Monday, May 30, 2016

The Lamp of Obedience

Obedience. The very whisper of it ellicits abhorrence within modern sensibilities distrustful of authority, often with good cause. This distasteful notion of obedience, as well as related concepts of law, order, discipline and restraint are considered suspect if not an anathema in the domains of contemporary art and architecture. During the course of the 19th century artistic authority was wrested from the church, state, guilds and academies evoking the inviolable ideal of freedom. "L'art pour l'art" or "art for art's sake" became the rallying slogan for this aesthetic war of independence. The hard won alleged autonomy championing individual expression has been on continuous display ever since as prima facie evidence of progress and liberty in the arts.

Nevertheless, there was and continues to be a problem. Romantic, social reformer, artist and critic John Ruskin clearly articulated how the polemic of revolution obscured their view of the reality surrounding them, "There is no such thing in the universe. There can never be. The stars have it not; the earth has it not; the sea has it not...if there be any one principle more widely than another confessed by every utterance, or more sternly than another imprinted on every atom, of the visible creation, that principle is not Liberty, but Law."

Freedom and Expression

Maintaining Ruskin's primary focus on architecture, I'll ask what type of freedom was being sought? Freedom from nature, such as the "law" of gravity and the properties of materials? Well, certainly there was the urge to shun traditional materials in favor of industrially produced ones such as steel and portland cement by the mid-19th century. However, the rejection of traditional materials and corresponding embrace of industrial materials along with the new forms made possible by them would only provide a short lived illusion of freedom. The architects' exploration of form soon became exhausted, of course being subject to the physical properties of the new materials. The turn to industry for freedom undermined traditional manufacture and craft, ironically diminishing the total available materials, means and methods available to the field of architecture. The construction materials of industry have since been increasingly standardized leading to further consolidation of production thru global distribution. Admittedly, advances in engineering and now computer technology occasionally generate a new material or method; however, this is often at great economic and ecological cost. Ultimately there is today scant prospects to liberate architecture from the ever limited material selection of industry.

Modern São Paulo, Brazil

As previously alluded to, there was also an autonomy that was being sought for, the freedom for the architect as an artist to pursue his art. Ruskin here challenges architecture as an individual art and provides several points of reason in support that also demonstrate that such an individualistic approach undermines freedom more generally. He opens his essay by maintaining that architecture is, "the embodiment of the Polity, Life, History and Religious Faith of nations." Otherwise stated, architecture is wholly civic, the very antithesis of an individual activity. Yet, in so being it is elevated beyond the possible caprice of any one individual to attain the crowning grace of the arts. He goes on to stress this exalting social dimension of architecture indicating that it, "requires for its practice the cooperation of bodies of men", and also that is extends a, "continual influence over the emotions of daily life." Added to this is the temporal dimension, architecture having the potential to affect the individual and collective life of families and peoples over many successive generations. Ruskin allows that there is opportunity for a measure of individual expression in architecture, in point of fact that it can't be helped; however, he maintains that the arts of painting and sculpture are more intrinsically expressive as a medium in composition and use. Reaffirming the social nature of architecture he adds that the restraint brought to bear ought to be, "commensurate with the greatness of the numbers whose labor it concentrates or whose interest it concerns."

Style as a Linguistic Analogy

"Style" is a term that has been sullied, vilified really in contemporary architectural practice. It has been ridiculed as affected, copyist, unoriginal, pastiche, kitsch and every other derisive label that can be mustered. Yet, style is nothing more than a convention, architectural in nature. Similarities can be drawn to language, a convention linguistic in nature. For example, out of all the possible sounds within the range of what can be physically voiced and heard by human beings, in the process of maturation we "copy" a few and discard the rest which constitute our language or alternatively our "style" of communication. That language is limited is uncontroversial. That a fully developed language has an infinite range of expression is likewise uncontroversial. The fact that many other people use the same communication style, "language" is the social benefit that makes it extraordinarily beneficial. Our lives are better because of it. Ruskin makes the case that infinite expression and similar social benefits hold true for our built environment, a culture adhering to an architectural style.

Arnolfini Wedding, Jan van Eyck
Flemish Style
What though about the charge of copyism, doesn't learning a style inhibit creativity, an important personal development for the artist or architect? Ruskin responds to this reasoning so, "When we begin to teach children writing, we force them to absolute copyism, and require absolute accuracy in the formation of the letters; as they obtain command of the received modes of literal expression, we cannot prevent their falling into such variations as are consistent with their feeling, their circumstances, or their characters. So, when a boy is first taught to write Latin, an authority is required of him for every expression he uses; as he becomes master of the language he may take a license, and feel his right to do so without any authority." This is easily recognized as the initial path to literacy that most of us have undertaken. Upon mastery of the alphabet, script, grammar and syntax of a language we embark upon composition and sometimes even poetry where liberties with the language and personal expression come to the fore, wielded as mature masters of the style. Explaining the correlation to architectural style Ruskin proceeds, "Originality in expression does not depend on invention of new words; nor originality in poetry on invention of new measures...a man who has the gift, will take up any style that is going, the style of his day, and will work in that, and be great in that, and make everything that he does in it look as fresh as if every thought of it had just come down from heaven."


This draws to a close the seventh and final of John Ruskin's "Lamps" or essays on architecture. Living from the dawn through the maturation of the Industrial Revolution he witnessed both sides of the chasm between a traditional versus an industrial economy, with its severe impacts on architecture and human culture more generally. He advocated for architecture not to forego its ethical, moral obligation to the social order as guardians, trustees of the build environment. Concerning craftsmen, we've never had a more eloquent and passionate advocate, zealously publicizing our invaluable contribution to the civic realm. I'll conclude with a wise parting exhortation on his behalf:

“Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty if only we have the eyes to see them.” - RIP John Ruskin

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Contributed by Patrick Webb

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