Thursday, 30 July 2009

Chambord: architecture out of control

The Loire is tourist country par excellence. Every house with a turret or a classic al facade seems to have turned into a must-visit chateau, with a special attraction such as a waxwork museum or a hunting museum or a museum of nineteenth century cutlery (I think I've invented that one, but it certainly might exist), and charging ten euros admission, and absolutely thronged with tourists.

You can get away. Jacques and I wandered the woods behind the chateau of Chenonceaux, alone in the moist warmth with the smell of decomposing leaves and the sound of a desultory breeze in the branches high above. At Beaugency, we found we were the only people in a deserted town, except for the lady in the boulangerie who sold us a baguette, and the artist dozing in front of his 'SPAM ART' exhibition who hailed us from his camp bed.

But for the most part the Loire is fixed up, parcelled out, sold up.

Some of the chateaux are quite pretty. Some are really rather surprising. Some are just plain dull.

But Chambord is something else.

At Chambord, what we see is not in fact a chateau. It's just a hunting lodge. A hunting lodge, mind you, that is bigger than most of the royal chateaux.

Francois I took twenty years to build  it, and then spent fewer than 35 nights there. It's a triumph of architectural splendour over real function.

Its geometry is clear - a square castle with four corner towers, based around a Greek cross plan of axial corridors, with a spiral staircase at the centre. Each quarter of the castle is built in exactly the same plan; each set of apartments is exactly the same (with one exception, the little oratory built on to one of the towers). This should be the triumph of reason.

But it's not. The exact repetition makes it impossible to remember where you are; you get confused, bamboozled. The staircase is a double spiral, and it seems to act as a sort of randomiser - you can never quite remember which arm of the staircase you took, so you're never sure where on any given floor you will come out.

And the place is huge. It's like a giant's castle, the ceilings high, the rooms massive, the walls thick. (Each apartment is completely separate, built into the thickness of the walls.) Francois in the end forsook the central block to move into the more intimate, more usable space he'd had built in one of the flanking wings. You can't imagine it in use; the court only camped here, with folding beds and chairs, and was never in permanent residence.

Later, in the 18th and 19th centuries, some of the rooms were subdivided and refurnished - but they don't seem to manage to overcome the brooding bulk of the chateau, its overpowering architecture.

There's something completely out of control here. Architecture has grown like Quatermass; it's created an environment, but not one for living in. Within, it's austere, rigid, classical; on the roof, exuberance breaks out with turrets and lanterns, chimneys, pinnacles. You could imagine yourself in a French Renaissance village up there, with two-storey houses perched on the roof, and the central lantern over the staircase like a perfect circular church tower.

Chenonceau is lovely, but it's human in scale. Blois wears its grandeur on the outside, but inside is an intimate place. But Chambord is like Gormenghast - it's a castle that has sucked all the life out of its inhabitants, and become a living thing itself. And not, I think, a completely benign being.

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