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The Middle Ages could be considered the entire period between the fall of Rome (5th century) and the beginning of the Renaissance (1401). Some extend the period to the discovery of the Western Hemisphere by the Europeans (1492). Certainly it eclipses the Byzantine, Early Romanesque, Carolingian, and Romanesque design periods we've just covered. However, we're going to view the secular side of things as opposed to the sacred side, which we have just studied. On the secular side there was not a clear direction, period by period, but more of a defensively fortified, security-conscious, siege-mentality type of architecture. This ran the gamut from walled communities to secured palaces to anti-riot town hall construction. Unfortunately, this “siege mentality” is with us once again, and for obvious reasons.

From the 10th to the 15th centuries Medieval cities sprung up, reaching a peak in the 13th century. Europe had been over-run by barbarians, and the only islands of safety were the isolated and protected enclaves inhabited by monks and nuns. These enclosed self-sustaining communities were then emulated in secular civic design.

People first built walls around their communities for protection, especially in the 12th century, creating a period of relative calm accompanied by some prosperity in Europe. There was a profusion of castle building, usually on high ground, and merchants built homes close by. The hills on which everyone built were used for protection. It's always been easier to defend the high ground. Guilds developed in these communities, which today could be called unions. They were composed of people in the same trade. Their original purpose was to provide Christian burials for fellow guild members.

For spiritual protection people sought the shelter of the monastic enclaves, building in proximity to the walls of monasteries. Cities developed into a drama of religious senses, as the church within the monastic complex became not only a figurative but most definitely a literal focal point in the community. That church and its bell tower(s) would be the tallest building in the community, in addition to being mounted on a hill. Thus, a visual drama began to unfold in cities, as the church reigned visually and spiritually supreme above all other structures. The psychological sanctity of the church spread into adjacent streets, and soon market places were installed next to the walls of the religious entity. Today, on the south side of St. Peter's in Rome, you can still find a major outdoor market immediately adjacent to the walls of the Basilica.

By the 14th century communities numbered from 200 to 500 persons, living within a radius of 1/4 to 1/2 mile, eventually growing into cities housing 100,000. There were three determinants in addition to houses of those early town plans.

Church and monastery.

Walls and usually four gates, creating cross streets, dividing the site into a four-part community.

Bathhouses centered in each quadrant.

The tragedy of the defensive aspect of architectural history lies in the fact that our cities continue to be places of sporadic violence, riots, looting, and serious outbreaks of anti-governmental acts of terrorism. Sadly, the tragedy of Oklahoma City came to mind when I first wrote this text; the World Trade Center calamity propelled the world into another dimension. Most recently, a spate of confrontations resulting in riots, spread from Seattle, Washington (1999), to London, England (2009), wherever global talks were held - be they economic or political, but usually economic.

In June of 2007, approximately 1,000 people were injured, many seriously, including 433 police officers and more than 520 demonstrators, with 130 arrests made. This was the result of rioting held prior to the G8 summit held in Heiligendamm, Germany. Cost of the “protests” were estimated at more than 100 million Euros. Actually, these riots took place in Rostock, with the actual nearby site being cordoned off with a seven mile long fence.

In other years riots disrupted economic summits held in Cancun, Mexico (2003), Hong Kong, China (2005) and Miami, Florida (2007), during which the city spent $23 million to “control the situation.”

In Gothenburg, Sweden in June 2001, the city's Justice Minister described the riots as the worst challenge the city ever faced. The riots forced the European Union's leaders, meeting at the time and the magnet for the demonstrators to, according to an ABC News Report, "hunker down in the fortress-like conference center for dinner instead of their intended site, the local botanical gardens."

As perhaps a fateful follow-up, speaking the very next day in Slovenia with President Bush, and in regards to different circumstances, Russian President Vladimir Putin said we must develop "a new architecture of security." He was speaking metaphorically, of course, with regards "architecture," but this perhaps can reinforce your understanding of what it has been like to feel insecure throughout history. If a leader of what still is a very great power can express a need for security, imagine the life of a medieval farmer living with his family in the countryside, constantly harassed by marauders.

Interestingly, on the eve of the G20 summit in London (April 1, 2009) Angela Merkel, German Chancellor, said: “we need a new architecture to prevent a repeat of the (present) economic crisis.” So the word “architecture” has moved not only from the practice, design, and construction of buildings, to – as all computer users are familiar, and according to the New Oxford American Dictionary: “the conceptual structure of a computer or computer-based system” on to: “the complex or carefully designed structure of something (my emphasis).” Seems as though “architecture” can be anything you want it to be; hmmm.

