Learning From Gothic Cathedrals

Volume 51, Issue 2 :: Timothy O. Adekunle

What can Gothic cathedrals teach us about architecture today? While these buildings are masterpieces in the history of architecture, how relevant are they today in educating young architects? Beyond architectural history courses, we have found that Gothic cathedrals can be powerful case studies in teaching aspiring architects about structural systems and analysis. One of the most important features of a Gothic cathedral is its often innovative and daring structure, visible within and without the building fabric. Structural elements can provide excellent examples for teaching architecture students the principles of structural performance and analysis, using the Gothic cathedral as an organic demonstration of structure in action. Gothic cathedrals are built with durable, sustainable, strong, and locally sourced materials. The example of the Gothic cathedral can effectively supplement existing teaching methods to engage architecture students in structure courses. The focus of the approach is to increase the participation level of students while meeting learning outcomes. The approach is also aimed to improve the quality of teaching the courses in line with the criteria set by the regulatory bodies for the architecture program. This pedagogical approach requires architecture students to consider structural analysis of a sacred Gothic building. The students are divided into groups of three to four. After the first phase of the group project has been completed, each student selects and explores a sacred building as an individual project for further analysis.

Analysis of plans, elevations, sections

Students are instructed to consider historical overviews of several Gothic cathedrals. Floor plans, images, elevations, sections, construction drawings, and previous work on the buildings are studied, analyzed, and discussed in class. All drawings are dimensioned in feet or meters. Also, students are instructed to include elevations and sectional drawings as well as structural hierarchy of the buildings. An emphasis is put on structural analysis of the buildings by focusing on gravity-load path and lateral-load path diagrams. Uplift wind analysis, construction sequence, and structural calculations are also considered. At least one structural model to explain the concept of collapse mechanism is required.

Floor plans, elevations, and sections are properly dimensioned using the SI or US Customary Units to highlight the lengths, widths, and heights of the cathedrals (figures 1-2). In addition, dimensions of the components such as size of windows, columns, beams, arches are specified. On the analysis of the plans and sections, students are instructed to identify structural hierarchy of the structural members of the buildings. This analysis is done using color-coded drawings to identify various structural members.

Gravity load path and lateral load path

Figure 3: Gravity load path and lateral load path diagrams of the section of Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral.

Gravity load path, lateral load path, and collapse mechanisms

Gravity loads are described as the vertical applied loads acting on a building. Gravity loads (such as the weight of a structure) act in a downward direction due to gravitational forces and must be transmitted to the base or ground supporting the structure. Lateral loads are the forces acting on a structure in a horizontal direction or parallel to the plane of the horizon. In most cases, lateral loads are expected to have a complete path of load to transmit the applied loads to the base or ground supporting the structure.

Students consider vertical and horizontal loads acting on the Gothic cathedral. Gravity load path and lateral load path diagrams help students understand various loads acting on a building and how the loads can be transferred to the ground without causing any structural deformation to the cathedrals. Examples are given in Figure 3, above, and Figure 4, below.

Figure 4: Lateral load and gravity load path diagrams of sections of Noyon Cathedral, Noyon, France.

Construction sequence diagrams

Emphasis is put on the importance of construction sequence to any project to ensure the project is well laid out and not prone to structural failure that could arise due to excessive loads or uncoordinated construction procedures. Students consider construction sequence diagrams of the buildings to understand how structural elements are assembled on site. Although the students were not involved in the construction process of the case study buildings, the consideration of construction sequence serves as a guide when supervising construction of similar projects in the future. An example of construction sequence diagrams produced by students is presented in Figure 5.

Construction Sequence

Figure 5: Diagrams showing construction sequence of a Gothic building.

Apart from production of the diagrams, students also discuss the construction sequence explored with questions relating to the process. In some cases, students consider further analysis to understand why a certain procedure was not considered, and further discussions/explanations are provided on the question. Also, students are asked to reflect on and discuss the construction sequence they would prefer if they were appointed as the architects for the buildings. This is an interesting part of the exercise as students tend to find out the importance of the process and why any mistakes in terms of construction sequence could hinder the successful completion or timeline of the project. Overall, production of construction sequence diagrams adds to the quality of the materials produced on the project.

Structural calculations

Students carry out simple structural calculations of dead loads and live loads that act on the Gothic cathedrals. Examples of structural calculations of buildings were provided in class to guide students on how to carry out the analysis. Additional materials guide students on how to conduct the structural calculations. Some of the materials provided include previous studies on sample design calculations such as introduction to design of structures (Breyer et al 2015). The structural calculations aspect of the project focuses on vertical and horizontal loads acting on the buildings.


From the project assigned to students, the quality of work produced shows that they gained valuable experience and better understanding of the analysis of forces acting on buildings. The experience gained through the approach is evident in the structural project including models produced and presented by the students. On collapse mechanisms, the analysis shows that if a gravitational force were to be exerted on the structure and if the cathedral were to fail, the fracture points would be closer to the top or bottom of the building. In general, Gothic cathedrals are not capable of resisting the force acting on the walls without the help of butressess. Sacred Gothic buildings would not be able to withstand the outward tendencies of the interior walls without supports or butresses. On structural calculations, the analysis shows that Gothic cathedrals are massive in terms of their total loads and it is important to provide adequate support to resist different loads acting on the buildings.

We have found that this pedagogical approach helps architecture students learn more effectively than only when the traditional approach (that is, structural calculations) are employed. Structure courses can be well integrated in various architectural design classes without limiting the learning outcomes set for the courses. The use of relevant examples on these sacred buildings has aided learning outcomes. The percentage of students performing well in the courses also increased. The teaching approach has strengthened the quality of work produced in various architectural design courses as students pay closer attention to sections, details, and structural models to explain their projects.


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  • Brncich, A., Shane, J.S., Strong, K.C., Passe, U. (2011). “Using integrated student teams to advance education in sustainable design and construction.” International Journal of Construction Education and Research, 7(1), pp. 22-40.
  • Vescio, V., Ross, D., Adams, A. (2008). “A review of research on the impact of professional learning communities on teaching practice and student learning.” Teaching and Teacher Education, 24, pp. 80-91.
  • Vondrackova, T., Nyvlt, V., Nemec, F. (2016). “Characteristics of Gothic Cathedrals in France and their structural elements.” Procedia Engineering, 161, pp. 1751-1756.

The author is an architect and assistant professor of architecture at the University of Hartford, where he teaches structures in the undergraduate and graduate architecture programs.