From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
Albi cathedral was broadcast on 16th October 2021. You can listen to the audio here.
Being known as one of the largest brick buildings in the world is a pretty banal accolade. But then you look at the cathedral at Albi in the south west of France, the birthplace of the man who almost beat Cook to Botany Bay, La Perouse, and it blows your mind. Large and brick it certainly is but what grabs you is its extraordinary shape. If you’re used to medieval cathedrals being all flying buttresses and pinnacles, Albi will let you down. It’s more like a great ship, rounded at each end, with its upright walls undulating thanks to its buttresses encased within semi-circular columns. A gigantic tower at one end completes the exterior.
Given that all architecture speaks a language, it’s hard to pin down exactly what this building is saying. To our modern eyes it has a touch of a Chicago skyscraper, the swank of an Art Deco cinema, and even a Brutalist quality, but in 1282, when building commenced, it was intended as one thing, a symbol of Roman Catholic domination. No one messes with us, it said. The reason for this was that the Languedoc area around Albi was home to the Cathars. Although Christian, their rules and beliefs were different from that of the Roman Catholic church, who viewed them as heretics. Thus, in 1208, the Pope ordered the Albigensian Crusade, and over the following twenty years, crusaders, who called themselves pilgrims, slaughtered anyone they believed was a Cathar. This cathedral then is a victory monument, built on blood, and fortified, just in case old beliefs resurfaced.
The cathedral’s interior is no less remarkable. Every surface is painted, a reminder that European cathedrals were all once highly coloured inside. Here, the focus is on a gigantic 15×18 metre Last Judgment, completed in the late C15th. It shows in gruesome detail exactly what would happen if you disobeyed God, and it’s still a disturbing sight. Another notable feature is a magnificently carved rood screen, which completely surrounds the choir and the altar, fencing them in and making it possible to conduct services without being disturbed by others.
The cathedral was pillaged during the French Revolution and fell into disrepair until renovated by France’s great restorer, Viollet-le-Duc, in the late 19th century, who not only strengthened the roof but added a fanciful balustrade around its top as well as some pointy little towers. It was like putting a gorilla in a dress and thankfully they have since been removed.
The Bishop’s Palace beside the cathedral was built in the same brick and is now a museum showing work by the area’s most famous painter, Toulouse-Lautrec, famous for his study of Parisian nightlife. And so this marvellous complex of robust buildings is home to both the sacred and the profane. Both show how beauty can arise from ugliness and ruined lives. And that’s certainly not banal.