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Making an Old Factory Into a Garden

One of the things that people went to see last month, as part of the Journées nationales du patrimoine in France (see my post on September 23), was discussed in an article (Une cathédrale industrielle livrée à la nature, September 16) by Emmanuel de Roux in Le Monde:

Today the notion of the patrimony has broadened. Notably in the direction of industrial architecture, long unknown and even despised, even if it still represents only 1.7% of the 41,526 buildings protected in 2004. Since protection obviously implies upkeep, the problems of restoration have caused gallons of ink to be spilled, since the 19th century. And the restoration project on the Chavannes coal washing plant, near Montceau-les-Mines (Saône-et-Loire), has reopened the debate.
Lavoir à charbon de ChavannesIt was built between 1923 and 1927 and substantially expanded and modernized over the years until processing was stopped in 1999. Although the site was abandoned, the interior is still cluttered with machinery and conveyor belts, tools are still gathering dust on shelves, papers are still stored in desks and cabinets, and trains are still waiting on their tracks for the next load, although weeds have largely overgrown the ground and exterior walls. (Here is a slideslow of 12 images of the plant.) The property was given to a Dutch architectural firm called MVRDV on June 11, 2004, after a jury competition, to convert the Chavannes plant—a dozen stories, 8,000 square meters [86112 square feet] of footprint, in the middle of a mining site covering 32 hectares [79.1 acres]—into something else. (This .PDF file has a description of the finalists in the competition.) After all, it was one of the central sites of its community for so many years: is it right to just abandon it? Naturally, in a good newspaper like Le Monde, this story requires some serious citations:
As early as 1849, John Ruskin (1819–1900), the British art historian, claimed in his Seven Lamps of Architecture: "What we supposedly call restoration is only the worst kind of destruction." He added shortly after: "It is impossible, as impossible as resurrecting the dead, to restore what was great and beautiful in architecture." Ruskin pushed his reasoning to the limit: a monument's ultimate fate is to disappear. Even though we must "guard an old building with vigilance," to protect it from total dilapidation, "its last hour will sound: but let it sound openly and frankly, and let no dishonorable and false substitution intrude to deprive it of the funereal obligations of remembering it."

In France, in the same period, his sworn enemy, the architect Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814–1879), was a supporter not only of restorations but also of reconstructions, affirming that, in a phrase that remains famous, "resotring a building is putting it back into a state that could never have existed at any single moment." And he put his theories into practice. Thanks to him, Gothic cathedrals recovered their spires and their lost statues. At Pierrefonds, he reinvented a chateau of which only the foundations of ruined walls remained. Later, an intermediary third route was defended by the Italian architect Camillo Boito (1835–1914), and then by Austrian art historian Alois Riegl (1858–1905), before becoming the rule of the Venice Charter (1964), which insists on respecting the a historical monument's history throughout the changes of all periods.
What does the Dutch firm plan to do with the site? (MVRDV is also redesigning Les Halles in Paris, by the way.) According to Winy Mass, one of its leaders, "Not to develop the site does not mean to abandon it. It means envisioning another way, perhaps long-term, perhaps artificial, to place the abandoned plant in its territory: to render it contemporary by the themes developed around it." Their plan is to gradually remove most of the metal structures from the plant, using the proceeds from the sale of the metal to finance a part of the plan. The concrete slab foundation will be covered with earth to allow plants to grow. The building will become part of the wild land around it. According to the article, "the bizarre insolence of the MVRDV solution ultimately seduced the jury." They liked that the plan was a sort of "critical sanctuarization" that "ritualizes the return to nature." It was also, the author notes, the least expensive proposal, which will nevertheless cost 2 million € ($2.47 million).


Anonymous said...

Nice article, but the link to the pdf with the finalist description doesn't work..

Charles T. Downey said...

April Fool! No, really, this article was published in 2004. That's equivalent to about 4,000 B.C. in Internet years. Links die: get used to it.