Last summer I attempted to fulfil a long-held ambition: to travel down the Loire valley in France from its source to the sea. The journey began at Le Havre which provided an excellent opportunity to see the most comprehensive collection of buildings by Auguste Perret in France or indeed the world. Le Havre is a city whose centre was almost entirely destroyed by war in 1944; the responsibility for reconstruction was basically the responsibility of one architect, Auguste Perret.
The whole centre has strongly formal Neo-Classical quality, based as it is around axis and squares. This Neo-Classical approach extends from both the urban design strategy to the individual buildings. When Le Corbusier came to design the great sequence of spaces that form the entrance to the Capitol complex at Chandigarh he apparently based many of the proportions on the Rue de Rivoli in Paris. In Le Havre Perret draws on a different architectural precedent, in this case, it would seem, the Parisian apartment block. The proportions are not reproduced exactly; there are nods in the direction of modernity, the buildings shoot up from the bench-mark average of around four stories to mini-Rockefeller Centre proportions. Perhaps the greatest difference here is one of materials, the buildings here are not constructed of stone but of reinforced concrete.
Walking around the centre of Le Havre I felt that Perret and his team had avoided the monotony often associated with system buildings of the 1960’s. Perret and his team seem to have found different ways of detailing concrete ensuring that, though there is a degree of unity, there is sufficient variety too. It is possible to argue that the ultimate uniformity comes from repetition of the window unit. Christian Norberg-Schulz argues that the proportions of French windows were determined by the quality of French light, something felt to be unique, from the age of stained glass to the time of the Impressionists. The proportions of the classical French window ensure that the window reaches down to the floor. The balcony frontage ensures “inhabitants can participate in the life of the street below”, indicating that “mixed-use” was once a natural component of the French city.
There are several sites within the city with a claim to the city’s Stadtkrowne or city crown , such as the Oscar Niemeyer buildings or centre of municipal government, Hotel de Ville. The Church of Saint Joseph by Perrett is for me my nomination for candidate for this title. As an ecclesiastical architect, Perret tends to be remembered for buildings such as Notre Dame du Raincy, often viewed as a sort of reinterpretation of a Gothic idiom. This attitude was always simplistic, stylistic and shallow. In that building he employed vaulting techniques in innovative ways even if the stained glass seemed to owe something to precedent. At St Joseph in Le Havre, he allows his modernist instincts a much freer reign. It side steps any attempt to reproduce the spatial qualities of France’s medieval cathedrals. If you are looking for a historical precedent perhaps the centralised, Greek cross plan is a relevant example here or the Adolf Loos design for the Chicago Tribune building. Quite unprecedented is the single unified space at the centre of the building, a column of light extending some 84m into the air. Highly impressive are the concrete finishes, detailing and structure such as the cross-bracing to the tower. Concrete as a material with architectural potential occasionally comes back into fashion. Here Perret’s building sets exemplary standards which are still relevant today.
St Joseph by Perret
The rectilinear architecture which makes up most of the centre of Le Havre, of course, seems highly fashionable today. More surprising is the evident success of the centre, devoid of the stigma of social failure often associated with high-density housing and “New Towns”. Although you can argue how successful the French New Towns program has been, Le Havre certainly seemed a great improvement on many British new towns and does not require the sort of regeneration currently being undertaken in Bracknell.
Travelling through France, by car if not by train, it is surprising to what extent out-of-town retail parks have been given the “green light” by French authorities. Again and again, I came across towns whose outskirts consisted of large retail parks, developments which would make Las Vegas look like a model of restraint and elegance. This is certainly not the case in Holland where retail is usually integrated into mixed-use developments. When I arrived at Tours I stayed in a hotel in a huge retail development, with the small consolation of a tram line that would take me into the town centre. Public space is generally well designed in France so perhaps they need to re-invent the notion of mixed-use.
The French are not exactly famous for an addiction to suburbia so how exactly has the vitality of French town centres seeped away? An interesting article appeared on this subject in The New York Times where it seems that the decline of provincial towns has reached the level of a malaise.
