Notre-Dame du Raincy

Earlier this week I visited—for the first time—Notre-Dame du Raincy, the church built in 1922–23 by brothers Auguste and Gustave Perret. It is a seminal early example of reinforced concrete construction, and a tour-de-force of stained-glass (framed in concrete). I was wowed. What an amazing structure and thrilling space!

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But here’s the headline: at nearly 100 years old, the building is falling apart. Rebar is visible and corroding in several places. A display inside the church says it is “a monument in danger.” Donations are sought.

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The Borohus Virkesmagasin

Earlier this Spring, in Landsbro, Sweden, I visited a truly remarkable structure: a drying shed for timber which locals call Arken or Noah’s Ark. I believe it is properly called the Borohus Virkesmagasin. Borohus was one of Sweden’s biggest house factories in the 1930s–80s, and virkesmagasin means warehouse. You might think of it as a cathedral of lumber; it certainly had that feeling. What a powerful space.

Hilding Brosenius, a structural engineer, designed the building and he seems to have invented this type of nailed timber beam. I estimate these are about 20-feet deep! The structure was built in 1946–47. With a footprint of 38 x 165 meters, it is said to be Europe’s largest timber building.

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Here is a 1940 article (in Swedish) by Brosenius describing the method, which he called HB-balkar.

Here’s a similar but apparently smaller structure by Brosenius dated 1953.

The Notre-Dame Question

Update 5-31-19: French Senate demands cathedral be rebuilt exactly as it was before the fire

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It's been about 4 weeks since the timber roof at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris burned on April 15. For me it was shocking and heartbreaking. (A small silver-lining: on that day I heard from several former students who loved the building too, and they reached out because they knew I'd be grieving.)

Almost as soon as the fire was extinguished, French president Emmanuel Macron announced that the cathedral should be rehabilitated very quickly, in time for the 2024 Summer Olympics. And Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced a competition which will seek a new design for the roof and spire which is “adapted to technologies and challenges of our times.” The French assembly followed suit and approved a law to move quickly, rebuilding Notre-Dame within five years.

By April 19, Norman Foster put forth a vision for a new “light and airy” roof. Dominique Perrault said the problem is “extremely delicate” but that the rebuilding should create “an even more powerful presence, a wider resonance, transfiguring, amplifying, and exalting it into something else.” Vincent Callebaut has proposed a timber and glass urban farm (pictured below). And plenty of other non-traditional design ideas have been offered.

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Now, with a bit of distance from the event, there are significant calls to slow down. More than 1000 signatories, including noted curators, architects, and art historians, asked French president Emmanuel Macron to wait to make major decisions about the cathedral’s future. Presumably they would like some consideration given to a traditional restoration. And I’ve noticed a surprisingly large contingent on social media who have expressed a sentiment something like ‘modern architects will do more damage to Notre-Dame than the fire’. I don’t agree, but I do understand why there is some fatigue for “modern” projects incongruently attached to historic buildings.

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What should be done? I will take students to Paris this summer, and we’ll grapple with that question. As we discuss it, we’ll keep in mind these essential concepts:

  • The timber roof was essentially a lightweight umbrella, to keep the weather off of the structure below. Structurally, it is an afterthought. The stone vaults are the true roof structure; their weight and thrust are what the flying buttresses are supporting and resisting.

  • Before the fire, Notre-Dame was hardly ‘original’. (I set off the word original because it’s such a fraught concept.) It was damaged extensively during the French Revolution, when the Gallery of Kings on the west facade was destroyed. Then for Napoleon’s coronation in 1804 the exterior was whitewashed and the interior was remodeled in the neo-classical style.

  • The spire—flèche, in French—that burned and collapsed so spectacularly was relatively young, built in the 1860s in the seminal ‘restoration’ by Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc. (Restoration, too, is a fraught concept, especially Viollet-le-Duc’s approach. Wikipedia has a good summary.) There was a medieval spire, built about 1250, which was removed in 1786 after wind damage. Viollet-le-Duc’s spire was not faithful to the 13th-century construction.

  • Victor Hugo’s 1831 book Notre-Dame de Paris created a new love for the building eventually leading to Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration. Hugo wrote: “Architecture is the great book of humanity,” and he emphasized that Notre-Dame embodied many periods, styles, ideas. This is so critically important: buildings always represent layers of history and moments in time. It would not be unusual to add another layer in the 21st century.

