Popular Science Monthly/Volume 29/September 1886/Evolution in Architecture

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THE disciple of Darwin labors under one disadvantage. The periods necessary for maturing the changes which he investigates being so immeasurably superior to those relating to ordinary mundane affairs, he can not verify the sequence of the events by the independent testimony of contemporary history. It would be interesting to apply the theories of development and natural selection to some department of knowledge in which we could have that aid.

Human society is so largely subject to the influence of emotions which appear to have little or nothing in common with the orderly operation of natural laws, and its course is so checkered with action and reaction, that it is often difficult to follow any particular line of progress for a length of time. Examples of regular development are, however, not wanting, and one of the most striking is to be found in the history of architecture. To a person ignorant of such history there would appear to be no connection between a Gothic cathedral and a Greek temple, beyond the facts that both were buildings of stone, and both had been dedicated to religious worship; yet that one has been evolved out of the other is a matter of simple demonstration. We can supply all the links of the chain by referring to edifices still standing, the times and circumstances of the erection of many of which have been detailed by the general historian.

To find the source from which the European nations have derived the art of building in stone, we must look to the land of the Pharaohs. From Egypt the craft passed to Greece, and from the Greeks it was taken up by the Romans, to be by them disseminated through the north and west of Europe in the process of colonization. The similarity, in regard to the constructive parts of the ancient Greek buildings to some of those found in Egypt of older date, affords strong confirmation of the tradition that the Greeks borrowed the art from the Egyptians. The Greeks, however, in adopting it added a new feature, the pediment, and the reason for this addition is easy to find. Egypt is practically rainless. All the protection from the climate required in a palace or temple in such a country is shelter from the sun by day and from the cold by night, and for this a flat roof, supported by walls, or pillars with architraves, is quite sufficient; but, when, as in all European countries, rain has to be taken into account, a slanting roof becomes a necessity. The Greeks, with their eye for symmetry, provided for this by forming the roof with a central ridge, at an obtuse angle, from which it sloped down equally on either side. The triangular space thus formed at the end of the building above the architrave was occupied by the pediment, and this part of the facade, which owed its birth to the exigencies of climate, was thenceforth regarded as so essential to the artistic completeness of the work that it was said that if a temple were to be erected in the celestial regions, where rain would not be possible, the pediment could not be omitted.

Both the Egyptians and the Greeks were satisfied with bridging over the openings of doors and windows, and the spaces between columns, by means of the architrave, a mode of construction which involved the necessity of using long blocks of stone. But the Romans, whose enterprise took a wider range, were not content to labor under such restrictions. In their engineering works they were familiar with the principle whereby blocks of comparatively small size, arranged in a semicircular form, can be made to hold together without support from beneath, except at the two ends of the series, by being arranged in the form of a semicircle; and, applying this principle to architecture, they not only gave to art a freedom it never before enjoyed, but conferred on it a new element of beauty. The arch, unknown to the Greeks—or, if known, not made use of in their temples—and employed by the Romans in the first instance from utilitarian motives, has ever since been an important, often the most important, feature in architectural works.

The Roman architect was thus in possession of all the constructive elements—pillar, architrave, pediment, and arch—which distinguish an architectural edifice from a building merely made up of walls and a roof. Without speculating as to the origin of pillar and architrave, with their subsidiary elements of plinth, capital, cornice, etc., it is clear that the last two—the pediment and the arch—resulted from the pressure of new and external circumstances. Into the history of the orders we need not enter. Their function is that of ornament, and the choice of their forms was probably governed by considerations of taste rather than the requirements of situation. The classic architecture in the best examples presents all the characteristics of a finished and matured art; and if the old civilization had been maintained, in the old places, though an additional order or two might perhaps have been invented for the sake of variety, there is no indication that there would have been any important change in the style of building. The disintegration of the Roman Empire, however, and the triumph of the barbarians, brought into play an entirely new set of forces, and prepared the way for that wonderful series of beautiful and ever-varying creations which we know by the name of Gothic architecture.

