Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Hugues Krafft and the Hôtel Le Vergeur...

Hôtel Le Vergeur - Reims
I started writing the following a few weeks ago before this whole situation arose. I cannot even imagine what will be left of any social spaces at the end of this ; we are still only on the brink. I think President Macron’s analogy to a state of war was probably apt, and now that the whole country is about to go into a state of indefinite lockdown, I think of past wartimes that have been visited on this city, Reims. There is the strangest feeling of edginess, suspense and hurry, along with an unreal air as traffic goes along the street below almost as normal. But not quite...
Rue du Marc - Side entrance
And now, how much of what I wrote below back then, will make sense in a period when everything is being overturned as the minutes pass ? How on earth have people ever coped with the vision of the fullness and familiarity of their lives, livelihoods and landscapes being ripped up and replaced by emptiness and the unknown ? In the current war against the virus, the loss has so far been invisible. In an unprecedented manner, everything appears as yet eerily unchanged, whilst the devastation of wartime offenses is typically an assault on all of the senses. The ravages of Chernobyl left the city of Pripyat emptied of its people, yet their home remained as they had –  preserved in their abandoned state. We are all still here – locked in our homes - and nothing has visibly changed, although everything has or soon will.
My thoughts back in February…..

Mulling over the whole question of the flagging High Street and the subsequent challenges faced by towns and city centres in France, England and further afield, I have been trying to keep an eye on the ongoing changes. This is as much out of personal interest as professional since the subject is the basis of a newly-devised mini project for the students. I do hope they invest themselves in the subject, whatever their views and don’t simply shrug it off with teenage Millennial indifference. Well, soon to find out… 
And I did ; many students were concerned and already affected by what is referred to as 'la désertification des centres-villes' and a few considered the question with a certain nonchalance. Now the centres of every village, town and city in virtually every country worldwide have become ghost towns. Oh the irony...
The landscape of any urban space evolves continously, just as the geological features of a terrain are altered by movement and change in conditions. Human activity, today above all, is generally key to this constant evolution – everything that fuels our existence shapes all that surrounds us. We ‘manage’ the Earth as we see fit, believing that since we can charter and mark every scrap of land and sea and govern the airways, we control it. Natural resources have long been exploited, with scant consideration for their actual source or the impact of their plunder ; Nature is there to be capitalised as a prime commodity. 
Now the Fourth Industrial Revolution – ‘Industry 4.0’ – heralds the dawn of another era, blurring physical, digital, and biological spheres ; a brave new world indeed. Our tech-enabled lifestyle with its insatiable needs and wants means that human impact is leading the Earth further into a new geological epoch ; the ‘Anthropocene’. Over these early decades of the new millenium, characterised by ever-accelerated change, Man will come to be recognized as a geological force of powerful magnitude, altering every system process on Earth. 
And yet while we may be the masters of this evolution, we do not master it - the effects of human-caused (or ‘anthropogenic’) climate change demonstrate this. We have little respect for the planet and the diversity of its ecosystems – we just require the whole be molded to our human systems. Ironically, we do not value these human systems much either. As we are swept forwards, our own human traces – civilisation, culture and community – are being eroded and eaten up in response to other priorities in our existence, just as the natural world has been consumed to meet the demands of our lifestyles. Of course, this has always been so – as what is old must bow down, or be shunted out to make room for the new. 
Towns and cities have always stood on the strata of earlier societies, with human life mapped out according to the law of faunal succession. Most of the centuries-old architecture that we revere today is built on the ruins of edifices of ancient peoples. But today this process is being sped up, fueled on by endless speculation, so these traces are lost forever, demolished, smothered and shrouded over with cement. The subsequent high-rise buildings, multi-storey carparks may not last more than a few decades, but the layers of concrete foundation are there to last, sealing the past in an impermeable sarcophagus and cloaking the present in a soul-less mass. 
This process is further compounded by the new climate change in the very heart of towns and cities. Once the core of communities, offering a mixed bag in retail shops and services, the High Street is now being systematically drained of its lifeblood as the crowds dwindle away and empty stores are put up for lease. Traditional town-centre retail has proved to be no match against online and out-of-town competitors nor, of course, against the ultimate titan, Amazon. Bricks-and-mortar shops no longer cater for today’s customers who are raised to expect ever more choice and convenience, at the most affordable price. When there is no need to venture forth for any purchase, be it the mundane grocery haul or the slightly more frivolous shopping spree, the decline in footfall is soon felt in lost revenue. 
