The Seven Lamps of Architecture

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

The Lamp of Truth

John Ruskin
As we continue our consideration of John Ruskin's extended essay, 'The Seven Lamps of Architecture' it becomes evident that it acts as a treatise on craft as much as architecture. Whereas the 'Lamp of Sacrifice' urged giving one's best, in the 'Lamp of Truth' we see how Ruskin demanded morality in architecture and honesty in craft. Architecture and craft were sacred to Ruskin, the most enduring gift that we have received from our forefathers, one which we have an obligation to pass on to our progeny.

I have heard traditionalists accuse Mr. Ruskin's essay on “Truth” of laying the seeds of modernism. I have similarly heard modernists claim inspiration from the same. However, whereas early modernists such as Adolf Loos viewed all ornamentation as a deceit and craft as criminal and degenerate for an “evolved” man of the 20th century, Ruskin only criticized craft and ornament that was poorly conceived or intended to deceive. A fierce defender of art and craft's intrinsic role in uplifting the human spirit, Ruskin's perspective on “truth in architecture” could not be more diametrically opposed to the modernist movement to come.


Mr. Ruskin begins by opening a window into human nature, specifically regarding our tendency to quickly recognize and reject overtly malicious deceits:
We are too much in the habit of looking at falsehood in its darkest associations...That indignation which we profess to feel at deceit absolute, is indeed only at deceit malicious. We resent calumny, hypocrisy, and treachery because they harm us, not because they are untrue.”

Subsequently, the deceits we too easily tolerate:
But it is the glistening and softly spoken lie; the amiable fantasy; the patriotic lie of the historian, the provident lie of the politician; the zealous lie of the partizan, the merciful lie of the friend, and the careless lie of each man to himself, that cast that black mystery over humanity.”

Is such moralistic reasoning just a product of 19th century Protestant England misapplied to architecture, art and craft? An extreme purism that would stifle any expression of beauty and inventiveness? Is the entirety of painting and sculpture nothing more that an endeavor to deceive? As Ruskin's reasoning unfolds such perceptions are quickly dispelled.


Ruskin makes a clear distinction between artistic deception and imagination, “ spiritual creatures, we should be able to invent and behold what is not.” Yet at the same time he cautions, “ moral creatures, we should know and confess at the same time that it is not.”

In other words, so long as the work of art is understood as such and never implied nor believed to exist, no attempt to deceive has occurred. To the contrary, Ruskin viewed honest art as “a statement of certain facts, in the clearest possible way” and as a “communicated act of imagination.” However, Ruskin felt that the architecture and craft were particularly vulnerable to deceits respecting the nature of materials or the quantity of work.


Spalled Terra Cotta
Structural Truth. Ruskin often to look to nature as an inspiration for good design. Just as a skeleton is hidden underneath flesh and bone so an architect is not bound to exhibit his means of support. Nevertheless, the widespread use of iron reinforcement in the 19th century quickly began to supplant fundamental principles of masonry construction that took thousands of years to develop. Abuses such as cladding systems of veneer stone with iron supports truly deceive the viewer as to the true nature of materials and the amount of work required. Before long senseless designs that never could be realized in self supporting masonry became commonplace.

Surface Truth. Those romantic French and Italians! They must at first seem like easy targets for Ruskin with their frescoed walls, their Trompe-l'œil (fool the eye), faux bois and marbre (fake wood and marble). However, Ruskin hardly provides a universal condemnation. Rather, he admonishes us to “be careful to observe that the evil of them consists always in definitely attempted deception.” Ruskin goes on to contrast two architecturally similar examples.

First the ceiling of Milan Cathedral. The vaults are covered with what from the ground appear to be stone fan traceries. Upon a more careful examination it can be perceived that the traceries are merely painted on, lacking the depth and shadow of stone. This Ruskin felt destroys much of the dignity of an otherwise beautiful building. You find yourself wondering, what else here is fake?

Ceiling, Milan Cathedral

Next Ruskin praises the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But why the change? Is not the ceiling full of architectural ornament in grisaille mingled with the figures of its frescoes? Yet there is no deception. There is never even a moment when one would question if it is really God Almighty touching the hand of a material Adam. And if the figures are painted then it follows the architectural elements must be as well. Ruskin rightly observes that “so great a painter as Micheal Angelo would never paint badly (or perfectly) enough to deceive.”

Michael Angelo, Sistine Chapel

Courtesy of Palladio Mouldings
Ornamental Truth. This last one particularly resonates with me, living in an age where computer guided machines pump out lifeless ornament. Ruskin said it best over 150 years ago, “it is not the material, but the absence of the human labour, which makes the thing worthless; and a piece of terra cotta, or of plaster of Paris, which has been wrought by the human hand, is worth all the stone in Carrara, cut by machinery...nobody wants ornaments in this world, but every body wants integrity.”

The Lamp of Power

Mont Blanc, Switzerland
How do you personally describe the sense of awe experienced at the base of a high mountain, in the midst of a raging downpour or even seated in the lofty nave of a towering cathedral? Such experiences make us deeply aware of our smallness, profoundly feel our mortality, perhaps even go so far as to intimidate us to a degree. Yet our souls are touched, we are excited even if at the same moment somewhat overwhelmed by the experience. How best to describe this quality engendering so much awe inspired emotion in us? Western philosophers began considering this question at the close of the 17th century and the debate continues into our time. In the 19th century, naturalist John Ruskin too pondered this question and singled out “Power” as the most fitting description of this quality, specifically as related to architecture.

