Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Progress and the German Gothic

Taking Brandon's recommendation, I looked up philosopher and historian of science William Whewell, who apparently wrote on Gothic architecture in Germany (something which interests me: see here and here), contextualizing it within scientific progress. I found this paper, given by Jonathan Smith of the University of Michigan-Dearborn in 1994.
In 1838, Whewell wrote a poem entitled "Gothic Architecture" that captures the essence of his approach to the study of architecture. The speaker recounts the tale of his conversion from devotee of Classical architecture to lover of Gothic. Returning from Italy, confirmed in the precept that architecture should be "proportion'd, simple, and symmetrical," he sees the medieval cathedrals of northern Europe as "lofty piles": on the outside they are "formless and wild," while on the inside they reveal "still wider disarray" and "deeper confusion unintelligible." Looking more closely, however, and following the lines from vault to shaft to floor, he suddenly appreciates the structural mechanics of the cathedral:

behold! each shaft
Bore its own burden in that branched vault,
And all that ponderous mass was firm upheld
By staves, each staff apportioned to its load.
And when again the eye from floor to roof
Had travelled up the pillar's side,--behold!
Those oblique shafts retired had each its load,
Each its due portion of that stony frame,
Yet ordered all beneath that pillar'd vault.

Instead of seeing meaningless complexity, the speaker now sees a system of interrelationships: the simplicity and symmetry of Classical architecture is "well replaced" by "subordination" and "sympathy"--"not likeness, . . . but a bond / Of common ends".

... Whewell argues that medieval architecture is one of the few exceptions to this otherwise "stationary period." Although the knowledge of mechanical principles necessary for building a Gothic cathedral cannot be said to be science because it is not systematic and speculative, the architecture of the Middle Ages does show evidence of "the progress of scientific ideas" and of being "the prelude to the period of discovery." In Whewell's view, the "possession" of "the idea of mechanical pressure and support" necessary for the construction of Gothic cathedrals "led . . . to its speculative development as the foundation of a science; and thus architecture prepared the way for mechanics."


At 8:00 PM, Blogger Brandon said...

I intended at one point, several months ago, to post something about Whewell's theory of Gothic architecture, but never actually did. If I'm in the science library at any point in the near future, I'll try to remember to put up a post on it.


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