How do you complete an unfinished building? Perhaps it’s not a question you’ve had to consider; when you buy a house you will expect it to be finished. Yet the question has often arisen on some of the past’s important structures, and the completion has posed problems of taste and of finance.

You may expect that any gap between the start of construction and the finishing of a building, whatever its cause, might be comparatively short. But that’s not always been the case. Cologne Cathedral began in 1248 and, in the way of Gothic cathedrals, went on slowly but steadily until 1473. Then it stopped.

By then the eastern part – the choir – had been built. Its western end was given a temporary wall where the arch that would eventually lead to the crossing was situated. Work had also started on the west front, and on one of the west towers.

And it stayed unfinished – two gaunt fragments – until 1842, when work resumed. Original medieval drawings of the cathedral had been discovered, and the completion of the building was seen as a signpost the creation of a unified German state. The work was finished in August 1880 – and the cathedral was, as far as could be, exactly in the form that its medieval architects had planned 632 years before.

Cologne is an extreme case, but there are others. The west front of Milan Cathedral, started in 1386, was incomplete until 1806, when it was crowned with Gothic pinnacles. Similarly, the Duomo in Florence had its west front completed only in the 1880s, the original having been dismantled 300 years earlier.

It’s not just in continental Europe, though, that completion of great churches was delayed. Bristol Cathedral was left with a nave only partially built in 1515. It wasn’t completed until the late 19th century, when architect George Edmund Street supplied designs.

At Westminster Abbey work on the nave was halted between 1272 and 1375 – and wasn’t completed until 1506. But the completion was in exactly the same style as was the existing work – like the continental cathedrals and Bristol (but much earlier) the authorities had no hesitation in conforming to the old style.

The famous west front of Westminster Abbey took its current form only in the first half of the 18th century. The lower parts date to the 12th to the 16th centuries, with work stopping in 1534. When 201 years later the Dean and Chapter employed Nicholas Hawksmoor (who designed Ripon’s obelisk) to complete the western towers, the architect wrote to the Dean about his love for the great English churches and cathedrals; he cited Ripon, Beverley and York particularly. So it’s no surprise that he forewent his usual classical style and gave their towers their characteristic Gothic form – despite come criticism from his contemporaries.

Sometimes a building had to be completed because it had mostly been lost. The Marquess of Bute’s Castell Coch, north of Cardiff, was a heap of stones left from the destruction of Norman castle by the Welsh in 1314. In the 1870s Bute had his tame architect William Burges (whose churches at Studley Royal and Skelton-on-Ure give a good idea of his over-the-top medievalising style) entirely rebuild the structure in a fantasy of the 14th century.

The same spirit also permeated the reconstruction of the walls of the French town of Carcassonne, going on at much the same time under the supervision architect Eugene Violette-le-Duc. Using the decayed medieval walls as his base he created a ring of turreted and battlemented walls around the town.

All these examples show that in completing an unfinished or a ruined building, the style to be chosen is one very much in keeping with – if not identical to – the original. In some ways this is odd; the same conservatism doesn’t seem to have held sway when it comes to extending houses, where it was quite usual for Georgian wing to be tacked on to an Elizabethan house, or a Victorian Gothic service wing to appear next to a Greek revival mansion.

Only in the 20th and 21st centuries have we really seen modern work used as a foil for earlier structures. At Eltham Palace in London a magnificent hammerbeam-roofed hall built for Edward IV about 1470 was added to by the Cortaulds with an Art-Deco country house.

More up-to date is Astley Castle in Warwickshire, where a thoroughly modern house has been slotted into the red-brick ruins of the former red-brick manor house; it is now a Landmark Trust holiday property. And neared to us is the triumphant restoration of Hellifield Peel tower, with its modern interiors and roof.

But what of modern completions to a cathedral? There have certainly been extensions – the mild Gothic of Sir Edward Maufe at Bradford, for example, or the rather-more adventurous extensions at Sheffield.

One of the most startling modern completions of a cathedral is to be found on the other side of the world. St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Perth, Australia, has had a chequered history. Its foundation stone was laid in 1863, and a small building was complete by 1865, making it contemporary with Ripon’s St Wilfrid’s church. A spire was added to its single tower at the end of the century.

Then in 1926 work began on an ambitious Gothic extension, only to be abandoned when the Depression took hold. The cathedral remained unfinished until work began on an extension and completion on 2006. By then, it was unthinkable to continue the Gothic of the old church, so the new work, which consists of a new nave with glazed quadrants that wraps itself around the older building, is in an undisguised modern style; only an extra tower and spire gives nod to the Gothic.

When antiquarianism was in the air – especially in the 18th and 19th centuries – completion meant copying and fitting in. Before that, you mostly built in a modern style – as the masons who began to reconstruct Ripon Cathedral’s crossing after the tower’s fall in 1450 did, only to abandon it unfinished. Today, we are more likely to use a modern style. Which, do you think, is better?

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