Modernism’s latest victim: Angers Cathedral
The new extension to the French masterpiece tries but falls short
On the 15 April 2019, Notre-Dame de Paris was devastated by fire. The near loss of the medieval masterpiece shocked the world. And yet there were those who spotted an opportunity. Why not rebuild the destroyed parts of the cathedral in a modern style? How about a glass-and-steel spire? Or what if we turn the roof into a swimming pool?
Fortunately, the modernist interlopers were seen off. The cathedral is in the process of being restored as it was before the fire. However, Angers Cathedral in western France may not be not so lucky. Accord to Dezeen, plans have been drawn up for a contemporary extension — specifically an entrance gallery designed to protect the magnificent, but fragile, portal (i.e. the front door).
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What makes this such an interesting test case, is that the proposed extension is not a “monstrous carbuncle”. It hasn’t been designed to provide a deliberately discordant contrast to the older building — like the additions to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto or the Museum of Military History in Dresden. Rather, the cathedral extension will be built from stone and take the form of rectangular structure composed from five arches.
The design is unmistakably modern, however the cathedral itself is already a mixture of styles. Built between the 11th and 16th centuries, the lowest level is Romanesque and the upper levels Gothic. There are Renaissance additions too, including the central tower. So why shouldn’t the architecture of our own age make a contribution? After all, a cathedral should be a living institution not just a monument to the past.
The trouble is that the modernist style — even at its best — just isn’t capable. Because of the insistence on extreme uniformity and resistance to ornament it denies itself the pattern language required to relate to earlier styles. The central tower of the Angers Cathedral is clearly of another age to the spires, but the Renaissance architecture is sufficiently rich in detail to pick up on the cues provided by the gothic architecture and answer back in a visual dialogue between the ages.
Modernist architecture is like the monoglot tourist who thinks he can make himself understood by talking loudly — and dropping in the occasional, badly-accented fragment of local lingo.
Like tourists everywhere, contemporary extensions to old buildings are only tolerable when they don’t get in the way. It may have become a bit of a cliché, but some sort of discrete glass pavilion is usually the least worst option.
Still, what it does it say about a style of architecture that it’s preferably invisible?
Despite the trumpeted echo of the building’s bays above and being built in some sort of stone, this addition is neither sympathetic , nor given a Romanesque hatching to echo the original’s arches reeding. Worst still, its sheer size and monumentality makes it look bolted on and taste-free. This, on an organic building, and only for the purpose of protecting a portal, displays the worst in the look-at-me style of architectual statement making. Sorry, for me a carbuncle it is.
If I lived in Angers, or perhaps anywhere in France, I would be organizing protest demonstrations.
Not sure what the writer is saying here. He acknowledges that the proposed design is not discordant and is built of stone, but then he says a contrasting glass pavilion would be a better option. So he’s favouring a modernist solution while at the same time decrying modernism for being incapable of rising to the occasion.
My preferred solution would be to do neither – just consolidate the stonework and sculptures of the central portal as best you can and do no more. A full-width addition (whether glass or stone) is not necessary, as the rest of the west front at this level is plain (with evidence of blocked arches) and is in no need of protection.
We have to be careful that things like this aren’t co-opted into cancel culture.
Being just a little mischievous and remembering that the cathedral is not just a building but a religious sanctuary, what would be the reaction on this site to the cathedral having its own Wi-Fi router?
Given that more or less every parish church, oratory, basilica and cathedral in the West already has its own wifi router, I think your suggestion has come about ten years too late!
It has a definite flavour of mo**e about it. Dreadful.
So add decoration. There are the craftsmen to do it.
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