On the Interpretation of Architecture
Theory of Interpretation

Vol. 12, No. 2, December 2008


___Nathaniel Coleman
Newcastle upon Tyne
  Elusive Interpretations



Dedicated to Joseph Rykwert for showing me how columns dance.

I have said that all art is abstract in its beginnings; that is to say, it expresses only a small number of the qualities of the thing represented.[1]

[A]nd how much is to be supposed good, depends, as I have said, much more on place and circumstance than on general laws.[2]

I would only note that sculpture is the representation of an idea, while architecture is itself a real thing.[3]

A building is produced not only by the man who designs it, but by the society which builds it, pays for it, lives in it and looks at it. We can study that building as a monument, as a structure, as a tectonic equation, on internal evidence: that is the archaeological approach, as taught in Schools of Architecture. Or we can study it vicariously, on the basis of external evidence, manuscripts, drawings, building accounts, correspondence: that is the documentary approach, as taught in Departments of History. Or we can study it conceptually, as a work of art, as a design, in relation to aesthetic theory: that is the visual or art-historical approach, as taught in Departments of History of Art. Architectural history, at its best, must encompass all three methods, because architecture is palpable history, culture in three dimensions.[4]



As suggested in the passage quoted immediately above, interpreting architecture is a particularly fraught endeavour. An overview of the variety of methods for interpreting buildings reveals just how unpromising any one of them is on its own. Any method that attempts to either limit or fix meaning once and for all or is dependent on a fixed point of reception is of limited use. For example, in most instances, the architect, or, if you will, author of a work would have us interpret it just as s/he sees it, regardless of how loose or tight the fit is between intention and result. Equally troubling is the interpretation of works of architecture based exclusively on user experience. Buildings change over time and thus so will user experience, which renders problematic any interpretation of architecture dependent on a fixed point of reception. To be self-validating, this method must disregard how buildings and user experience is situational.

Also disturbing is the highly mediated interpretation of architecture by so-called cultural critics who are likely led as much by their prejudices as by proximity and ambition. By severing buildings from the life that gives them meaning, analyzing architecture as though it were an art object in the sterile isolation of a museum is perhaps even less promising than interpretations by the author, user, or cultural critic. Even so, process analysis does not offer a helpful alternative: emphasis on activities as somehow separate from the fabric shaped by them disregards the degree to which architecture also shapes occasions. Like so many other methods for interpreting architecture, significance analysis must also limit the subject to fit its method: buildings are dynamic, so their meaning will continually shift through time as circumstances change. Consequently, any interpretive method that either limits or fixes the meaning of a building once and for all offers a partial reading at best.

As a corrective, this paper examines the prospect of interpretative modes dynamic and multi-dimensional enough to account for the degree to which architecture both causes change and is affected by it. To do so, Ruskin’s theory of architectural interpretation, as outlined in The Seven Lamps of Architecture, is considered.

Ruskin forms the bedrock of my consideration here of a method for interpreting architecture that emerges from within the discipline, which is also generally applicable across time and space, as well as open and supple enough to account for the multiplicity of experiences that even a single building will support and shelter during its existence. Ruskin offers a bridge between the inheritances of the past up to the nineteenth century, while also providing a link with the origins of twentieth century modern architecture. As I hope to make apparent, Ruskin’s ideas on architectural interpretation have continuing relevance, arguably influencing conceptions of architectural value in the work of, for example, Le Corbusier, Louis I Kahn, Aldo van Eyck and Peter Zumthor (amongst some others).

Interpreting Architecture

The problem of architecture is multi-determined, thus interpreting architecture requires methods for doing so that are elastic and varied enough to account for its full complexity. At the very least, architecture is a social, political, economic, technical, aesthetic and ethical problem. Nevertheless, attempts to interpret architecture tend to be far more exclusive, or reductive, than inclusive; emphasizing one aspect of a structure over all others to make a case that can often seem quite external to the lived reality of a building. For example, conventional art historical modes of inquiry mostly highlight novelty, stylistic development or stylistic coherence in architecture to the near exclusion of the social experience of buildings or the emotional impact they can have on individuals and groups. The problems emphasized are generally formalistic in nature, or perhaps technical at times and representational at best. The economic, political and social dimensions of architecture tend to be underplayed with regard to both the origins of a building and its enduring value as it persists through time.

The consequences of a limited perspective on the value of architecture and of architectural values are observable globally. Although nearly all of us play out the greater part of our lives in designed and constructed environments – in the developing and developed world alike, the significance of the built realm seems day by day to be of less and less concern to most of the individuals charged with shaping it. Among all others involved in making the manmade world, architects have nearly wholly relinquished the primary role they once held in shaping architectural forms around forms of individual and group conduct. Although the causes of this diminished responsibility for configuring the stage upon which human activity unfolds are multiple, particularly significant is the degree to which the training of architects is primarily technical; made up of developing employable skills. Strangely, this form of education tends to give precedence to the consumption of the built environment, almost to the exclusion of encouraging neophytes to reflect on their future role as the producers of buildings, cities and other designed environments. A major cause of this disregard is the degree to which novice architects tend to develop an overdependence on published images of buildings either in print media or on the internet, rather than cultivating sensitivity for bodily experience as the main way to gain knowledge of buildings. Equally significant is the breathless speed, and thus necessarily reductive character, of architectural history surveys, which cannot permit broad and deep analysis of buildings. Also worth mentioning as a contributing factor is the tendency to exclude consideration of architectural theories internal to the discipline of architecture from professional studies of architecture.

Thus, my objective here is threefold: Firstly, to propose a method for interpreting buildings dynamic and multi-dimensional enough to account for architecture as instigating change and also susceptible to transformation as a consequence of changing circumstances. My second goal is to make a plea for the built environment as significant and therefore worthy of close and careful attention. Finally, my argument is based on the conviction that the most promising pathway toward a deeper understanding of architecture and thus also towards more comprehensive methods for interpreting it lies within the discipline, rather than outside of it.

Ruskin and the Body of Architecture

Interpreting architecture depends on a consideration of those qualities thought to be desirable or necessary for it to be worthy of consideration. So, to identify, for example, Ruskin’s theory of architectural interpretation what is first required is to develop an understanding of those qualities he believed to be fundamental to the invention, purpose, use and value of architecture.

Interestingly, Ruskin recognized buildings as analogous to the bodies of animals, made up of internal organs mostly hidden, structure often obscured but understood through careful observation, and skin, which provides a protective external layer made up of a weather resisting membrane presenting itself to the external world in one direction and protecting the structure and organs in the other.[5] He also had a sense that worthy works of architecture were analogous to human beings in the sense of how buildings behave, or act, in the world: a building or a person could be either noble or debased.

Ruskin’s Project:

The first question will of course be: What are the possible Virtues of architecture?

In the main, we require from buildings, as from men, two kinds of goodness: first, the doing their practical duty well: then that they be graceful and pleasing in doing it; which last is itself another form of duty.

Then the practical duty divides itself into two branches, acting and talking
: acting, as to defend us from weather or violence; talking as the duty of monuments or tombs, to record facts and express feelings; or of churches, temples, public edifices, treated as books of history, to tell such history clearly and forcibly.

We have thus, altogether, three great branches of architectural virtue, and we require of any building, –

1.      that it act well, and do the things it was intended to do in the best way.

2.      that it speak well, and say the things it was intended to say in the best words.

3.      that it look well, and please us by its presence, whatever it has to do or say.[6]

Although John Ruskin (1819-1900) wrote widely on architecture, for the purposes of the present discussion, especially in terms of clarity and in consideration of space limitations, I will focus here on the second edition of The Seven Lamps of Architecture, originally published in 1880, which is perhaps his most distilled statement of the value of architecture and of architectural values. Before moving on to Ruskin’s Lamps, it is worth considering the above quote.

