The Origins of Gothic at the Church of Saint-Denis

Written with Stephen Murray, medieval historian at Columbia University
This is my Columbia University senior thesis in the History & Theory of Architecture. This work expands on my films about Amiens Cathedral, published here.

Abstract

Around the year 1140 CE, a new style of architecture and way of thinking about how to construct buildings developed in Northern France. This way of building soon spread across Europe, seeding cathedrals, monasteries, abbeys, and churches wherever masons traveled. Centuries later – long after masons ceased building in this style – Renaissance architectural theorists began calling this style the “Gothic.”
The one church traditionally associated with this 1140s stylistic shift from the earlier Romanesque style to the newer Gothic style is a small building just north of Paris: the Abbey Church of S-Denis. However, although the popular narrative of architectural history assumes this building to be the world’s first Gothic building, little structural evidence to this effect survives. This thesis follows two strains of inquiry: 1) why this church is associated with the origins of Gothic and 2) how surviving fragments of the 1140s S-Denis fail to support claims of the structure’s primacy.
Why does this matter? S-Denis reveals a tendency to tell history – particularly architectural history – in terms of individual structures when, in fact, the origins of the Gothic style might be more complex. By abandoning a Paris and S-Denis centric origins story, we might be able to better appreciate the diverse array of local sources from which medieval masons found inspiration to build.

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Read the thesis online

Opens as PDF in new window

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Strangely enough, despite the accepted fact that S-Denis’ architecture was significantly rebuilt, numerous sources continue to assume this church to be the first. Copied below is a quote from S-Denis’ official website:

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The birth of Gothic art. The church, designed by Abbot Suger, kings’ advisor from 1135 to 1144, was completed in the 13th-century during the reign of Saint Louis. A major work of Gothic art, this church was the first to place a great importance on light, a symbol of divinity, in religious architecture.

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Or this quote from leading German medievalist Dieter Kimpel:

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Suger, abbot of the most important of all the royal abbeys, that of Saint-Denis, and sponsor of the western part and the sanctuary of the abbey church, works considered rightly as a milestone in the history of the birth of Gothic architecture, left us a detailed account of his activity as abbot.

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Amiens Cathedral Construction Sequence

Supervised by Stephen Murray, historian at Columbia University
Presentation delivered March 2018 at St. Catherine’s College at the University of Oxford

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My goal is to recreate Amiens Cathedral digitally. My method is to build an interactive and open-source computer model of the entire cathedral that is accurate to the foot and photo-realistic. This project would be impossible without the guidance of medievalist Stephen Murray, who introduced me to Amiens in his fall 2016 seminar at Columbia University.

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Related Projects

This project is published to Columbia’s website. I expanded on Amiens Cathedral for my senior thesis about the medieval church of St. Denis, and I continued building computer models as a research assistant at Columbia University’s Media Center for Art History.
I also researched the construction sequences of:
The Eiffel Tower
Burford Church near Oxford, England
St. Paul’s Cathedral dome in London
Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon
– Notre-Dame in Paris (forthcoming)

Eiffel Tower Construction Sequence

Music: Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns, 1886

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The Eiffel Tower was built over 18 months – from August 1887 to March 1889. This film shows the construction sequence, starting with the foundations and ending with the cupola.

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Sources

I created this model on Sketchup.
I am sharing it here for anyone to download and edit for free.
Or view the Eiffel Tower in virtual reality from Sketchfab

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Further Reading

Gustave Eiffel’s original plans and drawings for the tower were first published in 1900 and re-published in 2008 by Taschen.

