If there is one aspect of classic architecture that does not appear to transfer well into many modern land use applications, it’s the Medieval castle. All too often, at least here in the United States, castle-oriented architecture is the only design that is employed from this era, which can result in imposing, out-of-character, and/or oversized buildings. One only need to view images of or travel to York, England or Bruges, Belgium to note that castles are just one part of this architectural style (see photos below). In fact, it’s the smaller structures like dwellings and shops that demonstrate the many of the most appealing aspects of Medieval architecture.
There are some applications where Medieval architecture can be quite pleasing outside of Europe. These include religious and educational institutions, as well as museums. In some instances, Medieval-styled dwellings may also be appropriate. However, as the images below indicate, focusing strictly on the castle itself does not seem to work well in many modern land use situations.
- North Webster, Indiana
Back in the 1970s and 80s local businesses in North Webster were encouraged to incorporate some form of a pseudo-Medieval architectural theme throughout town as a way to attract more tourism. Overall, the effort did not fare well, nor has it aged well. One of the more unfortunate aspects was the overuse of concrete cinder blocks to create this historical illusion. There was also an over-reliance on employing castle-like features on multiple buildings instead of utilizing the subtle elements of Medieval architecture that make York and Bruges so unique and special.
Even today, one can spy a few remnants of this effort throughout town, the most obvious of which is the former International Palace of Sports (see photos above and below). The palace closed in 1989 and is now occupied by a shoe store and other small businesses.
- Other Northeast Indiana locations
Once North Webster started the pseudo-Medieval design craze, a few other businesses/communities in Northeast Indiana seemed to tag along. Below, is a 2021 photo of a building in downtown Cromwell, Indiana that still reflects that time period. Another example has been observed in Middlebury, Indiana, while two additional structures are depicted later in this post. Each of these has over-emphasized castle elements.
- Burger King in Buena Park, California
The Burger King shown above from California no longer exists. It was located across the street from a Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament location which likely explains the restaurant’s architecture. Once again, the building uses bulky castle-like elements instead of those finer aspects of Medieval architecture that would have given the building more grace and style.
- Truck stops in Goshen and Kendallville, Indiana
Medieval castle-themed truck stops/convenience stores have opened over the past few years in Goshen and Kendallville, Indiana. As the photo above indicates, there is virtually zero landscaping on the site or surrounding the castle-like structure. As a result, the visual aesthetics are rather bland. From a marketing and advertising standpoint, the building simply gets lost in its own physical setting. When skies are cloudy it nearly blends into the gray parking lot surface due to the lack of suitable greenery or architectural features to accent and soften the structure.
Another unfortunate aspect is that these buildings do not appear to be actually using natural masonry, stone, or similar materials. From a distance, the exterior facades appear to be some type of composite or resin based on the photo below.
- High-rise apartments in Grandville, Michigan
A massive 522 unit apartment complex was completed in 2018 in Grandville, Michigan, located just a few miles southwest of Grand Rapids. Unlike the previously truck stop locations, this enormous building appears to employ brick and masonry products. Despite its riverside setting, the building’s sheer size and scale feel out-of-place with its surroundings. Perhaps more rural location with a scenic backdrop and lush landscaping would be more pleasing.
As these examples show, the use of castle-centric Medieval architecture is not necessarily appropriate for many modern scenarios. Furthermore, how the structure is presented and where it is located can play a big role on whether it is suitable. If the high-rise apartment structure was more isolated from the surrounding suburbanization, then it might work very well. On the other hand, trying to “Disneyfy” an entire American town into something that it is not, is risky at best, particularly if its done haphazardly or without employing the finer elements of Medieval architecture.
Lastly, the context of the use is important when incorporating Medieval architecture. When utilized in an elegant, context-sensitive setting like a religious institution, college, or museum, Medieval architecture can be quite stunning. Meanwhile, in other uses the scale of a castle may appear out-of-place or out-of-context.
In conclusion, since beauty and aesthetics are most often gauged by the eye of the beholder, without a clear community consensus it can be difficult to account for varied tastes when developing plans or writing zoning regulations. Therefore, readers may have a variety of differing viewpoints on the building images shown above. That is perfectly fine. An entire nation of matching buildings and structures would most certainly be monotonous.
If the lovely architecture of York and Bruges impresses you, as much as it does me, check out these two books that are available through Amazon.com.*
*A small commission is earned from purchases that are made using this link to Amazon. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.