Thursday, July 03, 2008


Dear Lindy

Thanks again for presenting your work yesterday. I mentioned that I would respond with a few comments.

The main point as Gordana effectively said was that in order for the proposal to be the workable basis for a PhD you have to be able to answer the following question: will my research reveal something that we don’t yet know. Of course in a research area that covers any aspect of architectural history the answer could take several forms: the most common are the presentation of new material about an architect’s work or a building, but it would also be possible to expound a new critical theory providing it emerged from a study of particular facts. So the first thing to do is to try to pin down the area in which your answer will lie.

The one way which we suggested yesterday was that you found an example of a building where it might be possible to ascertain new information about the motives for building it; ie, to take a cathedral, say, and analyse the information about it, compare the written information with a study of the physical structure, and then see how this throws light upon or reinterprets existing ideas about building sacred spaces. A second way would be based primarily on texts of the type you have mentioned. You will of course in any case have to present a summary of current published knowledge and thinking. You can’t use commentary on the texts as the basis for a PhD, but you can I think use them to establish an argument that you then do something with. This is in effect taking the first option and reversing it. Whereas in the first one you choose a building and analyse it, and then comment on the text, you here would choose the texts, analyse them, and then compare this analysis with the facts of various buildings, extracting from this a new way of looking at them. The kind of argument here, for example, might be that you could show that mediaeval theology, rather than mediaeval building methods, created a breakthrough in construction; a further answer of this kind might be to show how modern ways of building churches have been derived from mediaeval theology, which was one of the suggestions you made. You’ll appreciate that this second option is potentially more problematic because you have to protect yourself against the accusation that you are merely restating what has already been written.

Either way, I suggest that the first thing you do is to complete a report of the reading you have been doing. This too must be done in such a way that it makes it clear at the outset what the parameters of the reading are in order to reach your eventual goal. We commented yesterday that it was not always clear what others had said and what you were synthesising from them. You need to present your reading in a way that makes this absolutely clear, and the logic of the choice of the reading has to be absolutely clear also. Are you concentrating on current thinking? On the historical development of arguments? On thinking which has been about sacredness in general or about Christian building? Does the writing refer to the motives of the church builders, or is it in fact part of a later general trend in cultural criticism? How much is didactic writing (Teilhard, for example) and how much not? I would get all the stuff you have already read organised now along these lines. There could be about 10,000 words in it.

At the same time I think that regardless of the type of overall dissertation you decide to write, you should have a clear idea in your mind about what type of buildings you want to refer to. Vaults, for example? In which case you would need to lay out for yourself the overall history of gothic vault development so you know exactly where you are starting and with what forms, and where you are finishing, so that you could run all the way through from barrel vaults to, say, ornate detached gothic vaults of the late C15.

You should also have a clear idea of the professional divisions of the mediaeval world – ie, not only who was doing what and how in construction but also the wider divisions between the clergy, astronomers, military engineers and so on. Again, you need this in order to be able to present a clear overall view of your parameters of enquiry; and I think you need it also because you want to define what it specifically was that vault builders were asked to do. If your dissertation was going to be focused on texts, then the same thing applies: what were the different backgrounds of Eliade, Mainstone, etc? Are you going to expand the selection to include others, eg William Golding, or art historians like Norbert Nussbaum, Paul Frankl, or Paul Binski? What about Paul Bellot of Quarr (who appears at the end of Padovan’s Proportion, doesn’t he?)

T i m