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
[A]nd how much is to be supposed good, depends, as I have said, much
more on place and circumstance than on general laws.
I would only note that sculpture is the representation of an idea,
while architecture is itself a real thing.
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.
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).
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
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
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.
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.
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, –
that it act well, and do the things it was intended to do in
the best way.
that it speak well, and say the things it was intended to say
in the best words.
that it look well, and please us by its presence, whatever
it has to do or say.
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
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”
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:
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.
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.
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
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).
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,
order to make possible]
judgement [of] whether a building is good or noble”.
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.
More important to my purposes here is Ruskin’s arrangement of architecture
under five headings: Devotional, Memorial, Civil, Military, and Domestic.
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.”
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."
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.
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.”
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.
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 …”
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.
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:
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.
false structure is deceitful, then a “building will generally be …
noblest, which” reveals “to an intelligent eye … the great secrets
of its structure”.
Developing this idea of comprehensible construction further, Ruskin argued
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.
problematic for Ruskin were “deceptive assumptions of [structure] –
the introduction of members which should have, or profess to have, a duty,
and have none”.
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.”
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”.
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”.
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”.
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.
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
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.”
Nevertheless, even Ruskin could see that “the
dishonesty of machine work would cease, as soon as it became universally
as of course it has, albeit with often less than satisfying results.
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.”
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.
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
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
Importantly, if resources or skill are lacking, size is to be preferred
over failed attempts at ornamentation:
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.
Ruskin, “every increase in magnitude” promised to “bestow upon
[even a mean design] a certain degree of nobleness.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
Power in architecture will also be manifested by the presence of a
respect for material”
and also mindfulness of how “time and storm” weather materials.
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”.
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:
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”.
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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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,
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Consequently, “forms which are not taken from natural objects must
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”.
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”.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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
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
ornament and cast-iron work”
also encouraged a sharp view on both as representing the dead end of expression.
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.
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,
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.
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”.
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
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”.
For Ruskin, then, a vital architecture will show signs of a “struggle
toward something unattained”.
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
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
Only with a sense of the significance of architecture does it become possible
to catch the full value of Ruskin’s conviction that,
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.
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
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
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.”
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.’
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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).
Thus, “to be original” or the challenge “to invent a new style”
would need to be resisted at all costs.
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), Second
Edition (1880), (New York: Dover Publications, 1989), p. 131.
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),
John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), Second
Edition (1880), (New York: Dover Publications, 1989), pp. 35,
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.
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.
John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), Second
Edition (1880), (New York: Dover Publications, 1989), p. xi.
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,
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.
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.
John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), Second
Edition (1880), (New York: Dover Publications, 1989), p. 10.
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,
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,
John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), Second
Edition (1880), (New York: Dover Publications, 1989), p. 22.
Ibid., Note 19, bottom of page 55.
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).
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.]
John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), Second
Edition (1880), (New York: Dover Publications, 1989), p. 74.
For a detailed analysis of Kahn’s Salk Institute, see Nathaniel Coleman,
Utopia and Architecture (London: Routledge, 2005).
Ibid., pp. 98, 93, 94, 95, 100.
For a detailed analysis of Aldo van Eyck’s Amsterdam Orphanage, see
Nathaniel Coleman, Utopia and Architecture (London: Routledge,
Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art, Volume 4, Trans.
Stanley Goodman (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 116.
For a detailed analysis of Le Corbusier’s La Tourette, see Nathaniel
Coleman, Utopia and Architecture (London: Routledge, 2005).
For a consideration of Renzo Piano’s
Tjibaou Cultural Center, see Nathaniel Coleman, Utopia and Architecture
(London: Routledge, 2005).
For a consideration of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s Neurosciences
Institute, see Nathaniel Coleman, Utopia and Architecture (London:
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.
John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), Second
Edition (1880), (New York: Dover Publications, 1989), p. 202.
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.
Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, Second
Edition (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1967), p. 12.
Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age
(1960) (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1980), p. 123.