Sunday, February 4, 2024

Gebs, Chiselled Gypsum Plaster


Bou Inania Madrasa, Fes
The word "Gebs" (الجبس) literally means "gypsum" in Arabic. The carving of gypsum plaster as a means of decoration came to be refined and proliferate as an art form during the Late Middle Ages. It is associated almost exclusively with the Moors, specifically the Islamic culture of the North African Maghreb as well as the Iberian Peninsula that included modern day Spain and Portugal. It is generally agreed that the highest expression of the art is to be found at the 14th century Nasrid palace of the Alhambra at Granada; the patterns and craftsmanship there remain an infinite source of inspiration. Nevertheless, Gebs very much continues as a living tradition practised at a high level of craftsmanship both in restoration and for new commissions in contemporary Morocco, North Africa, and the Gulf. 

The subject matter of Gebs follows that of Islamic decoration generally. The most widespread application is for geometric designs that are likewise found in "zellige", the coloured tile decoration. Arabic calligraphy is also a common application of chiselled gypsum plaster, either to express passages from the Qur'an or Arabic poetry. However, in comparison to wood or stone, gypsum plaster is so well adapted to be carved in organic, curvilinear forms that vegetal decoration of highly stylised scrolling vines, leaves and flowers are an almost distinguishing feature of this medium.

Gebs in action
A few years ago, I had opportunity to meet and observe artisans working at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain and then later in Morocco. This year I've been receiving more formal training, personal hands-on carving as an apprentice under the Mâalem (معلم) master carver, Bahijj Abderrazak in Fes, Morocco. With this all still fresh in mind, I'd like to share some of the practical means and methods and underlying design principles of the Gebs tradition.



Mise en Œuvre

Today, as Gebs is mostly used in interiors the widely available Plaster of Paris, low fired gypsum plaster is used. However, for much of the historic work exposed to the exterior an impure gypsum was fired at higher temperatures resulting in a slower initial set but contributing greater density and resistance to efflorescence and weathering. At a minimum the plaster should be applied to a thickness of 3/4"; however, the best work will be carved deeply and may require a plaster application of up to two inches thick. Gypsum plasters have an initial set anywhere from mere minutes to a few hours. Typically, the plaster application is carried out a day before the design is transferred and the carving begins. The plaster will take a week or two depending on ambient humidity to dry fully. During this time, it is highly workable and the working time can be extended if necessary by continuing to saturate the plaster each day. The initial set renders the surface hard enough to carve while the moisture content within keeps it workable and prevents it from becoming too brittle and prone to fracture.

Designs are worked out ahead of time using compass and rule on paper. The designs are then transferred by inscribing lightly into the surface of the plaster with a set of dividers, "dabd" (دابد). Often a template is prepared to more readily convey at least some of the basic information; however, it only serves as a loose guide, most of the decisions have to be made by the artisan in the moment of carving. Similar to stone carving, a line is established from which you excavate towards, not from the line. However, the plaster chisels are hand held; there is no hammer. And unlike wood, the plaster is completely homogeneous and consistent so there is no grain to consider. As a result, there is markedly more control and nuance that can be achieved in carving plaster than these other materials. Another advantage is that if minor mistakes are made, gypsum plaster is a material that can be "pointed", that is to say touched up readily. A little careful sanding here and there after the plaster has fully dried can also remove textural imperfections. Customarily, a couple of coats of a clay wash are applied to antique the surface without sealing it.

The chisels, nqash (نقاش), needed are simple but specific. They are thin, relatively long and come in various widths of high carbon forged steel. It is critically important that the heads are rectangular and that the shafts do not taper. The chisels can be used alternatively to gouge, cut like a knife, or smooth like a small spatula. Although work can be done as panels in a studio for affixing on site, the best and most enduring work is done in-situ.

Essentially Gebs is bas-relief work using gypsum plaster as a medium. Thus, many of these principles are generally applicable to relief work whereas a few are very specific or characteristic of Gebs. Contrast is obviously a basic principle shared across many mediums: large/small motifs, straight/curved elements, smooth/textured surfaces. Closely related to this is depth; shallow chiselled surface will read lighter whereas deeply carved surfaces will result in dramatic shadow. This interplay of light and shadow is critical to reading the design. 

The Nasrid Palace, La Alhambra
Most Islamic patterns are based on four-fold or six-fold geometry; both the square and regular hexagon can interlock with themselves to completely fill a plane. This property can be used to play with the many possible internal symmetries by utilising subtle adjustments of contrast and colour. Particularly for abstract geometric designs the grid or frame is given more attention than the safts (petals) or stars that it encloses. In the best work this frame is given the impression of interlace, that of a woven tapestry. Interlace is expressed again, albeit differently in vegetal designs; the tendrils of vines will weave in and out of themselves or other elements. Finally, in the best and often oldest work we see the masterful use of polychromy, bright painted colours and gold leaf.  