Pedestrianisation and shortage of affordable parking facilities have also lead to issues of accessibility, practicality and poor general appeal. Deliveroo and Uber Eats relieve us of the obligation to hunt and gather anything ourselves from any given food outlet –we just pay a third party to retrieve it for us. While many town centres still thrive, others are failing to keep afloat as their stores and services sink under the rising costs in business rates and rents. Franchises with big household names may be able to afford the outlay, but independent shopkeepers certainly cannot keep pace. We now have a landscape of dotted with empty premises, charity shops, betting shops, pawnbrokers, bars & fastfood outlets. And opticians and estate agents if we are lucky. 
Many of these old commercial spaces are no longer fit for purpose and there are simply not enough tenants to fill gaps that are turning the town centres into ghost towns. Old buildings that are deemed to be undesirable and/or in a poor state of repair, are turned over for redevelopment, torn down or left to rot, thus rendering the town centre even less appealing, and ripping out the historic fabric of the place. However, the tide may change and perhaps new uses of former retail/public service space can be found in order to breathe life back into the asphyxiated High Street, yet maintaining the architectural heritage of the town or city. At least that is what I hope the students will come up with...
Cultural centres, craft workshops, family-friendly libraries and museums, food-and-drink outlets, farmers’ markets, sports-and-fitness clubs that build up human contact will forge ties to create a community that the virtual space cannot offer. This will require a huge injection of money and a dose of perseverance from forward-thinking councils and/or the government, but what is the alternative ? I just hope that in the process we do not disrupt further strata of our architectural/cultural heritage. Having witnessed the recent demolition of yet another imposing local building dating back to the turn of the last century, I now wonder who can safeguard the traces of our past. The building in question had survived two world wars, but has literally been wiped out in a question of hours, in order to build new parking facilities ; a meaningless blank.
Ruines sur le futur Cours Langlet - Paul Hubert Lepage 1920
One hundred years ago, Reims was attempting to recover from the utter devastation of the First World War. Evacuated inhabitants had returned to find 85% of the buildings decimated in the hostilities, with the ravaged cathedral Notre-Dame de Reims as ultimate symbol of La France meutrie. Extensive reconstruction plans meant that the city rose again from the rubble – salvaging façades, masonry and any other remaining architectural features where possible. Vestiges of the past were preserved, whilst ambitious programmes for new buildings and housing projects were set in motion. This gave rise to an ecclectic range of styles but with a modern touch of Art Deco – much of which is still visible today.
Hugues Krafft
A key figure to the preservation of the historic centre of Reims was Hugues Krafft. Prior to the war years, Krafft had decided to devote himself to the safeguard of the architectural heritage of the city. In 1909, he and rémois architect, Ernest Kalas, set about founding the Société des Amis du Vieux Reims (SAVR). Krafft also purchased one of the oldest and most remarkable secular buildings – the Hôtel Le Vergeur.
Dating back to 13th century, the edifice was finally referred to by its present name in the 16th century, under the ownership of a wealthy salt merchant, Nicolas Le Vergeur. The building was above all renowned for its salle d’apparat – a Gothic ceremonial/commercial reception room with an ornate, sculpted polychrome ceiling– un plafond à la française. This greatly admired, and much - coveted ceiling, cited by Viollet-le-Duc in his Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle, would play a key role in the survival of the Hôtel. For while the 16th century saw the addition of a magnificent gallery in the Florentine Renaissance style, and the following years saw the hôtel pass from one affluent rémois family to another, there was one constant spanning the centuries. This was the jewel in the crown, in the city of the coronation of kings ; the Gothic salle d’apparat. Such was the quality of its craftsmanship that in 1910 American interest led to the first steps in its procurement -  the very idea of which incited Hugues Krafft to buy the entire building. 
Fireplace mantel
Sadly after the war years, little was left standing of the original Hôtel Le Vergeur other than the walls. Nevertheless this did not deter Krafft in his initial mission, and he set to salvage the architectural ruins of Reims. Central to his activities was the restoration of Hôtel Le Vergeur itself. Having received indemnities for the extensive damage to the family home – the Château de Toussicourt - Krafft decided to forgo its reconstruction in order to give vital financial backing to his project. Work commenced in 1925 finally led to the inauguration of the Hôtel in 1930. Krafft set up home in the upper rooms of the edifice and the headquarters of the SAVR later occupied the ground floor in 1932.
