Sunday, August 19, 2012

Château de la Hunaudaye

Last time we tried to visit the Château de la Hunaudaye was probably over ten years ago, I seem to recall we couldn't get in, I certainly don't remember anything much about it. Since then it has undergone extensive restoration, and we visited it a few weeks ago.

It's a grand old classic moated mediaeval fortress, with a fairly typical history: kept up and added to until the Renaissance, then fallen onto harder times, lands sold off, family diminished, then receiving it's death blow in the Revolution after which it was used as the inevitable stone quarry. You can read it at the site linked to, click on the British flag button for a translation which is quaint but intelligible.  Judging by the old postcards shown there, it was a very picturesque, crumbly, ivy-clad and weathered ruin, but there comes a point with ruins where you have to decide what to do with them, preserve or abandon, and there was clearly still much worth preserving and reassembling here.

It's something that we have observed and I've noted here before, though it is only anecdotal and doubtless these things change a bit with time and fashion, that in France, despite its being one of the homes of modernist architecture, restoration of ancient buildings, from prehistoric long barrows to mediaeval and Renaissance castles and fortified towns, tends toward creating a replica. In the UK, though there is the perception that the Brits like to hang onto and look after their old stuff, the wisdom has usually been that ruins and digs should be interfered with as little as possible, left as found, with minimal shoring up, or covered over again,  (Tom was involved in a fair amount of archaeology at one time, and confirms this), or else, in the case of bombed-out cities, swept all away and replaced with something new.  We often tend to admire the French 20th century  rebuilds, like the castles of Suscinio and Roche Jagu,  the glorious, authentic roof timbers at the latter place alone make the visit worthwhile, and you only have to compare the Intramuros, the old walled town of St Malo, 80% destroyed by shelling and bombing in WW2 but you wouldn't know it, to the miserable post-war vandalism of the town planners in English towns like Plymouth to come to the conclusion that there's much to be said sometimes for trying to put things back how they were.

However, the sleekly imposing, newly-solid châteaux, fine though they are, deny one the pleasure of ruins, which lies in their fragmentation and porousness, in the breaking down of barriers between spaces, the tension and surprise of moving between dark enclosure and illuminated openess, between vertigo and claustrophobia, solidity and the void, of places once clearly accessible rendered precarious and unattainable. Often too there is the merging of piecemeal elements of different periods in tantalising abstracts.  Quite simply, they leave so much more to the imagination.

The restoration of la Hunaudaye however, it seems to me, succeeds in getting the best of all worlds.  It keeps and indeed enhances all these charms of dereliction, while making them safe to be around and at the same time creating a modern construction within and around it the the originality and technical wizardry of which are much to be wondered at.

It was decided that insufficient sources existed to enable an authentic reconstruction, so instead the project aimed to preserve and work within the building as found.  This was the rationale, but it seems to me that surely the architect, Marie Suzanne de Ponthaud, must have found this way of working with the randomness of the partially dismantled structure and the opportunities it afforded just more interesting for architect and visitors alike.

(It occurred to me, on trying to find out a bit more about the Mme de Ponthaud, that to my awareness, to come across a woman's name in the context of a significant architectural project is a bit unusual. But I didn't know, since, fond though I am of architecture and buildings, I know little about architects, so  I googled the matter of women in architecture, and found I was right; the intake on architecture courses is fairly well balanced but then there's a drastic falling off of female numbers when it comes to architectural practice. It's a much discussed matter, and a few different reasons are put forward to explain it, most of them fairly obvious ones really.  But there are and have been some notable women architects, and it was interesting to learn more about them. Marie Suzanne lives and works on the Crozon peninsular in western Finistère, but doesn't seem to have her own website.)

Not being a great one for the long-distance landscape shot, I don't really have a picture of the whole castle from the outside, (there are plenty of those at the website anyway) but this is a wooden model of it that sits in the central courtyard which visitors, young or not, can play with, dismantle and put together as a puzzle,

and they also provide dressing up sessions for youngsters,

 here are some small mediaevalists.

And this is the castle inside the castle, the courtyard seen from the tallest tower. Those robust, comfortable metal chairs are scattered about the place; we ate our sandwiches sitting in some in an upstairs chamber with a roof over it but completely open on one side while it rained outside, which was lovely.

There were many many things, large and small, to point the camera at:

Swallows live here in abundance.

An old castle wouldn't be an old castle without a spiral staircase or several.  As a child, I can't say I was greatly fond of these, especially very narrow, ill-lit ones in crumbly Welsh castles.  They seemed dark and dangerous, hearing people coming the other way worried me, one would have to squeeze to one side, the possibility of plunging to one's doom down the central pillar always seemed imminent.  Hunaudaye has a number of them, (since it has a number of towers).  Mostly they are wide and well cut and well lit though.

though they can still provoke a certain frisson of vertigo, something which is enhanced by the best of them and the most thrilling, the new one which takes up almost the whole internal volume of the largest tower.

The transparent and openwork materials used in its construction are one of the signature elements here, notably the rigid mesh which forms the floors of the staircase.  Strong and secure, it nevertheless gives a view onto the space below, and makes interesting graphic effects when layers of it are superimposed.

Stepping out onto it, if vertigo or acrophobia are any kind of a problem for you, can be rather challenging.  My sister  (hers are the black shoes in the photo but one above), only did so after much screwing up of courage, and held onto the rail and didn't look down).

It is also used in a platform over a well, full of water of unknown depth and covered in green slime (we dropped a euro-cent into it to find out) in another of the towers.

