The Eco-Gothic

Proposing a utilization of the aesthetic and performative properties of the gothic style with regard to the obligations of the Anthropocene.

Pittsburgh, PA
Matthew Huber
Spring 2019


This paper seeks to explore aesthetic and structural characteristics of the Gothic style in hopes to pull some of them into a contemporary speculative proposal for a new ecological typology. The analysis will move through theory, practice, and proposal – incorporating historical precedents, critical writing, and contemporary examples. The investigation will be grounded in the writings of Robert Mark, Lars Spruybroek, and Neil Leach. It will use work by Suger, Dynes, Jarzombek to back the aesthetic arguments, and work by Kolarevic, ETH, Wiscombe, and Callebaut to justify the performative claims. My speculation on future implementation will be underpinned by examples of projects by Vincent Callebaut, Santiago Calatrava, and the Block Research Group. Several sections of the essay will eventually be accompanied by self-authored diagrams and drawings.

Contemporary sustainable design is concerned primarily with two success metrics, the efficiency of the building and the perceived “green-ness” of the project. The goal of this paper is to argue why the aesthetic and performative qualities of Gothic architecture lend themselves toward the formation of a contemporary style which is visually and experientially appealing while being ecologically sustainable.


It is difficult to not begin an essay about the Gothic with John Ruskin. For the purposes of this paper, it is important to understand his ideas of what constituted the style itself. Defining the Gothic has been a challenging predicament that has taken several twists and turns throughout different eras. The principal difficulty, as Ruskin writes, arises from the fact that every building exemplifying the style and period differs in an important facet from every other.[1]Therefore it is advantageous to examine them on a spectrum, with a degree of “Gothicness” – the characteristics of which will be examined in the first section of this paper. What is important to note from the outset, however, is the way in which this architectural style has avoided the specific characteristics or ubiquitous commonalities of other prominent architectural movements. Significant grounds for which are the characterization of the style as process oriented from the very beginning – thus creating a much richer foundation for discourse and speculation regardless of time period. The modernization of the Gothic is hardly a new pursuit, Pugin, Worringer, and even Ruskin have all tried in their own ways to create a Gothic for their present day. I am attempting a similar pursuit, somewhat contemporaneous with Spuybroek although coming at it from a different angle.

The paper will run through six sections; a grounding in theory followed by a similar basis in historical precedent, an analysis of structural performance and aesthetics based on trends in sustainability, and speculation on process and product modes of contemporary implementations. The two threads of investigation weaving themselves through this paper are 1) the structural sensibilities inherent to the Gothic, and 2) the aesthetic qualities afforded by those methodologies. These two qualities are among the redefinition of “Gothicness”, they appear in each section, and are used as the core basis for the arguments and eventual conclusion of this paper.  The target of these efforts is to pull parallel the characteristics of the Gothic and the goals of contemporary sustainable design – and understand how one can compliment the other to create a new stylistic approach to architecture in the Anthropocene.


Ruskin defines “Gothicness” with an ordered list of six characteristics. These are not unique characteristics, many of them are found in architectures outside of the Gothic. It is also not distinctive; in that it is not a single characteristic that results in the soul of the Gothic. Rather, the Gothic cannot exist where in some way at least two of these elements exist in unison. [2]The list is as follows:

1.       Savageness
2.       Changefulness
3.       Naturalism
4.       Grotesqueness
5.       Rigidity
6.       Redundance

Ruskin also acknowledges that this list is expressed as being of the building, but it is equally important to redefine these characteristics as being of the builder. It is this understanding of process that will be key to the modernization of these ideas. Drawing ideas from more contemporary writers such as Lar Spuybroek, Deleuze & Guattari, Neil Leach, and Tom Wiscombe I will propose a redefinition of this set of characteristics so as to be more relevant for current discourse and practice.

