Among modern architects, Chartres Cathedral, largely built in the first half of the 13th century, holds a special place. Philip Johnson famously said, “I would rather sleep in Chartres Cathedral, with the nearest toilet two blocks away, than in a Harvard house with back-to-back bathrooms.” (He first visited Chartres at age 13 with his mother, but the comparison came after he attended Harvard.) Much later, Johnson remarked, “I don't see how anybody can go into the nave of Chartres Cathedral and not burst into tears.” Frank Gehry agreed, saying in the 2005 documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry, “If you go into Chartres, it drops you to your knees.”
The cathedral is remarkable for its siting—rising like a mirage above the flat agricultural plains surrounding the town not far from Paris—and for its robust exoskeleton of flying buttresses, its striking facade of mismatched early- and late-Gothic towers, and its extraordinary collection of stone figures carved into the columns of the exterior. Its sublime interior, dark and cavernous, with jewel-like stained glass emerging from the gloom, has what Sir John Soane called the lumière mysterieuse, which he sought to emulate in his own architecture.