Almost 20 years ago, I first came to Marrakech to study another Moroccan plaster tradition, Tadelakt. I was completely seduced and overwhelmed by the Gebs designs I saw at that time, never imagining that I would have opportunity to learn this craft. However, since that time I’ve completed an apprenticeship in stone carving and spent many years studying Islamic design that have prepared me for this moment. Presently, we’re in discussions with artisans in Granada, Spain and Fes, Morocco about conducting workshops and diffusing this incredible art further afield.


Contributed by Patrick Webb

Saturday, December 30, 2023

Monumental Mistakes


Courtesy of Monumental Labs

“But man, proud man, Dress'd in a little brief authority, Most ignorant of what he's most assur'd— His glassy essence—like an angry ape Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven As makes the angels weep.” - William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

This is a rebuttal from an artisan, apprenticed for three years as a traditional stone carver, earning his bread as a heritage and ornamental plasterer, to the recent podcast: The Aesthetic City Podcast #38 – Micah Springut, Monumental Labs: Disrupting How We Build – Robotic, A.I. & Automated Stone Carving

When someone tells you publicly exactly who they are …believe them. Tech entrepreneur Micah Springut is forthcoming as well as his interviewer (and my own recently), Ruben Hanssen who enthusiastically lets it be known to all who will listen where his own sympathies lie. Spoiler alert, it’s not with craftsmen like me. Yes, I’m picking a fight; one I don’t expect to win. My argument will be sound; however, the fight does not lie in the realm of reason nor is it even against human beings. The aforementioned gentlemen are not my real adversaries, merely their fleshy mouthpieces. This essay is little more than a soon to be forgotten skirmish in the war for humanity against the machines. There’ll be no stopping them. Likewise, there’ll be no saving us.


Monumental Labs

So, what’s all the fuss about? Who’s Monumental Labs? Well, the short answer is that they’re not anyone special really. Just one of thousands of public and privately bankrolled startups that are working hard to deconstruct and reassemble every possibly human productive activity into something that can be done robotically under the direction of artificial intelligence. Because the work they’re targeting overlaps my own and because their CEO happened to be interviewed within a few months by the same podcaster as myself, they are the occasion of my critique of the unfolding A.I. catastrophe; however, they are not the cause of it. I’ve been thinking about and increasingly facing these issues for some time.

Now to be fair, below and unabridged is who they say they are on their own home page as of 28/12/23:

“Monumental Labs is building AI-enabled robotic stone carving factories. With them, we'll create cities with the splendor of Florence, Paris, or Beaux-Arts New York, at a fraction of the cost.

Unleashing a Renaissance Monumental Labs is developing the infrastructure to build highly ornamented classical structures on a mass scale and to create extraordinary new architectural forms.

Courtesy of Monumental Labs

 Technology Meets Craft 

We're developing the next generation of stone carving robots. With sensors and AI, they'll complete commissions in hours that previously took months; and execute the finest details flawlessly.​ By imparting human craft to machines, and driving down the cost of 3D fabrication, we'll expand the creative possibilities of artists and architects everywhere.”

Well, it would appear this Renaissance won't be anything like the last one. First of all, it promises to be on the cheap. More importantly, craftsman are to have a limited role in it namely, "imparting themselves to the machine" so that artists and architects can finally be free to expand those creative possibilities. At least until the A.I. catches up to them on the design side. Oh yes, they discuss that too, walking a tightrope of soliciting them as clients whilst promising the algorithmic assist is just to help them along, free them of the drudgery of having to figure it all out on their own. For now.

Honestly, artificial intelligence is nothing new. We've been living under algorithmic codification for quite some time, centuries in fact, longer even than the industrial machines that have characterised mass production or the digital computers that now calculate, surveil, and register all human activity. What we're calling A.I. is just the latest wave of the same tsunami that is wreaking its ecological, cultural, and yes, even economic devastation. Though it's too late, for posterity's sake it's time to take stock of some of the fallacious promises and the faulty justifications that have specifically crushed the craftsman to make way for the machines and their pecuniary overlords.

Beware of the Man with the Measuring Tape

Handcraft costs too much. As it colours every other apology for technology, we might as well face head on the number one justification for replacing artisans with machines (and increasingly designers with A.I. software). This was the point driven home again and again in this particular podcast, a reflection of the general attitude towards human beings: We're just too expensive. But what exactly is being measured?

Does handcraft cost us socially?

Does handcraft cost us culturally?

Does handcraft cost us ecologically?

Does handcraft cost us our physical health and mental well being?

