Another day, another round-about introduction to 99% Invisible—this time, though, with far less wordplay. And the episode was better for it.
Because the show is so new to me, it’s unclear whether the past two episode’s cloying introductions are the norm or the exception. Whichever is the case, I much preferred the pun-free Statue of Liberty introduction to the 007 or Law & Order shenanigans. 99% Invisible‘s appeal is in its authenticity: frank, unadorned, and earnest in equal measure. And “The Great Restoration” is all those things and more—light, eclectic, and surprisingly intimate. All traits that would be (and previously, have been) hindered by effete wordplay.
The episode centers on the unconventional restoration of the Great Hall of Stirling Castle. There are quite a few marvels to behold at the Great Hall, including its beautiful hammer beam roof. (Check out the pictures here.) Most of the changes that came with the renovation were uncontroversial, with one major exception—its new, bright yellow exterior.
“When we think of medieval castles, we usually picture a grand structure, with subdued, dark stone masonry. But when you gaze upon Stirling Castle today from the town below, you will notice that one of the buildings is different from the others. Since 1999, after a decade long restoration effort that altered the building inside and out, the Great Hall of Stirling Castle has been a bright, cheery yellow.” (1:48)
For hundreds of years, the Hall was grey stone, as were the buildings around it. But, in the process of restoration, bits of the original, protective lime wash were discovered. And the yellow color of the wash was intentional: when “the built world” was almost entirely grey and brown, the Great Hall of Sterling castle was “a great yellow piece of ostentatious bling.” It signaled, to all who could see it, that this was the dwelling of the king. Think of it as the 17th Century’s version of MTV Cribs.
The restoration took almost a decade, during which time the building was obscured by plastic and scaffolding. For many Stirling residents, the first time they saw the new exterior was when the scaffolding finally came down. And it was shocking. Their shock is mostly tangential to the episode though. Roman devotes his energy to considering the many difficulties of restoration. The episode poses big questions about how to balance preservation of the past with the needs of today and tomorrow; about whose voice should be part of the conversation when changing visible these kinds of eminently visible landmarks; about the place for digital restoration. Roman offers his opinions, but the show doesn’t answer these questions, nor should it. The thinking afterwards (and the comments below) are what makes 99% Invisible so worth it.
Here’s my take: I agree with Roman that a high degree of reverence for historical authenticity is important and that restorations like these are invaluable as windows into the past, but it is hard not to empathize with the lifelong, discontented residents of Stirling (population forty-five thousand) who see the castle everyday. It isn’t that the Great Hall is no longer beautiful, but rather that it is no longer the same as it was, as they remember it being, as it looks in their parents and grandparents photographs. And that kind of nostalgia touches us all.
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