Any question of interpretation with regards to architecture will surely start with some sense of what is being looked for, even if only in the broadest terms. To that end, it would be most helpful to have some set of criteria to begin with, which Ruskin set out to establish with the question of what the possible virtues of architecture might be. Virtue is an interesting word, perhaps not least because it is unlikely in the present day to think of architecture as generally virtuous, even less so as morally excellent. Even so, consideration of what the qualities of architecture might be, what merits it might have, and what its intrinsic worth might amount to, in short what might constitute the moral excellence of architecture, at least offers some initial points of reference.

Ruskin identified the potential goodness of a building with analogous traits in human beings, seeing in both the verification of such qualities as a result of “doing their practical duty well” and in such a way as to be “graceful and pleasing in doing it.” He goes further to divide “practical duty … into two branches”, which he defines as “acting” and “talking”, which, generally speaking, correlates with Umberto Eco’s identification with the “connotative” and “denotative” in architecture.[7] Acting, in Ruskin’s terms (somewhat akin to Eco’s denotative), has to do with technical, or literal, function in its most basic sense: at the very least, if intended to, a building should “defend us from weather or violence”. Talking, in Ruskin’s terms (somewhat akin to Eco’s connotative), has to do with buildings meant to fulfil emotional, or associative, functions: at the very least, such buildings must, “record facts and express feelings” or articulate “history clearly and forcibly”. In short, a virtuous building will act and speak well in the best way while fulfilling its intended function, whether technical or emotional. Such a building will also “look well and please us by its presence, whatever it has to do or say”. By so doing, it will be a morally excellent work of architecture worthy of praise and study.

Accordingly, interpreting architecture requires, at least in part, developing an understanding of what a building has attempted, or was intended, to do and say in order to determine whether or not it has acted or spoken well. Being able to do this requires a fairly well developed social understanding of architecture within a given spatial and temporal context. Also required is a capacity to read content out of form, inflected by an understanding of use, assured by being careful not to impose too much of a subjective or impressionistic reading onto the work of architecture being interpreted.

Ruskin’s interpretation of architecture works in two directions at once: it identifies those qualities or characteristics of architecture toward which architects ought to strive and which great buildings can be shown to embody. A new work of architecture, or one being projected, will be worthy of praise if it delivers on its promise of multi-dimensional value (the degree to which each of The Seven Lamps of Architecture have been observed and upheld). An existing work of architecture will be deemed exemplary when it has successfully re-interpreted those qualities that have made earlier buildings praiseworthy and which promises to make future ones equally so.

Ruskin attempted nothing less than the determination of evaluative principles that might be useful for determining the worth of any work of architecture, regardless of its age or location. According to him, such principles are justifiable and verifiable inasmuch as they derive from moral principles common to the judgment of all human endeavours and behaviour. Moreover, because morals contribute to the survival of the human species (perhaps even the planet) they are adaptive but also, at least in part, biologically determined as an aspect of the species’ will to survive.

In his "Preface to the First Edition" of The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Ruskin explains why he uses particular architectural examples to illustrate the evaluative principles he attempts to develop throughout the book:

But it is to be remembered that the following chapters pretend only to be a statement of principles, illustrated each by one or two examples; not an Essay on European architecture; and those examples I have generally taken either from the buildings which I love best, or from the schools of architecture which, it appeared to me, have been less carefully described than they deserved.[8]

Although Ruskin’s choice of examples was determined as much by subjective criteria as by a desire to redress the under-representation of certain works of architecture, the key objective of his project was to make a ‘statement of principles’. In Ruskin’s hands, ‘principles’ should be understood in all its senses, encapsulating ‘main beliefs’, ‘values’, a ‘philosophy’, an ‘ideology’, ‘morality’, ‘ethics’ and a ‘doctrine’ in equal measure. But Ruskin’s ‘principles’ should also be understood as deriving from his opinions informed by his beliefs, with which he used his attitudes toward life and architecture to draw a code of conduct from the standards he elaborated. In this way, the Seven Lamps of Architecture is a kind of dogma drawn from notions or assumptions made into tenets by their author in an effort to theorize a rule, which would become the seven laws or lamps of architecture. Even if Ruskin’s moral basis for evaluating architecture to determine its value (or values) will likely strike most architects as too highly restrictive in an epoch of architectural emptiness, my contention is that the usefulness of his project for interpreting architecture persists into the present. What makes Ruskin’s lamps of architecture so enduring is that although he appealed to specific examples to develop his statement of principles, he fully intended the laws of architecture he elaborated to be broadly applicable, or useful, across time and space.

I could as fully, though not with the accuracy and certainty derived from personal observation, have illustrated the principles subsequently advanced, from the architecture of Egypt, India, or Spain, as from that which the reader will find his attention chiefly directed, the Italian Romanesque and Gothic.[9]

While it might be debatable as to whether or not Ruskin would have been able to make sense of the developments of twentieth- and twenty-first-century architecture, his influence on the development of modern architecture is well documented (at the very least as a force to be overcome).[10] Moreover, he went so far as to set for himself “the task of determining some law of right, which [could be applied] to the architecture of all the world and of all time, [in order to make possible] judgement [of] whether a building is good or noble”.[11]

Arguably, the potentially valuable lasting influence of Ruskin’s Seven Lamps on the interpretation of architecture derives from his conviction – as suggested by the passages above – that any true statement of architectural principles must be applicable across space and time, able to account for widely divergent cultural expressions, without falling into the limiting trap of aesthetic or formalist evaluation outside of a social or experiential context. Moreover, each of Ruskin’s Lamps offers a powerful interpretive tool on its own; all seven together even more so, suggesting just the sort of dynamic method for considering buildings introduced at the beginning of this paper.

Interpreting a work of architecture is akin to reading in some respects, for example, during reading one usually aims at construing a gist drawn from interacting with the combination of standard parts (letters, words, grammar and syntax) that an author has put together (in much the way that architectural meaning is made by fitting together the common elements of buildings that are shaped around social forms of use). Interpreting a text is as transactional as it is situational: getting to the heart of what is being read has as much to do with the author as the reader, as it does with the specific social context of each. All texts are read historically. That is, there is a history to the authoring of a text and its reading even as both can potentially transcend the limits of spatial and temporal context to remain broadly meaningful over a very long duration, and even in translation, to a diverse range of readers. While this is something of a commonplace in the understanding of music, art, literature and other disciplines, architecture seems to have either a bad conscience about the body of knowledge that forms it or a lack of confidence that such even exists. As a consequence, theoretical and practical novelty dominates to such a degree that it is nearly impossible to imagine a mode of interpretation intrinsic to architecture able to account for its complexity, or at the very least that derives from the multiplicity of forces acting on the invention, construction, use and durability of any building.

It is just such complexity that Ruskin attempted to account for in the formulation of his Seven Lamps of Architecture. And while I am in no way arguing that his statement of architectural principles is the last word in interpreting buildings, rarely since has as comprehensive an effort at making sense of individual and group relationships with buildings been either attempted or achieved.


