St. Jean de Montmartre by Anatole de Baudot

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St. Jean de Montmartre by Anatole de Baudot    Photo: Phil Beard

This week I will be stopping in Paris to explore a church revolutionary not so much in style, as the previously discussed ones, but through the construction material and structure employed: St. Jean de Montmartre by Anatole de Baudot.

As I highlighted in one of my previous posts, by the end of the 19th century a new spirit began to spread across Europe, ignited by changing paradigms and social revolutions. In France, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, although famous for his work of restoration on numerous Gothic buildings in Paris, felt that 19th century’s generation of architects must strive to create its own style by coming up with forms suitable to the new social, economic and technical age. He thought the answer lies in the creation of forms truthful to their structure and program but never demonstrated in practice how his theories could be applied. These ideas would find fertile soil in the pioneers of modern architecture, especially when trying to give architectural expression to new materials.

In 1894 Anatole de Baudot, a disciple of Viollet le Duc, was approached by Fr. Sobbeaux to construct a new church for the growing population of Montmartre. At a time when experiments with reinforced concrete were relatively isolated and usually reserved for mundane purposes, the architect decided to use this new material to overcome a major technical difficulty imposed by a very steeply sloping site. However, concrete was then regarded as a cheap material and questions concerning its aesthetic quality had to be addressed.

Formed of reinforced cement rather than concrete, the church of St Jean de Montmartre was completed in 1904 and has a complex structure standing on 26 columns which go down 12m into the ground. These rectangular columns, 500mm wide, extend 25m above the floor level and divide into two before touching the ceiling, forming a simple but beautiful vault with flat pointed arches which suggests a medieval prototype. The structural system is clearly visible inside through the distinction made between support and infill panels, reflecting le Duc’s theories about truthfulness to structure. Thus the architectural vocabulary expresses more the structure than the style, transforming a Neo-gothic language through the innovative use and celebration of exposed cement.

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St. Jean de Montmartre, interior    Photo: seier+seier

The cleverly articulated ribbed vaulting produces a magnificent impression but gives little indication of the external appearance of the roof. The ceiling is pierced by two rectangular openings, each looking into cupolas visible only from the outside and topped by small pinnacles. Externally, the roof is covered in copper and the walls are clad in red brick and ceramic tiles to minimise the visual impact of the grey cement. It seems that no attempt was made here at expressing the structural skeleton.

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St. Jean de Montmartre, ceiling detail     Photo: seier+seier

The plan of the church is simple and consists of a narthex (above which raises a tower bell), a lofty central aisle separated by two side aisles through rows of columns which support the galleries above. Two small chapels between the sanctuary and the nave form a transept. The walls are painted with scenes from St. John’s Gospel and the Aplcalypse and the 48 stained glass windows depict the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The sanctuary is relatively modest and the altar is also the work of the architect. With a reinforced cement base decorated using blue, grey, yellow and red stones pressed into it, the altar is backed by four panels with medallions inscribing the symbols of the Evangelists and the tabernacle is placed in the middle.

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St. Jean de Montmatre, altar detail   Photo: Nanstoe

Despite a general impression of grandeur at a small scale, the building seems to lack formal resolution: it is a hybrid of medieval and eclectic sources with an Art Nouveau touch and new materials. While the structure is boldly expressed, the overall visual language is indecisive. Nonetheless, the building does suggest ways in which lessons of the past could be applied to modern circumstances.

Bibliography

1. Curtis, W. J. R. (1982). Modern architecture since 1900. Oxford: Phaidon.

2. Heathcote, E., Moffatt, L. (2007). Contemporary church architecture. Chichester: Wiley-Academy.

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