Beauty and the Brutal Beast?
Architecture and its harmonic opposition on the streets of York
On a warm, sunny afternoon, Lorenzo, Madeline and myself take a walking tour of York, and discuss the past, present and future architectural landscape of this beloved city.
‘For many, the centre of York’s eclectic scene is, undoubtedly, the Minster. With its towering Gothic Architecture and stunningly beautiful stained glass, it remains the the breathtaking feat its creators intended it to be, upon its completion roughly as we see it, around 600 years ago.’
Walking up Stonegate, we steadily approach the Minster piazza bathed in sunlight, and Madeline continues ‘you are immediately struck by its sheer scale and capacity. At 27 metres high, it is one of the largest Gothic Cathedrals in Northern Europe. Notice the almost star like quality when its sandstone is bathed in sunlight? Its due in part to half of all the stained glass in England being installed along these vast walls.’ Stopping for a moment among the throngs of tourists, she indicates the strange quite of those around us… ‘As you can see. The monumental scale and religious use of the Minster not only drowns out sound within, but also to an extent without.’ Certainly, the piazzas and gardens that shield it are enthralled by eyes turned upwards. We continue to traverse the base of the building, Madeline narrating as we go… ‘It is not only its compelling beauty, but also its religious significance and historical relevance that ensures it still receives widespread reverence. There has been a place of Christian worship upon that site since 627 AD, and the building has played its part in the Anglo Saxon, Norman and Roman occupations of the city, to name a few. Notably, during Roman occupation the entire Roman Empire was ruled from York by the then Emperor, Septimus Severus, between 208 and 211 AD.’
For a while now, we have been discussing the opposition between modern and more historic buildings in cities such as York, and Madeline is a firm supporter of preserving such works as the Minster. ‘The importance of understanding and appreciating our historical architecture is absolutely key. Tracing the various builds and rebuilds of the Minster, for example, by its many occupants, can inform us about our architectural, religious and social histories. The building’s purpose survived numerous historical events, including William the Conqueror’s Harrying of the North in 1069, destruction of the building by the Danes in 1075, and the English Reformation of the 1500’s. Renouncing historical architecture as merely archaic and ill suited to modern life disregards its cultural significance, and what it can tell us about our past.’ On the topic of functionalism ‘to an extent, buildings in their time would have been functionalist, although their ideas and needs were very different to our own. For example the grand scale and elaborate architecture of the Minster highlights the monumental role that religion has played in England over the past millennia, in all its changing shapes and forms.’
‘And older architecture really was the technological miracle of its day, and highly prized by all who beheld it. Innovative technology such as the flying buttress allowed for the huge stained glass windows and the buildings immense height, and the craftsmanship that went into the numerous stone carvings and intricate decoration is a wonder both in the day and now, as it continues hundreds of years later.’ She notes this as we pass the stone masons yard, its role to preserve and rebuild the Minster in its constant need to be repaired and restored. ‘Despite 200 years in the making and many centuries building up to it before that, work on the Minster is never finished, thus making it surprisingly relevant despite its age.’ We move beyond the Minster now, and toward the increasingly modern elements of Yorks landscape. ‘It is a great shame that although the mass produced buildings of today are a necessity, the same care and attention cannot possibly be paid them.’ And looking back at the Minster, as we stop at traffic lights ‘As such masterpieces will inevitably dwindle as modernity takes hold, cherishing buildings like the Minster becomes more and more important.’
But through all our discussion, the general consensus is that in moving forward we cannot afford to eradicate our cultural heritage, but nor can we stoically cling to it. In York, despite disapproval of such buildings as the ‘Stonebow’ or the ‘Hiscox’, to a degree they could be seen as a vital element of York’s cultural and artistic landscape, to be shaped by history just as the Minster is. And thus now we near these modern structures, whom Lorenzo is keen to defend.
“I wonder if a city could aesthetically base itself only on its past? I can’t help but think it would feel incomplete, as a city in which to live. After all, the future is always around the corner, like a guest with an effusive and colourful dress, eager to turn up. It may have already come, without us noticing.” Philosophical and characteristically mischievous words from Lorenzo and he warms to his theme as we continue our walk around York. “I mean, look around,” he points, “True to form, York positively sighs history. Every angle is a love song to the cultural heritage here.”
We arrive at Stonebow and, further down the road, the newly revamped Hiscox building. “Even here, however, some forward-thinking minds considered the need of progress instead of ignoring it. Thanks to them, the future is dovetailed with the heritage. Thanks to original projects such as this the city can come into its own.”
Lorenzo sweeps his arm across the building’s entrance. “Look. Hiscox is literally a concrete example of how a functional workplace can turn out to have touristic elements. The first impression is of a fusion of light and heft, the walls and curtains complementing each other, the curve counterbalanced by straight lines.”
Lorenzo pauses and watches the passers by, all hurrying to destinations or immersed in their hand held devices. “See?” he gestures, “Not one person notices the beauty and creativity of the Hiscox building.
On the contrary, everyone seems to be more interested in the “museum” which takes place in the city centre, positively swollen with centuries worth of now irrelevant iconography. This fact warns us: there’s still a long way to go before the tyranny of the tradition will be stemmed.”