Ruskin’s first lamp is sacrifice. Problematic in his elucidation of the relevance of sacrifice to architecture is his distinction between building and architecture. For him, building is made out of pure necessity whereas architecture concerns the unnecessary, a distinction that continues to be generally accepted.[12] More important to my purposes here is Ruskin’s arrangement of architecture under five headings: Devotional, Memorial, Civil, Military, and Domestic.[13]

To twenty first century ears, the idea of sacrifice with regard to architecture might at first sound strange. Yet, if one considers the magnitude of economic and natural resources the building industry consumes in its daily operations, sacrifice is revealed as a most appropriate word. What makes it useful for interpreting architecture however is Ruskin’s requirement that our buildings should evidence an offering of “precious things simply because they are precious; not as necessary to the building, but as an offering, surrendering, and sacrifice of what is to ourselves desirable.”[14] In Ruskin’s mind, sacrifice was relevant to devotional and memorial buildings alone but in our secular age I think this limitation ought to be widened to include at least civic and institutional buildings such as hospitals, terminals, schools, museums, governmental buildings and civil engineering works among other structures that adorn public life, something Alberti would likely have agreed with. The value of expanding the range of buildings where sacrifice would be appropriate resides in the degree to which it is the "opposite of the prevalent feeling of modern times, which desires to produce the largest results at the least cost."[15] I am sure it would not take too much special pleading to convince most readers that a commonplace of the post World War II period is an increasing general degradation of the public realm.

If sacrifice is present in a building and can be read out of it, it will reveal the structure as something more than a problem of simple necessity, expressing rather "the desire to honour or please someone else by the costliness of the sacrifice." Because such sacrifice will be primarily public in nature, intended to honour that which is held in common, extravagant displays of wealth – ostentatious corporate headquarters or private homes for example – are not the same as sacrifice.[16] For this lamp to be upheld, to be its own reward or virtue, sacrifice must adorn that other entity beyond family that individuals make when they come together: the community. According to Ruskin, for the “Spirit of Sacrifice” to be manifested, “we should in every thing do our best; and secondly … we should consider increase in apparent labour as an increase of beauty in the building.”[17]

Doing one’s best may be the mantra of modern work culture but how often is this actually convincingly demonstrated, especially considering the emphasis on economy, efficiency and return on investment that propels the building industry. Implicit in this, and spelled out further by Ruskin throughout the Seven Lamps and in the Stones of Venice, is the limited value of apparent perfection as a product of completeness only possible because what has been attempted could only be achieved within a frame of limited mental and physical effort.[18] He goes so far as to argue that “better our work unfinished than all bad.” Furthermore, we should always prefer “what is good of a lower order of work or material, to what is bad of a higher; for this is not only the way to improve every kind of work, and to put every kind of material to better use; but it is more honest and unpretending …”[19] With this remark, Ruskin gets very close to the predicament of mass production, modular construction and the dominance of assembly over craft that continues to bedevil architects to this day.


With his second lamp, "Truth", Ruskin further confirms his enduring relevance. To uphold the lamp of truth and assure its manifestation, "direct falsity of assertion respecting the nature of material, or the quantity of labour" must be avoided. In this statement the modernist truisms of truth to materials and even of truth to construction were given potent expression before the fact.[20] Even today, in an epoch of construction so often hidden by extraneous material intended to obscure a lack of care, such truths remain a worthy topic of architecture: buildings in which it is possible to get some sense of how they were made and out of what they were made do seem to promise a more pleasing experience, not least because such structures help to orientate us. According to Ruskin there are three primary architectural deceits which are to be avoided, including:

1st. the suggestion of a mode of structure or support other than the true one … ,
2nd. the painting of surfaces to represent some other material than that which they actually consist … , [and]
3rd. the use of cast or machine-made ornaments of any kind. Now, it may be broadly stated, that architecture will be noble exactly in the degree in which all these false expedients are avoided.

If false structure is deceitful, then a “building will generally be … noblest, which” reveals “to an intelligent eye … the great secrets of its structure”.[22] Developing this idea of comprehensible construction further, Ruskin argued that, at

the moment that conditions of weight are comprehended, both truth and feeling require that the conditions of support be also comprehended. Nothing can be worse … than affectedly inadequate supports – suspensions in air, and other such tricks and vanities.[23]

Equally problematic for Ruskin were “deceptive assumptions of [structure] – the introduction of members which should have, or profess to have, a duty, and have none”.[24] Truth to materials for the wall of a building is equally important, thus, “to cover brick with cement, and to divide this cement with joints that it may look like stone, is to tell a falsehood.”[25]

Expression of the qualities of material is of paramount importance for understanding any structure; being able to comprehend these qualities at the moment of experience is critical for interpreting architecture. With regard to stone, Ruskin argued that it is an example of “deliberate treachery” if “the whole fragility, elasticity, and weight of the material are to the eye, if not in terms, denied”, which will be evident “when all the art of the architect is applied to disprove the first conditions of his working, and the first attributes of his materials”.[26]

Prohibited as well is “the false representation of material”, for example the painting of either wood or cement to appear as though it were marble; the more convincingly it deceives the more unpardonable it will be. According to Ruskin, “all such imitations are utterly base and inadmissible … whatever is pretended is wrong”.[27] Nevertheless, cladding is permissible so long as it does not pretend to be solid, thus, so long as there can be no confusion “that a marble facing does not pretend or imply a marble wall, there is no harm in it”.[28]

In another intriguing turn that paradoxically laid the ground work for unadorned assembled (rather than crafted and ornamented) twentieth century architecture, Ruskin prohibits the “substitution of cast or machine work for that of the” hand. According to Ruskin, there are two reasons for this prohibition: firstly, “all cast and machine work is bad as work”, and secondly, “it is dishonest”. In the context of the Lamp of Truth, it is the dishonesty of “cast and machine work” that most troubles Ruskin, enough so for him to decree an “absolute and unconditional rejection of it.” The primary reason for his verdict is that such work cannot evidence "the sense of human labour and care spent upon" ornament (or other aspects of architecture). The haptic once captured by the hand making of architecture was certain to vanish with the use of “cast and machine work”; architecture would become strange to human beings because it would no longer be a “record of [the] thoughts, and intents, and trials, and heart-breakings of recoveries and joyfulness of success” of the workmen who crafted it.[29] For Ruskin, the marks of human labour, as records of toil and thought, are what made work worthy; the absence of such evidence would render the same worthless, whether it was machine made or handmade in a machine-like manner.[30]

Ruskin’s demand for integrity was so sweeping that he thought it better to “Leave your walls as bare as a plane board, or build them of baked mud and chopped straw if need be; but do not rough-cast them with falsehood.”[31] Nevertheless, even Ruskin could see that
the dishonesty of machine work would cease, as soon as it became universally practised, as of course it has, albeit with often less than satisfying results.[32]

Although Ruskin’s Seven Lamps derive from his interpretation of particular architectural expressions bound to a specific epoch, he goes to great lengths to remind the reader that “The definition of the art of architecture … is independent of its materials.” What this suggests is that even though Ruskin could not bring himself to accept the inevitability of metal architecture, he acknowledged that there is no ultimate rule prohibiting the construction of architecture out of metal or any other reasonable material (even as he was intent on showing why this would be most imprudent). The only limitation is that the use of new, unknown or non-traditional materials would require development of “a new system of architectural laws” of proportion and structure adapted to construction out of those materials. Ruskin’s reasoning for this is that because architecture was “practised for the most part in clay, stone, or wood” for the greater part of its history, “the sense of proportion and the laws of structure have been based, the one altogether, the other in great part, on the necessities consequent on the employment of those materials”, the use of other materials would thus “be generally felt as a departure from the first principles of the art.”[33]

The relevance of this licensing of non-standard materials for the interpretation of architecture in the present resides in the importance of considering the materials out of which a building is made, mindful of the degree to which the use of novel or unexpected materials or the introduction of new methods of construction demand a set of principles specific to them. Thought of in this way, Le Corbusier’s Modulor system can be understood as an attempt to adapt traditional proportional systems to the realities of new materials and methods of construction, Louis Kahn’s adoration of the joint as the origin of ornament an adaptation to the same and to the loss of traditional ornament, and Aldo van Eyck’s preoccupation with the problem of vast number was similarly an attempt to develop a theory of meaning native to modern modularized construction.[34] In terms of reading buildings, there is no doubt that a work of architecture will be most satisfying – and thus enduring – when the intellectual and practical framework from which it arises takes account of the nature of the materials out of which it is constructed and the methods of its assembly.