Spuybroek has already attempted such a modernization of Ruskin’s ideals in The Digital Nature of Gothic. Spuybroek goes about this mainly through a redefinition of the concepts and a reordering of the list following a computational methodology.[3] This paper proposes a new, condensed list, based upon commonalities among other writers’ reflections on the nature of the Gothic and the authors predispositions. While Spuybroek sought to give the list a more procedural, computational logic, where each property was resultant from the preceding item, this list returns to the intentionality of Ruskin’s. The characteristics may be exemplified in varying degrees and varying combinations, but the inclusion of at least two is integral to the presence of the Gothic soul. The list is ordered as follows:

1.       Procedural
2.       Efficiency
3.       Vitality

The notion of the Gothic as a process-oriented architecture begins with Ruskin as well. He praised the Gothic for the organic relationship it exemplified between worker and guild, worker and community, worker and God, and between worker and nature. He wrote of Greek and Renaissance architecture: it is “an architecture invented, as it seems, to make plagiarists of its architects and slaves of its workmen.”[4] On the contrary, the Gothic allowed for the freedom in process of architect and worker, each working in unison on different conceptual levels, without which the buildings in form and detail would never have been realized. A more contemporary conceptualization of this shift in mentality is described well by Deleuze and Guattari. On this difference they write: “… it is not simply quantitative; it marks a qualitative change: the static relation, form-matter, tends to fade into the background in favor of a dynamic relation, material-forces. It is the cutting of stone that turns it into material capable of holding and coordinating forces of thrust, and of constructing ever higher and longer vaults.”[5]Essentially defining Gothic not as a style, but as a methodology of design which privileges process over appearance – the architecture becomes a result of competing forces rendered in built form.

From the outset the Gothic has been interested in structural efficiency. New advancements in structural engineering, construction techniques, and material compositions drove the inception of the style in the 12th century. “Light was both the subject and the goal, the more light the greater”[6] – to allow for this the design of taller, lighter, more efficient buildings was of utmost importance.

As Deleuze and Guattari begin to hint at, the procedural nature of the Gothic is tied closely with its eternal pursuit of structural efficiency. We can see these ideas further exemplified in the work of Neil Leach. The simulation of structure has long been a topic of interest in the architectural and engineering communities, with significant concrete results. Leach cites the eifForm program developed by Kristina Shea[7] as a key example of using computational methodologies to resolve structural systems. However, the real insight is that this methodology need not only be concerned with structure. “What we encounter with such programs is the potential to view the whole design operation as a process. What applies to structure, could equally well apply to other aspects of the building process… The computer provides an efficient search-engine that is premised on the notion of efficiency.”[8]Buying into the argument of Gothic form as a manifestation of natural forces, the product will be intrinsically efficient.

The inclusion of the characteristic of Vitality stems from an intersection of the ideas of Worringer, Spuybroek, and Deleuze. There is an organic quality to Gothic architecture that I am hesitant to refer to as biomimetic. Ruskin has called the Gothic a “Foliated architecture… that has been derived from vegetation”[9]and Spuybroek has done taxonomic comparisons between Gothic curvatures and the venerations of different species of leaves[10]. However, calling all of this biomimetic may be too general as well as an oversimplification of an important affect. These structures feel organic in reference to what Deleuze and Guattari see as the result of competing natural forces. Worringer articulates this particularly well characterizing the Gothic articulation of structure as: “[it] does not get its life from any impress which we willingly give it, but appears to have an expression of its own, which is stronger than life. The pathos of movement lies in this vitalized geometry.”[11]The gothic semblance of vitality lies somewhere in between mechanized optimization and natural organicism.

Spuybroek connects this notion back to the ideas of a performative, ground up process. InThe Radical Picturesque he writes that there are no a priori forms in the Gothic. It is an emergent architecture in which strength is always collaborative, resultant out of the intersection of multiple elements or curves.[12]Referencing Worringer’s ideas of crystalized movement Spuybroek writes: “All forms are results of movements, structural movements that are shared, that are passed on from one to the other by agency.”[13]This approach ensures that the a posterioriformal result is both structurally sound and organic in affect.

These three characteristics do not necessarily encompass all of the six original principles laid out by Ruskin. The intention is not to reinvent the Gothic, but to identify and categorize the traits that will be useful in an implementation of the style in the Anthropocene with a valid basis in historical precedent.


The purpose of this section is to present several prominent historical examples to be used as case studies for the rest of the essay. It is particularly important to note the connections between the built work and the ideas outlined in the first section, and these will be detailed accordingly. Three cathedrals will be used as the primary examples; one English, one French, and one Spanish. It was important to examine structures from a variety of cultures to understand the differences in overall form and structural articulation, the three buildings chosen could be somewhat interchangeable between other notable works in the same country and time period. The reasoning behind the choices of Bourges, Salisbury, and The Sagrada Familia was that they articulate these differences particularly well.

