Burford Church Construction Sequence

This project is also featured on Burford Church’s official website.
Created with the late Cathy Oakes, medieval art historian at the University of Oxford

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Construction Sequence: 1175-1475

While studying history at Oxford University, I based my final research project on Burford Church near Oxford, England. With the generous help from Cathy Oakes, I visited this humble parish church and recreated its 300 year construction and evolution through a computer model. View the resulting animation above or download the digital source files for free at this link. Narration below:

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  • c.1175 – Work begins on the Norman church working from east to west.
    It is a simple structure with round Norman windows and a choir, nave, and tower.
  • c.1200 – Demolition to construct a chapel, aisle, and entrance foyer.
  • c.1250 – Addition of north and south transept. Chancel is expanded.
  • c.1400 – The crypt is added, and the tower is heightened. The architectural style changes from Norman to Gothic, from round arches to pointed. Local cloth merchants construct a separate guild chapel at a slight angle to the main church.
  • c.1475 – Guild chapel is demolished to build the Lady Chapel. Most of the remaining nave is demolished to construct two new aisles, a larger west window, and new clerestory windows. Two chapels are added to either side of the choir, as well as a three floor entrance tower (not visible from this angle).
  • This completes the construction of Burford Church.

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Visual Analysis

What is the visual language of Burford Church? What aspects of medieval social history can be deduced from the church decoration? Without written historical records, building fragments alone can tell the story of church construction.
Here is my tour of the architectural fabric.

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The Digital Cathedral of Amiens

Created with Stephen Murray, architectural historian at Columbia University
As featured on Columbia University’s Art Humanities website

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1. Construction Sequence: 1220-1528

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Music: Beata Viscera by Pérotin, c.1200.

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1220-c.1225
Master Robert de Luzarches began work on the foundations and lower wall.
He may have been assisted by Thomas de Cormont
1225-30
Master Robert de Luzarches and Thomas de Cormont constructed the south nave aisle
rapidly to provide space for liturgical celebrations
1230-1235
Master Robert de Luzarches and Thomas de Cormont built the north nave aisle
soon afterwards
1240s-c.1250
Master Thomas de Cormont constructed the upper nave and belfries of western towers
c.1250
Master Thomas de Cormont died having completed the upper nave,
begun the upper transept and laid out the lower choir
1250s-1260s
Master Renaud de Cormont completed the upper transept and upper choir
The axial window of the choir clerestory was installed in 1269
1280s-c.1310
Main roof installed from east to west
1360s-c.1400
Construction of west towers
1528
Old steeple destroyed by lightning; construction of the grand clocher doré completed c.1533

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Text by Stephen Murray

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2. Amiens Cathedral in Cross Section

This film shows the cathedral in cross section,
exploring the relationship between interior and exterior spaces.

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Music: Mille Regretz by Josquin des Prés

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Section of choir

Section of western half of cathedral

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3. Cathedral Flythrough

Viewers approach Amiens from the west, like medieval pilgrims did. Viewers then move through the complex system of flying buttresses that support the cathedral vaults. The animation then reconstructs the dynamic geometry that engineers encoded in the cathedral floor plan. The film closes with the view from below the foundations, as if the cathedral were floating on air.

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Music: Viderunt Omnes by Pérotin, 1198

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Section of the nave roof

Section of west façade

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amiensAlong with the Parthenon, Amiens Cathedral is introduced each semester to students in Art Humanities. This seminar has been taught since 1947 and is required of all undergraduates as part of the Core Curriculum. Through broad introductory courses in art, literature, history, music, and science, the Core aims to produce well-rounded citizens of Columbia University students. Amiens was chosen as representative of all Gothic architecture, and as a lens through which to teach skills of visual analysis. This computer model I created instructs over 1,300 students per year.
Based on the computer model, I produced the three short films above: (1) a construction sequence, (2) a digital flythrough of the finished cathedral, and (3) a speculative animation of the cathedral in cross section. This trilogy is complemented with music from Pérotin (the thirteenth-century French composer) and Josquin des Prés (the fifteenth-century composer). Both musicians also happen to be featured in the Music Humanities component of the Core Curriculum.
My objective is to digitize and re-imagine Amiens. To borrow a quote from Viollet-le-Duc, the legendary nineteenth-century preservationist-architect of Notre-Dame of Paris, my aim was “to restore the building to a state of completeness that may have never existed.” For instance, Amiens lost almost all of its original stained glass windows and large parts of its nave. My project responds by presenting the cathedral in an idealized light. Awkward walls, later additions, and anachronistic features can all be airbrushed away from my model, so as to reveal how the master masons originally envisioned their cathedral in the thirteenth century.
A building is experienced as a sequence of sights and sounds. A research text about such a building, however, can only capture limited information. Photography, film, and computer simulations are, in contrast, dynamic and sometimes stronger mediums to communicate the visual and engineering complexity of architecture. This project seeks to capture dynamic Amiens through a visual, auditory, and user interactive experience. Through film, one can recreate and expand the intended audience of this architecture, recreating digitally the experience of pilgrimage.
In Viollet-le-Duc’s 1863 book, Entretiens sur l’architecture, he presented Gothic architecture as the synthesis of a Roman basilica and a Romanesque church. After several centuries of evolution, these two forms merged into the singular form of the Gothic cathedral. For him, the Gothic cathedral (particularly Amiens) was the pinnacle of human architectural and aesthetic achievement. In other words, the cathedral’s form and plan evolved in response to theology and changes in the rituals of the Mass.
The two animations below illustrate Viollet-le-Duc’s thesis about Gothic. Although later scholars dispute his simplistic analysis, his work remains influential.

