Versailles-land ? Our article, in French, at the time had caused somewhat of a stir. The entrance to the chateau, with the fake grille shining like a trinket and the gilt roof tops (ill. 1) appearing as never before in the architectural layout, alas, would indeed fit its newly coined name.
We should however acknowledge that the previous presidency of Jean-Jacques Aillagon, whom we had criticized on several points, was on the right track as concerns reconstitutions. While the projects begun before his arrival (including the gilt rooftops) were unfortunately carried out, those initiated by the chief architects Pierre-Andre Lablaude (in the gardens) and Frederic Didier (in charge of the chateau) had been shelved.
Catherine Pegard’s appointment was far from promising and we expected a reversal in the trend set by Jean-Jacques Aillagon. Alas, this now seems to be the case, and even worse than originally feared. This is because next 15 August, she is to appoint Jacques Moulin as Pierre-Andre Lablaude’s successor following his retirement.
The Art Tribune readers know Moulin well. We have written extensively about his methods and the manner in which he "restored" the Quartier Henri IV at the chateau of Fontainebleau (see article) as well as the ramparts in Provins or the chateau of Blandy-les-Tours. Reconstructions, restitutions of supposedly old, in fact simply theoretical, historical states are his hobbyhorse (see here). It goes without saying that he will have a heyday at Versailles.
His exploits go even further than those quoted above and we can add several other instances of curious restorations. In fact, the problem goes back quite a ways. For example, we might mention the one at the chateau de Chamerolles in the Loiret region, and the creation of its "Renaissance" gardens (ill. 2) which Anne-Marie Lecoq studied in 1993 in La Revue de l’Art (available online here), an edifying article whose title alone sets the tone : Le patrimoine denature. As this appointment involves gardens, the choice of person becomes particularly critical. This study, almost 20 years old, states : "Jacques Moulin is one of the most active representatives of a tendency which is more and more pronounced among chief architects for Historical Monuments", that of "restoring-restituting-recreating". We refer our readers to this edifying text which we were not familiar with until now and which allows us to anticipate the way in which this architect will be working in the years to come.
Although Pierre-Andre Lablaude’s departure was a unique opportunity (since it appears that the chief architect at Versailles is a life-long appointment) to replace him by one of his fellow colleagues who knows how to respect historical monuments, their history and the Venice Charter - yes, fortunately, such people do exist - we will now witness the arrival of one of the field’s most extreme practitioners, applying methods constantly denounced by art historians and associations for heritage protection. Alexandre Gady, art historian and president of the Societe pour la protection des paysages et de l’esthetique de la France, told us : "The work which Jaques Moulin has carried out until now has been polemically received and worries us to the point we feel that this is not the ideal person to restore the gardens at Versailles, to say the least."
We realize of course that Versailles is a choice career appointment and a crowning professional achievement ! While many chief architects now have to be competitive, thus making them at times cut prices to the point of no longer carrying out the projects correctly (see our article, in French), the situation at Versailles is the exact opposite. With no competition, and impressive restoration budgets, mostly funded thanks to generous patrons, the site is a real cash cow with high potential.
The appointment of Jacques Moulin, and we should recall that he was dismissed from the chateau in Fontainebleau (see article), would be doubly incensing. The reason is that since his firing, Moulin created an agency of chief architects, 2BDM, with none other than...Frederic Didier. After having spent years in the effort of breaking the monopoly exerted by chief architects, it has now been reinstated and totally locked in at France’s most important historical monument for the benefit of one agency alone !
