Students Recreate Early Paris Buildings

Using modeling software and investigative techniques, a group of MHC faculty, staff, and students are planning to recreate the College de Cluny, a campus constructed in Paris around 1260 AD.

The College de Cluny is important to architectural historians because it is one of the earliest examples of a self-contained college complex, says Michael Davis, professor of art history and architectural studies at MHC.

“In many ways, this is the very beginning of where campus designs like Mount Holyoke’s came from,” he said. “In Cluny we see the establishment of an urban setting for monks, where previously monasteries had been based in rural areas. The development of a central campus also gave the Benedictine order greater visibility in Paris.”

According to records, Cluny was built in the 1260s and 1270s on a site near the Sorbonne College of the University of Paris and originally comprised a chapel, a cloister, kitchens, and a residential building that contained the refectory and dormitory. The last buildings of the Cluny College were demolished in 1860. Beyond a few sketches, a floor plan, and keystones that were rescued from demolition, little is known about the appearance of the college.

Davis saw the opportunity to create a course designed to teach students the skills needed to analyze architectural evidence, learn about construction styles of the time, and piece together designs of the college using SketchUp, a free 3-D modeling software package.

Being able to produce architectural renderings of the interior and exterior of the college will fill a gap in historians’ knowledge of an important time of building innovation and expansion in old Paris, said Davis.

“That it was designed as a campus was a real innovation in architectural design for the time, and the college represents an original synthesis of religious and secular building types,” said Davis. Old drawings of the college indicate that it featured up-to-date architectural forms such as pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and elaborate window tracery.

Nick Baker, instructional technology consultant for the arts at MHC, is helping the students translate their architectural research into three-dimensional models. Initially the students will work on three sections of the college: the chapel, the chapter house, and the cloister.

“They need to find a starting point, whether it’s the shape of a column or another feature as seen in an old sketch,” said Baker. “Then, referring to the floor plan and other evidence they’ll start drawing their section using SketchUp. But, at a certain point, they’ll run out of tangible evidence, and they’ll need to rely on other investigative strategies to fill in the gaps.”

Davis became interested in Cluny College in 1986, while doing research on thirteenth- to fifteenth-century Paris architecture. He discovered that, while much is known about the architectural history of larger, still-standing buildings like Notre Dame Cathedral, little is known about the colleges that served less grand purposes.

“Until recently, there hasn’t been a lot of interest in colleges like Cluny because they were fairly small, and they’re not there now,” he said. “But now that we understand why these smaller colleges were built, and the design and engineering innovations behind their construction, there’s a scholarly desire to learn more about them. They also have a fascinating story to tell us about the beginnings of academic life as we know it now.”

Once the students’ renderings are complete, Davis plans to seek feedback from other historians who are working in the same field. He hopes to spur an ongoing conversation that might lead to more discoveries being made about the appearance and architecture of Cluny College and similar buildings in Paris.