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Chrimes Watch: Germany’s tale of two cathedrals

It is no coincidence that two of Germany’s outstanding gothic cathedrals in Cologne and Ulm are, in their completed forms, nineteenth century structures made possible by modern engineering.

A Unesco inscribed world heritage site, Cologne’s cathedral dominates the skyline, juxtaposed with the main railway station providing a bold agglomeration of the medieval and modern world. Ulm, boasting the tallest spire in the world was deliberately built to exceed the towers at Cologne. Initiated by master medieval masons, both works remained incomplete until the late nineteenth century. Work resumed with the help of new found wealth, a self-assertive German state, and engineering and architectural ambition. While both suffered damage in Second World War their Victorian structures still remain.

At Ulm, a medieval economic powerhouse, work began on the minster in 1377 under Heinrich Parler and was continued by his dynasty of master masons upon his death. Its construction passed on to Ulrich von Essingen who developed the design to include a 156.85m west tower. The cathedral was consecrated in 1405, but without stone vaulting and without towers. Vaulting was completed in the first half of the fifteenth century, but as work continued it became apparent that the initial structure was inadequate for the loads.

By 1500, remedial work and redesign had been undertaken but was soon abandoned in 1543, without any of the present towers in place. Winding forward over 300 years, Ferdinand Thraen
began work on the flying buttresses in 1856, followed by Ludwig Scheu who completed the Eastern towers in 1880. Following recommendations by leading engineers, the final work began in 1885 under August Beyer, who completed the 161.6m spire in 1890. Then, in 1897, a steel frame was designed to support the bells within the tower.

A noticeable characteristic of the three towers is the light masonry tracery forming their structure. While the tracery was intended to reduce the loads, this has warranted restoration. Ingrid Helm-Rommel led the restoration of the southern tower in 1997.

However incomplete Ulm’s cathedral might have been, the fact wasn’t advertised, and a 12.7m medieval timber crane was left standing on its southern
tower for centuries.

Work on the basilica construction began in 1248 under master builder Gerhard and was continued by his successor Arnold. Work continued until 1530 but halted after completion of the nave and side aisles.

The church was abandoned in the French revolutionary years, and work did not recommence until 1846. Using modern technology to fulfil medieval designs, the transept facades, nave and transepts were completed by 1864, making extensive use of iron - including the framed roof replacing the timber truss over the choir. Voigtel completed the towers and the cathedral in October 1880. Similarly to Ulm, maintenance and reconstruction work has been almost continuous since and scaffolding frequently conceals parts of the structure.

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