John Ruskin was a stalwart promoter of beauty in human activity considering it the preeminent order of building in particular. Nevertheless, in this essay he acknowledges that there is a second order of building that likewise pleasurably impresses us yet in a completely distinct manner. Whereas beauty in architecture seeks to emulate that which is delicate and precious, power in architecture imposesthe severe, the majestic. Beauty gathers and reflects the fairness of nature, whilst power governs and depends for its dignity on the order inherent in the human mind. The former asks for veneration, the latter exercises dominion. Ruskin observed that these virtues of beauty and power were polar opposites; it was impossible to amplify one without diminishing the other. The conclusion reached that it would be best first to choose decidedly one of these virtues in harmony with the purpose of the building to be constructed. Ruskin next goes on to highlight the four principal ways a given work of architecture might manifest its power.


Beauvais Cathedral
13th Century
This may appear so obvious as to not merit more than the briefest of mention. Of course, making a building taller or more massive will likely increase its sense of power. However, there is a greater sophistication involved. A building is nothing in comparison to a mountain, for example. Yet some buildings despite their comparatively smaller size are able to engender a similar sense of awe in us. Often in design, we may be limited in greatly enlarging the physical size of a building; nevertheless, how we treat its visible surfaces can greatly enhance their impression upon us. Ruskin provides an excellent example, “There are few rocks, even among the Alps, that have a clear vertical fall as high as the choir of Beauvais; and if we secure a good precipice of wall, or a sheer and unbroken flank of tower, and place them where there are no enormous natural features to oppose them, we shall feel in them no want of sublimity of size.” I can personally attest, Beauvais Cathedral is very successful in making you feel every bit of that height.

Ruskin gives a further admonition for ensuring the power of a building, “determine at first, whether the building is to be markedly beautiful or markedly sublime...if he chooses size, let him abandon decoration; for, unless they are concentrated, and numerous enough to make their concentration conspicuous, all his ornaments together will not be worth one huge stone.” Ruskin presents St. Peter's basilica as an example where several aspects of its design undermine its potential power. For instance, the arrangement of the façade conveys the appearance of a two story building with an attic. Together with its conspicuous horizontal entablature and pediment this appearance serves to detract from the actually quite significant height of the building. Furthermore, Ruskin points out that the folly, commonplace to Renaissance cathedral architecture, was to place a dome, spire, lantern or some other prominent feature over the crossing of the nave and transept, in the middle of the building where it was least visible. This is poignantly true of St. Peter's, unquestionably one of the greatest domes ever constructed is unable to be appreciated in its full majesty, its view largely consumed by the façade.

St. Peter's Basilica, 16th century


Palazzo Vecchio 14th century
The Palazzo Vecchio was the seat of power for generations of ruling Florentine nobility, including the powerful Medici family.The Palazzo does not struggle to embody the concept of power. Everything about the building conveys strength: the sheer face, the imposing entablature, the crenelations, the heavy rustication of the masonry the placement of its tower flush with the façade. Not withstanding the latter Ruskin noted the form of the Palazzo Vecchio as an oft overlooked, yet noteworthy source of its power. He writes, “the square and the circle are pre-eminently the areas of power among those bounded by purely straight or curved lines; and these, with their relative solids, the cube and sphere, and relative solids of progression...the square and cylindrical column, are the elements of utmost power in all architectural arrangements.” The shape or form of the Palazzo Vecchio, approaching near cubic proportions, does not require it to be significantly larger in size than its neighboring buildings to eclipse them in power.

Until now we've considered power at the scale of the building. However, this virtue can also be exhibited (or neglected) in the details, the elements.  St. Madeleine in Paris is a fine example of powerful architecture in respects to treatment of size and form. Nevertheless, its power is severely compromised by the construction of the shafts of its columns. Traditionally such shafts would be constructed wholly or in a few large drums. Ruskin likens the hundreds of stacked discs to “vertebrae...which suggest ideas of poverty in material, or deficiency in mechanical resource, besides interfering with the lines of the design”. The resulting visible joints crossing the flutes creates the unfortunate effect of a garden trellis.

L'église de la Madeleine, consecrated 1842

By contrast, the relative weight of a material can imbue sublimity to an otherwise modest, humble abode. Ruskin noted that many of the thatched stone cottages encountered in Wales and Scotland accomplished this by using just a few courses of large stones to reach the roof line. Similar to the previous example, the noble effect would undoubtedly be lost were many courses of a standard brick to be used instead.

Thatched cottage, Scotland


Palazzo Ducale, Venezia 15th century
One of the first things I share with my students regarding moulding theory is that the practical concerns regarding mouldings in exterior are quickly attended to with a calculated projection and a few right angled fillets to serve as drip edges. The cymas, ovolos, fascias and other possible shapes are not important design elements in and of themselves, rather the visible component derives from the shadows that they cast. Ruskin offers similar advice to the aspiring architect, “the Power of architecture may be said to depend on the quantity (whether measured in space or intenseness) of it shadow...among the first habits that a young architect should learn, is that of think(ing) in shadow, not looking at a design in its miserable liny skeleton; but conceiving it as it will be when the dawn lights it; when its stones will be hot, and its crannies cool; when the lizards bask in the one, and the birds build in the other.” A fine example he provides is of the Doge's Palace in Venice. The quatrefoils of the piano nobile are thick, unornamented, sharply cut and cusped resulting in powerful contrasts and lines of shadow.

