Discuss the aims of John Ruskin in his architectural criticism. To what extent were his proposals realised in the architecture of the 19th Century and early 20th Century?
Ill. 1 - John Ruskin, portrait by George Richmond c.1843 (National Portrait Gallery)
This essay will address the nature of John Ruskin’s aims in his architectural writing and consider the extent to which accepted ‘Ruskinian’ themes in built works and later theory derived from his writing manage to fulfil his social and architectural vision and the reasons for their falling short of this.
Through his writing, lectures and through relationships with the design professions Ruskin is credited with a central role in inspiring and popularising the nineteenth century Gothic movement and the Arts and Crafts, but further than that, the debt owed by Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier as impassioned readers of Ruskin in their youth, is noted by Pevsner, and despite attempts to excise him from the development of modernism and later movements, many have looked to Ruskin in the later part of the twentieth century for aesthetic or moral framework, with post-modernist Ruskinism informing Venturi and Scott Brown writing in Learning from Las Vegas, ‘now is the time to re-evaluate the once horrifying statement of John Ruskin that architecture is the decoration of construction.’ Contemporary moves towards zoomorphic and polychromatic architecture also draw on notions attributed to Ruskin.
Ill. 2 - Zoomorphic Architecture, Frank Gehry, Fishdance Restaurant, Kobe, Japan 1987 (Zoomorphic: New Animal Architecture, Hugh Aldersey-Williams 2003, p47)
Ill. 3 - Zoomorphic Architecture, Imre Makovecz, Stephaneum, Piliscaba, Hungary, 1999 (Zoomorphic: New Animal Architecture, Hugh Aldersey-Williams 2003, p16)
Ill. 4 - Polychromatic Architecture, CDP Building, Montreal, Canada, Gauthier, Daoust Lestage Inc, (Architectural Review, October 2004, p47)
In the work of those he influenced one finds a broad plurality of ‘Ruskinisms’, him being credited where architects have gone to some lengths to realise his manifesto for the working man from The Nature of Gothic, but equally where they have simply mimicked details from his illustrations, Michael Brooks writes of these that, ‘even an architect who proclaim[ed] discipleship… was nevertheless likely to develop Ruskin’s ideas in ways that the master could not have anticipated and in directions towards which he was cool or even hostile.’
Given Ruskin’s emphasis on social issues throughout his career and that he was writing for a Victorian audience who would have read him ‘whole’ as a cultural critic, it would it would be simplistic to view his intentions and indeed his legacy in terms only of the aesthetic. His architectural theory was not, as some argue, a break from his art criticism, rather the social and spiritual values are more appropriately read as a logical progression towards a coherent whole. From his first architectural work he pursues this notion that "no man can be an architect who is not a metaphysician." and through his other works Ruskin develops this central spiritual and moral importance of architecture for society, where it acts as a reflection of society’s history (notably in The Lamp of Memory); a measure of a society’s morality (Lamps of Truth and Sacrifice); and a catalyst for change, progress and hope for those working in such a society (Lamp of Life and Nature of Gothic).
When Pevsner proposes in his Outline of European Architecture that ‘Ruskin kept his social activities apart from his aesthetic theory’ there is truth, in so far as one can make the generalisation that his later work was largely sociological with little regard for explicit architectural concerns, however, the idea that people should have better towns or indeed handsomer houses, are in themselves social concerns. His pursuit of Gothic, goes beyond his well documented childhood predisposition for the rustic or nostalgic, the pursuit was made for the social good he could see in it.
Ruskin ties this social and moral agenda to his love of Gothic and advocates it not so much as a style but as a way of life and as the inevitable product of a world conforming to his protestant values. In a way that Pevsner notes as differentiating him from Viollet-le-Duc whose approach is ‘rational’ where Ruskin’s is ‘emotional’, in the sense that Ruskin supplies not merely material provision for something, but ‘motivating power’ for something good. While Ruskin’s very public support for the Gothic is beyond doubt, to limit his architectural vision to a style of ‘Gothic’ as opposed to ‘Classic’ is not sufficient. Malcolm Hardman rather distils a Ruskinian view of architecture into two types, ‘secondary’ and ‘primary’ in his paper Intellectual Lens and Moral Retina: A Reappraisal of Ruskin’s Architectural Vision, where, "Secondary architecture … is imported and propagandistic … superimposed by imperial requirements … pseudo-transcendentalist … it is a merely imaginary aesthesis … that exists in vacuo … its hypothesised population, undifferentiated or stereotyped." and, "Primary architecture … is rooted in landscape and vernacular traditions. It exists in perpetuity … it is reconciled to the accidents of its own material, not offering to ‘defy’ the fallen nature of the world and its inhabitants."
