Friday, November 22, 2013

Rock of (Middle) Ages...

In Ethiopia there are eleven monolithic churches that I hope to see someday. Carved right out of the earth in the 13th century, they’re unique in the world. To create these spectacular structures the builders first removed enough rock to expose an enormous solid cube. Then the interior of that block was carved away to create a sanctuary that was truly monolithic or ‘one rock,’ like those in the images above.

But if you know Bruce you can imagine his thoughts on visiting a country known primarily for Haile Selassie and famine. Since my chances of getting to Ethiopia are pretty slim, it's lucky for me that the two largest monolithic churches in Europe are located within 60 miles of Bordeaux.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

When Buildings Could Talk

The best thing about writing this blog is that I learn something new with every post. That was exactly what happened last week when I wrote about the colombage buildings in Alsace. After I had finished most of the text I found a video to finish the post with. In that video, Frederick, a young Alsatian, talked about restoring a colombage barn and house, and because it was in French I included a brief translation of his main points. What I didn’t tell you is that toward the end Frederick mentioned that there were symbols hidden in the timber framing of his house. He claimed that the original owner of the house was extremely  interested in having a large family, and that this message could be 'read' in the colombage.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Colombage Redux

Earlier this year I wrote about the colombage buildings in northern France, particularly the beautiful houses in Rouen. (If you want to read that post please click on the word 'colombage' in the labels list at the right.) But we just returned from a trip to Alsace in eastern France, an area that is widely thought to have the largest number of preserved wood-framed structures from the 15th to 17th centuries.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Saint Louis Blues.... and greens, reds, yellows....

Last week I wrote about the abbey church of Saint Denis and the birth of Gothic architecture. There, Abbot Suger took the writings of a 5th century Syrian theologian and transformed them into an architecture of light. In doing so, Suger initiated a chain of events that resulted in the creation of hundreds of astounding buildings that continue to inspire and “lift us up”.

Suger’s new chevet, consecrated in 1144, spurred great competition between the abbots and bishops of the surrounding churches and the race for “height and light” was on. In 1160 the choir of Notre Dame de Paris was reconstructed; that in turn provided the impetus for the rebuilding of Chartres. Through a continual process of trial and error, which resulted in spectacular structural failures on more than one occasion, the Gothic cathedrals leapt ever higher: Chartres at 120 feet; Amiens at 139 feet; and Beauvais, the tallest, topped out at 157 feet. 

The result of this increased height was that significantly larger portions of the walls could be glazed, allowing more of the heavenly light to suffuse the interiors. At Chartres three rose windows were installed, one in each of the north, south and west portals (they're shown at the top of the post). On the interior the double lancet and rose glazing of the clerestory level became the standard for all of the cathedrals that followed. A further refinement occurred at Amiens, where the development of the glazed triforium (the gallery space above the side aisle arches) allowed even more light to penetrate the cathedral interior.

Double lancet and rose windows at Chartres
Glazed triforium (the smaller band above the big arches)
at Amiens Cathedral

But the perfect example of Gothic architecture wasn't created at one of France’s magnificent cathedrals. Instead the philosophy of Dionysius found its greatest expression at the Sainte-Chapelle, on the Ile-de-la-Cité in the heart of Paris. The chapel was constructed in the mid-13th century by the French King Louis IX to house the Passion relics, the holiest articles in Christendom. These sacred articles, which Louis had purchased at enormous expense from Baldwin II of Constantinople, included, among other items, the jaw bone of John the Baptist, a vial of Mary’s milk, a piece of the true cross, one of the crucifixion nails, the holy lance and sponge, and most significantly, the crown of thorns.

An extremely pious man, King Louis was beatified in 1297 from which time he has been known as Saint Louis. It is indicative of his personality that Louis died while on the second Crusade of his monarchy. Among the many stories of his pious acts is one that describes the king walking barefoot in the snow for many miles to reach the caravan that was transporting the relics to Paris. But Louis was not only a pious man, he was also an astute politician. His purchase of the relics sent a clear message to the rest of the world that the French king was now the wealthiest and most powerful monarch in Christendom.

The Sainte-Chapelle was designed with two chapels, one located above the other. The lower chapel (shown in the upper two images below) is a relatively small space with a low ceiling, and was used by lay people. The upper chapel, which connected directly to the palace, was reserved exclusively for Louis and members of the royal family. In plan the upper chapel consists of four bays plus an apse that housed the relics. Around the perimeter are stained glass windows of indescribable brilliance.

