In my 2014 blog post “Change at Chartres” I discussed New York Review of Books critic Martin Filler’s “Scandalous Makeover at Chartres,” a critique of the interior restoration work at the famous cathedral about 60 miles to the southwest of Paris. Most notable, even endearing, are its two curiously asymmetrical spires. Filler’s criticism often leaves me cold, but here his fulminations were right down my alley. I wrote:
Modern architecture has been the brand of this ethos [change for the sake of change] for years. If you can’t put an ugly, arrogant addition on Chartres, then at least you can reinterpret, reconceptualize and discombobulate the experience of millions who visit, whether as tourists or congregants. Modernism has severed the connection between beauty and time. What results is propaganda and publicity.
Now the city of Chartres plans to put an ugly, arrogant addition onto the building, right out front, like a clown nose on the face of a beloved friend. To be placed upon the parvis (forecourt) in front of the west façade is a so-called interpretation center, a sadly conventional excuse to let modern architecture cavort inanely around a dignified building. Its purpose is to desacralize a world-famous religious icon. The sins of faux interior restoration criticized by Filler seem trivial next to this proposed atrocity, which I discovered on the website of Andrew Cusack, sent to me by Richmond, Va., architect Erik Bootsma. Cusack, who places much of the blame for this proposal on the mayor of Chartres, writes:
Having walked from Paris to Chartres myself I can imagine how much this proposal will injure the experience for pilgrims. After three days on the road, to arrive at Chartres, stand in the parvis, and gaze up at this work of beauty, devotion, and love for the Blessed Virgin is a profound experience. If constructed, this plan would deprive at least a generation or two from having this experience. (But only a generation or two, for it is simply unimaginable to think this building will not be demolished in the fullness of time.)
A generation or two only? Keep dreaming, Andrew! The world is filled with monstrosities that have cheated longer stretches of time. Culture will have coarsened further in the meantime, and the public will be forced to get used to it, though Catholic pilgrims probably will not – if such persons are still permitted to exist by then. So let us hope it will not be built at all.
The other day, the prestigious Driehaus Prize went to Belgium’s Maurice Culot (see my post “Driehaus Prize goes to Culot“), a leading educator and activist in the effort to revive traditional architecture in Europe. If that role means anything, it places him squarely in opposition to modern architecture. The Driehaus, which celebrates the life work of living classicists, comes with $200,000, and I hope this year’s Driehaus laureate will devote part of this sum, along with his consummate energy, to saving Chartres. The University of Notre Dame, whose architecture school sponsors the prize, will bestow it at a celebration on Saturday, March 23, in Chicago.
And Chartres may not be the worst new atrocity in Europe. Arguably the most beautiful street in Paris, the rue de Rivoli, site of the Louvre, has been defaced by an unnecessary façade of undulating glass on the venerable 1869 Art Nouveau-style department store Samaritaine. The thuggish renovation is an intentional insult to the City of Light. Maurice Culot should speak out in Chicago, before it is too late for Chartres Cathedral.
[Note: Between Jan. 31 and Feb. 8, the survey results have swung from No leading 92-8 percent to Yes leading 63-37 percent. Voting deadline is Feb. 26.]