Ill. 5 – Primary Architecture, St Barbara, Jan van Eyck, 1437 (Antwerp Royal Museum) (Malcolm Hardman, Intellectual lens and Moral retina: A reappraisal of Ruskin’s Architectural Vision, Ruskin & Architecture, Spire Books, 2003, p194)
Ill. 6 – Secondary Architecture, The Architect’s Dream, Thomas Cole, 1840 (Toledo Art Museum, Ohio) (Malcolm Hardman, Intellectual lens and Moral retina: A reappraisal of Ruskin’s Architectural Vision, Ruskin & Architecture, Spire Books, 2003, p192)
Ruskin addressed his writing to the new discerning consumers of architecture in an increasingly industrial age. In his Edinburgh lectures he proclaimed that "architecture is an art for all men to learn, because all are concerned with it." As such his practical and aesthetic descriptions and argument exist as a framework for their engagement. The public intellectual and practical participation is central to the vernacular hopes in his vision for a ‘primary’ architecture. This architecture is a moral cause and any measure of his influence should draw out from the work of his proclaimed disciples the extent to which an aesthetic adherence reflects the breadth of Ruskin’s social agenda as well as the more apparent visual derivation.
G.F. Bodley, for some time a close disciple of Ruskin’s, self-consciously adopted the seven lamps in his 1862 design for All Saints Church, Selsey. Michael Hall explores Bodley’s response to all seven, noting correspondence with the patron, Mr Marling and his active interest and substantial financial contributions to the project, a notion expounded by Ruskin in the Lamp of Sacrifice. By this contribution Marlin made possible Truth, in the natural marble and granite, as well as Beauty and Life through the employment of local craftsman Joshua Wall in the ornamenting of the church.
Ill.7 – Capital carved by Joshua Well, All Saints Selsey, 1862 (Phil Jackson, 2007)
Ill. 8 – Leaf Diversities from Ruskin’s Edinburgh Lecture Plate,1853 (Phil Jackson, 2007)
Ill.9 – Church at Marling in the Tyrol, an inspiration for the form and position in the landscape used by Bodley in All Saints Selsey (Michael Hall, G.F. Bodley and the Response to Ruskin in Ecclesiastical Architecture, Ruskin & Architecture, Spire Books, 2003, p262)
Ill. 10 – All Saints Selsey (Eric Hardy)
Bodley conformed to Obedience in All Saints’ gothic style; Power, in the placing of the tower and relationship to the landscape; and Memory to a lesser extent, but Hall argues that Bodley embodies the time through constructional polychromy as representative of a contemporary views on creation and the development of the earth, a view that was not Ruskinian. Bodley used this polychromy again in St Michael’s Church, Brighton.
Ill. 11 – Polychromatic Banding, GF Bodley, St Michael’s Church, Brighton, 1862 (Phil Jackson 2007)
Ill. 12 – Diagram of Geological Strata, William Buckland, Geology and Mineralogy Considered with Reference to Natural Theology, 1836 (Michael Hall, G.F. Bodley and the Response to Ruskin in Ecclesiastical Architecture, Ruskin & Architecture, Spire Books, 2003, p256)
Famously Ruskin was involved personally in applying his principles to the Oxford University Museum. He was never completely happy with the project, describing it as ‘a very shabby bit of work of mine’ and although the degree of his involvement is questioned, the building exhibits Ruskinism in its polychromy, decoration and involvement of the O’Shea brothers. Amongst the controversies that troubled the project was the use of iron in the roof and its subsequent collapse. Ruskin’s aspirations for a Primary architecture were realised to some extent in the Oxford Museum, it is obedient in a limited way to a national style and it does reflect the age in which is was built, through the use of iron.
