Steeply pointed termination to a tower or roof. In Gothic architecture, the spire is a spectacular visual culmination of the building as well as a symbol of heavenly aspiration. The church spire originated in the 12th century as a simple, four-sided pyramidal roof capping a tower. Methods used to integrate an octagonal spire with a square tower below include broaches (sloping triangular sections of masonry added to the bottom of the four spire faces not coinciding with the tower sides), gabled dormers added to spire faces, and steep pinnacles (vertical ornaments of pyramidal or conical shape) added to tower corners. During the Decorated period (14th century) in England, a slender needle spire set in from the edge of the tower was popular; corner pinnacles and a low parapet around the tower's edge became customary. In the 20th century, architects tended to limit spires to rather elementary geometric shapes.
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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. (Note, in the photo at right of Lancaster University Chaplaincy Centre, that the spire was originally intended to serve as a platform for three bare crosses in imitation of Calvary. The centre is ecumenical, with Anglican/Methodist and Roman Catholic chapels. A decision to include a kosher kitchen and rooms used by Muslims and other religious groups led to the third cross being converted to a spike before completion of the building.) The battlements of cathedrals featured multiple spires in the Gothic style (in imitation of the secular military fortress).
Spires are also common and notable as solo structures. After contact with Egyptian architecture and the mania for Egyptian artifacts in the west in the 19th century, towers in the shape of obelisks enjoyed a vogue. When original obelisks could be imported, such as Cleopatra's needles in London and New York City, they were, but spires as memorial structures were popular in funerary architecture and public monuments (e.g. the Washington monument in Washington, DC) into the 20th century. 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 Needle in Seattle, Washington, 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 Tower" is a projected feature of the 9/11 Memorial in New York City, and is to be topped by a spire.
In England, "spire" immediately brings to mind Salisbury Cathedral. 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 Coliseum in Rome or the parthenon in Athens. A similar but slightly smaller spire was built at Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire, England, 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 House, built for Elizabeth I's Lord Chancellor in 1585.
In the early Renaissance the spire was not restricted to the United Kingdom: the fashion spread across Europe. In Antwerp 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 Burgos in Spain, while at Ulm Cathedral in Germany 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 London, 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.