Of all the stories of the greatest Gothic cathedrals, the tale of Beauvais is the most exciting. Construction of the Gothic cathedral began in 1225 at a time of bitter turmoil when France was establishing itself as a nation within its familiar modern geographical bounds. Beauvais, the tallest cathedral in France, was never completed, having endured two major collapses and a series of structural crises that continues to this day. Our Sketchup animation follows this dramatic narrative, allowing the viewer to experience and understand the famous collapse that brought down the upper choir in 1284 as well as the underlying design features that led to that disaster. Particularly intriguing is the visualization of the short-lived crossing tower constructed in the mid-sixteenth century and the rivalry between S-Pierre of Beauvais and Saint Peter’s in Rome.
It is hoped that besides appealing to a general audience of cathedral fans, this movie will be useful in the context of the classroom at high-school and university levels.
Directed by Stephen Murray
Produced by Myles Zhang
Special thanks to Étienne Hamon
Further reading: Stephen Murray. Beauvais Cathedral: Architecture of Transcendence. Princeton University Press, 1989.
Visit Mapping Gothic for further photos and a panoramic tour of the cathedral interior.
Visit this link to download image stills of the cathedral at various stages of completion, for reuse in print publications.
Creating this animation required creating a computer model of the entire cathedral at all stages of construction. This model is shared below; click and drag your cursor to move around this virtual space.
Email [email protected] and [email protected] for access to source files.
High-resolution image stills from construction sequence
1220s fire to 1284 collapse
Before vs. after 1284 collapse
Before 1284 Collapse
After 1284 Collapse
After 1284 collapse vs. after 1300s rebuilding
After 1284 Collapse
After 1300s Rebuilding
1284 collapse to 1550s transept
After 1284 Collapse
Proposals for completing cathedral
1600s Proposed with Notre-Dame Type Facade
1600s Proposed with Late Gothic Facade
1600s Proposed with Late Gothic Facade
Proposed cathedral vs. actual extent of construction by 1573 collapse
1573 Actual Extent of Construction
Hand-drawn image textures used in this model are based on actual scanned drawings of the cathedral: floorplan, choir section, choir elevation, and hemicyle section.
High medieval music: Viderunt Omnes by Pérotin, 1198
Late medieval music: Ave Maria by Josquin des Prez, c.1475
Contemporary cathedral: Pierre de Soleil by Philip Glass, 1986
Sound of material buckling
Sound of structural collapse
This digital model and film show, for the first time, the entire Model T being assembled from start to finish in a single time-lapse shot of the Ford factory in Highland Park, Michigan. Numerous photos were taken and some films were made in the 1910s and 1920s, but no film from the time tracks the entire car’s assembly from start to finish. There were many types of Model Ts produced, but the specific car shown here is the 1915 Model T Runabout. Watch the film and see as the various car components are hoisted over and bolted into place. Or walk across the factory floor in the virtual reality computer model.
The film’s audio replicates the sound of Model T production. The accompanying music at start and end is from the 1936 film Modern Times, where comedian Charlie Chaplin parodies Ford’s assembly line production methods.
Henry Ford did not invent the car, nor he did invent the assembly line to produce the car. For years before Ford, cars were being built in small numbers at local workshops. For centuries before Ford, assembly line production was being used to make all manner of goods like pins, fabrics, and steel. At the same time as Ford, others were making cars and building assembly lines.
Ford was not the first, but his car and moving assembly line were certainly the most successful and memorable. After creating his version of the automobile in 1896, Ford moved workshops first to Mack Avenue and later to Piquette Avenue in Detroit. These first two factories were small-scale structures for limited car production. Only in 1913 at Ford’s third factory at Highland Park did mass-production begin on a truly large scale. As shown in this film, here Ford applied assembly line methods throughout the factory to all aspects of car production.
Final Stage of Model T Assembly in Highland Park c.1915, David Kimble’s illustration for National Geographic
Between when the first Model T rolled off the assembly line in 1913 and when the fifteen millionth rolled off in 1927, the car’s appearance did not change significantly. The car chassis, motor, and color-scheme in 1927 were almost identical to 1913. Despite variations in the number of seats and exterior of car, the motor and chassis beneath were consistent and unchanging over time. Henry Ford liked it that way to bring down costs and to produce the greatest variety of car types with as few variations as possible to the car’s internal structure.