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Bourges was the first to be built, completed in 1230 A.D. Bourges is pertinent for three distinct reasons. The first being simply as an example of the French articulation of the Gothic style of structure and ornamentation. We see much more of the SavagenessRuskin refers to in the ornamentation, a more prominent use of buttressing, and greater articulation of the interior space on the exterior. The second is the prowess Bourges exemplifies in structure and admittance of light. The central nave and the inner aisle have a similar tripartite composition with arcade, triforium, and clerestory – a strategy which allows for slender and efficient flying buttresses.[14]As an ensemble, these strategies result in a better transfer of dead and wind loads to the ground – which in turn allows for a taller, lighter, central space than one would find in a more traditional double aisle cathedral such as Notre Dame in Paris. The last factor is that of its layout in plan. In general, French cathedrals were built in dense urban areas which limited the sprawl and confined the plan to more distinctive proportions. Bourges is an ideal example of this as it has no transepts, a typically standard part in the Gothic kit. Spuybroek uses this to connect to the notion of the Gothic as a procedural architecture. Using Salisbury as the counter example he writes: “English cathedrals are exceptionally long because they were generated in open fields or on lawns, while French ones mostly occur in dense urban areas, where proportions were often inflexible. The two are definitely products of the same code.”[15]

The Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Salisbury has developed such a long nave that the transepts had to branch out twice, in contrast to Bourges. Again, Spuybroek writes that when faced with a different site the Gothic Algorithm can simply add more transepts or aisles to fill out the space and balance the forces accordingly.[16]Salisbury is notable not only for its planimetric organization, but also for the appearance of several structural strategies which exemplify the sentiments Worringer deems the wandering northern line. Particularly we see this in the fan vaults in the chantry chapel and the bundled columns in the nave. The lines begin fixed at the base of the vault, meander, recombine, and switchback as the reach the point, and then run back down to affix to another base. The two strategies fuse in the cloisters, creating an umbrella effect around a single central pillar holding up a remarkable octagonal vault. Spuybroek describes a similar effect in Gloucester Cathedral, “…the bundles loosen at the top into a fan and subsequently start to weave together with other unraveled ribs from other columns to form a vault.”[17] The quintessential element of the rib is articulated here far differently from in Bourges. In Bourges the ribs grow out from the walls, splaying into an interior and exterior portion which make up the superstructure of the cathedral. Here in Salisbury the structural articulation is contained entirely on the interior, showing only the resultant surfaces from the outside.

The Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família designed by Antoni Gaudí is perhaps the best example of the integration of the three concepts I have outlined in the previous section. The procedural nature of the design process consisted largely of material computation in the form of weighted chain models and studies of existing organic forms. This process allowed for the continual experimentation, expansion, and physical recomputation of structure of the church. While its construction and ornamentation have been flagrantly lavish, the actual underlying structural system is extremely well designed and efficient. The minimization of horizontal thrusts was present in the design process from the outset, Gaudí sought to eliminate what he saw as the “crutches” of flying and external buttresses.[18] The result is technically impressive even to the likes of Walter Gropius, describing the structure as “a marvel of technical perfection.”[19]

The vitality of the cathedral is undeniable. Nikolaus Pevsner writes that the building feels as if it is growing out of the ground like an anthill.[20]This comes largely out of the modelling of the global form and structure after properties found in the natural world. The same motifs of the northern line appear in Gaudí’s work as well, but manifest in new ways that sway far more towards organic precedent that mechanical. There are literal and figurative references to nature and natural properties all throughout the church. From visible examples of fruit motifs topping out spires and staircases curved after the form of mollusks, to details like the Fibonacci sequence manifesting in the flutes of the columns and the angled branching pattern of the columns. It is important to note however, that much of the ornamentation and usage of organic motifs go too far for our conception of a contemporary Gothic. Our style lays somewhere in-between overt biomimicry and mechanistic efficiency.


