Spires and Gherkins: Ideology in Architecture

The writer Jonathan Meades once remarked that cathedrals (in this case Salisbury Cathedral) serve to facilitate “the dessication and snobbery of the clergy”. Thankfully this barbed, typically Meadesian remark does not characterise his overall assessment of the building – he goes on to fawn delightedly over its symmetry and drama. Indeed, cathedrals are wonderful buildings, examples of what humans can do with piles of stone when they believe God is watching them. But Meades has a point – for all their architectural delight and drama, cathedrals exist (or at least existed) in the service of an ideology. Every sweeping arch, every fan vaulted ceiling; such ‘poetry in stone’ has a significance beyond mere ornament. The medieval churchgoer, illiterate and burdened with the weight of ecclesiastical tax after ecclesiastical tax, was supposed to look up at these feats of engineering and recognise explicitly the Church – those learned, Latin speaking men – as rightful and just in its hypocrisies and its vanities, able as it was to construct wonders far beyond the skill and means of any other institution. Like Marx’s physical gallerte of human labour present within the commodity form, the Cathedral contains within the very fabric of its thick stone columns the lifeblood of a hegemonic order.

Winchester Cathedral

Winchester Cathedral interior

It is tempting for the modern observer, the inhabitant of Larkin’s “unarmorial age”, to conclude smugly that our buildings are free from such overt displays of ideology. Our sophisticated modern subject might conclude that we have moved beyond such barbarism, and that today’s buildings are totally fair; sanitised neutrality domes without agenda or intent. Of course, this would be a catastrophic assumption; one only needs to glance at London’s skyline to observe the dominance of a different regime: that of conspicuous wealth.

Chief architect and High Priest of this regime is the ubiquitous glass-fancier Norman Foster. Observe his skyscraper known colloquially as ‘The Gherkin’: great swirling lines rising dramatically through the air, unifying at a central point somewhere high above street level, an effect only achieved thanks to the most sophisticated engineering of the era. We’ve seen this somewhere before, I think. What is this building if not the cathedral of its age, a display of wealth and knowledge far beyond that of the layman in an attempt to legitimise the existence of its moneyed creators? One can imagine tourists milling around it 700 years in the future, remarking with disdain on its pointless, aesthetically lifeless extravagance.

30 St Mary Axe, a.k.a. The Gherkin

30 St Mary Axe, a.k.a. The Gherkin

And therein lies the difference between a cathedral and London’s ragtag collection of ‘postmodern’ efforts. Cathedrals, while implicitly oppressive in their original intent, are also a triumph of aesthetics. Striving to embody the absolute perfection of the divine, medieval masons created environments in which the passion, terror, ecstasy and suffering of the medieval religious experience is brought crashing down on its observer. Towering spires reach with a tragic desperation towards the heavens while colossal stained glass windows adorned with complex tracery gather sunlight and thrust it forwards, casting long shadows behind rows of innumerable pillars, as though the inhabitant were not in a building at all but some kind of sacred grove (indeed, it is alleged that cathedrals were built in part to recreate the effect of a clearing in a forest, places which often appear in medieval literature and culture as sites of spiritual hardship and regeneration). Meanwhile, hidden away in corners are grotesque faces and leering demons, visceral reminders of the eternity of suffering faced by the sinner. All these architectural details and countless more combine to create an effect of absolute otherworldliness and exhilarating drama. It is no accident that cathedrals, no matter how full of people, are always eerily quiet.

P1050223

Chichester Cathedral

What claim to such attributes do buildings like the Gherkin or the Shard have? They are to architecture what Will Self is to literary criticism, exhibiting extravagance merely because it is possible for them to do so, in lieu of any actual meaning. There is no tragic metaphysical yearning, no imprint of the very souls of the people who built them (or if there is such an imprint it is of a soul without any genuine life whatsoever). Instead they stand rigid throughout the city like tombstones, monoliths in the service of aesthetic regression and ‘look-how-high-I-can-reach’ tastelessness.