Of course, we know that handcraft doesn't cost, rather it contributes to all of those things yet the above considerations are deliberately bracketed out of any calculations, sacrificed upon the altar of a simplified, short-sighted view of economy. The only permissible definition of "cost" is the immediate expenditure of dollars, euros, or pounds.  Since the so-called Enlightenment, money in the context of short term return on investment has become the sole value everything must be reduced to and measured against. This is acutely the case with human beings who are viewed as an expense, as opposed to machinery and technology which is always presented as an investment. In short, we're stripping bare all the tangible pleasures life may offer for the sake of a hypothetical prosperity. After three centuries on, how exactly has such an utilitarian worldview been working out for us?


We Need Machines, Nobody Does that Anymore!

Admittedly, "nobody" might just be a turn of phrase, a bit of hyperbole. Sure, you can find the crafty odd duck who still piddles around. What is meant is that there aren't enough skilled craftsmen anymore to get anything done practically. There is some truth to the claim as there are far less skilled craftsmen now than in any other time in history; however, the implication is that this is the result of progress, thus both an inevitable, irreversible, and perhaps even desirable state of affairs. The mere thought of promoting handcraft for a Modern man is at best nostalgic, at worst dangerously retrogressive. So ceding the argument that there are not enough skilled craftsman today, at our unique moment in history, the questions become, "Why aren't there? Why can't we build the way we used to?"

Well, for starters we're not at all the same type of people as previous generations because we don't think anything like them. And there's a reason for that. It all starts with education. Formerly, traditional craft education was given by family members, neighbours in the village community, or through a guild system in larger market towns. The key was that children learned practical skills, to work with their hands and care for themselves from an early age. This began to change by the mid-19th century when public education became compulsory, State-oriented, and institutionalised. From the very beginning, public education derided efficacy, the ability to do or make, in favour of a generic, universal literacy and numeracy that served the bureaucratic needs of the State and the technical needs of mass Industry respectively, ignoring where children's interests or capabilities lay. The fact that it made a whole new generation passive and dependent on centralised authority was surely seen as an additional benefit.

Fast forward 200 years and craft has been all but eliminated from public school curricula. In most countries today, apprenticeship, the employ of minors in a traditional craft at the optimal age of their development, is illegal. Everything taught in public school is mere preparation for 4 to 7+ years of further University education. Any other path is derided as unintelligent and socially inferior. The State isn't going to fund it, neither is Industry. Working with ones hands is looked at as demeaning, stupid, and a clear indicator of low social status with a hard life ahead of you. Nothing in the mandated public education has prepared you for it. The average young adult pursuing a career in craft after graduation is starting at least a decade behind with his or her prospects for finding a master to teach them being nearly as dismal as finding a marital partner that would attach themselves to someone generally viewed by society as a loser. 

No, we don't "need" machines because we lack people. There are more people on planet Earth than ever before, many of them unemployed, underemployed, or stupidly employed. The perceived need is psychological, or better stated sociological, intimately tied to an unwillingness to abandon a very narrowly defined progress, a technological progress that supports as much as it controls our mass society.

A.I. and Robots, These Are Just Tools

No different than a compass and rule or hammer and chisel, eh? So goes the argument anyway, that really all these things fit in the same super simple category, just objects that are an extension of man's power. New tools beat old tools. More power, more better. 

Personally, I can do almost anything there is to be done in traditional design with a compass and rule and make it come to life with a couple of hammers and a few chisels. I can and do take these tools with me wherever I go. They don't cost much by any measure that one cares to define the word. For me hand tools represent complete liberty even if at the same time they won't do the work for me, rather they obligate me to discipline myself, to master my means, methods, and materials.

But with A.I. and Robots who is the master and who is the tool? They require massive capital investment, standarisation of processes and systems, all of which are from the start are legally protected as proprietary intellectual property. They eliminate craftsmen and make artists and architects completely passive and dependent on unsustainable technologies that are essentially a black box to them. Human creativity is essentially reduced to the restricted capabilities, the limitations of the machine. If one has never painfully earned, patiently developed their own creativity then such a crutch might be counted as a great advance. However, for an artist, a poet, or anyone who wishes to be honest about his work such a Faustian bargain is an abominable degradation of their humanity.

Stone is Sustainable, Great for the Ecology!

Well yes, it should be. After all we live on a dirty giant rock covered with a bit of flora and fauna so building out of stone, plaster, and wood is potentially as sustainable as it gets. However, there are devils in those details. To convert rock in the earth to stone on a building requires a few basic things: a design, extraction, transportation, fabrication, and installation. How does the sustainability of doing this in a traditional manner compare to the ecological impact of the cutting edge technologies?

We've already somewhat contrasted the simple design and fabrication tools of traditional craft with the robots, computers, A.I., factories necessary for industry. It's not much of a comparison. A craftsman's tools have practically no environmental impact and can last a lifetime if not several. Craftsmen, like all of us, are biologically animals. All the energy we really need to work is about 4 to 5 thousands calories a day. We just need to be fed. Of course, computers and robots don't consume calories, they need fuel and lots of it. Micah repeatedly describes an "ecosystem" of machines as if they were alive. They are not. Rather, they are made of highly refined minerals, energy hogs, polluters, antithetical to life. Why must every harmless human activity be filtered thru a machine only to be transfigured into a destructive pestilence?