The performative benefits of the Gothic style are based in two main approaches to design. The optimization of structure through an understanding of the pathing of natural forces through a specific material, and the consolidation of elements into a repeatable but variable system. The key advantage to the way these to principles work together in the gothic is the resultant complex supramaterial whole that will be described in more detail in a following section. Farshid Moussavi alludes to this as she describes the Gothic approach to structure and form as “…focusing on assembling forms that were tied to specific material components”.[21]The advantages of which were furthered during construction through a conceptual (not literal) kit of parts. The Gothic multiplied the technical and affective performance of the Romanesque groin vault by introducing diagonal reinforced arches resting on thin bundled pillars, which enabled the stone to channel compressive forces more efficiently.[22]Consequently this allowed for a variety of forms, orientations, openings, and heights using an aggregation of a malleable set of elements – a feat that would have been previously impossible.

The key element, or proto-element as Spuybroek claims, in the Gothic kit is the rib.[23]The basis for that terminology stems in the sense of the rib as both an abstract concept and a real structural piece. They behave somewhere in-between a curve on a page and massive structural support. The rib must bundle, weave, aggregate, offset, and thicken to achieve any real strength. But it is precisely this elastic nature that allowed the system to be so flexible and adapt to the variety of concerns thrown at it. Formally based in an (at least perceived) optimization of the flow of forces to the ground or load distribution across a space, it was naturally efficient.[24]

Looking at several of the historical precedents described in the previous section, we can see how these ideas manifested in varying degrees physically. Looking at a more traditional example of structural performance first, Robert Mark has compared the force tolerances of un-ribbed vaults in Cologne to the ribbed vaults of Bourges. They are both quadripartite vaults that are similar enough to be a valid study. The results showed that the introduction of ribs into vaults served to significantly reduce tensile stress and carry the majority of the compressive stress.[25]Another interesting finding of Marks supports the conception of a process oriented optimization inherent in the Gothic methodology. The performance of the typical English singly-curved vaults, present in Salisbury, is nearly identical to that of the characteristically French double curvature vaulting.[26]

In the example of Salisbury we can also see the benefits of the aggregation of ribs. Using the example of the octagonal vault in the cloisters mentioned earlier, there is a clear optimization of space covered vs material used vs visual clarity. Mark investigated a similar system and noted the “… clear potential for covering a large area with a single visual unit of lighter construction and with less total horizontal thrust.”[27]

It is occasionally argued that the concept of efficiency, or reduction of material needed for any given project, is a relatively recent manifestation of our modernized society. Mark notes however, that economy of structure was indeed an important consideration during the construction of these massive buildings, writing “It is inconceivable that such factors as the tremendous cost of obtaining and transporting stone to the building site, or the pressing need to reduce the weight of lofty superstructures… would not have impelled designers to consider more efficient uses of masonry structure.”[28]

The Sagrada Familia is perhaps the best historical example of the merging of the concepts of efficiency and vitality. Gaudí designed by studying natural behaviors of materials and forces and harnessing them to develop the structure for the cathedral. Santiago Huerta wrote an extensive analysis on Gaudí’s process. The intent was to design a building that stood at equilibrium to assure the most efficient solution. Huerta writes “Every single analysis and design method used by Gaudí is based on finding equilibrium solutions… This objective of minimizing the thrusts is present from the beginning.”[29] Gaudí developed several original solutions to attain these goals. Beginning with the development of a space hanging model to study the behavior of gothic vaulting, he utilized the natural weight distributions to understand the optimal overall form for the cathedral. A process similar to that undergone by Frei Otto when studying domes and tensile structures. The elimination of buttressing was achieved through two key moves. Firstly, in a method practice in the construction of Colonia Guell, Gaudí angles the columns – creating an almost pyramidal shape, reducing but not eliminating the horizontal thrust.[30]To get rid of the need for visible buttressing entirely Gaudí used a typically Gothic solution: greatly increase the vertical load. In fact, by exaggerating the height of the space the compressional forces are increased, and the need for horizontal bracing is nearly eliminated.

A final elegant move made in order to achieve a structure which naturally rested at equilibrium. After splitting the entire composition into blocks and calculating the center of gravity of each section, a method of bringing those to the ground was necessary. A tree like structure was developed which was capable of splitting as it grew upward to reach and collect the loads from the center of gravity of each block and bringing them to one fixed point on the ground.[31]This strategy also resulted in one of the most common characterizations of the interior space of Sagrada Familia: “It’s like a forest of columns.” It is precisely this unity of structural function and aesthetic affect which orients the Gothic towards the ecological design mentality that I am arguing for.


