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Originating in France, the “Gothic” was an architectural development that spread across Europe from the 12th to the 16th century. There were revivals, but we will fundamentally stick with basic development in this chapter.

For better and often for worse we affix words to images, attempting to explain “styles” and their concepts. At times the “style” becomes just such – a temporary “fad,” with which we tire – as an example, wide neckties are “in” for a few years, to be replaced by narrow ones; women’s skirts go from mini to maxi. And, unfortunately, a particular kind of architecture sometimes becomes a “style,” soon to be replaced by another. Sadly, as I type this, my computer’s very first definition of “style” is:

“A distinctive and identifiable form in an artistic medium such as music, architecture, or literature.”

I write “sadly,” because things that come in to style go out of style, just because we tire of them as something “newer” attracts our attention. In architecture we really should be working with principles, which by definition are very basic concepts of an enduring nature. Architecture should never be relegated to the vagaries of style. All of this as an introduction to why we call particular architectural things “Gothic.”

The expression “Gothic” was first applied by the 16th century Italian painter, architect, and writer Giorgio Vasari in a rather contemptuous way: “Then arose new architects who after the manner of their barbarous nations erected buildings in that style which we call Gothic."

John Evelyn, an English writer of the 17th century, is quoted as having written: "The ancient Greek and Roman architecture answered all the perfections required in a faultless and accomplished building" - but the Goths and Vandals destroyed these and "introduced in their stead a certain fantastical and licentious manner of building: congestions of heavy, dark, melancholy, monkish piles, without any just proportion, use or beauty."

There was a reason, albeit vacuous, for this negativity. Renaissance Italian designers such as the 16th century architects Giacomo Vignola and Andrea Palladio, as well as the 17th/18th century Christopher Wren in England, were reviving the “Classical” styles (purposeful use of that word “style,” because in revival, principle is often lost). Architecture is often a profession rife with jealousy. Creativity might result directly from the ego, which then might exaggerate a sense of self-importance. Realize that in our nation’s bicentennial year (1976) the American Institute of Architects sent out a survey to its members to ascertain who they thought was the most influential architect in United States history. Thomas Jefferson received the distinction. Dismissed was Frank Lloyd Wright, who single-handedly brought about the first truly “American” architecture in the 20th century, following Henry Hobson Richardson, working in the 19th century. In fact, as a curious coincidence, 'Architect and Building News in 1885 polled its readers for, "the ten buildings which the subscriber believes to be the most successful examples of architectural design in the country." Of the top 10 choices, half were by Henry Hobson Richardson. No way were the architects of 1976 going to name a “live” competitor, or a recently departed one – no one in living memory would do. Similar emotions ran high in the Renaissance, as architects derided the Gothic period to further their own directions.

The arrogance and accompanying ignorance of these Renaissance creators was manifest in the Italian expression they used to deride what we now call “Gothic”: “maniera Tedesca,” which translates to “in the manner of the Germans.” Their confusion might have resulted from the fact that the Cathedral of Milan, perhaps the prime example of Gothic in Italy, was designed by about fifty architects, most of whom came from the north, primarily Germany. To the Italians the term Goth implied things barbaric, and they discredited a movement in a way described so effectively by the Catholic Encyclopedia:

For the first time, an attempt was made to destroy an instinctive and, so far as Europe was concerned, an almost universal form of art, and to substitute in its place another built up by artificial rules and premeditated theories; it was necessary, therefore, that the ground should be cleared of a once luxuriant growth that still showed signs of vitality, and to effect this the schools of Vignola, Palladio, and Wren were compelled to throw scorn on the art they were determined to discredit.”

The Gothic designs stopped, but the name stuck.

Realize that the above description of “classical” architecture as being composed of “artificial rules and premeditated theories” is never revealed in architectural texts. Most, if not all, architectural historians are seemingly (by nature?) in love with things Grecian. But creatively speaking, the truth is that following prescribed rules, the so-called “Orders,” puts a designer into a creative straitjacket. The height of a column could only be a certain number times the diameter, etc. All proportions were prescribed. When “Post Modernism” first reared its ugly head (I forewarned you I was an iconoclast), I suggested to my students that drawing Greek capitals would be a difficult chore for “drafters” involved in the new “style.” Two weeks later I received a package in my mail containing samples of stick-on “classical” columns, replete with capitals, bases, and fluting. Later CAD menu items could easily contain such paraphernalia.

There were subsequent periods of romantic-induced revivals of Gothic, culminating, perhaps in the most ridiculous of all such revivals, the Chicago Tribune Tower competition winner in 1922; the building features stone encrusted steel “flying buttresses.” Unfortunately it still stands at a strategic turn in the Chicago River. Please see Chapter Ten below for additional comments and illustrations. But, again, our discussions this semester will deal with the original Gothic movement.

Perhaps a small explanatory note: a definition of Romanticism, given by one of my high school English Professors, was: “the there and then as opposed to the here and now.”

