May 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

IMG_2439Part of the appeal of some time in Paris is seeing some context for the Nervi project.  And, in the process, seeing some great buildings.

Auguste Perret was, in many ways, the French Nervi, though he was two decades older (1874-1954).  His focus was on commercial and residential construction, so there isn’t a great match in terms of typology, but he was also a contractor and entrepreneur, making a reasonably strong parallel.

Perret gets a bad rap for an unadventurous style–concrete, the argument goes, could be any form you want, so why go with a simple trabeated frame?  Perret’s answer was, to my mind, convincing.  Concrete gets formed by timber boxes, which are easiest to make in rectilinear forms.  Nervi was reacting against this tendency when he developed ferrocemento formwork, but France had better access to timber, and there was not as great an economic incentive to replace traditional wooden forms.

IMG_2580Perret’s work runs from fairly straightforward expressed frames–that’s his own office and apartment block at 55 Rue Raynoud, above–to some more elaborate meditations on what it means to build a frame in concrete.  The Salle Cortot concert hall (left, 1929) is about as bold a facade as you can do in a solid material, and it was a cousin to his better-known (but demolished) Garage Ponthieu of 1909.
IMG_2297By far his best and most provocative structure, though, is Notre Dame du Raincy (1923) a memorial church in Paris’ eastern suburbs.  It’s well-known but just far enough off the beaten path to be rarely visited, and it’s well worth the fifteen minute RER ride (and about a  ten minute walk north from the station–no, seriously, if you’re in Paris take a morning and go see this).  It’s an essay in what Nervi referred to as the three-fold realization of structural architecture: a strong diagram based on function and structural performance (in this case a straight-up reinterpretation of a classic basilica plan), the realization of this with a consistent material approach, and a thoughtful, present design mind behind all of this alert to the possibilities of explaining, expressing, and elucidating the one through the other.  The plan couldn’t be simpler, the concrete columns, vaults, and perforated screens couldn’t be cruder, but the effect of light pouring through  the screens and under the vaults and the play between the sublime atmosphere and the rough concrete is amazing.  There’s something everywhere for the eyes to do, and the whole thing reads as an essay in modern gothic–what Viollet-le-Duc might have done if he’d played around with concrete in addition to iron.
By complete coincidence, you also run into Perret in a very different form when you go to Amiens (which, also, yes).  The train station and commercial district immediately around it were master planned and constructed by Perret during WWII–an impressively coherent, if slightly unexciting urban space that’s been given a recent leg up by a giant glass canopy and some smart hardscape.  Here it’s hard to separate the punishingly regular style with the fact that this was a Vichy project, and the politics behind it are murky to say the least.

If all that weren’t enough, in 1908 a young Le Corbusier spent fourteen months interning in the offices of freres Perret.  So there’s a direct line to a lot of the more radical styling that went on in 1920s Paris.  And I think Corbusier’s later career–the beton brut work reads as a subtle tribute to Perret, taking the regular language and finding a more poetic, sculptural grammar within it.


cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine

May 26, 2014 § 2 Comments

ImageCatching up with a structures colleague over Mozart and gothic architecture Friday night (thanks for the suggestion and the tix, Marci~!), she asked if I’d been to the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine in the Trocadero yet.  It was the second time someone had gone out of their way to mention it, and I had to confess I’d put it pretty far down on my Paris list.  Architecture museums can be great (CAF!), but they can also be a drag–compared with actually being in a cathedral, who wants to just see casts and models, right?  

Well, this one is in the great category.  That’s the cast hall, above, which is very much like a typical glyptotheque, but all of the examples on display are from gothic, not classical, buildings.  There’s a fairly complete history of the gothic styles, and an extraordinary range of antique models.  (The one of Beauvais?  Held up by wood and metal struts, just like the real thing).  “Flamboyant” gothic?  Comes from the doubly-curved, flame-shaped motif that appeared everywhere after 1350.  The casts alone take up an entire floor of the Trocadero, the art deco hemicycle across the river from the Eiffel Tower.

