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.
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.
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.
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.