Sunday, May 25, 2008
I just read - for pleasure, not work - Philip Ball's Universe of Stone: Chartres Cathedral and the Triumph of the Medieval Mind. It's a good book and a very good read, though it is a summary of scholarship rather and an original argument and slightly lacking in aesthetic intensity. The reason there is so much scholarship about Chartres is because of its beauty - Is it the greatest building in the world? And, if not, what is? - not because of its social and theological context or structural integrity. (This beauty is, for me, combined with panic as I have a phobia for large, dark, interior spaces and the last time I went to Chartres I was only just able to go inside.) Any book about Chartres, therefore, should begin with and give precedence to the irreducible fact of its beauty. Coming to terms with beauty has always been a problem for writers about architecture. Ball, in preferring earlier, starker Gothic to the later more decorative variety, teeters on the brink of the fallacy that has dogged architectural criticism of the last hundred years - the idea there is some necessary and rational connection between clearly expressed function and beauty. This is absurd as it would justify those big warehouses or stores around the M25 as high art. They are full of expressed function - you can see every i-beam and truss - as buildings and as economic propositions. Even the great modernist writer Nikolaus Pevsner casually tossed aside his own faith in function when he distinguished between architecture and a bicycle shed - if there is such a distinction, then the whole 'form follows function' ideology would seem to be in ruins. The truth is there is little conceptual difference between the most rigorous and refined modernism and the most fanciful baroque; both go to extraordinary lengths to aestheticise the simple task of enclosing space. Beauty as necessarily function is even more absurd when considering Chartres because religion is the function and that, obviously, resists all contemporary, secular critical categories. A preference for bare 'functional' architecture is not an indicator of ideological purity, but of taste. Ball quotes Jacques Heyman - 'A structural engineer, looking at a Gothic cathedral, will see, not a massive array of nave piers, but the skeletal structure formed by the centre-lines of those piers; not a thick vault, but a thin doubly-curved sheet spanning between the mathematical centre-lines of the ribs.' This isn't as impressive as it sounds because that is what a structural engineer would see in any building that had not actually fallen down and, if that's all he's seeing, he should perhaps get another job, or life. But this is a very good book and useful book. I simply wanted to use it to make the point that the desire for critical purity is the aesthetic correlative of the desire for scientific completion. Both are utopian fantasies of a terminal neatness. Chartres is untouched.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 8:17 am