At 19, I was studying architecture in Johannesburg, though I didn’t yet know that was what I wanted to do. South Africans had just voted to set ourselves free, and the world was open for travel and exploring. A road trip with my parents and brothers: setting out from Amsterdam, we travelled across Westphalia through Cologne, Bonn, winding along the Rhine, and then back to Paris past Champagne to Reims.

Reims is a distant memory now; I no longer have any recollection of the town. My impression of its cathedral, however, is deeply imprinted. What follows is a reminiscence of that experience, an experiment in writing to convey with immediacy to you, the reader, the vertigo-inducing nature of that first encounter and, following that, an analysis of the architecture that produced that effect.

Slender flutes, carved from the immense stone piers they adorn, extend some 30 metres before gracefully pointing into the vaults above.

The celestial stone, suspended there for some seven centuries, reverberates with the voices of a choir rehearsing near the altar. Their voices soar, and the resonance transmitted from the stone overhead wrenches your gut; the fine hairs on your arms and neck prick as you look up into the vaulting music of their voices reflecting a synaesthesia of sound and stone. Up there, the lead windows of the clerestory are like fragile crystals and through the stained-glass stream numinous Jacob’s ladders that pick out the flutes with soft shadows.

Your head is light, your knees weak, and you put out a hand to steady yourself against a cold, worn pillar. The stone has a temperature, its cool surface smoothed through time, polished by thousands of palms like yours down the centuries. The voices of old choirs are permanently recorded, hundreds of them etched into the accruing wax of countless candles that have darkened the stone – you can hear them echoing across time the same Latin hymns. The weathered stones were gathered up from the remains of Carolingian churches built on the same site some fifteen centuries before. The structures were burnt or pushed over, and then repeatedly resurrected on archaeological strata accruing since the Dark Ages. The altar and crypt are as old as the first Frankish Church built on this site. The permanent cold of the crypt – a dark, damp ossuary of dead masons, knights, martyrs and saints – seeps up into the nave where you stand, its frigid fingers brushing your ankles.

Your shoes echo between the marching pillars of the aisles. Portal by portal, the Stations of the Cross progress alongside you, one through fourteen. Centuries ago, they accompanied fear-filled medieval pilgrims, thousands of feet wearing down the marble floor tiles as they passed. Your steps now repeat that same passage.

When you reach the crossing, the choir is at its loudest, but your thoughts quieten to a meditative perception. Now, suddenly, you encounter the archetypes – suspended between crypt and vault, your experience is visceral, horrible, chilling, terrific, enthused. Fearful, humbled, speechless, you stand where the Master Mason, Bernard de Soissons, stood in his apron. Last of four architects to oversee the cathedral’s construction, it was from here he supervised the completion of the high vault of the crossing, watching as the keystone was carefully lowered into place and the scaffolding was removed. He stands beneath the vault risking its collapse and a crushing death; surety for his patron’s sixty-year investment and blood payment for the lives of his team of stonemasons working on the vertiginous scaffolding above.

The four architects of Reims are memorialised here, engraved into the quadrants of a labyrinth built into the floor of the nave. It pays tribute to Daedalus, mythical architect of the Minotaur’s maze, and to a chain of tradition extending back to Senenmut, who designed his tomb into the funerary temple of his Queen, Hatshepsut, knowing that, on completion of his magnificent edifice, he would be ritually killed, embalmed and entombed near her.

Joan of Arc stood here too. She vanquished the English and lifted the siege that allowed the coronation of Charles VII in this very place; her likeness can be found in the apse of a chapel just behind you. History becomes myth, and myth somehow more real. You imagine her in her chainmail, beautiful, asexual, her sword drawn, flashing and cold.

These stones have persisted defiantly through that siege and through the Hundred Years War, through fire upon fire, the revolution of 1789, and a World War I bombardment that blasted out its windows. The shattered windows of the axial apse were replaced by Marc Chagall (a labour completed in 1974) and now bathe the altar in their surreal, ethereal blue light.

