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Gothic architecture: Can the 12th-century style radically change how we build today?

Updated 13th November 2020
PARIS, FRANCE, SEPTEMBER 13, 2015: The Sainte Chapelle (Holy Chapel) in Paris, France. The Sainte Chapelle is a royal medieval Gothic chapel in Paris and one of the most famous monuments of the city.
Credit: Shutterstock
Gothic architecture: Can the 12th-century style radically change how we build today?
Written by Mark Foster Gage, CNNNew York
Mark Foster Gage is an American architect and founder of Mark Foster Gage Architects in New York. He is also a professor of architecture at Yale University School of Architecture.
Little over a year ago the world nearly lost one of its most recognizable examples of Gothic architecture, as the spire and a sizeable part of the roof of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris burned to ashes. Now the debate carries on about what to do with the damaged building. Should the missing spire be restored to its original Gothic form, or updated with something more in line with the architecture of today? And what does it mean to be "Gothic" anyway? If something is Gothic can it also be contemporary? For such questions we need a little background.
Although construction began on the Cathedral of Notre Dame in 1160, it was not completed until nearly a century later, in 1260. And it wasn't until 600 years after that, in 1860, that the aforementioned spire was added, as part of a larger building renovation campaign. Over its long life of construction, additions and subtractions, Notre Dame has witnessed a staggering amount of human history. It will survive the Covid-19 crisis, as it also survived World War II, World War I, the 1918 Spanish Flu, and the most devastating pandemic in human history -- the Black Plague of the 14th century.
Such buildings, which are witness to our civilization over long timelines, are important in allowing us to understand our collective past, and therefore ourselves. Even more reason we should try to better understand them.
Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris, France
Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris, France Credit: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images
While originally religious in nature, Gothic architecture, as exemplified in the design of Notre Dame Cathedral, has had a much richer and fuller existence over the past millennia than only being used in our most famous cathedrals. Its origins stretch back as far as the 6th century, where some of its defining elements, such as the flying buttress, can be found in their earliest forms. However, it was in the 12th century that Gothic buildings truly began to emerge in full force in medieval cities and villages, as new ideas about engineering, stone carving and structure, and the desire for more height and interior light prompted the creation of the phenomenal buildings we recognize today.
It was during this period that the most important elements of the Gothic language were established, and the style began to be set, literally, in stone.

Defying gravity

Portal and sculptures on facade of Cologne Cathedral at night, Germany. Composite photo
Portal and sculptures on facade of Cologne Cathedral at night, Germany. Composite photo Credit: alxpin/E+/Getty Images
Among the most defining characteristics of Gothic architecture is its aspiration to ignore gravity and reach for the sky, if not the heavens. Gothic architecture is tall, slender, sleek and elegant. Of all the architectural languages humankind has ever developed, none is more associated with height and vertical elegance than the Gothic.
To achieve this height and slenderness, several difficult architectural problems needed to be solved -- the solutions to which became the Gothic forms we recognize today. For structural support, flying buttresses were used to give very tall columns additional support by, essentially, connecting them to more distant columns to lean against. The flying buttress defies gravity in appearing to leap from one column to another -- yet it carries significant weight, allowing the building to, paradoxically, appear more light, ethereal, and delicate.
Flying buttresses on Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral
Flying buttresses on Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral Credit: Alfred Yaghobzadeh/Abaca/Sipa/AP
The invention of the flying buttress allowed columns themselves to become far thinner and taller than they had ever been in the history of architecture. This slimming effect was further exaggerated by the columns being carved to look like bundles of even thinner columns, rather than seeming to be one large, fatter, one. (Imagine 10 long straws taped together versus a cardboard paper-towel tube.) This recipe for architectural lightness produced vast spaces of incredible aesthetic impact, as seen in one of the finest examples of their execution, on the Royal Sainte-Chapelle, commissioned by Louis IX of France and completed in 1248, and located less than 1000 feet from Notre Dame Cathedral.

The world's first pixels

Window of Duomo di Milano cathedral, Milan, Italy
Window of Duomo di Milano cathedral, Milan, Italy Credit: Alamy
As columns became thinner, and taller, there was now an opportunity for much, much larger windows and therefore significantly more light. However, this created its own problems -- for one, how to make large windows out of the smaller pieces of glass that were available at the time. The answer to this was what became known as Gothic tracery, the addition of mini columns and structures within the windows themselves. The most famous example of such tracery is the Gothic rose window, which, being roughly circular and appearing like the flower, today adorns the facades of thousands of cathedrals and churches internationally.
One of the finest examples of a Gothic tracery rose window can be found on the eastern side of the cathedral of Milan. This epic building, nearly 600 years in the making, was begun in 1386 and not officially completed until 1965, largely due to an extensive history of political struggles, changes in design, delays by war, insufficient funding, and the input of no less than 78 architects and engineers over its lifetime -- including Leonardo da Vinci.
Stained glass window in the Milan Cathedral.
Stained glass window in the Milan Cathedral. Credit: VW Pics/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
The use of Gothic window tracery allowed for smaller, more precious, pieces of glass to be supported and protected, affording new opportunities for the extensive use of stained glass. The combination of vastly increased amounts of light entering buildings, combined with careful attention to the colors and shapes of glass used, allowed craftspeople to tell stories through back-lit color pictures -- the world's first pixels. The resulting effects were both informational to parishioners, most of whom would not have been able to read but could understand the images, and produced breathtaking kaleidoscopic colors in the interior spaces.

