Friday, July 26, 2013

The Lamp of Sacrifice

I recently have enjoyed re-reading John Ruskin's extended essay, 'The Seven Lamps of Architecture'. It can clearly be seen from his writings that Mr. Ruskin was a thoughtful man, considerate of nature, art, society and sensitive to the connections existing between them as expressed in good architecture. The 'Seven Lamps' represented seven moral virtues that imbued architecture and craft with meaning and goodness. This work would establish the philosophical groundwork for what later became known as the Arts & Crafts movement in Britain and Ireland and the Craftsman Style in the United States.


Mr. Ruskin introduces his essay on the Lamp of Sacrifice with a definition:
Palazzo Ducale, Venezia

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

Good humanist stuff! He quickly goes on to make a distinction between architecture as an art and building as engineering. What is architectural in a building surpasses its common use, to a great extent is unnecessary, rather is adornment, an offering or 'sacrifice' of what we find desirable.


Ruskin next proceeds to describe the act of sacrifice itself:
Staircase, Rouen Cathedral

it (sacrifice) prompts us to the offering of precious things, merely because they are precious, not because they are useful or necessary.

He goes on to express how already by his time this type of statement was an anathema. Somehow the common wisdom of the day had determined virtue to be found in providing the largest result for the least cost, what today may be described as 'value engineering'. Specifically, this was manifest in church architecture. Ruskin attributes it to two prevailing notions that had arisen. First, the absence of ornament in particular demonstrates in some way evidence of restraint, self-control or propriety. Second, he describes a false piety that proclaimed a more honorable sacrifice be made in a ministry to the poor and extending knowledge of the Lord rather than “smoothing pillars or carving pulpits.”

Ruskin was quick to point out, “The question is not between God's house and His poor: it is not between God's house and His Gospel. It is between God's house and ours.” This was written in 1849, in the midst of an ascendent Victorian age when a British bourgeoisie lavished in the domestic luxury of tessellated floors, gilded furniture and niched statuary yet church architecture had been virtually stripped bare on the altar of economy and propriety.

It is clear that the worth of the church as a physical building was of questionable value; however, the sacrifice of the congregation in giving their best bestowed upon it nobility. This 'sacred' view of all architecture, not just of the church, was intrinsically understood by previous generations. Ruskin observes that “all old work has nearly been hard work”, even the work of children and barbarians was always their utmost. By contrast, he notes that ours “has the look of money's worth, of stopping short wherever and whenever we can.”

Ruskin continues by urging us to resist all temptation of this type of work, of thus degrading ourselves voluntarily, “let us confess our poverty or our parsimony (frugality), but not belie our human intellect.” Obviously, we each are of different means and there is the acknowledgment of being judicious with the use of resources. He offers pragmatic advice for working within our means yet still giving one's utmost: “if you cannot afford marble, use Caen stone (a French limestone), but from the best bed; and if you cannot stone, brick, but the best brick; preferring always what is good of a lower order of work or material, to what is bad from a higher.” This principle was put to use by Philip Webb in the design of the 'Red House' for William Morris, regarded as the first building of the Arts and Crafts movement and renown for its simple yet stately brickwork laid in English bond.

Red House, Bexleyheath by Philip Webb
Another piece of sage advice from Mr. Ruskin is “to place little where we cannot afford much.” He gives a fine example of the Basilica of San Zeno, Verona the façade of which is largely of tufa, excepting the two panels surrounding the door, exquisitely carved in bas-relief . Here the best or rather finest work is reserved for where it is most likely to be appreciated.

Basilica of San Zeno, Verona
Over the next few post I'll endeavor to highlight each of the “Lamps” or virtues espoused by Mr. Ruskin. Next to consider: The Lamp of Truth

Interested in more content on a Philosophy of Craft?
Please visit my YouTube channel: A Craftsman's Philosophy

Contributed by Patrick Webb 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Plaster Word of the Day; 11 - 20


The work ‘adobe’ comes directly from Spanish who in turn inherited it from the Arabic ‘al-tob’ (الطوب). The term simply means ‘brick’, having its origins in ancient Egypt as verified by surviving hieroglyphs.

Today ‘adobe’ has a more specific meaning of a sun dried brick formed from clay, sand, water, straw and sometimes having additives such as manure, soil, lime, etc. A similar mixture is used for mortar and as an earthen plaster to bond and protect the adobe bricks.


This description of a 3 coat plaster system (usually over lath) is more common in the US and applies to all types of plasters: lime, gypsum, cement etc.

The ‘scratch’ coat is the base layer and as you might guess receives scratches to receive the next coat. It is important that the scratches run horizontal, essentially forming little shelves for the next coat to sit inside and lock into

The ‘brown’ coat is the middle coat. Traditionally either brown sand was used or some mineral tint was added so that the plasterer could easily gauge if he had sufficiently covered the scratch and to make sure he had good coverage when applying the finish.

The ‘finish’ is applied last. Unlike the first two coats where thickness was achieved and the geometry of the wall was established, the finish is typically a thin veneer to create a smooth surface.

Image courtesy of Franco Saladino

‘Marmorino’ describes an entire system of lime plastering inherited directly from the Romans as recorded by Vitruvius. It enjoyed a vibrant revival during the Renaissance, spreading from the Veneto region, where it had continued as a craft tradition, to the rest of Italy.