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Burford Church Construction Sequence

This project is also featured on Burford Church’s official website.
Created with the late Cathy Oakes, medieval art historian at the University of Oxford

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Construction Sequence: 1175-1475

While studying history at Oxford University, I based my final research project on Burford Church near Oxford, England. With the generous help from Cathy Oakes, I visited this humble parish church and recreated its 300 year construction and evolution through a computer model. View the resulting animation above or download the digital source files for free at this link. Narration below:

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  • c.1175 – Work begins on the Norman church working from east to west.
    It is a simple structure with round Norman windows and a choir, nave, and tower.
  • c.1200 – Demolition to construct a chapel, aisle, and entrance foyer.
  • c.1250 – Addition of north and south transept. Chancel is expanded.
  • c.1400 – The crypt is added, and the tower is heightened. The architectural style changes from Norman to Gothic, from round arches to pointed. Local cloth merchants construct a separate guild chapel at a slight angle to the main church.
  • c.1475 – Guild chapel is demolished to build the Lady Chapel. Most of the remaining nave is demolished to construct two new aisles, a larger west window, and new clerestory windows. Two chapels are added to either side of the choir, as well as a three floor entrance tower (not visible from this angle).
  • This completes the construction of Burford Church.

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Visual Analysis

What is the visual language of Burford Church? What aspects of medieval social history can be deduced from the church decoration? Without written historical records, building fragments alone can tell the story of church construction.
Here is my tour of the architectural fabric.

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The Digital Cathedral of Amiens

Created with Stephen Murray, architectural historian at Columbia University

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1. Construction Sequence: 1220-1528

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Music: Beata Viscera by Pérotin, c.1200.

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1220-c.1225
Master Robert de Luzarches began work on the foundations and lower wall.
He may have been assisted by Thomas de Cormont
1225-30
Master Robert de Luzarches and Thomas de Cormont constructed the south nave aisle
rapidly to provide space for liturgical celebrations
1230-1235
Master Robert de Luzarches and Thomas de Cormont built the north nave aisle
soon afterwards
1240s-c.1250
Master Thomas de Cormont constructed the upper nave and belfries of western towers
c.1250
Master Thomas de Cormont died having completed the upper nave,
begun the upper transept and laid out the lower choir
1250s-1260s
Master Renaud de Cormont completed the upper transept and upper choir
The axial window of the choir clerestory was installed in 1269
1280s-c.1310
Main roof installed from east to west
1360s-c.1400
Construction of west towers
1528
Old steeple destroyed by lightning; construction of the grand clocher doré completed c.1533

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Text by Stephen Murray

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2. Amiens Cathedral in Cross Section

This film shows the cathedral in cross section,
exploring the relationship between interior and exterior spaces.

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Music: Mille Regretz by Josquin des Prés

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Section of choir

Section of western half of cathedral

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3. Cathedral Flythrough

Viewers approach Amiens from the west, like medieval pilgrims did. Viewers then move through the complex system of flying buttresses that support the cathedral vaults. The animation then reconstructs the dynamic geometry that engineers encoded in the cathedral floor plan. The film closes with the view from below the foundations, as if the cathedral were floating on air.

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Music: Viderunt Omnes by Pérotin, 1198

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Section of the nave roof

Section of west façade

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amiensAlong with the Parthenon, Amiens Cathedral is introduced each semester to students in Art Humanities. This seminar has been taught since 1947 and is required of all undergraduates as part of the Core Curriculum. Through broad introductory courses in art, literature, history, music, and science, the Core aims to produce well-rounded citizens of Columbia University students. Amiens was chosen as representative of all Gothic architecture, and as a lens through which to teach skills of visual analysis. This computer model I created instructs over 1,300 students per year.
Based on the computer model, I produced the three short films above: (1) a construction sequence, (2) a digital flythrough of the finished cathedral, and (3) a speculative animation of the cathedral in cross section. This trilogy is complemented with music from Pérotin (the thirteenth-century French composer) and Josquin des Prés (the fifteenth-century composer). Both musicians also happen to be featured in the Music Humanities component of the Core Curriculum.
My objective is to digitize and re-imagine Amiens. To borrow a quote from Viollet-le-Duc, the legendary nineteenth-century preservationist-architect of Notre-Dame de Paris, my aim was “to restore the building to a state of completeness that may have never existed.” For instance, Amiens lost almost all of its original stained glass windows and large parts of its nave. My project responds by presenting the cathedral in an idealized light. Awkward walls, later additions, and anachronistic features can all be airbrushed away from my model, so as to reveal how the master masons originally envisioned their cathedral in the thirteenth century.
A building is experienced as a sequence of sights and sounds. A research text about such a building, however, can only capture limited information. Photography, film, and computer simulations are, in contrast, dynamic and sometimes stronger mediums to communicate the visual and engineering complexity of architecture. This project seeks to capture dynamic Amiens through a visual, auditory, and user interactive experience. Through film, one can recreate and expand the intended audience of this architecture, recreating digitally the experience of pilgrimage.
In Viollet-le-Duc’s 1863 book, Entretiens sur l’architecture, he presented Gothic architecture as the synthesis of a Roman basilica and a Romanesque church. After several centuries of evolution, these two forms merged into the singular form of the Gothic cathedral. For him, the Gothic cathedral (particularly Amiens) was the pinnacle of human architectural and aesthetic achievement. In other words, the cathedral’s form and plan evolved in response to theology and changes in the rituals of the Mass.
The two animations below illustrate Viollet-le-Duc’s thesis about Gothic. Although later scholars dispute his simplistic analysis, his work remains influential.