About raspurr

criticism not only welcome but utterly necessary
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35 Responses to Spires and Gherkins: Ideology in Architecture

  1. sheiladerosa says:

    An interesting essay. I’m not sure I agree with everything you write, I love the confidence and enthusiasm of London’s new skyline, and isn’t it the height of capitalism to charge to get into St. Paul’s Cathedral?
    But buildings do reflect the age in which we live and the aspirations of a nation. My recent post Palaces of Peace draws a comparison between the similar thinking and ideology behind the Crystal Palace and the World Trade Centre, which has always struck me a spookily similar! Hope you drop by. Sheila

    • raspurr says:

      I’m not sure it’s confidence and enthusiasm as much as arrogance and avarice, and even then I’m not really sure confidence and enthusiasm are characteristics I’d call desirable in architecture (but that’s a whole different essay).

      Interesting point about St. Pauls! To be honest I mainly had in mind Britain’s Gothic cathedrals, although I think that Wren and Hawksmoor’s churches do have more in common with with these medieval churches than they do with so-called High-Tech architecture (again, something that probably needs writing about at length!). As you might be able to tell, I’m not at all a fan of the entry charge to St. Pauls. I don’t, however, think this should cloud our judgement of its architecture.

      Thanks for your comment. I’m not able to find your Palaces of Peace post but I’d love to read it!

      • sheiladerosa says:

        Oh thank you.for your reply.
        Palaces of Peace is a short story but, hopefully one which makes a serious point. It’s freshly posted on CYBERSLOG.wordpress.com
        Sheila

  2. This was the perfect comedy to go with my morning coffee, thank you. Well written.

    I see your examples of soulless architecture and raise you a Donald. Trump trumps all bad taste by actually putting his personal stamp on everything he builds, literally. It’s not enough to erect a concrete and steel phallus, he must label his ego appendage in twenty-foot-tall neon all caps. Freud must be spinning in his grave.

    And don’t get me started on Zaha Hadid’s vagina stadium. Dhow boat, my ass. I’m shocked that a country so fervently Muslim would allow the Al-Wakrah World Cup sports center to flash its lady parts at the world like a two-bit hooker. But when you consider how FIFA f**ks its way across the globe, it has a sick logic to it.

    Imagine if Trump and Hadid teamed up? Never mind, don’t. We all still need to eat lunch.

  3. klovesbanana says:

    Reblogged this on Banana Snaps.

  4. That’s lovely and well said, thanks!

  5. blogtendi says:

    Reblogged this on BLOGTENDI.

  6. stvrsnbrgr says:

    There is spectacular architecture in London. None of it, however, was built in the last century. It’s generally true, isn’t it, for all European capitals?

  7. More vagina buildings, fewer gherkins please. Good job. You know you can post these automatically to Twitter and other social media. You definitely should. Without apology.

  8. How certain are you that Gherkin had no tenable metaphysical or philosophical motivations behind the construction of this building? I haven’t research it myself but I am aware of many architects whose designs are fueled by creative ideologies that border on spiritual, inching toward the attainment of forms surmounting all practicality.

    To be sure, the Greeks, Romans, and Arabs recognized an intimate connection between aesthetics, divinity, and the sublime. I wonder if your claim doesn’t unwittingly overlook the possibility that Gherkin had more substantive impetuses in mind.

    That quandary notwithstanding, your analysis that contemporary architecture is ostentatious beyond measure is well-taken. I suppose we can thank the post-moderns for peddling a utilitarian theory of aesthetic that, paradoxically, condemns artistry and ornateness as ostentatious and unnecessary. Money, money, money. I digress.

    • raspurr says:

      Firstly, I should probably clarify that when I talk of cathedrals in this article I refer predominantly to the Gothic cathedrals of Europe (these are the cathedrals I’ve grown up around and know best).

      I’m sure Foster et al have noble (or semi-noble) aims behind their architecture, as most artists and designers do. However I think that when it comes to critical analysis of art, it’s not the intention of the painter/author/architect/etc but their work itself that is worthy of analysis. Artists are rarely in control of their own work. Death of the Author and all that.

