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The Active Eye in Architecture
Sir George Trevelyan

First published in 1977 by The Wrekin Trust
This book is out-of-print, available only on this website
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9  Imagination into Gothic


Imagination in its true meaning is not mere fantasy. It is that faculty which enables us to identify ourselves with the inner being hidden within the outer form. We can approach the great styles of architecture with imagination. Think first into pillar and lintel. As an architectural principle it is static and restful. Whether it be the rugged grandeur of Stonehenge or the intellectual refinement of the Parthenon the experience is the same. The lintel sleeps.

Now put your thinking into an arch. ‘Arch’ yourself! Here is a completely different principle, dynamic and active. When an arch is built, something new is given to the world which was not there before – a lateral and downward thrust, struggling to push the pillars apart. Energy is created. The arch never sleeps. Let it stand a thousand years and the drive is still there, silent but powerful. If the structure is to stand, this disruptive energy must be countered, cancelled out, earthed. Pound for pound the thrust must be met by a counter-thrust. The whole Gothic cathedral is a conflict, a wrestling between two tremendous powers, one ‘diabolical’, striving to tear the structure to pieces and the other ‘angelic’, overcoming the dark force and holding the building together. The entire building is alive and in endless action, and the Gothic builders clearly rejoiced in the struggle. It suited their passionately active and aspiring natures.

Now will you imagine the dark wrestler, the disruptive thrusts, as a pattern of lines of force shown in red as in an engineer’s diagram of the Cathedral. Against it, cancelling the downward drive, see the upward-driving sustaining counter-thrust, another organism of force lines, shown in blue (Fig. 24A).

We can feel this blue structure of energies reflected in our own organism, as if the buttresses in their struggle were planting feet firmly in the ground and driving power upwards through the muscles of thigh and back and shoulder to hold the high vaults from being overthrown. This energy has a quality of will operative in a living organism.

Now in a gesture of imagination wipe out the red pattern of forces. Leave only the angelic wrestler. We are instantly lifted into the glory of a structure acting completely free of gravity. We are suspended out of the pull of the earth. The Gothic builders have given us this great illusion. Of course it is illusion, since in fact tons and tons of heavy matter have been piled up on the ground, imbued with downward-tearing energy. That the builders wished us to experience the antigravity cathedral is shown by their decoration. Every moulding, every carved plant form, every pinnacle, serves to make the eye experience the upward drive. The invisible lines of force are made visible in the mouldings.

A gigantic weight can be taken on the tip of a pointed arch and distributed down into relatively thin pillars (Fig. 24B). We all know this simple fact, but the eye-experience is always one of rising.

The lateral thrust is simply enough cancelled by another similar arch (Fig. 24C). So it is passed on in series along the nave arcade but at the end must be earthed by buttressing or by the immense weight of a central tower giving the possibility of an open crossing. Often however one can see the four tower pillars bulging from the thrusts of nave and choir. At Wells this had to be met by inserting the bold ‘strainer’ arch (Fig. 25A). Yet always the arch experience is one of suspension out of gravity.

As an emotional experience, matter is being lifted and dematerialized. The higher it is raised from earth the more it is dissolved. It is being metamorphosed into ever subtler forms until it passes back into the higher planes of energy, ‘being’, spirit. Thus we must feel that where it dematerializes the energy moves on to an ethereal plane. This is beautifully illustrated in the Cathedral at Orleans where the uppermost tier of the towers has become an openwork crown, almost a basket, so delicate that it could carry no further weight of stone (Fig. 25B). We must not think that it stops here. Rather is this the magical point where it dematerializes and passes over into the higher vibrations of the heavenly plane. Rightly four angles are carved standing on the parapet. So with the top of every spire and pinnacle. Let the imagination feel this happening. It is not enough to take this only as a mental idea. Your consciousness moves up and over the great transition into Light.

Which is more true, the physical mechanical structure of downward thrusts contained by brilliant engineering or the anti-gravity cathedral which teaches the soul to soar? Which is ‘reality’?

As we enter the building the whole aesthetic experience, heightened by colour of glass, incense and organ music, lifts the soul out of the bonds of earth. The cathedral is, allegorically, an ensouled body, as we are ourselves. Real ‘looking’ means experiencing this tremendous fact. This is the ‘object of the exercise’.

Under the Romans the arch was always subordinate, never enjoyed for itself, its energy crushed down by weight of matter and virtually disguised by pillar and lintel (Fig. 26). With the Gothic, the nature of the arch is expressed in every line, with passion. Through the four dynamic centuries, there is a perpetual striving to manifest the arch and reveal the counter thrusts, until a precision architecture is developed, always striving to reduce the amount of material used and heighten the effects of space, loftiness and light. Our imagination must experience this development of building, recognizing that the impulse sweeps forward through these creative centuries. Move rapidly in your inner feeling from the Norman round arches to the break-through into the pointed arch and on to the development of late flamboyant Gothic and our own flowering in Perpendicular, all forms refining and all structure lightening.

