Notre Dame du Raincy by Auguste Perret

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Notre Dame du Raincy by Auguste Perret       Photo: B. Milanese via Flickr

A few weeks ago I wrote here about the innovation brought in ecclesiastical architecture by Anatole de Baudot’s  experimentation with reinforced cement. This week I will be discussing another highly influential church in Paris which uses reinforced concrete to transform our perception of space while revolutionising modern architecture of the past century.

Auguste Perret was famous at the beginning of the 20th century for his expertise in using a new type of material which was at that time mainly employed in the construction of industrial buildings. He is attributed the pioneering use of reinforced concrete in a residential block in 1904 but soon after he would take the use of this material to new heights, blending modern theories with traditional architectural forms.

Designed in 1922, Notre Dame du Raincy was intended as a war memorial to those killed in the First Battle of the Marne in WWI. It is marked by a stringent austerity and coarseness of detail and surface, dictated mainly by a lack of funds. Nonetheless, the architect was able to create here a new type of space, a hollowed out interior freed from the limitations of masonry structures of the past. The main innovation consisted in the use of reinforced concrete columns to deny the walls’ structural function thus allowing the expansive fenestration that give the church its character and its intense quality of light.

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Notre Dame du Raincy, interior       Photo: w.w’s via Flickr

The internal space is light and simple, taking its form and definition from the articulation of the structure itself. The focus is on the bold and original structural method: 28 freestanding round columns are disposed in four rows holding up a shallow barrel vaulted ceiling, all modelled in exposed concrete. Perret also demonstrates the expressive capabilities of his favourite material by using a formwork with vertical insets to create flutings, thereby giving greater elegance to the tall and slender columns.

Except for a plinth of solid walling 2.4m high, the north, south and east façades consist entirely of thin precast concrete panels containing rectangular, triangular or circular apertures filled with coloured glass. This method of fenestration gives the church its effect of continuous expanse of glass and profusion of light. The worshiper walks through a gradation of tonalities changing slightly from bright yellow at the entrance to a deep blue around the altar.

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Notre Dame du Raincy, view from side aisle      Photo: Andrew Carr via Flickr

The building has a simple, rectangular basilican plan with nave slightly higher than the two side aisles. Longitudinally, the church is divided into five bays, the central bays almost square and the aisles half the width of the nave. It culminates with the sanctuary raised about 1.5m from the rest of the church and flooded with light passing through a gently curved apse.

Through its innovative structure and use of material, Notre Dame du Raincy clearly demonstrates a distancing of church building from historicism. However, the most startling departure from the traditional precedents is the blurring of the separation between altar and congregation. The pews have an uncomfortable proximity to the sanctuary, thus giving the impression that the space is more a house for worshipers than a House of God.

Highly influential and revolutionary for its time, Notre Dame du Raincy is still a work of reference for architects from around the world as it continues to impress through its daring use of exposed concrete and its straightforward structural method.

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Notre Dame du Raincy, nave       Photo: Omar Omar via Flickr

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