Tuesday, December 27, 2016


2016 was a great year for travel for me. I managed to get to a number of spots in the United States (Hawaii, Los Angeles, Chicago and eastern Ohio); took two European trips to England and France; and added a new continent to my list by spending a week in Ecuador, South America. My last post of 2016 is reserved for a place I've wanted to see for almost 30 years: Beauvais, France. I'll try to be brief but this place was important for me to visit.

The first buildings I ever fell in love with when I was studying architecture in my late teens and early 20s were the Gothic cathedrals of Europe. I found it incredible that men in the Middle Ages were building huge churches out of stone with no calculations or mechanized equipment whatsoever. I also loved that with each subsequent construction project they seemed to push the limits of stone construction further and further. It was like tempting fate.

Of all the cathedrals out there, Beauvais was always my favorite, partly because it was the tallest but partly because here in this small city about an hour and 15 minutes outside of Paris, they tempted fate a little too much and pushed the envelope about as far as it could go and maybe a little further. It's a little bit of a tragic tale, although I didn't really truly understand that until I arrived there this past September.

Looking up at the vaulting of Beauvais Cathedral. You will find nothing higher and Gothic in the world.
Construction of the cathedral at Beauvais (officially the Cathedral of St. Peter, or Pierre if you prefer) began in 1255 and got off to a quick start. It took just 17 years to complete the choir, which at 156 feet tall was the tallest in the world, higher than Notre-Dame de Paris and Chartres Cathedral by 41 and 35 feet respectively and 14 feet higher than Cologne's famous cathedral. But the euphoria of building higher than man ever had with this kind of construction came crashing down 12 years after the choir was completed. Literally. Part of the choir had collapsed.

The 1284 collapse was not the only structural failure the cathedral would endure. After repairing the choir (albeit with a bit more structure this time) and finishing the transept over the next 180 years (not a typo - the Hundred Years War interfered with cathedral construction just a bit), the master masons at Beauvais decided to add a central tower that would make the Cathedral the tallest building in the world at the time. But just ten years after they started building the tower in 1573, that collapsed too, taking part of the transept down with it.

Just like that, it was over. It was determined that there were enough funds to repair the transept but there would be no more construction after that. Fini. Toujours.

To this day, the Cathedral is unfinished and it won't ever be completed as envisioned by the masons of Beauvais when they started building. It remains as a transept and choir only, lacking the nave that makes up the bulk of most cathedrals' floor plans. Rather than being cruciform in plan like most Catholic churches, Beauvais is missing the entire lower leg of the cross where the congregation typically sits.

Beauvais Cathedral as seen from the west.
It is no less spectacular for its incomplete state than any other Gothic cathedral I've visited in my life. At least not on the outside. In fact, it's better than any other I've seen. It looks a little strange approaching it from the west because there's a whole piece of what should be there just missing but the verticality and the openness of the walls are spectacular. You can already anticipate the amount of light that is going to be flowing into the church once you enter on the south end of the transept. Not the east end. The south end of the transept.

But when you step inside, things are a little sadder. You can really get a good picture of what the builders all those years ago have created and it doesn't look healthy 400 plus years after they stopped construction.

First of all, I should say standing in this church after all these years of wanting to go was incredible. It really is an amazing space. The height is breathtaking and the walls look way more open inside the church than they do on the exterior, probably because the flying buttresses on the outside of the Cathedral tend to obscure the actual walls of the building.

But the most striking feature of the interior of the Cathedral is not the soaring vaults but the series of wooden braces being used to hold the place together. There are several horizontal trusses spanning across the transept at the north and south ends and there's a huge diagonal structure holding up some of the piers at the northwest corner of the crossing; they've even had to excavate the floor of the cathedral to get enough purchase at ground level to stop this massive construct from slipping.

The south end of the transept.
The northwest corner of the crossing.
Yes, the stained glass is awesome; it shines on the interior walls of the cathedral like some abstract impressionist painting. The openness of the church is incredible too and the height really seems like it is close to God, or must have in the mid-13th century when the choir was first erected. But the introduction of supports to stop the place falling down are unforgettable. In a way, I guess we could have seen this coming; walking back around the west end of the Cathedral after visiting the interior, we noticed metal bars holding the tops of the flying buttresses together. Not as visible as what we found inside, but telling nonetheless.

I hate to appear to end 2016 on a downer note because like I said at the top of this post my travels have taken me to some wonderful places this year. And make no mistake, Beauvais is included among those places. I can't say if Beauvais Cathedral will stand for centuries more or a few decades more or just a few years but I'm glad I made it there this year. I'm also certain if there's a place that can save this church, it's Beauvais, a city which rebuilt itself twice after two German invasions in the twentieth century and a place represented by the salamander, an animal that can regenerate lost limbs. We found gold medallions featuring these amphibians all over the streets of the city and I've included a picture of one as the cover of this post.

My 2016 travels are over but I'll be on my way somewhere else next month. Can't wait to see what I find out there. If they are half as spectacular as this gorgeous old church in Beauvais, I'll be a lucky man.

The east end of Beauvais Cathedral taken from where the nave was supposed to be.

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