The Evolution of a Spirited Building
“It is better to preserve than to repair, better to repair than to restore, better to restore than to reconstruct.” A.N. Didron
At one time a group of artists used the walls of an old abandoned building as their canvas. The expressive brushstrokes are now forever part of the many layers composing the historical Couvent des Recollets in Paris.
Constructed in 1604, the structure was originally a convent. It has led a rich and illustrious life, later serving as a military barrack, a textile factory, a hospice, a military hospital, a university teaching hospital and a school of architecture. Ultimately the old-soul-of-a-building was boarded up when a fire displaced its final occupants, the group of artists, in 1992.
A glorious preservation of the decay then took place by commissioned architects Karine Chartier and Thomas Corbasson. As a powerful continuation of history, the building now takes on its next role; an architectural cultural centre named the Maison de l’Architecture.
The architects’ approach is a full expression of the 20th century preservation movement. This is not about restoration. Preserving the evolution of a building and allowing the individual strata of time to shine through is part of a philosophy established by one of the great English romantics, John Ruskin. In The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1848), Ruskin cautions against falsely restoring history. He writes that restoration “means the most total destruction which a building can suffer: a destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered; a destruction accompanied with false description of the thing destroyed.”
With this understanding, the architects have carefully integrated new function as yet another layer; a continuation of history. The richly textured walls are simply varnished to protect the old.
In the floor of the chapel area an embedded metal plague can be raised and folded as a movable backdrop. It functions as a versatile public reception area.
Other plagues are integrated into walls for both display and equipment storage. The design is based on ‘patches’ of integration.
In its twilight years, the building is now more beautiful than ever and serves as a truly unique place to gather, support and train creatives. The great narrative continues.