This 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.