Your Lovely Spire is Toppling – It Happened Today, February 13, 2017
To me, gothic architecture is proof that modernity is too smug by half. Nothing we have built is remotely as beautiful as this pinnacle of medieval artistry and engineering, and very little even tries. Which is especially amazing given the advanced materials and techniques we possess that means very little of our construction falls down through overly ambitious design. Unlike, say, the spire of Ely Cathedral which bit the mud on February 13, 1322.
Many years ago I read a splendid engineering book for the lay person called Structures, or, Why Things Don’t Fall Down. And I can honestly say I have never looked at the world the same way since. I have been evaluating everything from bridges to docks to sausages and blades of grass differently since reading James Edward Gordon’s 1978 classic. And it helped me appreciate how in the high Middle Ages clerics, builders and designers overcame the natural tendency of stone to sit in sturdy piles including in the early medieval Romanesque style, and sent it soaring into the heavens through innovations critically including the flying buttress.
Mind you, I have also never forgotten his statement that as builders became more and more ambitious, the question with the cathedrals was increasingly not whether the nave collapsed but when. There are things you just can’t do with stone. Including our Peace Tower, incidentally. Much as I like it, there’s an element of deceit there because it relies on steel to assume a shape stone cannot take or, more precisely, cannot retain.
Back to Ely Cathedral, a Saxon abbey from 672 AD subject to such unwelcome attention of various Vikings that it had to be refounded in 970, and was then gradually demolished and rebuilt by the Normans. (Oh, and can I mention that Abbot Simeon, put in charge of the major Norman project, was 89 when he took the abbot’s job and 90 years old when the work began? Not everybody died young and squalid in those days.) Meanwhile the church just kept getting more and more magnificent as the years went by, beginning Romanesque and ending Gothic, and eventually they overreached. But the result can teach us a lot.
The original plan was for a "cruciform" tower like that at Winchester. But a lot of things can happen in a couple of centuries especially if you’re building a vast stone cathedral in damp wet fenlands. Like the ground settling ominously as you go. And then your crucial cruciform tower tumbling down in ruins. Which it did beginning late on February 12.
After various observations not all of which may have conformed to the ideal of monastic life, those in charge decided rather than putting it up again and warning people not to linger in it they would instead create a unique octagonal tower that is not just broader and stronger but also a spectacular achievement that still draws visitors seven centuries later.
So yes, the Middle Ages had spectacular artistic vision and a bold willingness to experiment, to dare, and to adapt in response to failure with yet more brilliant innovation. I do not think anything we build today will even be around in 700 years, let alone be worth looking at if it is.
Let us not jeer lightly at this magnificent civilization and its sublime buildings from our office cubicles, brutalist concrete highrises and plastic suburbs.