Gothic architecture might arguable be called the architecture of churches – specifically cathedrals. The extravagance of this architectural style lent itself superbly to structures intended to be imposing and inspiring. Worship-worthy. The structural innovations of Gothic architecture enabled a dramatic departure from the purely functional (or even rather non-functional) architecture preceding it. The introduction of flying buttresses and pointed arches allowed stable construction of much taller masonry buildings, with vaulted ceilings and large window expanses. Accompanying these innovations was an emphasis on decorative details not seen in prior architectural eras – among them gargoyles – strange mythical creatures adorning the roofs and parapets of these structures and serving both practical and symbolic functions – as water spouts and to frighten away evil spirits.
Gothic architecture originated in France in the 1150’s (Exploring-castles.com), spreading throughout Europe over the next 300 years, and ultimately being supplanted by the more classical Renaissance architecture. The term Gothic reportedly derives from the goths, barbarians, and was a descriptor used by Renaissance architects to express their disgust with the excesses of this architectural style. Gothic architecture re-emerged in the 1600’s during the Gothic revival (also neo-Gothic and Victorian Gothic) period, and can be found in the Houses of Parliament, Washington Cathedral, and many US Universities. The above is just a small snapshot of the characteristics of Gothic architecture; there is a large and diverse body of literature on the subject for those truly interested in digging deeper.
Here are some lovely examples of Gothic architectural features:
A few additional resources for the more serious scholar include:
Gothic Architecture, Sculpture, Painting (Rolf Tolman) [Ullman Publishing]
Gothic Architecture (Paul Frankl with commentary by Paul Crossley) [Yale University Press]
French Gothic Architecture of the 12th and 13th Centuries (Jean Bony) [University of California Press]
For the rest of us, there is still the internet – Wikipedia and other sites – and pictures. If you’re just into appreciation, these resources are more than satisfactory as long as you bear in mind that they may not be completely authoritative.