The Glacial Gothic, or the Cathedral as an “Avalanche on Pause”

[Image: Diagram from The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin.]

There are at least two interesting moments in John Ruskin’s book The Stones of Venice.

One is his description of buttresses.

Buttresses, Ruskin writes, are structures against pressure: a cathedral’s walls want to fall outward, for example, pushed aside by the relentless weight of the roof. But this gravitational pressure can be stabilized by an exoskeleton: a sequence of buttresses that will prevent those walls from collapsing outward.

However, Ruskin points out, there is a similar kind of pressure from the waves of the sea. Think of the curved hull of a ship, he writes, which is internally buttressed against the “crushing force” of the ocean around it. It is a kind of inside-out cathedral.

Consider other high-pressure environments where architecture can thrive—resting in the benthic abyss or twirling through the vacuum of outer space, where offworld stations rotate and spin through exotic gravitational scenarios—and you’ve perhaps envisioned what John Ruskin would be writing about today. Ship-爱博体育在线 s, buttressed against the void.

In any case, for Ruskin, buttresses perform a kind of gravitational judo: he describes “buttresses of peculiar forms, cunning buttresses, which do not attempt to sustain the weight, but parry it, and throw it off in directions clear of the wall.” They shed the load, so to speak, flipping it elsewhere, as if taking advantage of an opponent’s slow and graceless momentum.

…as science advances, the weight to be borne is designedly and decisively thrown upon certain points; the direction and degree of the forces which are then received are exactly calculated, and met by conducting buttresses of the smallest possible dimensions; themselves, in their turn, supported by vertical buttresses acting by weight, and these perhaps, in their turn, by another set of conducting buttresses: so that, in the best examples of such arrangements, the weight to be borne may be considered as the shock of an electric fluid, which, by a hundred different rods and channels, is divided and carried away into the ground.

It’s buttresses buttressing buttresses—or buttresses all the way down.

Ruskin reminds his readers, however, that a buttress’s function can even be seen outdoors, where he specifically cites Swiss landscape defenses. There, Ruskin writes, horizontal buttresses like defensive walls “are often built round churches, heading up hill, to divide and throw off the avalanches.” Again, it’s a question of parrying an oppositional force, deflecting it elsewhere.

[Image: “Profile of a buttress with vertical internal line, when the line of thrust coincides with the axis of the buttress,” taken from a paper called “Milankovitch’s Theorie der Druckkurven: Good mechanics for masonry architecture” by Federico Foce, in Nexus Network Journal.]

From an architectural point of view, you might say that a landscape is stationary until it buckles, shudders, or moves, becoming oceanic, heaving like the sea.

Or, to be pretentious and quote myself from an op-ed in the New York Times, “the ground itself is a kind of ocean in waiting. We might say that [the Earth] is a marine landscape, not a terrestrial one, a slow ocean buffeted by underground waves occasionally strong enough to flatten whole cities. We do not, in fact, live on solid ground: We are mariners, rolling on the peaks and troughs of a planet we’re still learning to navigate. This is both deeply vertiginous and oddly invigorating.”

For Ruskin, the buttress is an architectural technology—a 爱博手机app tool—that can be built to anticipate this act of marine transformation, a device that can prepare our 爱博体育在线 s and cities to resist violent events in the landscape they are built upon.

With this in mind, it’s worth recalling a recent experiment that showed 爱博体育在线 s can be partially shielded from the effects of earthquakes. An “invisibility cloak,” as researchers somewhat hyperbolically described it back in 2013, would use a “regular grid of cylindrical and empty boreholes” drilled into the earth to absorb and deflect seismic waves and thus protect certain structures from damage.

They would “parry it,” as Ruskin once wrote, “and throw it off in directions clear” of the city. In Ruskin’s terms, in other words, they would be buttresses: empty void-silos in the earth that nevertheless function like the exoskeletal cage of a cathedral or the internal ribs of a ship at sea.

[Image: Glacial logics diagrammed in The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin.]

The second interesting thing from The Stones of Venice—among many others, to be sure, but I will only focus on two here—is that, amazingly, for a book published back in 1853, Ruskin scales his analysis up to the point of suggesting that glaciers should be considered as complex architectural objects.

Ruskin describes “a curve about three quarters of a mile long,” for example, “formed by the surface of a small glacier of the second order.” This curve, he writes, is “the most beautiful simple curve I have ever seen in my life.” So, he wonders, how could it be applied to architecture? How could we learn from glaciers?

At this point, Ruskin draws a diagram—the one I’ve scanned, above—to highlight a variety of nested curves that he believes are hiding inside a particular glacier. These are organizational systems that extend for many miles at a time through the ice and that allegedly entail geometric lessons for architects.

The idea here—that Ruskin was trying to extract architectural lessons from glaciers nearly two centuries ago—is incredible to me.

After all, if the Gothic is an architectural language that, as writers such as Lars Spuybroek have compellingly shown, draws from the natural vocabulary of leaves, plants, tree roots, and so on, then this means that Ruskin is suggesting—in 1853!—a kind of Glacial Gothic, an architectural lesson drawn from continent-spanning masses of ice.