Ill.13 – Design for a Spandrel in the Roof, John Ruskin, The Oxford Museum, 1893, p89 (Peter Howell, Ruskin and the Oxford University Museum, Ruskin & Architecture, Spire Books, 2003, p77)
Ill. 14 – Roof support as constructed, Pitt Rivers Images, Pikaluk, www.flickr.com
Ill. 15 – Natural Carving – Ruskin Illustration (Ruskin Lectures on Architecture and Painting, George Allen, London January 1905, Fig.2)
Ill. 16 – Pointed Arches, Natural Carving, Leaf Variety, Employment of Craftsmen (Hills and Saunders, A Window of the Oxford Museum, The Sculptor O'Shea at Work, 1858)
‘Lamp of Life and Memory and The Nature of Gothic… produced the Ruskinian tradition that is more generally recognised – William Morris, Philip Webb and their Arts and Crafts progeny’ Philip Webb took much of what Ruskin said to heart, haunting workshops and masons yards and preferring the company of craftsmen to that of other architects. William Morris was heavily influenced by Ruskin in his study and later work; he successfully applied aesthetic and moral Ruskinism in the craftsmanship of Arts and Craft textiles, pottery and architecture, but also in the formation of the Craftsmen’s Guilds.
Ill. 17 - Arts and Crafts Guilds and Workshops, Haslemere Peasant Industries, 1898 (The Arts and Crafts Movement, Elizabeth Cumming and Wendy Kaplan, 1991, p75)
Ill 18- Arts and Crafts – Red House, Philip Webb, 1860 (The Arts and Crafts Movement, Elizabeth Cumming and Wendy Kaplan, 1991, p30)
To conclude, Ruskin was profoundly influential directly, as in those illustrated above, and indirectly to a generation of architects working in the 19th century. Many ideas developed or at least popularised by Ruskin including structural honesty, historical relevance and social concern continued to affect the Modernists and today he retains a following on the strength of his consistent and unique social and aesthetic vision for architecture. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, the National Trust, and the work of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Guilds can all trace explicit Ruskinian thought in their practice.
However, despite the breadth of his influence, increasingly central ideas of his architectural vision were discarded, he later became academically marginalised, his architectural projects did not come to fruition, even the Oxford Museum was fraught with difficulties, and he was distressed by the unRuskinian work derived from his writing and illustrations, bemoaning the rash of "public house[s] [with] pseudo-Venetian capitals copied from the church of the Madonna of Health or of Miracles, …accursed Frankenstein monsters of indirectly my own making"
Ill. 19 - Ruskin’s Illustrations of Venetian Capitals, John Ruskin, Gothic Windows of the Fourth Order, Stones of Venice, 1853
Ill. 20 - Mock-Venetian Public House Decoration, (Gothic Revival Bar)
That his vision for an architecture derived from a society made up of happy craftsmen, architecturally concerned middle classes and sacrificially socially engaged employers did not become a reality may have been because it was unrealistically beyond the means of his readership to effect or because he did not provide sufficient incentive for the pursuit nor sufficient critique of the alternatives. He addressed the notion that his vision was utopian in his Edinburgh lecture, "Utopian [the plans] are not; for they are merely a proposal to do again what has been done for hundreds of years by people whose wealth and power were as nothing compared to ours; and romantic they are not, in the sense of self sacrificing are eminently virtuous, for they are merely the proposal to each of you that he should live in a handsomer house than he does at present"
Whilst his proposals were not impossible, there was, his critics argued a naivety in supposing so radical a change to attitudes could be brought to be in so simplistic a manner. This entailed a crucial underestimation of the upheaval in cultural assumptions that Victorian Society was undergoing. And whilst the notion that each should live in a house more handsome than he does is not of itself romantic, his vision contained a romantically attractive picture of life in medieval Europe. And it is this nostalgia that proved divisive years after his death, exacerbated by his lending divine approval to the gothic style as for the moral issues. Even his notion of objective beauty ordained by a deity relied on a Platonic epistemological basis and leant on a Protestant understanding of created order - ideas that had been falling out of favour through the 19th century, a period of ultimately subverting earlier theism and values of the Victorian era including Ruskin’s Protestantism. Nietzsche wrote most lucidly on the move away from the moral basis that Ruskin supposed in his writing "When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident … it has truth only if God is the truth – it stands and falls with faith in God." And George Meredith reflects the attitude taken by some in criticising Ruskin’s ‘monstrous assumption of wisdom’ and ‘preposterous priestly attitude’.
Along with the rejection of the basis of his moral and social framework for values in architecture came a reaction against a Ruskinism which had become hegemonic and in which Ruskin was transformed, ‘from a radical author into a public monument’. Ruskin was the established dogma whose ethical questions were ‘damagingly didactic and moralistic’. In the face of rising anti-historicism Ruskin was discarded by many as nostalgic. In the minds of an emerging generation of architects, the scope for radical new built form unfettered from traditions of style, and the possibility for faster, bigger buildings mass-produced to cater for an emerging individualist and consumerist society were to leave much of Ruskin’s moral vision behind and along with that, the scope for Primary architecture.