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Gothic Architecture in France
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Gothic Architecture in France
Professor Steven Murray

The treatment of Gothic architecture should seek to achieve three objectives. First, to provide a critical apparatus for dealing with the phenomenon of "Gothic"—"the only style." Second, we must learn to look at a building in a systematic way, with the ability to ask questions and to challenge the authority of the completed edifice and the judgments of the secondary authorities who have interpreted it—who have made it "theirs." Third, to grasp the complexity of the metonymic relationship between the building and the society in which it was conceived and built.

These objectives could certainly be achieved by looking at multiple buildings strung together with some kind of synthetic connective tissue. However, to permit a longer process of looking I shall concentrate upon two buildings, one at the threshold of the period—Notre-Dame of Paris—and the other expressing, I believe, its boldest achievement—Saint-Pierre of Beauvais.

To begin with the problem of "Gothic." It is useful to start with the simplest three-part sketch derived from Paul Frankl's The Gothic. 1 Contemporary twelfth and thirteenth century witnesses might perceive something radically different in the new architectural forms that appeared over a considerable geographical range in the middle decades of the twelfth century. Very little has been done to correlate the shock of the novel forms of Gothic architecture with parallel contemporary phenomena. How did people gauge the hereness and the nowness of their architectural environment? The shock of the new might convey very different programs of meaning in relation to local circumstances and agendas. At the same time, we can agree with Martin Warnke who sees Gothic as expressive of a new kind of supra-regionalism.

Second, we come to the fifteenth-century coining of the word "Gothic" with its connotations of rudeness and the destruction of classical culture. This ideological approach has been given new currency with the publications of Marvin Trachtenberg. 2

And third comes the combination of the scientific movements of the eighteenth century with Romantic literary interests and the yearning to find cultural "roots" for the nation state. Add to this the need to restore monuments, some of which had reached a state of near-crisis—all this produced not one, but a set of interconnected revivals of interest in "Gothic," reaching a crescendo in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Nineteenth-century "moderns" might want to recognize their own agenda in a phenomenon that combined technology, intelligence and optimism within a framework which was considered the "liberal" principles of urban administration of the age of the commune.

We can certainly learn much about "Gothic" by probing at its edges—both geographical (Italy, for example: Bruzelius and Trachtenberg, not to mention John Ruskin) and temporal (the "Late Middle Ages:" Davis and Neagley; also Huizinga). With Notre-Dame of Paris, I want to address what has been traditionally defined as the "center" and the "beginning" of the phenomenon. Grodecki talked about the "componential approach" to Gothic—an approach that sought the "vocabulary" of elements that added up to the new "style," namely a skeletal system of support, pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses . 3

The somewhat predictable dialectic of Bony's thinking, however, provided a framework that was far from "accidental," as thesis (heavy vaults) encountered antithesis (skinny supports and thin walls) demanding a synthesis (exposed supports or flying buttresses of Gothic). 4Such a dialectic can, of course, be applied to almost any aspect of human creativity—the question is how to relate it to the rhythm of production in actual buildings. Did critical response and the modification of existing practices take the form of a series of tentative problem-solving corrections? Or were there occasional giant leaps into the unknown—what Thomas Kuhn would call a "paradigm shift"? 5 I will want to argue that the development of the "Gothic" architectural system advanced not only in tentative "baby steps" but that an occasional "paradigm shift" might produce a rapid and complete change in the practice and theory of building.
1.   P. Frankl, The Gothic. Literary Sources and Interpretations Over Eight Centuries, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959. Also see T. Frisch, Gothic Art. Sources and Documents, 1140–c.1450, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1971.

2.   M. Trachtenberg, 'Gothic/Italian "Gothic:' Toward a Redefinition," Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, L, 1991, 22-37; idem, in next issue of Gesta.

3.   L. Grodecki, Gothic Architecture, New York: Electa/Rizzoli, 1976.

4.   J. Bony, "La genese de l'architecture gothique. Accident ou nec ssité," Revue de l'Art, 58–59, 1983; idem, French Gothic Architecture of the 12th and 13th Centuries, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

5.   T. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

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