“Directly adjacent to the sacristy to which it was attached, stood a building of the same construction, that is to say, Gothic, and dating to the same time period. The chapter house, divided by a wall from the sacristy, was a large rectangular room around 25 long and 18 meters wide, divided into two vessels by a row of stone columns. It opened into the cloister through five pointed arches without doors as was typical for these rooms.”*
That chapter house, and the convent it was attached to, are now long gone, demolished at the turn of the 19th century. When Michael Davis first approached me about recreating the Couvent des Cordeliers in Paris, I imagined it would be a simple trick to turn drawings and accounts into a 3D model. In reality, the act of modeling forced an extremely close reading of the historical evidence, highlighting gaps and inconsistencies.
For the Digital Paris course, we decided to have the students focus their efforts on the chapter house as a manageable piece of the puzzle. Using SketchUp, we practiced extruding columns and arches from detailed cross sections, gaining a greater appreciation for the complex geometry of Gothic architecture along the way. Finally, students integrated the pieces into fully formed models.
While SketchUp is not the most robust 3D modeling tool in the world, it has a gentle learning curve and served to spark interest in more complex tools like AutoCAD and Rhino for several students. Thanks to the ease of use, we were able to focus on architectural geometries, context, and close reading of the evidence rather than struggling with the software.
*Description of the chapter house of the Franciscan convent from Laure Beaumont-Maillet, Le Grand Couvent des Cordeliers de Paris. Etude historique et archéologique du XIIIe siècle à nos jours (Paris: Librairie Honoré Champion, 1975), p 322. Dimensions from a 16th century account by Francesco-Scipio Gonzaga.