The Construction of the Sainte Chapelle

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Introduction

The construction of the Sainte Chapelle began in 1239, finished in 1248, and the chapel was consecrated the same year. Now the chapel is considered a perfect example of Gothic architecture. Some historians say that Pierre de Montreuil (his works include the famous Virgin's Chapel of the abbey of Saint-Germaindes-Pres) might have been the original architect of this building, but nobody knows for sure who designed the chapel. It is located on the Île de la Cité, and this island is basically the historical center of Paris. The Sainte Chapelle has received a lot of damage during the French Revolution. It was not destroyed, but the choir stalls and rood screen were damaged, the spire was torn down and some of the relics disappeared and dispersed. The restoration, which was finished in 1846, returned the Saint Chapelle to the former beauty.

When the chapel was built, it was visible in its beauty from all the sides. Unfortunately, now the northern part of the chapel is concealed by the Palais de Justice. It is really a pity, because the chapel was designed to be grand and stand out. It is beautiful on the outside, but is even prettier on the inside. Nowadays, Saint Chapelle belongs to the administrative complex known as The Conciergerie.

Concerning the second building, the Institute du Monde Arabe, also called Arab World Institute, its construction began in 1981 and finished in 1987. The building was designed by Jean Nouvel together with Architecture-Studio, who proposed a rather risky and unusual project, but they won an architectural design competition in 1981. The institute is situated on Rue des Fossés Saint Bernard in Paris. The look of the building was clearly influenced by industrial design, but still, it is a beautiful building. Symbolism is prominent in the design; it is visible in the overall look of the building, as well as its elements, such as windows, halls and interior. As one can see from the top view of the institute or the map, one of the sides of the building is curved or arched and resembles the form of the nearby river. It was clearly one of the designer’s goals to make sure that the building fits the landscape, and that is why the form of the building is made this way.

These two buildings serve different purposes. The primary Sainte Chapelle was used to hold the relics collected by the King Louis IX of France, notably Christ’s Crown of Thorns from Constantinople (Hollingsworth, 2004). On the other hand, Arab World Institute was created to promote cultural and spiritual exchange between Arab and French cultures. In order to do that, the Institute du Monde Arabe has a museum, library, and cinema as well as holds occasional music festivals and expositions about Arab culture (Institut du Monde Arabe, 2011). The building also includes an auditorium, restaurant and offices.

In this essay, I am going to discuss three architectural concepts – light, space and texture. Then I am going to conclude how these concepts are implemented in the buildings of the Sainte Chapel and the Institute du Monde Arabe, both of which we explored during our trip to Paris. I decided to write this essay by not simply comparing and contrasting the two buildings, but like a sort of discussion and try to find out what was the reason for using this or that architectural theme or concept.

Light

In architecture, light plays a huge role, if not the most important one. Interior lighting affects everything we see inside the building. Furthermore, even during the night interior light may play a significant role too, since every building looks differently during the day and night. Correct and adequate use of light is very important. There is no “bad” or “good” lighting, though. Every architect decides what is best for every single building. On the other hand, if there were no light, other architectural concepts such as form, space, material, color could not exist. “Light helps us to navigate our way in and around buildings, and it helps us perform the various activities for which buildings are made” (Drake, 2009). In this part of the essay, I would like to discuss the two sorts of lighting – both natural and artificial.