In the introduction to her book The Function of Form Farshid Moussavi elegantly expresses the inherent connection the Gothic has between physical concerns of structure and materiality with the experiential affect of the spaces created. She writes: “Gothic architecture employed a unique transversal system that was simultaneously objective and subjective, technical and sensorial, visual and non-visual, abstract and concrete. Its palette was supramaterial and included gravity as well as stone, light and space as well as glass, and built forms were associated with different types of materials, both physical and non-physical.”[32]

This codeterminacy of material and affect has been present in the Gothic style since its inception. Abbot Suger’s metaphorical application of colored light was perhaps the pinnacle of a long-standing hermeneutics of light. The desire to make Saint Denis as light filled as possible drove structural innovation, and the structural developments in turn allowed for better environmental and spiritual qualities in the space.[33]

Natural light fused with naturalistic forms often gave areas of these cathedrals an organic feeling. The interplay of light and structure can be seen particularly well in the fan vaults of Salisbury of Bath, often referred to as a resembling a canopy or lamellae. This practice of biomimicry becomes all the more overt in the Sagrada Familia. The branching columns are extremely evocative of the natural formation of trees, and the interplay of light from the sunflower shaped skylights on the interior striations creates a dappling effect which is reminiscent of that underneath dense foliage. Creating spaces in this manner is not only aesthetically pleasing, but results in excellent indoor environmental quality because of the proliferation of natural light and potential for natural ventilation. These realizations have been recently picked up in a project by Vincent Callebaut Architectures entitled Palingenesis – a Gothic and Biomimetic Forrest for the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The project will be discussed in more detail later, but it treads carefully on the line between embodying vitalism and overt biomimicry. [34]

A common criticism of contemporary sustainable architecture is that it acts more as a marketing tool than as an effective solution. If a building looks green or organic it is perceived as sustainable and efficient – a fallacy also employed by the Parametricists, a concern that will arise in a following section. The overt representation of stylized nature in a project is characterized under the Moniker “Eco-Pop” by Mark Jarzombek. The Sagrada Familia becomes a concerning example when viewed under this lens. The ornamentation of the building with direct facsimiles of organic life promotes a certain view of the natural world. The overall generally curvaceous form is perhaps unnecessarily so – and done only to evoke a particular response from the visitors. Of course, because the Sagrada Familia is primarily a work of art and a cultural building this is not a crucial issue. It does not pretend to be sustainable, but similar strategies are employed in projects which do.

STAR writes about this in a project entitled O’ Mighty Green, saying “Sustainability currently shares many qualities with God; supreme concept, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient; creator and judge, protector, and saviour of the universe and the humanity… The word Sustainability has been raped, abused, and insulted by architects, politicians, advertisers… In a persistent effort to become the allegory of Sustainability, Green has been emancipated as its caricature.”[35]This method of “greenwashing” is a common fallacy of modern sustainable design. The advantage to the Gothic, is that the ecologically responsible properties are embedded within another style which is far more subtle.

The Gothic is notable because at its core characteristics, those from Ruskin or those which I have identified, it embodies the performative and beneficial qualities which are overexaggerated in the issues detailed above. As a style and methodology, it walks the line between overt biomimicry and mechanistic efficiency. The balance to which I am referring can be seen in the comparative taxonomic studies in Textile Tectonics between leaf venation and Gothic ribs.[36]They are referential, but not overly explicit. Spuybroek argues that the Gothic is an architecture not of sensual of physical experiences like the Baroque or Rococco, but one which embodies a “perfectly ordinary everyday relationship with… well, everything.”[37]The gothic does not have a preconceived idea about the world, rather it is an architecture of relationality – about being connected to the world. This makes it, in the words of Spuybroek, ecological and topological rather than organic.[38]


