The ‘Gothic’ architectural style, which flourished from the 12th to 16th centuries AD, offered Europe some of its greatest cathedrals, minsters, and churches, as well as an architectural treasure trove of palaces, town halls, and guild buildings. Notably, the soaring open spaces envisioned and built by the period’s architects were only made possible by the period’s architects’ new approaches to planning and constructing ambitious vaulted ceilings. How did these massive, complicated monuments become built in the Middle Ages? How did they record their visions and communicate them to the great masons and builders who created them?
Dr. David Wendland of the Technical University of Dresden uses an ERC Starting Grant to shed light on hitherto undiscovered components of this medieval ‘knowledge society’ to provide solutions. Dr. Wendland states, “This research is about the language of geometry.” “The more intricate structures you can design, the richer your language must be. Even today, you must be able to describe a shape to construct it. We observe a lot of invention and complexity in architecture in the late-Gothic period around 1500 AD. However, we have little hints about the technical language those late-Gothic builders spoke; about what was possible for them, on how their understanding of geometry and their capacity to transfer it to others both empowered them and limited their potential”.
We are returning to the beginning.
Historians have depended on the few surviving sources up until now. “Some geometric drawings and texts have survived, but the majority have been lost,” says Dr. Wendland. “For example, we have a text fragment from Germany’s Palatinate region and a longer text from Spain’s Segovia that we are carefully investigating. These are vital, but they aren’t enough, so we’re trying something new: reverse engineering.”
Dr. Wendland is employing reverse-engineering tools designed for the automobile sector to move backward from the building itself to the building process, starting with surveys of Gothic-style buildings.
Know-how from the past and the future: Gothic Style
The goal is to identify how we communicated this information on medieval building sites and across Europe, between architects and builders, through understanding how these structures were designed and produced.
Dr. Wendland’s research has a more recent application in Gothic architecture preservation and restoration. “Too often, today’s restorers have little choice but to rely on 19th-century ‘Gothic-revival’ books or current construction processes.” Neither of these options preserves the traditional fabric and structure; instead, they employ modern facade-related solutions. We will be better equipped to maintain these structures and the cultural legacy they represent for future generations, in the spirit of their original creators, now that we have a deeper understanding of old technologies.”