For many writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the great Gothic cathedrals of northern Europe represented an ideal. Christian faith and scientific rationalism were perfectly combined to produce an architecture of unsurpassed quality:
It is impossible to explain in words the content of perfect Gothic art. It is frank, clear, gay; it is passionate, mystical, and tender; it is energetic, clear, sharp, strong, and healthy.
The ideals of the time of energy and order produced a manner of building of high intensity, all waste tissue was thrown off, and the stonework was gathered up into energetic functional members. These ribs and shafts are all at bow-string tension. A mason will tap a pillar to make its stress audible; we may think of a cathedral as so 'high strung' that if struck it would give a musical note.
What was particularly appealing to these writers was the triumph of progress. A story would be told of continuous development, of a way of building that, through a systematic application of rational development, had reached an apotheosis, most clearly seen in the great thirteenth-century cathedrals of the Ile de France: Paris, Bourges, Chartres, Amiens and Beauvais.
The line could be traced from the Romans and their development of the round arch which had enabled architecture to progress in scale and complexity and to enclose larger and larger spaces. From the round arch and basilican form of the Romans to the Gothic space was continuous progress, so that the Romanesque period becomes one of transition and Durham Cathedral can be seen simply as an intermediate point in that journey. Even from this perspective of narrative history, Durham is undoubtedly of major significance, but this must not be allowed to obscure the fact that in its own right it is architecture of the very highest quality. This quality should not be forgotten and although this essay may appear to concentrate on those developments in the art of building in stone which are most clearly to be seen at Durham, it will also try to highlight the architectural qualities that go hand in hand with the technical development, the creation of free-flowing space and the relation of social forces to the creation of major civic buildings.
For most people the pointed arch and the flying buttress are the clearest icons of Gothic architecture. At Durham there are both pointed arches and round arches so, clearly, it marks a period of transition. All accounts indicated that it is the earliest surviving building to have been designed to have a vaulted roof over the main nave. While no flying buttresses are visible, hidden under the aisle roof there are ribs which are clearly functioning as flying buttresses. What can be seen at Durham is the new spacial quality that architecture achieved through adoption of the pointed arch. While it is easy for anyone to recognizes the change from the round to the pointed arch, what is less apparent is the change from 'wall construction' to 'frame construction', liberating architecture and allowing the Gothic period to create revolutionary experiences of light and space.
Geometry was the first area of construction that was liberated by the adoption of the pointed arch. The geometry of the semicircular arch is, by its basic nature, restrictive. One dimension, the radius, fixes both the span and the height of the arch. Combinations of semicircular arches are very difficult. Taking a very simple example, a square on plan with two diagonals can be easily formed using semicircular arches on the four sides and across the diagonals (see Figure 1). Since, however, the diagonals have a longer span than the sides, then the apex of the diagonal arch must be higher than the apex of the side arch. This is of little consequence for an individual square, but putting a number of these together has a very significant effect on the space created.
In the long nave of the traditional English cathedrals, this phenomenon becomes particularly significant. The oblong space is required for the processional functions but can easily be uncomfortably divided up by a succession of cross arches, particularly if the main ridge line is higher than the apex of the transverse arch. Various distortions of the round arch were tried. At Durham a compromise solution consists of a mixture of round and pointed arches. The space is magnificent and has a reassurance that is rarely matched by later Gothic churches. The pointed arch also gave the opportunity for a more complex arrangement of the plan, particularly the relation between the position of the column and the ribs in the roof. At Durham there is the opportunity to witness the consequence of a miscalculation of this in the addition to the West End built between 1242 and 1274. Standing in the south side aisle looking up at the roof one can see a rib that has clearly lost its way, and in
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Publication information: Book title: Companion to Contemporary Architectural Thought. Contributors: Ben Farmer - Editor, Hentie Louw - Editor. Publisher: Routledge. Place of publication: London. Publication year: 1993. Page number: 569.
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