The reasoning behind Spuybroek’s claims is the inherent lightness, delicacy, and adaptability of the Gothic. He writes: “It is the operational, procedural logic of the gothic which makes it code-dependent, its relational approach to problems of design – its manner of knitting its way through every question by separating the figural behavior of agents from configurational effects, and its rule-based consistency.”[39]The main argument posed by the essay The Digital Nature of Gothic is the easy and full translation of traditional Gothic methodology and style to a contemporary computational approach. The introduction of the computer does not act as a traditional tool, instead it is more of a material itself. It acts as an integration of processes of craft, drawing, and design.[40]

The way this process is best understood is as a bottom-up process of design, rather than top down. By placing the emphasis on formation rather than form we see the connectedness with the world around the architecture emerge. Neil Leach writes about this, and how the Gothic integration of material and process manifest: “When architecture is ‘informed’ by performative considerations it becomes less a consideration of form in and of itself, and more a discourse of material formations.”[41]It is this logic of form generation through processes of growth and differentiation often found in living organisms which parallels so well with the Gothic, and often gives the style an organic or natural affect.

Frei Otto and Antoni Gaudí pioneered processes such as these using material computation and analogue modelling. They developed lightweight, optimized structures through a Gothic sentiment of observing and recreating natural morphogenesis. With the advent of the computer age we have seen a new performative turn in architectural design discourse. Digital techniques allow for a more dexterous and deep exploration of these concepts. Techniques and methodologies like L-Systems, cellular automata, genetic algorithms, and multi-agent systems are increasingly being used to both evaluate already designed structures and speculate on future potentialities.[42] A reinterpretation of the computer not as a sophisticated drafting tool, but as a material part of the design process itself shifts the role of an architect from a “demiurgic form-giver” to a collaborator with material, data, and nature.

Steven Johnson defines these types of practices as emergent behaviors, writing: “The movement from low-level rules to higher-level sophistication is what we call emergence.”[43]Neil Leach, drawing on previous theories from Deleuze and Guattari sees this clearly manifest in the Gothic style. He writes that emergent form “evolves over time, much as the gothic vault evolved, becoming ever more refined in its structural efficiency, until it reached its glorious culmination in the fan vaulting of the English perpendicular style.”[44]It is the task we must take on as designers in the Anthropocene to design for  “future perfect” tense architecture, adjusting and adapting over time to facilitate the actions that will have happened. 

Could there then, at some point in the near future, exist a sort of Gothic computational machine as Spuybroek writes about in The Digital Nature of Gothic? It is not at all inconceivable. The question is then what the ruleset would be, and what methods it would follow. To embody the efficiency and procedural characteristics it would make sense to utilize a combination of genetic and agent-based system. One could conceptualize the rib curve, or rather the particle that traces out the curve of the rib, as the agent. This agent or series of agents would trace out the profile of a rib, evaluate based on contextual, material, and external criteria given by the human actor, then shift and repeat. Given the right set of fundamental behaviors, the vitality characteristic would be imbued as well. Both through behaviors modeled after natural phenomena, and in the eventual animalistic emergence of complex patterns. Through the aggregation and connection of the results, the machine would produce a result which embodies many of the original six characteristics Ruskin outlined. The machine does not omit imperfections, it recombines and adds to them to create a finished whole.

A particular concern to setting up such a machine for the Gothic is the inclusion of material sensibilities and performance statistics from the outset. Lest we fall into a Parametricist hole and develop designs which can only be manifest with incredible wealth and energy – making the projects irresponsible, even if in the computer then appear to be highly performative.

If we continue to practice these methods and push at the boundaries of possibility, a new Gothic will emerge. Rooting itself this time, as I am speculating, in the perception of the computer and computational workflows as a material itself - finding meaning through its articulation in new structural systems, materials, and methods.


There is a fair amount of contemporary experimentation in this direction which we can use to populate our own speculative future. A project by Tom Wiscombe proposes a structural system which taps into the Gothic ethos. The “beam-brane” came out of an investigation into the structural morphology of dragonfly wings. Wiscombe and his team developed a prototype which at a moment when shell behavior is not present, the structure shifts load from a surface dispersion to a frame dispersion – a behavior that functions like an active version of the passively functioning gothic ribbed vault.[45]Rather than a difference in degree, these structures experience a change in kind.