The route I traversed passed by many key sites of Gothic architecture. The theorist seeking a guide to these buildings can turn to many sources; Ruskin was often considered to be the essential source of authority on this subject, though, in fact, he had some very strange views on the subject. He regarded Venice as the essential home of Gothic architecture when, in fact, it originated in France. Venice and Britain were regarded as nations with parallel destinies; one the home of a once-great maritime empire, the other Britain when its own empire was at its height. Many of his writings should be regarded as poetic interpretations of architecture and, in that sense, they excel. Another potential theoretical source might be Pugin though he tended to see everything in terms of religious fundamentalism. For a rational, technical, Cartesian interpreter of Gothic a better guide to Gothic would be Viollet-le-Duc.
Viollet-le-Duc had an upbringing rather typical of his time; anti-clerical, secular, republican. He became one of the chief figures of the Gothic revival in 19th Century Europe. His success as a restorer of Gothic architecture was cemented by the commission to restore Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris; the support of Victor Hugo, the author of the novel “Notre Dame de Paris” , was crucial in obtaining this commission.
The period of Gothic architecture can be rightly seen as one of the most innovative periods in the entire history of architecture, a period made possible by two technical innovations, the pointed arch and the flying buttress. Roman (and Romanesque) Architecture utilised semi-circular arches, which because they usually rise to the same height, usually imply square bays. With pointed arches, however, by varying the steepness of the angle of the arches or ribs it was possible to achieve rectangular bays or indeed rhomboidal or polygonal shaped structures. Gothic Architecture was thus able to achieve a level of spatial complexity not previously achieved by Roman and Romanesque Architecture. The flying buttress was also a technical innovation of equal importance. Buttresses had been used before, for example, in large works of Roman architecture such as thermae and basilicas. Buttresses of this type had been built at regular intervals along walls whose top consisted of the springing for groin or barrel vaulting. Their mass helped to resist the spreading movement of the vaulting above. The innovation that Gothic architecture made was to separate the buttress from the building, joining it with an arch. This made large clerestory windows possible and removed shadow-casting buttresses instead flooding the interiors with natural light.
Viollet-le-Duc argues that many of the features of Gothic architecture were generated by the nature of the construction process in France in the 12th and 13th Centuries. Stone was the natural material to use as quarries were plentiful. Stone was an expensive material which had to be used economically hence it had to be used in an efficient way. Features such as ribs in the vaulting had been generated by the needs of the construction process. The ribs had been erected first on timber centering; the shell infill added later without the need for more centering (Viollet-le-Duc argues unconvincingly that this was necessary due to timber shortages).
He finds a functional justification for every aspect of the finished design. The ribs in the vaulting act, for instance, act as reinforcement to what is basically a groin vault. In a typical Gothic cathedral the buttress is separated from the main building by an arch, partly to let more light in through the clerestory and partly to allow people move around the outside to clean the windows. The buttress is surmounted by a large mass of stone in order to weigh the buttress down and prevent it from overturning. The opening between the arcade and clerestory, known as the triforium, is there to help lighten the structure. All the mouldings have a functional justification too. Externally they throw off rain-water; internally they act as footings to vaulting or corbels to indicate level. Viollet-le-Duc is not opposed to ornament but believes it is secondary. All ornament is based on local flora or an enrichment, never a distortion, of the essential structure.
Most of Viollet-le-Duc’s theories about the functionality of Gothic architecture are to some extent rational and to some extent hypothetical; a more genuinely scientific answer to these questions might be found in the writings of the American academic, Robert Mark.
When one reads a writer like Christopher Alexander, it becomes clear that it is something of a myth that the origins of Gothic architecture lie in the work of Abbot Suger at the cathedral of St-Denis. The reality is rather more complicated. I recall my surprise, many years ago, at seeing pointed arches in Durham Cathedral in what is clearly a Romanesque building. Alexander states that these arches were built between 1120 and 1133. The West front and Choir of the Abbey of St. Dennis were begun in 1140 , followed shortly after by the commencement of construction on the Cathedral of Notre Dame between 1150 and 1155.
