The Unified Plan of Reims Cathedral

Rebecca SMITH
(University of Iowa, Iowa City, USA)

Keywords: Gothic geometry, laser mapping, Reims

Reims Cathedral ranks as one of the most important churches in Europe in terms of history and art history, but controversy continues to swirl around the history of its design, with many scholars attempting to sort out the roles played by the four architects memorialized in its famed labyrinth. In an effort to better understand Reims, Robert Bork and I undertook a new survey using a handheld laser that allowed us to produce a modern, comprehensive plan of the cathedral. Using the Vectorworks CAD system, we then explored the underlying geometry governing its design.  On this basis we have concluded that the plan of the whole cathedral was already established by its first architect.
The development of this new plan of Reims Cathedral was made possible by our using the LEICA S910 laser. The S910, while being compact and affordable, allowed us to collect data from the extremes of the cathedral and get high precision measurements on areas inaccessible to hand tools. It is especially useful for geometric studies because it allows for a selection of data points across long distances.  This enabled us to add the exterior and nave zones to Nancy Wu’s foundational geometry study, which was limited to the Reims chevet interior. As a result, we can distinguish between and explain two kinds of anomalies in the cathedral plan: on the one hand, buttress rotations and chapel displacements that appear to have resulted from errors in layout of the building; and on the other hand, peculiarities such as the different bay lengths in the choir and nave that can be shown to result naturally from an elegantly unified geometrical scheme. Our paper thus offers a new lens through which Reims Cathedral might be studied by utilizing cutting-edge tools to augment traditional methods for studying medieval structures.

Relevance conference / Relevance session:
This project uses an interdisciplinary point of view combining archeology, architectural history, and geometry using a new laser measuring device in conjunction with traditional measuring methods.

It marks one of the first scholarly combinations of laser scanning and Vectorworks to determine a building’s plan using a brand new hand-held laser.


  1. Bork, Robert. “Changing Geometries in the North Transept of Reims Cathedral.” In The North Transept of Reims Cathedral: Design, Construction, and Visual Programs, edited by Jennifer Feltman. 65-84. Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2016.
  2. Villes, Alain. La Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims: chronologie et campagnes de travaux… Joue les Tours: La simarre Editions, 2009.