Can we discover what it was that inspired the mediæval builders in the production of forms of so much beauty, often at times when all other arts were dead and gross ignorance abounded? One consideration may help us. The periods of the Gothic styles (including those which led up to the styles to which the term is sometimes restricted) are precisely those which are called the dark ages; and in the successive changes through which the art passed in those ages can we not perceive a yearning for light—light in a threefold sense—religious, artistic, and physical?

1. Moral or religious light. An upward tendency now begins to manifest itself. There is an evident disposition to make the buildings appear as if springing up from the earth, instead of resting upon it. In the temples of antiquity all the principal lines are horizontal, in agreement with the surface of the earth; in the mediaeval buildings the tendency of the prevailing lines is to assume a vertical position, pointing heavenward.

2. Artistic lightness. The Greeks and Romans appear to have paid little regard to economy of material in the construction of their public edifices. Many of their works seem to rely for their effect chiefly upon their massive grandeur. But the Gothic architects seem to have been distressed with the weight of the material in which they worked. They found means, from time to time, to diminish its weightiness, in appearance at least, by diapering, molding, and tracery.

3. Physical light. Under the semi-tropical skies of Southern Europe, little regard had to be paid to this blessing, beyond providing against its excess. On the removal of the centers of civilization northward, the openings for the admission of the light of day became objects of solicitude, and thenceforth the windows are the principal parts of the wall in which they are pierced.

A naturalist of the new school might describe to us the changes which would be induced in a plant or other organism translated from the sunny climate of its birth to the cold and murky atmosphere of the north, and surviving, by virtue of its "fitness" for a place in its new home. Let us follow, as rapidly as possible, the behavior of the art of building in like circumstances. In doing so we may conveniently take the examples to be found in our own island; for, although the Gothic architecture prevailed throughout the greater part of Europe during the middle ages, it ran its course with greater regularity, and for a much longer period, in England than on the Continent. Owing chiefly to its geographical position, this country was the first to lose the connection with imperial Rome, and the last to feel the full force of the Renaissance.

The first effect of the new state of things was in a direction completely opposed to the aspirations to which we have referred. The general sense of insecurity which followed the withdrawal of the Roman legions made the strength of their walls the first care of the early builders, and windows and doors were necessarily reduced to the narrowest dimensions. Hence the heavy character of the styles denominated Romanesque, represented in this country by Saxon and early Norman works. The relative measurements established by classic taste were everywhere ignored by the Christianized barbarians; and, if even our rude Saxon forefathers could have appreciated them, they must have been abandoned through necessity. There are no complete buildings in this country which can be pronounced with certainty to be genuine Saxon works. For a description of the buildings of that period we are dependent on the accounts of early writers, aided by fragments which have been incorporated with works of later construction. The Saxon churches are described as low, small, and mean, with very thick walls, and floors sunk below the level of the ground.

For four hundred years our ancestors endured these dark, dismal stone erections—that is to say, where they enjoyed the luxury of a stone church, for probably at that time most of their religious buildings were, like their houses, of wood. Two interesting features, however, relieve this dreary period. One is the triangular-headed window, a remarkable anticipation of. the pointed arch; and the other, the insertion of a small pillar in the center of some windows, which is evidently the forerunner of the mullion. An excellent example of a window in which both these peculiarities are combined is to be seen at Barton-upon-Humber. The date is about a. d. 800.

Toward the end of the tenth century a first step was made in the direction we have indicated, by raising the central portion of the building above the roof, in the form of a low, square tower. This served as a lantern for the admission of light. In the eleventh century, when the Norman period commenced, the upward tendency was much more marked. The buildings generally were more lofty, and the tower especially was heightened. The splaying of windows—a device evidently brought about by the desire to obtain the maximum of light through the narrow openings in thick walls—now became general. The early Norman buildings retain in general the Romanesque character of massiveness, but efforts to relieve this are apparent in the rich carving of doorways, the occasional wreathing or other decoration of heavy supporting pillars, and the use of light arcades for mere ornament. The circular section of the pillar is no longer strictly adhered to, but hexagonal and octagonal pillars are freely used, and sometimes four shafts are combined into one pillar, the commencement of the clustered form so conspicuous in later styles. But the most important invention of this period was the buttress, which rendered it possible to raise the height of a wall considerably without the necessity of adding uniformly to its thickness.