      Thanks for your comment!

      • But that’s exactly what your argument is base on. The desires and intentions of both designer and builder to embody the divine in each arch, pillar, window, and aspects of the cathedral. If you think intention is immaterial, then your argument doesn’t hold water.

      • raspurr says:

        I’m not sure that’s quite true. I’m interpreting the object of the cathedral as an isolated text – i.e. I take the symbolic order and aesthetic qualities of the building and from there approach it critically, using the building and the context of its production (which is different from the intention of its designer). Take the example of the spire – I doubt it was built to be ‘tragically desperate’ but I can detect in it such an attitude. This is different from saying that ‘because the spire was constructed to be magisterial and imposing, that is therefore what it is’. Likewise, the ecclesiastical masons may not have set out with the explicit intention of perpetuating an ideology as much as ‘glorifying God’, but perpetuating an ideology is precisely what they ended up doing. I think there’s a distinction between noticing the implicit human sentiments within a structure and constructing an interpretation based on the perceived intentions of its makers.

      • I don’t meant to condescend but I think you need to reread what you wrote.

        You start off by stating what cathedrals are:

        “Indeed, cathedrals are wonderful buildings, examples of what humans can do with piles of stone when they believe God is watching them.”

        You imply that the humans who contributed to the construction of Cathedrals believed God was watching them, and therefore, had God in mind. In an age when God was EVERYTHING, it’s safe to assume every aspect of the church was constructed in reverence to God, either directly or through the Church.

        In fact, you go on to assume just that:

        “But Meades has a point – for all their architectural delight and drama, cathedrals exist (or at least existed) in the service of an ideology.”

        An ideology based in the belief that God exists, the Church its bastion here on Earth, and every human bestowed with the solemn duty of paying reverence to it, both monetarily and spiritually. By extentsion, Art, Architecture, literature, and ornamentation, all were constructed to propitiate God and remind viewers of his omni-potence; thereby, this statement is made intelligible:

        “Every sweeping arch, every fan vaulted ceiling; such ‘poetry in stone’ has a significance beyond mere ornament. The medieval churchgoer, illiterate and burdened with the weight of ecclesiastical tax after ecclesiastical tax, was supposed to look up at these feats of engineering and recognise explicitly the Church.”

        Lastly, you juxtapose the style and ideology of the medieval age with contemporary architecture, saying:

        “Our sophisticated modern subject might conclude that we have moved beyond such barbarism, and that today’s buildings are totally fair; sanitised neutrality domes without agenda or intent.”

        You claim it would be a “catastrophic assumption” if one thought comptemporary constructions, such as ‘The Gherkin’ are beyond “agenda or intent” for it is analogous to medieval cathedrals in intent and agenda.

        “What is this building if not the cathedral of its age, a display of wealth and knowledge far beyond that of the layman in an attempt to legitimise the existence of its moneyed creators?”

        If cathedrals “are wonderful buildings, examples of what humans can do with piles of stone when they believe God is watching them.”

        And, ‘The Gherkin’ is “a cathedral of its age”; “a display of wealth and knowledge far beyond that of the layman in an attempt to legitimise the existence of its moneyed creators?”

        Then, you’re arguing that Norman Foster designed ‘The Gherkin’ with the intention of legitimizing the existence of its “moneyed creators” much in the same way medieval humans designed and constructed Cathedrals for their “belief in God.”

        You’ve made an analogy. Foster is paying reverence to the “moneyed creators” in a similar way that medieval builder and architects did what they did because they “believed in God.”

        I don’ think you’re wrong in this respect.

      • I don’t meant to condescend but I think you need to reread what you wrote.

        You start off by stating what cathedrals are:

        “Indeed, cathedrals are wonderful buildings, examples of what humans can do with piles of stone when they believe God is watching them.”