The upper chapel
Because the Sainte-Chapelle was specifically designed to house the Passion relics, Louis’ goal in creating the building was to create an architectural reliquary similar to the gilded and jeweled boxes that held precious religious objects.  In imitation of a reliquary the interior of the chapel was brightly painted and richly decorated. But it was the glowing glass walls that contributed most to the reliquary-like appearance of the space.

A typical reliquary
There are a number of reasons why the Sainte-Chapelle is particularly luminous. First, there is its size. Although the chapel appears deceptively small, the glazed windows are each over fifty feet tall.  Then there is the absence of side aisles that in larger cathedrals block a large percentage of the light. And finally, as Abbot Suger had discovered at Saint Denis, the absence of a choir screen allowed light to permeate the interior. Because the interior of the Sainte-Chapelle is entirely devoid of furnishings, the gem-like quality of the glass is particularly apparent.

Over the centuries the Sainte-Chapelle endured a number of alterations that diminished her glory. A monumental staircase was constructed (since removed) to provide public access to the upper chapel. Then, as the city crowded around her, the chapel became lost in a jumble of new judicial buildings.  During the Revolution, the Saint-Chapelle, a strongly detested symbol of both royalty and religion, was horribly vandalized. The steeple was brutally pulled down, directly into the upper chapel. Interior furnishings were destroyed, relics were scattered, and because the upper chapel was used to house archival documents the lowerst sections of the precious glass were removed.

The chapel (on the right) as it appeared in the 15th century
Sainte-Chapelle in the early 18th century. Note the staircase.
By the end of the 19th century the city had nearly
swallowed the chapel.
The chapel is now so crowded on its site that it's difficult
 to find and almost impossible to photograph

In the early 19th century Victor Hugo and other noted Frenchmen began to agitate for the restoration of the chapel. This gave rise to the Monuments Historiques, the preservation agency that has saved so many of the country’s historic sites from neglect and demolition. The stained glass, which was restored along with the rest of the interior in the 19th century, has since been re-restored and over two-thirds of the original glass is in place.

Entering the Sainte-Chapelle today, over seven hundred years after its consecration, one experiences much the same feelings as Jean de Jandun, who wrote in 1323, “in going into [the chapel]  from below, one understandably believes oneself…to be entering one of the best chambers of Paradise.”  Truer words were never written.....

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Blinded by the Light

Several weeks ago I wrote a post on Gothic architecture entitled “Let there be (more) light.” At the time I had intended to follow that with more on the same subject, but those last sunny days of summer threw me off track. Now that autumn is finally here, I think it's time to go back to that subject and talk more about the evolution and development of  'the French architectural style'.

The abbey church of Saint Denis after the 13th century alterations

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Histoires de Portes

Last Tuesday morning I fell head over heels in love. The circus was in town so I went over to take pictures of the animals. Afterwards, as I was walking home thinking what funny creatures elephants are, I glanced up and BAM! It was, as they say in French, un coup de foudre. Love at first sight.

I’ve always been a sucker for good looks and this time was no different. But usually that initial euphoria is quickly followed by disappointment because it’s damn near impossible to find good looks and smarts in the same package. And in the long run, it's intelligence that matters most to me.  But this was the first time I had fallen in love in France and it crossed my mind that maybe a French love affair would be different. Maybe this time there would be some substance beneath that handsome exterior. And with that my decision was made...This one was coming home with me.

We’ve been together for nearly a week now and I'm completely satisfied. All of my expectations have been exceeded. In fact, it seems that Histoires de Portes was written expressly for me.

Friday, September 6, 2013

All the Forgotten Faces

When we first visited Bordeaux I was struck by the number of carved masks that highlight the buildings around town. But when Bruce suggested I buy a book on the subject, I just scoffed. "No way," I thought. "They’re just like all Classical ornament -- pretty, but essentially meaningless." (What an architectural snob, huh?) But recently it occurred to me that a post on these masks would be just perfect for the last gasp of summer. The subject wasn’t too heavy and it provided an opportunity for lots of interesting photos. A fluff piece before tackling heavier subjects like Gothic cathedrals once the weather cools off.

But as I walked around taking pictures, I realized that the masks were much more varied than I had expected. They were even sort of intriguing. And when I started reading about them I learned that not  only do these sculptural elements have a history of their own, but that they also provide a visual testament to the city’s development. So much for this being a fluff piece...

A female figure with a crown that appears to represent the
city's ancient walls. Her face is surrounded by three
crescent moons - the symbol of Bordeaux, also known
as the Port de la Lune because of her location on a
crescent-shaped bend in the Garonne River. 

