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The single nave and its buttresses

Cité épiscopale d’Albi

The architecture of the Cathedral of Sainte-Cécile is organised around the one structural element which governs all others: the nave. At Albi the nave lacks the flying buttresses which support the vault of the main body of a many Gothic Cathedrals and in doing so must straddle the side aisles.

The absence of side aisles at Albi supposes also the absence of flying buttresses. The buttresses which support the vault are incorporated directly into the walls. The resulting bareness of structure contrasts with the picturesque northern Cathedrals where the space, crowded with pinnacles, is divided into multiple sections by the flying buttresses.

From the point of view of its structure however, Albi Cathedral is wholly Gothic. The architectonic elements are reduced to the ’ribs’ of the vault and the buttresses. The size of the buttresses is striking, each represents a volume of 432 cubic metres. The walls serve simply as screens and bear no weight, however, unlike those often found in northern France, they are not sculpted and their symbolic importance as a limit, or barrier, remains.

The Gothic architecture that we find at Albi is far removed from the decorative style normally associated with French art. Priority is given to the play of lines in the building layout, to the volume and to the sharpness of contrast. We reach the summit of austere simplicity which opposes Southern Gothic architecture to the exuberance of French architecture.

The wall rises up in a single movement, the vaults of the chapels lodged between the buttresses form the origin of the vault of the nave. The rounded form of the buttresses is an original feature of Albi Cathedral which renders it unique (the architect rejected the brutality of sharp angles) and brings a pleasing rhythm to the nudity of the exterior walls.

The vertical walls, punctuated by the semi-cylindrical buttresses, tapering towards the top, evoke perfectly the spirit and “tension” of the Gothic style.

It is without doubt in the apse that the architect’s skill in bringing together quasi-tactile surfaces is best illustrated. A subtle geometry combines the cylinders of the buttresses and the vast oblique planes which give rise to the polygons of the chapels and which continue, apart from an interval of a few metres, the vertical trajectory of the base of the wall.

The sun gives rise to the shadows which animate the whole structure and testify to its massive presence.

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