According to Ruskin, the most memorable architecture falls into one of two categories: “the one characterised by an exceeding preciousness” recollected “with a sense of affectionate admiration, and the other by a severe, and, in many cases mysterious majesty,” recollected “with an undiminished awe, like that felt at the presence and operation of some great Spiritual Power.”[35] Obviously, between these two extremes there exist “intermediate examples” that are “always distinctively marked by features of beauty or of power”. However, those buildings that most stir emotion and memory will be either beautiful (“characterized by an exceeding preciousness”), or sublime (characterized “by a severe, and, in many cases mysterious majesty”).

In Ruskin’s judgment, “whatever is in architecture fair or beautiful, is imitated from natural forms” and what “depends for its dignity upon arrangement and government received from human mind, becomes the expression of the power of that mind”. Such architecture will thus have “a sublimity high in proportion to the power expressed.” In short, beautiful architecture derives from nature, which makes it “a just and humble veneration for the works of God upon the earth.” On the other hand, Sublime architecture consists “in an understanding of the dominion over those works [nature] which has been vested in man.”[36]

Here again is a point of intersection between Ruskin’s extrapolation of architectural principles from a specific period of (mostly) Italian architecture and a number of the distinguishing characteristics of twentieth-century modern architecture. Even today, buildings we might describe as inspiring, magnificent, or perhaps even transcendent, do seem to share a quality of mastering nature, some material or site, gravity even, according to thoughts originating in the organizing mind of the architect. In recognizing such links, Arnold Hauser went so far as to argue that, “The purposefulness and solidity of modern architecture and industrial art are very largely the result of Ruskin's endeavours and doctrines.”[37]

For Ruskin the power and majesty of sublime architecture is foremost a product of size, more precisely of large size in contrast to more diminutive surroundings big enough to promise to “make a living figure look less than life beside it.”[38] Importantly, if resources or skill are lacking, size is to be preferred over failed attempts at ornamentation:

Let, therefore, the architect who has not large resources, choose his point of attack first, and if he choose size, let him abandon decoration; for unless they are concentrated, and numerous enough to make their concentration conspicuous, all his ornaments together will not be worth one huge stone.[39]

For Ruskin, “every increase in magnitude” promised to “bestow upon [even a mean design] a certain degree of nobleness.”[40] Size alone is not enough. A building whose shape approaches that of a square in three dimensions will have “a nobler character than that of mere size.”[41] The more it evidences a “bounding line from base to coping” (with breadth equal to height), the more it will be a “mighty square”; nearly perfect (akin to Solomon’s Temple) but also sublime, like the shear face of a mountain.[42] When this criterion is met, the full impact of wide, “bold and unbroken” surfaces will be perceived as though having “the light of heaven upon it, and the weight of earth in it.”[43]

Beyond imagining “a form approaching to the square for the main outline of a building” as offering it the noblest aspect, Ruskin believed the “square and cylindrical column” to be “the elements of utmost power in all architectural arrangements”, to which could be added also the “cube and the sphere.”[44]  Power in architecture will also be manifested by the presence of a
certain respect for material and also mindfulness of how “time and storm” weather materials.[45] Boldness of material expression, including revelation of its weight, and awe-inspiring size are amongst the most significant qualities for demonstrating authority in architecture. Added to these, Ruskin also emphasized shadow as exceedingly important: “So that, after size and weight, the Power of architecture may be said to depend on the quantity (whether measured in space or intenseness) of its shadow”.[46]

The importance of shadow resides in its capacity to show architecture as analogous to the individual and communal drama of living in the world, which also makes it more able to receive human tragedy, by being a counter-form of it. Ruskin was explicit in his belief of this:

It seems to me, that the reality of its works [architecture], and the use and influence they have in the daily life of men … require of it that it should express a kind of human sympathy, by a measure of darkness as great as there is in human life”.[47]

Shadow, then, is not simply darkness, or pools of blackness emphasizing the size or awesomeness of a building, rather, the gloominess of shadow reveals architecture as potentially a form of emotional communication, analogous to other modes of expression capable of softening the tragic propensity of life. Works of architecture of this sort will be serious, as opposed to frivolous.

When one considers the increasing triviality that defines so much of the architecture constructed during the past fifty or so years, it does seem that the relative absence of sober buildings is at least one significant cause for the built environment becoming evermore alien. Yet, more than a hundred years ago, Ruskin could observe the value of an architecture that corresponds to the plight of being human:

[A]s the great poem and great fiction generally affect us most by the majesty of their masses of shade, and cannot take hold upon us if they affect a continuance of lyric sprightliness, but must be often serious, and sometimes melancholy, else they do not express the truth of this wild world of ours; so there must be, in this magnificently human art of architecture, some equivalent expression for the trouble and wrath of life, for its sorrow and its mystery: and this can only give by depth or diffusion of gloom, by the frown upon its front and the shadow of its recess.[48]

If a building can actually “express the truth of this wild world of ours” by offering up “some equivalent expression for the trouble and wrath of life, for its sorrow and its mystery”, then analogy must be far more important to architectural expression than representation, and thus also to effectively interpreting architecture. And if this is so, it goes far in explaining the figurative poverty of so much technocratic, formalist and stylistic post-modern architecture.

Ruskin did “not believe that ever any building was truly great, unless it had mighty masses, vigorous and deep, of shadow mingled with its surface.” The value of this conviction, if there is one, for understanding the architecture of today must turn on its continuing relevance. Although Ruskin’s laws will most certainly prove too restrictive for our much more diverse (or diversifying) societies, it does seem that the most moving architecture continues to obey at least some aspects of his rules. For example, even devoid of traditional ornament or carving, Louis I. Kahn’s Salk Institute in La Jolla, California (1959-1965), is a modern building that clearly demonstrates all of the qualities Ruskin believed could inscribe architecture with a sense of power, including “size and boldness [and] solidity” as well as shadow.[49]

Keeping the Salk Institute in mind for a moment, it is possible to sense how a number of the admirable attributes of power introduced by Ruskin find expression in Kahn’s building.[50] For example, throughout the Salk there are “points or masses of energetic shadow” as well as “penetrations which, seen from within, are forms of light, and from without, are forms of shade” and although Kahn designed the building in this way to manage the intensity of Southern California’s intense sunlight, “the simplicity and force of the dark masses” all over have a combined effect of heightening the sense of majesty and monumentality of the building.[51]

The “masses of light and darkness” at the Salk are so effective because the “composition of the whole depends on the proportioning and shaping of the darks”. It is fair to say even that the “vigorous sense of composition” of the Salk depends quite heavily “on shadow for effect”, made out of a “strange play of light and shade” that is “grand masses of shadow”, which are “broad, dark and simple”.[52] Although the Salk is a unique example, its enduring presence and sustained emotional effect on visitors, suggests that at least for monumental buildings (works that are powerful and that embody power), Ruskin was correct in stating that,

the relative majesty of building depends more on the weight and vigour of their masses, than on any other attribute of their design: mass of everything, of bulk, of light, of darkness, of colour, not mere sum of any of these, but breadth of them; not broken light, nor scattered darkness, nor divided weight, but solid stone, broad sunshine, starless shade.[53]

Although it is hard to imagine that Ruskin could have in any way foreseen the specific results that the profound social and technical changes he was living through and commenting on would have had on the materials, form and construction of architecture, there are many passages of The Seven Lamps… that seem to anticipate the necessity of developing new interpretations of symbolic expression in architecture capable of catching up to, and thus of mastering, the technical developments of the industrial revolution that rendered traditional modes of making (craft) and expressing (ornament) obsolete. One such passage is as follows:

It matters not how clumsy, how common, the means are, that get weight and shadow-sloping roof, jutting porch, projecting balcony, hollow niche, massy gargoyle, frowning parapet; get but gloom and simplicity, and all good things will follow in their place and time; do but design with the owl’s eyes first, and you will gain the falcon’s afterwards.[54]

The impressiveness and sculptural power of Le Corbusier’s and Kahn’s architecture derives in large part from its adherence, at least in terms of form and size, to the qualities of noble building that Ruskin identified in "The Lamp of Power". Although van Eyck’s architecture strove for neither the sublime nor the beautiful in Ruskin’s terms, the Amsterdam Orphanage is characterized by squares and columns in bold relief; it also explores the shadows of human being in terms of ambivalence given a place by architecture.[55] More recently, the physical appeal of Zumthor’s most well known building, the Thermal Baths in Vals, is, to a certain extent, graspable according to the architectural principles of power outlined by Ruskin.