There was a time when people rioted because they were hungry, or did not have jobs, or were not getting their pensions, but today's rioters have the means to purchase airline tickets and ferry fares. Ostensibly, the rioters are protesting capitalism, as if there were a viable alternative. If you can imagine that Russia - in the mid 1990s - if not still today - had no pasteurized milk in St. Petersburg, and no public bakery in Moscow (they did not have any sugar), and those situations after seventy years of communism. Imagine half the shops in Moscow using an abacus for counting purposes in that same decade; the other half had hand-held calculators.

Rod McKuen wrote this during the demonstrations in the United States in the late 1960s: hal

The Principles of Architecture

The young can save the world I think

By growing older in a hurry.

We need a whole new age of older men

in brand new vests.

Then all those who are running in the streets

with rocks and bricks

Had better learn to use their stones

to build foundations, not to slice off roofs.

You build by pulling down the rubble.

But first you have to have a plan.

Published by Cheval Books, distributed by Random House, 1970.

True then, equally true today. Thirty years later and dignitaries have to "hunker down" again. One thousand five hundred years after the barbarians were at the gates; they're in the streets once more.

Back to the Middle Ages: there were four main factors, which influenced building during this Medieval period.

1. Feudal system

This was a combination of military defense systems united with agricultural workers. Farm laborers needed security as they obviously lived and worked outside of urban areas. They sought protection from the local "lord" who would usually have a castle or some fortress built in the area. The farmers provided agricultural services and a share of their crops and animal products. Often the local "landlord" owned the farms outright; at other times, independent farmers provided their shares as a tax for protection against outside forces. Outlying people would rush to the protection provided in case of marauders. If one “lord and master” owned the land, then the laborers or serfs were bound to that land for life, as were their children. There was no "upward mobility." Buildings that resulted:

Castles (patterned after Roman villas, surrounded by moats or stockades).

Villages (located in proximity to the castle).

Houses (simple rectangles, with timber framing and mud and plaster between, windows of oiled paper - glass reintroduced in the 12th century to some extent, thatched roofs).

2. Monastic System

This was a religious parallel to the feudal system. Groups of missionaries, out to convert pagans to their beliefs, often banded together for protection, and became their own community, often apart from existing secular ones. Monks, working within their church organization, adopted the practices of the feudal lords, offering protection, often at the price of bequests, or gifts. These communities were usually totally devoted to religious practices, and resulted in asceticism and complete withdrawal from the secular world.

The best minds of the times went into these monastic centers, which became focal points for learning, art, and agriculture. Ideas and skills developed and cultivated in one monastery would be taken to another, because of the interconnections of the church and because of the need to sustain them. In this latter, any profit-making venture practiced successfully in one community would, of course, be of interest in another.

As but one example, I am certain you have heard of Bénédictine Brandy. It is believed that Bénédictine is the oldest liqueur continuously made, having first been developed by Dom Bernardo Vincelli in 1510 at the Bénédictine Abbey of Fécamp, in Normandy. Production of the liqueur was ceased by the monks in the nineteenth century, taken over by a private company founded in 1863 by Alexandre le Grand, which continues to produce the liqueur today.

And one more example: the Benedictine Monks of Prinknash Abbey, near Gloucester, England, have an active Pottery Factory, selling items on site produced from local clay.

At some point, architectural ideas could be disseminated quickly, as some groups of monks literally became architects. In History II, we shall talk about the Jesuit Order of Architects for the Catholic Church.

Monastic architecture included:







3. Sacred relics

Items belonging to local saints, as well as objects brought from the Holy Land during the crusades led to the veneration of such relics. Sites of important preservations became destination points for pilgrimages by those often newly-converted to Christianity. These were illiterate people who believed such relics held perhaps not so much a religious power, as a magical, mystical one. Additionally, accoutrements for the pilgrims along their routes after a one-day journey, and at their destinations, had to be provided for in the adjacent communities.

On yet another sad note, and to underscore the “value” of these sacred relics, a priceless 15th Century wooden statue of the Madonna and Child was stolen from the Prinknash Abbey, noted above. According to an article in the on-line BBC NEWS, dated 20 October, 2002:

Benedictine monks at Prinknash Abbey, near Gloucester, fear the Flemish oak statue may have been taken for a private collection.

