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

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