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Evolution of the cathedral from early Christian to late Gothic

 

Development of the cathedral plan over 1,000 years.
Inspired from Viollet-le-Duc’s writing

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Cathedrals and History

In the absence of surviving written records, many scholars read cathedral construction as a proxy for economic growth, or as a symbol for the structure of medieval society. The decision of where and when to start building a cathedral was tied to the right economic and political conditions. The large majority of cathedrals were built in the region of Northeastern France during the High Middle Ages – during a period of remarkable economic growth and productivity in the thirteenth century. Construction slowed after climate change caused failed crops, followed by the Great Famine (1315) and the Black Death (1350). The economic conditions and cathedral construction never rebounded for a long time afterwards, and when construction did rebound, Europe had entered the Renaissance with a new aesthetic sensibility different from Gothic Amiens
The cathedral can also be read as a political symbol. Funding came from a combination of donations, indulgences, and taxes on church-owned farmlands. The logic between competing regions and feudal kingdoms in medieval France reads something like: the larger and prettier the cathedral, the larger and more powerful the city and sponsors behind it. For many of these towns, the size of the cathedral was well out of proportion to the actual size of the town. Amiens, for instance, was one of the largest cathedrals in Europe for a town of ~26,000. The other cathedral town of Chartres was, similarly, competing with Paris for power and independence. Cathedral were architectural symbols for the competitions between cities and regions. In this light, the cathedral became as much a religious space as a political statement of civic identity.

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Credits

I am indebted to the expert guidance of medieval historian Stephen Murray, who mentored me in the fall 2016 seminar Life of a Cathedral: Notre-Dame of Amiens. I also thank Columbia’s Center for Career Education for funding this project through its Work Exemption Program.

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Method

Anyone can download this model from Sketchup for free and edit it from their computer. Over 3,000 people have downloaded this model, and numerous others have 3D printed it as part of their architecture studios. This model is built with free computer modeling software called Sketchup. Among software, Sketchup is easiest to learn. Within minutes, students and teachers unfamiliar with Sketchup can build their own models with ease. In response to several rounds of edits and suggestions from Stephen Murray, I finished this model and exported the animation for final edits and special effects.
In this recorded lecture, I describe the workflow and editing process behind this project.

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Sources

– Based on Stephen Murray’s measurements and drawings of Amiens from 1990 (link)
– And these hand drawings by George Durand from 1901-03 (link).

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Related Projects

This project is published to Columbia’s website. I expanded on Amiens Cathedral for my senior thesis about the medieval church of St. Denis, and I continued building computer models as a research assistant at Columbia University’s Media Center for Art History.
I also researched the construction of:
The Eiffel Tower
Burford Church near Oxford, England
St. Paul’s Cathedral dome in London
Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon
Notre-Dame of Paris

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The cathedral from your computer

Animated Glossary of Amiens Cathedral

This model shows a section of Amiens’ nave with the labyrinth below. Photo-realistic textures from actual photos and drawings of Amiens enhance the illusion of reality. Click numbered annotations to view details. Click and drag mouse to fly around the model. Please be patient while the model loads.

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Amiens Cathedral Exterior Computer Model

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Amiens Cathedral Exterior Photos

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Amiens Cathedral Interior

Gallery is organized sequentially to mirror the experience of walking through the cathedral.