Part of this preservation project was the decision to transfer many salvaged architectural details of former monuments into the grounds of the Hôtel. In this manner, roman arcades, gateways from other hôtels particuliers alongside various structural features from earlier centuries found their final resting place. So too did Hugues Krafft since he spent the last years of his life in the Hôtel Le Vergeur. Before his death in 1935, he bequeathed all his estate to the SAVR – most notably his prestigious home. Today, the Musée Vergeur attracts visitors as much for its insight into the figure of Hugues Krafft as its glimpse into the centuries-old history of Reims. Indeed, this man was more than just a bourgeois connaisseur devoted to his city and its cultural heritage – if that was not enough…
The various collections of artifacts that he had acquired during his life show him to be a cultivated individual of refined taste. Fine porcelaine, cabinetry, silverware, textiles, paintings, prints and classical literature indeed attest to this. His engravings by Albrecht Dürer are the pride of the museum today, whilst his collection of framed menus from the lavish soirées to which he was invited reveal him to be a bon-vivant. However it is the travel books and photos that underline the side of Krafft’s existence that is far removed from the solid bourgeois life in Reims, set in the Hôtel Le Vergeur
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - Albrecht Dûrer
On inheriting a considerable fortune at the death of his parents, and little inspired by the world of Champagne trade for which he had been groomed to enter, Krafft set off with his brother and two friends on a tour around the world in 1881, at the age of 28. Like many others in the 19th century, Krafft wanted to voyage around Asia, and now he had the ample means to do so. Apparently following Jules Verne’s account of the travels of Phileas Fogg, published in 1873, he sought to experience his own Tour du Monde en 80 Jours. 
For years, Krafft did just that – visiting India, China, Japan, Russia, the Maghreb, the Middle East, the Balkans and the U.S. It was the Land of the Rising Sun that marked him the most, however. He spent time there at a period when the archipelago was leaving its feodal system and was opening up to the outside world under the Meiji reign (1868-1912). He took extensive instant photos of his travels and life in a vastly different culture. These images were of such novelty and quality that Krafft was later frequently asked to give conferences and exhibit his photography internationally. He was a member and guest speaker at numerous artistic and geographical societies and associations, his writings were recognized by the Académie Française and he was made Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur in 1889. 
Silk embroidery
Krafft's work was surely an inspiration for another great French man – the philanthropist Albert Kahn (1860 - 1940) who created the huge photographic mission ; The Archives of the Planet. Inspired by their time spent in Japan, both men would create their own Japanese environment on return to France. Krafft received intellects, and figures from the artistic world and les Japonisants alike from 1886 in his Japanese pavillion and gardens of Midori-no-Sato at Les Loges-en-Josas near Versailles. A few years later, Kahn would invite the Parisian intelligentsia to his large property in Boulogne-Billancourt, where his Jardins du Monde feature an ornate Japanese garden, with pagoda and tea room. Neither man could have had any idea of where the new century would lead. When Hugues Krafft, aged 55, undertook his rémois mission in the years preceding the First World War, Alfred Kahn was starting to document and represent the life he witnessed, following a trip to Japan in 1909. Krafft turned to the preservation of the world around him in Reims ; Kahn began to collect a photographic record of the entire Earth. Both are great men. Things could, of course, have been very different. Had either man simply enjoyed the huge wealth that had been acquired or amassed, their priceless contributions would never have seen the light. More about Albert Kahn another time…
 Krafft (seated on left bench) - http://ccfjt.com/meiji150eme/japonisme-midori-no-sato/
Krafft was not in fact rémois by birth. He was born in 1853 to bourgeois German parents who had come to Reims due to the father’s position as a wine merchant in the champagne trade. Baron Krafft became the associate of Louis Roederer and his success enabled him to obtain hôtels particuliers in Reims, Paris and the Château de Toussicourt outside Reims. Despite the family wealth, the child Hugues - one of three offspring - did not enjoy good health. After tutoring,he was sent to Eton no less ; prestigious bastion of English education for the affluent and influential. Although it was hoped that this would instill in him the grit and work ethic required to take over his father’s position at Roederer, this did not transpire. After some time spent in the French army, Hugues left Reims for Paris and reading between the lines, enjoyed the vie mondaine. He had lost both his parents by 1880, and in 1881 embarked on the travels that changed the course of his life. 
'Safari' menu
It would seem that the energy and devotion that Krafft had poured into his extensive voyages and the associated writings and photography were focused on the city of Reims after his definitive return in 1908. He was fully committed to the preservation of the architectural heritage that he recognized as already needing protection in the early years of the 20th century. Hence the founding of the SAVR and his subsequent purchase of l’Hôtel Le Vergeur. One can only imagine the great despair he must have experienced on seeing the devastation of all that was so dear to him. In order to finance the restoration project of the Hôtel Le Vergeur, Krafft sold off his entire Japanese collection of art and artifacts and invested the financial compensation for the loss of Château de Toussicourt. Fortunately, there was no structural damage to the city in the Second World War, but the wrecking ball and bulldozers have not been kind to Reims since then. 
We might not be in the grips of military warfare right now – there is no combat ordnance to fear – but it makes me sad to think that the Coronavirus epidemic is a threat to so much of our lives. Our survival – immediate life-and-death stakes and long-term health will require sacrifices on every level. The preservation of our cultural heritage and the natural world itself will therefore have to take second place right now and in the aftermath of this global plague. Who would or could justify backing restoration or maintenance projects now ? But what will be left if don’t ? 

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