The fourth Lamp, "Beauty", is more difficult to render as relevant to the present condition than the first three Lamps were. Perhaps this should not be surprising: our ability to make sense of the machine and further technical developments requires acceptance of the new world inherited from the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, obliging us also to attempt to “conquer it spiritually.”[56] In meeting this challenge, the products of human intellect and enterprise have, of necessity it seems, become less bound to nature as they are now far more attached to techno science.

Ruskin argued that beauty “bears the image of natural creation”, whereas power in architecture is a product of human intellect and will.[57] Although in recent times zoomorphic shapes have become more prevalent in architecture, examples of this trend tend to be representations of natural (or biological) forms rather than being “adaptations of those [beautiful lines or natural objects] which are commonest in the external creation” of nature.[58] Consequently, “forms which are not taken from natural objects must be ugly.”[59] However, although “forms are not beautiful because they are copied from Nature”, Ruskin believed that it is “out of the power of man to conceive beauty without her aid.” In Ruskin’s mind, beauty would have to derive from nature because nature is evidence of God’s genius, human creations that are beautiful will “be, at the best, a faded image of God’s daily work”.[60]

Interestingly, secularization, as much as industrialization, may have made it impossible for us to conceptualize beauty in the terms articulated by Ruskin: first the world became a resource and now it is a fragile organism depending as much on human intervention for its conservation, as human intervention has come to threaten its very survival. Either way, it is difficult for moderns to really think of beauty any more as “a faded image of God’s daily work”. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that with the loss of ornament from architecture, and the carving that once made it, expressions of beauty as adaptations of lines, forms and colours from nature have inevitably disappeared from building.

Even if beauty is difficult to define after the belief in “universal and instinctive” conceptions of it became difficult, if not impossible, to sustain, Ruskin does offer two very intriguing ideas on what is beautiful. First, he thought that there was a correlation between the naturalness of forms, their frequency, and beauty: “I believe that we may thus reason from Frequency to Beauty, … that knowing a thing to be [visibly] frequent, we may assume it to be beautiful”; and that “which is most [visibly] frequent’ will ‘be most beautiful”.[61] The idea of typicality in nature as conferring beauty to an object is at odds with present day notions of beauty that conflate it with novelty, rareness or exoticism. Yet, in terms of architecture, which now depends so heavily on the assembly of manufactured repetitive elements for its existence as much as its expression, perhaps there is some promise in the possibility that that which is most frequently seen could also be the most beautiful.

Curvilinear forms are so prevalent in nature that the rectilinear character of most architecture would seem to confirm that it could never have originated with a close study of nature. To deal with this problem, Ruskin advances crystalline forms as proof of the common appearance of right angles in nature:

[T]hose projecting forms in [the] surface [of the oxides of iron, copper and tin, of the sulphurets of iron and lead, of flour spar, &c.] represent the conditions of structure which effect the change into another relative and equally common crystalline form, the cube… . We may rest assured it is as good a combination of such simple right lines as can be put together, and gracefully fitted for every place in which such lines are necessary.[62]

Ruskin’s account of how even the cubic form of architecture finds its origin in nature, suggests that its study has not entirely left architecture. Le Corbusier certainly began with nature and even his use of concrete was generally inspired by stone and recollections of masonry architecture, at La Tourette for example.[63] Frank Lloyd Wright’s, Kahn’s and van Eyck’s preoccupation with the nature of materials, its textures as much as its effects, also begins with an aliveness to the natural world. More recently, the impact of Renzo Piano’s Tjibaou Cultural Center, Noumea, New Caledonia evidences an intriguing negotiation between indigenous traditional building forms, which are very close to the materials out of which they are made, and the character of the land where the building is set.[64] The Tjibaou Cultural Center also demonstrates the generative potential of a biotechnical perspective on architecture: climate and place were intimately bound together in the invention of the building.

Zumthor’s Thermal Baths at Vals could not be more cubic, not to say crystalline. The interface of the building with the mountainside it is set in to operates on a number of levels: its roof is a mountain meadow, its interior a cave and subterranean lake, and the predominant material – quartzite – is quarried nearby, binding the building to the mountain valley that hosts it as well as to nearby traditional buildings.  For one last example, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s work, including the Neurosciences Institute, La Jolla, CA and Skirkinach Hall at UPenn, Philadelphia, PA, demonstrates an ongoing obsession with materials: their origins as much as their possibilities and colour.[65]

While each of the buildings just noted evidences nature as generative for architecture, determining whether that is what makes the buildings beautiful is more difficult to answer definitively. Be that as it may, it is sure that whatever makes buildings designed by the architects introduced above graceful and powerful, that is, exemplary, derives largely from a sensitive interpretation of setting in its broadest sense.


For Ruskin, the life of which he writes in his fifth lamp is the evidence of labour as love in the making, or doing, of things. If a thing is done without love, or if it brings no pleasure or substantial satisfaction, it would be better left undone. As with so much else in the Seven Lamps, there is something distinctly Janus faced about this sentiment. On the one hand, there is the strong odour of enervating nostalgia: machines, mass production and the developing dominance of assembly over craft would soon be the facts of creative life in architecture and the industrial arts; there was no route backwards. Yet, Ruskin’s abhorrence of
machine ornament and cast-iron work also encouraged a sharp view on both as representing the dead end of expression.[66] Thus, if life in architecture had once been manifested, in large part, through the production of ornament “done with enjoyment” by carvers made happy by doing it, a renewed architecture would of necessity need to find new ways of evidencing a “tender touch” and a “warm stroke” on the façade and throughout buildings as a whole.[67]

No matter that Ruskin’s obsession with evidence of the hand in the making of architecture equalling its life was destined for disappointment. The problem of warmth, tenderness, and the touch and scale of human making continues to bedevil modern industrialized architecture, especially with regards to its figuration and capacity for touching the emotions of those who use it. Whatever counts for the liveliness of buildings in the present day, Ruskin remains correct in his conviction,

that things … are noble or ignoble in proportion to the fullness of life which either they themselves enjoy, or of whose actions they bear the evidence … And this is especially true of all objects which bear upon them the impress … of the mind of man: they become noble or ignoble in proportion to the amount of the energy of that mind which has visibly been employed upon them. … Architecture, which being properly capable of no other life than this … depend[s] for [its] dignity and pleasurableness in the utmost degree, upon the vivid expression of the intellectual life which has been concerned with [its] production.[68]

Ruskin introduces two concepts in the above that remain especially relevant to this day for interpreting buildings but also for imagining a purpose for architecture when inventing it. If, strictly speaking, architecture is lifeless because it is made from inert matter and its structural aim is to remain motionless, whatever liveliness it might hope to embody must come from the impress of its inventor’s mind upon the static material fitted together to create it. This suggests that, in an epoch of reductive, unornamented, assembled architecture, something more than stylistic revivals or the adoption of historical forms or ornaments is required to breathe life into a building, which might go far in explaining the relatively more profound failure of stylistic post-modernist architecture, when compared to the persistence of modern architecture.