ImageBut then the second floor is wholly devoted to the 19th and 20th century, and there’s some absolutely amazing stuff there, from models and drawings to full-size replicas of key bits.  The rhetoric is pretty clear–there’s a French tradition of building that goes from the gothic directly to the 21st century, one that’s taken construction, structure, and materials seriously (for the most part–there’s plenty of Portzamparc, too).  So that’s Viollet-le-Duc’s unbuilt assembly hall in the foreground, with Perret’s Notre Dame du Raincy represented by a replica of a concrete/stained glass panel in the background.  Talk about a mashup.  (And, to the left there, an exhibition display from Systeme Hennebique from 1913, featuring a just-copmleted bridge in Rome…)

ImageThe biggest surprise is a full-scale mockup of an apartment from the Unite d’Habitation.  Surprisingly roomy, given its reputation.

They have a third level devoted to temporary exhibitions, right now featuring Jean-Louis Cohen’s outstanding Architecture in Uniform, about architects’ and designers’ involvement for better and worse in WWII.  And a good bookstore, which is a bit lighter after this weekend.  Highly recommended–somewhere below the Pompidou and Notre Dame itself, but perfect for a rainy weekend day.  And, you know, the views from the outside aren’t so bad, either…Image


le corbusier’s cv

May 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

IMG_0624Not bad, huh?  The UNESCO archives have been a mixed bag–lots more on the committee structure of the group deciding on the size of the furniture than on the layout of formwork boards for the ground floor piers.  Still, that’s not a bad place to work, is it?  Plenty of time to sit and stare at said formwork.  And, it has to be said, UNESCO is an inspiring place to spend a morning.  It’s full of people from all over the world doing good things–in the last week I’ve wandered through breakout sessions from conferences on genetic therapies in the developing world and international initiatives in space exploration.  So even if I’m a bit short on hard data, it’s been no small thrill.

The story of the building’s conception is, like all things connected to the UN, complicated, and if I’ve lacked for formwork details I’ve found plenty of interesting–if entirely tangential–stuff on the architectural and political culture of the time.  Nervi and Breuer got the job thanks to the presence of Ernesto Rogers and Walter Gropius on the panel of five architects charged with selecting the team.  This came after a pitiful performance by a Parisian architect and after the committee changed the site–and changed it back again.

Lurking behind all of these shenanigans was Corbusier, who was on the selection panel, but who desperately wanted the job.  He wrote UNESCO’s Director General regularly, touting his firm’s abilities, his work on the UN Building in New York, and his desire to do something really grand in Paris.

The American delegate on the building committee was dead-set against Corbusier and vetoed the idea of giving the project to him directly, however.  There was a whispering campaign about Corbusier’s history of construction problems, but the American delegation had also objected to the inclusion of Oscar Niemeyer on the selection committee because of his leftist politics, and the perception that Corbusier might have had similar leanings seems to have shaded Thompson’s response.  Corbusier was bitterly disappointed, but he remained involved on the consultation committee and his hand is evident in Breuer’s schematic design and in the beton brut details developed by Breuer and Nervi.


Among the thousands of pages that tell this tale?  That’s Corbusier’s CV, submitted at the Director General’s request.  If you look closely, it does have entries under “OEUVRE” for oh, say, “Garches–villa” and “Plan voisin, projet pour Paris.”  You know, just two little projects that would end up in every textbook and history lecture of the late 20th century.  (It’s kind of reassuring that he also–still–had the early houses done for his cousins on the list…)

But, as an alternative theory to why he didn’t get the job, can you imagine submitting a CV for a project of UNESCO’s scale, and doing it in Courier New?  I mean, he might as well have used Comic Sans…



May 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

ImageBeauvais has always been a convenient example and something of a parable for structures professors.  It illustrates the race for height that bishops and towns felt in the 13th century–its choir is the tallest by six meters–and it has also traditionally illustrated the limits of masonry in the gothic system.  The choir was built from 1225 to 1272, but a large segment of the vaulting collapsed in 1284, effectively stopping work.  The vaults were rebuilt with additional piers and with sexpartite vaulting instead of quadripartite (in other words, the single vaults along the sides of the roof were doubled up).  And, at some point, iron tie rods were installed between the flying buttresses around the choir and the hemicycle, which survived the collapse almost intact.  The tie rods that are there now were re-installed in the 1960s, a short time after the cathedral architect removed the originals as the buttresses began resonating in a windstorm.  You can imagine the panic.

