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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Space as a function of structure and form : the integrity of architectural vision in the cathedral of St. Etienne at Bourges O'Callaghan, Adrienne Patrice


Despite its monumental scale, its position at a turning point in the development of Gothic architecture and its visionary spatial conception, the cathedral of Bourges has remained an anomaly of medieval architectural history. Conceived and built concurrently with the cathedral of Chartres, Bourges has persistently been viewed as the lesser of the two buildings. This thesis attempts to contextualize supposed irregularities of Bourges' design and to review existing historiographical notions of the building in order to rearticulate its artistic character and redefine its historic position. Historically, Bourges has been overshadowed by the greater success of Chartres as a model on which subsequent buildings were based. In turn, the somewhat fragmented acceptance of Bourges' ideals has led to an historiography in which the building is perceived as a series of individual elements rather than as the embodiment of a powerfully focused vision. These factors, and the resulting insistent comparisons of Bourges with Paris as an antecedent and with Chartres as a contemporary, have nurtured a significant bias against Bourges and a consequent disparity in studies of High Gothic architecture. In seeking to redefine the role of Bourges in the history of Gothic architecture, it is essential to identify the unifying force which motivated the first architect of the building who envisioned the original design which was preserved, virtually intact, throughout the building's sixty-year period of construction. At Bourges, it was a fascination with spatial amplitude on a very large scale which fueled the builder's efforts, and it was toward the goal of spatial equilibrium that all elements of the building were oriented. The designer's highly integrated spatial conception was concretized through his use of form and structure, resulting in a building of powerful homogeneity. In the creation of its spatial configuration, and with respect to those buildings influenced by it, Bourges' elevation and structure are its most distinctive features. Bourges' elevation consists of five levels distributed over three planes, resulting in simultaneously two and three dimensional characteristics. The complete three-story elevation of the inner aisle is amply visible through the very tall main arcades so that the two elevations form a single aesthetic unit. At the same time, the three planes differentiate the volumes of the building without being spatially divisive. The elevation's individual components provide an element of vertical continuity while the multiplicity of its planes assures an expansiveness of space throughout the building. Although the elevation is perhaps a more obvious feature of the building's spatial configuration, Bourges' singular vision is no less a function of its structure. The flying buttress, which was introduced towards the end of the twelfth century, provided a powerful structural tool for the builders of both Chartres and Bourges because it provided the technology necessary to build very high, vaulted buildings without using a cumbersome, galleried construction. The artistic emancipation resulting from the use of the flying buttress provided a strong impetus, not only to re-evaluate the Early Gothic aesthetic, but also to develop an entirely new appreciation of structure itself. The Bourges architect capitalized on both aspects of the flying buttress, availing of the artistic opportunities it gave to the building as a whole, and of the aesthetic properties inherent within it. Bourges' flyers manifest a clear understanding of the structural dynamics of masonry construction and a profound desire to exalt those structural properties to a point where they visually contribute to the realization of the designer's spatial concept. They are daringly slender, steeply profiled, supporting members which transfer the thrust of the main vaults to the heads of similarly slight pier buttresses. The designer audaciously employed very spare supporting members, not only to economize on the amount of material used, but also to reduce the elements to essential visual minima. The flyers create the characteristically erect exterior profile of the building and provide a unifying element for its three tiers which correspond to the interior volumes. They are not only vital to the stability of the building but also to its appearance, betraying the designer's awareness of the aesthetic potential of structure which sets him apart from his contemporaries. Unlike Chartres, Bourges' vision was rarely reformulated in its entirety; its success as a whole was too heavily dependent on the building's size and particular configuration. Although its elevation was rearticulated in several buildings in France, Spain, and even Italy, and the building's structural system was extremely precocious, Bourges' design never became an architectural formula because it was ill-adapted to the thirteenth-century liturgy. Its lack of a transept and the consequent unification of space failed to reflect the separation of laity and clergy which became increasingly marked in the liturgy from the twelfth century on. Furthermore, the building did not provide the variety of liturgical spaces requisite to thirteenth-century worship. Although Bourges failed to make as visible and lasting an impression on subsequent buildings as Chartres, it represents a profoundly unique architectural statement which marks a particular, creative moment in the history of medieval architecture.

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