Continuing 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.
Chartres 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.
And 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….