An interior of unprecedented structural intrigue, and a unique story of turn-of-the-century architectural ingenuity. 

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Paris regarded itself as the world capital for technology and innovation. Industrialization was moving ahead at full speed, and the city experienced a massive influx of workers to fill the new factories. The 14th arrondissement, near the city’s southern periphery, felt the impact of this new immigration quite acutely, and soon planning began for a new church to accommodate these new workers and their families.

Construction on the new church began in 1896, and Father Soulange-Bodin was appointed the parish priest. As a nod to the working-class parishioners, the church was dedicated to Our Lady of Labor.

The architect of this new church, Jules Astruc, was given an unusual design challenge. It was determined that this church should endeavor to make these new factory workers “feel at home.” Workers during this phase of industrialization saw little of their real homes; excruciating work schedules ensured that they spent the majority of their waking hours in the factory. Accordingly, the church was constructed using the tectonic language of industrial architecture.

In plan and section, the church continued to adhere tightly to Catholic convention, with a nave flanked by two aisles  and capped with a Romanesque facade. It’s structure and surfaces, however, were rendered in the delicate engineered filigree of turn-of-the-century ironwork.

This was an era in which Paris was frequently flexing its colonial muscles through its numerous Expositions Universelles, and the city was producing temporary architecture at a scale and speed never before seen. These exposition palaces elevated the architectural language of the factory to the cultural sphere. Remarkably, Notre-Dame-du-Travail was not only constructed using the industrial language of these exposition palaces, it reuses the actual material of these temporary event structures. Shoehorned into the relatively petite volume of this traditional Catholic parish church, this productive misuse of the industrial kit-of-parts sparks a poignant dialog between the iconography of dogmatic convention and the iconography of modernity.

– Ash Thomas