Corinthian Capital Temple of Olympian Zeus 
2nd century
The column capitals of the Palace likewise furnish some instructive examples. Ruskin draws the following interesting comparison, “while the arrangements of line are far more artful in the Greek capital, the Byzantine light and shade are as incontestibly more grand and masculine based on that quality of pure gradation, which nearly all natural objects possess”. This is not to say that one was generally superior to the other, merely on the question of power by virtue of their respective treatment of shadow. In an almost confession Ruskin continues, “I know that they are barbaric in comparison; but there is a power in their barbarism of sterner tone, not sophistic nor penetrative, but embracing and mysterious; a power faithful more than thoughtful”. I too must confess, I have seen, drawn, made many a capital yet none have enthralled me like those of the Piazza San Marco. There is something truly spiritual about them, beyond the ability to rationalize, just to be enjoyed. 

Palazzo Ducale

The Lamp of Beauty – Part I, The Classical Orders

“Remember that the most beautiful things in life are often the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance.” – John Ruskin

The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, the Neoclassical. For three centuries successive ages of philosophers, principally rejecting the yoke of the Church, concurrently left superstition and sentiment behind to embrace science and reason. But a generation of the philosophers' children felt their fathers had overreached. A world of reason was fast becoming a world devoid of sense. For many of this next generation of philosophers of the Romantic era it wasn't enough to think, they had to use their innate capacity for feeling to help understand themselves, society and even the physical world.

Porte del Paradiso
Ghiberti, 15th century
To some degree John Ruskin was influenced by the times he lived in, yet to a greater extent his philosophy contributed to defining the era. Certainly, he held a view of beauty that was not “of his time”, not of any time really as far as I can ascertain. If anything Ruskin's vision of beauty was not temporal, rather physical, “of his place”, thereby transcending the cultural milieu of the 19th century. For Ruskin, beauty was primarily an objective matter and thus a shared value amongst humanity. Although, in seeming contraposition, he likewise held beauty to be largely a sensory affair that could only fully be experienced emotionally. The uniting bridge between an objective view and a sensory experience was a profound sacredness, an intrinsic knowledge of beauty intimately imbued in our very humanity as fundamental and universal as our understanding of the sweetness of sugar or the bitterness of wormwood.

Ruskin by far considered beauty the brightest "Lamp" or virtue that could be embodied in a work of any architecture that might be called good. He opens his essay on beauty with the declaration, “the value of architecture depended on two distinct characters: the one, the impression it receives from human power; the other; the image it bears to the natural creation...all beautiful lines are adaptations of those which are commonest in the external creation”.

The Classical Orders

Ruskin subsequently precedes to illustrate the aforementioned premise with a consideration of the three principal orders of Classical or Greco-Roman architecture: the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian.

The Parthenon, 5th century B.C.E.
The order is introduced as follows: “beyond a certain point, and that a very low one, man cannot advance in the invention of beauty, without directly imitating natural form. Thus, in the Doric temple the triglyph and cornice are unimitative; or imitative only of articficial cuttings of wood. No one would call these members beautiful. Their influence over us is in their severity and simplicity.” I would venture that this sentiment is evidenced most clearly at the Parthenon where the severly linear geometric trigylphs, mutules and cornice powerfully frame the truly beautiful forms of men and centaurs engaged in pitched battle that lie in alto-relievo upon the metopes.

Ruskin next addresses the other prominent features of the order, namely the column shaft and capital, “The fluting of the column...was imitative in origin, and feebly resembled many canaliculated organic structures. Beauty is instantly felt in it, but of a low order...the Doric capital was unimitative; but all the beauty it had was dependent on the precision of its ovolo, a natural curve of the most frequent occurrence.” The ovolo Ruskin refers to was called the “ekinnos” by the Ancient Greeks, so named because of its resemblance to, or perhaps better stated imitation of the skeletal body of the sea urchin. The canalis, or shallow flutes of the shaft too resembled the channels often encountered in shellfish such as the sea scallop.

Again, the Ionic order like the Doric depends on the abstraction of natural forms for its expression of beauty. The most notable, perhaps defining feature being the conspicuous volutes representative of many spiral growth patterns in invertebrates and vegetation. However, Ruskin reserves particular praise for the Egg & Dart motif going so far as to say that its “perfection, in its place and way, has never been surpassed”, offering the following detailed explanation:

Simply because the form of which it is chiefly composed is one not only familiar to us in the soft housing of the bird’s nest, but happens to be that of nearly every pebble that rolls and murmurs under the 
Argus Pheasant
surf of the sea, on all its endless shore. And that with a peculiar accuracy; for the mass which bears the light in this moulding is not in good Greek work, as in the frieze of the Erechtheum, merely of the shape of an egg. It is flattened on the upper surface, with a delicacy and keen sense of variety in the curve which it is impossible too highly to praise, attaining exactly that flattened, imperfect oval, which, in nine cases out of ten, will be the form of the pebble lifted at random from the rolled beach. Leave out this flatness, and the moulding is vulgar instantly. It is singular also that the insertion of this rounded form in the hollowed recess has a painted type in the plumage of the Argus pheasant, the eyes of whose feathers are so shaded as exactly to represent an oval form placed in a hollow.