However, although Ford resisted changes to his car design, he was always redesigning the factory floor and assembly line to produce the greatest number of cars with the least amount of human labor. In this same period from 1913 to 1927, the Highland Park factory was constantly redesigned and expanded. Few records survive of all changes to the factory. However, the 1915 book Ford Methods and the Ford Shops includes detailed plans and photos of the factory at one point in time. Ford was still tinkering with the assembly line, as Model T production had begun just over a year before this book was printed. Within a few months of these photos, assembly line methods had improved once again as Ford redesigned the factory floor shown in this film. Rather than documenting Ford production for all time, this film captures Ford production the way it looked in the months it started.
Assembly line flowchart of River Rouge c.1941, showing Ford’s production methods applied to the design of an entire complex. The ideas in embryo at Highland Park become fully visible at River Rouge.
After Ford stopped producing Model Ts in 1927, newer models started production at the new and larger factory at River Rouge, where Ford makes cars to this day. The Highland Park factory switched to producing other goods like tractors and later tanks for WWII. Within a few years, production methods had so quickly improved under Ford that Highland Park became too small and obsolete. The factory was largely demolished, and with its demolition the initial appearance of Ford’s first and greatest invention was lost for all time: the moving assembly line.
Some of the factory buildings still stand, and the specific part of the factory shown in this film still exists. But the buildings were all cleared of their original machinery, and the most impressive part of Ford’s invention was not the factory itself but instead the equipment and processes within that factory that are no longer visible. The buildings themselves were simply functional warehouses designed with large open spaces to allow the easy movement of machinery.
The entire complex covered many acres, and the other factories that supplied the Highland Park factory with materials and components created a web of trade that spanned the globe. Instead of filming the entire process, this film focuses on the final and most important stage of production where finished parts from all over the world and factory complex came together for final testing and assembly.
Main reference text: Fay Leone Faurote and Horace Lucian Arnold. Ford Methods and the Ford Shops. New York, Engineering Magazine Company: 1915. See esp. Chapter V on “Chassis-Assembling Lines” that includes factory floor plan and photos from pages 131-57. Also see pages 142-150 that describe the 45 steps required for chassis assembly. Link.
Main reference photo: David Kimble. “Exploring the Model T Factory.” Motor1.com. September 1, 2017. Link. Kimble’s image originally published in June 1987 National Geographic centerfold.
Animation opening image: Postcard of Highland Park in 1917. Link.
Animation opening music: Factory Scene from Modern Times, directed by Charlie Chaplin in 1936. Link.
Model T shown in film can be downloaded as a computer model at this link.
The construction of Notre-Dame mirrors the larger story of the French nation.
Medieval France was splintered into regional kingdoms and alliances between local feudal lords. In the tenth century, the Capetian rulers in central France started consolidating power and lands. Through conquest, marriage, and diplomacy, the Capetians expanded their influence first to Paris and then outward. By the thirteenth century, the Capetians controlled most of the land within the present-day borders of what is now France. Over this Catholic kingdom, they ruled generation after generation in centuries of uninterrupted rule until the French Revolution.
While the Capetians did not start as the largest and most powerful kingdom in Europe, they soon amplified their power through alliance with the church. From Reims Cathedral (where all Capetians were crowned) to the Church of St. Denis near Paris (where they were all buried), the French monarchs asserted power through their relationship with the church. They claimed their right to rule descended from God’s mandate. God himself ruled through and expressed his demands through the soul and mind of the king. To oppose the king would therefore be to oppose the wishes of God.
The construction of Notre-Dame of Paris was therefore a project for the Capetian kingdom in the capital city of Paris. With the monarchy’s control of France’s largest and most important trade center, the cathedral became a central symbol of the power of the city and the kingdom. From across Europe and France, other peoples looked to Notre-Dame for design inspiration. The model and building techniques of Notre-Dame were copied far and wide. Paris might have had limited geographic borders, but through the churches and monasteries in other regions that looked to Paris for aesthetic inspiration and theological guidance, Paris wielded a soft power to influence culture.
Expansion of the Capetian lands from 987 to 1223. Arrows radiating from Paris point to the cathedrals inspired from Paris and Saint-Denis.
