A personal interpretation of the ‘Lamp of Memory’ by John Ruskin

Introduction

In this essay I shall relate to the “Lamp of Memory” which is the sixth of the Seven Lamps of Architecture John Ruskin wrote in 1849. I am interested in exploring until what level are the thoughts written by Ruskin still actual today. I have divided the essay into different parts so that a more specific understanding with our times can be drawn.

At a first glance, Ruskin’s writing may seem very far from today’s general thinking but as one starts to read through the chapter, one gets a feeling that actually there are quite a number of things that relate to the world today in an almost direct way.

Many of the themes Ruskin talks about are timeless and universal. By this I mean that he bases himself upon a moral matrix from which he develops his ideas. I will reinterpret this matrix and examine until what extent can his reflection be taken into consideration today.

The analysis of specific points in Ruskin’s text will conclude in my personal interpretation of Ruskin thoughts and until what point memory plays a role in contemporary architecture.

fig.1 John Ruskin

fig.1 John Ruskin

John Ruskin’s historical context

In order to fully understand the reasoning behind Ruskin’s thoughts, one needs to be aware of the social, political, and environmental context in which he lived.

John Ruskin was born in 1819 and passed away in 1900. Living in the midst of the industrial revolution, Ruskin was against the heavy industrial production that was carried at the time. Due to this he developed an interest in the Gothic revival. He writes,

“I use the word Gothic in the most extended sense as broadly opposed to classical, that it admits of a richness of record altogether unlimited.” (chapter VI, §VII)

At the peak of Romanticism, at a time in which national identity was primal importance, John Ruskin argued that the “minute and multitudinous sculptural decorations” of gothic architecture “afford means of expressing, either symbolically or literally, all that need be known of national feeling or achievement.” (chapter VI, § VII)

His influence ranged from inspiring the Art’s and Craft’s movement to the creation of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings by William Morris. Ruskin was completely against restoration, in fact, he was to such level that he asserts,

“it is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture. That which I have above insisted upon as the life of the whole, that spirit which is given only by the hand and eye of the workman, never can be recalled.” (chapter VI, §XVIII)

John Ruskin’s considerations are totally opposite of his contemporary, Viollet Le Duc, which argued that the restoration of a building

“is not to maintain it, repair or rebuild it, but to re-establish it in a complete state that may never have existed at a particular moment”

After having briefly examined his historical context and opinion let us examine a couple of particular points in the text of John Ruskin.

fig. 2 - Bridge to Angkor Thom, Cambodia, c. 1100 - one can immediately perceive which parts have been restored.  This reconstruction does not really add any value, instead, the value is reduced.

fig. 2 – Bridge to Angkor Thom, Cambodia, c. 1100 – one can immediately perceive which parts have been restored. This reconstruction does not really add any value, instead, the value is reduced.

Representation of architecture into the future

In stating that “there are two strong conquerors of the forgetfulness of men, Poetry and Architecture” (chapter VI, § II), John Ruskin marks the main importance of the theme to be treated, memory. Immediately after making this statement he concludes that architecture is more powerful than poetry as it includes

“not only what men have thought and felt, but what their hands have handled, and their strength wrought, and their hands have held, all the days of their life.” (chapter VI, § II)

Its quite romantic to think that future generations after ours will consider our buildings as sacred apart from a very few which we might probably consider historically important. But what makes a building historically important? It is certain that John Ruskin interpreted Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace as an “anti-spiritual” building. The industrial use of glass and steel were not the expression of workers craft but the demonstration of the large possibilities that industry and the diverse use of materials brought to building technology. But Paxton’s building even though not existing anymore is a constant reference when one thinks of the industrial revolution whatever John Ruskin might have though of it.

Referring to the Crystal Palace one can conclude that even if buildings are not built as monuments, they can become of historical importance simply because of their technological features or any other distinctive feature.

This brings us to discuss that buildings should be constructed upon the spirit of their age in order to make the representation of architecture into the future the most honest.

