Gothic Day Out

OK, a decidedly smaller group that decided to take the day and go to Chartres…I’ll chalk that up to the 90 minute train ride and associated ticket price rather than any lack of interest in what Eero Saarinen called, when asked, his favorite interior. The Cathedral is just over halfway through a hugely controversial restoration project that involves cleaning and re-plastering the entire interior, and the effect is striking–the space feels even more weightless and bright than it did when it was covered in seven centuries of grime. I understand missing the “gothic” character that went with that, but there’s something to be said for seeing the space as it was–probably?–originally intended.

As I’ve taught Big and Tall and the Three Renaissances courses, Chartres’ position in history has seemed more and more important to me, since it’s so pivotal in taking Gothic structure from a technique to a style. We use that term perjoratively all the time, but I’ve come to see it as more and more vital, in the sense that Violet-le-Duc used it to describe the sense we get when a set of competing systems and elements are integrated into something that makes cognitive sense as a unified whole, which is arguably what we as architects strive for all the time. “Style is the manifestation of an ideal based on a principle,” he wrote, and the so-called High Gothic, from Chartres through Beauvais, was for him the ultimate example of this. The subtle changes that the builders here made to the formula that underlay early Gothic structures like Notre Dame were critical to how the spaces are perceived. The changed to simpler vault structures that are matched one-to-one with the side bays (four-part vaults instead of flower-like six-part vaults) means that the roofs and the walls feel like they spring from one idea. Consolidating the traditional four layers of openings along the side walls into three makes for taller arcades, more light, and a more pronounced vertical emphasis. And, finally, moving the round windows from lower in the side walls to the top and pairing them with two lancet windows makes the entire top story feel like its genuinely tracery–no longer a wall, per se. Later builders would push these ideas further, and they’d extend their naves higher than here. They would also correct some elements of Chartres’ design that proved not to make much sense (those circular flying buttresses!). But knowing this you can–almost–sense the striving of the builders here to realize something that wasn’t merely impressive, but that was also somehow more satisfying than any of the earlier structures. Amiens and Reims are more impressive, and in terms of Violet-le-Duc’s criteria they’re certainly more refined, but there’s some drama in the flaws here that makes Chartres that much more intriguing.

The RER back drops you off in the labyrinth of Gare Montparnasse, where the one brave student who joined me for the day finally split–headed to the Pantheon for an 18th century take. It’s just a quick ride on the #4 to St. Michel-Notre Dame, though, and from there you can take a shorter chronological leap to the Rayonnant Gothic of Ste. Chappelle, which makes for a good conclusion to any cathedral trip–nothing but light, tracery, vaults, and piping. If Chartres feels like it’s just barely supported by its buttresses, Ste. Chappelle feels like it must be held up from above–a dramatic and satisfying an integration of light and structure and maybe, pace Eero, a candidate for my favorite interior on the planet. If you get there right at 4:30 and have a Museum Pass, they’ll let you be the last person in, and then if you wait patiently, you can get 30 seconds alone in the space before the security guard gently tells you, for the fourth time, that they close at 5 and you really, really need to head for the exits.

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