July 13, 2003
Why Gothic had to be Gothic

In his 1996 book, The Economic Laws of Scientific Research (which is my current book in progress), Terence Kealey supplies an excellent short description of the Gothic style.

The Anglo-Saxon churches that survive in England . . . example, show crude workmanship and a copying of Roman forms such as round-headed windows and arches. The Normans introduced higher standards of workmanship, but Norman romanesque was still a primitive architecture, requiring vast pillars and hugely thick walls. Around 1135, however, Abbot Suger, building S Denis, near Paris, inaugurated a superior architecture known as gothic. Gothic has at least three advantages over romanesque. First, its arches and windows are pointed, not round (the weakest point in a round-headed arch is the centre, but a pointed arch transmits the vertical weight to the supporting wall, so it is stronger). Second, gothic roofs are light because they are vaulted around individual ribs, so allowing the supporting walls to be thin and generously windowed (the romanesque barrel vaulting was immensely heavy). Third, the walls in a gothic building can be made thinner still by using flying buttresses. The consequence of these developments, coupled to improved standards of workmanship, was that gothic walls became so strong that they could consist almost entirely of windows if luminosity was desired (see, for example, the chapel of King's College in Cambridge) or that gothic cathedrals could be built immensely tall if that was the aim (see the cathedrals of Amiens, Beauvais or Cologne). The contrast between a Norman building (dark and heavy) and a late gothic one (luminous and sublime) speaks of the considerable medieval advance in technology.

This is another of those Big Technological Things (another one is airplanes) that the Modern Movement Architects felt envious about. Wouldn't it be great if the beauty of your buildings was the inexorable consequence of the way they had to be built? Gothic cathedrals (like airplanes) are structures of inexorable logic. They cannot be built any other way, and they cannot look any other way. Truth and beauty are combined perfectly. (Provided you set aside what is the Gothic Cathedral equivalent of flying.)

But modern building technology is such that a modern building can look any way you want it to. The Modern Movement Style, despite the protestations of its protagonists, is indeed a style, and it is a style that they tried to make look as they did because that was how they thought it should look. Inexorable logic had very little to do with it.

Sadly, they often did not succeed in making the Modern Style look as they wanted it to, as part of a general pattern of technological failure, resulting from the inherent faultiness of several central Modern Movement ideas.

Which just goes to show that when you are making decisions, it's best to admit that this is what you are doing. You are not giving in to the inevitable. You are making choices, and potentially, therefore, bad choices.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:25 PM
Category: Architecture