I grew up hearing the same story – From what I can remember, the little glass tube, attached to a thin gold chain, contained a very tiny piece of wood. My relative always wore it around her neck. She never tired of telling those around her that the fragment was originally a part of the cross on which Christ was crucified. I also remember thinking how special it must be for an accountant living in Columbus, Ohio to own a fragment of such a rare and important artifact. When I inquired further, my relative told the details of how she purchased it at the Vatican in Rome. It was blessed by the Pope. This story continues to, as it did when I was a small boy, feed my imagination.
I am not commenting on the veracity of my relative’s beliefs, or the authenticity of the wood splinter – it certainty remained meaningful throughout her life. What I am thinking about is the power of a fragment, and how these dis-embodied artifacts represent a certain drive within the field of preservation to honor the materiality of form and recreate rather than re-think.
I have always found the pilgrimage site of Ronchamp to be an amazing example of the creative process in preservation and construction. When you first see the Chapel Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp, France, a pilgrimage chapel designed by the architect LeCorbusier, it looks like a spaceship that has just landed on the mountaintop. Not much about its appearance clues you into how deeply imbedded with the past it really is. This site has long been dedicated to The Christian Madonna and home to several large international pilgrimage services a year. The present pilgrimage chapel is actually the third distinct building that has been built on the same mountaintop. The first dated from the 4th century and in 1913 was gutted by a massive fire; the second (using the same walls and footprint but greatly expanded) c. 1920 was significantly destroyed in 1944 during a WWII battle; and the present building was built in 1955 and quickly became an iconic 20th century building for its ability to feel primitive at the same time being something entirely new.
An aspect of this construction history that isn’t normally highlighted is, that during the last building campaign, Le Corbusier chose to re-use stones and building fragments in the structure of the new chapel. He covers this meaningful re-use of materials with a layer of rough, natural stucco – so that to the casual observer, the building is about abstract form, not the details of materiality. Construction photographs give us a clear understanding of the similarity of wall completion between the previous chapel and Corbu’s new building. In contrast to the hidden stone fragments of the walls (covered in stucco), there is a “monument to peace”. This shrine, is placed, seemingly haphazardly, off to the side of the present chapel and in the shape of a stepped pyramid. During Pilgrimage service, attendees sit on this stepped structure. The construction of this monument is also made out of the destroyed chapel, but this time the stone structure is not hidden under a layer of stucco, but visible – a visible, tactile reminder of the previous life of the site.
Sometimes fragments can be unified in non-material ways. To further reinforce a connection to the past and the dis-assembly of the original chapel, a site analysis of the pyramid monument relative to the new Chapel structure reveals a clear, and conscious relationship between the two structures. Although both built out of the fragments of the destroyed chapel, one is concealed, while the other is revealed. The geometric analysis of the site plan shows how the alignment lines of the monument pyramid directly line up with the exterior pilgrimage alter. It is as if the fragments of the old chapel are bound together by an invisible tether. The old chapel still exists in the latent structure of the new chapel as well as manifest in the monument to peace.
Just as the discarded stones of the old chapel at Ronchamp, the very structure of the human body can been re-used, as shown in the European catacombs. The macabre and oddly practical uses of human bones in these shrines, stand as an ultimate creative act. The materiality of bones and fragments of the human form are meaningfully expressed beyond their previous life – through naive creativity. The value of these bones, beyond anthropological data, is elevated through a re-combination of forms – through a conscious release of previous form and visualizing a new, expressive morphology.
Is it necessary, or even actually possible, to reconstruct or restore, in order for the spirit of place to remain? It is as if we, as individuals, can be torn apart by war, decay, demolition, and neglect, but through an invisible connector, our humanity and life can be preserved through these fragments. Perhaps these fragments are hidden underneath more contemporary life (as in the catacombs), or they may be revealed as in the “Monument to Peace”, or they may be totally divorced contextually (as in my relative’s cross wood fragment) – but in any case – a continuous thread of habitation is preserved through thoughtful integration of disembodied parts. Most importantly, it is not the preservation of the form that matters, but the preservation of the spirit. The spirt is found in activity, behaviors, creativity, and experiences.
The question ultimately is – can we preserve the spirit of place by allowing for new forms to become vessels for this spirit? Is reconstruction, infill, restoration always the answer? Perhaps in accepting the inevitable death and decay of the physical form, we can achieve something greater than what existed previously.
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