        You imply that the humans who contributed to the construction of Cathedrals believed God was watching them; beliefs are intentional states; therefore, they had God in mind. In an age when God was EVERYTHING, it’s safe to assume every aspect of the church was constructed in reverence to God, either directly or through the Church.

        In fact, you go on to assume just that:

        “But Meades has a point – for all their architectural delight and drama, cathedrals exist (or at least existed) in the service of an ideology.”

        An ideology based in the belief that God exists, the Church its bastion here on Earth, and every human bestowed with the solemn duty of paying reverence to it, both monetarily and spiritually. By extentsion, Art, Architecture, literature, and ornamentation, all were constructed to propitiate God and remind viewers of his omni-potence; thereby, this statement is made intelligible:

        “Every sweeping arch, every fan vaulted ceiling; such ‘poetry in stone’ has a significance beyond mere ornament. The medieval churchgoer, illiterate and burdened with the weight of ecclesiastical tax after ecclesiastical tax, was supposed to look up at these feats of engineering and recognise explicitly the Church.”

        Lastly, you juxtapose the style and ideology of the medieval age with contemporary architecture, saying:

        “Our sophisticated modern subject might conclude that we have moved beyond such barbarism, and that today’s buildings are totally fair; sanitised neutrality domes without agenda or intent.”

        You claim it would be a “catastrophic assumption” if one thought comptemporary constructions, such as ‘The Gherkin’ are beyond “agenda or intent” for it is analogous to medieval cathedrals in intent and agenda.

        “What is this building if not the cathedral of its age, a display of wealth and knowledge far beyond that of the layman in an attempt to legitimise the existence of its moneyed creators?”

        If cathedrals “are wonderful buildings, examples of what humans can do with piles of stone when they believe God is watching them.”

        And, ‘The Gherkin’ is “a cathedral of its age”; “a display of wealth and knowledge far beyond that of the layman in an attempt to legitimise the existence of its moneyed creators?”

        Then, you’re arguing that Norman Foster designed ‘The Gherkin’ with the intention of legitimizing the existence of its “moneyed creators” much in the same way medieval humans designed and constructed Cathedrals for their “belief in God.”

        You’ve made an analogy. Foster is paying reverence to the “moneyed creators” in a similar way that medieval builder and architects did what they did because they “believed in God.”

        I don’ think you’re wrong in this respect, although is remove the word creators and just say “money.”

      • raspurr says:

        You’re not being condescending at all, I really appreciate the feedback! I’ve only started writing about architecture in the past few months so it’s good to get critical analysis of what I write.

        I wasn’t arguing that Foster explicitly and intentionally pays homage to ‘moneyed wealth’ and so on; the words ‘agenda and intent’ were poorly chosen in this case.. what I really meant when I wrote ‘agenda and intent’ was a kind of implicit, not necessarily intentional imposition of power. I don’t think an imposition of power was Foster’s intention. Rather, he borrows (unknowingly, or perhaps half-knowingly) the architectural language of cathedrals in his buildings, which perpetuate ideology in a similar way to that of a cathedral. What’s important is that he probably didn’t consciously mean to do this, but that’s what he’s ended up doing, in the same way that, say, Shakespeare didn’t expressly mean to write about gender in The Twelfth Night but obviously ended up doing so. I notice I haven’t really made this clear in my writing.

        However (and I’m back-pedalling a bit here) I realise my argument about medieval cathedrals does rely on intention to a degree after all, and that I was a little hasty in disregarding it earlier. I feel I should retract my previous comment!

        So to clarify (partly for myself), and in reply to your first comment: Both cathedrals and Foster’s buildings perpetuate ideology, but cathedrals do so expressly and more or less translate their intended purpose onto the finished building in an aesthetically striking and deeply moving way. I suppose this is what Pugin meant when he said Gothic buildings are ‘honest’. Foster’s buildings also perpetuate an ideology – the ideology of capital – but the difference is that this occurs despite Foster’s utopian intentions, in a failure of aesthetics which sees the beauty and profound drama of the symbolic order of ecclesiastical architecture (unintentionally) co-opted for dubious means. In other words, Foster’s buildings do accidentally what cathedrals did intentionally, and with none of the beauty. This is largely why I consider his buildings to be failures.