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Cross Sections

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Dynamic Angles

Computer models allow us to explore architecture in ways not possible in reality. With Amiens floating in the sky, one looks up to the grid of vaults and the forest of columns. The cathedral is real, but the views of it are imaginary.

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The Urban Development of Newark: 1660-2016

Audio from Freesound

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As Newark celebrates the 350th anniversary of its founding in 1666, I created this series of drawings based on historical images and maps. As Newark develops from a small town to a bustling and industrial metropolis, the sounds shift from quiet woodlands to the din of the vibrant city with rising skyscrapers. This two minute time-lapse aims to represent history as a living and fluid process.

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The Legacy of Vitruvius

Rome left a footprint on the built environment.
What will our society leave?

Essay selected from successful 2014 application to the Telluride Association Summer Program

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Visitors to the ruins of vanished Greece, Carthage, and Rome do not see whole structures, so much as shards of memory and the detritus of a lost civilization. Ruins’ emotive power comes less from seeing them intact and more from imagining them as they once were. There is something powerful about “the lost cause.” The imagery of loss draws viewers in to imagine a civilization that was or still could be if history had gone differently. Roman culture and art left a visible impact on the built environment, and on how later civilizations constructed their own identities through claiming legitimacy (real or imagined) descended from Rome. The aesthetics of the southern plantation house, the US state capitals, and thousands of old bank buildings evoke the imagery of Roman columns, white marble, and solid proportions. What material legacy will our own civilization leave when it, too, splinters apart? Who or what is included in the process of memory making? Who is left out?
There are many ways to answer this question. One way is to compare the principles of ancient architecture with the realities of modern culture, and to see where they diverge. This divide is well illustrated by one book: De Architectura or The Ten Books on Architecture, written around 30-15 BCE by Vitruvius, a Roman architect and engineer. From the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution, architects drew on the content of this book as a user manual and their profession’s “Bible.” Vitruvian design principles guided Palladio for his Venetian villas, Brunelleschi for his Florentine dome, and da Vinci for his drawing of Vitruvian Man. In the face of centuries of tradition, modern architecture diverges from Vitruvius’ aesthetic standards. The globalized world of today with its shimmering skyscrapers, speeding trains, and growing reliance on the Frankenstein of technology makes Roman technological achievements seem small and quaint by contrast. Rome and Vitruvius were steeped in the ornament of tradition and precedent that modern architecture dispenses with. Roman culture seems to have little do with, or say about, modern culture and architecture.

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In De Architectura, Vitruvius identifies the three principles of good architecture: beauty (venustas), quality (firmitas), utility (utilitas). The built environment must fulfill all three; to pass the test of time is the measure of good design. I will establish the relevance of each of these principles to modern design thought.

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Beauty—Venustas

Aesthetic principles guided the architecture of Vitruvius’s time. Vitruvius emphasizes how architecture must relate to the human body, “In the human body there is a kind of symmetrical harmony between forearm, foot, palm, finger, and other small parts; and so it is with perfect buildings” (Vitruvius 14). Vitruvius desires a continuum where well-proportioned and symmetrical humans inhabited equally well-proportioned structures. As the human body attains perfection through harmony, so too must architecture. Consequently, the architect becomes an interpreter, translating the proportions and elegance of the body into the forms of perfect buildings. As the human body has legs, torso, and head, architecture must have base, middle, and top. As the human body is symmetrical from left to right, architecture must be symmetrical from left to right. As the human body measures each organ in relation to the greater being, architecture must consider each detail in relation to the greater building. Vitruvius emphasizes continuity between man and his world, a place where man has an environment befitting his stature. The gendered language is Vitruvius’, not mine.
Yet behind this devotion to replicating human forms in architecture, there are the seeds of racial prejudice. “In fact”, writes Vitruvius, “the races of Italy are the most perfectly constituted in both respects — in bodily form and in mental activity to correspond to their valour” (173). There seems to be the following implication: If humans are perfect creations in the image of the gods, then a perfect building should draw from the perfect human. Furthermore, since Roman people are the finest people in the world, Roman architecture must be the finest architecture in the world. The creation myth that Roman people are descended from the gods via Romulus and Remus, as well as the sophisticated appearance of the Roman built environment, is used to justify conquest and colonialism. Vitruvius sees aesthetics as a linear evolution where Roman architecture and Roman culture are the specious pinnacles of progress. In comparison, the narrative of the Industrial Revolution and capitalism’s claim to technological progress seems to claim, like Vitruvius, that our own civilization is the most advanced and best. It is the end of history.
Modern architecture, unlike Roman architecture, does not obey Vitruvian principles of construction and aesthetics. Like Vitruvius in service of his client, the Roman Empire, modern architects can also be agents of injustice through their design of prisons and institutions that perpetuate violence. Unlike Roman structures, the modern built environment has turned toward functionalism, rationalism, and cost-saving measures at the expense of hand carved stone ornament. All of Vitruvius structures were designed by and for people to live and work in. Today sees whole new varieties of structures for different types of “people” – houses for cars, houses for airplanes, houses for industrial equipment, electricity generators, and computers. The superhighway and skyscraper of today dwarf the Roman roads and crumbling obelisks of antiquity. Building materials have changed from stone, earth, and wood to sheetrock, fiberglass, and plastic. The constraints of economy dictate that modern structures need not model the human form. The built environment has become alienating.