A more direct implementation of Gothic structural strategies using contemporary materials and fabrication techniques can be found in several projects developed by the BLOCK Research Group out of ETH Zurich. Developed out of a fusion of Gaustavino tile vaults and studies of Gothic ribbing, the Rib-stiffened Funicular Floor System is an ultra-lightweight unreinforced concrete  panel. This technique reduces the dead load of buildings by more than 70% compared to a similar strength traditional concrete floor slab[46] – the repercussions of which reap benefits throughout the rest of the building, economically and environmentally. The form-finding process undergone to develop this strategy is remarkably similar to the computational approach outlined in the previous section. The Block Group developed an iterative and self-optimizing system scripted using RhinoVAULT that would take an initial set of parameters and result in the optimal structural composition of ribs and fill.[47]

In a later project Wiscombe brings these properties out of the purely structural and into the scale of holistic building systems. Hydronic Armatures can contain any number of flows, from structural forces, to liquids, air, heat electricity, data, and/or light.[48]These armatures can exist integrated into surfaces or emerging from them. They interconnect and recombine with other armatures to create structure and form. Perhaps the rib is not only structural and aesthetic in the Eco-Gothic, but instead is the sole necessary building element. Like Spuybroek’s classification of the Gothic wall and window as a second order system… “how and with what the holes are eventually filled is secondary.”[49]

Some references to these ideas can also be read into projects by Santiago Calatrava – whose work Romer van Toom deems the exemplary of the Gothic after the death of God, writing “the bridges and canopies to which he generally applies himself look like an unrestrained game with the basic concepts of statics, a pure manipulation of natural laws.”[50]Examining the World Trade Center Transportation Hub in more detail, we see many of his characteristic design intentions in purest form. The building is composed entirely of a series of ribs which intersect to create the space beneath and overhang to form canopies for the public space outside. This building is a fantastic example of the rib as primary element, infill as secondary. Most portions happen to be window, but that decision is relatively inconsequential. The spaces between ribs could easily have been solid or completely void, based on factors such as program or environmental performance. The structure had clear potential to incorporate the idea of hydronic armatures, even if the end result did not.

For a project which embodies material efficiency and the connection to the surroundings Spuybroek finds so important we can return to church architecture. The Thorncrown chapel by E. Fay Jones could be called regionalist, but I would also call it Gothic. The response to and understanding of material properties was key in the design and construction process. The structure is built using only local wood and skilled joinery. It embodies a responsible and ecological tectonic approach and is extremely rooted in its place.

Synthesizing all of these ideas – each to varying extents – is the Palingenesisproject by Vincent Callebaut. Constructed with engineered cross laminated timber, the project aims to ensure a low carbon footprint by offering high performance out of minimal material. The overall form is evocative of the norther line, fixed at both ends with expressions of vitality in-between, while respecting the natural descent of the structural loads of the building. The fill between the ribs is almost entirely glazed, but it is designed to harness natural properties of solar ventilation. It is faceted into diamond-shaped elements containing a thin photovoltaic layer to harness the suns energy. The crystalline shape also allows for the seamless integration of operable panels, placed to harnessing a thermal siphoning effect occurring in the spire. [51]Regardless of program, the design of this project is attuned to its context and responsible towards the environment.

While none of these projects are the solution, they all embody manifestations of important lessons we can learn from the Gothic ethos. Combined with the process-oriented approach outlined in the previous section, we can begin to speculate on the possibilities of integrating components from each project into a larger, holistic approach to ecologically minded design.  


My argument for a revitalization of Gothic sentimentalities is deeply seated in the concerns of the Anthropocene, and the architecture within it. We must learn to be more responsible and contextual with our built world. Lavishness has a small place, but inefficiency and wastefulness do not. The Gothic conforms to the main two concerns of contemporary sustainable design. The first, and most important, is that the building be efficient in all ways, and in touch with its material composition. The second, that it appear to be sustainable, of this earth, and pleasing to inhabitants.

The Gothic inherently embodies both characteristics of efficiency and vitality. In this style they are intrinsically tied to one another, a unique trait not really found in any other architectural methodology. The characteristic at the top of my list was the procedural nature of the Gothic. It has been borne out by the writings of many different authors that the Gothic is really configured more as a method than a style, a way of designing that privileges process over appearance and is resultant in an architecture of crystalized competing forces. Spuybroek summarizes this sentiment quite well: “What a profound correlation between the vital machine of the Gothic and the vital machine of the digital! Coded properly, the digital could establish a type of formation that is neither completely abstract nor completely organic, because the two states collaborate without a direct, linear relationship. It is mechanical, all right, but only on the lower, molecular scale of the figure; it tends toward organic form on the larger configurational scale.”[52]This perfect balance between mechanistic efficiency and overt biomimicry creates an architecture which seems precisely directed at our current situation.