        Thanks again for your comments. This is still very much a learning curve for me and I appreciate the opportunity to develop my thinking.

      • Fantastic! That’s an interesting and clearer formulation of your argument. I’d certainly read more on the topic of perpetuating ideologies unconsciously in architecture, especially as they promulgate the capitalist values of bigger-is-better and greed. I would enjoy subsequent readings pursuant of this theme.

        I’ve followed you and I’m excited to read more. Thank you for engaging and taking criticism so well. It made for a riveting discussion. I’d like to think we just used the internet well and its progenitors would be proud.

        I encourage you to read my posts if you’re interested in social criticism (I hope that’s what I’m doing; its difficult to be sure at times).

        Cheers!

  9. Francis.R. says:

    I think it’s a subjective question. Certainly that’s not one of my favourites buildings of Foster (although I’ve not been in London to see it personally) but I’ve studied the reason to be of his works and I can say that he doesn’t design without good reasons (place, epoch, future, concepts, users, clients, neighbourhoods, etcetera)
    Although I have not been in London or studied the drawings to say a categorical answer I see that that building is free from ornaments and it’s so pure in formal concept that the engineer part is bonded with final architecture in a simple and direct way.
    Actually, perhaps because I am a native south American that love colors and freedom, I prefer the life of that building to the white and dead frozen museum of shapes that was the modernism.

  10. It looks like one building in Barcelona!

  11. Winter Loseby says:

    Love this, Rupert! Intelligently written and very funny. I think what could really benefit you is something called social media syndication like the Twitterfeed WordPress plugin or something similar. It basically allows you to automatically post your blogs to Facebook and Twitter. I’d give that a try 🙂

  12. pamtrue1 says:

    Reblogged this on pamtrue1 and commented:
    Appreciate modern architecture but what I love about Europe is the old buildings and marvel about skills involved in Gothic buildings.

  13. sonatano1 says:

    Interesting article. I have the same thoughts about some of the massive buildings in American cities, especially in younger cities like Atlanta. Some of the older skyscrapers have a great sense of style, like the Chrysler building, but the plain steel-and-glass things… no.
    Also, that building looks more like a giant vibrator than a gherkin. Maybe that’s one of its other more privately used names.

  14. sheiladerosa says:

    I enjoyed reading this thread of conversation. It all puts me in mind of a fabulous book Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd – a metapsychotic masterpiece dealing with some very dark aspects of church building in 18th century London and its modern-day repercussions.

  15. בנימין says:

    Interesting essay! Reminds me of an ancient discussion I once read about ornamentation in churches. It was Bernard of Clairvaux in 1125 AD making a statement in favor of the roman architecture, where the architectural elements form the space of the church, not the ornaments. He says that the church should take care of the poor and needing people, and should spend their money on that, and not on the expensive ornamentation in the church. besides that he refers to Ecclesiastes (vanity of vanities, all is vanity)
    A few years later (1144 AD) abbot Suger of St. Denis states – in favor of Gothic architecture – that the church represents the house of the Lord, and therefore can not be ornamented rich enough. Salomons wealth could not be more sufficient for his temple than our richness for our temple.

    about 900 years later (about the 1970’s) postmodernism comes in as a reaction and critique on the modernism. Venturi distinguishes three forms of architecture in his book ‘learning from Las Vegas’, the shed (could be compared to a Roman church), the decorated shed (could be compared to a Gothic church) and the Duck, I think Fosters Gherkin is such a duck, but a special one because Foster knows how to use the frame as well as the enclosure as an ornament, which makes it more than just a tall building or tombstone of steel and glass. But I have to agree on a total lack of human scale, it looks monumental, a lot like the design Adolf Loos made for the Chicago-Tribune (the newspaper)!

  16. Povonte says:

    Just found your blog and I already love it!

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