Fate leads him who follows it, and drags him who resists. ~ Plutarch
In 2010, when my awareness of 3D laser scanning first arose, a PBS NOVA program, “Building the Great Cathedrals“, was premiered.
Resting center stage, amid a massive French cathedral stood a standard-issue survey tripod, topped with a laser scanner the size of a large lunch box. I had heard about this innovative technology, but had never seen it demonstrated before. Dwarfed by soaring vaults, challenged by glowing stained glass windows and complex shadows, the scanner twitched and turned with confidence, invisibly painting the stone structure with millions of points of light. Within minutes, it captured a building that took over a century to construct, one stone at a time. The scanner’s task was to precisely indicate where gravity and time endangered the cathedral’s very existence. Engineering principles that guided master builders of the gothic era were developed through trial and error, and not all buildings survived the experiment. Today, we see the finest surviving examples of the period, but also those with inherent design flaws that contribute to their self-destruction. 3d scanners literally shed light on these structural flaws, providing better imaging for the remediations yet to arrive.
Another segment of the NOVA program included the rebuilding of a modest late 12th century Cistercian ‘chapter house’, brought to Northern California from Spain in the 1930s by publishing magnate, William Randolph Hearst. Hearst’s rebuilding project was halted by the Great Depression, and the 800 year old stone puzzle pieces languished in SF Golden Gate Park for another 75 years or so. Eventually, most of the stones found a new home at the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, California. NOVA used the rebuilding project as an opportunity to demonstrate how stone vaults were ideally constructed. It was a splendid foil to Europe’s grandames, scanned earlier in the program. The reconstructed chapter house will be one of the three oldest European buildings in North America, the oldest west of the Rocky Mountains. (links below)
A few years later, scanner in hand, I approached Father Paul Mark Schwan, Abbot of the New Clairvaux Monastery (links below), with a proposal to scan the newly rebuilt chapter house. It was the perfect time to scan what will become the centerpiece of the monastery’s new church complex, before the doors and glazing were firmly in place. Just minutes before the cold January rain came down, I was able to capture the exterior and move indoors. The interior scanning was finished before it became too dark to continue without artificial lighting. A combination of fate, luck, and PBS brought me to Vina. It’s my hope that the scan data will be useful to others for the completion the church, and to enlighten the curious who might stumble upon it. Oakland’s CyArk will eventually archive the data in partnership with the Abbey and myself.
I’m frequently asked why I’ve been scanning so many churches over the past few years? The answer is pretty simple: Churches and theaters spend much of their time in silent splendor, so they’re easier to deal with than inhabited buildings, where people interfere with the process. Scanning takes time – something people often lack patience for. Likewise, open plans are ideal for scanning -if you can’t see it yourself, the scanner won’t either. Other building forms are divided into, smaller utilitarian spaces, mostly reserved for stuff.
Large, early churches were based on Roman architectural forms; court houses, (basilica), bath houses (thermae), and palaces (palatium), because they were large enough to hold a crowd, and were important places. A cathedral (Latin. cathedra, “seat” from the Greek kathedra (καθέδρα), seat, bench) was the place where the important person sat, as in ‘throne’. Everyone else was left standing or sat on the hard floor. Our term ‘chairman’ is a relic from this past. Today’s churches, temples and shrines, may adapt to the needs of the culture, or suffer from neglect and destruction, just as in the past. Our aging movie ‘palaces’ may become performance centers or sadly cut-up into indoor shopping malls. One of Rome’s largest, ancient public baths: Thermae Diocletian, has housed a museum, a basilica, a church, a movie theater, libraries, and even a pizzeria. Wonderful buildings often have many reincarnations, before they are eventually returned to the earth.
The term basilica, when applied to a church, may be used in two ways. In architectural parlance, it signifies a building that has similarities to the basilica structures of Ancient Rome, being of longitudinal rather than central plan, having a central nave with an aisle on either side separated by a colonnade, and an apse at one end.
Early church architecture did not draw its form from Roman temples, as the latter did not have large internal spaces where worshipping congregations could meet. It was the Roman basilica, used for meetings, markets and courts of law that provided a model for the large Christian church and that gave its name to the Christian basilica. Both Roman basilicas and Roman bath houses had at their core a large vaulted building with a high roof, braced on either side by a series of lower chambers or a wide arcaded passage. An important feature of the Roman basilica was that at either end it had a projecting exedra, or apse, a semicircular space roofed with a half-dome. This was where the magistrates sat to hold court. It passed into the church architecture of the Roman world and was adapted in different ways as a feature of cathedral architecture.
The earliest large churches, such as the Cathedral of San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome, consisted of a single-ended basilica with one aspidal end and a courtyard, or atrium, at the other end. As Christian liturgy developed, processions became part of the proceedings. The processional door was that which led from the furthest end of the building, while the door most used by the public might be that central to one side of the building, as in a basilica of law. This is the case in many cathedrals and churches.