What is “Gothic”? It’s more complicated than you think.
The Gothic Revivals worked hard to reverse Wren’s argument. They said it was Greek or Roman neo-classicism that was the suspicious foreign import. However, Wren was historically correct.
Islamic influence also surfaced in other design elements. The interior of London’s Crystal Palace, built for the Great Exhibition of 1851 to celebrate the global reach of the British Empire, was actually painted in bright colors that designer Owen Jones had taken from the Alhambra in Granada, in Spain. He considered the Islamic palace to be the finest form of architectural expression in the world. Jones’s choices were initially controversial, but his celebration of Moorish styles and the polychrome buildings of the East meant that they were fully integrated into English architecture.
(Find out why this ancient city of sultans is a 21st-century marvel.)
Soon, the impact spread from sacred and public spaces to the worlds of commerce. The English department store, so central to the luxurious shopping experience of the Victorian era, has also been borrowed from the covered markets and bazaars of the Middle East.
The continuous interaction of East and West
The creative dialogue between East and West continues to this day. The 2021 shortlist for the Stirling Prize, one of the UK’s most prestigious architectural prizes, included Cambridge’s magnificent Central Mosque, designed by Marks Barfield Architects.
The wooden roof beams above the main prayer hall stretch out like intricate tree branches. It is an echo, perhaps, of the fine theory proposed by Bishop William Warburton in 1760 that the ribbed ceilings of Gothic churches came from “Northerners having been accustomed, during the gloom of paganism, to worship divinity in the groves”. This was pure speculation, as the roof ribs came from eastern building solutions.
This modern mosque design, like the neo-Gothic church, emphasizes the underlying truth that many architectural forms are the product of a complex interchange of different cultures. These patterns of mutual influence produce ingenious fusions and hybrids. The ideologues would place East and West in implacable opposition. But so many of the spaces we pass through every day tell a very different and much more optimistic story.