The blue area shown in 1154 shows the competing empire from the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to King Henry II. The orange lands shown in 1223 are fiefdoms dependent upon the French Crown under king Philip Augustus. Animation from Stephen Murray at Mapping Gothic France.
Among medieval cathedrals known to take centuries to complete, Notre-Dame was finished in short time. In just eight decades from c.1160 to c.1245, Notre-Dame emerged from the rubble in the completed form the public would recognize it today. Soon, neighboring towns in competition with Paris began erecting larger and taller cathedrals of their own. Among them, the powers centered on the cities of Chartres to the southwest, Amiens to the north, and Rouen to the northwest expressed their competition with Paris through their grander cathedrals. Not to be outdone, from 1220 to 1225 the Parisians rebuilt the entire upper levels and vaults of Notre-Dame to be taller, more luminous, and more ornate than before. The powers at Chartres, Amiens, and Rouen were soon crushed in battle and became the allies of an increasingly centralized French empire.
The public interprets cathedral construction as an act of devotion to God. The fine materials, craftsmanship, and physical challenges of construction symbolize the builders’ devotion, or gratitude for God listening to their prayers. The more expensive the project and the more difficult the construction, the greater the finished cathedral becomes as a symbol of sacrifice. Medieval stories often speak of the devout paying penance for their sins by dragging carts of heavy cathedral stones from quarry to building site. Or when the cathedrals faced structural collapse, natural disasters, and frequent fires, builders and clergy read these events as God expressing his dissatisfaction that their project was not good enough.
Less often does the public see the sacred built environment as an expression of political power, or as a tool of diplomacy and nation building. For the church to somehow be caught up in earthly affairs of wealth building, land investments, tax collection, and power squabbles seems vulgar and a distraction from the higher sacred mission. Cathedral construction required massive fundraising and tax collection efforts, the mobilization of thousands of laborers, and the sale of indulgences (donations to the church in exchange for certificates promising to reduce the donor’s punishment in the afterlife). As Notre-Dame of Paris reveals, construction cannot be separated from larger political events.
At every step in the history of the Capetians, monarchs sponsored building projects and used their power to carry out the political agenda of the church. Louis IX was made a saint for leading the Crusades to retake the Holy Land and its trade routes from Islam. The Sun King Louis XIV relied on the papal Cardinal Mazarin during his earliest years in power. And the ill-fated Louis XVI refused to share the monarchy and church’s monopoly on power with the people, causing the middle and working classes to wage the French Revolution.
The French Revolution asserted that government’s right to rule does not descend down from God and the church, as monarchs had claimed for centuries. Instead, political legitimacy flows up from the people, their right to vote, and their support for the elected government. Skepticism in the religious basis for political power, coupled with the Enlightenment belief that science and human reason alone can unlock social progress and the project of democracy, re-centered society on a new foundation. Church and state were separated, and with that Notre-Dame fell into a half-century of decay and abandonment.
In the French Revolution, Notre-Dame and hundreds of other French churches were abandoned, desecrated, and often demolished for the value of their building materials. Notre-Dame was confiscated from the church and transformed into a “Temple of Reason,” while most of its statuary was destroyed. The statues of 28 Biblical kings on Notre-Dame’s west façade were mistaken as French because their robes were modeled after Capetian kings. And so they were pulled down with ropes and decapitated by the mob in the city square. Not until the mid nineteenth century was Notre-Dame restored by Viollet-le-Duc with a new spire, new windows, new carvings, and restoration efforts sometimes so extensive that the cathedral surviving today is as much a product of the medieval era as it is a nineteenth-century creation. Notre-Dame began to emerge as a symbol of the French culture, identity, and nation.
Notre-Dame’s fire on 15 April 2019 reminded the public once again of architecture’s role in shaping and symbolizing national identity. The fire was as much a loss of architecture and cultural heritage as it was a threat to the French identity. The cathedral’s fire-damaged vaults and wooden roof turned to ashes symbolized an interrupted continuity with history. The cathedral had survived hundreds of years through plague, world wars, and revolution, as if symbolizing the continuity and purity of the French language, culture, and history. And now this link with history and the origins of the modern French nation was severed.
