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