When you restore a building that has suffered or been damaged, remodeled, or transformed for other use over the years, there is always the question as to what state the building will or or should be restored to. How much should it be “touched” (or touched up); how many layers of history should be removed (or cleaned away); what is meant by the “original” state of the building.
These are key questions in the restoration of synagogues in Europe. In centuries-old buildings that were remodeled many times or even extensively rebuilt — what version of the building is the “original”? Some ruined or damaged synagogues have been returned to pristine states. Others have been restored to their status at a particular time in their history. Still others — such as the synagogue in Schnaittach, Germany that is now part of the Franconia Jewish Museum and the synagogue in Samorin, Slovakia that is now part of an arts center — have been restored in a way that retains the evidence of how they were damaged and devasted before, during and after World War II.
The New York Times runs an article about how these dilemmas have been confronted in a controversial renovation of the famed cathedral in Chartres, France — where the cleaning of centuries of smoke and dirt that had blackened walls, stained glass, and statuary has been met by sharp resistance from critics who protest that it “wipes away the past.”
Though it deals with a much bigger (and much older) building than Europe’s synagogues — not to mention one of the world’s most famous Christian sites — the article bears reading for its summary of the ways that history and architecture can combine to create visceral identities, and “tampering” with these identities can be seen as a sacrilege of sorts.
Now, the interior of the cathedral is clear of scaffolding for the first time in a decade, and the full impact of a project can be seen. This is its most substantial renovation since Chartres was rebuilt between 1194 and 1225. In the intervening 800 years, the building has changed almost beyond recognition, as smoke from burning candles, oil lamps and fires darkened the walls, the statues (including the Madonna) and the exquisite stained glass.
The restoration aims not only to clean and maintain the structure, but also to offer an insight into what the cathedral would have looked like in the 13th century. Its interior was designed to be a radiant vision, as close to heaven on earth as a pilgrim might come, although many modern visitors have responded more with shock than with awe. The architecture critic Martin Filler has described the project as a “scandalous desecration of a cultural holy place.”
The article goes on:
The restoration seeks to reconstitute a temple of light, to challenge the popular perception of Gothic dejection. But in doing so, it raises an intriguing question: What happens when our inherited assumptions about the past come into contact with layers of accumulated myth?
Then there are some inconsistencies in the medieval restoration: The cathedral has electric lighting (although the brighter interior actually minimizes the need for artificial light), the elegant but uneven stone floor remains untreated and the apse boasts restored baroque marble. It is a challenge to identify at what point an innovation is consecrated into tradition, and which version of Chartres ought to be conserved.