Lessons from Ulm Munster
Posted on February 25, 2016
During the late Middle Ages the townspeople of Ulm profited from trade, and in 1377 made ambitious plans for their main church, which would become one of the largest and busiest in Germany, housing 51 altars and averaging 5 baptisms a day before the Reformation. Over the course of construction, master builders with experience on Strasbourg Cathedral and Prague Cathedral were called in, making plans to eclipse their previous work with a tower taller than any other in the world, knowing that even if it were finished on time, they probably wouldn’t live to see it. The great spire had been built up to 330 feet when construction was halted in 1543 due to an array of economic, religious, and cultural changes which diminished the city’s economic importance and made architectural display seem less important, especially for a building that was passing out of fashion. The base of the tower was topped out with a decoratively presentable roof that aimed to make the best of the truncated silhouette, which remained for roughly 400 years.
By the 19th century, the turbulence of the religious wars were long over and the German states were once again prosperous, the Gothic mode was returning to fashion, and German identity was budding and looking for new symbols. In this climate, construction on the tower was restarted according to the original designs by Ulrich Ensingen, his son Mathaus Ensingen, and their successor Mathhaus Boblinger. Despite the interruption of 400 years, the trades of the time were still steeped in artisanal tradition and were capable of continuing the work with an artistic quality equal to what had been laid down by their ancestors.
Something similar was happening at Cologne Cathedral, and the cities of Ulm and Cologne began a race to achieve the record for the tallest building in the world. Ulm munster was finished in 1890, shortly after Cologne. Master builder August von Bayer added 10 meters to the original design to take the record from Cologne, making Ulm munster the tallest church in the world. Unfortunately for German ambitions, the Eiffel tower took the record of tallest building in the world in 1889, two years before Ulm Munster was finished.
Looking at the tower through the train window, I was amazed by how different an experience it was from watching the Chicago skyline begin to loom overhead when approaching the magnificent mile in a car. Despite being little more than a third the height of Chicago’s Willis (formerly Sears) tower, the Munster had more presence on the skyline. As the tower appeared to rotate slowly due to the train’s motion, the crockets and ornaments, though too distant to resolve as much more than a texture, nevertheless had an effect on my eyes as the spires and tracery slowly eclipsed and revealed each other and the sky behind them. This materiality made the thing seem alive, as if we were approaching some sort of dinosaur or ancient creature; so different from modern towers of abstract grids of glass and machined stone, seeming like immaterial projections on the horizon, intrusions into the real world from the cyberworld of the movie TRON. It seemed like I could feel the Munster’s presence in my body as my friend and I left the train station and headed towards it on foot through the city, catching closer and closer glimpses of it among the play of the house-tops, hoping that it wouldn’t rouse itself and eat us before we could climb to the top of its sedate head.
After a walk around the exterior, which allowed us to peek into the restoration shop where sculptors were creating replacement crockets, we headed inside to see the cavernous nave in which locals were gathering for a worship service. We lit a candle at the altar, which was a personal tradition for my friend who had visited Ulm several times before me, and then headed to the stairs to climb the tower.
I’ve not enjoyed the few roller coasters I’ve been on, but a roller coaster is the only thing I can liken to the experience of climbing the tower, except in an entirely good way. First you are slotted into a tight space, then anticipation mounts as you ascend through the more solid base of the tower, with limited views through tiny windows. Then, you reach the cage-like galleries and more open stairs of the upper parts of the tower, where vertigo sets in as you look down past your feet through the open sides of the stairs at the ground below.
The wind begins to whip your hair as it howls through the stone lacework. Though you ascend slowly, beauty impacts your senses like the pummeling speed of a roller coaster, and the swirling, upward-rushing movement of the architecture dazzles your sense of space as though you were turning and flying yourself. The experience is similar in any significant Gothic spire, but as Ulm has the largest spire in the world, the ascent is the equivalent of riding the latest, record-breaking and hyperbolically advertised roller coaster.
At the second highest gallery level, we stood at the base of the sloping portion of the spire, which held aloft the top gallery and contained a tight stair leading to it. Its radially deployed internal buttresses reminded me of the spines of a lionfish, or of the inner workings of the Large Hadron Collider. There was drama and playfulness in the surprising transitions by which the curves and diagonals diverged from the verticals. Energy was packed into every scale, starting with the sloping and arching forms of the stone frame, down to the flame-forms of the tracery, down to the moldings and leafy ornaments within each piece of tracery. Yet despite all this diversity and variety, there was harmony and coherence resulting from the radial arrangement of the whole and the internal symmetries of each component on each level of the hierarchy. All this combined to make it the most stunning piece of inhabitable sculpture I have ever seen.
I can’t help but think of how this compares to today’s fads in architecture. Avant-garde modern design has left the glass box in favor buildings that billow like clouds or fragment into dramatic shards or feature supposedly biomorphic design. Yet however dramatic the shapes themselves may be, they are almost always organized in a pseudo-random fashion, as this seems to be today’s preferred metaphor for the natural, and they always manifest their concept on only one scale. A shard, a wave, an organic tendril, intriguing as it may be as a silhouette, is always rendered in gridded sheets and tubes, with no ornament; no reappearance of the concept on a small scale; no layering of detail or meaning.
In contrast, the Ulm spire offers all the drama of form that today’s avant-garde aim for, while also offering things that modern design cannot offer due to ideological bias. The sweeping, rocket-like and biomorphic forms of the Ulm spire can rival anything that modernist designers claim to invent, but the fact that they work on all scales through their ornament; the fact that they simulate movement through their meticulous organization instead of through pseudo-random caprice, gives them extra levels of aesthetic impact on which modern design has chosen to turn its back.
When we reached to top, the skyline of Ulm was actually more of a restful pause than a grand finale, as the real climax was in the ascent itself. The trip down lacked some of the surprise, now that I had seen it, but it compensated with an increased sense of height and vertigo, since I now had to look down. Like coming down from a sacred mountain, I thought of the lessons learned on my climb; that traditional architectural forms have a still inexhaustible capacity to embody the broadest range of experiences and ideas, exceeding the most avant-garde statements of the modern age.