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Auguste Perret’s Franciscan Chapel in Arcueil

With this year’s Heritage Days fast upon us, here is a post on one of the buildings I visited during last year’s event: the Franciscan chapel in Arcueil designed by Auguste Perret.

Hidden away and, in all appearance, a humble structure, this is a building that reveals itself on closer examination to be a marvel of simplicity and elegant logic, a true architectural lesson.

Like Henri Labrouste, Auguste Perret is an architect’s architect. Little known among the general public, he is revered in architectural circles for his pioneering use of reinforced concrete, for the beauty and elegance of his structures, and for the quality of his detailing.

Perret built a number of very famous works, including the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, the church at Le Raincy, the Musée des Travaux Publics (today the Conseil Économique, Social et Environnemental), and a large part of the city of Le Havre rebuilt after World War II.

But at an altogether different scale, Auguste Perret and his brother Gustave were commissioned in the 1920s to build a small chapel for an order of Franciscan nuns in the town of Arcueil, a stone’s throw from Paris in the southern suburbs.

The budget was of the sparsest order. This did not deter the Perret brothers, who set about using their ingenuity to make the most of the very limited means they had available. The chapel was completed in 1929.

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The composition is quite traditional in form, although the architectural language is boxy and industrial. The formal construct recalls the archetype of the church, with a recognizable nave and apse and the central portion of the roof slightly raised to form two lateral galleries.  It is almost identical to that of another chapel the Perret brothers built at the same time, the Chapelle de la Colombière in Châlons-sur-Saone.

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The volumetry is simple, but creates multiple opportunities for subtle spatial effects. Openings allow natural light to filter in at varied, carefully calibrated, angles. While the overall composition is simple and straightforward, fitting for a church in the clear continuity of a religious tradition, the building offers a continuous yet unobtrusive animation in its architectural resolution.

The most extraordinary thing about this building is the quality of architectural expression the Perret brothers were able to extract from the lowliest of materials. Not a speck of marble, or any other noble material, is to be found. The structure is of reinforced concrete, which is left bare. The infill is of hollowed-out industrial bricks. The decorative elements are made of concrete, with a mix of clear and colored glazing.

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Everywhere one can see architectural intelligence stepping in to make up for the limitations of the materials. The concrete structure is offset from the rest of the building, expressing the role of the long, thin columns in a way that reminds one of the structural expressivity of Gothic churches. The walls are given texture simply by the use of a simple device of setting the bricks in groups of three, alternatively horizontal and vertical. Simple geometric shapes, combined with colored glazing, creates subtle effects of light and generates a very strong mood.

The simplicity and restraint of this project, combined with the intelligence of its composition and its use of material, make this building a wonderful proof that poverty of means does not preclude richness of architecture.

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