IMG_0842If you look closely, you can see that piers were added–trace the ribs that run through the vault keystones down, and in the lower story you can see that they don’t have full piers accompanying them.  You can also see, if you look very closely, traces of the original pointed arches (they spanned two of the bays that are there now).  And the new lower arches are lower than the surviving ones from the hemicycle, on the right side of the above picture.  The center ribs, the two skinny vaults on either side of them, and the piers and colonnettes that descend from them were all added during the reconstruction of the vaults.

No Gothic builders tried to match Beauvais’ height or slenderness after the collapse, which supposedly demonstrates the empirical approach behind the era’s construction–build taller and taller until something falls down, and then build a bit shorter.  That’s been shown to be largely untrue, though.  There were plenty of socio-political and economic reasons for the retreat from truly giant cathedrals after the 12th century–the Hundred Years’ War and the Black Death among them.  But Beauvais has also been something of a parlor game among historians trying to prove what, exactly, the mechanism of the collapse was.  There are no surviving accounts of the collapse, so every theory has had to start from the fabric itself and try to find flaws that might have doomed the choir.  Jacques Heyman  proved in the 1960s that the structure was perfectly stable under dead loading, which naturally focused attention on wind as the culprit.  As I understand it (and I’m happy to be corrected by the readership, of course) both he and Viollet-le-Duc blamed settlement in the towers for a change in geometry and thus the collapse–Heyman suggests geotechnical problems while Viollet-le-Duc thought it could be due to compression of lime mortar over time.


Robert Mark, photo elastic analysis of Beauvais, from “Light, Wind, and Structure.”

Robert Mark’s photoelastic analysis in the 1970s, though, suggested that wind loading on the slender piers would have actually induced tension on the windward piers–in other words, a strong enough wind would have actually started to pry the upper stories of the choir off of their supports.  Over twelve years, Mark and and Maury Wolf argued, wind forces rocked the upper story back and forth, eventually weakening the piers and buttresses through repetitive dynamic stress.  This would have weakened the mortar enough to allow a shear failure as imagined by Viollet-le-Duc or Heyman, albeit with a more straightforward cause.  Mario Salvadori, among others, doubted Mark’s analysis, noting that the methodology used by Mark in this and in many other studies–loading two-dimensional acrylic and photographing the results with a polarized lens to reveal contours of stress–could show only the conditions of a monolithic structure, not one composed of hundreds of weakly bonded stones.

Reading all of this (on the train to Beauvais, which is a gentle 1-1/2 hour milk run), I found Mark’s rationale unconvincing.  He argues that the repairs–adding additional piers and buttresses and changing the vaults from quadripartite to sexpartite–were common sense responses to the uplift problems.  But they would also have been understandable responses if there had been a dead load issue, in other words, if the builders had thought simply that the vaults had been too heavy for the widely-spaced, slender supports that were there.  After all, it would be another 700 years before Heyman would come along to prove that gravity wasn’t the problem.


Steven Murray makes a convincing suggestion, pointing out that the intermediate piers were basically hinged above the side aisles–you can see in the section that the middle piers get quite narrow as they descend through the cathedral’s occupied spaces.  This, to his analysis, was a fundamentally weak point of the section and a likely point of rotation and failure.

All of these theories, interestingly, focus on the section as the problem.  And this is understandable given the tools available during the 1960s through 1990s.  Mark’s photo elastic analysis was cutting edge, but it necessarily required dividing the structure up into planes that could be routed out of acrylic.  Heyman’s and Murray’s analyses are also based, fundamentally, on a more or less planar analysis.  That’s entirely understandable, since that’s the way Beauvais has been represented in the literature since it was built.  Its section is iconic, rich and complex on its own.  And that complexity is multiplied exponentially when the section is repeated and rotated into the three-dimensional network of vaults and buttresses that you actually see when you walk in and around it.