The first major Gothic building I visited was the cathedral of Chartres. With its vertical quality and green roof it appears like a great ship sailing across rural France, dominating the surrounding countryside. One of its most initially arresting qualities is the asymmetrical towers. Their disparity can be explained by their construction dates. The rebuilt north tower was finished in 1514, whereas the south tower was finished in 1155. The latter was built at a time when the new architecture was ridding itself of the last vestiges of Romanesque influence whereas the influence of Flamboyant tracery was at its peak when the north tower was completed.
Cathedral of Chartres
In addition to its tectonic qualities, Chartres is a triumph of decorative art. It has the most admired stained-glass of any cathedral in France. Almost equally admired is the stunning sculptures on its west, north and south portals.
When I arrived the building was surrounded by French soldiers, a reflection of the state of emergency the French government had placed the country under. I was not even allowed to take a penknife inside. However, I was able to walk round the outside, admiring the flying buttresses. The roof is covered by quadripartite vaulting, i.e. a single bay of what is basically a pointed groin vault covers one bay of the arcade.
From Chartres I went onto Le Mans to visit the cathedral, almost the only outstanding piece of architecture I saw in a very disappointing town. I paused to admire the flying buttresses, one of the most impressive examples of this kind of tectonic form along with Beauvais and then travelled onwards to Bourges.
Cathedral of Le Mans
The Cathedral of Bourges provides much food for thought regarding the development of Gothic. Rather like the Cathedral of Wells, the west facade is dominated by two towers, albeit that in this example, the main feature seems to a rather curious lozenge-shaped window. The interior, despite the fact that it has no transept , is one of the most extraordinary of any French Gothic cathedral. The building has double aisles, unlike Chartres where these occur only at the ambulatory towards the east end. The clerestory windows are much smaller. The overall vaulting feels much more spacious, the sense of rhythm, regarding the spaces and the way in which they progress towards the east end is entirely different. This is hardly surprising since Bourges utilises sexpartite vaulting. Each bay of vaulting covers two of arcade. The vault has a six-fold division instead of four by the addition of ribs across the central space, half way between the diagonal ribs. This means the top of the arcades alternate as a springing point for one rib on one pillar and for three at the next.
Cathedral of Bourges
When compared to Chartres it becomes a moot point regarding which building is more progressive in terms of aesthetic and technical development. Bourges was begun in 1192, Chartres in 1194. The buttress system used at Chartres is massive apart from the relatively light upper flyers. Each tall pier buttress weighs about one million kilograms exclusive of its foundations. This can be contrasted with Bourges where each pier weighs four hundred thousand kilograms, a more economical approach. The more acute flying buttresses at Bourges transmit the vaulting load directly to the ground. The buttresses at Chartres have three elements; the light upper flyer, the two heavy lower flyers linked by a series of colonettes and also the triangular wall under the side aisle roof.
By contrast the flying buttresses at Chartres are described by Robert Mark as “relatively ponderous – even somewhat clumsy from a technological point of view.”
The purpose of the upper flyer has often caused controversy among writers on architecture. In Chartres the clerestory windows drop well below the springing of the vaults. The upper flyer connects with the exterior of the building on a level equal to the top of the clerestory and hence cannot receive any of the outward thrust of the roof vaults. To understand their real purpose, it is probably necessary to visualise a ship’s sails. By conducting analysis tests on models, Robert Mark concluded that their purpose was to resist wind loading.
In the development from Early to High Gothic there is also a development from sexpartite to quadripartite vaulting. This can be explained in both in aesthetic and technical terms.
It can be argued that the crucial building in Gothic structural development is Notre Dame in Paris. The vaulting in Notre Dame in Pars is sexpartite, that is each bay has six ribs in it. One bay of sexpartite vaulting covers two bays of the arcade. In French Gothic cathedrals vertical shafts usually run from the arcade to the vaulting visually connecting the two. If the cathedral has sexpartite vaulting, the springing alternates between a pier capital receiving one rib and alternate pier capitals receiving three. This rhythm was often accompanied by an alternating rhythm in the wall shafts i.e. in Laon cathedral the support shafts alternate between three and five. It also has horizontal bands .
