to make everything look new and shiny diminishes treasured things.