Gothic Architecture and the Digital Reformation of Ecclesiastical Space

Posted by Stuart Lindsay on October 04, 2010 in Blog tagged with , , , , ,

Post-1688 revolutionary historicism has always been a considerable contribution to Gothic studies, and how its fiction is continually reforming and updating the Medieval Gothic spaces of ecclesiastic life. The original architecture of the Gothic period, itself once revolutionary in creating the uncanny space of stained-glass and natural light through buttresses and barrel-vaulted ceilings, has been in constant change: reformed in violence though the English Civil War, doubled by the Victorian obsession of all things ancient, Romantic and Gothic, and now, copied infinitely in the digital age, not just by professional architecture programmes but also through the less-lofty but no less complex videogame design tool.

Many videogames, such as Quake, Jedi Knight and Unreal, use for their settings otherworldly Gothic spaces such as ancient churches, chapels and monasteries. Included with these games are the editing tools used by the developers to build this game, allowing the players themselves to create landscapes from their own imagination. In one of many ways, this possibility tracks the progress of Gothic from a series of period-specific conventions: an eighteenth century snapshot collated from the culmination of historic happenings, to the infinite technological explosion of Gothic fictions throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. From a few elite educated aristocrats to anybody with a computer and the technological know-how, the Gothic has become an almost universal representation of human fear and excitement.

The allure of the Medieval church or cathedral presents to authors of Gothic fiction a site of awe and terror: the imagined expression of an unreal space that seemingly stands against logic and gravity, rising up from the ground upon unknown or imaginary foundations by deception or sheer will alone. This terrifying image that it presents, perhaps the basis for the Gothic genre of writing and the religions it represents, is in the eye of the architect or budding enthusiast actually sustained by technological innovation: the very unreality of the building relying upon a series of newly-invented architectural conventions, emblazoned with the style of the period. This eighteenth and nineteenth century fascination and duplication of the unreality of Gothic architecture, copied into the details of public buildings such as mansions, libraries and universities, has been sustained by the twentieth and twenty first century obsession with virtual reality.

The videogame generation’s presentation of ecclesiastical space is, just as in any previous age, designed to reflect the cultural norms of the period: as an almost exclusively secular representation levelled of symbolism to suit the global and commercial constraints of the medium. From the fantasy re-imaginings of churches and cathedrals in alien or inter-dimensional worlds such as in Quake or Unreal, to games such as Thief: The Dark Project and Clive Barker’s Undying which are set in real or pseudo-real Gothic worlds, the religious symbolism and icons of the Medieval worship of the past have been omitted or replaced by the game’s own icons. The virtual space of the church or cathedral now utilizes a different set of technological conventions to stand. In the digital world, gravity no longer dictates the construction of the sight: platforms eerily hang in space, and whole landscapes are suspended in the ether by some unknown, otherworldly force. Aspects of the church which would not be possible to construct in the real world, are in the digital world perhaps a pre-requisite, taking to extreme the Gothic tenet that ornamentation should not only be inherent within, but also constitute, design. Light, that once natural illumination, amplified by stained glass windows in representation of the union between God, nature and the built world of man, is also entirely encompassed solely by technology. Lights can be positioned, controlled and coloured to produce effects precisely to the builder’s desires. In the end, these new spaces aim at creating within the gamer not only a sense of secular sublime, but an awe that bypasses God and nature, an awe of technology alone; a represented space free from the forces of religion and the natural world, constrained only by the human imagination. Science and technology have always played a part in the construction of ecclesiastical space; chromatic calculation, for example, being used to determine the patterns of light being let into the church via stained glass. However, in the digital age, technology becomes the totality of the church, encompassing and constituting all the factors which create the space and the illusory effects which lend it grandeur.

Gothic architecture, much like the rest of the Gothic, has infinitely multiplied and diversified in its close relationship to technology. With games being a global form of entertainment and with their capitalisation of the internet to maintain international growth, the Gothic church or cathedral has become duplicated infinitely. With level design tools becoming standard inclusions with games, and the technology becoming ever more advanced since the early days of Quake, the attention and attraction for gamers to build and globally share their creations is growing ever stronger. Just as the Gothic has become an almost universal expression of social and psychological anxiety, so to has the spaces in which these dramas occur.

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