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FW: [SCA-WEST:9102] Fw: William the concreter
Poster: Louise Sugar <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Thought that this might interest you all
From: ravnos [SMTP:email@example.com]
Sent: Wednesday, June 04, 1997 8:58 PM
To: Multiple recipients of list
Subject: [SCA-WEST:9102] Fw: William the concreter
From: Corie Conwell <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: William the concreter
Date: Wednesday, June 04, 1997 9:00 AM
This was on one of the museum lists - thought folks might be interested -
The following article from the Times Newspaper may interest you:
June 4 1997
A furious dispute has erupted over an addition to a medieval castle in
Normandy. Marcus Binney reports
William the concreter
It is the most controversial restoration of the decade. William the
Conqueror's mighty castle at Falaise in Normandy has a new barbican in
dark concrete and stainless steel, and a roof of whitest Teflon. If
Jocelyn Stevens had done such a thing to a Norman keep in the care of
English Heritage, his head would have been demanded on a platter by
the president of the Society of Antiquaries - and delivered. Today the
keep at Falaise could be a set for Star Wars, with Darth Vader as its
new liege lord.
French intellectuals are incensed. The architecte-en-chef entrusted
with the works, Bruno Decaris, I was told, had been transferred from
Calvados to new duties in Burgundy. The society Aimez Falaise has
issued proceedings against him for not obtaining planning permission
for the works; it seems that the Commission superieure des monuments
historiques thought it was exempt from such trifles.
Our very own Edward Impey, from the Tower of London, has sallied
resoundingly into the fray, savaging Decaris for building a "grosses
Blockhaus" and treating the keep not as an historic monument but as "a
means of personal expression", and introducing glass and steel
"airport style" inside.
Falaise is one of the great succession of near-impregnable stone
donjons or keeps erected by the Conqueror and his immediate successors
to secure their Norman and English territories. The donjon at Falaise
was actually built in 1123 by William's younger son Henry I of
England, within his father's fortified enceinte.
Since Henry IV of France took the castle in 1590, the keep has stood a
gutted shell, with bare walls ascending to the sky, latterly
inaccessible to all. Decaris's approach is a simple one - to recreate
the main internal spaces of the Norman keep, using visibly modern
materials. The walls of these Norman keeps were so massively thick
that at upper levels they were threaded through with passages and
stairs. Often you can only glimpse these from the ground. At Falaise
you now have the run of them.
According to Charles Bowden, the English guide working at the castle,
the formidable surprise of the new interior enthrals many visitors.
Step through the high-level Norman doorway and you are walking on
glass. Adults inch forward. Children jump. A transparent modern-day
parquet a la francaise dramatically reveals how high above the ground
the great Norman hall stood.
Decaris explains: "The floors had disappeared, the whole structure was
difficult to understand." He felt it was important to put back a roof,
so the medieval windows play their proper role, with deep reveals
glowing as a shaft of sun shines through. The new lightweight roof is
a fibreglass structure covered in Teflon. "I showed the model to a
French engineer who said it couldn't be done." So Decaris went to the
late Peter Rice (the RIBA gold medallist), who worked it out in a
Decaris wanted to express the keep's dual role as fortress and palace.
"I did this with materials - grey for the defensive elements and blue
for the inside of the room. It had to be done in an abstract way, for
we knew no details and I did not want to copy or invent," he says.
Window shutters and large hinges are traditionally proportioned but in
galvanised steel. The windows are not leaded lights, but large sheets
of clear glass etched with a simple geometric pattern. A reconstructed
spiral staircase now has a plain tubular bronze handrail. Lamps on the
stairs are shaped like flaming torches but inset with electric bulbs.
In the slit windows, he has enraged purists by introducing a simple
metal gauze. "We had a problem with birds. Without the gauze the
windows would have been filthy in a few weeks."
One big innovation is under-floor heating, allowing the keep to be
open and used for events all the year. "This last winter we had
periods of minus 10C and the castle was very pleasant inside," he
The great French King Philip Augustus, who took Falaise in 1204, five
years after the death of his arch-rival Richard the Lionheart, added a
new, still higher defensive circular tower beside the keep. This was
clearly a place of last resort as it had no independent outside
Thanks to Decaris you now ascend all the way to the top. He has added
a new parapet above the machicolations. "It's two metres high as I did
not want the heads of the public to be visible from below, so we have
made small portholes to open up the view," he says.
Look down between the machicolations, and yet again you are standing
on air - on a metal grille, 100ft or more above the ground, ready to
rain missiles or boiling oil on the attackers below.
The fiercest criticism centres on the new, dark grey barbican or
avant-corps. Decaris came to study Norman keeps in England, notably
Castle Rising. "Barbicans were complicated internally, intended to
disorientate an attacker. I have designed it to give a sense of its
defensive purpose," he says.
In 1985 he was asked by the then Mayor of Falaise to produce "a very
strong project". In the Mairie the town clerk told me that he hoped
that the keep would do for Falaise what the pyramid has done for the
Louvre. Like it or not, Decaris has been true to his brief.
I think the authorities in Paris should have the guts to stand by
their architect and finish the job properly. The dark concrete is
actually the same tone as the weathered stone at the base of the keep.
Instead panic has put a halt on all work. The new drawbridge
(galvanised steel of course) is not working and is pathetically
weighted down with a rough concrete block. The lift for the disabled,
designed to fit within the barbican, has yet to be installed. Because
the site has not been tidied up, visitors are bringing in gravel and
grit on their shoes and scratching the clear glass floor.
Decaris had the foresight to put a sacrificial glass sheet over the
thicker, bullet-proof glass below, but then to allow the new surface
to be damaged is sheer sloppiness.
This is a restoration (the French refer more appropriately to an
"intervention") which opens a new door on the display of ancient
sites. It brings hope for magnificent donjons such as Beaugency on the
Loire, where the key has seemingly been thrown away.
Mistakes have been made at Falaise, notably blasting a horrific new
emergency exit through the lower walls to comply with safety
regulations. But taken as a whole, this is not caprice but a sincere,
pioneering and intensely provoking exercise, which turns a frozen
antiquity back into a major work of architecture which all can now
experience at close quarters.
Copyright 1997 Times Newspapers Limited
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