246: Biting the Hand

There is ample evidence in Ruskin’s works demonstrating his love of Plato. All his life, once he had discovered how brilliant the Greek master was, he read. re-read. and recommended Plato. Among his favorite dialogues, hardly surprisingly, was the magisterial Republic. Not far into that great exchange, Socrates and his friends remind themselves of the four cardinal virtues that all of us must possess and refine if they are to reach our full human status: wisdom, temperance, justice, and courage. It is to celebrate our subject’s dedication to the last of these virtues that today’s post is directed.

Throughout his authorial life, Ruskin was constantly taking on or critiquing the “authorities,” his studies having shown him, that the “accepted wisdom” on one subject or another was deficient–often woefully==and if that deficiency was practiced in everyday life. it would be harmful to human beings in some way. The Seven Lamps of Architecture, published in 1849, provides a case in point. To prepare the book for publication, Ruskin had spent the better part of two years studying the greatest architecture of England and Europe. About it, he reached a number of conclusions that were in no way “acceptable” to the builders of the time. Although in his early books, his eloquent use of language had been lavishly praised, he was slowly evolving toward the conclusion that fine words were not what the world needed. Rather, what was needed was clear statements telling the unvarnished truth about this matter or that; if such statements could be worded mellifluously and pleased, all to the good; if they did not, it hardly mattered: the point was to get readers to grasp the new truths he was proposing and use such new comprehension as a prod, a stimulus, for moving forward.

His conclusion to the chapter, “The Lamp of Power,” in The Seven Lamps–a brilliant work. relatively brief and still marvelously accessible to modern eyes and ears–demonstrates his remarkable courage, his fearless willingness to write things he knows will offend others, influential others (those, for example, who were among the most enthusiastic buyers of his books) without mincing ideas or words. His task in this particular chapter was to summarize how the quality of “power,” (sometimes size, sometimes elegance of construction)., when present in a abuilding magnifies its importance in and relevance to our lives, and make it clear that when those who have constructed any given building have not seen fit to or had the ability to include the elements of power in their edifice, the building “fails,” becomes uninteresting, pedestrian, one of millions forgettable.

In later life Ruskin often complained that The Seven Lamps was a failed work. It spoke repeatedly of the failures of historic and contemporary architecture (“spoke truth to power,” in short). but virtually none of the architects of his day paid much, if any, attention to his recommendations. And so, here, for your consideration, are the majority of the concluding paragraphs from “The Lamp of Power” chapter. Reading them today, it is not difficult to see why the celebrated and influential builders of his time might have taken offense at his highly critical thoughts. Courage.

I am grieved to have to insist upon what seems so simple. It looks trite and commonplace when it is written, but pardon me this; for it is anything but an accepted or understood principle in practice, and the less excusable because it is, of all the great and true laws of art, the easiest to obey. The executive facility in complying with its demands cannot be too earnestly, too frankly asserted. There are not five men in the kingdom who could compose, not twenty who could cut, the foliage with which the windows of Or San Michele [in Florence] are adorned… [I do not quite know how this incapacity has come about] unless our English artists have more oak than stone in them and more filial sympathy with acorns than Alps, but what we execute [today] is small and mean–if not worse–[It is] thin, wasted, unsubstantial. It is not modern work only; we have built like frogs since the 13th century…What a contrast between the pitiful little pigeonholes which stand for doors in the Front of Salisbury [Cathedral; below], looking like the entrances to a beehive world or wasps’ nest, and the soaring arches repeatedly guarding the [cathedral] gates of Abbeville, Rouen, or Rheims [below] or the rock- hewn piers of Chartres, or the dark and vaulted porches and writhed pillars of Verona..!

Of domestic architecture what need is there to speak? how cramped, how poor, how miserable in its petty neatness is our best?! How beneath the mark of attack and level of contempt is that which is common among us! What a strange sense of formalized deformity, of shriveled precision, of starved accuracy, of minute misanthropy have we as we leave…the rude streets of Picardy for the market town of Kent? Until this street architecture of ours is bettered, until we give it some size and boldness, until we give our windows recess and our walls thickness, I know not how we can blame architects for their feebleness in more important work: their eyes are inured to narrowness and slightness: Can we expect them at a word to contend with stress and solidity? They ought not to live in our cities, for there is that in their miserable walls that which breaks up to death men’s imaginations!

[Nevertheless, despite all these failings,] we have other sources of Power in the imagery of our iron coasts and azure hills, of power more pure (not less serene) than that of the hermit spirit which once lighted, with white lines of cloisters and raised into ordered spires, the wild rocks of the Norman sea. which gave to the temple gate the depth and darkness of Elijah’s Horeb Cave, and lifted, out of the populous city, grey clips of lonely stone, into the midst of sailing birds…

Until next time, good friends, may you continue well out there!



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1 Response to 246: Biting the Hand

  1. Doug Seiler says:

    Good one, Jim.
    Made my day.
    I often do think about this chapter. Again, such great language….

    What a strange sense of formalized deformity, of shriveled precision, of starved accuracy, of minute misanthropy…

    Thanks for sharing!!

    Douglas Seiler, AIA, LEED AP
    0 – 610.272.4809
    C – 610.662.7866

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