97: On Architecture (First Thoughts)


As I noted in the previous post, if I have given Ruskin’s views of what constitutes great art, and who, as a consequence of their remarkable works, deserves to be ranked among our greatest artists, short shrift in earlier posts, I am guilty beyond almost all hope of redemption for not giving his many helpful and marvelous words concerning our built environment and how it can be useful, helpful, and beautiful simultaneously, any shrift at all!

“Almost,” I typed. However, given that I am of the firm conviction that, even for the most grievous offences, redemption is always possible for the sincere penitent, I begin in this offering an attempt to rectify that grievous gap.

And so, if we are to begin properly, we should have a careful look at Ruskin’s Definition of Architecture. It can be found on the first page of his still marvelous and monumental work, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849): “Architecture,” he tells us, 

is the art which so disposes and adorns the edifices raised by man, for whatever uses, that the sight of them may contribute to his mental health, power, and pleasure.

To elaborate a little, whenever we see or use a building, any building, Ruskin says, it should delight us; it should make us feel comfortable and happy to be in its sight or space, as though it was a comfortable room in our own house and the people in it were members of our extended family. Which means–a meaning which won’t surprise those who have been following these posts for a time–that architecture bears a social responsibility, has, by its nature, an “office” to fill [just as mountains have an office to fill (Post  64) ], has an obligation to sooth or uplift us as it goes about performing its function.

That all buildings have a designated function Ruskin takes for granted: One is for living in, another for doing business, or educating, or conducting religious services, or providing offices for those whom we have elected to govern us, or any number of other important functions. But, whatever a building does, if it does not delight us in that doing, Ruskin would says that it fails in its office as architecture and, quite literally in the failing, harms us, even if we are unaware that the injury has occurred.

Here’s an example, a photo of the main shopping mall in the small city where I live, Geneva, New York. Though it’s difficult to make them all out, in this moderately extensive complex there is a large grocery store (right), a gas (petrol!) station (center), a store selling shoes, another offering wine and spirits, a hardware store, a small Mexican restaurant, a movie theater, a laundromat, a stationary store, and a few more. Allowing for size differences, it is pretty much like every other shopping mall in America (and, now, in almost every other country in the world–even in Vietnam, an Asian country I know well).

Summer 2013--Geneva Archi and Van Burd included 033

As is pretty obvious, the primary function of this mall (and all the other malls) is economic: to provide and sell us the things we need (or think we need, or have been told we need). To accomplish this, various spaces have been created by the mall maker for the businesses that wish to provide and sell us various things. A congeries of buildings then. But are they, in their individual or collective state, architecture?

To answer, let’s go back to our nineteenth century master’s definition and, specifically, to his insistence that a building should delight us, should add, to use his words, to our “mental health, power, and pleasure.” In which context, college professor that I once was, a college professor who, over the course of many years taught Ruskin’s theory of architecture in my urban sociology classes, I frequently asked my students to take themselves to Geneva’s mall and ask a goodly number of those walking in and out the various establishments there how they felt about the experience.

Most of those who were asked the question, my students reported, looked, at first, puzzled, as if the thought of how they felt while transacting their business in the mall had never occurred to them, and they couldn’t understand why anyone would ask them about it. If their puzzlement continued, my students next asked the shoppers if they would mind if they read a definition of architecture they had encountered in a class they were taking. Most agreed to listen.

After reading Ruskin’s definition, the students would ask whether, in light of having heard it, when they shopped at the mall, if they ever felt that their “mental health, power, or pleasure” had been enhanced by the experience. Never did any of those who answered (and, over the years, the question was posed to hundreds of folks) reply in the affirmative. The most common, short response was, “Are you kidding?”(this often followed by a sardonic laugh). If someone chose to be more effusive, the gist of most responses went something like this: “I feel like a customer, that’s all. With one or two exceptions, I don’t know anyone in these stores and no one running them is interested in me. It’s merely a process of selling and buying. All I am interested in is buying a chicken or a pair of shoes; all they are interested in is the money you give them when you buy the chicken or shoes.” In short, theirs was merely a business transaction, a transaction which never provided a sense of something enhancing happening, an interaction without delight.

Which paucity, Ruskin would say, is part of the very real harm buildings which are not architecture (which do not aspire to be architecture) do to those who use them (and, we should not forget, to those employed in them); a harm administered by omission; by engendering in us, those of us who use these buildings, not only no delight, but no curiosity; by not supplying any opportunity for any meaningful chats between those who come to buy and those there to sell, a harm which, without our knowing it is being affected, increases daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, until the moment arrives, as it likely already has for most of us, when no longer does any thought or expectation that buildings might be an uplifting part of our lives, occurs; and, much worse Ruskin would argue, that moment when our systematically and inexorably dulled minds and eyes become, like knives which never have been sharpened and which, as a result, can no longer cut, incapable of perceiving the beautiful altogether! A heavy price to pay!