The gothic was a unique moment in architectural history when the approach to form-making was equal on both physical and abstract levels. The style integrated considerations of process-oriented design, expression of natural forces, optimization, and a supreme consideration of material. As Farshid Moussavi writes, “In all other periods form and matter have been considered in opposition to one another, a duality which is paralleled in Western thought: the empirical world that we see and sense on the one hand, and the non-physical, which accounts for the mental and spiritual world.[53]It is, in my opinion, to no small extent that the split in this duality of thought has caused the innumerous issues we currently face in the Anthropocene. Considerations of place and effect must align to understand the significance of our actions, and architectures place within it. Broadly then, perhaps it is time that the Gothic way of thinking and design reappears in an age where we have more effect on our environment and our fate than ever before.  

[1]Ruskin stones of venice 157
[2]Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, 160
[3]Spuybroek, The Digital Nature of Gothic, 33
[4] Ruskin,The Stones of Venice, 227
[5]Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 364
[6]Hunt, Medieval Theory of Light, 1
[7]Kristina Shea, Creating Synthesis Partners, 42-45.
[8]Leach, Swarm Tectonics, 8
[9] Ruskin,The Stones of Venice, 260
[10] Spuybroek,Textile Tectonics, 48-61
[11]Worringer, Ceaseless Melody of the Northern Line,
[12]Spuybroek, The Radical Picturesque,39
[13] Spuybroek,The Radical Picturesque, 39
[14] Mark,Experiments in Gothic Structure, 102
[15] Spuybroek,The Digital Nature of Gothic, 36
[16] Spuybroek,The Digital Nature of Gothic, 36
[17] Spuybroek,The Digital Nature of Gothic, 39
[18]Huerta, Structural Design in the Work of Gaudi, 334
[19]Mower, Gaudi, 6
[20] Pevsner,An Outline of European Architecture, 394–5
[21]Moussavi, The Function of Form, 29
[22] Moussavi,The Function of Form, 29
[23] Spuybroek,The Radical Picturesque, 29
[24] Huerta,Structural Design in the Work of Gaudi, 329
[25] Mark,Experiments in Gothic Structure, 110
[26] Mark,Experiments in Gothic Structure, 113
[27] Mark,Experiments in Gothic Structure,  115
[28] Mark,Experiments in Gothic Structure, 122
[29] Huerta,Structural Design in the Work of Gaudi, 336
[30] Huerta,Structural Design in the Work of Gaudi, 334
[31] Huerta,Structural Design in the Work of Gaudi, 335
[32] Moussavi,The Function of Form, 29
[33] Hunt,Medieval Theory of Light, 2
[34]Callebaut, Palingenesis
[35]STAR, O’ Mighty Green
[36] Spuybroek,Textile Tectonics, 48-61
[37] Spuybroek,The Digital Nature of Gothic, 38
[38] Spuybroek,The Digital Nature of Gothic, 38
[39] Spuybroek,The Digital Nature of Gothic, 32
[40] Spuybroek,The Digital Nature of Gothic, 29
[41]Leach, Digital Morphogenesis, 34
[42] Leach,Digital Morphogenesis, 35
[43]Johnson, Emergence, 18
[44] Leach,Swarm Tectonics, 6
[45]Wiscombe, Structural Ecologies, 1
[46] Block,Design, fabrication and testing of a prototype, thin-vaulted, unreinforced concrete floor, 1
[47] Block,Design, fabrication and testing of a prototype, thin-vaulted, unreinforced concrete floor, 3
[48] Wiscombe,Structural Ecologies, 2
[49] Spuybroek,The Digital Nature of Gothic, 38
[50]Van Toom, Gothic After the Death of God, 1
[51] Callebaut,Palingenesis
[52] Spuybroek,The Digital Nature of Gothic, 35
[53] Moussavi,The Function of Form, 31