The source of the natural lighting is sun. It can be either direct or indirect. The light from sun can be used not only for illumination; its use can be sometimes creative or unusual. For example, in the Sainte Chapelle, the sunlight passes through colorful and painted stained-glass windows. When I first entered the chapel, I was amazed by how stunning it is inside the building, while on the outside nothing gives a hint about the beauty of the interior. In this case, the architect of the chapel tried to make the worshippers feel like they are close to god. I must say that he achieved this goal, since the experience is unbelievable. Furthermore, the windows act as filters that block bright sunlight, unlike regular glass that passes the sunlight through without affecting the brightness or heat. It is never too bright or too hot inside the building, even in the clearest weather possible. Therefore, these stained-glass windows serve two functions at the same time – a pure aesthetic one and a functional (blocking excessive natural sunlight and heat coming from sun). It should be noted here, that in the Arab World Institute building the interaction between natural sunlight and windows is unusual too. For example, in the library of this building the main source of light is natural. There are small windows on the top of the wall. The windows contain “shutters” or apertures and the building has mechanisms that measures the amount of sunlight and regulates the aperture expansion so that no excessive light passes through. The mechanism is similar to that used in analog and digital cameras. At the same time, the form of the apertures resembles the designs found in Arab culture. As the heat is transmitted with the sunlight, this system also allows controlling and normalizing the temperature inside the building during the day. Hence, with the implementation of these apertures Jean Nouvel tried to mix traditions with new technologies and show the way that old and new cultures could co-exist in the modern world. Use of ornaments and textures will be discussed further below, too.

Concerning the artificial lighting, it used when the light emitted by sun is not enough or not available. In general, many sources of artificial light exist. Artificial light can be created by ignition, by burning wood, gas, oil or wax, or by the means of electricity, using electric lamps etc. (Drake, 2009). Ideally, every building should get both natural and artificial lighting. However, it is not possible in some cases and the usage of natural, artificial lighting or a combination of both depends on the functions and the building operation schedules. Sometimes, if there are no visitors to the building or a house at night, the lighting is also not needed. In this case, artificial lighting can still be implemented as a part of additional backup or unnecessary measures.

In the Saint Chapelle, candles serve as the means of artificial lighting, since there was no electricity at the time of the chapel’s construction. Furthermore, the candles emit the warm light, creating a blissful atmosphere and extend the near-god experience, discussed previously, even more.

Space

Use of space in architecture can relate to both physical space inside the building and how the building is structured. Space is a significant aspect of the buildings’ design. What is important here is that buildings may perform several functions at the same time, but how do we distribute these functions?

The tradition of separation by functions and purpose is ancient. Nowadays, we cannot imagine an apartment that only has a single room. Often, there is a separate room for a kitchen, bathroom, guest room, living room and a restroom. Sometimes, apartments have additional sets of rooms that can be used for various reasons. We are used to the principle of separation, since it serves a practical and aesthetic purpose. The same thing applies to buildings in general, where different levels and rooms are dedicated for a specific function. For example, a top floor can be designed as a greenhouse for rare plants. This separation allows creating the best conditions for the plants, since the ceiling of the top floor can be made out of glass and therefore the plants can get the most sunlight. In addition, since the floor is used solely as a greenhouse, special conditions can be implemented in full, such as humidity level, temperature and so on.

Concerning the physical space inside the building, it also has a high value. It defines primarily the feeling that we get when we enter the room or the building. The distribution of the free space depends on the architect’s goals and resources that are available when designing and constructing the building.

During the excursions, I noticed that both buildings consist of two parts. Despite the fact that the Sainte Chapelle looks like it is a massive solid building from the outside, it has a vertical separation on the inside. There is a lower and upper part of the chapel, which serve different functions. When you first enter the chapel, you get into the room with a very low ceiling and the windows are very small. This is the lower chapel. The lower chapel was dedicated to the Virgin Mary by the Archbishop of Bourges. The upper chapel was designed for the king’s use and the display of the relics, was dedicated by the papal legate. There is also a difference in the look of these two parts of the chapel, which makes the separation even stronger.

While the Saint Chappelle has a vertical separation, the Institute du Monde Arabe is separated too, but horizontally. It consists of two buildings, which are interconnected by a bridge made out of glass. The bridge is located on the fourth of fifth floor. There is even a big gap between the two buildings. This separation is logical and very well thought out, as it serves a huge function. First part is dedicated for the offices and administration and is located next to the river. This first part has a beautiful view out of the building, so people can take a short break from work, relax by looking at the landscape and then concentrate again in order to continue working. There is also a very nice restaurant on the top floor with a roof garden. Not only the office workers, but also the institute’s visitors can come to the restaurant and have a meal, while admiring the nature and the landscape.