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Evolution of the cathedral from early Christian to late Gothic

 

Development of the cathedral plan over 1,000 years.
Inspired from Viollet-le-Duc’s writing

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Cathedrals and History

In the absence of surviving written records, many scholars read cathedral construction as a proxy for economic growth, or as a symbol for the structure of medieval society. The decision of where and when to start building a cathedral was tied to the right economic and political conditions. The large majority of cathedrals were built in the region of Northeastern France during the High Middle Ages – during a period of remarkable economic growth and productivity in the thirteenth century. Construction slowed after climate change caused failed crops, followed by the Great Famine (1315) and the Black Death (1350). The economic conditions and cathedral construction never rebounded for a long time afterwards, and when construction did rebound, Europe had entered the Renaissance with a new aesthetic sensibility different from Gothic Amiens
The cathedral can also be read as a political symbol. Funding came from a combination of donations, indulgences, and taxes on church-owned farmlands. The logic between competing regions and feudal kingdoms in medieval France reads something like: the larger and prettier the cathedral, the larger and more powerful the city and sponsors behind it. For many of these towns, the size of the cathedral was well out of proportion to the actual size of the town. Amiens, for instance, was one of the largest cathedrals in Europe for a town of ~26,000. The other cathedral town of Chartres was, similarly, competing with Paris for power and independence. Cathedral were architectural symbols for the competitions between cities and regions. In this light, the cathedral became as much a religious space as a political statement of civic identity.

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Credits

I am indebted to the expert guidance of medieval historian Stephen Murray, who mentored me in the fall 2016 seminar Life of a Cathedral: Notre-Dame of Amiens. I also thank Columbia’s Center for Career Education for funding this project through its Work Exemption Program.

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Method

Anyone can download and edit this model for free with SketchUp. Over 3,000 people have downloaded this model, and numerous others have 3D printed it as part of their architecture studios. Among software, SketchUp is easiest to learn. Within minutes, students and teachers unfamiliar with SketchUp can build their own models with ease. In response to several rounds of edits and suggestions from Stephen Murray, I finished this model and exported the animation for final edits and special effects.
In this recorded lecture, I describe the workflow and editing process behind this project.

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Sources

– Based on Stephen Murray’s measurements and drawings of Amiens from 1990 (link)
– And these hand drawings by George Durand from 1901-03 (link).

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Related Projects

This project is published to Columbia’s website. I expanded on Amiens Cathedral for my senior thesis about the medieval church of St. Denis, and I continued building computer models as a research assistant at Columbia University’s Media Center for Art History.
I also researched the construction of:
The Eiffel Tower
Burford Church near Oxford, England
St. Paul’s Cathedral dome in London
Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon
Notre-Dame of Paris

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The cathedral from your computer

Animated Glossary of Amiens Cathedral

This model shows a section of Amiens’ nave with the labyrinth below. Photo-realistic textures from actual photos and drawings of Amiens enhance the illusion of reality. Click numbered annotations to view details. Click and drag mouse to fly around the model. Please be patient while the model loads.

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Amiens Cathedral Exterior Computer Model

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Amiens Cathedral Exterior Photos

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Amiens Cathedral Interior

Gallery is organized sequentially to mirror the experience of walking through the cathedral.

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Cross Sections

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Dynamic Angles

Computer models allow us to explore architecture in ways not possible in reality. With Amiens floating in the sky, one looks up to the grid of vaults and the forest of columns. The cathedral is real, but the views of it are imaginary.

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Model of Jane’s Carousel in Brooklyn

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A wind-up music box featuring Jane’s Carousel along the Brooklyn Waterfront. When closed, the antique cigar box measures a mere 7 by 7 inches and 3 inches deep. When opened, the Brooklyn Bridge and historic Jane’s Carousel fold out. The carousel spins to the tune of the music while the moon slides across the night sky.
Materials: $4 cigar box, $5 wind-up music box, electrical wire (for trees), plastic lids for wheels, string, tape measure, tin foil, and thick paper

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Carousel with my hand and a pen for scale.

