Martin Filler reports for The New York Review of Books: A Scandalous Makeover at Chartres.
Chartres Cathedral, with repainted vaulting in the choir contrasting with the existing nave and transepts in the foreground, Chartres, France, July 11, 2012
Over a lifetime of looking at buildings, a few have stood out as soul-stirring experiences. High among them is Chartres Cathedral, which I first saw some thirty years ago.
Though I had long been acquainted with this renowned Gothic landmark through photographs, I was quite unprepared for the visceral impact of its dark, soaring interior, especially the famous stained glass windows that glowed like precious gems set into the intricately carved stone walls. I began to understand how this overwhelming creation could be perceived as heaven on earth.
During a recent trip to Paris I decided it was time for a return visit, and on an autumn Sunday morning my wife, our friends, and I traveled sixty miles southwest of the French capital to take in this architectural wonder. It was crisp and sunny, perfect weather for viewing the celebrated vitraux, widely considered the finest in the world. As we entered the great church, which was largely constructed between 1194 and 1230, High Mass was in full swing—the scene heightened by the combination of majestic organ music, chanted liturgy, clouds of incense, and banks of votive candles.
Carried away by the splendors of the moment, I did not initially realize that something was very wrong. I had noticed the floor-to-ceiling scrim-covered scaffolding near the crossing of the nave and transepts, but had assumed it was routine maintenance. But my more attentive wife, the architectural historian Rosemarie Haag Bletter—who as a Columbia doctoral candidate took courses on Romanesque sculpture with the legendary Meyer Schapiro and Gothic architecture with the great medievalist Robert Branner—immediately noticed that large areas of the sanctuary’s deep gray limestone surface had been painted. The first portion she pointed out was a pale ochre wall patterned with thin, perpendicular white lines mimicking mortar between masonry blocks. Looking upward we then saw panels of blue faux marbre, high above them gilded column capitals and bosses (the ornamental knobs where vault ribs intersect), and, nearby, floor-to-ceiling piers covered in glossy yellow trompe l’oeil marbling, like some funeral parlor in Little Italy.
The apse of Chartres Cathedral, with piers repainted in yellow faux marble.
How could this be happening, and why had we heard nothing about it before?
In 2009, amid a rising wave of other refurbishments of medieval buildings, the French Ministry of Culture’s Monuments Historiques division embarked on a drastic, $18.5 million overhaul of the eight-hundred-year-old cathedral. Though little is specifically known about the church’s original appearance—despite small traces of pigment at many points throughout the interior stonework—the project’s leaders, apparently with the full support of the French state, have set out to do no less than repaint the entire interior in bright whites and garish colors that are intended to return the sanctuary to its medieval state. This sweeping program to “reclaim” Chartres from its allegedly anachronistic gloom is supposed to be completed in 2017. The belief that a heavy-duty reworking can allow us see the cathedral as its makers did is not only magical thinking but also a foolhardy concept that makes authentic artifacts look fake. To cite only one obvious solecism, the artificial lighting inside the present-day cathedral—which no one has suggested removing—already makes the interiors far brighter than they were during the Middle Ages, and thus we can be sure that the painted walls look nothing like they would have before the advent of electricity. Furthermore, the exact chemical components of the medieval pigments remain unknown. The original paint is thought to have flaked off within a few generations and not been replaced, so for most of the building’s eight-century history it has not been experienced with painted surfaces. The emerging color scheme now allows a direct, and deeply disheartening, before-and-after comparison.
It seems astonishing that such a radical undertaking has attracted so little attention since the project commenced, not least in view of the cathedral’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site—a designation it has held since 1979 and that requires careful adherence to best conservation practices. Consider the international furor raised by the cleaning of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes (1980-1994), which the Columbia art historian James Beck and some other specialists insisted had ruinously removed a crucial final layer of glazing. Other scholars disputed that claim, however, and in the opinion of many, myself included, the ultimate emergence of characteristically high-keyed Mannerist colors—acidulous pinks, greens, yellows, and oranges—from beneath the Sistine ceiling’s long-predominant blues and browns confirmed the project’s correctness.
In contrast, the startling change in color and tone at Chartres felt particularly misjudged as we walked through the broad ambulatory that curves around the east end of the church behind the high altar. Before the intervention, it was a shadowy Nautilus shell where each successive window emerged with the surprise and force of a revelation. Now, the pale new atmosphere, heightened by modern lighting, recalls a picture by Pieter Saenredam, the Dutch Golden Age artist who specialized in views of chaste Gothic church interiors that had been stripped and whitewashed during the Protestant Reformation to expunge the rich embellishments of Roman Catholicism. In this part of the cathedral one can already determine how the lighter wall colors change our perception of the incomparable stained glass, whose effect is hugely diminished by their new surroundings. Whereas the old, age-darkened masonry heightened the intense colors of the windows, the new paint subverts them.