The Erechtheion, 5th century B.C.E.

Thermae Stabianae, Pompeii
1st century C.E.
Until now we've considered decorative motifs prominent of the Doric and Ionic orders that are highly abstracted. Ruskin noted that further progress in the pursuit of a beautiful architecture could not be attained without a more direct imitation of nature herself, what he expressed as "delight" to be "engrafted upon architectural design". For the Ancient Greeks this was to culminate in the Corinthian order and specifically with the appropriation of the acanthus leaf. The Romans would wholly embrace the acanthus form as well, expanding its use beyond capitals for a variety of uses most notably delicately carved foliated scroll-work. Ruskin conveys his veneration for the beauty inherent to the Corinthian capital as follows:

Acanthus Spinosus
Thus the Corinthian capital is beautiful, because it expands under the abacus just as Nature would have expanded it; and because it looks as if the leaves had one root, though that root is unseen. And the flamboyant leaf mouldings are beautiful, because they nestle and run up the hollows, and fill the angles, and clasp the shafts which natural leaves would have delighted to fill and to clasp. They are no mere cast of natural leaves: they are counted, orderly, and architectural: but they are naturally, and therefore beautifully, placed.”
Library of Hadrian at Athens, 2nd century C.E.

The Lamp of Beauty – Part II, Monstrosities

Perseus and Medusa, Cellini
Perhaps it sounds odd to set aside a consideration of 'Monstrosities' as a focal point of a larger description of Beauty. Nevertheless, that is precisely what John Ruskin did and with good reason. Ruskin firmly held the position that the purest sources of beauty were "derived chiefly from the external appearances of organic nature." With its practically infinite degree of variety, nature remains an inexhaustible fountain of inspiration. Nevertheless, during the Renaissance there arose a growing tendency to instead conventionalize, to recycle previous forms of decoration as well as to imitate artificial, man-made forms.

By the 19th century the dearth of originality was palpable. Craftsmen were increasingly debased to skilled laborers, simply executing specifications received from architects, drawn from pattern books. Granted, to our 21st century eyes much of this ornamental work was of high quality, still being made from heritage materials, using traditional techniques, produced by the human hand. However, Ruskin and his contemporaries were very sensitive to the direction the Decorative Arts were heading as he expressed, "There are many forms of so called decoration in architecture...I have no hesitation in asserting to be not ornament at all, but to be ugly things, the expense of which ought to be in truth to be set down in the architect's contract, as 'For Monstrification.'" 

I'll attempt to highlight some examples of what Ruskin saw as abuses of the period and in his spirit, temper the 'monstrosities' with some healthy examples.

The Meander

Also known as the Greek Key or Fret the Meander was an ubiquitous motif of the Greek Revival period, forged into ornamental iron gates or carved into large friezes and plinth blocks. Ruskin points out that the meander pattern is exceedingly rare in nature, only known to be occurring with the cooling of molten bismuth, itself a rare metal that must first be extracted from bismuth ore. Nature by and large abhors straight lines, particularly at the human scale. Perhaps fitting as a texture at the scale of coins or jewelry, in Ruskin's judgement the meander as architectural ornamentation was just ugly.

The Portcullis

Christ's College Gatehouse
Another contention of Ruskin was that our creation of beauty is owing to an imitative dependence on nature. This wasn't to say that everything a craftman created was a direct, faithful copy of what he saw. To the contrary it might instead be a coincidental resemblance, the incorporation of a particular curve or pattern from a leaf or web into the craftsman's design. Worse than the unimitative, abstract works like the aforementioned meander, Ruskin abhorred artificial imitation of man made objects. The regular grid of the portcullis he described as "unmitigatedly frightful" contrasting it with the worthy subject of a cobweb or wing of an insect.

Tiffany & Co.


Charlton House
Regarding coats of arms and escutcheons Ruskin acknowledged that heraldic decoration has its place, typically a prominent place above gates, entry doors etc. Also, some of the sculpted forms contained within such as animals or flowers might be in themselves quite beautiful. However, he likewise cautioned, "For the most part, heraldic similitudes and arrangements are so professedly and pointedly unnatural, that it would be difficult to invent anything uglier; and the use of them as a repeated decoration will utterly destroy both the power and beauty of any is right to tell those who enter your doors that you are such a one, and of such a rank; but to tell them again and again, wherever they turn, becomes soon impertinence." 

Scrolls and Inscriptions

Perugino's Angels
Similar to heraldry there should be purpose and meaning when writing is introduced into a composition. Neither the writing itself nor the scroll it is written on are natural or inherently beautiful things. This point was lost on many artists who treated the scroll and text ornamentally, often to the point of illegibility as Ruskin elucidates: "All letters are frightful things, and to be endured only upon occasion; that is to say, in places where the sense of the inscription is of more importance than the external ornament. Inscriptions in churches, in rooms, and on pictures are often desirable, but they are not to be considered architectural or pictorial ornaments: they are, on the contrary, obstinate offences to the eye, not to be suffered except when their intellectual office introduces them."


