Expression in terms of conceptual principles rather than of regulatory conventions is the distinction that divides architectural theory of the modern era from all that went before. The readiness to formulate theory differently was marked by the shift of ideal type from the classical temple to the Gothic cathedral, a shift that was less about form than about method. Whereas the temple imposed rules, the cathedral inspired concepts. The differences in response may have had to do with the fact that the classical temple had been passed down with the written regulations of Vitruvius, while the cathedral was accompanied by no such textual authority. The modern understanding of Gothic architecture, then, was made up of ideas projected upon it by external observers, ideas that belonged to the rationalism of the nineteenth century rather than to the scholasticism of the Middle Ages.
The observers saw it as an architecture formed in a spirit of problem solving rather than of adherence to tradition. The complex spatial composition of the Gothic cathedral was interpreted as a synthetic accommodation of multiple functions. A logical role in the stability of the building was imputed to every element of its structural assembly. The use of materials was regarded as having achieved an optimal level of economy. Some observers even assigned a practical purpose to each decorative feature. And theorists called for a modern architecture generated according to these principles. These Gothic-inspired concerns for planning spatial configuration, forming structure, using materials, and devising decoration came to comprise the core of the theory of designing according to principles.
Meanwhile, issues other then just the design and construction of individual buildings came into play. For the first time in Western civilization, an awareness of the desirability of preserving the legacy of architecture from a glorious past posed the urgency of adopting some guiding principles for restoration. These were developed in the course of the effort to preserve the Gothic cathedrals. At the same time the rapid growth of cities from the mid-eighteenth century brought home the need to think aesthetically about the design of cities. The requisite principles were initially drawn from observations of medieval and Renaissance precedents.
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