Monday, May 24, 2004

A Catholic Style, A German Style

This entry deals with one of the three elements that I claim make up the landscape of the Rhine. If it seems a little incomplete, it is because I am not sure yet how far I want to delve into the architectural discussion (being that it is not my field and that it is hard to read about it in another language).

A German Catholic Style

In the 1770s the center of the German literary world was Strasbourg, France. Writers like Goethe and Lenz took a trip down the Rhine to find themselves in the border city, where they found a strong circle of intellectuals, a university with all faculties, and an atmosphere of freedom and relaxation that they could find in no German city. They discovered the writings of Shakespeare and the thought of the Lumière (French Enlightenment). The circles of intellectuals and writers developed a new literary style–Sturm und Drang–that would form the basis for Romanticism.

In Strasbourg they discovered Gothic architecture. The Strasbourg cathedral (Münster) inspired them to think about architecture and its relation to German history (picture). The pink stone Münster with its rose windows and single spire in the middle of a French city represented German architecture. And more generally, Gothic architecture represented Germany.

The Sturm und Drang brought attention to the Gothic churches and cathedrals in the Rhineland. Citizens were inspired to repair (and in some cases complete) their religious patrimony. The initial phases of the French Revolution heightened interest in the Gothic. On the one hand, the occupying armies of the French Republic directly threatened cultural sites and collections of art. On the other, Germans were inspired to match the national elan of the French with their own Geist. One of these was Georg Forster (1754-1794), who regarded the cathedral of Cologne (the Dom) as a masterwork of Gothic architecture, even though it had not been completed. (Dom Cam) Less important than the accomplishment of the Dom was the vision of the artists: to offer a spiritual experience to those who walked inside. The grandeur and magnificence moved the spirit. The man who saw it could not help but be “petrified” (versteinern) from awe.

The habit of restoring Gothic buildings in the Rhineland continued after the defeat of Napoleon. The Prussians who moved into the Rhineland and annexed it in 1815 were at odds with the native populations. The Prussians were Protestant and spartan, the Rhinelanders Catholic and entrepreneurial. Prussian administrators were plied with requests for the completion of the Dom, something which had become a growing interest. Sulpiz Boisserée studied the development of the Dom and began interesting people in resuming construction. He had attracted important Cologners (like the Wallraf family), writers like Goethe and nationalists like Gorres. They petitioned the monarchy complete the construction of the Dom as an act of good will that would symbolize the effort to unify the territories and create a German nation. Prussian administrators saw a political expedient for the monarchy: bringing Rhinelanders to trust Prussia. Despite the will to complete the Dom, the project took decades (the new cornerstone was laid by Friedrich Wilhelm IV and Archbishop Johannes von Geissel in 1842; it was finally completed in 1880), and how to restore it could be a matter of controversy as well. Gothic buildings were more a part of the landscape of western Germany than eastern (where Baroque was more important), and they were closely associated with Catholicism.

In 1842 Johann Joseph von Görres made his pitch for a pure Gothic style for the completion. Görres was a veteran of the revolutionary era: he lead the Jacobin Club in the Mainz Republic. Later experiences with France soured him to revolution. He briefly turned into a German nationalist until he had a falling out with the Prussian government. After spending some time in exile in Strasbourg in the 1820s he turned his interests to Catholic mysticism and Romanticism, teaching in Bavaria. Görres argued that the Strasbourg cathedral should serve as the model for the restoration of the Dom. Both came out of the same milieu of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in the Rhine. Ecclesiastical princes, small aristocrats and mercantile burghers competed for political power and influence. Görres noted the bishops of the Rhine, who acted as territorial princes and imperial electors as well as religious leaders. The large ecclesiastical territories added to the strength of the Catholic Church, giving the Rhine the reputation as a Pfaffengasse (alley of preachers). Gothic expressed the richness of German medieval culture, one that was in harmony with the spirituality of the times. More simply, the Rhine was the center of medieval German culture at its height, and its style should be used to express the greatness and unity of Germany in its diverse elements.
The Rhine was then, as it strives to be now, the great artery of German life.

Görres was keen on emphasizing that the Germanness of Gothic construction in the Rhine was also Rhenish and Catholic, all of which were meant to be counterweights to Protestant Prussian influence, but also were meant to express the desire to see all the elements of Germany balanced and represented rather than dominated by one state.

The completion of the Dom and the restoration of other Gothic buildings led to a revival of medieval architectural style in the Rhineland in contemporary building. However, Gothic would not be that style. Architects like Heinrich Hübsch preferred the earlier Romanesque. It was simpler, more restrained, more essential. The architects of Rundbogenstil appreciated Gothic for the essential elements used in construction which were better represented by the Romanesque (different definition). Furthermore, the simpler and less ornate style was more appropriate for the modest buildings that they designed. Rundbogenstil concentrated on the rounded arch rather than the pointed arch of Gothic buildings–indeed, Rundbogenstil means round arch style.

Historicism characterized German architecture of the nineteenth century as Germans searched for a national style. The general trend was to put buildings into a style that best represented their function. Assembly buildings were Classical, churches Gothic, palaces baroque. The most egregious example of historicism was Vienna, where the new government buildings represented nearly every era of architectural history.

Not everyone was interested in bringing different styles together. Various revival movements competed with one another for the imagination of the nation, Greek Classical and Romanesque/Gothic being most important. Some argued that the Classical style was the perfection of architectural rules, offering balance and beauty. Classical revivals were more popular in eastern Germany where religious life tended to be Protestant. They dismissed medieval styles because either Romanesque and Gothic were eccentric and emotional or they were representative of Catholicism. They reproached Gothic above all for excess of decoration. Proponents of Rundbogenstil retorted that neo-Classicism was dead imitation, that neo-Romanesque emerged from living impulses in design.

Hübsch, using the Dom and the Abbey of Maria Laach in Koblenz as examples, defended medieval styles, especially the neo-Romanesque impulse. Hübsch argued that medieval architects made technical improvements over what ancient Greeks and Roman had accomplished. They spanned larger spaces with less material, allowing them to create more magnificent structures that were more open than what the ancients built. The decorative elements were less important than the structural elements: the arches, the ceilings, the columns, the placement of doors and windows. The rounded arch allowed for more open space and the inclusion of more decoration. Hübsch also argued, moreover, that it was difficult to adapt Greek Classicism to the building materials available in Germany.

Rundbogenstil was a style that was a technological advance made under German culture. It was also an expression of the materials available in the German landscape. Gothic was a tangent from the Rundbogenstil–radical and inspired, but never formalized and ultimately immature.

What neither style had yet to confront was the introduction of steel. Until 1840 it was believed that no new style would develop unless new building materials were introduced. Steel held possibilities, but it was difficult for designers to imagine its potential. Steel spanned even larger spaces, creating airy structures and would give nineteenth century department stores their look.

This post is based on my own research. If you are interested in the sources, please contact me.


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