As Adrien Goetz wrote in Le Figaro last month (in one of the very few critical accounts of the overhaul in France), the new effect is like “watching a film in a movie theater where they haven’t turned off the lights.” In fact, medievalists have been alarmed for some time about this approach to renovation, which despite its recent vogue in France seems to violate international conservation protocols. France is a founding member of the 1964 Charter of Venice, an international agreement on the preservation and restoration of ancient monuments and sites. But the art historian C. Edson Armi—a scholar of medieval Chartres and author of The “Headmaster” of Chartres and the Origins of “Gothic” Sculpture (1994)—maintains that “Those in charge [at the Monuments Historiques] today do not accept the principles of the Charter, which decries covering over or permanently altering original stonework in the process of restoring it.”
The ambulatory of Chartres Cathedral, with repainted vaulting visible (right), July 11, 2012.
Armi, who is professor emeritus of art history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a Columbia contemporary of Rosemarie’s and mine, cites one particularly egregious instance of current French practices:
At Paray-le-Monial, one of the handful of most important Romanesque buildings in France, where the entire interior surface, including capitals, has been coated in fire-engine orange. Frédéric Didier, the restoration architect, found no trace of Romanesque paint, but instead found a small patch of fifteenth-century color, and used it as a model to redo the entire inside of the church.
Didier is now in charge of the Chartres repainting, and his resumé also includes what some observers deem his heavy-handed renovation of the Palace of Versailles, begun in 2003, which has included the sandblasting of stone surfaces, a damagingly abrasive practice contrary to Charter of Venice guidelines. A cheery 2009 report in The Independent, titled “Bright Future for a Gothic Wonder,” presumably expressed the restoration team’s rationale when it asserted that “This is not a repaint but, in the case of 80 percent of the walls and roofs, a restoration of the original thirteenth-century décor, rediscovered only twenty years ago under the dirt and mistakes of the centuries.” Without question the ancient building has degraded over the centuries, but it would have benefited from a very different, more sensitive cleaning that avoided the wholesale transmogrification of the sort that has wrecked Paray-le-Monial. As Armi notes, “an important driver in this ‘philosophy’ of restoration is money.”
With such a large budget at Chartres one can imagine a motivation to do more rather than less. In addition to receiving funds from the French government and the European Union, this undertaking has been supported by the American Friends of Chartres. When the Monuments Historiques’ architect-in-chief, Patrice Calvel, addressed the group at Harvard in 2010, he emphasized the urgency of turning the renovation into an international concern. I could not agree more about raising a worldwide alarm about this unfolding cultural disaster. Observant Catholics, whose primary interest in the cathedral is religious rather than aesthetic, have been particularly appalled by one aspect of the program: the repainting of Our Lady of the Pillar, the early-seventeenth-century devotional statue of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child familiarly known as the Black Madonna.
As Jean Markale argues in Cathedral of the Black Madonna: The Druids and the Mysteries of Chartres (1988)—an intriguing study of the links between the Christian sanctuary and the Druidic shrine it superseded—there was a direct precedent for Our Lady of the Pillar in the Celtic black mother goddess Sulevia, another case of early Christianity co-opting indigenous beliefs to attract pagans. Whenever and however Chartres’s Black Madonna acquired its mysterious patina—through oxidation or smoke from candles and incense—it was familiar as such to centuries of the faithful until its recent multicolored makeover, which has transformed the Mother of God into a simpering kewpie doll.
We know that ancient Greek statues were painted in vivid polychrome and adorned with earrings, spears, and other metal accouterments. But the idea of actually adding such long-lost elements to, say, the Parthenon Marbles would be even more controversial than the longstanding debate over where those sculptures should be housed. Officials in charge at Chartres now are engaged in a pursuit as foolhardy as adding a head to the Winged Victory of Samothrace or arms to the Venus de Milo. One can only pray that by some miracle this scandalous desecration of a cultural holy place can be reversed.
Anna Bergren Miller reports for The Architect's Newspaper: How Stella Tower Got Its Glory Back.
JDS Development Group and Property Market Group's renovation of Ralph Walker-designed Stella Tower included restoring the Art Deco Crown.
When JDS Development Group and Property Markets Group purchased the 1927 Ralph Walker high-rise in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in order to transform it into the Stella Tower condominiums, they realized that something was not quite right about the roofline. “The building had a very odd, plain parapet of mismatched brick,” recalled JDS founder Michael Stern.