The efforts to rebuild Notre-Dame “as it was before” reveal the larger misconception that there is such a thing as a pure and original state. Pre-modern builders and patrons interpreted fires and natural disasters as innovation opportunities to rebuild what was lost as bigger and better than before, and often with the latest building techniques and architectural style. The church that stood at the site of future Notre-Dame, and which was demolished to build the current cathedral, was itself hundreds of years old and dating back to the late Roman Empire. And yet medieval audiences demolished it all the same with the confidence that what they built would be better than what was there before. Past generations at Notre-Dame viewed the cathedral and history as something fluid that could be embellished and improved through cycles of demolition. As late as the nineteenth century, Viollet-le-Duc imagined and added new details to the cathedral that never, in fact, existed.
Just days after the fire, architects submitted dozens of proposals to rebuild the site. Preservationists instead decided to rebuild the cathedral with the same pre-modern techniques, materials, and interior wooden roof trusses. Is contemporary art and culture so impoverished of beauty that contemporary society is incapable of enriching Notre-Dame with the building techniques and aesthetics of the modern era? Do we no longer believe in the forward path of progress, and must therefore pause the appearance of Notre-Dame the way it was?
The fire revealed that there are, in fact, two cathedrals: the physical cathedral built as a symbol of the French state and faith; and then the cathedral of our memories, with all the personal meanings visitors drew from their experience of the space. The two cathedrals are not the same because the meanings and symbolism we assign Notre-Dame in our memories are different from the cathedral’s intended purpose. The medieval clergy and kings never intended to create a symbol of the modern French state, of Victor Hugo’s literature, or of international Christianity. Yet Notre-Dame’s ability to acquire new meanings and identities through time speaks to the fact that this cathedral is a living work of art. With or without the physical cathedral, the Notre-Dame of our imaginations, of art, of literature, and of the millions of souvenir photographs will continue to live. At least in the collective imagination, Notre-Dame is immortal.
Fire on 15 April 2019
Created with architectural historian Stephen Murray
As featured in:
1. Notre Dame’s official website
2. Open Culture, May 2021
2. Rebuilding a Legacy, hosted April 2021 by the French Embassy, view recording
3. Restoring a Gothic Masterpiece, hosted May 2021 by the Los Angeles World Affairs Council and Town Hall, view recording
1. Construction time-lapse
This construction time-lapse illustrates the history of Notre-Dame from c.1060 to the present day, following ten centuries of construction and reconstruction. Model is based on actual measurements of the cathedral and was peer reviewed for accuracy by scholars at Columbia University’s art history department and at the Friends of Notre-Dame of Paris.
The film was created in the computer modeling software SketchUp, based on hand-drawn image textures. The ink drawings of nineteenth-century architect Viollet-le-Duc were scanned and applied to the model surfaces, so as to transform the two-dimensional artwork into the three-dimensional digital. I believe computer models should preserve a certain handmade quality.
Music: Pérotin, Viderunt Omnes
View animation with music only.
Read text of Stephen Murray’s audio narration.
Complete model of Notre-Dame inside and out. Download includes simulation of cathedral construction sequence.
Fire on 15 April 2019
3. Research method and work flow
4. Computer model and construction sequence sources
– Dany Sandron and Andrew Tallon. Notre-Dame Cathedral: nine centuries of history.
– Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Drawings of Notre-Dame. From Wikimedia Commons.
– J. Clemente. Spire of Notre-Dame. From SketchUp 3D Warehouse.
– Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and Ferdinand de Guilhermy. Notre-Dame de Paris. From BnF Gallica.
– Caroline Bruzelius. “The Construction of Notre-Dame in Paris” in The Art Bulletin. From JSTOR.
– Michael Davis. “Splendor and Peril: The Cathedral of Paris” in The Art Bulletin. From JSTOR.