Till now we've considered the scale, appropriateness, in general terms the judicious use of decoration that is not inherently beautiful. Subsequently I'll declare to an outright condemnation. I share Ruskin's view that ribbons, sometimes referred to in an architectural context as ribands, are irredeemably monstrous. They are the flattest, limpest most dead thing introduced into ornament. The closest resemblance to a decorative ribbon in nature is the tapeworm. I have a colleague, an ornamental carver of significant talent, who has produced a number of beautiful works. He also sculpts a lot of ribands. He should stop. They are a sallow stain on an otherwise vibrant portfolio. Honestly, if he receives a commission featuring ribands from an architect he would be better to politely decline or at the very least insist that he be in no way credited or associated with the work.

Stylized Tapeworm
Ruskin's critique is as follows, "Is there anything like ribands in nature? It might be thought that grass and seaweed afforded apologetic types. They do not. There is a wide difference between their structure and that of a riband. They have a skeleton, an anatomy, a central rib, or fibre, or framework of some kind or another, which has a beginning and an end, a root and head, and whose make and strength affect every direction of their motion, and every line of their form. The loosest weed that drifts and waves under the types. heaving of the sea, or hangs heavily on the brown and slippery shore, has a marked strength, structure, elasticity, gradation of substance; its extremities are more finely fibred than its centre, its centre than its root: every fork of its ramification is measured and proportioned; every wave of its languid lines is lovely. It has its allotted size, and place, and function; it is a specific creature. What is there like this in a riband? It has no structure: it is a succession of cut threads all alike; it has no skeleton, no make, no form, no size, no will of its own. You cut it and crush it into what you will. It has no strength, no languor. It cannot fall into a single graceful form. It cannot wave, in the true sense, but only flutter: it cannot bend, in the true sense, but only turn and be wrinkled. It is a vile thing; it spoils all that is near its wretched film of an existence."


Apollo and Daphne, Bernini
Like the riband, used in isolation drapery is always ignoble. Unfortunately, it is all too often encountered unceremoniously glued on a blank wall as a decorative swag or littering the urns of every cemetery, desecrating the deceased with a daub of ugliness. However, unlike the riband, drapery finds redemption. Upon the human form it wields the power to convey dynamic forces in motion as well as the static exercise of gravity in repose. Bernini was a master of the former, utilizing drapery to animate his work, Michelangelo the latter heightening the heavy weight of repose. What it lacks in beauty it is capable of conveying in sublimity.

Moses, Michelangelo

The Festoon

The festoon is such a strange, oft displaced creature. Perhaps the gathering of flowers in stone to lay across a sepulchrum in perpetuity bestows both beauty and merit. The question though is really one of architectural appropriateness. It usually appears in the severest of architecture, at a high elevation unable to be truly appreciated, a lopsided crescent gathering soot. I personally feel this at one of my favourite buildings in Paris, Le Panthéon. As Ruskin observed in a similar instance at St. Paul's in London, the awkward "displaced abundance" of the festoon results in the bare wall appearing "poverty stricken", undermining its sublimity.

In Conclusion

I could go on and bore everyone with Ruskin's view of dripstones employed in the Gothic Revival but I'm sure you've had enough. I'll just conclude by saying that I feel Cellini's Perseus and Medusa shown at the outset is one of the greatest nude statues ever conceived. Perhaps you have guessed the monster by now. No, not the head of the gorgon. Rather the true monster is the strap across Perseus' otherwise bare body with the inscription of the sculptor and the date of his work. Oooh Cellini, how could you?

The Lamp of Life

Humans are very attuned to life. For example, we won't easily mistake something dead for something alive. We sense degrees of life. Youth has more vitality than old age. Warmth than cold. Spring than winter. The jungle or temperate forest feels more alive to us than the desert or frozen tundra. In fact, we constantly calculate either consciously or intuitively how alive our environments are, how capable they are for engendering more life.

In our own acts of creation, although we can not animate, we can impress our intellectual vigour, an instinctive vivaciousness in what we make. Contrariwise, we might also create stillborn objects, sterile, cold, unfeeling. Intelligible they may be yet insensible, dead things. What we create and how we go about those activities can have a most personal effect upon us, bringing us joy, enlivening our souls or draining us dry, oppressing our spirit. 

John Ruskin had some insightful things to say on this subject in regards to architecture. However, writing at the dawn of the industrial age, I would prefer to focus on his rich commentary regarding machined ornament, its effect on the craftsman and society at large. This is quite germane to our time with the increasing sophistication of Digital Sculpting software, 3D printing, CNC machining, robotic automation and especially AI systems under development that will not only produce objects but actually intend to replace people in designing art and architecture. Although most of my comments relate to stone carving, the principles are applicable to plaster, wood carving, glass, iron and a number of other traditional mediums.

Man as Machine

I engaged recently in an online debate on this subject of machined ornamentation with a self-proclaimed master stone carver. He excitedly described his process. First, he hires out his designs to a 3D graphics specialist digitally sculpting the design in a software program called ZBrush. Next, CNC machining grinds the stone to within 1 mm from the final surface. Finally, in his own words his role is "just a bit of cleanup, sanding and honing." He was so proud of his work, posting images of a recently completed fountain with a fair bit of ornamental detail. Yet I saw immediately something deeply disturbing about his fountain, the regularity of it rendered it completely cold and lifeless. Ruskin was all too familiar with this type of work: "They had rather not have ornament at all, than see it ill cut deadly cut, that is. I cannot too often repeat, it is not coarse cutting, it is not blunt cutting, that is necessarily bad; but it is cold cutting the look of equal trouble everywherethe smooth, diffused tranquillity of heartless pains the regularity of a plough in a level field. The chill is more likely, indeed, to show itself in finished work than in any other men cool and tire as they complete: and if completeness is thought to be vested in polish, and to be attainable by help of sand paper, we may as well give the work to the engine lathe at once."

