a theory of the architecture of King's College, Cambridge

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a theory of the architecture of King's College, Cambridge

Postby John Devlin » Sun Mar 20, 2005 4:25 am

The Alchemy of King’s College:
Further Speculations on Cambridge Architecture

As was very tentatively put forward in the article "Some ‘way out’ speculations on the architecture of King’s College Chapel. An amateur’s view" in issue number 50 of the magazine CAMBRIDGE, a possible explanation for the ethos of this college was the interior proportions of the Chapel. This was expressed as an abstraction - the ratio 40:80:289 - based upon the interior dimensions measured in feet. This idea seemed to me sound for a while, but after time and reflection I was left wondering if this is indeed the fullest expression of the glory of King’s. I was left with nagging thoughts that: 1) some parts of the exterior architecture of the Chapel ought to be factored into any numerological abstraction 2) the river front of the adjacent Gibbs Fellows’ Building must be factored in as well, and 3) these abstractions ought to be expressed in the form of an equation, showing that the majestic, problematic whole is greater than the sum of the simpler parts.
To deal with the first point: King’s Chapel is not just its interior space, wonderful though that may be. And I wonder if architecture as such is finally only space. Focussing solely upon the interior space leaves out the plastic, sculptural beauty of the exterior forms. Fundamentally, in one view, the outside architecture of the Chapel consists of 22 identical buttresses and four corner towers. In their power, redundancy and majesty these buttresses - 11 on the north, 11 on the south - and towers - two on the east, two on the west - make a bold, direct and tremendous statement. The four identical towers hold down the whole design at the four corners, while the buttresses are a monumental foretaste of what lies within. It is possible that we can abstract the numbers 22 and 4 from these design elements, and add them to the ratio already abstracted from the interior dimensions - 4:22:40:80:289. If we follow our theory that architecture at its most quintessential is a ratio of certain numbers abstracted from those numbers already built into the design, then we may conclude that the essence of King’s Chapel is possibly this quintuple ratio.
On to the second point: the King’s experience at its most basic is not just the Chapel, but must include the Gibbs Fellows’ Building as well. These two buildings form the alpha and omega of the essential King’s. A major sight in Cambridge which has achieved icon status around the world is surely the view from across the Backs of the west end of the Chapel and the adjacent river front of the Gibbs Building to the south.
Until the latter was built in the 18th century (1724-30) the late Gothic Chapel (1446-1547) lacked a foil to complement its detailed and rather ruthless verticals. Also missing was something to give it scale. The Scot James Gibbs (1682-1754) produced here an English baroque design which is a perfect match for the Chapel, with strong horizontals to tone down the spectacular architecture of the latter. And, without the Chapel, Gibbs’s design is almost bland. But in the two together we have an ideal marriage of contrasts. Whereas the Chapel is of tawny honey-gold limestone, the Gibbs structure is executed in a rather flat silver-grey Portland stone. The former is masculine, the latter feminine; the former Christian, the latter Pagan; the former the Sun, the latter the Moon; the former a rooster, the latter a hen.
The broad expanse of the 17 void bays marching along in stately, unhurried fashion across the front facing the Backs is calm and serene, rather Irish in feel. The 21 bays of this building facing King’s Parade create a busier effect. Some might argue that this front is congested with windows. The Backs are more pastoral in feeling, hence the wider separation of the windows here to create a cerebral evocation of classical antiquity as seen through the lens of the 1700s. It also might be noted that the seven void bays to the north of the central pavilion are those usually most prominent in this building in views of both structures from the west.
These two buildings form a fascinating juxtaposition which draws the eye inexorably. Both Gothic and Classical, this combination of the two creates a single indivisible entity and works as architecture in landscape because one building supplies what the other lacks. They balance perfectly. In the case of the Gibbs river front, we can say that it completes, possibly, once and for all, what was begun in the numerology of the interior space and some of the exterior forms of the Chapel.
Perhaps what is supplied by the Chapel - 4:22:40:80:289 - is completed by Gibbs in the numbers 7 and 17 which we may abstract from the disposition of the void bays on the west front facing the River Cam. This then gives us the ratio of 7:17 which may be the essence of this facade.
And this brings me to my third point: that the synergy in and complementarity of Chapel and Gibbs Building might be expressed in an equation of sorts. The Perpendicular bluster and fireworks of the Chapel in no way outdo or overpower the equanimity and pre-Palladian enlightened serenity of the quieter, smaller Fellows’ Building. The two buildings never compete for our attention.
If we see the two as being stylistically and historically different but together forming a really striking whole, then perhaps we can propose an empirical formula to express this. Let us call this ‘The King’s Constant’, and let us say that it is encapsulated in the expression

4:22:40:80:289 + 7:17 = ?

Here the ratio on the left of the addition sign abstracted from the Chapel is complementary to and balances with the ratio on the right abstracted from the Gibbs Building.
This equation is a little picture of the two buildings side by side as seen from the Queen’s Road, with the space separating the two occupied by the addition sign. The question mark is our symbol for the ineffable energy created by the two buildings’ propinquity: an elusive ‘factor of monumentality’, or even Clive Bell’s enigmatic ‘Significant Form’ of 1913 taken from the world of two-dimensional painting and applied here to the realm of large-scale architecture in a semi-pastoral setting.
More aptly, perhaps, the question mark expresses the aesthetic ambiguity existing between the styles of these two buildings. The Gothic Chapel, for instance, is not a rambling romantic thing but is as clear and simple and disciplined as the Parthenon. The Fellows’ Building, too, in its way, is not as Apollonian and unnuanced as at first appears. There are, for instance, more void bays on the east front than the west. One wonders just how this is worked out structurally on the inside. Also, the 24 blind windows on the north and south ends are in the agitated Counter-Reformation style of Michelangelo and the Italian Mannerists. The overall calmness of the Renaissance canon is ever so slightly distorted here in the service of unnatural emotion.
These seven numbers in the form of a curious sum of ratios are only perhaps the elemental criteria required to precipitate a basic King’s ethos. This equation is possibly a general empirical formula for the monumentality of King’s, or perhaps all of Cambridge. Wherever this equation is present, so too is the milieu of King’s. I think the chain of logic and reason leads us to conclude that we could abstract these numbers from the local Cambridge scene to make the essential King’s ethos ‘portable’, and hence universal. They could be applied, for instance, to the blank back of a map of the world in marker dots of seven colours to generalise the Cambridge milieu and ‘mass produce’ Cambridge states of mind for other locations outside of, and unprotected by, the Cambridge ‘bubble’. This seems to me to be the next logical step if we have indeed isolated and identified correctly the mysterious and other-worldly essence of King’s College.
To conclude: the numbers present in certain design elements act subliminally upon the environment to create an overall, overarching, protecting sense of benevolent Mind. The local Cambridge æther is penetrated through and through with this sense: it contributes to the atmosphere of the place. As an aesthetic abstraction able to stand on its own feet in universal applications, (as I speculate above) this formula might just express what we are - at bottom - subliminally feeling when we encounter here true, complete and royal glory in the sublime experience called King’s College, Cambridge. The numerical, higher reality of our empirical formulation is at work behind all and in all to produce a breathless icon.
John Devlin
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Re: a theory of the architecture of King's College, Cambridge

Postby JusWunderin » Tue May 17, 2005 8:05 pm

I see you posted this on the ARE Forum also. Is this your thesis.
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Joined: Tue May 17, 2005 7:18 pm

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