The term gothic as used here refers to that aesthetic quality of which I have written in “A Gothic Manifesto”. It is not necessarily identical to the usual uses of the term in art history. The purpose of this section is to investigate what is meant by the term gothic as it is used in art history, and distill, from these various usages, a refined understanding of the “gothic spirit”.
Dean and Woodward: Natural History Museum, Oxford (1855)
Although controversy abounds, one prominent opinion on the defining characteristics of gothic architecture is its dissolution of wall boundaries, allowing a transparency and penetration of light. This was made possible by technical advancements in structural design, such as the flying buttress, that permitted a thinness and elevation of structure which could never have been achieved using classical construction. As Charles H. Moore writes in “Development and Character of Gothic Architecture”:
“the whole scheme of the building is determined by, and its whole strength is made to reside in a finely organized and frankly confessed framework rather than in walls. This framework, made up of piers, arches and buttresses, is freed from every unnecessary incumbrance of wall and is rendered as light in all its parts as is compatible with strength — the stability of the building depending not upon inert massiveness, except in the outermost abutment of active parts whose opposing forces neutralize each other and produce a perfect equilibrium. It is thus a system of balanced thrusts in contradistinction to the ancient system of inert stability. Gothic architecture is such a system carried out in a finely artistic spirit.”
This concept of stability as an equilibrium between opposing forces rather than monolithic mass, in which “balanced thrusts” can raise an otherwise insubstantial structure to vast size and height, is a gothic leitmotif which pervades not just the conceptualization of architecture, but defines the gothic view on the nature of life in general and of Man in particular- see the excerpt from “Dr. Jekyll and Mr.Hyde ” and my commentary there. The accompanying photo of the interior of the Oxford Natural History Museum demonstrates this nicely. Its pointed arches are of such gossamer structure it’s a wonder they support anything at all, much less the huge transparent ceiling. The effect is of course rendered all the more cryptic by the dinosaur skeletons on display.
Sir G.G. Scott: Midland Hotel and St. Pancras Station, London
Another characteristic of gothic architecture is its attention to detail and its penchant for ornamental complexity, as opposed to the simple form and plain surfaces of classical design. The Midland Hotel / St. Pancras Station certainly demonstrates this aspect. In the three accompanying photos, notice how the visual complexity and fine detail is in no way diminished as one zooms in on the buildings facade. On the contrary, each close up shot reveals at least as much detail as the prior. In fact, the ornamental complexity is virtually fractal in nature, with the same patterns repeating themselves in microcosm no matter how closely one looks. This exhaustive detailing mimics nature’s infinite complexity of form, and is the same naturalism mentioned in connection with the gothic style in painting.