This same "stone carver" proceeded to justify his process on that of 19th century precedent by which time the former art of stone carving had been broken down into a strict division of labour. Certain labourers specialised in rough out, others did the measuring and pointing. Various specialists might carve the drapery, rosaries, lace, flowers, etc.; whereas a master sculptor would do the faces and hands, leaving more labourers to sand and polish. In the case of our 21st century stone carver, his practise eliminates most of the labour he considers brutish, invaluable toil, ostensibly leaving time for the art. Yet, was the 19th century process the model of vitality, life and excellence to emulate or evolve from? Or perhaps was there within the sign of a sick, dying art? 

Formerly, one would apprentice for years under a master gaining a deep understanding of flatness, roughing out, taking a design to completion without any need for sanding or honing at all in fact. This process produced journeymen carvers (any one of which might be considered masters today) with perhaps one among a dozen journeymen innately possessing the transcendental gifts to achieve the position of a master himself. By contrast, the factory system the 19th century master worked under left little opportunity to pass on a complete understanding of the art and generate true masters for a subsequent generation. This was Ruskin's century and he records: "Handwork might always be known from machine-work; observing, however, at the same time, that it was possible for men to turn themselves into machines, and to reduce their labour to the machine level; but so long as men work as men putting their heart into what they do, and doing their best, it matters not how bad workmen they may be, there will be that in the handling which is above all price: it will be plainly seen that some places have been delighted in more than others that there have been a pause, and a care about them; and then there will come careless bits, and fast bits; and here the chisel will have struck hard, and there lightly, and anon timidly."

Stone Carving students at The American College of the Building Arts


'Gebs', traditional plaster carving
"If the man's mind as well as his heart went with his work, all this will be in the right places, and each part will set off the other; and the effect of the whole, as compared with the same design cut by a machine or a lifeless hand, will be like that of poetry well read and deeply felt to that of the same verses jangled by rote. There are many to whom the difference is imperceptible; but to those who love poetry it is everything -  they had rather not hear it at all, than hear it ill read; and to those who love Architecture, the life and accent of the hand are everything."

I spent a few weeks some years ago in Marrakech, Morocco studying artisan plaster manufacturing and application. Where I stayed was practically a palace, a Riad in the centre of town with an inner courtyard and fountain, intricately tiled 'zellige' walls and floors. Towards the end of the visit, our concierge invited me and my colleagues to her family's home to share a meal. Humble by contrast, earthen walls and floors, the courtyard exposed to the nite sky above. Yet as she rolled out the family hand woven carpets and offered us mint tea ceremoniously poured from the crafted silversmith's pot into the gold filigreed hand made glasses I began to inwardly confess my poverty as well as admiration for how everything I had seen during my stay: the garments people wore, the filigreed glasses they drank from, the pottery they ate off of, the carpets, everyday objects beyond count...everything was hand made and beautiful. Even the poorest among them, if they possessed anything, it was beautiful as there were little industrially produced goods available. I hold no illusions of Marrakech as an utopian society but it is a vibrant, living culture whose joy is so evident, publicly shared on a daily basis. 

Social Responsibility

The developed world now lives in a predominantly Modernist built environment. Yet it was not Modernists that led the initial abandonment of craft. Much of the blame is borne on the shoulders of 19th century Traditional architects who weakly compromised the pursuit of beauty for the cheap imitation that industry could provide. Still today architects fall into 4 general groups in order of prevalence:
  1. Modernists (traditional or otherwise) who wholly, unapologetically embrace the machine aesthetic
  2. Architects who personally appreciate craft yet willfully specify in favour of industry because of weakness, financial gain or both and in so doing violate their conscience. These often train their energies on denying responsibility, justifying their actions and condemning those who expose them for the damage they do to society
  3. Architects who are sadly untalented, blind, unqualified for their practise, who can't see the difference between craft and the products of industry 
  4. Architects who support authenticity, beauty and craft without compromise, on moral and aesthetic grounds 
"I believe the right question to ask, respecting all ornament, is simply this: Was it done with enjoyment - was the carver happy while he was about it?- Ruskin

I concur this a fair question to be asked. After all if we admit the purpose of decoration is to give pleasure to someone who must USE a thing, why do feel the right to deny pleasure to someone we obligate to MAKE such decoration? Architecture is after all an amazing human activity that takes up more energy and resources than any other. Do not artists and architects working together share the responsibility to create a better society, one that gives joy and meaning to work, that engenders more life? Are We the People to foregoe our inalienable moral right as penned by Thomas Jefferson for "LifeLiberty and the pursuit of Happiness"

