A Cathedral of My Dreams

I am still searching for an output for my cathedral obsession. As a creator, I am itching to apply the delicious forms and ideas that I have been feasting on during my tour of the great English cathedrals.

The most obvious project was to design a cathedral of my own. I am often asked which is my favourite cathedral and struggled to answer since they all have unique characteristics that I adore. However, I wondered if I could take inspiration from my top ten and somehow combine them into one coherent cathedral of my dreams.

Bishops and master-masons would commonly travel between cities taking inspiration from their neighbours, however very few would have the opportunity to design one complete vision. Most cathedrals have grown and adapted over many hundreds of years and it is this layering that gives them their fascinating charm.  The medieval master-mason would almost always build in the most up-to-date style and it is thrilling to be able to read abrupt changes in style that could signify long periods of funds run out or repairs to a collapsed tower. Like a living being, it has turbulent stories and the scars to prove it. Thus to design a cathedral is to tell a story.

My cathedral was built over an earlier Saxon structure shortly after the Norman Conquest. It was a time when the new king began a phase of monumental building projects to stamp his authority on his rebellious nation. The building was massive, crude and fortress-like with thick walls, rounded arches and narrow windows. The miraculous acquisition of the Holy Healing Hands of St Hilary relic attracted pilgrims from across Europe and the cathedral grew rich from their offerings. This enabled the refashioning of the whole cathedral in the latest Gothic style with pointed arches that allowed a far more delicate structure, filled in with large stained glass windows. The effect of the coloured light was dazzling, attracting further more pilgrims. The two west towers were substantially elevated in height.

England entered a time of frequent at war with France. Out of fear from taxation for the king to pay for the war, wealthy cathedrals chose to invest their money in immovable assets like their buildings. This prompted a building boom and the blossoming of the highly ornate “Decorated Style”.  A great spire was built to compete with Salisbury, but overzealous in their ambition, a hundred years later, it collapsed onto the quire.

By the time rebuilding began, there was a reaction against the over-flamboyance of the Decorated Style, that was seen as all too French. It gave way to the more regimented “Perpendicular Style” that made use of simpler, repeating patterns. This had practical benefits too, the Black Death had taken its toll and there were few skilled masons around. Still, a soaring tower and new quire with a cutting edge fan vaulted ceiling marked the pinnacle of the Gothic age.

Only a few years after completion, the Reformation and Civil War would cause collateral damage. The reliquary shrine was smashed, as was much of the statuary and stained glass, and the vividly painted walls were whitewashed. Then followed centuries of neglect. The cathedral was almost a ruin by the time it caught the interest of the Victorian Romantics and prompted a lifesaving restoration project. However, compromises had to be made, Lord Grimsby, the main donor of the restoration was also a hobbyist architect and replaced the fine medieval transept window with his own retrogressive version of the Five Sisters at Yorkminster. There began the backward looking conservatism, mimicking styles of ages gone by.

Disaster struck again in the Second World War when an incendiary bomb was dropped on the South Transept causing it to collapse, nearing taking the tower with it. A decision was quickly taken to rebuild, this time using modern techniques and materials. A better understanding of structure meant that the pioneering Gothic Arch could be refined again, following the exact flow of force; the Catenary Arch. This allowed for an exceptionally strong and lightweight vault to be cast from reinforced concrete and the stained glass skin to be literally hung from the structure. The Gothic masters would have been proud.

My intention had been to build a large scale model of my cathedral, possibly to 3D print it. But a meeting in Cologne with master architectural cork model maker, Dieter Collen made me realise something was missing. Indeed my project had been an essential study into development of styles, however somehow lacked a particular angle or creative expression. It had been an exercise in becoming fluent in the language of cathedral design, but something much greater was to come.

The Greatest Buildings in the World

I am often asked why I love Gothic Cathedrals so much. My answer is, why would anybody not?

I first became interested in cathedrals when reading architecture at university. One line from a book became fixed in my mind which was to grow into an obsession.

“Gothic is the precursor to Hi Tech architecture”

At the time, I was a shameless technophile, awed by the towering steel and glass structures of the Hi Tech movement pioneered by the likes of Rogers, Foster and Grimshaw. Their buildings rejoiced in the expression of their structure that liberated the walls from bearing loads, allowing them to become shimmering skins of glass. This followed an eight hundred year old tradition first began by the Gothic Master-builders.

With this new awareness, I remember walking into the nave of Canterbury Cathedral for the first time. Church architecture, until now had not entered my radar, but this time, I was awe-struck by the soaring, light-filled space, absolutely cutting edge, pushing the materials to their limits. That playful web of vaults, columns and flying buttresses, just like the Hi Tech, were masterfully transferring the massive loads away from the walls allowing them to be weightlessly filled with glass. Indeed, the later Gothic buildings, by surface area at least, should be seen not as buildings of stone, but of glass.

In the years to follow, my passion for shiny Hi Tech has since waned. It is an aesthetic born from a triumphant belief in technology that I no longer subscribe to. What’s more, I find the "make-as-much-money-as-possible" aspirations of the patrons of our modern towers mediocre to say the least. This is not to eulogise the past; many of our most splendid cathedrals were the brainchild of the same arrogance and one-upmanship we see today. But with the omnipotent political and economic power of the medieval church now given way to well-meaning volunteers selling cake and tea towels, in these immense ancient monuments I can revel with fondness, the pinnacle of human striving and folly.