Touching upon one of the great problems of modern architecture long before the fact, Ruskin went on to consider what could make imitation vital. For him, the “distinguishing characteristics of vital imitation are its Frankness and its Audacity”. What he describes as frankness and audacity are, I would argue, the distinguishing characteristics also of interpretation in architecture. Nevertheless, Ruskin argued that frankness “never [makes] any effort to conceal the degree of the sources of its borrowing.” And “[t]here is at least a presumption, when we find this frank acceptance, that there is a sense within the mind of power capable of transforming and renewing whatever it adopts”.[69]

While Le Corbusier’s work certainly demonstrates a modern example of the kind of frank transformative borrowing from precedents applauded by Ruskin, the pastiche of stylistic post-modern architecture was entirely too feeble to “prove … its independence” from its sources, thereby largely revealing a fear “of expressing its homage to what it admire[d] in the most open and indubitable way.” Following on from Ruskin, Le Corbusier’s frankness in borrowing from the past inevitably lead to audacity, characterized by “the unhesitating and sweeping sacrifice of precedent where precedent becomes inconvenient.”[70]

In any event, even if repetition could be excused in the light of “audacity for innovation”, more important for the liveliness of a building is the “visible subordination of execution to conception”. Suggested in this is that thought must always dominate whatever desire there might be for “perfect finish”. And although Ruskin qualified his position on this by writing that “perfect finish belongs to the perfected art”, the implication is that a living art is yet to be perfected, so that “a progressive finish belongs to progressive art”.[71] For Ruskin, then, a vital architecture will show signs of a “struggle toward something unattained”.[72] In point of fact, one of the most deadening aspects of modern architecture in the post World War II period is the degree to which countless works became slick precisely because conception was so obviously subordinated to execution: technics overpowered thought.


With the "Lamp of Sacrifice", the "Lamp of Memory" is perhaps the most effectively articulated of the Seven Lamps. As the embodiment of culture, place, time and labour, art – architecture most of all – offers a lens on to life while providing its framework. It is a condition that assures we can learn at least as much about the day to day life of people in the past and present from studying material culture as we could from written accounts. The place of architecture (the built environment generally and the industrial arts) is so central to the life of individuals and communities that it would be hard to overestimate its value to living. However, the greater part of building during at least the last fifty years reveals that modern advanced capitalist and consumer society is quite able to displace the value of architecture by way of wilful forgetting.

With a grand obsession with progress, it is the propensity for forgetting that marks the modern world. In architectural terms this translates into the destruction of traditional and historical environments, mindless renovations or restructurings of existing buildings that wipe them clean of all signs of silted up life and thought that once assured their dignity, or it translates into restorations so absolute that restored existing buildings feel as if frozen in to an inert state. Architectural disregard for memory also reveals itself in the form of new buildings so disengaged from their milieu that they exist in isolation from the life they are meant to shelter and facilitate; becoming, ultimately, incapable of sustaining either time or necessity.

Only with a sense of the significance of architecture does it become possible to catch the full value of Ruskin’s conviction that,

We may live without her [architecture], and worship without her, but we cannot remember without her. How cold is all history, how lifeless all imagery, compared to that which the living nation writes, and the uncorrupted marble bears! how many pages of doubtful record might we often spare, for a few stones left one upon another! … [T]there are but two strong conquerors of the forgetfulness of men, Poetry and Architecture; and the latter in some sort includes the former, and is mightier in its reality: it is well to have, not only what men have thought and felt, but what their hands have handled, and their strength wrought, and their eyes beheld, all the days of their life.[73]

If architecture is thought to be a serious matter, beyond the limiting metrics of money alone, Ruskin’s conception of it is revealed as something more than the ecstatic overstatements of a romantic. The sum of Ruskin is not that he was an aesthete; his project included envisioning reform of the whole of modern life, which was being made meaner and meaner at the hands of rampant commercialism. At least in his fervour for total reform as the only pathway to renewing culture, Ruskin was close to Marxist historian Manfredo Tafuri, who saw the present condition as a cul-de-sac from which aesthetic indulgence or artistic autonomy could provide no exit.

So much art of the present day is marked by a myopic view of the sweep of human culture. It is as if only today could possibly be real, while the past is an inaccessible foreign country and the future is so far away that it is of no consequence whatsoever. It has not always been thus (and is not entirely so even now). Art has the potential of being made in one epoch while continuing to speak to another and another and so on. Art of this sort (the output of Michelangelo comes to mind) represents a kind of eternal present but also a link between past and future. At its best, Le Corbusier’s architecture comes close to this condition as well, but only the passage of centuries will confirm whether or not this is a valid proposition.

The value of this reading of Ruskin’s "Lamp of Memory" might seem out of place in a paper concerned with interpreting architecture today. I hope not, but if it does, suffice it to say that at least one criterion for estimating the worth of architecture ought to consider it in terms of its potential for endurance, cultural as well as physical, which goes for the grandest structures as for the humblest, including “domestic architecture”.[74] For Ruskin this meant it was crucial “to render the architecture of the day, historical”. But also that it was essential “to preserve, as the most precious of inheritances, that of past ages.”[75] By “historical”, Ruskin in no way meant buildings should be made to look as if they were already old or that they should append the ornaments of past ages as a kind of parody, rather, he was arguing for buildings that could persist through time because they would remain meaningful to successive generations. Preservation, it should be noted, did not mean to Ruskin what it so often does in the present condition. He felt that restoration did violence to buildings, rather, to preserve would mean lavishing buildings with ongoing care and maintenance so that they could indeed persevere through the centuries.[76]

History and preservation were for Ruskin guarantors of the future. Both have something to do with sustainability, culturally as well as ecologically. It is thus the responsibility of whoever contributes to the making of the human world – especially the built environment, including also the cultivated environment as well – to make it for posterity. For Ruskin, the limits of the present, intellectually, politically or even economically, were no justification for bequeathing a meaner world to future generations:

The idea of self-denial for the sake of posterity, of practising present economy for the sake of debtors yet unborn, of planting forests that our descendants may live under their shade, or of raising cities for future nations to inhabit, never, I suppose, efficiently takes place among publicly recognized motives of exertion. Yet these are not the less our duties; nor is our part fully sustained upon the earth, unless the range of our intended and deliberate usefulness include, not only the companions but the successors of our pilgrimage. God has leant us the earth for our life; it is a great entail. It belongs to those who are to come after us… as to us; and we have no right, by anything we do or neglect, to involve them in unnecessary penalties, or deprive them of benefits it was in our power to bequeath. … [T]he farther off we place our aim, and the less we desire to be ourselves the witness of what we have laboured for, the more wide and rich will be the measure of our success.[77]

If the quote above were actually to provide interpreters of architecture with a partial guide for reading and evaluating buildings, newness as the primary evaluative criterion would be turned on its head. It is not so much novelty that matters most but rather the quality of our efforts to fix settings that need not be replaced with every subsequent generation, or even more frequently, according to each new fashion. If, rather, architecture was always and everywhere preoccupied with duration, rather than impulse, no building built for a moment or in an expedient flash could be spun as being of good quality. For Ruskin, age was the greatest glory of a building, not because he hated the present but because a longstanding structure connects past to future by orientating us in the present. Such buildings are witnesses to time, to the full spectrum of life’s drama, the recollection of which is silted up in each evidence of weathering.[78]

Yet, if time is the greatest glory of a building, this does mean that nothing of value can be built in the present. The prospect of current and future architecture that could orientate succeeding generations, in the way that persisting architecture does for the present, depends on a mode of thinking that sees beyond the moment:

Therefore, when we build, let us think that we build for ever. Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is come when those stones will be held sacred because we touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labour and wrought substance of them, ‘See! This our fathers did for us.’[79]

There is no doubt that it is most difficult for architects of today to see beyond the multiple limitations confronting the production of enduring buildings. If they are not consumed with anxiety about finance or profit they will likely be obsessed with fame, and if not with money or celebrity then with technique. It is no overstatement to say that it is the rare architect today who can manage all of the limitations that come with the capitalist system while also being able to work within that system to produce something of lasting worth that is also culturally, structurally and materially durable (a few who I believe have achieved this have already been mentioned). But Ruskin set out to establish the lamps, that is, the laws of architecture; given the present climate, it is no wonder they are so difficult to uphold. Less surprising still is that the greater part of building production for a very long time now should consist of crimes and misdemeanours against these laws.