While atmosphere of the first part of the Arab World Institute may seem rushed and too business-oriented for some people, the other part of the building is very quiet. There is an exhibition hall and a library, where people need to focus on getting the information from exhibitions and books. The great outside view from here is not very important, as it would only distract them from the main purpose of this part of the building.

As we can see, in both of the buildings, the use of space is creative and unusual. Most importantly, in both of them, space is logically thought out for practical reasons.

Textures (ornaments and traditional symbolism)

Textures probably existed since the world was created. Nowadays, many textures exist. Some of them may actually help convey some message, as for example, heraldry symbols. The meanings of different heraldic symbols are now understood only by historians, but the people living in those centuries could figure out the person’s class, family history, status and many other things from solely signs and emblems on the shield (Davies & Johnston, 2004). On the other hand, some of the textures and ornaments simply act as a decoration. Some are used just for aesthetic pleasure. In this case, it is up to designer or architect to decide. However, the fact that textures were used since the ancient times is undeniable. Ornaments and traditional symbolism were also widely spread.

Repeating patterns can be an example of textures. The usage of textures and ornament in the Saint Chapelle is visible at the first sight. First, the royal blue ceiling is covered with golden “fleur-de-lis” symbols, which are considered a symbol of the French monarchy (Architecture Religiose en Occident, n.d.). The same “lily” symbol was widely used in heraldry. The columns also have repeating symbols on them, and these symbols portray castles or fortresses. The ornament can be visible in detail on the following illustration:

I would also like to pay attention to the stairs of the Arab World Institute. It is also very clear from how they look that they were inspired by traditional Arabic culture. There are two sets of stairs, and each of them allows getting to every floor. You can see the stairs on the illustration below. (Provide an image)

Conclusion

In this essay, I tried to discuss three architectural concepts – use of light, space and texture. All of these concepts are very important, different buildings have different purposes, and all of the aspects need to be taken into account when designing and constructing the building. On the other hand, there is a proverb “Every man to its taste”. Based on what we see, what we feel and our experience we can only make conclusion only subjectively. We cannot actually get into the architect’s head; we just make assumptions about what the architect tried to implement or to say. As for me, this peculiarity was the main challenge of this assignment.

I would like to say that this assignment allowed me to analyze the two buildings according to the three of many architectural concepts or themes. These buildings seem to be very different on the first sight, but after I completed the assignment, I understood that on some level there is a similarity between them. For example, both of the buildings have a separation – the Saint Chapelle is separated vertically, while Arab World Institute has a horizontal separation. The use of light is also interesting in both buildings. In the chapel, the stained-glass windows block the outside light partially, and the windows in Arab World Institute automatically adjust in order to regulate the temperature and amount of light inside the building. Concerning the use of textures, elements of Arab World Institute resemble the ornaments found in the Arab culture. In the chapel, the use of ornaments is prominent, while the images portrayed on the stained-glass windows have a high symbolic and spiritual meaning.

Not everything lies on surface. New buildings are constantly projected, created and constructed. It is our mission as architects to ensure that we understand these architectural concepts and themes and use them in our buildings.

Both buildings serve as the cultural heritage to the modern world. The Saint Chapelle reminds us of the masterpieces that human mind can think of and build, and the Arab World Institute shows the symbiosis of old and new cultures and how it is important to preserve the traditions.

Abstract

In this assignment, I analyzed the Saint Chappelle and Arab World Institute buildings according to the three of many architectural concepts or themes. The concepts that I chose were light, space and texture. These buildings seem to be very different on the first sight, but after I completed the assignment, I understood that on some level there is a similarity between them. For example, both of the buildings have a separation – the Saint Chapelle is separated vertically, while Arab World Institute has a horizontal separation. The use of light is also interesting in both buildings. In the chapel, the stained-glass windows block the outside light partially, and the windows in Arab World Institute automatically adjust in order to regulate the temperature and amount of light inside the building. Concerning the use of textures, elements of Arab World Institute resemble the ornaments found in the Arab culture. In the chapel, the use of ornaments is prominent, while the images portrayed on the stained-glass windows have a high symbolic and spiritual meaning.

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