The ‘Gothic’ architectural style, which flourished during the high- and late-medieval periods, from the 12th to 16th centuries AD, gave Europe some of its greatest cathedrals, minsters and churches as well as an architectural treasure house of palaces, town halls and guild buildings among others. Importantly, the soaring open spaces conceived and constructed by the architects of the period were only made possible by the innovative ways of designing and constructing ambitious vaulted ceilings. How did those medieval builders go about designing these huge complex monuments? And in an era without computers and design software, how did they set down their visions and transmit them in usable form to the master builders and masons who created them?
To provide answers, Dr David Wendland of the Technical University of Dresden is using an ERC Starting Grant to shine a light on unknown aspects of this medieval ‘knowledge society’. “This research is about the language of geometry,” explains Dr Wendland. “The richer your language, the more complex structures you can build. To build a shape, you must be able to describe it, even today. In the late-Gothic period around 1500 AD, we see a lot going on in architecture, more innovation, more complexity – but we have few clues about the technical language those late-Gothic builders spoke; about what was possible for them, about how their knowledge of geometry and their ability to transmit it to others both empowered them and set limits to what they could achieve.”
Up until now, historians have relied on the few surviving original sources. “There are surviving geometric drawings and texts, but most are lost,” says Dr Wendland. “For example, we have a text fragment from the Palatinate region in Germany, and a longer text from Segovia in Spain that we are studying carefully. These are important, but they are not enough, so we are adopting an innovative approach – reverse engineering.”
Starting with surveys of Gothic-style buildings, Dr Wendland is working backwards from the building itself to the building process, using reverse-engineering software developed in the automotive industry. “With cars, the new design comes first – the detailed external shape and internal spaces of a new model. Only then does it reach the engineers who need to fit in the functional elements and determine how it will be made in a production environment – they use reverse engineering to achieve this,” he explains. “Art historians generally look at finished products not at creative processes, so this is a new approach for us.”
Past and future know-how
By understanding how these structures were designed and built, the aim is to discover how this knowledge was transmitted, not only on medieval building sites, but also across Europe between architects and builders. Similarities between German and Spanish patterns reveal that information exchange took place, but a better idea of knowledge-transfer mechanisms, and how these were combined with local restrictions on available building materials, will throw light on working and social practices at the time.
Dr Wendland’s research also has a more modern application in the preservation and restoration of Gothic buildings. "Often today, restorers have only 19th century ‘Gothic-revival’ manuals or modern building methods to fall back on. Neither of these preserve the original fabric and structure – they involve modern solutions that address the facade. Armed with a better idea of traditional technologies, we will be well equipped to preserve these buildings and the cultural heritage they express for future generations and in the spirit of their original builders.”