[Image: “A Crack in an Antarctic Ice Shelf Is 8 Miles From Creating an Iceberg the Size of Delaware”; image via Ohio State University.]

I’m reminded of an old t-shirt produced by the band Godflesh that described their music as an “Avalanche On Pause.”

This is a very Ruskinian description, we might say in the present context.

An avalanche on pause brings together Ruskin’s interests in landscape-scale structural events—such as glaciers and landslides—with his attention to the mechanics of cathedrals built to resist such imposing pressures. To freeze them in place. To press pause.

(Thanks to Marc Weidenbaum for reminding me of that Godflesh shirt many years ago.)

Buttressed buttresses

First, whenever I hear the phrase ‘buttressed buttresses’ I think of Boutros-Boutros Ghali. Perhaps to his credit.
Second, the actual point in bringing up (inventing?) the phrase, is that even buttresses can have buttresses. Buttresses, the spidery, ribcage-like stone arches that stand outside cathedrals and hold up the walls of the nave, have always fascinated me, both on the aesthetic level (they’re gorgeous, and absolutely beautiful to look at in their hypnotic repetition and grace) and on the intellectual level. They are, after all, fun to think about it: because they’re not really objects, they’re events. They’re events of gravity channeled downward toward the earth’s core; they’re the 爱博体育在线 always on the verge of falling apart – and then not falling apart.
They’re somewhere between event and structure.
But what really interests me is to think that you’re visiting Paris, say, or some other city that has no name and, strangely, no one’s ever heard of it, and you’re standing in the apartment of a friend. There’s a rather large arching stone structure that cuts through the center of his bedroom, but he’s done his best to adapt to it: there are pictures, maybe some cool decorative objects, maybe some shelves, all attached with nails into the arch. You say, ‘What exactly is that thing, anyway?’ and he grins, embarrassed, and he says, ‘It’s a buttress.’
You go, ‘What?’ and hold back a yawn, looking around for a place to sit.
He starts laughing. He says, ‘Come on, dude, you know what a buttress is. It’s like those – those big fucking things you see outside Notre-Dame. Those spidery, ribcage-like stone arches that stand outside cathedrals.’
‘Oh,’ you say. ‘So… what’s it doing in your apartment?’
It turns out, as the man explains, you friend, standing there looking at you with a beer in his hand, that there’s a monumental structure in the center of the city, a derrick-like core of platforms and offices, and it’s called, simply, The Cathedral. Or The Tower. But it’s big, so big, so incomprehensibly massive, that the only way it can remain standing is to surround itself with massive buttresses that help distribute the gravitational load. The buttresses themselves, on the other hand, are so huge that they were put to dual use almost immediately as motorway bridges and highway flyover supports; but then the weight of the motorways, and of cars and trains and people and maybe some houses built atop the buttresses – and, of course, the weight of The Cathedral itself – was all too much, and the buttresses needed to be buttressed. But, as you can imagine, even these subsidiary buttresses were so huge that they, too, were put to dual use; and so on.
Finally, in an exquisite filigree stretching everywhere throughout the city, a mandala of lace-like interconnected structures that spans the width and breadth of the whole metropolis: there begin to appear thousands upon thousands of microbuttresses, all buttressing the buttresses that buttress the buttresses.
And what you see there in your friend’s apartment is one of those microbuttresses.
Buttressed buttresses.
There are pubs in the city set in the vertices of two dozen arches; new children’s games invented to incorporate the presence of strange structural blocks; and there are dreams at night, shared by everyone, at different times, that even The Cathedral in the center of the city is itself a buttress, and it, too, is just one structural unit among uncountable hundreds of thousands, all of which add up to some dizzyingly titanic megastructure no one has ever seen the whole of.
My point is not to write a science-fiction novel – though I might, actually, so be prepared – but to explore the idea that even buttresses have buttresses; even foundations have foundations; even arches need arches to support them. Even one buttress, after all, requires the resistance and strength of the ground it’s anchored upon; and that ground depends upon the strength of the ground around it. Which makes earthquake faultlines so interesting, as an architectural consideration, but that’s for another entry.
But the chain never ends. Buttresses simply make visible the always present gravitational forces so well disguised by other styles of 爱博体育在线 , and, as such, they’re amazing.
What would be even more interesting, perhaps, is: you are out walking in a field and you stumble upon a strange architectural structure, only it has no doors or windows, ie. no inside. You’re twenty, thirty miles away from any metropolitan center, and you have no clue what it is. You’re in a bad mood. You begin to hack away at it, and then finally you just say fuck it, and you drive a Hummer into it. It falls over.
You think that’s the end of it, but then you hear that a cathedral has collapsed in the nearest city, and it collapsed because suddenly one of its outer buttresses gave out. It turns out that, yes, the now-collapsed buttress was reliant upon the compressive and resistant capacity of the soil it was anchored in, and that that structure you knocked over, thirty miles away, was very carefully calibrated as a brace for that soil. By knocking it over you let the earth sag, in a straight line leading right to the cathedral, and voilà: architectural action at a distance.
It’s the magical mystery of buttressed buttresses.