In Chapter Six reference was made to the origins of Gothic development in the Abbaye-aux-Hommes in Caen. Louis Kahn was quoted as having said: “…when the walls parted, the columns became.” Kahn seemingly made the comment at Paestum, but somehow the observation was later interpreted to refer to Gothic development. To repeat, this did not imply that before the Gothic movement there had been no columns. There were those columns at Paestum. If you’ve been with us so far, you know that post and lintel construction has been a very basic type of construction throughout much of recorded or discoverable architectural history.

Regardless of the exact point of Kahn’s reference (though it can hardly be disputed), there is something valid to consider. I believe that Kahn was referring to a change in the concept of how exterior walls could be built, a concept equally valid when applied to either Greek structures or Gothic. Primitive construction began in some instances with solid walls, and later developed into columns, with beams. So, too, Christian churches were first built with solid and massive exterior bearing walls because of their height. Window openings were kept to a minimum. It is difficult to maintain structural integrity in massive stone construction pierced by excessively large openings, unless certain structural changes occur. Church construction had begun this massive solidity in Italy, and continued through the Romanesque period throughout Europe. Gothic development marked a major breakthrough in a basic construction procedure, in that the walls did, indeed, part and, basically, were placed at right angles to the body of a building. This right angle approach actually became a system of piers, attached to the building, which provided buttressing for the main building perimeter. This allowed glass to be introduced into the void between piers, providing protection from the elements as well as allowing light to enter.

One text rather glibly tosses off their definition of Gothic architecture as “The name generally given to the pointed style of Medieval architecture in Western Europe from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century.” Further, the text, considered a monumental encyclopedic work in the field of architecture, traces that pointed arch back to Assyria and on to Persia, and when the latter was conquered by Muslims, it is explained that the pointed arch found there was then used in Islamic construction everywhere. Then Islam spread along the southern Mediterranean shores, and into Mediterranean islands, Sicily in particular. The Normans conquered Sicily, and took the pointed style back to France. Thus, the book states, was born French Gothic architecture. We are going to explore other avenues that are quite different, not as simplistic, and very probably more historically accurate.

Basically there are several important elements missing from the above equation.

First, as discussed in Chapter Six (ROMANESQUE ARCHITECTURE), there had been a need to “fireproof” tall wooden-roofed churches, which were being struck by lightning. Building walls were of heavy masonry (as mentioned above), but they were often topped with wood roof construction in the form of trusses, over flat and relatively low ceilings. This resulted in destruction of churches by fire – they became lightning rods - which in itself was a loss, but was exacerbated by the destruction of relics contained within churches. Unfortunately, we are about to butt into another bit of spin here. Many sources explain that these relics had been brought from the “Holy Land” during the several Crusades. Those crusades did not begin until the year 1096. Romanesque development had been going on for some time, and had already been making a transition from wood to stone roof construction. Perhaps the relics actually brought from the Crusades added a sense of urgency to the situation. The churches could, obviously, be rebuilt but, whatever their origins, sacred relics could never be replaced. So architects, engineers, masons, as well as bishops with building construction capabilities (all perhaps interchangeable professions, since the origins of the term “architect” translate to “master builder”), set into motion a structural transformation of stone vaulting to replace those earlier wooden roofs, and to modify rather awkward stone designs. That transformation was to result in a spatial organization, which could only be realized by converting the semi-circular Romanesque arch into the pointed arch of what was to be dubbed the “Gothic.” This will be explained as we proceed.

The second element addresses the problem of light, or rather the lack of light in churches. Remember, those thick walls had minimal window openings. While the Romans had been daredevil engineers, their successors were very conservative.

A third element involves a less tangible situation - that of providing a religious structure with a “spiritual soul.”

It was not until the 12th century that a Benedictine monk named Suger, acting as a building designer in the small town of St. Denis (just north of Paris), began the process of creating a spiritual soul within the Christian house of God. It had been Suger’s lifelong dream to build an abbey that would have "the most radiant windows” which would, in his words, "illuminate men's minds so that they may travel through apprehension of God's light."

We are going to find that Gothic development was one of the most progressive and honest evolutions in the history of Architecture.

A short digression and explanation: since we are going to be discussing works of ecclesiastical architecture, works in which structural development was to lead to the Gothic, all of which will then be followed by the actual Gothic works themselves – mostly, but not totally, of a religious nature – it might be best to explain “cathedral.”

Although the term is mistakenly used to mean any large and impressive church building, a cathedral, more correctly "cathedral church" (Late Latin ecclesia cathedralis), is the church, which contains the official "seat" or throne of a bishop (Latin Cathedra 'seat,' from the Greek kathedra. So one of the Greek / Latin names for this gives us the adjective "cathedral.” The adjective has gradually assumed the character of a noun. In our second course, we will discuss the “Basilica” of St. Peter in Rome, which despite its great size, is not a “cathedral.” The Pope, who is the Bishop of Rome, and regularly conducts services in St. Peter’s, does so, however, in a “basilica.” The “cathedral” of Rome, technically, is Saint John Lateran which, in its early history, was the residence of Popes.

As the chief house of God in a region, the cathedral church was called the Domus Dei, and from this name the Germanic Dom (prefix for church) is derived, and also the Italian Duomo.

Now we can begin our path towards French Gothic development.

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

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