Ruskin ends his essay with a similar appeal for our humanity: "There is dreaming enough, and earthiness enough, and sensuality enough in human existence, without our turning the few glowing moments of it into mechanism; and since our life must at the best be but a vapour that appears for a little time and then vanishes away, let it at least appear as a cloud in the height of Heaven, not as the thick darkness that broods over the blast of the Furnace, and rolling of the Wheel" 

The Lamp of Memory 

God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December” ― J.M. Barrie

Boston City Hall
Perhaps the greatest lament I have about the architecture of our last generations is that it has absolutely nothing to say. Nowhere is this more evident than in the challenge of preservationists to get the public excited about mid-century Modern architecture. Who can blame them. The "50 year rule" is hardly a compelling argument. The vast majority of these homes and buildings were never designed in such a way as to last very long in the first place. Nevertheless, I imagine we might yet find a way to save or at least extend their useful life if they held any cultural meaning for us, if there existed a worthy narrative to share with our descendants of our accomplishments, of our humanity. The dilemma is that dialogue rarely exists. Consequently, our society is burdened with what to do with a growing inventory of industrially produced architecture.

John Ruskin devotes his sixth essay to memory, to the vital importance of creating places worth caring about and to protecting those worth remembering.

Civic Memory

Ruskin saw that there were "but two strong conquerors of the forgetfulness of men, Poetry and Architecture and the latter in some sort includes the former, and is mightier in its reality." Our forefathers knew how to create memorable places. The great ideals embodied in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were thankfully imbued in our earliest architecture. Not just in federal and state capitols but virtually all public buildings: museums, churches, train stations, libraries, universities; these were all held up as monuments, memorials to communally held values. These bear witness "not only what men have thought and felt, but what their hands have handled, and their strength wrought, and their eyes beheld." Architecture is every bit the record of our civic culture as the written word and potentially far more enduring.

Domestic Memory

"I cannot but think it an evil sign of a people when their houses are built to last for one generation only.By Ruskin's day the Industrial Revolution was already in full swing in England, supplanting the former craft economy. Craftsmen were obliged to abandon ancestral homes in their towns and villages to seek work in the factories of the cities. Tenement and row housing was being hastily erected to accommodate the influx of labour. Indistinct and impersonal, there was little to distinguish one unit from the next. The incredible damage this wrought upon the individual's sense of identity as well as the collective memory of England as a people still reverberates today.

In essence, this was the period when architecture entirely loses its sense of the sacred, wholly parts ways with humanity, "when men build in the hope of leaving the places they have built, and live in the hope of forgetting the years that they have lived; when the comfort, the peace, the religion of home have ceased to be felt." So today we continually plod down this soulless path of building homes never meant to last, mundane and impersonal, the concept of the home as a commodity, an asset to be liquidated at a moments notice.

"I believe that good men would generally feel this; and that having spent their lives happily and honourably, they would be grieved, at the close of them, to think that the place of their earthly abode, which had seen, and seemed almost to sympathize in, all their honour, their gladness, or their suffering,—­that this, with all the record it bare of them, and of all material things that they had loved and ruled over, and set the stamp of themselves upon—­was to be swept away, as soon as there was room made for them in the grave; that no respect was to be shown to it, no affection felt for it, no good to be drawn from it by their children; that though there was a monument in the church, there was no warm monument in the hearth and house to them; that all that they ever treasured was despised, and the places that had sheltered and comforted them were dragged down to the dust.  I say that a good man would fear this; and that, far more, a good son, a noble descendant, would fear doing it to his father’s house.  I say that if men lived like men indeed, their 
Casa Pigfletta, circa 1440

houses would be temples—­temples which we should hardly dare to injure, and in which it would make us holy to be permitted to live; and there must be a strange dissolution of natural affection, a strange unthankfulness for all that homes have given and parents taught, a strange consciousness that we have been unfaithful to our fathers’ honour, or that our own lives are not such as would make our dwellings sacred to our children, when each man would fain build to himself, and build for the little revolution of his own life only."

Protection of Ancient Buildings

Thus far we have discussed the building of new places worth remembering; however, when an exisiting place that harbours the living memory of an entire community is taken away, the effect can be devastating. This might happen by war, natural disaster or for our generation more frequently by corrupt municipal bureaucracy. A recent poignant example being the Eglise Saint-Jacques in Western France that survived two world wars that destroyed 80% of Abbeville, a surviving monument to hope and resilience, a repository of craftsmanship forever lost to us and subsequent generations. 

Most heritage buildings are constructed far better than anything today, by far the reason so many remain with us. It is not extensive, costly restoration that is continually needed to protect them but a reasonable degree of attention to maintenance, "a few sheets of lead put in time upon the roof, a few dead leaves and sticks swept in time out of the water-courses, will save both roof and walls from ruin." Such protection was willfully hindered in the aforementioned example, a deliberate effort to degrade the building carried out by a handful of bureaucrats, "a mob it is, and must be always; it matters not whether enraged, or in deliberate folly; whether countless, or sitting in committees; the people who destroy anything causelessly are a mob, and Architecture is always destroyed causelessly."

John Ruskin's essay was hardly hopeless or fatalistic. By revealing the painful disconnect we have created in our built environment he laid out a vision, a strong emotional appeal for creating lovable places taking precedent from the memorable monuments of our forefathers that we should take every care to protect.

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 you could even say 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 the 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, again as 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."


