David Letellier
Berlin-based artist David Letellier pays homage to the age-old engineering trick with Caten, a kinetic sound installation in a 14th-century cathedral in Caen, France.
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updated 6/1/2012 4:34:58 PM ET 2012-06-01T20:34:58

Catenary (from the Latin catena, or chain) is the name given to the curve formed when you hang a piece of chain from two points. That’s exactly the process pre-modern builders used to determine the angle necessary for a cathedral’s arch to support its own weight. Even Gaudi used the chain method to form his iconic vaults, well into the 20th century, though generally we associate the process with Medieval architects.

Berlin-based artist David Letellier pays homage to the age-old engineering trick with Caten, a kinetic sound installation in a 14th-century cathedral in Caen, France. Caten, which closed last month, demonstrates the concept of the catenary arch with 300 wires hung from the mezzanine of the church’s nave. At each point, a motorized arm slowly lifts and lowers the inverted vault, mirroring the 500-year-old stone vaults above it.

There’s also an audio element to Caten. In pre-Medieval times, proper tuning was determined with a hymn called "Ut Queant Laxis" (listen here). The notes we know today — the "Do, Re, Mi, Fa"of the Von Trapp children — are determined by each verse of the hymn.

Letellier has rigged a rotating arm to emit a single note from "Ut Queant Laxis" at each interval. The low-frequency sounds resonate through the vaults, buzzing and reverberating like a Gregorian chant. The sounds "emphasize the transcendental character of a place once dedicated to faith,” explains Letellier on his website.

A similar catenary — without kinetic or aural elements — was installed by under the missing dome of a Rococo church in Belgium in 2010.

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