“We were curious about why it had this funny detail that didn’t belong to the building.” The developers tracked down old photographs of the property and were pleasantly surprised by what they saw: an intricate Art Deco thin dome crown. “We were very intrigued by putting the glory back on top of the building,” said Stern. They proceeded to do just that, deploying a combination of archival research and modern-day technology to recreate a remarkable early-twentieth-century ornament.
Demolition crews uncovered intact portions of the crown base.
The developers, who had previously worked together on 111 West 57th Street and Walker Tower, another Ralph Walker renovation, began with what Stern calls “archeology” or “surgical demolition” of the crown area. The excavation revealed that the entire base of the crown remained behind the bricks added by Verizon, the building’s previous owner.
They also tracked down original drawings of the building, which showed the shape of the crown and some of its dimensions. “We didn’t have shop drawings—we didn’t have a road map,” said Stern. “My team had to basically reverse engineer the crown using the drawings as a guide.” They also leaned on 3D scans of the base to fill in the missing dimensions, and constructed a 3D model of the crown in SolidWorks. The SolidWorks model helped the developers answer important questions, like how many new pieces should be cast, how they would be installed, and what support would be required.
A local cast company produced 48 new pieces for the reconstruction.
JDS Construction, who led the reconstruction effort, called on Corinthian Cast Stone to fabricate the new pieces. Corinthian cast a total of 48 pieces for the upper half of the crown in colored concrete. To support the new work, JDS designed a complexsteel structure for the inside of the crown. They assembled the entire structure offsite before disassembling it and lifting it to the top of Stella Tower using a custom pulley and lever system. Eight craftsmen installed the precast pieces one at a time over the course of approximately five weeks.
Each precast piece was clipped to the steel structure, then mortared to its mates. The design and fabrication process, which began with the decision three years ago to reproduce the crown, culminated this September. “The crown is so spectacular,” said Stern. “It’s better than the invention of the wheel.” Besides his pride in the crown in and of itself, Stern sees the Stella Tower project as a chance to restore Ralph Walker’s place in the architectural canon.
In addition to recreating the crown, JDS and Property Markets Group recast every piece of cast stone and replaced every window and every mismatched brick on the building’s exterior. “We’ve fixed some of the wrongs history has done to the building,” he noted. “This was a great telecom building by one of the fathers of New York architecture, but over the years his buildings have been lost in the landscape. With Walker Tower and Stella Tower, we’re trying to bring attention back to his legacy.” To view a video and more images click here.
Henry Melcher reports for The Architect's Newspaper: The Kings Theater's Second Act. Brooklyn's largest and most stunning theater gets a meticulous renovation.
In September, 1929, the grand and extravagant Kings Theater—one of Loew’s “Wonder Theaters”—opened its doors in Flatbush, Brooklyn.
Designed by Rapp & Rapp, the palatial space hosted vaudeville shows, and later films, inside a grand auditorium that could seat more than 3,000 people. With its ornate plasterwork, soaring ceilings, and two-thousand-pound chandeliers, the Kings Theatre was intended to have all the detail and elegance of Versailles. And it did, until the 1970s when the curtain fell at Kings.
The once bustling venue stayed dark for the next 37 years. But now, after a two-year, $93 million renovation, the Kings Theater is slated to start its second act this January. Washington, D.C.–based architecture firm Martinez+Johnson is leading the transformation with meticulous precision and attention to every detail in the 93,000-square-foot space.
The Theater before Restoration.
The Theater before Restoration.
To return the theater to its original glory, the team looked through old newspaper articles, photos, and playbills to get a sense of the space at its prime. They salvaged everything that they could and painstakingly recreated everything they could not. When a section of wood in the foyer was damaged beyond repair, it was replaced with a new piece, taken from the same type of wood.
The Theater under Restoration.
The Theater under Restoration.
The Theater under Restoration.
But before any plaster could be restored, or paint retouched, the long-abandoned Kings had to be structurally secured. “Some of the damage came from vandalism,” said Gary Martinez, president of Martinez+Johnson, on a recent tour of the theater, “mother nature took care of the rest.”
A new roof had to be installed and recreations of all that was ripped out had to be brought back in. The theater also had to be transformed into a 21st century performing arts venue. This meant altering the seating rake for better sightlines, installing state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems, adding a new ventilation system, and installing new bathrooms, concessions, loading docks, and dressing rooms. And the entire space had to be made ADA compliant. When the restoration is complete, Kings Theatre will be the third largest theatre in the city.
Spencer Peterson reports for Curbed: This Modernist Cape Cod Cottage Was Saved Via Kickstarter.