Stone is heavy. It takes a lot to move it. That's why stone until recently was overwhelmingly used only where it was available locally or perhaps down river. It accounts for so much of the beautiful variety of materials and the accompanying means and methods adapted to work them. However, the stated goal of Monumental Labs is to move production to a single quarry with a consistent stone, the one that of course is possible for the machines to carve, a "gigafactory" of stone, a central hub from which everything can be trucked out that captures the market of an entire continent. The promise is that the efficiencies gained will enable them to soon drive down costs perhaps as much as 80%. Maybe, maybe not. Nevertheless, it's always wise to keep in mind that investor driven, highly capitalised industry always operates in a way to maximise profits. This is not a guild, it's not personal, it's just business.

More could be said. One could respond to the delusional claim that these technologies will "usher in a Renaissance", populating beauty everywhere, unleashing human creativity, leaving more time for the artisan to work on the fanciest things the machines haven't yet mastered. We've heard this all before, since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Mechanical saws, shapers, grinders, CNC machines, lasers, water-jets, etc. have succeeded each other in their dismal mechanical march for almost two centuries. Has this led to more beauty, cultivated a more skilled artisan who has all the time in the world to focus on the fancy stuff without having to be weighed down with the drudgery of learning the fundamentals?

Quite the opposite. Mass industry has led us into social crisis, cultural decline, impending environmental collapse. The rote response it that there is no turning back; the only possible solution for the blunders of technology is further commitment and investment in yet higher technology. As for me personally, I come from an Arts & Crafts pedigree whose leading ethical tenet is, "Do no harm". I humbly confess my limitations; I'm very small, the momentum sweeping the world along its destructive course is great. Should this essay survive for posterity, my greatest hope is that it will stand as a testament that my generation was fully conscious of what they were doing, selling your future for our present, squandering resources in a short amount of years that could have served you and your descendants for millennia, exploiting and polluting to the point that we've left you a wasteland that we received as a veritable paradise...a Monument to Madness.

Contributed by Patrick Webb


Friday, October 13, 2023

The Technological Society and Its Presence

Tower of Babel - Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Technology is the great revolving door of Hope.

It could be argued that the characteristic of man that most distinguishes him from the rest of the animal kingdom is his capacity for technique, to build up a corpus of know-how and to put it to work. Where there exists the earliest evidence of human society there is likewise to be found artefacts of tools and of things made by tools, of technique. That techniques of agriculture, husbandry, textiles, pottery, medicine, and architecture have served to mitigate the vicissitudes of Nature, to carve out a more stable existence in which families and communities could prosper is undeniable.

In this context human progress can be thought of as the development of technique, the means to extend one’s power, to create more stability, more security for oneself. Yet, after several millennia of technical progress can we say that humanity is more stable or secure? At what point does the effort to create stability overreach, paradoxically degenerating into an accelerating loss of control? When does the servant that is technique transform itself into the master that is technology, the progressive liberator mutate into the coercive oppressor, the hope of man’s salvation descend into the imminent threat of our very extinction?


Civilisation as Tipping Point

Though man can expand his power by wielding technique, he also can easily have his agency stripped when technique is applied to him. This is the origin and essential function of civilization: the pacification and instrumental use of the individual by means of technique. Whereas in a primitive society Nature is a means for the ends of man, in a civilised society man is transformed into a means for the ends of the city. This is by and large an involuntary process. The city is established through militant conquest and economic coercion, based on recognition of and submission to authority. Furthermore, the city is maintained through the rule of law, a code of conduct whose purpose is to control human behaviour.

What civilization offers in exchange for the surrender of psychological independence and material autonomy is the promise of security. To be a citizen is to be passive and dependent on a system that assures basic physical needs will be accessible with minimal effort. Personally, the individual citizen is helpless to secure those needs for himself. Only by identifying with and supporting the collective goals of the city can the citizen exercise power, if only vicariously. So primitive man who lives authentically, literally “doing for himself”, is objectified by automation, a “self-thinking” system of imposed order as codified in law and statute. 

Mass Psychosis

To form a truly mass society requires an expansion of technique from mere physical coercion to complete psychological domination. Curbing the individual’s will to exercise his power is critical and can be described as the three “keys” of redirection, suppression, and elimination. Redirection is a way of reorienting pursuits and goals from that of the individual, family, or tribe towards that of the collective where one can identify with its striving and accomplishments.

A secondary form of redirection is providing access to proxy activities, non-vital interests that allow the pursuit of and achievement of artificial goals with some degree of independence. In both cases the principal resource for redirecting the masses is socialisation through public education. Thirteen to twenty or more years of public education is likewise an effective tool of instilling mass altruism, to pressure the individual to place the goals and interests of society, the “greater good”, above their own or that of their family.