My sister didn't even want me walking on that one,

though Tom was not to be deterred.

As I say, so much to see, much of which I haven't included, and much detail.  Outside the castle there's a crêpèrie where you can have lunch or just coffee and ice cream, and a collection of well-looked-after goats, chickens and other fowl, and a very pleasant well-shaded car park where we were quite happy to leave Mol in the car for an hour or so, (though it wasn't too hot anyway), which is always a consideration for us.  There are good toilets, a little shop with mediaeval themed books, cds, toys and a bit of food, and all in all it's a really worthwhile, well designed and maintained place to visit.  The staff in the reception/shop were pleasant but possibly summer students, they weren't very well-informed though helpful enough.  What they couldn't seem to tell us anything about, and which we nearly missed altogether, since it was unmarked and uncredited and in a kind of dungeon part of one tower, the main entrance to which was separate, was an art installation.  Quite simple, just thousands of die-cut white paper butterflies, welling up from another mesh floor, with a few more of them scattered on the earth floor below it, all lit from below by ultra-violet.  Absolutely magical.


The Crow said...

Lovely, very informative post, Lucy. Your wonderful photos made it seem I had been there, myself, though of course I hadn't.

I would have had to hold onto the railing, too.

julia said...

Spiral staircases are not a problem for me. I simply go up on all fours and come down with my eyes closed...

Lovely post, must make the time to visit next time I'm over there

Zhoen said...

I'll take the metal stairs over those frightening narrow stone ones.

The butterflies, oh, that is wonderful.

christopher said...

Being industrial, I know about mesh floor panels and all such. The designers just check the info tables and make sure there are no overlong spans between supports. As I am sure you noticed, the fasteners holding the panels down are few in number, usually. They imagine the maximum load and design for about five times that. Standard practice. What you experienced, the simple fact that what is completely safe often looks spindly and dangerous. Also, when it's twelve inches from the ground that's one thing, and two hundred feet in the air, quite another.

Catalyst said...

The pictures of the older sections reminded me of so many Robin Hood movies.

Rouchswalwe said...

Having grown up with castles close by, I miss them terribly now. This was nice, Lucy! Thanks so much for taking us along.

marja-leena said...

Oh, I love ruins and these castle walls are beautiful, more so than the new additions. I envy those who live near these ancient sites. Thanks again for sharing with such great photos and stories.

Those narrow spiral stairs terrify me, have been on some in Europe, but those open grid metal ones are scary too, for me.

Rouchswalwe said...

Came back to scamper round the ruins once more ... please tell Tom that I would've been right there with him on the grid. Oh, and the swallow photo is so nice!

Fire Bird said...

ooh a proper castle!

marly youmans said...

Ruins, lovely ruins! Yes, I go for Romantic vistas with stone ruins, though I may feel like Mouse along the way.

And am rather glad that I can hike to a faux Norman castle in the woods or look out my window at the lake and see Kingfisher Tower (which, speaking of the Mouse, was inspired by the Mouse Tower on the Rhine), even if we are the New World.

Lovely cobalt spill at the close...

Unknown said...

The scale is amazing. I'm trying to imagine its original inhabitants at work and at play. Enjoyed the tour.

Sheila said...

I'm astounded. Nothing like that here, though a Frenchman is behind the construction of a new castle done in old style in my home state of Arkansas:

This is so intriguing. I hope I can make it to both these places eventually!

Clive Hicks-Jenkins said...

What a fantastic building, and wonderfully chronicled in your photographs and description. Definitely on my list of places to visit, now. Thank you.

Anne said...

My British Daughter (long before she became British) and I took a trip many years ago to England when we saw what seemed like hundreds of ruins of abbeys and castles, but we never saw anything like that elegantly designed circular stair. It's a wonderful marriage of the old and the new.

Lucy said...

Thanks all, sorry to take so long to answer, probably too late now, but anyway.

Crow - I was slightly nervous at first but it gets easier; better not to look down too much, though it is impressive when you do.

Mouse - heheh! It's a bit the other direction from yours but if you come in at St Malo not too far out, and a really nice drive to get there, clear, striaght roads through the woods and well-signed.

z - these stone stairways were quite wide and shallow, not too scary.

Christopher - yes, I think I've seen that kind of platform in an industrial context. They also use it hereabouts in step down to the beaches, since drifting sand blows through it and doesn't collect. Absolutely true about the drop below affecting one's feeling about it. It is very rigid, which helps; my sister went on a tree-top walk at Kew Gardens which was less solid feeling and didn't much like it.

Cat - yes, a good setting for a bit of swashbuckling!

R - glad you liked. There was a lovely swallows' nest on one of the stairways, very close, but I didn't want to disturb them by taking a photo.

ML - thanks, and for your response at yours. One can work on vertigo and acrophobic feelings a bit to overcome them, perhaps not if they're very strong.

FB - 'twas that!

Marly - I've seen that Mouse Tower, where they ate up Bishop Hatto!

Plutarch - We were imagining them moving round from one tower window to another, following the daylight to do their embroidery and such like!

Sheila - that Ozark place is amazing, what a fantastic, ambitious project. Of course probably no-one would quite do such a thing up from the ground like that this side of the Atlantic.

Clive - thanks! You'd enjoy it I'm sure.

Anne - yes, it is possible to get a bit castled out, especially in Wales, the scene of my spiral staircase traumas! But this is a really elegant modern project too, I think.