Can Chartres be Saved?

Volume 48, Issue 2 :: Alexander Gorlin, FAIA

The contrast between the existing interior of Chartres and the newly painted interior is like night and day.

The contrast between the existing interior of Chartres and the newly painted interior is like night and day.

Of all the sacred places on earth, certainly the Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Chartres, just southwest of Paris, ranks near or at the very top of the list. Upon entering the dark, cavernous interior, the jeweled light of the 13th-century stained glass transports one to the a realm beyond time, a recreation of the dream of the heavenly light of the New Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation. Among modern architects, Chartres Cathedral holds a special place. Philip Johnson famously said, “I would rather sleep in Chartres Cathedral, with the nearest toilet two blocks away, than in a Harvard house with back-to-back bathrooms.” Much later, Johnson remarked, “I don’t see how anybody can go into the nave of Chartres Cathedral and not burst into tears.” Frank Gehry agreed, saying in the 2005 documentary, “Sketches of Frank Gehry,” “If you go into Chartres, it drops you to your knees.”

Behind the west façade of Chartres Cathedral is being perpetrated one of the worst atrocities of ‘restoration,’ according to the author.

Behind the west façade of Chartres Cathedral is being perpetrated one of the worst atrocities of ‘restoration,’ according to the author.

The contrast between the existing interior of Chartres and the newly painted  interior is like night and day.

The contrast between the existing interior of Chartres and the newly painted interior is like night and day.

However, its interior is in mortal danger of dissolving into a pale, kitsch version of its former sublime self. In the name of a “restoration” to what is claimed to be the original 13th-century interior, the gray stones are literally being painted in white lime wash and beige paint with faux stone joint lines, erasing all traces of the past. This is cultural vandalism of the lowest order, on par with the Taliban’s demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001.

Chartres was all of one piece, as if carved from a single rock. The floors are ancient stone, out of which grow the massive columns from which the ceiling flows upwards into interlocking curving vaults. Shockingly now, instead of the patina of age that marked and mottled the thick columns and walls, the newly applied white and beige paint looks like a rundown apartment that has been painted for an upcoming real estate sale.

The great lie of this project is revealed when one looks at the juncture between the gently undulating stone floor, uneven from centuries of wear by pilgrims, and the freshly painted columns. The white and beige paint makes the floor and base look filthy and dirty, while the antique floor makes the columns look even more out of place—a total aesthetic disaster. Perhaps at this point they should go all the way and remove the floor and install newly cut limestone paving. Then it would again be all of a piece. After all, one pays top dollar for ancient stone floors cut from old French houses at high-end decorator shops in New York or London. Imagine what the original stone floors of Chartres Cathedral would fetch!

What has been done so far is exactly what John Ruskin decried in the 19th century: “The sin of restoration – Neither by the public, nor by those who have the care of public monuments, is the true meaning of the word restoration understood. It means the most total destruction which a building can suffer: a destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered: a destruction accompanied with false description of the thing destroyed. Do not let us deceive ourselves in this important matter; it is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture.”

A newly painted vault contrasts with the dark and mysterious interior as it has existed for hundreds of years.

A newly painted vault contrasts with
the dark and mysterious interior as it has existed for hundreds of years.

The most jarring disjuncture between existing and ‘restored’ is seen at the column bases.

The most jarring disjuncture between existing and ‘restored’ is seen at the column bases.

The idea that the 13th-century interior of Chartres can be recreated is so totally absurd as to be laughable if it were not happening right now. As Martin Filler has observed in the New York Review of Books, there are bright electric up-lights at the top of the columns shining on the vaults above. These are not the candles, nor the daylight that filtered through the colored stained glass, changing as the clouds passed in front of the sun, nor day turning to night, but a crude, 21st-century lighting scheme.

What is being perpetrated is the revenge of the spirit of Le Corbusier in his book Quand les Cathedrales Etaient Blanches (When the Cathedrals Were White) of 1937. A polemic that was meant entirely as a metaphor, that the rise of Modern architecture in the contemporary world as a promise of a better life for all, was like the medieval era in France when all society worked together towards a single goal, is taken literally at Chartres. Le Corbusier wrote: “The cathedrals were white because they were new.” Well, clearly Chartres Cathedral is no longer new–it is 800 years old! For the “restorers” who wish to return to the 13th century, shall we bring back the Inquisition and burn heretics at the stake? Along the same line of thinking, should the ancient relic of Chartres, the sacred Tunic of the Virgin Mary, which is looking quite tattered, be rewoven into something more spiffy by Knoll or Scalamandre?

What is required here at Chartres is a step back and a careful reassessment of the entire project in the manner of David Chipperfield and Julian Harrap’s renovation of the Neues Museum in Berlin. Here they have, as Suzanne Stephens wrote, “conserved, rehabilitated, reconstructed and remodeled” in an enormously sensitive way, leaving the past while reimagining a new life for a building that had been in ruins for 70 years.

The present work at Chartres is arrogant and brutal, not done with the humility and sensitivity that this greatest of sacred spaces demands. It is a great dishonor to the cultural patrimony of France. Perhaps at this point only a miracle of divine intervention can save Chartres.

The author is principal of Alexander Gorlin Architects in New York. His practice includes the design of synagogues, houses, affordable and homeless housing, urban planning, and interior design. He is the author of five books, including Kabbalah in Art and Architecture, published by Thames & Hudson.


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