In the twelfth century architecture began to develop in well defined forms the peculiar character which we distinguish by the term Gothic. With the view, doubtless, of providing more effectually against the inclemency of northern climates, the pitch of the roof had been raised, until, at the time to which we refer, the ancient pediment had grown into the mediaeval gable. Another important change was the introduction of the pointed arch. Of the writers who have put forward their own particular views as to the origin of the pointed arch, it may be said their name is legion. The theory that it was suggested by the interlacing of the branching of trees is a pretty one, but, we fear, must be relegated to the domain of poetic fancy. It would have had more force if it could have been applied to classic architecture, and not to Gothic, as the worship in groves intimately connected with paganism, whereas the Christian religion is associated in its early days with caves and catacombs. The hypothesis that it is an importation from the East, one of the results of the Crusades, has much to be said in its favor. Pointed arches had long been used in Oriental buildings, and they are even found in Assyrian remains. The intersection of arches carried to alternate pillars in ornamental arcades—a form frequently met with in Norman buildings—produces a perfect pointed arch. But whatever was the immediate cause of the adoption of this form, it is an expression in a high degree of the principles which governed the development of the art in the middle ages. It marks a distinct advance in the pursuit of light, in all the three senses mentioned above. Not only is the central portion higher than that of a semicircular arch, but the construction is such as to suggest that the support of the pillar is carried upward through the imposts into the arch itself, instead of the force being directed downward, as in the Roman arch.

The pointed arch made its appearance in the several countries of Europe almost simultaneously, but it took nearly a hundred years to entirely supplant the round arch. During that time pointed and round arches were used indifferently in the same building, as occasion might require or taste dictate; but in the thirteenth century the pointed form was finally established. Another change is now apparent, showing the application of a principle which, perhaps more than any other, distinguishes the best examples of Gothic architecture—a desire to rely for the beauty of the work on the form and arrangement of the constituent parts, and to make it as independent as possible of added decoration. This is evidenced by the deeply cut moldings, in continuous lines, strongly marking out the construction, which are so noticeable in what are called "Early English" buildings. More lightness is also obtained by means of clustered pilars, molded arches, tracery in the windows, and especially by the use of buttresses. The buttresses, first used to give additional strength to an already substantial wall, were completely altered in form. Instead of being, as in the Norman period, broad and flat, projecting but slightly from the surface of the wall, they were now placed with their breadth at right angles to the wall. They were also lightened by being divided into stages, and divided in their lower parts by arches. By this arrangement the weight of the roof and upper portions of the building was transferred to points outside the walls, and this enabled immense progress to be made in the light-seeking principle by leaving a much larger portion of the sides of the building available for windows.

The art having now assumed a definite and decided character, the succeeding varieties of style show a steady progression on the lines established. The simple pointed arch was formed by describing it from two centers instead of one; by using more centers, trefoils and quatrefoils were obtained, and the intersection of the circles produced the cusp, another form of point. Points now appear everywhere; buttresses are prolonged into pinnacles, and towers are surmounted by spires. Ribs under arches and vaults are multiplied, to distract the eye from the weight of the material which they appear to support. Horizontal lines and divisions gradually disappear, or are broken up, until in some cases there is no line to mark where wall ends and roof begins. Even the beautiful geometrical forms of the fourteenth century had to give way to the perpendicular, which in the fifteenth century reigned supreme.