Even more problematic than the "Lamp of Beauty" is Ruskin’s seventh and final lamp, The "Lamp of Obedience". One of the apparently greatest gifts of the Enlightenment is the normalization of the pursuit of liberty as though it were a natural right. It is precisely this that makes the "Lamp of Obedience" so difficult to accept. In an age of radical subjectivity and blind faith in individualism the idea that architecture – which must surely be a form of personal expression – ought to be subjected to any regulations beyond those imposed upon it by economics and engineering is absurd to say the least. Yet, perhaps there is something to Ruskin’s eccentric and apparently limiting ruling “that the architecture of a nation is great only when it is as universal and as established as its language; and when provincial differences of style are nothing more than so many dialects.”[80] For the stark alternative, one need only reflect on the peculiar present condition of so-called star architects being jetted across the globe to build in places they may never have visited previously and about which they likely know little.

Although "Buildings have been man’s companions since primeval times" because "the human need for shelter is lasting", and the history of architecture "is more ancient than any other art", of late, architecture, at its most visible, has been willingly pressed into the service of destination tourism, city branding and marketing, and so-called culturally led regeneration.[81] While this trend appears to highlight a resurgence of high value being placed on architecture’s role in the making and identification of place, a closer look reveals it as the final step in a long process in the transformation of architecture from an artefact received simultaneously “by a collectivity in a state of distraction” into something akin to a fetish object that must be consumed to be important.[82] The over focusing of attention on architecture as object does violence to its peculiar capacity for configuring the everyday and at the same time being memorial. As Walter Benjamin observed,

Buildings are appropriated in a twofold manner: by use and by perception – or rather, by touch and sight. Such appropriation cannot be understood in terms of the attentive concentration of a tourist before a famous building. On the tactile side there is no counterpart to contemplation on the optical side. Tactile appropriation is accomplished not so much by attention as by habit. As regards architecture, habit determines to a large extent even optical reception. The latter, too, occurs much less through rapt attention than by noticing the object in incidental fashion.[83]

There are several points in the quote above that help to make sense of Ruskin’s "Lamp of Obedience": because architecture is appropriated by use and perception, which Benjamin characterizes as “touch and sight”, its value lies in its appropriateness to both but more so in its suitability to “habit”. And habit has little to do with the problem of inventing new styles or maximizing the destination tourism value of signature architecture. True enough, idolized buildings are but a minuscule part of the world production of architecture but their influence on the whole is undeniable. When the worth of a building appears to reside primarily in its entertainment value, planners, developers and architects alike will want to adopt the same approach to all works.

With the above in mind, Ruskin’s attempt to find a way to assure architecture could ever be fit to its complex and multiple purposes begins to seem less strange. He was certain that the only way to protect the virtues of architecture was to have a rule so strict that there could be no danger of “individual caprice” subverting the primary purposes of building as he saw them (such as have been outlined in this paper).[84] Thus, “to be original” or the challenge “to invent a new style” would need to be resisted at all costs.[85] Immaterial to Ruskin was the problem of “what style was adopted, so far as regards the room for originality which its development would admit” as long as it was generally and judiciously adhered to. There is something quite double edged to this sentiment: on the one hand, it is quite restrictive regarding the boundaries of free expression, on the other, it could appear as though what mattered most to Ruskin was not so much the choice between one style or another but rather that all practitioners would adhere to an agreed upon national style, perfecting it so that it would be robust enough to tolerate various dialects and even some degree of license. If this were so, then one could imagine Ruskin accepting the strange new forms of twentieth century modern architecture, as well as its enduring resistance to conforming to anything like a rigid international style (except in its feeblest forms).

Ultimately, writing from where he was standing, Ruskin could not imagine the possibility that a renewed architecture for his age (or any other) would ever arise liberated from some reference to an historical style deemed exemplary by him, which would ideally be accepted by all. By arriving at the conclusion that the renewal of architecture required both the public and architects to “choose a style, and … use it universally” and that that style should be drawn from a choice “between four styles” including: “1. Pisan Romanesque; 2. The early Gothic of the Western Italian Republics … the Gothic of Giotto; 3. The Venetian Gothic in its purest development; 4. The English earliest decorated”, Ruskin convincingly obscured whatever enduring legitimacy his insights might have had for the present day.[86]


The passing of time has made the evangelical tone of the Seven Lamps of Architecture ever stranger to modern ears. Consequently, the lessons learned from Ruskin by the founders of the Bauhaus, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier, regarding the potential dignity of an unornamented, machine made, assembled modern architecture, have become very difficult to take in. For example, Reyner Banham observed that "there is a test that divides the men from the boys in say 1912, it is their attitude to Ruskin. Men whose view of the aims of art and the function of design were as diverse as could be, nevertheless united in their hatred of ce deplorable Ruskin."[87] The last three words of the quote are drawn from a 1912 London lecture by Filippo Marinetti in which he challenged his English audience to reject Ruskin:[88]

When, then, will you disencumber yourselves of the lymphatic ideology of your deplorable Ruskin, whom I intend to make utterly ridiculous in your eyes … With his sick dream of a primitive pastoral life; … with his hatred of the machine, of steam and electricity, this maniac for antique simplicity resembles a man who, in full maturity, wants to sleep in his cot again and drink at the breasts of a nurse now grown old, in order to regain the carefree state of infancy. [89]

With the above in mind, it might seem that to be modern requires the rejection of all that came before. But the dead end of Marinetti’s Futurism reveals just how premature an uncritical embrace of progress and its trappings is. More to the point, each successive accomplishment of theory and practice will inevitably be built upon previous achievement (and as a response to failures as well). My objective in this paper has been to make a plea for the relevance of Ruskin even today for helping us to imagine a way of thinking about architecture, and thus interpreting it, that comes from within the discipline without being so reductive as to disavow the multiple forces that influence it and to which it must respond. I am in no way suggesting that Ruskin is the first and last word for interpreting architecture, rather, by attempting to reveal the continuing relevance of his insights, my objective has been to make some tentative steps toward a recuperation of value for the discipline’s own ways of knowing its subjects as well as its objects.

Perhaps in the final analysis there are two major lessons to be learned from Ruskin’s Seven Lamps, the first has to do with propriety as a fundamental criterion for determining the worth, beauty and use of a building; that is, its appropriateness to the multiplicity of tasks, emotional and functional that it will be required to fulfil during its life. The second has to do with recollecting building as a profound social act that consumes a large amount of any community’s resources; thus, architecture ought to be lavished with care and attention comparable to its cost so that it can properly adorn the society that built it. And as he was writing on the cusp of the emergence of what we call modern architecture, Ruskin’s awareness of the fading of craft, with the increasing dominance of machine production, and, it appears, some prescience as regards the problem of an unornamented, assembled and reductive architecture suggests that he might yet offer some compass to us – even now – for how to make and understand a meaningful architecture.



[1] John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), Second Edition (1880), (New York: Dover Publications, 1989), p. 131.