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On the one hand, the erosion of human aesthetic standards and the wide array of new building materials gives the architect greater autonomy. On the other hand, this same absence permits clutter and disorder. Learning from Las Vegas, a 1972 essay by architect Robert Venturi reads the respective urban plans of Rome and Las Vegas as symbols for different philosophies of space. Rome, a classical city created over millenia, is built of stone in obedience to Vitruvius’ principles. Most Roman structures have a well-defined base, middle, and top (usually the terracotta roof) and are of similar symmetry, height, style, and scale. Most structures also relate to their urban environment through their human-scale density and orientation to the sun. The scale is human; the city is a microcosm. By metallic contrast, Las Vegas, an asphalt civilization constructed in the desert, is fabricated of all materials with little planning or care for beauty. The presence of a foe brick and stone casino clashes with the glass and metal of a next-door skyscraper. The Moroccan style theater clashes with the Federalist style motel, which clashes with the postmodern fairytale castle. Las Vegas is not alone; rather, its chaos and clutter are exaggerations of Main Street and the roadside America of strip malls, car washes, and prefabricated houses. With technology comes freedom of movement and aesthetics but also an associated disorder and non-Vitruvian decadence.
One should ask if it is possible to continue practicing the aesthetic of Vitruvius in contemporary society. Probably not. To start, the scale of architecture and its role in society is different. Monolithic architecture was key to solidifying the legitimacy of Roman rulers and the breadth of Roman conquests. Architecture seemingly does not play a comparable role in twenty-first-century society, where politicians quibble over funding for infrastructure and the arts. The profession of architect is also different. In Vitruvius’ time, the architect was also an engineer who oversaw even the smallest technical detail; for example, Vitruvius devotes much of his book to describing engineering methods to be employed by architects. In our time, the architect is no longer an engineer because the technical complexity of a modern building like an airport or hospital is far beyond the design abilities of any single person. Whereas Vitruvius’ time saw the concentration of talent and power in the hands of the master architect, our time sees the dispersal of talent and power in the hands of engineers, electricians, plumbers, lawyers, architects, and the rest who collaborate on construction. In this manner, the construction methods (and materials) underlying Roman architecture are inapplicable to contemporary society. While Vitruvius expected three rustic qualities of architecture – quality, utility, and beauty – occupants today expect a lot more: electricity, gas, plumbing, heating, wifi, etc.
Society should shape its architecture according to its needs, not the reverse. Architecture, even if the aesthetic ideal is as refined as Rome’s, should not confine society to the trappings of history and style. As urban historian Kenneth T. Jackson writes: “History is for losers. Preservation is used as a political tool rather than a tool to preserve buildings.” We cannot and should not unquestioningly emulate Rome because the cultural forces shaping our respective societies are uniquely different.