5. Exterior still images from model
West facade towers
West facade rose window
West facade rose window
South side of nave
Buttresses on south side of nave
Buttresses on choir
Spire and western towers
South side of nave
Buttresses on hemicycle
South transept rose window
6. Interior still images
Nave towards choir
Clerestory windows of nave
Choir towards nave
Rafters inside roof
Rafters inside roof
South transept rose window
7. Dynamic angles
Cross Section of Transept and Choir
Plan of western towers
Plan of western end of nave
Plan of crossing
Plan of nave
Cross Section of South Transept
Cross Section of Transept and Nave
Developed with James Campbell, architectural historian at the University of Cambridge
Inspired by taking George Deodatis’ lectures on The Art of Structural Design
at Columbia University’s Department of Civil Engineering
In 1872, Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, the French author and architect celebrated for restoring Notre-Dame of Paris, wrote in his Lectures on Architecture that the form of the Gothic cathedral was the synthesis of the early Christian basilica and the Romanesque three-aisled church. In this analysis, Viollet-le-Duc reasoned that a thesis (early Christian) plus an antithesis (Romanesque) produced the synthesis (Gothic).
Animation from Stephen Murray
Although the history and origins of Gothic are more complex than Viollet-le-Duc’s formula, this formula provides a method to dissect the Renaissance and Enlightenment counterpart to the medieval cathedral: the Greco-Roman basilica, as embodied by St. Paul’s Cathedral, constructed from 1675 to 1711 by Christopher Wren (1632-1723). St Paul’s is a symbol of Enlightenment-era London, built to rival its medieval counterpart of Westminster Abbey.
In this essay, and in my analysis of this neoclassical cathedral, I will parallel Viollet-le-Duc’s analysis of the medieval church. The thesis is that St. Paul’s is a work of techno-scientific engineering. The antithesis is that this building is a work of art that speaks to the larger cultural moment of Enlightenment London. The synthesis is the dome of St. Paul’s that merges these two forces of engineering and art into a unified and impressive creation.
The engineering of this dome is more complex than meets the eye.
In this animated construction sequence, view how the dome was engineered.
Music from the organ (William Tell’s Overture) and bells of St Paul’s (recorded 2013)
St. Paul’s Cathedral features an innovative triple dome structure. On the circular drum, the inner dome rises and is visible from the cathedral interior. Above this inner dome, a brick cone rises to support the 850 ton lantern. This brick cone also supports the wood rafters and frame of the outer dome, which is covered in wood and lead. This three dome system allows the cathedral to support such a heavy lantern, all the while maintaining the great height needed to be a visible London landmark.
- Inner dome – visible from inside and purely for show; height 225 ft (69m)
- Middle brick cone – a brick cone that is invisible from below but supports the 850 ton lantern above; height 278 ft (85m)
- Outer dome – a wood and lead-roofed structure visible from the cathedral exterior; height 278 ft (85m)
- Lantern – an 850 ton stone lantern and cross, whose weight is carried to the ground via the middle brick cone 365ft (111m)
The inner and outer domes are decorative, while the brick cone is the true weight-bearing support. The model below is created from measured plans and is accurate to reality.
Virtual Reality Model
(click to play)
The cathedral in the city: Rhinebeck Panorama of London dated 1806-07
The cathedral’s location and design reflects its cultural-historical moment of the Enlightenment.
The 1666 Fire of London turned the thirteenth-century medieval cathedral of old St. Paul’s into a charred ruin. As masons demolished the ancient ruins, the opportunity arose to erect a new cathedral designed around new cultural reference points: neoclassical instead of medieval, Protestant instead of Catholic, and with steel and brick instead of stone alone. St. Paul’s reveals what was, for the time, novel ways of thinking about space.
There are three main ways this cathedral architecture reflected its time period.
Firstly, this cathedral embodied an emerging understanding of artist and architectural space. The burned medieval cathedral was built over centuries by numerous masons in collaboration, whose names are forgotten. New St. Paul’s was built in one uninterrupted sweep by a single architect, whose name and biography are known in detail. It was only during the Renaissance and Enlightenment that society began to think of art and architecture as the product of an individual artist’s personality and ambitions. The engineer, artist, and architect were elevated above nameless masons. Historians can describe the relationship between artist and artwork with a degree of detail impossible to attribute to the architects of older, medieval cathedrals. It is to this period in the history of science and philosophy that historians also attribute the cult of personality surrounding individual artistic genius. Also central to the Enlightenment period was the organization and standardization of all human knowledge into encyclopedias and libraries, much in the way that St. Paul’s was centrally planned, designed, and coordinated with more precision than survived from the sporadic organization of medieval cathedrals and monastic libraries.