We should add that, during a historical monument project, the management obviously can make a major impact. At best, if Jacques Moulin works with a project manager who refuses these mistaken practices and with a scholarly supervision which asserts its role firmly, things might turn out well. But at Versailles, the successive reconstitutions over the last few years show that the proposals made by the chief architects are generally accepted. Here, management of a project is entrusted to the heritage department, headed by Daniel Sancho, a very qualified engineer who also works on gardens, but he is in no way an architectural historian and has not moderated these initiatives (as seen in the many reconstitutions in the last few years). He reminded us of the control held by the Inspection des patrimoines but we know that this body is made up essentially of chief architects who supervise their fellow colleagues, and also by the Direction Regionale des Affaires Culturelles. The DRAC’s control, over large monuments belonging to the State, to be commended of course, is a recent measure made effective about eighteen months ago. It has been instrumental in avoiding certain reconstitutions (in an aside, Frederic Didier for example wanted to restitute the monogram of Louis XV in the Cour des Cerfs, which was rejected). However, on the one hand, this is adding further to the already heavy load, and we know that the DRAC has a limited staff ; also, there is no guarantee that the opinion of the DRAC curators, as was the case in the reconstruction of the grille, will be observed.
5. François d’Orbay (1634-1697)
Elevation Section of the Buildings at the Cour de la Fontaine, 1676
Ink, Wash, Watercolor - 81.8 x 108.4 cm
Paris, Archives Nationales
Photo : Archives Nationales
It is not surprising perhaps that Catherine Pegard who, as we had pointed out at the time, has no particular background in this field was duped in this way. Her first months at Versailles have been mostly positive, the curators visibly satisfied with her management of the monument without imposing her wishes at all costs, as opposed to her predecessor. Where did she come up with the name of Jacques Moulin, when according to our sources the heritage department had presented her with a list of architects specialized in gardens (which is not his case) and from which he had been carefully excluded ? Quite obviously, the lobbying done by Frederic Didier and Pierre-Andre Lablaude played a decisive role.
Does the president of the public establishment know, for example, that for the dungeon of the chateau at Fontainebleau, Jacques Moulin’s restoration consisted notably in redoing a roof finial (ill. 3 and 4) ? That the one and only piece of evidence showing the existence of this finial was a drawing by Francois d’Orbay dating from the 1670’s (ill. 5) ? That he therefore restituted a Louis XIV architectural element which had disappeared since at least the early 19th century, on an architecture whose historical state dates from the late 19th and from a detail on a drawing ? And, most importantly, does she know that he had this useless and expensive finial sculpted with a machine  ? Yes indeed, some chief architects restitute "in an identical way" sculptures which are fabricated by robots (ill. 6)...The practice is becoming more and more widespread in projects and was denounced in February 2010 in the journal Momus.
6. A Carving Robot, Comparable to
the One Used on Jacques Moulin’s Site,
Photo : Momus
Will Catherine Pegard’s promising beginning be totally discredited by the upcoming appointment of Jacques Moulin as chief architect at Versailles ? The decision is hers alone as, although it has been approved, it is not yet official. When we contacted her, she stated : "nothing you have said really exists, and I can therefore not make any comments". She did add however that "we should not pass judgement beforehand". We are not passing judgement, we are speaking from experience. She has no room for error : this appointment would leave an indelibile stain on her presidency.
Addendum (published 19 August 2012)
Concerning the above article, the chief architect for historical monuments, Patrick Ponsot, the author of the Momus article we quoted here, forwarded the following text to us :
"The use and interpretation you make of one of my articles (published in the 2009 issue of Momus which you reproduce) calls for the following clarifications :
The photograph shows a sculptor robot carving an architectural element, not a sculpture. According to the head of the workshop which was visited, this moulded stone element was intended for a church in Seine-et-Marne, stated in the legend of the negative,
Although the article raises the question of the principles underlying restoration projects (is not "the identical" a view of the spirit ?), it deals above all with the evolution of modes of production in restoration within a context of competition (leading to a continuously increasing mechanization) and globalization (who could ever have imagined this for stone ?),
The assertion that a robot might have been used to restore the gilt lead rooftops on the dungeon at Fontainebleau cannot be deducted from this article which deals only with the principles, treating either my own projects, or else examples published elsewhere (such as the question of the Chinese granite floor around the Bordeaux cathedral, which is not a restoration),
The article therefore in no way deals with the question of the Fontainebleau dungeon (which I was not involved with) nor Jacques Moulin."
We are pleased to publish what Patrick Ponsot calls a "correction" [rectificatif]. However, our article referred to the one published in Momus simply to point out the existence of sculpting machines with in no way claiming to offer any other connection with the subject discussed here.