Windmobiles

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This series explores movement. These sculptures made of paper, wire, and wood are powered by the wind. When placed before a light breeze, the pinwheels spin and power the sculptures’ cyclical movements. The bird will soar. The horseman will charge forward, lance at the ready. Each sculpture evokes the theme of movement.

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Pinwheel is the simplest in this series. A light breeze spins a three-pronged pinwheel, which vibrates a wire. The following sculptures are variations on this mechanism.

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In Ocean Voyage, the pinwheel rocks a sailing boat. Wind movement translates into wave movement.

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Liberty symbolizes the search for freedom. The pinwheel connects to a wire that flaps the dove’s white wings.

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Similar to Liberty, the pinwheel in Don Quixote’s Windmill powers the horse’s charging legs. Ironically, Don Quixote attacks the windmill that powers him.

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In Cityscape, two pinwheels power rows of zigzagging traffic. In this “snapshot” of urban life, movement is choreographed along mechanical lines. The city silhouette in background is made from paper. This white sculpture is illuminated from beneath with a light.

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This sculpture called Time represents the wheel of life. A hand-operated crank rotates a wheel and powers the moving legs of a walking skeleton. On the wheel, silhouettes of infant, child, worker, senior, cripple, and coffin spin round, symbolizing the repeating stages of life for each new generation. While the skeleton depicts death, the wheel depicts continuity. In contrast to the sculpture’s theme of death the human hand, instead of wind like the other sculptures, moves the sculpture and completes the metaphor.

Proposal for a space age house

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Space House is inspired from images of 1950s futurism and from architect Buckminster Fuller’s proposal for the ideal, modern home, the Dymaxion House. This circular model made of paper is three floors tall and fifteen inches in diameter. The house features large, porthole windows to better profit from the view and to evoke the large glass expanses of modern skyscrapers. In the heat of summer, blinds roll down over the windows to protect from the sun’s glare. The open floor plan permits occupants to design a home suited to their specific and evolving needs. The house is painted silver, circular, and domed to evoke the streamlined images of 1950s American cars.

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space house 3

space house 2

The Dymaxion House at night

The Dymaxion House at night

Proposal for a pop-up park near the Flatiron Building

In front of Manhattan’s Flatiron Building is an unused, triangular spit of land bordered by three major streets: Fifth Avenue, Broadway, and 23rd Street. Every day, thousands of pedestrians pass and cars through this central intersection. This underutilized space with traffic on all sides could become a vibrant, public square. This park should reflect and respond to the dynamic and energetic neighborhood.
Pop-up Park creates a mixed-use public space that responds to users. Narrow metal panels measuring three by five meters roll out of a wedge-shaped storage container. Each panel serves a different function: bleachers, benches, bookshelf, public mural, basketball hoop, etc. When in use, the panels are alternated to adapt to multiple uses. When not in use, the panels slide back into their container, leaving an open communal space. The dimensions of each panel correspond to the perfect shape of the golden rectangle. This permits a functional yet aesthetic geometric composition to be incorporated into each panel. The park’s periphery is planted with trees to shade the communal area and to act as a visual buffer from the hectic city.

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urban park 1

urban park 2

Re-purpose shipping containers for affordable housing

Hundreds of thousands of shipping containers – each measuring eight feet wide by eight feet tall and between twenty and forty feet long – carry goods from China to America by ship. On arrival, these containers are often emptied and disposed of. Due to the trade imbalance, and the fact that China sends more products to America than America sends to China, it is often not cost effective or profitable to return these containers.
This project proposes recycling the shipping container’s flexible but durable steel frame as a building material. Each container is a component in the home: living room, bathroom, kitchen, bedroom. Like Lego bricks, these lightweight containers have limitless combinations, allowing the occupant to design his or her own residence with any number of modular units that can be stacked up to eight stories high. The container’s natural durability, cheapness, and ease of movement make for a cost-effective and adaptable home.

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containerized living

My dream loft house

Loft House is a conceptual design for my dream studio apartment. Loft House incorporates elements of turn-of-the-century warehouse architecture with modern building practices. Traditional warehouse spaces are large and airy; they also feature thick retaining walls and intricate external ornament like buildings in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. With Loft House, the heavy cornices and detailed brickwork of traditional loft spaces are reduced to their most basic geometric form. The open floor plan and exposed structural beams hint at this structure’s historical precedents. It is the spirit and feel of history, more than the ornamental accoutrements, that inspire me.

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loft house 1

loft house 2