In 1786, behind a procession of chanting priests, began a parade of black-covered bone-laden horse-drawn wagons that continued for years.1 The transfer and exhumation of all Paris’ dead to the chosen underground sepulture outside the city gates took two years to complete.2 The plan was conceived and carried out as a solution to overcrowded mass cemeteries in the city of Paris, which were contaminating the well-drawn water supply of the city. Using underground tunnels of abandoned stone mines, priests and city officials transferred and arranged the bones of six million people into what would become a visit able sepulture that can still be visited today.
While in Paris several years ago, I was lucky enough to find my way to the catacombs. Upon moving into an entry pavilion (where the city gate once existed) one quickly proceeds down a nineteen-meter spiral stair into what, through temperature change, and change in scale and scenery, amounts to a different world. The arched tunnels of carved rock serve as structure while the miles of neatly stacked bones constitute the rest of the physical and visual space surrounding small paths occasionally opening up to chambers. There is a beauty, rhythm and sacredness in the simplicity of the space.
The catacombs are a powerful space offering an experience that is unlike many others. The provocation of this blog’s Material Strategies class encouraged me to consider the material properties of the space. Interestingly, the necessary or intended objects of this space (the catacombs) are the only objects, which results in them acting as both spatial drivers and as the material make-up of the catacombs. In the case of the catacombs, this was an intentional move that was pragmatic, respectful, and reverent. This got me thinking about how necessary programmatic elements in architecture that are not anticipated can change the look, feel, or experience of a space. Immediately, my thoughts were filled with stories of people living in modernist homes and switching the furniture only to have the architect come back for a photo-shoot and attempt to reinstate the original furniture. In those cases, the architect had considered an essential component of the living space (the furniture) in their design but they were unable to anticipate certain factors of the owners’ comfort and the house’s livability.
There are certainly a plethora of other situations with a related storyline but it was the unique and strangely foreign material of human bones that expanded my thinking on the impact and definition of materiality this week.