But the cathedral’s sneering gargoyles, gravity-defying vaults and staggering buttresses have little to do with beauty – their meaning is deeper, more mysterious…

The truth of this place is concealed in the language ‘spoken’ by the architects who assembled it. It’s a language codified by Roman architect and military engineer Vitruvius in his De Architectura, written and drafted in the 1st century BC. He posited that any building should exhibit three attributes or principles: firmitatis (stability), utilitatis
(function) and venustatis (beauty).

The Gothic cathedral’s spatial configuration is a slow, adaptive evolution of a Roman typology – the Basilica. Thick walls held up a trussed roof over a multi-use rectangular hall, the length of the space useful both for markets and for ritual, pagan processions – utilitatis. These walls were punctated by windows, of limited size so as not to subtract from the structural integrity of the walls themselves. Advances in masonry structure and vaulting through the Byzantine era culminated in stone vaults that could span the cathedral’s width; this innovation was instigated by the architectural aspiration to flood the interior with light. The result was a structurally governed aesthetic, a groin-vaulted nave comprised of arcade, gallery and clerestory, stacked and shored up by aisles and flying buttresses. The whole was stabilised at the leaning end by intimidating towers, medieval skyscrapers of stone – firmitatis. Stained, translucent glass of clerestory, lancet and rose windows illuminate with coloured light the interior of the massive, skeletal megalith – venustatis.

This armature of structure is just the ‘phrasing’, however. To understand its poetics, we need to delve deeper.

The four architects of Reims Cathedral structured a harmonious whole through rhythmic repetition and dynamic alignment – a play of symmetry and asymmetrical balance, rigour versus the uncanny. The nave and aisles have a metre that is both structural and proportional, the proportions calculated according to the Golden Ratio: irrational, mystical mathematics that make the composition natural, subliminally expected and correct.

There is an ornament of consistent grammar, and that ornament is worked into the architectural detail. Each mason was given licence to express differently the inner turmoil of a shared unconscious: an architrave of multiple-pointed arches; a threshold embellished with a pantheon of saints in armour to welcome you; a decapitated martyr holding his own bloody head. Didactic, carved scenes of judgment, ascendance and damnation were books to counsel and strike fear into an illiterate congregation: Christs, devils, angels, chimeras, stryges, bats and serpents. Rainwater spouts are demon gargoyles lurching out from the gutters!

As Team 10 architect Pancho Guedes said, “I claim for architects the rights and liberties that painters and poets have held for so long.” Architecture is an ancient language, as old as any written; older than Senenmut, older than the Pyramids. Architects are those who attempt to ‘speak’ it, but like any cuneiform, arcane script or mystical code, it is difficult to master eloquently and requires lifelong, constant application.

Architects appreciate the aspirations of the patrons and communities for whom they act, and infuse this understanding with the ancient knowledge that informs their practice. Like scientists, painters and poets or any other artist, they are keen observers, gatherers of the encyclopaedic information they synthesise to generate the structures and places that define our world.

To answer a complex brief, architects, with humility, must draw from their reading and experience of many disciplines, invite collaborations with representatives of knowledge external to their expertise and then understand that advice sufficiently to weave and direct it into the fabric of their design. Over time, an architect’s experience extends to draw from sociology, anthropology, psychology, archaeology, geography, mathematics, geometry, engineering, art, history, politics. They work metaphors, allusions, narrative and everyday reality; they shape functions, rituals, delineate thresholds and boundaries; their works are didactic, coercive, controlling, enabling; their concepts reform and sanitise, they are punitive, they celebrate, they awe and delight.

The scope of the architect’s role on any building project being so broad, more and more their true purpose is forgotten – the breadth of their reach has diminished over time, to the gradual impoverishment of our surroundings. It is our experience of architecture that we remember more than just its appearance: space impacts us profoundly; it is the backdrop to our memories.

Winston Churchill said in 1943, about the rebuilding of the House of Commons after it was bombed in World War II, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Architecture provides the setting, and guides the rituals that power the social, spiritual and political structure of our lives. Architecture shapes behaviour. And when, like Reims Cathedral, architecture needs to stand in perpetuity, and express that permanence, it is ‘written’ in stone.

The Labyrinth of the Reims Cathedral
The Labyrinth of the Reims Cathedral

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