These mechanisms largely succeed in compelling most individuals to heavily regulate their own desires and resulting behaviours but not without deleterious consequences. Just because material deprivation produces misery, it does not follow that abundance engenders happiness. Human contentment is primarily psychological. Therefore, when the individual will to exercise his power is obstructed, a plethora of mental pathologies begin to manifest including anxiety, depression, self-loathing, resentment, fetishes, etc. Those so afflicted, children included, are viewed as victims of a disease category to which a corresponding pharmaceutical remedy, with or without psychological therapy, is typically provided to suppress the will. When our tolerance for such coercion is exceeded, the cohesion of mass society is imperiled. Technology plays a vital role in expanding the individual’s tolerance for coercion thereby inviting technology’s continual augmentation.

Even so, there are those for which redirection and suppression are insufficient tools for curbing their will. They simply will not or cannot fully socialise. There are many techniques for eliminating such nonconformity from a mass society. Almost every function of individual human life is now subject to automation: food, clothes, shelter, medicine, education, governance, transportation to name a few whereas bureaucratic and legal codification make behaviours disruptive to these systems illegal. Mass societies have established very sophisticated institutions of judgement and incarceration to remove nonconformity from daily civilised life. Advanced techniques in genetic modification hold the promise of eliminating such tendencies in utero.

Our Plutonian World

It is not just man’s psychological state that is severely destabilised by mass society. Technology has likewise proven to be an unfolding ecological disaster, the greatest existential threat to life on earth. Our technology has far outpaced our common sense. Modern man has employed vastly improved means to a increasingly dead end. Such applied science is immensely powerful. However, humans have proven themselves just as incapable of wielding it as they are capable of generating such power. So, although science is not an inherent evil, in a technological society it inevitably becomes an inescapable, manifest evil. Humanity’s former threats were natural. Although technology partially or temporarily mitigates these, in exchange it inundates us with pollution, radiation, and environmental devastation that are both imposed and inescapable.

So it is that the sum total of man’s collective energies is now directed towards extracting all the wealth of the earth, buried deep underground, with great suffering raising it to the surface so as to reform his existence as a Hell on Earth. In the frenzy, individuality is thereby destroyed, supplanted by two antagonistic groups: those who seek to hoard and conserve against those determined to consume with reckless abandon. This is nothing other than the fourth circle of Hell as described by Dante.

The hoarders and wasters - Gustave Doré

Revolution, Reformation, Reification

Our bureaucratic, industrial, technological society is irreformable. I would go a step further by claiming that it is now impossible for us to revolt against it. Our servile relation to the State, the multinational corporation, to artificial intelligence is sublime, one of reverential awe before unspeakable power. Under the encroaching shadow of total technological domination, man is awestruck, hoping for mercy whilst prostrating himself before technological progress in an act of fealty and faith.

Furthermore, revolutions are founded upon the burning passions of hope and hatred whereas reformations are cobbled together with their pathetic shadows of resignation and apathy. A reform movement will update certain codes or replace certain men in power whilst a revolutionary one seeks to overthrow the system of power itself. Reform dominates as almost all men desire to maintain power. There has never been a successful revolution against civilisation, only a series of reformations that have augmented it into the global technological society that now exists.

So, a defensive posture is assumed with regards to our technological society, for what remedy can there possibly be for the blunders of technology but further investments in technology? It engenders an unfounded optimism where humanity willingly chooses to maintain hope, faith, and belief in the very systems one should mistrust, challenge, and resist.

Humanity thus appears trapped, shackled to the Technology Society and its enduring Presence, presence being an experience of time that is neither wholly present nor future, rather the idea that the present reality will extend in time, things will not really change but instead reify, become even more of the same, intractable, unchangeable, eternal. A claustrophobia in time rather than space.


The Technological Society and Its Absence

Lethe - the river of forgetfulness
Our technological society is a work of endarkening.

Only by obscuring the past can you possibly imagine that you are heading into a bright future. We exist in this society that aches and strives to forget; such periods are always later looked upon as Dark Ages. What we loosely call Western culture, what is now in fact a global technological society, is no culture at all. It is a monstrous, mechanical thing, tied to no place, antithetical to life.

For primitive man, reason and rationality are just tools in service to a higher purpose. For the enlightened man, the industrial man, the technological man reason is his Alpha and rationality his Omega. They constitute the limits of his world. Yet, it is impossible to fully construct ourselves in the image that our reason posits we should be. Totalitarianism fails internally let alone from the outside. The self rebels as we are primarily willful creatures so that any attempt to construct a wholly rational society inevitably disintegrates into chaos. Cities, nations, corporations, they are all an affront to the natural order; we’re incapable of making them sustainable.

