Indeed, architectural styles do not appear, throughout history, in a perfectly chronological order. Styles emerge, persist, blend, intertwine, become more pronounced; they disappear and reappear according to economic constraints, technical innovations, socio-political, cultural, scientific and spiritual inclinations, let alone the influences of collective imagination. As the writer and art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) wrote, “architectural styles also derive their uniqueness from the mental climate in which they have developed".
The use of Gothic grammar, especially in architecture, is perhaps the most telling example of the life of architectural styles throughout history: from the design of Saint Denis Cathedral by Abbot Suger (12th century) to the construction of the Tribune Tower in Chicago (1925), or even to the design of the house of Citizen Kane in the film directed by Orson Welles (1941), this style has been acclaimed and despised, forgotten and revived.
The Gothic style has been considered a paragon of architectural art: the luminous Gothic lace was said to not rest on earth but to be held up by clouds. But it has also been greatly despised: in 15th century Italy, Gothic architecture was viewed as a barbaric art that had forgotten the lessons of Greco-Roman architecture. Similarly, Molière described the Gothic style as: “These odious monsters from ignorant centuries” (in his poem “The glory of the Val de Grâce dome”, 1669).
Later, in 1820, the English architect Augustus Pugin (1812-1852), theoretician converted to Catholicism and designer of the palace of Westminster, believed that Gothic aesthetics was the fruit of a pure, Christian society. In his view, classicism was pagan.
Ruskin - admired by Marcel Proust who translated into French Ruskin’s “Bible of Amiens” - considered that “the architectural ideal” was the Doge’s Palace in Venice, built in 1340.
“architectural styles also derive their uniqueness from the mental climate in which they have developed”
In France, the historian and archaeologist Arcisse de Caumont (1801-1873) established the scientific, historical and archeological foundations for the “Gothic Revival” movement. He set up, among others, the Société des antiquaires de Normandie, the Société française d’archéologie, the Société pour la conservation des monuments. He also published a brief history of religious, civil and military architecture in the Middle Ages and a history of architecture in the Middle Ages.
At the start of the 19th century, the dominant intellectual and artistic schools of thought were romanticism, relativism and nationalism (Fichte, De Staël). The romantic and historicist movements brought medieval arts to the fore. In 1830, Victor Hugo published “Notre Dame de Paris”, in which the cathedral is elevated to the rank of character.
Merimee held the post of inspector of Historical Monuments, a body set up in 1837. Historical monuments became viewed with respect. Viollet le Duc, a friend of Mérimée, undertook the restoration of a number of emblematic Gothic buildings, such as the abbey in Vézelay, Notre-Dame de Paris and the abbey of the Mont Saint-Michel. Many 19th century churches were built in this style, such as the basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Lourdes, completed in 1871.
In Germany, the cathedral in Cologne, whose construction began in the 13th century, was completed in 1880 but, by that time, certain Bavarian castles had already been built in the neo-Gothic style.
However, it is undeniably in England that the neo-Gothic (Gothic Revival) style thrived the most and that the largest number of examples, both in civil and religious architecture, is to be found.
It can be said that Neo-Gothic style has, in some way, distorted, bastardized, falsified its heritage. Eclecticism, a taste for mixing, copying and ornamental and decorative profusion, combined with the exceptional quality of the craftsmen of the time, have contributed to this “counterfeiting”. The Hotel Gaillard is one of the best examples.
In addition, the neo-Gothic style was used in a paradoxical way. It sought to be innovative while drawing its inspiration from the past and history (1). Its supporters maybe hoped to convey the spiritual and political messages that the original Gothic architecture, at its peak, had so well illustrated. The resurgence of Gothic architecture was also an aesthetic “bulwark” against the doubts brought about by the philosophy and triumphant sciences in the 19th century. One assumption is that the return to values of Gothic times was sometimes a “comfort”, for which the ambitious, industrial and financial bourgeoisie of the second half of the 19th century may have had a need.
In any case, it is interesting to note that many neo-Gothic buildings were, like the Hotel Gaillard, built by entrepreneurs or businessmen. In the United States, a burgeoning centre of capitalism in the late 19th century, this trend was particularly obvious, notably with the Biltmore Estate, built in 1888-95 in North Carolina by architect Richard Morris Hunt for the multimillionaire George Vanderbilt, railroad magnate. Like the Hotel Gaillard, the Biltmore Estate draws its inspiration from the château in Blois.
(1) Eclecticism and historicism are two variants of an approach referring to regional or historical styles. Eclecticism mixes several styles, while historicism (Neo- ...) draws its inspiration from the specific style of a given period, whose formal vocabulary is faithfully copied: for instance, the 19th century saw the emergence of Neo-Roman (train station in Metz), Neo-Gothic (many churches, the university of Lille, the Hotel Gaillard), Roman-Byzantine (Sacré Coeur in Montmartre, many churches) and Neo-Renaissance (houses in Nancy, Parisian facades on place Catroux and Bd Malesherbes).
Published on 13 October 2016.