Now, for contrast, let’s have a look at another “mall”: the town square of the small city (not unlike, in size, my little city of Geneva) of Abbeville in Northern France, not far from the much larger cathedral city of Amiens.

The lovely drawing is Ruskin’s. It was executed in the early 1840s. He was on tour in both France and Italy, hard at work gathering examples for what would eventually become The Seven Lamps of Architecture.

Abbeville Town Square Ruskin's Drawing

The first thing we should note about his picture is that, in an important sense, Abbeville’s town square really is a “mall”of sorts, the place where everyone in the town comes to shop for the things they need to live. Here in Abbeville’s square we would have found a butcher, a baker, (and surely) a candle-stick maker, someone selling shoes, someone selling hardware, another offering books and stationary, and still another offering wine and spirits. [Alas (?), no movie theater, no Mexican restaurant.]

But that noted, there is an important difference (actually, one of many). Unlike the buildings in our modern malls, all of the buildings circling Abbeville’s town square have second storeys, second storeys which, when we remind ourselves of what went on in them (people living, usually the owners of the shops beneath which opened on the square), changes everything. Because in Abbeville we have a “mall” where much more than buying and selling went on, where customers, returning regularly, got to know the sellers and sellers got to know the customers as human beings who lived together in a community, a place where each would, more or less, know the other on a personal basis, would  know that the butcher’s son was very sick or that the baker’s first daughter was getting married, and where, knowing such things, a customer was saddened and commiserating about the first news, and happy and congratulatory concerning the second, a “mall” where real human chat and life happened. A sociological point this, to be sure, but, when you think on it, an architectural one as well–for, at some point between the Abbeville Ruskin knew and drew and today (mostly over the course of the last half century), we moderns chose to sunder our homes from our places of business and, in the aftermath of the choice, lost touch with one another. And, having done this separating, we soon decided that second storeys (which occasioned the stories shared in the stores) were no longer necessary, and reduced our transactions on the remaining ground floor to exchanges, to cash and carry. Efficient. (Perhaps.)

Looking at Ruskin’s drawing more carefully, we find more that tells us about architecture as he defines it. Examining the buildings in the square as a whole, it is clear that they are part of a particular style of construction (as our modern malls are examples of another style). But this is a style which, within its parameters, allows for a remarkable variety (as our style does not: a Starbuck’s Coffee Shop in Geneva, New York, is exactly like a Starbuck’s Coffee Shop in Seattle, Washington, or a Starbuck’s Coffee Shop in London. Efficient! (Perhaps.) Abbeville’s buildings, it turns out, are never quite the same height, nor, often, are they the same width; their frontal decorations and placement of windows differs; some owners have chosen to paint their front-facing walls, which others have decided  not to; almost all of the entries into the stores vary (compare the entries into the world’s Starbucks); some of the buildings, overall, are light in our sight, but others are dark. In which context it is worth noting that Ruskin’s drawing gives us no sense of the variety of colors we would have seen if we had been by his side as he drew). Considering them all together, it is as if those living and selling their wares in Abbeville made their own decisions about how they wanted their buildings to be and look (compare Geneva’s mall). As indeed they did, which decisions created architecture.

The result is that the people of Abbeville lived their lives surrounded by buildings which delighted them singly and, if they took a moment to step back to where Ruskin sat with his drawing tablet, collectively; buildings which, even if those using them didn’t think about it very much or very often, increased their “mental health, power, or pleasure,” daily, weekly, monthly, yearly; and, in so doing. lifted their lives to a higher level. Which lifting, Ruskin would say, is the eternal office of architecture. It is a world we have lost, without, alas, even being aware of its disappearance.

Lastly, rest assured that I am not so naive as to think that we can go back to building Abbevilles. Nor did Ruskin ever argue for such returns. To (as the Beatles might have put it) “get back to where we once belonged,” was never the point of his books. Instead, what he tried to do was lay out the principals–here of architecture–which, if we came to understand them and decided to put them into practice again, would, in due course, displace our dullness and make our days  (and shopping!) delightful once more–or, in our case, likely for the first time.

Be well out there!

Until next time, when, if all goes according to plan (it doesn’t always!) I’ll have more to say, via Mr. Ruskin’s good office, about the wonder which is architecture. 🙂


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2 Responses to 97: On Architecture (First Thoughts)

  1. Peter O'Neill says:

    Excellent application, Jim, of Ruskin’s worthy insights about architecture, especially in light of dining last night at the insipid Panera’s in a mall in Medfield.

  2. Wallace Ward says:

    I really like the drawing and discussion of the buildings in Abbeville, France.

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