At the beginning, the discussions around the Gothic, tectonics and iron were very much interrelated. You can see why I'm interested now. Let's compare the major participants in that discussion:

1. Semper, who loved tectonics but hated the Gothic and iron;

2. Ruskin, who loved the Gothic but hated iron; and lastly,

3. Viollet-le-Duc, who loved both the Gothic and iron.

Later architects have always accused Semper of not seeing the necessity of technological innovation, and said he should have incorporated iron in his architectural theory, especially in its larger-scale applications for load-bearing structures. For me, the problem starts with his lack of appreciation for the Gothic, which for him wasn't related to textile or knotwork at all, as it is for me — for him it was just naked bones, an architecture without Bekleidung [clothing]. He didn't appreciate the Gothic's shift of ornament into structure.

Ruskin is very different: his structural insights about the Gothic are quite wrong, his sections of vaults totally two-dimensional, but what an immense capacity for feeling! Like Worringer, he views the Gothic as an architecture of life. He says, "Imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we know of life. It is the sign of a state of progress and change." He calls the Gothic an architecture of "changefulness." He talks about "the perpetual variety of every feature of a building," and an "active rigidity; the peculiar energy which gives tension to its movement." These are all quotes from "The Nature of Gothic," a chapter in The Stones of Venice.

Viollet-le-Duc, in turn, is very different from Ruskin and is generally seen as a structural rationalist. On the one hand, he saved the Gothic from revivalism, i.e., sheer stylistic duplication, but on the other, he surgically removed the flying buttress and replaced it with the iron tension rod. Though he loved the Gothic and iron, he loved them for all the wrong reasons. He was like a 20th-century engineer, a structural determinist; he started to recede all the Gothic ribs — which are structurally undetermined, and that's what is so wonderful about them, their combination of indeterminacy and articulation — as members under either compression or tension, positive or negative forces. He reworked the crossvault into a space frame, almost — into a crystalline combination of brick compression and iron tension elements. With Viollet-le-Duc, architecture shifts from a monolithic state towards a hybrid, composite state. A mixture of materials, a mixture of elements. Basically, it's the true beginning of the modern joint, the joint as a technical problem; before, it was only an architectural problem. Suddenly we have this emergence of the joint and the detail, simply because components are now made in a factory before they arrive at the construction site, where they have to be assembled and jointed. Obviously, Viollet-le-Duc won the hearts and minds of the modernists, because his view of iron and the Gothic is a sanitized and industrialized one. [268-69]


Spuybroek, Lars. "Steel and Freedom." The Architecture of Continuity: Essays and Conversations. Rotterdam: V_2 Publishing, 2008.

Last modified 22 July 2009