[2] Ibid., p. 132.

[3] Ibid., p. 137.

[4] J. Mordaunt Crook, Architecture and History, in. Architectural History, Vol. 27, Design and Practice in British Architecture: Studies in Architectural History Presented to Howard Colvin, (1984), p. 571.

[5] John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), Second Edition (1880), (New York: Dover Publications, 1989), pp. 35, 44-45.

[6] John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice (1851-53). Edited by J. G. Links (1960), Volume I (The Foundations), Chapter II (The Virtues of Architecture), (New York: Da Capo Press, 2003), p. 29.

[7] Umberto Eco, Function and Sign: The Semiotics of Architecture (1973), reprinted in Signs, Symbols and Architecture, ed. Geoffrey Broadbent, Richard Bunt, and Charles Jencks (Chichester, England: John Wiley and Sons, 1980), reprinted in Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory, ed. Neil Leach (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 182-202.

[8] John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), Second Edition (1880), (New York: Dover Publications, 1989), p. xi.

[9] Ibid., p. xi.

[10] See for example, Nikolaus Pevsner, Pioneers of Modern Architecture from William Morris to Walter Gropius (1949) (London: Penguin Books, 1968). For an overview of Ruskin’s influence on Le Corbusier see, Nathaniel Coleman, Utopias and Architecture (London: Routledge, 2005).

[11] John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice (1851-53). Edited by J. G. Links (1960), Volume I (The Foundations), Chapter II (The Virtues of Architecture), (New York: Da Capo Press, 2003), p. 29.

[12] One of the most dramatic expressions of this apparent dichotomy is Pevsner’s declaration that "A bicycle shed is a building.  Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture."  Nikolaus Pevsner, An Outline of European Architecture (1943) (London: Penguin Books, 1990), p. 16.

[13] John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), Second Edition (1880), (New York: Dover Publications, 1989), p. 10.

[14] Ibid., p. 10.

[15] Ibid., p. 11.

[16] See for example page 17 and 18, where Ruskin states: "I do not understand the feeling which would arch our own gates and pave our own thresholds and leave the church with its narrow door and foot-worn sill…", or "I do not want marble churches for their own sake, but for the sake of the spirit that would build them." John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), Second Edition (1880), (New York: Dover Publications, 1989), pp. 17, 18.

[17] Ibid., pp. 20-21.

[18] For an extended discussion of this aspect of Ruskin’s thinking and its relation to modern architecture, especially in the work of Le Corbusier, see, Nathaniel Coleman, Utopias and Architecture (London: Routledge, 2005), pp. 128-132,

[19] John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), Second Edition (1880), (New York: Dover Publications, 1989), p. 22.

[20] Ibid., p. 34.

[21] Ibid., p. 35.

[22] Ibid., p. 35.

[23] Ibid., p. 37.

[25] Ibid., p. 46.

[26] Ibid., p. 63.

[27] Ibid., pp. 48, 50.

[28] Ibid., pp. 50-51.

[29] Ibid., pp. 53-54.

[30] Ibis., pp. 55-56.

[31] Ibid., p. 55.

[32] Ibid., Note 19, bottom of page 55.

[33] Ibid., p. 39.

[34] For a consideration of Le Corbusier, Kahn and Aldo van Eyck within the broader historical and theoretical context, see Nathaniel Coleman, Utopias and Architecture (London: Routledge, 2005).

[35] Ibid., p. 70.

[36] Ibid., pp. 71-72.

[37] According to Hauser, Ruskin "was indubitably the first to interpret the decline of art and taste as the sign of a general cultural crisis, and to express the basic, and even today not sufficiently appreciated, principle that conditions under which men live must first be changed, if their sense of beauty and their comprehension of art are to be awakened.... Ruskin was also the first person in England to emphasize the fact that art is a public concern and its cultivation one of the most important tasks of the state, in other words, that it represents a social necessity and that no nation can neglect it without endangering its intellectual existence. He was, finally, the first to proclaim the gospel that art is not the privilege of artists, connoisseurs and the educated classes, but is part of every man's inheritance and estate.... His influence was extraordinary, almost beyond description.... The purposefulness and solidity of modern architecture and industrial art are very largely the result of Ruskin's endeavours and doctrines." [Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art, Volume 4, Trans. Stanley Goodman (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), pp. 114, 116.]

[38] John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), Second Edition (1880), (New York: Dover Publications, 1989), p. 74.

[39] Ibid., p. 75.

[40] Ibid., p. 74.

[41] Ibid., p. 77.

[42] Ibid., pp. 73, 74.

[43] Ibid., p. 78.

[44] Ibid., p. 79.

[45] Ibid., pp. 82, 78.

[46] Ibid., p. 84.

[47] Ibid., p. 84.

[48] Ibid., pp. 84-85.

[49] Ibid., p. 101.

[50] For a detailed analysis of Kahn’s Salk Institute, see Nathaniel Coleman, Utopia and Architecture (London: Routledge, 2005).

[51] Ibid., p. 92.

[52] Ibid., pp. 98, 93, 94, 95, 100.

[53] Ibid., pp. 99-100.

[54] Ibid., p. 100.

[55] For a detailed analysis of Aldo van Eyck’s Amsterdam Orphanage, see Nathaniel Coleman, Utopia and Architecture (London: Routledge, 2005).

[56] Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art, Volume 4, Trans. Stanley Goodman (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 116.

[57] Ibid., p. 103.

[58] Ibid., p. 104.

[59] Ibid., p. 105.

[60] Ibid., p. 147.

[61] Ibid., p. 106.

[62] Ibid., p. 109.

[63] For a detailed analysis of Le Corbusier’s La Tourette, see Nathaniel Coleman, Utopia and Architecture (London: Routledge, 2005).

[64] For a consideration of Renzo Piano’s Tjibaou Cultural Center, see Nathaniel Coleman, Utopia and Architecture (London: Routledge, 2005).

[65] For a consideration of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s Neurosciences Institute, see Nathaniel Coleman, Utopia and Architecture (London: Routledge, 2005).

[66] Ibid., p. 174.

[67] Ibid., p. 173.

[68] Ibid., pp. 148-149.

[69] Ibid., pp. 152-153.

[70] Ibid., p. 153.

[71] Ibid., p. 154.

[72] Ibid., p. 155.

[73] Ibid., p. 178.

[74] Ibid., p. 181.

[75] Ibid., p. 178.

[76] Ibid., pp. 194-198.

[77] Ibid., pp. 185-186.

[78] Ibid., pp. 186-187.

[79] Ibid., p. 186.

[80] Ibid., p. 202.

[81] Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936), reprinted in Illuminations, (Ed.  Hannah Arendt) (New York: Schocken, 1969), pp. 239, 240.

[82] Ibid., p. 239.

[83] Ibid., p. 240.

[84] John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), Second Edition (1880), (New York: Dover Publications, 1989), p. 202.

[85] Ibid, pp. 202, 203.

[86] Ibid, pp. 206, 208. Jeffrey L. Spear attempted to redress this problem: his Dreams of an English Eden places Ruskin and his work in a set of historical contexts intended to make his social thought seem less anomalous than it has heretofore, so that it may address us more directly and lay claim to sympathetic understanding. Dreams of an English Eden: Ruskin and His Tradition in Social Criticism.’ (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), p. xii.

[87] Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, Second Edition (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1967), p. 12.

[88] The lecture was "given at the Lyceum Club, at 138 Piccadilly … in French" and was entitled "Un Discours Futuriste aux Anglais", Michael Walsh, Vital English art: futurism and the vortex of London 1910-14, Apollo, Feb, 2005, available online at
http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0PAL/is_516_161/ai_n13592228/print accessed on 07 May 2008

[89] Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960) (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1980), p. 123.