The Portico of the Angers Cathedral

As one walks along the north bank of the Maine river towards the Pont du Verdun, the eye is drawn to the slender spires of the Cathedral of St Maurice, perched upon the hill that dominates the old town of Angers. A pedestrian boulevard steeply climbs the hill, the Montée St Maurice, leading to the Cathedral’s parvis. The architecture shows the transition from the Romanesque to the Gothic styles, being erected atop the ruins of the previous building between the 11th and 13th centuries.

The Cathedral as it stands today from the Montée de St Maurice.
Picture by xorge (CC)

One of the most unique features of the Cathedral is the western Portal, like many other examples, it is profusely decorated with carvings. The tympanum features the Patrocrator and with Tetramorphos surrounded by the Angelic Hosts and the Twenty-four Elders upon the Archivolts. The jambs are decorated with two tiers of Apostles, Angels, and Saints.

A surprising discovery was made during a cleaning intervention in 2009. Under the lime wash, the remains of vivid polychromic decoration were found. An extensive restoration campaign begun to reveal, study and preserve this extraordinary finding. It has been established that the oldest polychrome remains date from the 12th century. Like most churches of the period, the Cathedral was originally decorated in bright, vivid colors, Angers can now be counted among the very few which have preserved any vestige.

The West Portal before the restoration campaign.
Picture by Ikmo-ned (CC)

Detail of the tympanum showing the uncovered colors.
French Ministry of Culture

Last week the French ministry of Culture announced plans for the construction of a new portico that would protect the Portal from pollution and weather. A contest was organized with only 5 architects participating. The winning proposal is signed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma.

The polemic that will surely ensue can be placed in context with the recent reconstruction efforts of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Government officials initially proposed an international competition to reconstruct the Spire with a contemporary approach. Thankfully, the uproar that rose in reaction to this mindless idea, both within France and all over the world lead to the determination that it would be reconstructed “as it was”.

The proposal for the new portal responds to this desire for “contemporary” interventions in architectural heritage relentlessly pushed by some politicians and cultural elites in Europe. This premise, rooted in a dogmatic perception of history, art and architecture, is deeply flawed and in consequence produces unsatisfactory results.

The winning proposal for the new portico.
Kengo Kuma & Associates.

The architectural object designed by Kuma is not devoid of some beauty. The archivolts seem to evoke Romanesque archetypes, and the proportions of the object itself are good. And while this is by no means an original idea, derivative of post-modern architects such as Mario Botta, it could probably be categorized as a conservative approach within today's “contemporary” whirlwind.

In my view the project proposed has several unsurmountable issues. The most immediate ones that could bring up are practical and constructive in nature. The main function of this building is to protect the portal from the elements, yet for some reason, a flat roof was deemed appropriate for north western France. A roof that in order to keep the outside edges crisp and minimalistic, has to draw the rainwater inwards. The beautiful clean lines soon to be inevitably marred by dust and water stains. Those cozy nooks soon to be colonized by pigeons. All those concave corners just begging for debris to accumulate. This not a case of form following function, but one of those examples where form is everything.

View from the interior.

Construction showing sloping for water drainage.
Kengo Kuma & Associates

This might be forgivable if the form was worthy, which is not, unfortunately, the case. While, as stated before, the object itself might be pleasing to the eye, It entirely lacks scale or context. It is devoid of any relation to the human scale, the exact same geometry could be used for say, an altar or a 10 story building. The use of the archivolt is also overplayed; the façade as it is now, has a single portal with 4 archivolts. Taking an abstract and almost fractal approach, the design uses 5 arches with 12 archivolts each, distorting the proportions that could somehow create a bridge with the medieval styles.

The issue here is not of what this portico does for the Cathedral, but of what it does to it. Photoshop does wonders when trying to blend something in from certain angles, do not be confused, this portico will absolutely dominate the façade.

Detail of historical illustration showing the original portico.
Louis Bourdan, 1699. Collection Gaignières.

Interestingly, the Cathedral had its own original portico, dating back to the beginning of the 13th century. The lower level of the towers show the imprint of its vaults and many historic representations have survived showing this two level portico. Unfortunately, it was completely demolished in 1807 and while several attempts to rebuild it were made during the 19th century none came to fruition.

Of course, one may allow oneself such criticism when this project is confronted with a previous proposal, that drawn by Angevin architect Roger Jusserand over a century before. His approach was simple, interpreting what graphic evidence he could find, he proposed a reconstruction of the historic portico.

Elevation of the reconstructed portico as proposed by
Fonds Jusserand, Archive départementale du Maine-et-Loire.

The virtues of this project are mostly self-evident. Its scale is in proportion to the rest of the buildings in the square, its façade is divided in 6 bays with and arcade on the lower level. These two stories give it a human scale. Built out of stone with a slate roof it would fin in perfectly.

Another key factor is the gradation of the scales. One would step from the parvis into a smaller interior before entering the lofty nave, hence strengthening the experience ow awe as we cross the threshold of the portal into the nave itself.

One may only hope that the Angevins will rise up like Parisians did with Notre Dame, and perhaps, God willing, they will build something that resembles Roger Jusserand’s vision.

View from the parvis. 

View from the Montée St Maurice. 
Comparison of proposals by Roger Jusserand and Kengo Kuma & Associates.
Original rendering  and drawings by Kengo Kuma & Associates and Roger Jusserand. 3D overlay by the author.

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