As an example of mediæval architecture at the highest point of development it was permitted to reach, we may take the chapel of King's College, Cambridge, one of the finest specimens of advanced Gothic art in Christendom. On entering the chapel the prevalence of the upward principle is at once apparent. On either side innumerable vertical lines lead the eye upward from the richly decorated ground-panels to the gorgeous walls, which are of crystal, for the stone-work is seen only as the framing of the glass, as the division between the windows. The light of day is not admitted plain and undivided, to show up fresco or canvas, but, resolved into its constituent colors, it is forced itself to paint, in rainbow tints which no surface pigment could produce, the chief events connected with the religion of the worshipers. First we see depicted the scenes of old Bible story. Past these pictures—through them—the lines flow up, and show us the corresponding incidents and revelations of the New Dispensation. Type is succeeded by antitype, and the dim teachings of the Law are seen perfected in the clear light of the Gospel. Still upward fly the lines. Drawn in dull, heavy stone as they are, they can not lead us up to heaven, but, having helped to point the way, they divide into branching curves, and bound our upward vision with a canopy or roof of spreading fairy fans. This roof is really a vault of solid masonry, in some places more than three feet thick, yet there is not-a single pillar to indicate that it needs support from below. Not an inch of the material is hid, but by simply chiseling its surface the ponderous mass is completely veiled by the cobweb texture of the tracery. To appreciate the solidity of the structure, we must ascend and inspect the rough upper surface of the stone. Only then do we become sensible of the weight of the huge blocks, some of them weighing over a ton, which, by the masterly system of vaulting, are made, simply by the force of their own gravity, to bridge over the awful abyss beneath. To find the source from which the enormous weight of this roof derives its support, we must go outside the building and examine the buttresses which flank the building on either side. The strength of these is not apparent at first sight, for the lower parts, of course the most massive, are massed by connecting walls, and the intervening spaces thus inclosed are utilized as chantries, leaving only the upper and lighter portions visible. On comparing this chapel with some of the richest Italian interiors, the peculiar character of beauty already referred to as distinguishing Gothic art is at once perceptible; the decoration, instead of being superadded, is bound up with the construction; the parts themselves are made to provide the ornament. From an æsthetic point of view this noble chapel is a consummate work of art; as an example of mechanical ingenuity it is a triumph of engineering skill.

This work was commenced in the middle of the fourteenth century, but not finished till the fifteenth century was far advanced. By this time, however, there were unmistakable signs that the reign of the upward-pointing principle was drawing to a close. Arches were depressed, right angles abounded, and square-headed windows were used, not only in situations where they might be convenient or appropriate, but in such important positions as the east end of a cathedral, as at Bath Abbey.

The perpendicular style was peculiar to England. On the Continent the fifteenth century gave birth to a variety of "after-Gothic" styles, mostly remarkable for extravagance and want of taste, and which speedily disappeared before the classic form which had already been revived in Italy. In this country, however, Gothic architecture died hard. The English art continued to maintain its individuality for fully a century, though deprived in a great measure of its elevating spirit. The Tudor or Elizabethan manner, though very successful in baronial mansions, and peculiarly applicable to "domestic" purposes, has a distinctly "debasing" effect when applied to ecclesiastical edifices. The growing influence of the Renaissance also, in the attempts to graft classic ornaments and composition on mediæval forms of construction, produces often a mongrel effect. In a word, the natural development of architectural art was arrested. Before the end of the seventeenth century the triumph of the Italian school was complete. The mediæval art was opprobriously branded with its present name of Gothic, and the sublime fanes which it had produced became, in the language of Sir Christopher Wren, "mountains of stone, huge buildings, but unworthy the name of architecture." The feeling was, in fact, that we had been traveling along a wrong path, and should return to the point at which the art was left by the Romans.

At the present day the classic and the mediæval modes have each their partisans. We will not here attempt to discuss the merits of the rival styles. We will only point out that while the classic art embodies the finished conceptions of the ancient schools of thought, the Gothic is associated with the chain of events which mark the struggle for national liberties. The one represents satisfaction with an existing state of things, the other progress toward an ideal. Having won our liberties, we can study in peace the laws and usages of by-gone ages. Having solved the problem of adapting the ancient art of building to the requirements of modern times, we can indulge our fancy in the selection of our models.—Gentleman’s Magazine.