Friday, August 30, 2013

Classical Gas

Have you noticed anything odd about this blog? Has it occurred to you that I live in Bordeaux, one of the most beautiful cities in France; that I blog about architecture; and that I’ve promised, several times in fact, to write about the architecture of Bordeaux. But, so far, I haven’t been true to my word. I always seem to be distracted by some other subject. Sure, one of my first posts was on the Palais Galien, Bordeaux’s only Roman ruin. And I did a little piece on the boot scrapers around town. And there was something on Corbu in the ‘burbs. But so far I’ve studiously avoided writing about the Classical architecture for which Bordeaux is justly famous.

Now why do you suppose that is? I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the past couple of weeks, as I continued to put off that long-promised post. And I finally realized that the answer is a complete no-brainer --- 18th century classical architecture may be beautiful, but it’s so rational and ordered that, to me, it’s just plain boring. 

The Bourse and the Fountain of the Three Graces

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Art Nouveau Paris: A tour of Auteuil

Man, oh man. I’m just all over the place with this blog. A few weeks ago I started on the subject of Gothic architecture and promised to describe its history and development. Then the weather heated up and that topic seemed way too heavy for the dog days of August. Instead I gave you a taste of Bordeaux’s Classical architecture with the promise of more to come.

Since that last post we’ve been to Paris, and now I’m going to change the subject yet again. But I promise, I will get back to Gothic churches and Classical Bordeaux.   In the meantime we spent a day trekking around Auteuil, a well-heeled suburb in the southeastern part of the city that was a laboratory for the development of 20th century architecture. Today I’d like to show you some spectacular Art Nouveau buildings and in the next post I’ll go back to the earlier topics. And I’ll try not to get sidetracked this time, although I have to admit that I'm really anxious to write about the fortified mills of the Entre-deux-Mers region.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Wild Horses...The Monument to the Girondins

It’s nearly 100 degrees in Bordeaux and it’s August, so most of France is on vacation. Restaurants are closed, the streets are empty and the only thing Bruce and I can do is sit around our un-airconditioned apartment and sweat.

Because it’s so hot I decided that it’s probably not the best time to be writing about heavy subjects like the evolution of Gothic architecture. So for the next few weeks I’m going to take a break from posts that demand a lot of concentration. Instead, I’m just going to show you some of Bordeaux’s gorgeous architecture.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Gothic Architecture: Let There Be (More) Light

Before I dive into Gothic architecture I’d like to say a very warm thank you to Cindy Bogart of The Daily Basics and Lynn McBride of Southern Fried French for the super article on Archi-trouve that appeared this week on The Daily Basics. Cindy’s website covers food, travel, wine, book and culture – all the things we love – and it’s a great, ever-changing resource. Lynn is an American living in Burgundy. Her blog provides a unique look at expat life (with some wonderful recipes) and she has a particular interest in languages. Bruce and I both picked up a few tips from her new book How to Learn a New Language with a Used Brain. Check it out on Amazon. Thanks again to both for promoting Archi-trouve.


After our trip to Burgundy this spring I wrote a series of posts on Romanesque architecture, currently my favorite style. (Confession: my favorite architectural style changes every two or three years and has ranged from Greek Revival to Art Nouveau. I think my preference is as much a reflection of where I live physically as where I'm 'at' emotionally.)

But before I came to appreciate the subtleties of Romanesque I loved Gothic architecture for its dramatic, light-filled spaces.  I even spent a hellish year in a doctoral program at the University of Florida so I could understand the structural and architectural innovations that produced some of the most spectacular buildings of all time. (Unfortunately, my aversion to Gainesville overwhelmed my love of Gothic.)

Church of Saint Ouen, Rouen 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Rage Against the Machine for Living: Corbu in Pessac

When I was studying architecture in the late 70s, modernism was all the rage. The Bauhaus. Mies. Gropius. And of course, the Swiss-French architect Charles-Edouard Jenneret, better known as le Corbusier.

While all of my classmates happily constructed boxes with flat roofs, I struggled to design something (anything!) that I thought was beautiful. But semester after semester I failed. I had no feeling for modern architecture and at the time there was no other philosophy for me to base my designs on. There was no “post-modernism, ” no “New Urbanism.”  For years, I believed that I simply lacked the requisite creativity to be an architect.

But later, studying historic preservation, I came to realize that the problem wasn’t entirely my lack of talent; some of it was due to the constraints of modern architecture itself. I couldn’t relate to “Less is more.” I believed, perhaps too literally, that more was more. “Ornament and Crime?” I thought ornament was beautiful. “The house is a machine for living in”? Really? What kind of bereft-of-joy lives are lived in machines, for heaven's sake?

