• 1 November 2014
  • 10:00 – 10:30 am
  • British Museum

In 'The Lamp of Life', one of his Seven Lamps of Architecture, John Ruskin argued that 'things ... are noble or ignoble in proportion to the fulness of the life which either they themselves enjoy, or of whose action they bear the evidence... And this is especially true of all objects which bear upon them the impress of the highest order of creative life, that is to say, of the mind of man: they become noble or ignoble in proportion to the amount of the energy of that mind which has visibly been employed upon them.' Ruskin thus linked creativity and materiality in a way which remains inspiring for all those art and architectural historians for whom study of physical objects is essential.

Recent architectural scholarship has shown the great potential for reconstructing the proportional and geometrical systems used in designing the great churches of medieval Europe (e.g. the work of Bork, Wu etc). These have revealed Gothic design methods to be generative, a form of creativity dependent on process rather than focused on a finished product. Whilst this research has been very revealing in terms of the linear geometry involved in designing two-dimensional plans and elevations, it has nevertheless been less valuable in terms of understanding solid geometry, particularly that of the stone vaults so essential to great church design. Some research has been done in this area, but it has largely focused on the very late medieval and later periods. It has also emphasised the creativity of design over the creativity of production, which Ruskin suggested was fundamental to a living tradition of architecture.

The present paper therefore builds on previous research by exploring the creativity involved in translating two-dimensional design into three dimensions. It will be demonstrated that the linear geometry of a plan could be projected as a variety of different three-dimensional forms. It will be argued that the varied possibilities thus offered were exploited by medieval builders, demonstrating that creative interpretation was part of the building process at every stage of construction, even where fidelity to a pre-existing plan was required. Indeed, in some cases, designers and/or builders seem to have taken their inspiration from the interpretive possibilities offered by ground plans, by deliberately adopting solutions different from those apparently predicted by the plan. With particular reference to examples of medieval vaulting, the paper will argue that practical inventiveness at all stages was central to medieval architectural production.

About the speaker

  • Head and shoulders portrait of Alexandrina Buchanan

    Alexandrina Buchanan is Senior Lecturer in Archival Studies at the University of Liverpool and an architectural historian. The result of shared interests, she and Nicholas Webb manage the collaborative project tracingthepast.org.uk, which explores the design and construction of medieval vaults in the British Isles.