Cathedral Builder

Faculty: Professor Joel Upton
Staff and Students: Bridget Dahill, Scott Payne, and Greg Leslie '10
Technology Used: Unity3D game engine

Cathedral Builder is a 3D multiplayer online world for building cathedrals. It is a computer-based platform designed to engage students directly in the formal, spatial and visual components of cathedral design and construction while accounting verbally for their particular design choices and the necessary implications of those choices. Cathedral Builder seeks to engage each student individually and then the class collectively in the complex artistic and moral decisions that comprise the construction of the historical churches and cathedrals of France during the 12th and 13th centuries. The broader goal of Cathedral Builder is to open a metaphorical path toward the construction of all cathedrals of human aspiration – architectural, social, political, economic, psychological and spiritual.

Students are tasked with constructing a cathedral from a limited selection of shapes while placing an emphasis on reflection: how do design choices reflect the choice of a building site?; what does the selection, repetition, and placement of design elements communicate about the artistic vision?; and what are the trade-offs of the design choices made?

Tour Cathedral Builder Online

Cathedral Builder

Click on the image above to tour Cathedral Builder yourself and see what students have created. You will not be able to build your own cathedral, but you will be able to replay construction on any cathedral you encounter by right-clicking on the cathedral and following the subsequent directions.

The Premises of Cathedral Builder

Cathedral Builder is an experimental ‘artistic’ exercise created for ARHA 32, “Art and Architecture of Europe: 300-1500CE” and ARHA 50, “The Monastic Challenge.”

The first premise of this exercise is: ‘Art’ is born of sober restraint rather than unbounded freedom. Although Cathedral Builder allows you to be free to choose, uninhibited by bias or prior expectations, it discourages the empty piety of so-called freedom of choice without consequences.

The second premise of Cathedral Builder is: ‘Art’ is a human act that identifies and embraces contradiction as the means to intimate reconciliation of the contradictory realities that conscious, that is,‘spiritual’ being entails.

Cathedral Builder is intended to be an exemplary occasion of ‘spiritual’ and ‘artistic’ aspiration to wholeness from an acknowledged condition of mortal limitation and restraint. In order to engage you in a particular ‘spiritual’ act of such an ‘art,’ Cathedral Builder invites you to construct a ‘cathedral’ according to your own considered judgment and choice. The goal of this exercise is not to reproduce existing Cathedrals digitally, but to imagine and realize your own best intimation of wholeness or ‘cathedral.’

The Cathedral Builder Assignment

The Cathedral Builder experience is divided up into three worlds over the course of the semester: Romanesque World, Gothic World and Cathedral World. In the Romanesque and Gothic Worlds students were asked to build cathedrals which reflected the design elements of those periods. In the final Cathedral World students build what they want. For each world the instructions for constructing a cathedral were the same:

  1. Enter the Cathedral Builder landscape. Begin by choosing your building site. Then, using the provided cubes, circles, squares, rectangles, round and pointed arches, colors, etc., construct a "cathedral‟ façade.You are free to alter and combine the given components as you will to create this imaginary threshold to your "cathedral.‟
  2. As you proceed, consider the specific formal contradictions that your façade will embrace. For example: 
    • horizontal/vertical; height/width
    • solid wall/openings, including windows, portals, and other empty spaces/ “gaps"
    • surface/depth, including wall projections and indentations
    • round/straight/diagonal/light and dark accents
    • symmetry/asymmetry
    • simplicity/complexity
    • part/whole, including relative sizes of component parts
    • building/site, including fitting in/domination, sunlight and directional orientation etc.)

    You are free to identify and embrace any other contradictions you discover as you work.
  3. Arrange your component parts in any way you wish, consistent with the "spiritual‟ and "artistic‟ goal of intimating reconciliation of contradictory realities/possibilities (in other words: "cathedral‟ building). 

    Remember: Both sides of each contradiction are equally good. It is their intimated reconciliation you are seeking in the realization of your "cathedral‟ facade as an architectural equivalent of human aspiration to infinitely elusive wholeness.
  4. When you have completed your "cathedral,‟ proceed to the “replay” section to review and reflect on what you have done. Use the replay journal to write about your construction process: Did you engage a particular contradiction with satisfactory results? Did a "cathedral‟ begin to take shape? Your recorded reflections will assist you in subsequent "cathedral‟ building.

Future Work

We hope to expand Cathedral Builder to include strategic elements based, for example, on the economic and social history of cathedral construction projects. But our primary goal is focus more clearly on the particular reality of the students' decision making process and coming to thoughtful choices, in which their awareness of the implications of their choices is the measure of their success.