Massive but intricate

The Gothic interior valuting of King's College Chapel, Cambridge, England.
The Gothic interior valuting of King's College Chapel, Cambridge, England. Credit: Apexphotos/Moment Editorial/Flickr Vision/Getty Images
Such delicate interior innovations required a new way to protect them from the elements -- namely, a larger, sturdier roof. The answer to this problem came in the form of stone vaulting using pointed arches that allowed for more flexibility in their width and height than classical round arches (a half-circle arch, geometrically, always needs to be twice as wide as it is tall, by definition). These new vaulting systems were more forgiving in their ability to transfer the roof weight through to the lacy bundled columns to the ground far below. Vaulting in Gothic architecture became a particularly intricate affair, as structural elements were curved, crossed, interwoven, and connected into increasingly complex forms and patterns over several centuries of vibrant experimentation.

Gone but not forgotten

The Palace of Westminster, which holds the Houses of Parliament in London, UK
The Palace of Westminster, which holds the Houses of Parliament in London, UK Credit: Ed Freeman/Stone RF/Getty Images
The Gothic language thrived in the European architectural landscape from the 12th to 14th centuries, eventually to fall out of fashion and be replaced by the new Classical architectural forms ushered in by the Renaissance. So out of fashion did the Gothic become that, at one point in the 17th century, the famous Baroque architect Francesco Borromini was slandered by his equally famous rival, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who referred to him as a "Gothic architect." But briefly out of style did not mean it was entirely forgotten.
By the mid-18th century the Classical forms of the Renaissance, known as Neoclassicism, were increasingly being rejected by a new religious conservatism, primarily in England, that sought a national return to what they considered to be a more "Christian" architecture -- and so, the Gothic Revival movement was born.
However, unlike its predecessor, Gothic Revival architecture was used not only for churches and cathedrals, but also non-religious institutions including schools, universities, residences, and buildings for government, including the 1870 Palace of Westminster that houses the British Parliament and is defined by its unique Gothic clock, Big Ben.
Chicago skyline including the Tribune Tower
Chicago skyline including the Tribune Tower Credit: Robert Knopes/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Being very tall and very slender, the Gothic was an obvious candidate to become the language of a brand-new type of building that started to emerge in the early 20th century in American cities like Chicago and New York: The skyscraper. Among the best examples of this is Chicago's Tribune Tower. This building design was selected from a 1922 design competition involving ten prominent global architects who each proposed different styles for the building, including Modernist, Classical, Art Deco, and Gothic.
Despite, at the time, being an architectural language well over a millennium old, it was the Gothic entry that was selected as the winner and subsequently built. The building was originally the headquarters of the Chicago Tribune Newspaper, and for a time, continued its legacy of reporting by housing the Chicago Bureau offices of CNN.

A new Gothic for the 21st century

Proposal for a tower on West 57th street, dubbed "The Khaleesi," by Mark Foster Gage Architects
Proposal for a tower on West 57th street, dubbed "The Khaleesi," by Mark Foster Gage Architects Credit: Mark Foster Gage Architects
Almost exactly a century after the Tribune tower was designed by New York architect Raymond Hood, Gothic architecture continues to be revisited, this time by another New York architect -- myself.
When designing a proposal for a 102-story residential building on West 57th Street in Manhattan, our office looked once again to the vertical forms, bundles, tracery and vaulting offered by the Gothic, but tried to reinvent these forms for 21st-century use.
The reason we undertook this seemingly odd endeavor was to try to find a cure for the bland and featureless modern glass-box structures that you find in nearly all cities worldwide. While skyscrapers made predominantly of glass siding have become a recognizable facet of everyday life, are they the only option for new buildings everywhere? What might we gain by thinking outside of these glass boxes?
A detail of the "The Khaleesi," a 102-story residential tower proposed for 57th street in Manhattan
A detail of the "The Khaleesi," a 102-story residential tower proposed for 57th street in Manhattan Credit: Mark Foster Gage Architects
These are the questions we asked during this project, with the result being our development of Gothic(ish) tracery-like vertical structures on the facades, which erupt into complex forms such as balconies that, in turn, change and shift over the building's extensive height. Window tracery is used not in conjunction with stained glass, but with its modern descendant, the glass curtain wall, to allow building residents unobstructed views of Central Park and wide panoramas of the New York skyline.
The result is not so much a Gothic re-revival as a shotgun wedding between the abstract glass boxes of modernism and the intricate vertical structures of the Gothic. A marriage made, if not in heaven, then at least pretty high up -- topping out at 102 floors.
It seems somehow fitting that the press nicknamed our project "The Khaleesi," after the pale white queen in the HBO show "Game of Thrones," who, in proper Gothic and Medieval style, rides a dragon and marches sword-wielding armies to victory after victory. While our proposed building would more likely be filled with wealthy investment bankers and the children of royalty than queens and armored knights, it is an illustration of how even such disparate groups can be connected through thousands of years of time and space.
Perhaps all architectural styles, including the Gothic, should be considered as living structures, vibrating with continued life, and ready to be reinvented by both the architects of today and those of generations to come.
Top image: Sainte Chapelle in Paris, France.