Mankind has become demented, in the literal sense that in his fixation on reason and technology he’s forgetting everything of real importance. The alternative is by no means an eutopia; nevertheless, it may be just possible for mankind to heal, to fill the gaping void that will be left by the technological society’s inevitable absence. An opportunity to quiet the intellect and listen attentively to the soul, to the will…to remember.


Contributed by Patrick Webb


Tuesday, May 23, 2023

The Matter of Gothic

Winchester Cathedral
This essay intends to complete a tripartite overview of the underlying principles of Gothic architecture. The first, The Spirit of Gothic, contemplated various aspects of its beauty and sublimity, the animating principle that draws us in and leaves us in awe. This was followed by The Form of Gothic, exploring the organising principle that makes the Gothic so uniquely identifiable. However, what remains to articulate is the generating principle, a consideration of the material, the very stuff the Gothic is made of. First and foremost, Gothic is an architecture of self-supporting masonry, typically stone. Nevertheless, other materials such as timber, metal, and glass have their secondary application. As construction and articulation ought to vary with the material employed we'll explore how all of these take the best advantage of their respective physical properties in turn.


Freiburg Minster
Gothic is above all an architecture conceived and articulated in stone, taking full advantage of its properties, most notably its incredible compressive strength, density and weight. In elevation, buttressed walls with large openings are in fact stronger than solid ones and the buttresses diminish in projection corresponding to their height. Flying buttresses are the greatest visual example of this, revealing in their construction the lines of force, as the gravitational thrust of the roof is directed through the masonry to the foundations and earth below.

Amiens Cathedral
In the interior of the monumental great cathedrals, further support for the ceiling is provided from clustered piers which are composed of multiple colonnettes rather than an colossal column so as to maintain an human proportion with the increase of scale. Ribs spring from the caps of the colonnettes as well as the corbels integrated into the buttressed walls, meeting at a boss acting as a keystone at the centres of the pointed groin vaulting. The spandrels between the ribs can be made of a thin layer of stone to complete the ceiling as they support no structural load. A combination of all of these methods permit the walls to be pushed higher even while being opened up.

Spires and pinnacles are similarly composed at different scales. The tower and turret respectively are square in plan and each is covered with a pyramid structure to shelter it from the elements. Spires serve a religious function, towers for the ringing of bells whereas the more diminutive pinnacles add critical weight to further stabalise the buttresses precisely where it is required.

Burgos Cathedral


Notre Dame de Paris

As one might expect, carpentry played a major role even in the predominantly masonry construction of Gothic architecture. Aside from the supportive role of such equipment as scaffolding, workbenches, and various tools an indispensable use of timber framing was to build the centering for arches and vaults, acting as temporary supports until the masonry was completed. A permanent application of timber framing is the hidden thought highly complex structural support for the roof that protects the vulnerable stone ceilings from the elements. 

Not all Gothic carpentry work is temporary or hidden from view. Elements such as doors, pulpits, and screens are typically made of wood. In domestic architecture the use of highly ornamental barge boards are used to protect the gable ends of buildings from water intrusion whereas in small churches, collegiate, and civic architecture it is more common to encounter splendid timber ceilings that look entirely differently than stone owing to the high tensile strength of wood as a material.

St Agnes Church, Cawston

Metal and Glass

Aside from the masons and timber framers, perhaps the next most important craft of Gothic architecture is plumbing, referring to the craftsmen who work with plumbum, or lead. Lead was used extensively as a means of protection from water intrusion including gutters and downspouts, flashing, and especially the incredibly durable lead roofs, some of which have lasted for centuries with minimal maintenance. 

Ely Cathedral

Wrought iron is another metal that finds extensive uses for hinges and other types of door and window hardware. It likewise features prominently in screens and stairs, the combination of strength and malleability of iron as a material allowing almost unrestricted ornamental expression.

"Love" by Philip Webb
Of course Gothic architecture is intimately associated with the light that its construction permitted to penetrate the building. Gothic windows, with their thousands of panes be they clear, stained, or coloured is a signature feature of the style. I'll leave you with an humble example, one of my favourites from a little Red House in Bexleyheath.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Thursday, May 18, 2023

The Classical versus the Gothic

L’église Saint-Eustache, Paris
The typical narrative regarding the origins of Gothic architecture is that it was an evolution of the Romanesque, itself a debased form of Roman Classicism. There is undoubtedly a measure of truth to this description as we can readily verify that much detailed Classical architectural understanding was lost during the Early Mediæval period whilst a measure of knowledge of means and methods did indeed pass through the Romanesque into the Gothic era. That being admitted, what is often overlooked or at least not fully accredited is the incredible architectural innovation of the Gothic period.

Despite a few interesting attempts to merge them towards the end of the period, Gothic architecture was decidedly not a derivative variant of the Classical at all as it was founded on entirely unique principles that the following quick comparison will well illustrate.

