The fire of Notre Dame: reminding us to appreciate our own Collegiate Gothic architecture| Apr 18, 2019
France particularly, and the world generally, suffered a tragedy on Monday as the Cathedral of Notre Dame caught fire. Construction on the cathedral began in 1160 and has since become a defining symbol of both the Catholic Church and the French nation as a whole. While the damage seems to have been contained, the main spire of the Cathedral did collapse, and only in the coming days will we realize the total damage done by the conflagration.
I am by no means an expert in the history of this beautiful building, but to appreciate its cultural significance at a broad level, one need only see pictures of the horrified faces of Parisians as they watched their cultural icon go up in flames.
How does one respond to such a disaster? With mourning, of course, but if there is any good that can come out of such a loss, it is to encourage us appreciate the value of such historic buildings to our lives in the first place. In honor of Notre Dame, I seek to examine more closely the collection of those historic buildings on our own University campus that imitate its Gothic style.
These include, among others: Blair Arch, built in 1897 in the Tudor Gothic style; East Pyne Hall, also built in 1897 and of a different variant of the Tudor Gothic style; the University Chapel, completed in 1928 in the Collegiate Gothic style.
Remarks of a current Princeton professor of architecture, and of the architect of our very own Chapel, illuminate these buildings’ various qualities.
“Architecture moves slowly,” Professor Mario Gandelsonas mentioned a few weeks ago in an architecture seminar. Contrasting the discipline as a whole to rapidly changing fields in the sciences, which often depend on innovation, he made a simultaneous comment that this slowness may in fact be a virtue. If change is regrettable, after all, then a lack of change in a field may be applauded.
If there is one change that modern society has undergone that many have come to regret, and continue to regret for ethical, environmental, and social reasons, then it is excessive materialism. By this I mean a fixation on transitory pleasures in the form of more and more goods. Interestingly, one of the most eloquent descriptions of this condition of the modern age came from none other than the architect of our University Chapel, Ralph Adams Cram (1863–1942). In his book, “The Gothic Quest” (1915), Cram laments:
“The general tendency of society for the last two centuries and more has been away from the spiritual and imaginative towards the mental, the intellectual, and now, at last, towards the hopelessly material.”
If Cram wrote at the turn of the 20th century, then what would he make of American society today? If America was indeed “hopelessly material” in 1915, then in 2019, we must surely be beyond “without hope.” As with many aspects of our society, buildings can communicate this. One need only to drive five minutes from our campus to get a glimpse of what might aptly be called Cram’s nightmare today: Route 1.
Here, as in much of the rest of America, buildings are thrown up rapidly, either not designed at all or designed under very loose pretenses of modernist or postmodernist distortions, without any attention paid to matters of aesthetics or durability, instead only to short-term profit.
In the face of such excessive materialism, it can be tempting to throw up one’s hands and simply accept aesthetic insensibility as a feature of our modern age. But for Cram, and therefore perhaps for us too, good Gothic architecture served as an antidote. “In noble […] architecture,” the Medievalist speculates, “may lie in part the way of our deliver[a]nce from materialism.”
Formal qualities of Gothic architecture that stand in opposition to the cheap, prefabricated nature of our modern day society include, among others, crenellations suggesting the practice of warfare from hundreds of years ago, intricate gargoyles calling to mind careful Medieval craftsmanship, and load-bearing flying buttresses that communicate lasting physical strength.
In its predominantly stone and wood materiality, too, Gothic architecture portrays a high degree of resistance to the elements, a beautiful degree of “firmitatis,“ as the Roman architect Vitruvius describes, and which I’ve written about before.
Finally, the fact that its aesthetic appeal has remained over the course of centuries communicates a resistance to stochastic fluctuations in taste. This immutable nature of the design of Gothic buildings suggests a lasting — perhaps, one might even say, objective — value.
Notre Dame is perhaps the finest example of Gothic architecture in the world, making the fire truly a tragedy, but we can also see such formal qualities suggesting historical longevity in our own campus architecture. And just as in France, this architecture holds special significance for our campus.
In particular, is not timelessness itself one of the most appealing qualities of our University as an institution? The structure of our classroom — with a lecture and a precept each week, a professor at the front instructing a group of seated students — has barely changed over the course of centuries. The concept of research itself, also core to Princeton’s mission, while innovative and ground-breaking, is also in a sense itself timeless, since there is no clear end or definable finish point. Timelessness even appears in how our University invests its endowment, which, unlike many shorter-term investments, seeks “to assure the perpetual financial health and independence of the University.”
Gothic architecture, in sum, communicates one of the core and unique values that a university such as our own holds. Importantly, too, we cannot take it for granted since it is vulnerable to damage, just as Notre Dame was. Just the other day, as I walked by 1903 Hall — a dormitory designed in the Collegiate Gothic style — I noticed something peculiar. Instead of stone masonry connecting the two well-decorated roof rakes sloping upwards to a point, not one but two such roofs were in disrepair, with apexes partly broken off.
After hearing of the fire of Notre Dame, let us not forget the vulnerability of this priceless historical architectural style in our own lives. As we mourn the damage done to one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in the world across the Atlantic, perhaps we may take solace in a deeper appreciation of such architecture closer to home.
Gabe Lipkowitz is a senior concentrator in molecular biology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.