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In 1836 the timber roof at Chartres cathedral burned spectacularly. In fact that event seems to have unfolded exactly like the Notre-Dame fire weeks ago, starting with a construction accident. At Chartres, the roof structure was rebuilt in iron, with copper roofing. Built in 1837, it is one of the oldest iron structures in France. Few visitors know this; from every accessible point of view, the roof appears medieval. Nobody (as far as I can tell) regards this as controversial. In his 1904 book Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, Henry Adams didn’t mention it at all!

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In other words, there’s a clear precedent for a modest modernization, hidden from view. Of course, Chartres is not without its preservation controversy. We’ll visit and discuss that too.

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Image credits:
1. https://www.thenation.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/notre-dame-burning-ap-img.jpg
2. http://vincent.callebaut.org
3 Left. https://fr.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fichier:Incendie_de_la_Cath%C3%A9drale_Notre-Dame_de_Chartres.jpg
3 Right. https://www.abelard.org/france/culture/chartres/charpente-truss1.jpg

Automated Design

A new article by Lance Hosey asks: “Can Machines Design?” And it asks: “How might architecture change if computers take over the process entirely?”

I wrote about this in 2011:

“One might imagine a user-friendly device where the customer simply inputs information about the architectural program and some performance criteria; the tool could (invisibly) download site information and code requirements, then generate a variety of alternative designs optimized to the performance criteria. The user would choose his preferred option, and the process could repeat at another level of resolution, eventually including the full engineering of mechanical and structural systems—would you like concrete or steel? Clash detections, costing and scheduling, construction documents, all built in. Call it the iPlan. (The technology is not far off.) Clearly such a passive role is intolerable to architects and engineers, and those who educate them. The ability to choose and control the tools is fundamental to professionalism in the AE disciplines (for now).”

So I do believe that machines can design. Whether architects can tolerate it, is probably an irrelevant question in the long run, if such methods prove to be efficient and useful.

I could also imagine an automated design program having an architect-like avatar guiding clients through the process. You could work with Frank Lloyd Wright or Eero Saarinen someday!

Cite: Anthony Denzer and Jon Gardzelewski (2011). “Drawing and Modeling: Analog Tools in the Age of BIM,” AEI 2011: Building Integration Solutions (American Society of Civil Engineers): 44-53.

Calculating Solar Heat in the 1930s

One of the key themes of The Solar House is that both passive and active solar heating began to be scientifically understood in the 1930s & 40s. Hoyt Hottel and his team at MIT calculated solar heat in about 1939 for (what was later called) MIT Solar House I, which used solar-thermal panels on the roof. Then they wrote the equations used by solar engineers going forward. Meanwhile in Chicago, George Fred Keck and his brother William calculated (passive) solar gains for the Sloan house in early 1940. They found that the gains outweighed the losses for the south-facing glass walls, and in fact they found a net “overload,” indicating possible overheating. Additionally, it was in the 1930s that architects using glass in hot climates began to be concerned about overheating and solving that problem through shading (see Le Corbusier and the Sun for example).

So the question arises: If you wanted to calculate solar gains in, say, 1940, what kind of data and methods were available? If you were doing scientific research, like Hottel and his team, you used meteorological measurements and worked from first principles. If you were an architect like Keck or Le Corbusier, or a practicing engineer, these are the main sources of information that would have been available:

  • Howard T. Fisher, “A Rapid Method for Determining Sunlight on Buildings,” Architectural Record 70 (December 1931), 445-454.

  • R. A. Miller and L. V. Black, "Transmission of radiant energy through glass.” ASHVE Transactions 38 (1932), 63-78.

  • H.E. Beckett, “Orientation of Buildings,” Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects 40 (1933), 61-65.

  • P.J. Waldram, “Universal Diagrams” Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects 40 (1933), 50-55.

  • F.C. Houghten, C. Gutberlet, and J.L. Blackshaw, “Studies of solar radiation through bare and shaded windows,” ASHVE Transactions 40 (1934), 101-116.

  • Henry N. Wright, “Site Planning and Sunlight,” American Architect and Architecture 149 (August 1936): 19ff.

  • Arthur M. Greene, Principles of Heating, Ventilating and Air Conditioning (1936)

  • “Figuring Solar Heat Gains of Buildings” by William Goodman, in Heating, Piping, and Air Conditioning, May through October 1938

  • “Orientation for Sunshine,” Architectural Forum, June 1938