From an aesthetic point of view, quadripartite vaults have an entirely different spatial quality. Each bay is rectangular in shape. Each bay of vaulting covers one bay of arcade. This helps to create a sense of unity to the interior. Rectangular bays have a sense of movement to them, unlike the stasis of square bays. Whether or not this was an aesthetic advance is debatable.
Alternatively, the development from sexpartite to quadripartite vaulting can be justified on technical grounds. Some people have thought that quadripartite vaulting was actually lighter but scientific tests have shown that sexpartite vaulting is actually lighter. The technical advantage of quadripartite vaulting lies in the way they transmit longitudinal forces. These are the forces that run along the axis of the main nave and choir. The force of the thrust of the roof vaults as it meets the springing usually translates into three components; a downward thrust down the nave wall, an outward thrust perpendicular to the axis of the nave, resisted by the flying buttresses and finally a longitudinal thrust against the adjacent wall. As Early Gothic developed into Highly Gothic clerestories became larger. On either side of the vault there was no longer stone, as at Bourges, but glass as at Chartres. Hence ways had to be found to reduce the longitudinal thrust along the nave and choir. Sexpartite vaults, because the greater angle they meet the wall and the way in which the number of ribs alternates, exert more longitudinal force. Quadripartite vaulting directs more of the force directly out to the flying buttresses. Hence the move towards quadripartite vaulting and larger clerestories are part of one technical development.
There remains the question: how are these building to be run and maintained? The journalist Simon Jenkins has argued that cathedrals should now be viewed as part of a city’s cultural assets like a city art gallery or symphony orchestra.
At Tours I was able to visit the Vinci Conference Centre designed by Jean Nouvel. This building has three auditoria and exhibition space enabling it to host a variety of activities, from music performances to pharmaceutical conferences. The exhibition spaces are largely column-free: the load-bearing structure only touches the ground at a few points, the auditoria being suspended on cable structures. Here one of the building’s administrators, Monsieur Henry Rivoire, demonstrates the top of one of the junctions of column and cable structures.
When photographing a Jean Nouvel building I really think you should take the Claude Monet approach: visit the building in every conceivable state of natural light and try to capture every variety of image. However, time constraints made such an approach impossible to I was left with the possibilities of one sunny afternoon. To quote Jean Nouvel as narrated by Conway Lloyd Morgan:
“Traditional architecture was based on fixing solid and void. This approach overlooked the primacy of light….For me, light is matter, and light is a material, a basic material. Once you understand how light varies, and varies our perceptions, your architectural vocabulary is immediately extended, in ways classical architecture never thought of. An architecture of ephemerality becomes possible…..mutable ones, changed by light and changing with light. Not only through changes in daylight, but through changing the interior lighting of the building, and playing with different opacities and transparencies………..My buildings are planned around five, six, or seven different sets of lighting conditions, from the start. Had I started with just one set - as some other architects still do - the result would be very different: but not acceptable to me!”
Conference center in Tours by Jean Nouvel
The journey ended at Nantes, near the mouth of The Loire. I visited newly regenerated residential neighbourhoods which seemed like places where people would actually want to live, unlike the Le Mans, desperately in need of regeneration. I did not have time to photograph these neighbourhoods in Nantes. I did, however, have time to visit and photograph a new cultural quarter, on the banks of the river in the southwest of the city.
The foundation project in this quarter seemed to be a building which housed the function of law courts, a work also by Jean Nouvel. With characteristic Nouvel thoroughness, it seemed as if a whole range of light conditions had planned for the building. The Cartesian grid which is carried throughout the whole building might, I suppose, be seen, as a symbol of fairness and rationality.
Law Courts building in Nantes by Jean Nouvel
The quarter also contained an architecture centre which contained an exhibition of projects for the region, both planned and realised. As well as residential projects there seemed to be an ecole des beaux arts going up next door. Pride of place seemed to belong to a new school of architecture by Vactal & Lasson.
The demise of French culture, often predicted, seems premature; on the contrary, French architecture is alive and well today.
Gothic-revival building in London
Notre Dame, Paris
(In writing this piece the author referenced texts by Viollet-le-Duc, Ruskin, Christopher Wilson, Robert Mark and Conway Lloyd Morgan. All photos and drawings by author.)