Comparative cross sections of old (left) and new (right) St. Paul’s
Flying buttresses hidden behind facade at left
Comparative cross sections of old (left) and new (right) St. Paul’s (link)
The irony is that for a building that appeared modern to eighteenth-century eyes, the construction methods with scaffolding and wooden winches to lift heavy stones were mostly unchanged from centuries before. The wooden rafters inside the cathedral roof are from trees planted hundreds of years before during the High Middle Ages. Most telling of all, the vaults of the nave and choir are supported by medieval-style flying buttresses. Fearing that flying buttress – an engineering technique deeply associated medieval architecture – would be inappropriate to a classical basilica, Wren hid these buttresses behind a screen wall. Modern or medieval? The building methods and religious traditions largely descended from late medieval methods, even if the building exterior evoked an opposed classical tradition.
Secondly, this cathedral reflected Britain’s growing interest in European and world affairs. Merchant ships sailing up the River Thames would first see the domes of Wren’s Greenwich Hospital for the wounded and retired sailors in the British navy; around the next bend in the river, the dome of St. Paul’s came into view. With Britain competing with France for colonial power, Wren visited Les Invalides, the Paris hospital for retired sailors in the French navy. Through studying Les Invalides and reviewing prints of French architecture, Wren copied and improved on classical traditions when redesigning London after the fire. St. Paul’s is also similar to Michelangelo’s sixteenth-century dome at the Vatican. St. Paul’s was supposed to be a cathedral, but its dome became an act of one-upsmanship against similar and existing domes in Paris and Rome.
The River Thames with St. Paul’s Cathedral
(painted by Canaletto c.1747-48)
London from Greenwich Park
(painted by Turner in 1809)
Lastly, this religious architecture ironically symbolized the growing power of secular thought and finance over national governance. As capital of England, London’s architectural focal points are split geographically between Westminster to the west and central London to the east. Power in Westminster is, in turn, divided between three main architectural points of interest: Westminster Abbey (symbolizing God), Buckingham Palace (symbolizing the king), and the Houses of Parliament (whose House of Commons symbolizes the country). This maps onto the neat triad of “God, King, and Country” or the three estates of “clergy, nobility, and commoners.”
However, the location of St. Paul’s, in the center of London’s financial district and near the commercial hub of the Royal Exchange, competed with Westminster Abbey in size and height. It were as if the commercial interests of bourgeois merchants and industrialists working in central London were competing with and questioning the traditional balance of power between the king, clergy, and nobility that had excluded the merchant middle classes from power. It was as if this cathedral’s architecture asserted the growing importance of London’s businesses and financial district for the governance of a country. Fittingly, as if proof of their success, zoning laws and building height restrictions in much of London are still designed for miles around so as to preserve the visibility of St. Paul’s. Wren was no opponent to the monarchy, and the construction of St. Paul’s, in fact, benefited from royal support. Nonetheless, the architecture still speaks to the eighteenth-century tension between ancient traditions and modern technologies.
Protected vistas radiating out from Westminster and St. Paul’s. The cathedral architecture becomes, in equal parts, the symbolic, physical, and cartographic center of urban life, as if the red lines on these maps were arrows directing our gaze to the center of power.
Construction was funded through a tax on the coal London residents and businesses consumed. In later years, coal became a polarizing symbol of both the dirty, soot-covered injustices of urban poverty and the techno-scientific progress fueling Britain’s Industrial Revolution. Fittingly, the same dark ingredient that powered Britain’s industrial looms and colonial power also funded construction of the cathedral that came to symbolize London and the empire. St. Paul’s is a church, but its neoclassical design and secular location allow it to become much more than just a church.
Synthesis: ENGINEERING AND ART
This dome is a synthesis of art and engineering.
In addition to St. Paul’s political and cultural symbolism, this dome also synthesized the most recent advances in building (industrially manufactured brick) with simultaneous techno-scientific discoveries. This cathedral embodied the core beliefs of European Enlightenment thought: the application of science to advance society and the synthesis of Greco-Roman aesthetic traditions with modern technologies.