Zeitgeist

In the “Lamp of Memory”, Ruskin’s main goal is to make us aware of the fact that architects should build according to the spirit of the age in which they live in. All decoration used should be relevant to the epoch the building is constructed. He writes,

“Better the rudest work that tells a story or records a fact, than the richest without meaning. There should not be a single ornament put upon great civic buildings, without some intellectual intuition” (chapter VI, § VII)

It is not only important to build in a way that respects the social, economical, and technological needs of an epoch but also to build in a way that these can be remembered by future generations when looking and feeling a building in their respective time. This is why Ruskin describes two duties of architecture that mark the existence of architecture with a constant relationship with it’s past,

“the first, to render architecture of the day, historical; and, the second, to preserve, as the most precious of inheritances, that of past ages.” (chapter VI, § II)

Today architecture seems to have lost it’s ability to project the present time into the future. Many buildings are built as a mere expression of power or an actual stylistic trend but do not take into consideration the local climate, local traditions or the or the increasing general interest in the resolution of environmental issues that are affecting our world.

It is true that only future generations will be able to fully judge the extent of our will to care for them. An honest evaluation of the current situation in which the interests of the globalized and egoistic world are give us a close approximation to what their conclusion might be. We can certainly affirm that an architecture that responds to the needs of memory is for sure not in the general interest of society today.

fig. 2 Allison and Peter Smithson, Robin Hood Gardens, London,  1969-72 –– probably will provide a memory of community life but certainly not of the personal character of a person living inside it.

fig. 2 Allison and Peter Smithson, Robin Hood Gardens, London, 1969-72 – probably will provide a memory of community life but certainly not of the personal character of a person living inside it.

Craft as a materialization of memory 

In our world today, most of the things we consume and use have been mostly made by machines. The value in itself that work represents through skill craft has has almost disappeared. Craft, in the capitalistic world in which we live in, seems to be measured only by the amount of profit that a person can do. The skill which one acquires by doing a work doesn’t seem to matter any more.

The art’s and crafts vision of making craft almost the scope of work can rarely be appreciated in our heavily industrialized world. The memory that manual labour provokes seems to have lost it’s presence in our minds. Society today does not nurture from the past and neither tries to direct the future. It only lives to administer the present. This is totally contrary to what Ruskin declares:

“when we build, let us think that we build for ever. Let it not be for present delight, not for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone upon stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labour and rough substance of them, ‘See! this our fathers did for us.’” (chapter VI, § IX)

We can today see that we have not abided with Ruskin’s reasoning. Many of the construction research going on today does not take into consideration craft as a portrayer of the culture of a place. Today craft is being systematically being destroyed by the humongous industrialization which is appropriating all that there is to build.

The main objective of industry is and has been to optimize production under all costs and this has inevitably lead to the reduction and almost complete elimination of craft. The main problem of this unstoppable search for maximization of production is that in the long term future generations will not have any objects which carry this spiritual value that Ruskin’s speaks about.

Nature

The grandeur of the Jura in Switzerland which causes such a fascination to Ruskin in the beginning of the chapter makes us feel humble and tiny in relation to the forces of nature and time. Ruskin does this so that we are in a way purified from all of our egos so that then the lesson that Ruskin is trying to teach us can be fully understood.

Fascination towards nature today seems to have concentrated in a completely different realm; that of the power that humans have over nature. Society todays thinks that it can control nature when indeed it is totally dependent from it.

What physical memory of nature will we leave for future generations if we continue to appropriate everything in nature for the simple fact of not having consideration towards the generations to come.

Work towards a brighter future

In Ruskin’s work we can see how Ruskin marks as a fundamental importance the moral responsibility of working not only for our present needs but to build and act always towards the future.

“God has lent us the earth for our life, it is a great entail. It belongs as much to those who are to come after us, and whose names are already written in the book of creation, as to us, and we have no right, by anything that we do or neglect, to involve them in unnecessary penalties, or deprive them of benefits which it was in our power to bequeath. And this is more because it is one of the appointed conditions of the labor of men that, in proportion to the time between the seed-sowing  and the harvest, is the fulness of the fruit; and that generally, therefore, the farther off we place our aim, and the less we desire to be ourselves the witness of what we have labored for, the more wide and rich will be the measure of our success.” (chapter VI, § IX)

The though above was completely visionary at it’s time and can we can find a direct relationship with the desirable way of acting of society today. Adopting this humble existence is something to be done urgently today if we want future generations to be proud of the decisions we made for their bright future.