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Quality—Firmitas and Utility—Utilitas

Although Vitruvian aesthetics are potentially outdated, his principles of quality and utility are not. Quality and utility transcend culture and time and are just as applicable to our society as they were to Rome’s.
Vitruvius believes the architect is responsible for building enduring structures. He writes: “Stone, flint, rubble burnt or unburnt brick, — use them as you find them […] so that out of them a faultless wall may be built to last forever” (53). Vitruvius believes that any structure, no matter how humble, must be built to last. In this manner, there is continuity, from the humblest wall to the grandest temple; all are to endure the test of time. Furthermore, it is the architect’s duty to factor both beauty and time into construction, so that a wall will be just as durable in ten years as it will be in a hundred. This mindset reveals a fixed understanding of beauty; what is valued for beauty today will remain so tomorrow. A faultless wall will remain a faultless wall; a beautiful temple will remain a beautiful temple. A building is thus an investment in quality and taste.
Roman construction methods were based on precedence and tradition. In describing the responsibilities of an architect, Vitruvius writes: “An architect ought to be an educated man so as to leave a more lasting remembrance in his treatises” (6). An architect is responsible for creating a legacy through his proud buildings and lasting treatises, much like De Architectura did for Vitruvius. The treatise serves to maintain a continuum, whereby future architects can learn from their forefathers. The building serves to commemorate one’s era and its leaders for time immemorial. Thus, there is continuity where each generation of architects contributes to following generations and refines the built environment through incremental change.
Although Vitruvius and modern architects seem to share little in common, they both agree that “form follows function” (a phrase coined by Chicago architect Louis Sullivan). Vitruvius writes that each building must be constructed in a manner that reflects how it is to be used and where it is to be situated. He goes to immense lengths describing the building materials and methods best suited to each environment. This concern with function mirrors the founding principles of modern architecture. The fathers of modern architecture, like Vitruvius, believed that a noble architecture is the pure expression of function, verticality for the skyscraper, openness for the train shed, airiness for the cathedral, and efficiency for the factory. For them, each building should have an aesthetic form that parallels and expresses its function. Ironically, modern architecture has the same founding principle as ancient architecture, even if they seem to differ in their materials and construction methods. As postmodern architect Robert Venturi writes: “We look backward at history and tradition to go forward” (Venturi et al. 3).

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St. John the Divine 5.

Cause for concern?

Roman roads lasted millennia and Roman sewers are still in use; will our crumbling infrastructure last as long? Roman towers of stone withstood the elements for centuries; will our rusting skyscrapers of steel last as long? The Roman forum became legendary; this architectural space become a powerful symbol for democracy and government long after the Roman buildings themselves had decayed. Could the same destiny await our “forums” of today, the strip mall, the grocery chain, and the drive-thru? The Renaissance aspired to the grandeur of Rome; what society will aspire to the grandeur of our society? Or, will there even be much to aspire to with the twisted piles of fallen metal and the troubled environment our children will inherit?

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In the end, who am I to judge? The broken statues, pottery, and amphora displayed in our museums were not made with us in mind, nor would they be valued by Romans in the shattered state the public now sees them in. The sources of much of our knowledge about Rome stem not from official texts but from the vulgar graffiti scrawled on the walls of Pompeii and the tall tales of the Satyricon, Rome’s equivalent of modern pulp fiction. If anything, this unintentional legacy humanizes past civilizations better than the often pompous monuments the Romans left behind. These accidental histories, like broken pottery and Roman garbage, reveal the lives of common people as they saw Rome. Rome left a legacy, although not always in the places and manner it intended to leave one. Perhaps we, too, may leave a legacy, although neither through our desire nor our intent. The detritus of modernity may (or may not) be valued centuries from now, if it survives. Twisted piles of rubble and plastic tupperware may (or may not) intrigue future archaeologists as they ask: How did this once prosperous and powerful civilization meet its end? Commemoration or oblivion, a future fountain of inspiration or a lasting cause of sorrow, what will become of our globalized world? Only time will tell.

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St. John the Divine 1

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Further Reading

Robert Venturi et al. Learning from Las Vegas. 1st ed. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972.
Marcus Vitruvius. The Ten Books on Architecture. 1st ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1914.