166: The Roof

Good folks,

Almost surely what’s below is not what you expected to find in your inbox as this Thanksgiving weekend moves toward its end [for those elsewhere, the US Thanksgiving holiday begins on the last Thursday in November ‘ our Canadian cousins wisely (as is the case with most things Canadian) celebrate it a month earlier, in much more seasonal fashion]. But when I read this passage early this morning, it immediately generated a thought that, once again, Ruskin had brought me face-to-face with a truth I’d never let fully into my consciousness.

It derives from his first set of public lectures, which he delivered, in 1853, in Edinburgh, and which were later collected as Lectures on Architecture and Painting. I’ve read them (there are three) with care at least twice previously but, for some reason, this passage never stood out as it did today.

In which “previously missed” capacity, it demonstrates the continuing wonderment one encounters reading Ruskin. You read something the first time and, as often as not, you have one of those thunderclap moments (see last post, 165: Light and Dark). You read the same some time later and your appreciation and admiration for the insights resident in his pages deepens. Then, still later,when you are  reading for a third (or a fourth or fifth) time, suddenly the abiding truth of another passage leaps out and you have another, if somewhat smaller, thunderclap experience. Delightful. Like finally registering the abiding importance of a roof.

We begin with a picture of a fairly typical English cottage:

English Cottage 3

About which, Ruskin writes the following:

I am sure that all of you must readily acknowledge the charm which is imparted to any landscape by the presence of cottages. And, surely, you must, over and over again, have paused at the wicket gate of some cottage garden, delighted by the simple beauty of the honeysuckle porch and latticed windows. But has it ever occurred to you to ask the question of what effect the cottage would have upon your feelings if it had no roof?

No visible roof, I mean; if, instead of the thatched slope, in which the little upper windows are buried deep, as in a nest of straw for the rough shelter of its mountain
shales or warm colouring of russet tiles, there were nothing but a flat leaden top to it, making it look like a large packing-case with windows in it? I don’t think the rarity of such a sight would make you feel it to be beautiful. On the contrary, if you think over the matter, you will find that you actually do owe, and ought to owe, a great part of your pleasure in all cottage scenery…to the conspicuousness of the…roof, and the subordination of the cottage itself to its covering–which leaves, in nine cases out of ten, really more roof than anything else. 
It is, indeed, not so much the whitewashed walls, nor the flowery garden, nor the rude fragments of stones set for steps at the door, nor any other picturesqueness of the building which interest you, so much as the grey bank of its heavy eaves, deep-cushioned with green moss and golden stonecrop.

And there is a profound, yet evident, reason for this feeling. The very soul of the cottage, the essence and meaning of it are in its roof. It is that, mainly, wherein consists its shelter, that, wherein it differs most completely from a cleft in rocks or bower in woods. It is in its thick impenetrable coverlid of close thatch that its whole heart and hospitality are concentrated. Consider the difference, in sound, of the
expressions “beneath my roof” and “within my walls,” or consider whether you would be best sheltered in a shed, with a stout roof sustained on corner posts, or in an enclosure of four walls without a roof at all, and you will quickly see how important a part of the cottage the roof must always be to the mind as well as to the
eye, and how, from seeing it, the greatest part of our pleasure
must continually arise.

Now, do you suppose that which is so all-important in a cottage, can be of small importance in your own dwelling-houses? Do you think that by any splendor of
architecture, any height of stories, you can atone to the mind for the loss of the aspect of the roof? It is vain to say you take the roof for granted. You may as well say you take a man’s kindness for granted, though he neither looks nor speaks kindly. You may know him to be kind in reality, but you will not like him so well
as if he spoke and looked kindly also.

And whatever external splendor you may give your houses, you will always feel there is something wanting, unless you see their roofs plainly… You may make your facade…square…[and] as handsome as you please; you may cover it with decoration, but [if your roof is not visible], there will always be a heartlessness about it, which you will not know how to conquer… [You may insert] all kinds of strange inventions in parapets and pinnacles for its decoration, and yet it will never look right.

Perhaps there is no better way to drive home this almost always overlooked truth informing us of the vital importance of our roofs than to look at a comparison image. Here’s one of many thousands I might have inserted, of an apartment complex in my hometown of Geneva, New York.

Apartment Comples (1960s) Geneva NY

One last point: Ruskin was one of the first to recognize that the buildings we create shape our consciousness, quite literally generate in us, over time, certain sensibilities–of pleasure or delight, or dullness or depression. Buildings, in other words, are never just functional things, enclosed spaces which perform this function or that. This function or that, of course, they must perform. They must, as the need demands, be offices or schools, places of worship, or homes. That agreed, we are then faced with a critical choice to make about these structures. Above I’ve given two images of homes, an English cottage and a modern apartment complex. Each has a roof. One has a roof we can’t see. Inevitably, each creates an impression on us as we view or use them. Which, given a choice, would we wish to live in or walk by? Ruskin would say our reaction would be automatic, which reaction demonstrates, with no need for further argument, the eternal truth of the importance of the roof over our heads.

Until next time.

Be well out there!





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