The Kickstarter-funded restoration of Cape Cod's Weidlinger House has successfully pulled the modernist gem back from the brink. Last pictured in a pretty sorry state, with all of its glass windows and doors missing, its interior weathered by the elements, and a large chunk of its southwest corner taken out by a felled tree, the vacation home of renowned structural engineer Paul Weidlinger has been restored to its sleek and rational 1953 look, marking yet another triumph for the Cape Cod Modern House Trust.
Jen Carlson reports for Gothamist: Loew's Kings Theatre In Brooklyn Will Reopen Next Year.
Last year, it was announced that the Loew's Kings Theatre in Flatbush, one of the five grand "Wonder Theatres" in New York and New Jersey, was going to be restored to its former circa-1929 glory.
A look inside at the time showed the current state of beautiful decay and abandonment, and all that potential. Now after being shuttered for nearly four decades, it will reopen in January 2015, restored to its original grandeur and "with sumptuous interiors inspired by the Palace of Versailles and the Paris Opera House." From yesterday's announcement:
"The Kings Theatre will serve as both a cultural and economic cornerstone for the Brooklyn community, presenting more than 200 performances annually—including music, dance, theatre, and comedy—providing a resource to foster and support creativity in the area, creating jobs and attracting thousands of visitors to the neighborhood."
The space will become "the largest theatre in Brooklyn with over 3,000 seats."
Meanwhile, at the other old Loew's, there's hope the New Jersey one will also be restored, but the one on Canal Street still is still just deteriorating. Click here for more photos.
Jeremiah Budin reports for Curbed: Construction Starts Back Up on Battery Maritime Building.
The Dermot Company's plan to put a glassy $150 million hotel addition on top of the historic Battery Maritime Building stalled in 2009 after they weren't able to secure financing. Now, although there's no official word from the developer, Downtown Post has noticed that construction is underway atop the existing century-old ferry terminal, which was restored by the New York City Economic Development Corp. in 2005. Dermot, along with the Poulakaos family restaurateurs, signed a 99-year lease on the building in 2012.
The design is presumably the same one that was provided in 2007-2008, after a long back and forth with the Landmarks Commission, by Rogers Marvel Architects, which his since split (amicably) into Marvel Architects and Rogers Partners, both of whom display the rendering of the hotel addition on their respective websites. A spokesperson for Marvel told Downtown Post, "Marvel Architects executed the design to obtain federal tax credit.
We have not been involved in the Battery Maritime Building project since those credits were obtained." Ismael Leyva and interior designers I©RAVE are also supposed to be involved.
Katie Watkins reports for Archdaily: Five Firms Selected for Final Stage of Sydney Art Gallery Expansion.
Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Five practices have been selected to move on to the second stage of the Sydney Modern Project, a $450 million expansion of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (NSW). Of the twelve firms invited to participate in the competition, the five that will advance are: Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA; Kengo Kuma & Associates; Kerry Hill Architects; RMA Architects (Rahul Mehrotra Architects); and Sean Godsell Architects.
“The Sydney Modern Project will link the existing gallery with a new building featuring dynamic spaces for major exhibitions and collection displays, a multipurpose theatre, learning and interactive spaces and expanded restaurant, cafe and event spaces,” said Guido Belgiorno-Nettis AM, President of the Gallery’s Board of Trustees. “Importantly, it will also deliver badly needed operational improvements. The Sydney Modern Project will provide a facility that competes globally for audiences and adds to the uniqueness of our beautiful city in both form and function.”
Each of the twelve firms invited to participate in the competition submitted a high-level concept for the project, which was judged anonymously by the Sydney Modern Project Jury. The Jury aims to select a winning design in April.
Christopher Gray reports for The New York Times: Down the Block, Deep in the Stacks. Nearly 30 Years of Documenting New York.
Michael Sterne, then the Real Estate editor of The New York Times, conceived of the Streetscapes column in 1986, and paid me the compliment of hiring me to write it. Now, with my final column, it may be appropriate to present an apologia for what I hoped to do, and what I have done.
The landscape of local history, particularly the history of buildings, was pretty bare in 1975, when I was fresh out of Columbia’s School of General Studies. Rather than take up the work of a poet or a cabdriver, I decided to go for the big money: architectural history.
Traditionally, the field had been restricted to the tour bus monuments that academics studied for years at a time: the Duomo in Milan, the United States Custom House in New York — maybe even, for the adventurous academic, the Chrysler Building. To me, these did not capture the essence of the city. It was the little dead ends, the deserted loft districts, the old ethnic clubs — these were what were interesting.