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12.03.25, Bork, Clark and McGehee, eds., New Approaches to Medieval Architecture

The Medieval Review

12.03.25, Bork, Clark and McGehee, eds., New Approaches to Medieval Architecture

The Avista organization has become a fundamental resource for the study of medieval architecture, building practice, and technology in general. This interesting collection of essays is based on several of their sponsored conference sessions between 2007 and 2009. The studies touch on aspects of medieval architecture in Byzantium, France, and England (German, Spanish, and Italian architecture are not represented). While some of the contributions bring in new information from traditional sources, such as charters, to enrich the history of well-known sites (Clark and Waldman on St-Denis), others demonstrate how technologies of various kinds are transforming or enhancing our ability to understand the process of construction and design (Titus, Tallon) or the history of a site (Paul, Reilly). The fascinating article of Janet Snyder, based in part on data from the Limestone Sculpture Provenance Project, is a transformative study that explains the standardized production of Early Gothic statue columns in the Ile de France from quarries with high quality and fine-grained limestone. Others, such as Bork, Hiscock, and Van Liefferinge, examine how the creative use of geometry generated the designs of the chevet of St.-Denis and the towers of Laon Cathedral. Other essays concern the cathedrals of Beauvais and St.-Quentin, enlarging our understanding of the roles of these monuments (or their clergy) in the context of 13th century building in France. Many of the studies touch on issues of design, structure, and dating; with the exception of Reeve's essay on great halls in England, only a few concern the "social life of buildings" either during or after the process of construction. Hardly any of these studies integrate the construction of a church with the larger monastic or ecclesiastical complex of which it was an integral part; as a result, these studies mostly tend to be framed in a structuralist vision of church architecture that makes abstraction of religious communities.

The most stimulating contributions are perhaps those at the beginning and end of this volume, those by Camerlenghi, Marinis, and Davis, whose essays variously pose a variety of new questions and present new intellectual itineraries, ones that reach beyond the specific focus of the medieval architectural historian towards a broader conceptual understanding of making and shaping medieval space. Camerlenghi's essay expands the traditional parameters of studies on medieval building to include issues of time, rupture and continuity. By placing a new focus on a building's diachronic existence as a structure that evolves during the (often protracted) process of construction, the author liberates our conception of medieval architecture from the standard approach to "original" design and "building campaigns" towards a conceptual approach that engages with the "lives" of a building: creation as process rather than project. In this view, buildings can be understood and interpreted as aggregations of ideas and interventions which need not be understood in the conventional model of "change in design" but rather more along the lines of an almost organic process of "growth" or "evolution" of rather elastic spatial and architectural concepts. Indeed, describing monastic and cathedral complexes in these terms tends to lead to a terminology based on biological concepts: buildings emerge as multivalent processes that can sometimes be "amoeba-like" in their growth and change: think, for example, of San Domenico in Bologna where by c. 1500 the slim core of the early church was engulfed by chapels and altars that transformed every aspect of the structure. Our thinking about architectural history has been conditioned by the Renaissance notion of the "ideal" as expressed in drawings and plans, not to mention the nature of our visual tools (elevations, sections, ground plans, and photographs) which represent a static, or "frozen" moment. Digital models, especially as animations, however, can represent change as organic process, an exciting development for those of us interested in the longer itineraries of buildings.

Some of these themes also emerge in the essay on the study of Byzantine architecture in Constantinople by Vasileios Marinis. His essay suggests that we may more usefully think of constructed space as a fluid response to changing or emerging needs and functions: we can understand and describe architecture as process and buildings can be interpreted fluid and multivalent "containers" that can absorb, contain, and reflect evolving usage and change. In this reading, architecture is no longer a static concept expressed in stone, mortar and wood, but rather as a sequence of social actions, as forms that not only encloses and serve changing functions, but also shape and reconfigure social relations (see also Reeve's essay), aspirations, and needs. For western medieval architecture, the insertion of choir screens or the additions of lateral chapels are the most obvious of such interventions, but even the fabric of a building can reflect economic values or social aspirations: the bon marché handling of fancy architectural forms with cheap and slapdash detailing of the upper stories of the chevet of Tours Cathedral is a good example of this.

Michael Davis' concluding essay engages with the problems of both medieval and contemporary architectural representation, questioning the role and importance of the architectural drawing (plan, elevation, view, section) prior to the late thirteenth century and expanding his inquiry to address how digital methods of interpretation may change/are changing our current modes of representing, interrogating, modeling, and communicating the history of medieval buildings. The potential for this exciting development is illustrated in the work of Tallon, Reilly, and Titus in particular, but none of the essays explore the potential of animations for representing change as suggested in the essays of Marinis and Camerlenghi. With new tools we can represent buildings as dynamic process keyed to (and annotated by) textual and structural evidence, and we can also engage with an hypothesis of spatial meaning in terms of liturgy and social zoning, as well the spatial marking of architectural decoration, such as altars and altarpieces, tombs, statues, shields, flags, and wall hangings so vividly attested in Late Medieval representations of church interiors. Indeed, as several authors point out, digital tools permit historians of medieval buildings to think through to other levels of understanding, for example that church architecture was above all a container, a "hangar," for what we might now call the "paraphernalia" of internal decoration that was almost entirely expunged starting in the 18th century (some of which has found its way into the aestheticized and secularized installations of to American museums), with little concern for the object as having been an integral part of sacred space. In addition, chronologically and spatially referenced digital models help us to take distance from traditional modes of representation (again: ground plan, section, elevation) and understand that these instruments (which, if Davis is right, may only have become fully integrated into the design process only in the late Middle Ages), are "static" forms of representation that emerged from Early Modern ideals of measurement and ideal proportion, inimical to understanding or representing construction as on-going, evolving, "amoebic," process.

Implicit in many of the approaches, new (or not-so-new), is the importance of collaborative work. In these studies, however, use of technology usually entails the "employment" of architects and engineers to create digital models or provide laser scans. A more productive approach in the long term would be for projects to become true collaborations, so that the engineer/architect/computer scientist is fully integrated with the research, expanding and developing full partnerships from which completely new questions can arise. If there is one element that emerges from this volume on "new approaches" it is that the "old" model of the single scholar dedicated to the solitary, full-time and life-long (a la Sumner McKnight Crosby) study of a monument may no longer be best practice; we can move much further if we think of our discipline in larger, broader terms as a deeply collaborative rather than a "lone ranger" enterprise.

There are occasional sloppy moments here. Clark and Waldman do not fully integrate the fundamentally important work of Lindy Grant on the economy and administration at St.-Denis in her 1998 volume, Abbot Suger of St.-Denis: church and state in early twelfth-century France. I am delighted that Tallon has discovered new evidence for flyers in the chevet of Notre Dame in Paris, though he neglects to mention that I repeatedly argued for their existence in the apse of Notre Dame in my 1987 article in the Art Bulletin.