Parabolic behavior of an unweighted chain
In the years St. Paul’s was under construction, Wren corresponded with his polymath, scientist, and mathematician friend Robert Hooke (1635-1703). From Hooke’s empirical experiments with springs, strings, and weights (see Hooke’s Law), he confirmed that an unweighted chain suspended between two points would form a parabolic curve. Furthermore, the quadratic formula Y = X2 mathematically expressed and modeled the chain’s behavior. Math and reality were, in one formula, linked.
There is effectively no limit to how much weight a chain can hold in tension. A suspension bridge roadway weighs hundreds of thousands of tons, but the steel cables suspending it are usually no thicker than a few centimeters. However, these cables will collapse under the slightest amount of compression.
In contrast to a chain that is strong under tension but weak under compression, stone is the opposite: strong under compression but weak under tension. Imagine the incredible compressive forces of the earth’s crust that compress ancient sand and fossils into solid limestone. When masons quarried this stone into blocks, they were challenged to design cathedrals that minimized any tension on stone. Tension in the horizontal span of the cathedral vault, for instance, caused structural collapse. In response, masons devised flying buttresses and complex structural interventions to prevent stone from cracking under tension.
The genius of Enlightenment architects like Wren stems from their ability to deduce: If a suspended chain formed a parabolic curve in pure tension as modeled by Y = X2, then the converse statement must also be true: A stone arch modeled on a parabolic curve would act in pure compression, as modeled by the reverse equation -Y = X2. Thus, by mathematical logic, the downward and tensile force of chains mirrored the upward and compressive forces of stone. Spanish architect Antoni Guadí (1852-1926) observed similar phenomena when designing his final project, the Basilica of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (begun 1883). Without the benefit of computer models, Guadí suspended weighted strings from the ceiling and then viewed these creations in a mirror, so as to deduce the optimal geometric form for his cathedral vaults.
One of Gaudí’s string structures
The same structure upside down
models the form of the ideal dome
Knowing this, Wren constructed the dome as a brick cone similar in shape to a parabolic arch. Around the base of the dome, where the buckling forces of tension were greatest, Wren inserted bands of steel chain the circumference of the dome. Medieval masons intuited this, too, when they designed pointed arches whose shape was somewhat closer to a parabola than was the traditional and older Roman arch. However, while medieval masons at places like Amiens Cathedral relied on trial and error with few benefits of scientific thought, Wren relied on science and math to deduce the ideal form. Thus, the brick middle dome is only nine inches thick, but it supports a lantern above that weighs 850 tons.
Wren was more than a mathematician. He also had a keen aesthetic eye from close study of French and classical architecture. His white limestone buildings all drew inspiration from the classical traditions of Greece and Rome. However, although the brick cone was cheaper, stronger, and used fewer materials than a traditional stone dome, Wren knew that a brick architectural form was too radically modern to leave exposed, and too aesthetically different from the otherwise neoclassical church. Wren therefore hid the true, weight-bearing brick cone. Outside the brick cone, Wren added a lead and wood roof that supported no weight and was in no way connected to the lantern it seemed to support. Inside the brick cone, which was too steep and too tall to paint a convincing ceiling mural on, Wren erected a decorative arched vault within that was merely a decorative surface for James Thornhill’s paintings.
Art and engineering, religion and politics, tradition and innovation were, through the design of one dome, linked. Wren might not have intended to inject his cultural-historical moment into the design. As an architect-engineer, he was inventing the most stable and economic way to cover the cathedral. However, the implications of this engineering reflected the spirit of the city and society at large.
Cross section of all three domes
Cross section of cupola
Interior of inner dome
Interior of brick cone
Cross section of rafters and cupola
Interior of wood rafters
Interior of buttresses
To say all in one word, it [the panopticon] will be found applicable, I think, without exception, to all establishments whatsoever, in which, within a space not too large to be covered or commanded by buildings, a number of persons are meant to be kept under inspection.