The word ‘marmorino’ is the diminutive form of the Italian ‘marmo’, meaning ‘marble’. So ‘marmorino’ has a direct translation something like ‘little marble’. Outside of Venice it has taken on the more specific meaning of the final coats which are rich in lime and taken up to a high polish

Image courtesy of Simple Construct

In discussing Adobe construction a few days ago we mentioned that the bricks traditionally would receive an earthen plaster. Earthen plasters are undoubtedly the oldest form of plastering because no cooking is required. Rather than having a chemical ‘set’ it simply dries out. They are still used in Adobe construction as well as over other natural building substrates such as Straw Bales and Rammed Earth.

The binding component of an earthen plaster is clay, meaning clay is the material that holds the other ingredients (silt, straw, sand etc.) together. A certain percentage of clay is required to make a suitable plaster. Too little and the plaster is weak and friable. Too much and the shrinkage of the clay will lead to cracking.

The image provides a good initial test to see if a site soil has a good percentage of clay or will need to be modified.


A common tool in the French plastering tradition. Wider versions are used to level wall surfaces whereas the narrow version is the tool of choice for creating faux masonry joints.

The narrow tool is called ‘Chemin de Ferre’ or ‘iron horse’. An appropriate metaphor as the plane has the shape of a train engine and runs along a straight edge or ‘track’.

Image courtesy of Plâtres Vieujot

Previously we discussed the running of plaster moulds on a bench to later be affixed. However, a more traditional method is to realize the work on site or ‘in situ’. This type of work is usually referred to as ‘run-in-place’ in the US.

The same mechanical process of running a profile along a track is used for run-in-situ as for bench running; however, the level of skill required is much higher. Instead of using Plaster of Paris which has a rapid set, a common mix is to use lime gauged with gypsum plaster and a small amount of retarder to provide more time to complete the moulding.

Image courtesy of Palladio Mouldings

Modeling describes the art of placing enrichments on a moulding in preparation to create a mould. Hence you’ll hear the expression ‘model and mould’ although they are two distinct actions not always performed by the same person.

A good modeler must understand layout well and is responsible for geometric enrichments. However, an experienced modeler will develop at least limited sculptural ability for repeated motifs such as egg-and-darts and acanthus leaves

Image courtesy of Palladio Mouldings

There is a distinction made between the responsibilities of the modeler and that of the architectural sculptor. Although still possessing a solid understanding of geometry and precedent in ornamentation, architectural sculpting goes beyond planting repeated motifs on a moulding to embrace free formed, often asymmetrical or unique designs such as cartouches, bas-relief or ornate column capitals such as the Corinthian capital being developed here.

Having been trained classically in figurative study and having worked in mediums as diverse as clay, plaster, wood, stone, the architectural sculptor often assumes the responsibility of art director working with his team of modelers in larger ateliers.

Contributed by Patrick Webb  

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Architectural Word of the Day; 11 - 20


Some might recognize this Latin word as the medical term for eardrum. In the original Greek usage ‘tumpanon’ (τύμπανον) had the more general meaning of something struck, particularly the skin of a drum.

As the open area inside a pediment resembles a stretched surface of a drum the name ‘tympanum’ was given to this area. The tympanum provides an open canvas crowning the entry and is a great place for sculptural expression that relates to the purpose of a building such as our Supreme Court.


The program of study typically associated with this degree in contemporary education changed considerably in the 20th century. Unfortunately, in many institutions it has devolved into a free (undisciplined) journey of self-directed, exploratory study that eschews linguistics and math.

The classical liberal arts program of study was quite the opposite. The ‘liberal’ arts were considered the minimal requisite skills for a ‘free’ person or citizen to be a productive member of society and carry out his civic duties. The church organized the study in medieval times into two areas of study:

The Trivium having a focus on language and thought prepared one for the more advanced study of the Quadrivium, devotes to mathematical concepts. With this foundational education one was considered prepared for further specialized study in music, architecture, art etc.


When an arch or barrel vault intersects a dome there remains curved, triangular surfaces that transfer the
Image courtesy of Vicat
weight of a dome unto piers below.

The term ‘pendentive’ derives from the Latin ‘pendere’ meaning ‘to hang’ and from which we have words with an associated meaning like ‘pending’ or ‘pendant’. Pendentives are characterized by a delicate, graceful form that visually appears to be hanging from the dome above.


The main body of the column has its roots in Old German ‘schaft’ which just meant a pole. However, I can’t just stop there. There is so much going on in these column shafts that we need two bonus rounds!


Again reed is just what it sounds like, a pretty direct metaphor for the vertical fillets (flat narrow ridges) that run between the flutes.


The flutes are the vertical grooves running between the reeds and yes the name is thought to come from the same origin as the musical instrument and the champagne glass. Thank the French!
The cylindrical ‘cables’ are sometimes used to fill the flutes about a third the way up to protect the delicate reeds from damage.

We will revisit this theme tomorrow to discuss some features on a different column shaft design.


Whereas the previously discussed ‘style’ is of Greek origin, ‘column’ comes from the Latin ‘columna’ having a similar meaning of ‘pillar’. The fluting of these columns from the Pantheon are a little different from the ones we discussed yesterday.


When two curved surfaces intersect to form a sharp edge the ridge formed is described as an ‘arris’. This term has its origin in the Latin ‘arista’ meaning ‘fishbone’.


‘Canalis’ , also Latin, originates from the ancient Greek ‘kanna’ (κάννα) meaning ‘reed’ or ‘cane’. It is the same root for words such as ‘channel’ and ‘canal’. The vertical grooves of the Greek Doric are distinguished by an elliptical radius.

Contributed by Patrick Webb