Personal loss: "It is too distinctive ever to be sold on the open market and we believe it has been stolen for a private collection," said Father Stephen, one of the 18 monks who live and work at the Abbey.

"There is a vacuum here now that it has gone.” "It has been the focus of our devotion and prayer for the last 77 years.” The dark oak statue was in the Abbey Church at the monastery and was taken at about 19:30 BST on Friday, while all the monks were at supper. The 20-inch monument was originally given to the monks when they were based on Caldey Island, near Tenby, west Wales. It is thought to have once belonged to Sir Thomas More, at the time of Henry VIII.

4. Commerce

Trade routes developed, at times fueled by the crusades and the pilgrimages. Feudal lords got into the act, providing protection at strategic points along the trade routes. At other times these local lords used their power and physical position on the landscape to extort duty from passing merchants or ships. Trade and commerce revolutionized life in the Middle Ages, providing freedom of new life styles and the luxury of new goods.

A variety of new building types developed:

Market places (shops located on ground floor, with the merchant's living quarters above - a concept proclaimed by the "New Urbanists" of today, but rarely accomplished).

Town Halls

Guild (union) Halls

New compact cities

Town houses (8 meters wide (25'), often with atriums for privacy).

The cities that developed were designed for pedestrians. Streets were narrow, with great visual spectacles of buildings at the end of those streets. These narrow streets were often dark, and light came after a block or so as they opened into wide intersections, often crammed with merchants selling their wares in outdoor markets. That light emanating from the larger open space would draw you to it. We can call this the chiaroscuro effect, from dark to light and back to dark again. It works on two-dimensional building elevations, and in three-dimensional space. Then eyes would look up and see variegated rooflines overhead and often the spire of a church or the watchtower of the community.

There is an old urban legend (they've been around a very long time) that states that farmers following their animals to slaughter from farm to city, created the narrow, twisting, winding streets in Medieval cities. First of all, a meandering, circuitous path would have been a long walk, the animal would have lost weight, and I'm not certain how the cow or whatever would have known the direction. We just never give people who lived in the past enough credit for doing the right thing based on “critical thinking.” Sometimes it seems we invented the almost pathetic phrase “critical thinking.” Actually, academic administrators came up with the pedagogic term in the late 20th century to keep teachers from becoming idle. Realize that if you are not engaged in critical thinking you are probably daydreaming. Trying to study, create, learn, and apply what you have learned to situations in real life does require serious thought. If you want to call it critical thinking, okay. Simple "thinking" would suffice. Unless, of course, your life was being threatened and things were, indeed, critical. The truth seems to be that people about a thousand years ago realized that howling winds coming down the street in mid winter really dropped the wind-chill temperature. Blocking that wind by placing buildings in the way cut the draft, and made life a lot more comfortable.

An additional benefit derived from the practical aspect is the fact that so many old cities have something to look at as you walk down the street. Sometimes, of course, it’s an alpine peak, and you can't beat that. But very often, it is a series of buildings. In the plainest of words, it becomes interesting to walk around an old town. Think how often - if you live in a "gridiron" city, with streets laid out by the compass point, like an old Roman grouping of military barracks - how distracting and dangerous it is while driving with the sun rising or setting at the end of your street.

Just a shame that in the 20th century we kept creating concrete canyons (literally) that actually created winds so strong they sucked windows out of buildings. You might want to look into the John Hancock Tower in Boston - it lost its windows at least twice. You might want to check out this web site: http://www.theakston.com/pressure.htm. In the event you cannot, here is a quote from the F. H. Theakston Environmental Control, Inc. web site.

"The John Hancock building in Boston, is a classic example of failure due to unanticipated wind-induced loading. In this case, the glazing system was not designed to withstand the negative pressure experienced, and consequently windows were literally “sucked” from the building. Tall buildings, irregular shaped buildings, or buildings in proximity to each other create unique wind flow patterns. These patterns may result in excessively high pressures that are difficult to anticipate, based on experience alone. A better understanding of the wind’s interaction with buildings more than negates these concerns, it allows innovative building forms along with optimized structural systems."

Well, our ancestors figured it out, perhaps applying their brand of "critical thinking." I know I have used the term above to prod a bit, but some might call it experience, with a little common sense thrown in for good measure. But you should be thinking about how you could learn from the past.

Let's go to the beginning of one fortified city with a long history of violence, and view their attempts at defense.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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