A forensic historian today (and boy, if that’s a real job, I want in) has a different set of tools that should enable a more complex three-dimensional analysis, and I suspect that the role of the flying buttresses’ dimensions in the choir’s longitudinal direction might seem far more important.  In particular, theories that rely on the post-collapse fixes for evidence should be taking into account not only the re-vaulting of the choir, but also the iron bars that were installed to brace the buttresses in the longitudinal direction (and, around the hemicycle, in the circumferential direction).  Admittedly, we don’t know when these were installed, but they’re certainly not ‘original,’ and the reconstruction after the collapse seems a likely potential date.  Given the scare of the 1960s, it’s clear that the slender stone buttresses were worryingly flexible in a good wind without that bracing.  And one can imagine one of them rotating out of plane, thus moving the buttresses out of the line of thrust from the vault above, with obvious results.  The rebuilders must have been nervous about gravity and wind, and may have added the intermediate ribs (turning the vaults into sexpartite instead of quadripartite) to solve perceived shortcomings in the former, and iron rods to solve the latter.  The eventual construction of the transept, in the 16th century, provided additional longitudinal stability and would have sheltered the thin buttresses from some amount of wind.

IMG_0855Beauvais’ transept has its own tragic story, of course–the tower over the crossing collapsed in 1573, after which the bishop and the good people of Beauvais threw in the towel.  That collapse is pretty well established, causation-wise, since the lack of a nave meant that the crossing had drastically uneven lateral support at its base.  The restoration of the crossing is particularly good–new piers are rendered in a smoothly curving stone, distinguishing them from the original, fully articulated piers of the original, so you can see what survived and what didn’t.

All of that aside, what’s there is spectacular, and the proportions are, as advertised, utterly sublime.  The discussion about the cause of the collapse can go on forever but the real question, standing in the middle of this space, is how on earth Beauvais’ builders got it to stand at all.

Further reading (most, but not all, on JSTOR):

Jacques Heyman, “Beauvais Cathedral,” Transactions of  the Newcomen Society, vol. 40, 1967-68, pp. 15-36.

Stephen Murray, “The Choir of the Church of St.-Pierre, Cathedral of Beauvais: A Study of Gothic Architectural Planning and Constructional Chronology in Its Historical Context.”   The Art Bulletin, Vol. 62, No. 4 (Dec., 1980), pp. 533-551.

Maury I. Wolfe and Robert Mark, “The Collapse of the Vaults of Beauvais Cathedral in 1284,”  Speculum, Vol. 51, No. 3 (Jul., 1976), pp. 462-476.


st. jean de montmartre

May 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

IMG_0676This is an odd footnote in concrete construction.  Built around 1900 by Anatole de Baudot, a disciple of Viollet-le-Duc, St. Jean de Montmartre shows up in all of the classic texts on early concrete construction–sort of a synthesis of art nouveau, reinforced concrete, and Victorian gothic.  But the fact is it wasn’t really any of those things.  Too straitlaced to really count as art nouveau, it was also far to stylized to count as neogothic (or, at any rate, Ruskinian neogothic).  As Andrew Saint has suggested, it’s neither a statement of a style nor of a system, and it defies easy historical categorization.

Which, of course, makes it completely fascinating.  As it happens, it’s not even entirely reinforced concrete–the walls and piers are all of a hybrid masonry/concrete/steel reinforcing conglomeration.  The church has even posted a drawing in the nave to explain the system, which seems complex enough to explain why it never really caught on.

de Baudot may have had an excellent teacher in Viollet-le-Duc, but the results here were…odd.  He seems to  have mixed gothic, pointed arches with structurally ineffective elliptical ones on the lower story–and note that the upper rank of arches seems to support itself on the very shallow summit of the ellipse below–if there’s an anti-Sagrada Familia on the planet, this is it.  de Baudot had by this point had a long career as a restoration architect.  And this was his final work–he was 70 when it was finished.  It ran into notable resistance from the city, who had no idea how to assess its structure, and its construction was halted for several years while the permitting was resolved.