The incredibly bold invention of the flying buttress to take the pressure of a high vault released the possibility of ever higher aspiration. This reached its limit at Beauvais where the vault stands 157 feet above the floor. It fell and was rebuilt. It fell again and the builders underpinned the structure by an additional arch in the great bays. Then the choir stood but the nave was never built. In 1509 two late Gothic architects, in deliberate defiance of the Renaissance trends, built a spire 250 feet high above the 200 foot roof, a series of eight octogons, pierced to reduce wind pressure. This soaring gesture into the vertical stood for four years and then fell. The limit had been over-reached, but the present majestic but truncated Cathedral stands as a monument to lofty aspiration. The eye is compelled to reach upwards – and marvel.

In an earlier chapter we have seen how the drive in the pillar in Gothic buildings seems to pass through the capital and is released in the ribs to bend and curve, freed from gravity. The ribs are pillar metamorphosed, and indeed the whole impulse is to turn everything into ‘pillar’. The wall areas are given over to ever larger windows, the buttresses are pillar-wall set end on, the ribs of the vaults are pillars transformed into glorious play. The vault areas between the ribs are clearly of the nature of wall but released from the vertical and free to bend. Our feeling is that the entire vault is lifting, like great wings or a huge kite. The logical mind, thinking in terms of weight and downward pressure, is stilled. The pinnacles, built to add a few tons on top of a buttress, should, if truly expressing function, show themselves as weighty lumps. Instead they reach upwards to a flowering finial, with flame-like crockets up each corner to add to the illusion of rising.

The long thin columns, often semi-detached, serve to give the impression that the whole structure is a shrine too delicate ever to stand in the physical world. Indeed every part of the Cathedral becomes a shrine down to the smallest niches, which are designed to give the appearance of tiny vaults with attenuated pillars. When a church is shown in a medieval manuscript it is often drawn as such a tabernacle with pillars so tall and slender that they could never stand in the world of gravity.

In so far as ‘pillar’ represents ‘being’, the whole structure is approaching the higher world of being. The hierarchies of angelic beings are there for those who have the inner eye to see.

Even the familiar zig-zag decoration of the Norman arches will, if you run your eye over it strongly, suddenly dazzle and flash as if it were light. Look at Durham’s nave in this way and those tremendous pillars are seen like great archangels with lightning flashing from one to the other. Perhaps the Norman builders were expressing a reality they knew and we have forgotten. Through the eye experience we can recover a spiritual truth. Beethoven in that last sonata before his death (Op. 111) expresses the celestial vision in quadruple sustained frills. Is this not also an attempt to express light in matter, and therefore comparable with Durham? Assuredly that moment of the first glimpse into the Durham nave is one of the most celestial in English architecture. It is as if the builders then knew with certainty the reality of the archangels. In our age of unbelief we may recover the lost knowledge through true experience of these inspired forms.

By using our imaginative looking, we experience the stupendous impulse working to release the spirit imprisoned within matter. The purpose of the Gothic temple is to give us the soul experience of reaching through to higher worlds of expanded consciousness.

We must feel that architectural style in its evolution is a living picture of evolving human consciousness. Behind the inner necessity to build in any one form lie profound psychological and spiritual forces. Man cannot but reveal what he is by what he builds. The classical world, essentially philosophical, develops the static form of pillar and lintel, with the resultant horizontal lines giving spaciousness and dignity, fitting for an age of thought. Set against this as an imaginative experience the upward striving of the Gothic, every line surging into the vertical drive to overcome gravity. The pointed arch gave to our medieval ancestors exactly the instrument they wanted to express their own energetic nature. Descendants of the barbarian hordes who overwhelmed the decadent Roman Empire with a surge of new youthful physical vitality, they are like the adolescence of Europe. The essential characteristic of adolescence is idealism translated into action. This showed itself in the Crusades, Chivalry, Heraldry and the lofty Cathedrals. The impulse lifted them above the pestilence, famine and cruelty of the age. They rejoiced in the arch as a challenge and played thrust against counter-thrust in defiance of gravity.

We may recognize the polarity of the vertical and horizontal principles in architecture and sense that they indicate the predominance of action or thought in any age or society. A striking example is the Rockfeller building in New York. Here is a complete expression of the vertical principle produced assuredly as an expression of an age of action. But not Gothic, and why not? Not for lack of decorative details but because it has no metamorphosis. Compare it with Orleans. It stands like a rocket cannon aimed at the heavens and there is no transmuting of matter into subtler forms. It does not admit the reality of the heavenly world and is a splendid but quite materialistic expression of the vertical impulse of action.


Next chapter: 10. The Spiritual Springs of Architecture

This way! Click me and I'll take you to the next page!
The Active Eye in Architecture
Sir George Trevelyan

First published in 1977 by The Wrekin Trust
This book is out-of-print, available only on this website
Next page
Previous page


Start of the book
Download a zipfile
HOME
Articles   Books
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Close encounters
Photos

© Copyright Sir George Trevelyan and estate, 1977. This book may be downloaded and printed on paper in single copies for personal use and study only, in a spirit of fair play and without financial transaction. .