Adaptation vs. Innovation

The monumental Classical* as we've come to best know it proceeds from the Renaissance essentially having adapted two forms: the Roman basilica and the Roman temple, the respective seats of temporal and eternal power (although such civic architecture as theatres, colossae, triumphal arches, etc. have contributed their minor influences). Initially, it was the basilica form that was Christianised in the Constantinian, late Roman Empire period for the seats of the bisphoric, in many cases constructing new prominent churches whose bishop physically occupied the tribunal-converted-to-altar, wielding much of the temporal power formerly pertaining to the magistrates, a secular architecture consisting of a large rectangular nave and side aisles adapted to religious, Christian use.

By far the most adapted Roman form during and subsequent to the Renaissance was the Roman temple. A few notable temples were refashioned and dedicated to Christian use already in antiquity. However, Christian religious service differed considerably from that of the pagan Romans whose interiors were reserved for the exclusive use of the priests. Interiors were comparatively small and devoid of light, thus being of ill use for a congregation and Christian services. Nevertheless, by modifying a basilica plan with a temple façade this modified Roman temple/basilica hybrid became the dominant building type for ecclesiastical, civic, university, and eventually commercial architecture.

La Maison Carrée, Nimes

By contrast, the Gothic was not an adapted architecture of Roman types. Many parish churches and especially cathedrals were almost exclusively laid out according to a cruciform plan. Likewise, the chapels, ambulatories, and choirs typical of these houses of worship were bespoke, the function of these spaces integral to the floor plan from which the walls and roof would unfold so that the elevations were adapted to the function of the cathedral, not the other way around as was typical of Neoclassical architecture. The same general principle permeated the design of collegiate, civic, and the manor houses of the Gothic period. 

Wood vs. Stone

Although lost to antiquity, the origin of Classical architecture is almost assuredly timber and earth. Due to the fugitive nature of the materials, none of the ancient buildings of the Greeks and Etruscans, (from which the Romans derived much of their own architecture), remain to us. What does remain are many of the later stone temples that emulate expressively the original joists, rafters and other construction components in stone. A common feature is the pseudoperipteral pilastres or engaged columns of many Neoclassical monumental buildings that serve no structural purpose whatsoever. This was a characteristic dating back to Roman architecture such as the 1st century La Maison Carrée pictured above. Romans did make efforts through the use of arches and vaults to take advantage of the inherent property of stone that it is very strong in compression.

However, Gothic buildings for the elevations originated as a construction that fully took advantage of the compressive strength of stone. The characteristic pointed and lancet arches are far more effective for distributing lateral forces to the ground and taking pressure off the supporting walls. Groin vaulting based on the same principles directed all gravitational force along the length of the ribs in compression through columns directly to the ground. Combined with a system of buttresses and pinnacles Gothic architecture was able to reach unfathomable elevations and open up the interior as the walls had only to support their own weight. Gothic represents the very nadir of monolithic stone masonry.

Cologne Cathedral

Horizontal vs. Vertical

L' église Saint-Gervais

The Parthenon is undoubtedly the example par excellence of Classical architecture. Despite the fact that its cella is surrounded with a forest of vertical Doric columns the comparatively low width to height ratio, the low pitched roof, and large entablature establish it to the eye as a predominantly horizontal architecture. This is characteristic of Classical architecture in general. There are only a couple of design moves that can be utilised to give it a more vertical character and they come with aesthetic consequences. The first of these is superposition, hierarchically stacking one order of architecture over another, typically from the Tuscan or Doric ascending to the Corinthian order. The difficulty is always the same, each order is terminated with an entablature, reasserting the horizontal appearance of the building even for façades that are overall very vertical in their orientation.

In the Gothic, even for rather low buildings such as dormitories for monasteries and abbeys the vertical character of the design is maintained, restricting the entablatures, string courses, and drip moulds to an appropriate size needed to protect the façade from erosion. Likewise the true sources of structural support such as the buttresses and pinnacles are enriched and celebrated rather than standardised or hidden.

Mosteiro Da Batalha

Magnification vs. Multiplication

St Mel's Cathedral, Longford
Alternative tools for Neoclassical monumental verticality are colossal orders of architecture and towers. Because the Classical orders strictly adhere to a fixed proportional relationship of the various elements, creating tall colonnades and porticoes is a simple matter of magnifying those elements. Towers for Neoclassical buildings always present a challenge. Either they are placed in front of the building or are placed further back, over the crossing.

Gothic structures on the other hand maintain the human scale for even very large and high piers by subdividing them with colonettes either in compound or clustered arrangement. These are placed so as to align with and receive the thrust of the ribs holding up the vaults. Gothic towers may be found either over the crossing or at one side or more often in pairs flanking the façade. Unless left uncompleted, Gothic towers are always intended to receive a spire.

