What use are the laws protecting historical monuments ? (1) : the château d’Ancenis

1. Château d’Ancenis
Fortified 15th Century Door
Photo : All rights reserved

French legislation protecting historical monuments, despite some recent attacks, should allow us to still preserve our heritage in an effective manner if only it were applied consistently when needed. This article will inaugurate a new series covering, alas, the many cases where a monument is vandalized, or runs such a risk, something which could be avoided if only the Ministry of Culture and its regional affiliates fulfilled their assigned role.

The example of the château d’Ancenis in the Loire-Atlantique region, under the looming menace of a modern and less than elegant structure housing the decentralized administrative offices of the Conseil general, is almost a caricature of the inability to apply existing laws. This is a textbook case par excellence, since every, or nearly every, aspect of this affair, managed by the city, the department, by a chief architect for historical monuments – we will show how below – and the government itself, as represented by the architect for the Bâtiments de France and the DRAC, is cause for scandal. The parties mentioned above are supposed to work for the sole purpose of public interest. It would be hard indeed to find a better instance for describing the term of official vandalism.

Not far from Nantes, in the Marches de Bretagne, the château of Ancenis was built in 984, with some vestiges of the original period still remaining. Today, it proudly displays a large fortified 15th century door (ill. 1) with a defense system which is unique in France (a zigzagging covered draw-bridge, a vaulted gallery at an angle and a portcullis), remains of the medieval walls (ill. 2) and a lookout tower, also 15th century (ill. 3), a 16th century Renaissance dwelling (ill. 4), a 17th century chapel and a pavilion, known as the Marie Fouquet, of the 17th century as well. The group of buildings (façades and roofs) and the rest of the enclosure were listed as a historical monument in 1977.

2. Château d’Ancenis
Remains of the Medieval Walls
Photo : All rights reserved

3. Château d’Ancenis
Tower of the 15th Century
Photo : All rights reserved

4. Château d’Ancenis
Renaissance dwelling of XVIth Century
The administrative building will be build at
5 meters away from the dwelling
Photo : All rights reserved

The very principle of constructing a modern administrative building abutting a listed historical monument goes against all the rules of common sense. We cannot understand why a contest was organized for this purpose, moreover with the participation of the architect of the Bâtiments de France and the regional curator on the selection committee. Even less comprehensible is the fact that the chief architect for historical monuments, who had been working for several years on the site and knew it better than anyone else, was allowed to enter the contest. Finally, we are still wondering why his project [1] (ill. 5), eminently mediocre, was chosen for the contract. The role of the architects of the Bâtiments de France, and we have often said this before, is an essential one, on condition that they respect their obligations. Some are scrupulous in doing so, such as Marc Alibert, now retired, who last year was still in charge of Ancenis. He had openly refused to validate the project’s authorization despite being pressured to do so and it was his department head, a member of the jury, who signed.

5. Pascal Prunet et Xavier Ménard
Project of the building

The new building is to go up a few metres away from the Renaissance dwelling, at a right angle [2] (ill. 5). The mayor of the town, Jean-Michel Tobie, is responsible for this brilliant idea which he now defends tooth and nail. A petition protesting the project has collected 4.000 signatures including those of 3.000 Ancenis inhabitants out of a total population of 8,000 [3]. Though the mayor may indeed pay a high price for his initiative in the next municipal elections, by then, alas, it will probably be too late for the château.
The mayor’s arguments are rather grotesque. His website states that this is project which will “enhance the value of the château” (sic) and that the “the architectural project selected here is meant to be discrete and emphasizes materials often used in centuries past, such as wood and shale.” No doubt tourists will soon flock to visit Pascal Prunet’s magnificent building. In fact, he will “contribute to an animation of the site by offering a panoramic vision of the overall ensemble thanks to the terraced roofs providing walkways for the public.” In other words, this building will not be soon from the roof, obviously an excellent reason for erecting it. As the building’s objectors point out, how can an administrative building which closes after 4 or 5 in the afternoon on weekdays and is empty on weekends take care of animating the site or even “revitalizing the downtown”, as was also stated in the press.
Another very strong argument against the project, and the list is long, is the fact that the Marches de Bretagne is being considered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This concerns twenty-one cities, including Ancenis. Such a project would quickly reduce its individual chances of obtaining this prestigious ranking and perhaps even imperil that of the whole group. Strangely, the leading promoter of the UNESCO candidacy is none other than Patrick Mareschal, president of the Conseil general, who will benefit from the new building and still supports it even if, as he stated in Ouest-France, he did not ask for it [4].
Ouest-France again, in its issue dated 19 May, tells us that on Monday 17 May, the municipal majority of Ancenis voted to have part of the courtyard in the château removed from the public domain, a first step for the construction of the Conseil general building. But this same article also reveals that the mayor is awaiting the advice of the government on the matter before signing the building permit. The moral of this story is that the fate of the château d’Ancenis is now in the hands of the Minister of Culture, given the irresponsible obstinacy of city hall. The Minister recently showed that he was capable of fighting vandalism (see notably our news item, in French, of 22/4/10 concerning the staircase at the Bibliothèque nationale). Let us hope that he will make the only decision possible here, if not we might then seriously ask ourselves if he is really of any use [5].

Didier Rykner, dimanche 30 mai 2010


[1] Pascal Prunet associated himself with Xavier Ménard for the project.

[2] A lycée from the 1960’s was located on this site, that is before the listing, and was recently demolished.

[3] The petition has been posted online here but having received no publicity only 31 persons have signed on the net. We trust that The Art Tribune readers will wish to add their protest.

[4] “When the Départment of Loire-Atlantique chose the city of Ancenis to group its decentralized administrative offices, the city insisted in having the offices built inside the walls of the château. We did not ask for this”, a statement made to Ouest-France, 21 April 2010.

[5] The DRAC, whom we called in October 2009, had told us that the matter did not fall under its jurisdiction as the planned building did not touch the monument… This fallacious argument, especially since the regional curator was on the jury, is no longer acceptable : since last January, the Services départementaux for architecture and heritage which employ the architects of the Bâtiments de France are now under the direct responsibility of the DRAC.

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