by Alexander Freeling

How do buildings resist gravity? Or, for that matter, strong winds, weathering, tectonic shudders, and the seasonal heat and ice? The modern answer has two parts: a science of architecture and a craft of building. On one side, years studying drafting, structural theory, conservation science, and computer-aided design. On the other, years learning and refining the techniques of masonry or carpentry, plumbing or fitting.

Even if you’ve never sketched a plot plan or laid a brick, this explanation makes sense because it appeals to a familiar division of labor: theory and practice. Thinking and making. But for the same reason it runs into trouble when faced with the gothic cathedral. Twelfth-century cathedrals were executed not only with weak materials and shallow foundations, but with no modern design theory, and precious little of the mechanics a high school math student knows today. And because they took decades to construct, they were started and finished by different people, sometimes of different generations. Yet they were skyscrapers, supporting spires reaching hundreds of feet, and massive arched ceilings, with only arches and buttresses, mortar and stone.

The whole thing becomes more bewildering in the case of Chartres Cathedral, which was started in 1145 and partly destroyed by a fire in 1194. It was rebuilt over the following four decades into a vast construction reaching up 345 feet. Here’s the enigma: not only was one of the world’s most ambitious stone buildings completed without modern methods or materials, it had to be adapted following serious damage to the original structure. David Turnbull’s explanation sounds impossible at first: there was no plan to rebuild Chartres. That is, no rigid blueprints. Instead, masons worked from a series of physical templates. They designed the components as they needed them. How you make a huge structure without structural theory? One piece at a time. It’s why Chartres could adapt to fire damage: the plans weren’t set in stone until the building was. Cathedrals take decades. If something collapses, you try again. If it stays up a few years, you keep it. On Turnbull’s theory, cathedrals aren’t just building sites. They are laboratories.

In methods such as this, the thinking and making are one and the same. Craft is design. It’s hard to imagine on such a huge scale, but if you watch a potter working a wheel, you see it more clearly: design isn’t a single plan, it’s thousands of tiny decisions made with the fingertips. This is not to say it’s purely mechanical. There are schools of pottery; you can be a ceramic conservative or radical. But the ideas, as well as the reflexes, exist in the hands of the makers. 

And consider bespoke tailoring: the cutter designs the garment with nothing more than paper and pencil, shears and chalk. And so much of the making process is fluid: from fitting to finishing, the silhouette is tuned in three dimensions. The final garment is not produced to a fixed standard, it’s created through these continual tiny adjustments. The suit is gothic architecture in miniature. And if in a few years the jacket becomes mysteriously difficult to button, you can always take it back for reconstruction.