There are many other differing details that could be elaborated upon such as the rather low pitch of Classical roofs compared to the typical steepness of Gothic roofs, the tendency for large constructive elements in monumental Classical structures in contrast to the composition of Gothic buildings from smaller ones, the proportionally smaller windows in Classical buildings in comparision to Gothic examples which are almost always splayed inside and out. The point is not to pit these incredible traditions against each other, rather to recognise that they have different origins and are perhaps best suited to certain climates and for their own purposes.

*I use the term 'Neoclassical' to architecture in the Classical styles including and proceeding from its revival in the Renaissance

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

The Longleaf Laureate of Loneliness

There are only two appropriate themes for poetry worthy of the name: tragedy and love. Of these two, tragedy is the more noble; however, its characteristic sense of loss can be overwhelming, so that an admixture of love can contribute a redemptive quality that grants tragedy the right to ascend from mere despair to something we may actually wish to recall, a dreamlike nostalgia, a bruise we must rub, extracting some small measure of pleasure from all our injury and hurt. 

Singer-songwriter Abigail Dowd is that kind of poet. When she sings of a beautiful day outside, she hasn't forgotten the shadows that remain within; the metaphorical imagery of reaching for the light and retreating to the darkness pervade her lyrics. Does one emerge to shine like a diamond, or retreat into the shadows to be left alone like a miner in the dark? No easy answers are forthcoming; it's left ambiguous as to which is preferable. 

In One Moment at a Time she initially comforts us that, "we are all one, together in this life" but it rings hollow, fails to convince as she continues on to describe a moment of complete existential crisis where there is a lack of place from the past, meaning in the present, and purpose for the future, where we are bound in and to time, leaving the listener with the impression that perhaps indeed, upon a good hard look, we are after all alone in this life.

Similarly Apple Trees offers an initial hope that love forms the greatest of bonds with the power to dispel the loneliness. Yet, its double edge is revealed as we're soon reminded that it likewise holds the risk of an even greater loss, that the warmth love provides can turn into a frigidity of solitude that can taint or even repaint the past, can make one question if that love was a mere illusion, a parlor trick of a desperate longing, that one was in fact alone all along.

Yet somehow there is a strong thread of redemption woven throughout her stories. That even in the depths of loneliness, the sympathy expressed in poetic verse recommends to us that perhaps we are not entirely alone after all, that someone understands, at the very least Abigail understands. Moreover, despite all the lament of loneliness there is a concurrent theme of the need for freedom, to strike out on one's own, to voluntarily take up the lonesome road. I think this is a sentiment quite familiar to all artists. Great art is made in solitary confinement, one has need to be alone with one's thoughts and feelings, to cradle that solitude in one's loving embrace, to seek higher ground from the flood of noise that threatens to carry away the monuments of human culture, the poetic foundation of language itself, the river of Lethe that would wash away any and everything worthy of remembrance in this world.


Contributed by Patrick Webb

Saturday, April 8, 2023

Beauty is an Apokalypsis


The revelation both emerges and is perceived by a poetic frame of consciousness.

In 1453, towards the East, a disaster befell Christianity, really humanity at large. Meanwhile in the West a Renaissance was occurring. But a rebirth of what?

We call it Humanism

That’s not an inaccurate name because in fact it was a rejection of revelation, of the wisdom and works of God as uncovered, revealed to man in favour of man placing himself as the centrepiece of an immanent paradise.

Humanism’s initial focus was on Beauty, the animating principle of the world, that which draws, attracts, motivates. It took the transcendental Beauty of nature and fashioned it into artefacts of man producing undeniable results, great cities, eternal cities even…or so we like to think. A rejection of the Holy Spirit in favour of the Zeitgeist, the Spirit of the Age, the Spirit of Man.

Enlightened Truth and an Awakening to the Good

There would be progress. The transcendental Truth of revelation would be supplanted by immanent Truth. Man would find his own way led by his own lights, humanity enlightened by the brilliance of a thousand sons but not sons of God. They would come to know a new Truth but has that Truth set us free?

Such an Enlightenment was just a precondition. The purpose of light is to awaken, to awaken to the Good. And who has become the arbiter of what is Good? Man seeks to become his own father, the centrepiece of his own divine garden, the very tree or source of the knowledge of good and evil. This is our present circumstance. The Good, the True, the Beautiful as determined by man, immanent in the world. However, allow me to digress, concluding with the subject of Beauty.

The Divine Revelation

The very architecture of this former cathedral, now mosque is what we call Beautiful. The iconography that is filling it up is yet a further act of Beautification. Not because it is particularly Beautiful in and of itself. I think it can scarcely compete with a weed, a dandelion outside that we might carelessly trample underfoot. No, it is because it points towards a greater reality, that which is irreducible in human experience, that which forms the basis of our definitions and to which none of our definitions are applicable. 

Beauty is but the Truth of the Good spoken to humanity in our native tongue. Beauty is a revelation. Beauty is the gift of God.


Contributed by Patrick Webb