Since this semester's History of Architecture has been studying Gothic Cathedrals, I've been eager take a new look at the closest example, the National Cathedral in DC. This morning I drove down and took in the standard 30 minute tour.
As I knew beforehand, the building has been under repairs from damage done by the 5.8 earthquake in 2011, and the construction noise occasionally made it difficult to hear the docent. Much of what I heard I already knew but not everything. For example, I hadn't realized that the site was selected because of the relatively high ground. Although all the examples we've studied in class are in Europe, the Washington Cathedral design follows the standard cross shape with an east-west layout so service goers are praying while facing east, towards Jerusalem.
I had a chance to look at the standard Gothic features such as pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses and appreciate the beauty of the stained glass and sculptures. Because of the construction, I took only one picture, that of the stained glass in the Maryland Bay:
Recently I went back to look at my notes from a class a couple of years ago entitled History of Science and Technology because I remembered an excellent lecture on Gothic Cathedrals. The professor made the point that technology is not neutral but rather is a reflection of the concerns and aspirations of the surrounding culture. The religious nature of the Middle Ages caused the people to direct their intelligence to building houses of prayer with high interiors to direct attention towards heaven and to include as many windows as possible because light was equated with God. Since the building material was stone for permanence, the engineering challenges of handling the stress of the weight lead while allowing for windows lead to the solutions we see in the Gothic architectural design.
I'll probably come back when the construction is complete and the weather's warmer.