Sunday, May 23, 2010

German Gothic: A Model for New Church Construction

One of the great problems facing church architects today is trying to bend traditional architecture to modern budgets. Classical architecture can often handle simplification up to a certain point, but Gothic frequently suffers under such circumstances. There are numerous reasons for this, among other things the fact that classicism made its peace with the primarily symbolc character of its structural articulation centuries ago--which lends itself more easily to the envelope-like character of much contemporary architecture, both classical and modernistic--while Gothic, with the exception of a few awkward forays into plaster vaults and steel-reinforced walls in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has had far less time to adapt itself to such realities. Indeed, developing such a modus vivendi with technology might often be seen by the more purist practitioners of the style to be a defeat.

Certainly I should prefer load-bearing walls and good solid stone myself, but I also know that remains, given the current methods in the construction trade, an impossible dream. Yet, this problem could be fairly easily solved with a good grasp of proportion and a careful attention to precedent, even if we might descend into what Pugin or Cram would probably call fakery. I will simply restrict myself to suggesting there is more than one way to define architectural honesty (and Pugin's actually is a rather narrow and highly literal one), and in the mean time suggest parents urge their children to go into stonemasonry rather than VCR repair.

A larger problem is the fact that Gothic architecture does not handle simplification well, especially at the large scale demanded by most modern American parishes--gargantuan edifices bigger than many European cathedrals. At such a large scale it often relies on masses of integral sculpture and intricate traceries that often cannot be reproduced over a large canvas on a comparatively small budget.

The usual consequence is to reduce tracery to the skeletal levels of the sub-Georgian, and knock off all the corbels, crockets, and floreated capitals. This is not always such a bad thing, and there are good traditional architects out there that could handle such a streamlining process with ease, but when the style is handled by non-traditionalists, as is happening more and more frequently these days, frequently the result is little more than caricature. An architect working in the mainstream, and unfamiliar with the roots of the style, may assume the essence of Gothic is pointed arches and lots of glass, and forget the need to make it feel real and solid despite its defiance of gravity. Another problem is that often both client and architect start with the wrong sort of Gothic--monumental French or ornate English, while perhaps looking elsewhere might have served far better. Only attempt what you think you can carry through. If ornament must be simplified, let it be carefully and studiously reduced to its essence, and not simply stripped off in an act of budgetary vandalism. Or better yet--find a style of architecture that does well in both ornate and simple dress.

The late German Gothic is almost completely ignored as a model for new traditional architecture, yet it is a precedent that neatly solves many of the problems that arise by building in the Gothic mode. I am particularly struck with the church of St. Martin in Landshut, Germany, photos of which accompany this essay.

It is a bare-bones Gothic, but austere and majestic rather than simply plain, with just the bare minimum of moldings and articulation to give it an air of dignity. It mostly relies on light, white walls, and careful massing to make itself work. It has little in the way of ornate paintwork, and despite its numerous windows, it does not necessarily rely on an expensive cycle of stained glass or highly ornate tracery to work--though, if money was available, such additions would not be unwelcome in a church modeled on it. (It is interesting to note that late German Gothic managed to do very interesting things with simplified tracery, indeed, even making a virtue of it). The exterior is somewhat bland, with moments of undigested fussiness, but could be rendered interesting in an American reworking of the design through studying the Art Deco-like massing techniques of Bertram Goodhue. Rich woodwork or polychromed statues set on brackets on the aisle columns could be added later, or omitted without doing violence to the overall scheme, while the purity of its forms might appeal to both traditionalists and those with more modernistic abstract tastes. While done in stone, it could, I think, be convincingly rendered in the gypboard and plaster which unfortunately has become a necessary evil in the building trade.

If the design was coupled with a squared-off east end (anachronistic, but then, traditional architecture is not archaeology), perhaps with a small rose window above the altar piece, or even a golden baldachin in the antique manner of Comper, the additional expense of an elaborate octagonal apse, and the accompanying complex tracery above, would be also be spared. There is much to be learned here, if you know where to look.

Photo sources: here, here, here , here, and this whole set on

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