True perfection of cvil and domestic buildings

In the third section of the Lamp of Memory, John Ruskin affirms that

“it is in becoming memorial and monumental that a true perfection is attained by civil and domestic buildings” (chapter VI, § II)

It is interesting to see how Ruskin associates a common factor of perfection to two completely different building typologies. He treats the dignity of a small house with the same respect he would treat an opera. He is interested in the way a building has a value of it’s own due to it’s age. He writes,

“the greatest glory of a building is not in it’s stones, or in it’s gold. It’s glory is in it’s age, and in that deep sense of voicefulness, of stern watching, of mysterious sympathy, nay, even of approval or condemnation, which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing waves of humanity.” (chapter VI, § X)

The value of age that Ruskin refers to is later on developed in a more systematic approach by Alois Riegl with the will of organizing the different values that time has in a building. He defined a diverse set of values which can be applied to a monument or building in order to decide how and if a restoration is to be done. Of course Ruskin would not approve of Riegl’s theories as he firmly states:

“it is again no question of expediency or feeling whether we shall preserve the buildings of past time or not. We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us.” (chapter VI, § XX)

Ruskin thought of restoration as the

“the most total destruction which a building can suffer: a destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered: a destruction accompanied with false description of the thing destroyed”. (chapter VI, § XVIII)

Ruskin treats every single dwelling as a small monument which commemorates the pride of the owner and explains that living in a house is something which we should be totally grateful for.

“I say that if men lived like men indeed, their houses would be temples – temples which we should hardly dare to injure, and in which it would make us holy to be permitted to live” (chapter VI, § X)

The specific type of memory that a house can portray of his first owner probably works in a single house but not in a contemporary housing development, which is the place where most of the people that live in a city inhabit. What type of individuality or real familiarity with the first owner is there in an apartment building? Huge social housing developments contradict Ruskin’s statement on the way domestic memory is to be passed from parents to children.

In an housing complex what is the most evident are not the ideas of the owner of an apartment but the design objectives of the architect. This is why design today should try to be more participative. The future owners of their home should have the right to decide on basic aspects of their homes. Utilizing technologies that are available to us today, designers can collaborate with clients in order to understand in a more direct way what people need and want.

Conclusion

Most of the world today is composed by extreme poverty and lack of education. It’s the combination of these two factors that make the stabilization of memory into buildings which respond to the true needs of our society impossible. The construction of a house in a third world country which is consequent with the culture of a place is not even an option as the main objective is to construct a simple shelter by the most convenient means.

These economical and social issues constitute no excuse for governments to collaborate on stabilizing an ongoing agenda which looks into the future and emphasizes the importance of making architecture that responds to the actual economic and social needs in a way that culture is respected.

Manual labor has almost been eliminated in first world countries. Manual labour is not seen as a skill but merely as an asset which one can buy at different rates in various countries. This is why the economies of countries which at the time of Ruskin, functioned basically on industry now provide services and their workforce is in another continent.

Reading such a visionary text today is very inspiring and makes one question about the way society as a whole should behave. Ruskin’s text demonstrates to us that memory exists as a link between the past present and future. It’s this link which identifies us as a society and even though many times it may seem impossible to project the present into the future we need to remain optimistic and always try to act in a benevolent and moral way. This way of acting will almost automatically ensure that the memory we are projecting by our daily existence will be one of care and collaboration towards the future.

Bibliography

Ruskin, John. – The Seven Lamps of Architecture, London, 1849

Forty, Adrian. – A Vocabulary of Modern Architecure, Thames & Hudson Ltd, London

Viollet-le-Duc, Eugène Emmanuelle. – Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française (10 vols, 1854-1868)

Riegl, Alois. – Il culto moderno dei monumenti : il suo carattere e i suoi inizi / Alois Riegl ; a cura di Sandro Scarrocchia ; [trad. dal tedesco di Renate Trost e Sandro Scarrocchia]. –  Bologna : Nuova Alfa editoriale, 1990

Illustrations

fig. 1 – John Ruskin – Retirved June 21 2013 from: http://desdeelnibelheim2.blogspot.ch/2013/06/dino-battaglia-y-john-ruskin-el-rey-del.html

fig. 2 – personal photograph

fig. 3 – Robin Hood Gardens – Retrieved June 21 2013 from: http://www.plataformaarquitectura.cl/2009/05/29/robin-hood-gardens-alisonpeter-smithson/img_0636/

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