Still, there’s a sort of “what-if” quality to it.  If concrete had never taken off–say, for instance, that the chemical miracle of Portland cement had never happened–what would the alternative to steel have been?  Reinforced masonry might well have taken hold in economies lacking native steel industries.  And a far more fruitful dialogue might have emerged about how reinforcement could stretch the vocabulary of hand-placed, fired clay, rather than the historical dialogue we have about whether a plastic material like concrete should adopt the timber forms of its molds (Perret, e.g.) or find its own, more curvilinear language (Nervi, certo).

As it stands, St. Jean de Montmartre is a textbook case of a new material–in this case one that never really caught on–struggling to find a cogent method of expression.  There’s an uneasy tension between the very flat, almost graphic arch work in the nave and the far more modeled brick piers, for instance.  The arch work, particularly with its painted detail, looks almost Venturi-esque.  And the proportions are unsettling, as if de Baudot couldn’t decide on a square or a half-square as a module.  Compared to the actual gothic buildings that Viollet-le-Duc was restoring and advocating as models while de Baudot was in school (about which, yes, more in a bit), there’s no rhythm, nothing holding together all of the graphics and details.  It’s an utterly bizarre but sort of lovable building, a total misfit in Paris and in concrete history–and brick history, too, for that matter–but it does that great thing of showing you what else might have happened.  And, by contrast it shows how other experiments in combining new technology with traditional forms or ideals proved more immediately resonant.  Perret’s Notre Dame du Raincy, for instance, was built just twenty years later, incorporating a Gothic sensibility into a pure concrete structure with none of the symbology or explicit references.  And, for that matter, Wright’s Unity Temple was completed the same year as this one–admittedly without any gothic reference whatsoever, but in such a vastly more convincing dialect.

just saying…

May 17, 2014 § 1 Comment

Nervi never shied away from his love for the gothic.  And I’ve just been editing a bit about the “eyebrows” in the Palazetto while gawking at St. Denis and Chartres.  And–maybe it’s just me?–there seems to be a wonderful parallel between these eyebrow windows and the way the classic fan vaults fold the cathedral roofs out of the way to let light in.IMG_8117IMG_0653


May 16, 2014 § 2 Comments

ImageContinuing the (very vaguely) Nervi-related tour of French cathedrals.  My colleague Rob Whitehead helpfully reminds me that Eero Saarinen, when asked to name his favorite room, cheekily replied “Chartres.”  And it’s easy to see why.  It’s a rare thing to walk into a building that you’ve built up in your mind for a long time (in this case since Prof. Betts’ Introduction to Architectural History course at Illinois in 1986…) only to find that they wildly exceed all of your expectations.  The Kimbell did that to me.  And Ronchamp.  More recently Aya Sofia.  And now this one.

ImageChartres is famous for being big, as the saying goes, but it’s also famous for being good.  It was built quickly–1194-1250–so it really only had two generations working on it.  There were no major changes in style or planning to the interior (the two towers, of course, are another story altogether…), so the space inside feels entirely of a piece–all of the proportions work, there aren’t any major discontinuities in the rhythm, and the ornament is all fairly consistent.  It feels gently organized and thoughtful, not always the case with medieval buildings.

ImageAnd the outside is no slouch, either, even though here you can see the work of different centuries making more of a collage than a single statement.  The north tower–the taller one–is actually 16th century.  But it has the advantage of being open to visitors who don’t mind a 30 mph wind, lower-than-modern-code guardrails, and a 250-ft. spiral stair of varying dimensions.  And the view from up top–both of the surrounding town and countryside, and of the flying buttresses working hard to keep the vaults up–is staggering.

A couple more of these to go see…Amiens and Beauvais, at least.  Dramatically different from anything Roman, of course, but that was part of the reason Nervi was so fond of them.  The cathedrals, he told his class at Sapienza, were “thriftily achieved with perfect and prescient static sensitivity,” while the Roman baths were “grossly obtained” by a “wealth of resources and workforce.”  

Harsh but fair….

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