– Jeremy Bentham
Since the 1790s, Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon remains an influential building and representation of power relations. Yet no structure was ever built to the exact dimensions Bentham indicates in his panopticon letters. Seeking to translate Bentham into the digital age, I followed his directions and descriptions to construct an exact model in virtual reality. What would this building have looked like if it were built? Would it have been as all-seeing and all-powerful as Bentham claims?
c.1791 plans of panopticon, drawn by architect Willey Reveley for Jeremy Bentham
Creative Commons image credit: Bentham MS Box 119a 121, UCL Special Collections
Panopticon: Theory vs. Reality
Central to Bentham’s proposed building was a hierarchy of: (1) the principal guard and his family; (2) the assisting superintendents; and (3) the hundreds of inmates. The hierarchy between them mapped onto the building’s design. The panopticon thus became a spatial and visual representation of the prison’s power relations. As architectural historian Robin Evans describes: “Thus a hierarchy of three stages was designed for, a secular simile of God, angels and man.”
Spatial diagram of power relations
Obstructed view from ground floor
Author’s images from computer model
To his credit, Bentham recognized that an inspector on the ground floor could not see all inmates on the upper floors. The angle of view was too steep and obstructed by stairs and walkways. To this end, Bentham proposed that a covered inspection gallery be erected between every two floors of cells.
By proposing these three inspection galleries, Bentham addressed the problem of inspecting all inmates. However, he created a new problem: From no central point was it now be possible to see all activity, as the floor plans below show. The panoramic view below shows the superintendent’s actual field of view, from which he could see into no more than four complete cells at a time. The view from the center was not, in fact, all-seeing. Guards would have to walk a continuous circuit round-and-round, as if on a treadmill. They, too, are prisoners to the architecture.
Panopticon panorama from guard’s point of view
Section showing each guard’s cone of vision
Guard’s cone of vision
Guard’s walking circuit
Author’s images from computer model
The intervening stairwells and inspection corridors between the perimeter cells and the central tower might have allowed inspectors to see into the cells. Yet these same architectural features would also have impeded the inmates’ view toward the central rotunda. Bentham claimed this rotunda could become a chapel, and that inmates could hear the sermon and view the religious ceremonies without ever needing to leave their cells. The blinds, normally closed, could be opened up for viewing the chapel.
Rotunda with blinds closed
Rotunda with blinds opened
Bentham’s suggestion was problematic. The two cross sections above show that, although some of the inmates could see the chapel from their cells, most would be unable to do so.
In spite of all these obvious faults in panopticon design, Bentham still claimed that all inmates and activities were visible and controlled from a single central point. When the superintendent or visitor arrives, no sooner is he announced that “the whole scene opens instantaneously to his view,” Bentham wrote.
View from guard tower to cells: VISIBILITY
View from cells to guard tower: INVISIBILITY
Despite Bentham’s claims to have invented a perfect and all-powerful building, the real panopticon would have been flawed were it built as this data visualization helps illustrate. Although the circular form with central tower was chosen to facilitate easier surveillance, the realities and details of this design illustrate that constant surveillance was not possible. That the British public and Parliament rejected Bentham’s twenty year effort to build a real panopticon should be no surprise.
However flawed the architecture, Bentham remained ahead of his time. He envisioned an idealistic and rational, even utopian, surveillance society. Without the necessary (digital) technology to create this society, Bentham fell back on architecture to make this society possible. The failure of this architecture and its obvious shortcomings do not invalidate Bentham’s project. Instead, these flaws with architecture indicate that Bentham envisioned an institution and society that would only become possible through new technologies invented hundreds of years later.
Supervised by Max Sternberg at Cambridge, advised by Philip Schofield at UCL
The archives and publications of UCL special collections, Bentham MS Box 119a 121
Audio narration by Tamsin Morton
Audio credits from Freesound
– panopticon interior ambiance
– panopticon exterior ambiance
– prison door closing
– low-pitched bell sound
– high-pitched bell sound
Music: Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns, 1886
The Eiffel Tower was built over 18 months – from August 1887 to March 1889. This film shows the construction sequence, starting with the foundations and ending with the cupola.
Model created in SketchUp and shared here for free download.
Or view the Eiffel Tower in virtual reality from Sketchfab
Gustave Eiffel’s original plans and drawings for the tower were first published in 1900 and re-published in 2008 by Taschen.
The start of the erection of the metalwork
7 December 1888 Construction of the legs with wood scaffolding
20 March 1888 – Completion of the first level
15 May 1888 – Start of construction on the second stage
21 August 1888 – Completion of the second level
26 December 1888 – Construction of the upper stage
15 March 1889 – Construction of the cupola