Excerpt: Cold Case: Cathedrals

Introduction to "Cold Case: Cathedrals," published in 306090 No.15 (February, 2013)

The Gothic Cathedral was the culmination of man’s artistic and technical achievement. It worked at every scale, looming over the medieval city or town while its complex sculptures instilled both awe and morality. It was a liminal space between Heaven and Earth where people found themselves in the presence of God. It was both spectacle and vantage, drawing the eye from the ground and providing a new view onto the world from its spire. Its paintings, sculptures, and stained-glass windows transmitted messages across time. And it was killed in the fifteenth century.

Every good detective story starts with a corpse. This one is no exception. The body of the cathedral wasn’t identified until the nineteenth century when, in Victor Hugo’s postmortem, Notre-Dame de Paris, the character Dom Claude Frollo, Archdeacon of said cathedral, gestures with one hand toward a printed book and with the other out the window of his small cell toward the iconic Gothic structure cast in shadow against the night sky of Paris and utters his well known prophecy, “this will kill that.” When the printed word and mass media became the dominant historical and cultural record, they obviated a primary function of architecture –communication– and irreparably fragmented fundamental architectural principles. From Hugo’s perspective in 1841, the cathedral –a metonymic representation of architecture– was dead. In fact, it was the most famous murder victim in nineteenth century literature – a not insignificant feat in the century that produced the detective story.

The detective story persisted as a popular form of entertainment throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, but during the past decade it has once again come to dominate the cultural zeitgeist. Through a myriad of new films and television mysteries, the detective is more present in popular media than ever before. His nature may have changed –the idiosyncratic gentleman of the nineteenth century became the hard-boiled gumshoe of the twentieth, who has evolved into the genius with a haunted past that dominates today’s detective fiction– yet some of his qualities remain consistent.

The detective always begins his investigation from the smallest traces, the vestiges of a transgressive act; he or she relies on close observation, a deep knowledge of culture, and technological innovations; the detective leads an irregular lifestyle, keeping strange hours and cultivating unique obsessions; detectives “have the souls neither of civil servants nor…of citizens.”1 Their methods and tactics –surveillance, observation, and most importantly, deduction– are often unconventional, and they succeed independently where larger civil systems fail.1 Ultimately, the investigation of the literary detective is a critical act that transforms fragments of event, space, and time into a cogent spatial narrative. Is that not also the role of the architect? Are not most of the aforementioned characteristics shared by the architect? Contemporary architects may benefit from an investigation of their own, appropriating the methods and tactics of the detective. What better way to test this theory than with a new investigation into the centuries-old murder of the cathedral – and, thereby, of architecture itself?

But why exhume the remains and reopen this this cold case? Why go over the well-travelled territory of re-reading Hugo and many others? Because, time, technology, and culture alter our relationship with the built environment. And the cathedral has –rather ironically, considering its age–continued to serve as a metric of cultural progress and technological innovation, in part due to its murder. Though it may now seem a cliché, “this will kill that” remains an incredible provocation, and I believe there is still much to learn about the demise of the cathedral. In the history and theory of art and architecture, the cathedral is often invoked to elevate a new technology or building or theory. Beyond Hugo, important thinkers who have done so include Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, and Robert Venturi, among others. All have invoked its power, either as a sort of straw man –or straw hut, as it were– to establish a new conceptual paradigm or as an exemplar that can be reverse-engineered to rationalize a contemporary theory. To investigate the death of the cathedral is to re-examine architecture in light of current social and technological changes – a relationship that has grown only more complex since the first printing of Gutenberg Bible. With apologies to Bernard Tschumi, in order to really appreciate architecture, it may be time to investigate a murder.

1. Richard Alewyn, “The Origin of the Detective Novel” (1974), reprinted in The Poetics of Murder: Detective Fiction and Literary Theory, eds. Glenn W. most and William W. Stowe (New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983): 68

2. I’ve always had a preference for Raymond Chandler’s description of the detective in his 1944 essay “The Simple Art of Murder” as a man of qualities to which every architect should aspire: “[The detective] must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world….The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.”