And regarding Corbusier, I completely agreed with the French political activist Gilles Ivain when he said, “I do not know what this individual – ugly of countenance and hideous in his conceptions of the world – is repressing to make him want to crush humanity under ignoble heaps of reinforced concrete... His power of cretinization is vast. A model by Corbusier is the only image that brings to my mind immediate suicide.”

You get the idea.  I really didn’t like modern architecture.

So imagine my surprise when I visited the Quartiers Modernes Frugès, a model ‘city’ designed by Le Corbusier in the 1920s, and I didn’t hate it. I even, somewhat reluctantly, admired it.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Abbey Road, Part 2: The Architecture of Fontenay

A couple of weeks ago I posted Part 1 of Abbey Road where I described the beginnings of Fontenay, the gorgeous Cistercian abbey located deep in rural Burgundy. For those who missed that post, I talked about how moved I was by the utter simplicity of the architecture and the beautiful contemporary landscaping that provides a perfect setting for the ancient buildings. Today I'd like to talk about the architecture in a little more detail.

Despite having been used as a paper mill for over 100 years, nearly all of Fontenay’s original buildings remain intact; only the refectory has been lost to time. The chapel and cloister, chapterhouse, scriptorum, dormitory, forge, infirmary, dovecote, visitor's chapel and abbot’s house have all been restored and most of the buildings are open to the public.

The church is located along the right side of the property. At right angles
to it is the chapter house and scriptorium with the monks' dormitory
above. The forge is the long rectangular building located along the left
 side of the property. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Summer in the City

The Place de la Bourse, or Stock Exchange, reflected in the Mirror

For my next blog post I had intended to write Part 2 of Abbey Road: The Architecture of Fontenay.  But that will have to wait, because after countless weeks of cold, rainy weather, summer has finally come to Bordeaux. The city has taken to the streets in droves.  Cafes are brimming with young people drinking coffee or beer while eyeing the passers-by. The Jardin Public is full of kids chasing balls and old folks walking dogs or doing tai chi (including me!). But when the sun is shining, my favorite place in Bordeaux is the Mirror.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Chemin d'Abbaye. Part 1: Fontenay

Sooner or later, nearly every traveller finds a particular place that speaks to him or her in a personal way. It can be anywhere: a country, a building, a park. My sister Gail is called by the New Mexican desert. My belle soeur Grace was smitten with Norway’s fiords.  And I found nirvana in an isolated Benedictine abbey in Burgundy.

I've always been drawn to churches, particularly those from the Romanesque and Gothic periods. The combination of structural engineering and artistic expression simply never ceases to astound me. And then there's the ever-varying quality of the light. And the remnants of 11th century painted decoration. And of course I'm always trying to puzzle out exactly how these buildings appeared to the average person during the Middle Ages, what exactly it was that they saw and experienced. 

Until Fontenay, my attachment to these churches was largely intellectual. But in that remote corner of Burgundy, the peaceful setting and utter simplicity of the abbey spoke to me in a way very few buildings ever have. In contrast to the splendid grand cathedrals that keep me at arms' length emotionally, Fontenay was appealing because of its austerity.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Roll out the barrel vaults

The lovely Burgundian town of Tournus is home to the abbey of Saint Philbert, a church that has something for everyone. Do you believe that 'older is better'? Saint Philbert’s was built in the 11th century. Love a peaceful cloister? A gloomy crypt? A breath-taking chapel? They’re all here, waiting to be explored. Looking for painted decoration, mosaic floor tiles, curiously carved column capitals, or a magnificent 18th century organ? Saint Philbert’s has them. Throw in some structural innovations that make the nave a serene and light-filled space and the result is a place where nearly anyone can happily spend an hour or two.

11th century mosaic floor depicting the month of June.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Who put the 'Rome' in Romanesque?

We just spent a week in Dijon and toured a lot of the surrounding region. Now it just so happens that Burgundy is world-famous, not only for its wine but also for its Romanesque architecture. I visited elaborate cathedrals, little chapels, abandoned ruins (like the two above), isolated abbeys and pilgrimmage churches, all in the Romanesque style and all built about 1000 years ago.  Bruce, par contre, was usually in the cafe next door, waiting (pretty patiently) for me to rejoin him in the 21st century. 

So for the next few weeks, I'll be writing about the history and architecture of the most remarkable of these churches – Tournus, Vezelay and the Abbey at Fontenay. But before I talk about these churches individually I’d like to explain a little about the evolution of Romanesque architecture, how it got its name and some of its particular characteristics. (Please note that you should be able to click on any picture to enlarge it...)