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Spires of the Uppsala cathedral, Sweden.
Gothic spire of Ulm Cathedral
A spire is a tapering conical or pyramidal structure on the top of a building, particularly a church tower. Etymologically, the word is derived from Anglo-Saxon, so it is related to "spear," rather than the Romance languages and "spirit."

Symbolically, spires have two functions. The first is to proclaim a martial power. A spire, with its reminiscence of the spear point, gives the impression of strength. The second is to reach up toward the skies. The celestial and hopeful gesture of the spire is one reason for its association with religious buildings. A spire on a church or cathedral is not just a symbol of piety, but is often seen as a symbol of the wealth and prestige of the order, or patron who commissioned the building.

As an architectural ornament, spires are most consistently found on Christian churches, where they replace the steeple. Although any denomination may choose to use a spire instead of a steeple, the lack of a cross on the structure is more common in Roman Catholic and other pre-Reformation churches. The battlements of cathedrals featured multiple spires in the Gothic style (in imitation of the secular military fortress).

Currently, the largest spire to be part of the architecture of another building is the spire mounted on the recently completed Q1marker residential tower on the Gold Coast in Australia.

Spires are also common and notable as solo structure, in the way that obelisks are used. In the Modernist movements of the 20th century, office towers in the form of free-standing spires also began to be built. Some famous buildings, such as the Space Needlemarker in Seattle, Washingtonmarker, use the spire as a testimony of civic power and hope; in the case of this example, it is also a reference to Seattle's participation in aerospace. A 1,776-foot (541-m) "Freedom Towermarker" is a projected feature of the 9/11 Memorial in New York City, and is to be topped by a spire.

Gothic spires

A spire declared the presence of the gothic church at a distance and advertised its connection to heaven. The tall, slender pyramidal twelfth-century spire on the south tower Chartres Catedralmarker is one of the earliest spires. Openwork spires were an astounding architectural innovation, beginning with the early fourteenth-century spire at Freiburg cathedralmarker, in which the pierced stonework was held together by iron cramps. The openwork spire, according to Robert Bork, represents a "radical but logical extension of the Gothic tendency towards skeletal structure." The organic skeleton of Antoni Gaudi's phenomenal spires at the Sagrada Família in Barcelonamarker represent an outgrowth of this Gothic tendency. Designed and begun by Gaudi in 1884, they were not completed until the 20th century.

In Englandmarker, "spire" immediately brings to mind Salisbury Cathedralmarker. Its 403-foot (123-m) spire, built between 1320 and 1380, is the tallest of the period anywhere in the world, and in its way is as remarkable as the Coliseummarker in Romemarker or the parthenonmarker in Athensmarker. A similar but slightly smaller spire was built at Leighton Buzzardmarker in Bedfordshire, Englandmarker, which indicates the popularity of the spire spreading across the country during this period. We will never know the true popularity of the medieval spire, as many more collapsed within a few years of building than ever survived to be recorded. In the United Kingdom spires generally tend to be reserved for ecclesiastical building, with the exception to this rule being the spire at Burghley Housemarker, built for Elizabeth I's Lord Chancellor in 1585.

In the early Renaissance the spire was not restricted to the United Kingdommarker: the fashion spread across Europe. In Antwerpmarker the 123 m spire was the tallest structure in the low countries for over five centuries. Between 1221 and 1457 richly decorated open spires were built for the Cathedral of Burgosmarker in Spainmarker, while at Ulmmarker Cathedral in Germanymarker the 529-foot (161-m) spire was built in the imported French Gothic style between 1377 and 1417.

Interestingly, the Italians never really embraced the spire as an architectural feature, preferring the classical styles. The gothic style was a feature of Germanic northern Europe and was never to the Italian taste, and the few gothic buildings in Italy always seem incongruous.

The blend of the classical styles with a spire occurred much later. In 1822, in Londonmarker, John Nash built All Souls' Church, Langham Place, a circular classical temple, with Ionic columns surmounted by a spire supported by Corinthian columns. Whether this is a happy marriage of styles or a rough admixture is a question of individual taste.

During the 19th century the Gothic revival knew no bounds. With advances in technology, steel production, and building techniques the spire enjoyed an unprecedented surge through architecture, Cologne Cathedral's famous spires, designed centuries earlier, were finally completed in this era.

Spires have never really fallen out of fashion. In the twentieth century reinforced concrete offered new possibilities for openwork spires.

Image gallery

Image:Nidarosdomen east 2006.jpg|Nidaros Cathedral, NorwayImage:Wrigley building with walkway-Chicago.jpg| The Wrigley Buildingmarker is a skyscraper in Chicagomarker's Loop topped with a Renaissance inspired spireImage:Burgos Cathedral Needles.jpg|The Flamboyant spires of Burgos CathedralmarkerFile:Prague-Neo-Gothic-Spire001.jpg|Neo-Gothic spire of St. Vitus Cathedralmarker in PraguemarkerImage:Gateway Theatre (Chicago).jpg| The Solidarity Tower of Chicagomarker's Gateway Theatremarker's is an exact replica of the Baroque spire of Warsawmarker's Royal Castlemarker.Image:Palac Nauki.jpg|The spire of the Palace of Culture and Sciencemarker is Warsawmarker's most recognisable landmarkImage:Inside St Medard's Spire.jpg|Internal view of a medieval (13th century) English spire at Little Bythammarker, Lincolnshiremarker, UKImage:Sagrada Familia.jpg|The spires of Antoni Gaudí's Sagrada Família church, still under construction in BarcelonamarkerImage:Spikehenry.jpg|The Spire of Dublinmarker is an example of the use of spires in a modern contextImage:LeonCathedral.jpg|Gothic spires of Leon Cathedral (13th century)File:Villanova Church.jpg|The dual spires of St. Thomas of Villanova Churchmarker are based on the Chartres CathedralmarkerFile:Hasak - Der Dom zu Köln - Bild 02 Westseite.jpg|The spires of Cologne Cathedral in 1911Image:Cathedrale.XIIIe.siecle.png|Gothic cathedral with 7 spires and dozens of pinnacles, by Viollet Le Duc

See also


  1. Robert Bork, "Into Thin Air: France, Germany, and the Invention of the Openwork Spire" The Art Bulletin 85.1 (March 2003, pp. 25-53), p 25.

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