We here draw to a close a consideration of 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

The Spirit of Gothic

Salisbury Cathedral
I have always adored Gothic architecture. From the high Gothic forms of the great medieval cathedrals to the vernacular examples of the Tudor, Jacobean and the Arts & Crafts periods. However, for many years it was a mystery to me as to why. It certainly lacks the regularity, the order of Renaissance architecture to which it at the same time seems indebted. During the Enlightenment a view would develop that Gothic was simply a derivative work, poor copies in a Dark Age from a brutish understanding of the ruined glories of Rome. Gothic became a term of unmitigated contempt.

Despite being indoctrinated in this history, my love for the Gothic never wavered. Why love an architecture at all? I recall from my childhood the 2nd commandment from Moses: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them." Yet here I am, myself a maker of graven images, also an adorer of the work of the hands of men. And I've determined the source of my adoration! A sympathetic act of communication across place and time from one human being to another. The Gothic in its essence is a highly humanistic architecture, I would contend the most human architecture ever conceived.

In the 19th century author, artist, naturalist John Ruskin wrote a book entitled "The Stones of Venice" in which he devoted an entire chapter to "The Nature of Gothic". He described Gothic first in terms of its internal nature, the moral characteristic, the mental expression, the source of its power that he simply describes as its Spirit. Ruskin further elaborated on the external identifying physical features, what he describes as the Forms of Gothic. Let's consider the former, 6 of these moral elements that constitute the Spirit of Gothic.



Rouen Cathedral
Ruskin contends that the origin of the term "Gothic" had little to do with any Gothic lineage but rather wholly conceived to express the barbaric character of the nations among whom the architecture arose, "a perpetual reflection of the Goth and the Roman at their first encounter." And so it is that while Renaissance architecture and the Greek and Roman architecture before it were works of order, reason and repose, the Gothic by contrast is savage and wild. This characteristic acknowledged, is it a motivation for reproach or for reverence? The allowance of imperfection, the acknowledgement of mortality and the rough hewn work of man endows a dignity, solemnity and honorableness all its own.



Rouen Cathedral
"Wherever the workman is utterly enslaved, the parts of the building must of course be absolutely like each other...the degree in which the workman is degraded may be thus known at a glance." I don't have to wonder what Ruskin would think of contemporary architectural practice, where the design process is entirely segregated from construction and workers are held to machine like tolerances from dictated, theoretical designs. Under such conditions, for a modern workman to be satisfied in his work he must be a complete dullard, incapable of independent thought, only monotonous obedience.

Order of course is vital. I would go so far as to say that love of order is a foundation for good architecture. But Ruskin was quite correct in stating, "Do not let us suppose that love of order is love of art. It is true that order, in its highest sense, is one of the necessities of art, just as time is a necessity of music; but love of order has no more to do with our right enjoyment of architecture or painting, than love of punctuality with the appreciation of an opera." There is a certain pleasure in the symmetry of a building, it can provide a rhythm just like melody; however, just as a pleasant rhythm can transform into a beautiful song with changes in verse, a building can tell a compelling story with a bit of variety. "Great art whether expressing itself in words, colors, or stones, does not say the same thing over and over again."



The Gothic period is the culmination of a progression most notably from the Byzantine then Romanesque traditions. As such it inherited the conventionalized system of ornamentation from these same traditions. However, there is a strong tendency in the Gothic to forego stylization in favor of veracity and vitality. This love of nature prevails over the idealized sense of beauty that the conventionalized forms attempted to capture, taking delight in the actual beauty nature has to offer even in imperfection. Ruskin noted how this naturalistic morality extended to human portraiture by "not exalting its kings into demi-gods, nor its saints into archangels, but giving what kingliness and sanctity was in them, to the full, mixed with due record of their faults." 

Palazzo Ducale



The Lincoln Imp
There is no shortage of the grotesque in Gothic architecture. It often appears hidden in the nooks and crannies, a bit of playful conversation that the masons had amongst themselves, perhaps anticipating the surprise to be discovered by the careful observer. In many examples monstrous images are a point of contrast and focus, intended to pass on an allegory, an instructional or warning example. These subtle reminders were understood by the collective understanding of the society at the time the cathedrals were built. What differentiates the Gothic from other grotesque is that they are never intended as simple decoration, devoid of meaning. The discovery of the little monsters and divining their meaning is one of the most pleasurable aspects of visiting a grand cathedral.



Beauvais Cathedral
What is that peculiar character that makes lighting forked rather than curved, the limbs of the oak angular rather than bending? Resistance, the dynamic contra-position of force. This too distinctively characterizes the Gothic. Whereas Egyptian, Greek, Roman architecture and their later derivatives are typified by a static, superimposed system of post and beam or arch, the Gothic is marked by tension, opposition and the exposed, articulation of force from one member to another. It is this wild, defiant, obstinate spirit that pushed the cathedrals heavenward, opened up the walls and let in the light.



By generosity I mean an accumulation of ornament. That may sound strange in a world stripped of ornamentation, a modernist world that has aesthetically cleansed every form of enrichment in the name of good taste. I suppose the thinking is that a bland meal offends no one. I quite agree with Ruskin's sentiment regarding "clean" architecture, "No architecture is so haughty as that which is simple; which refuses to address the eye, except in a few clear and forceful lines; which implies, in offering so little to our regards, that all it has offered is perfect; and disdains, either by the complexity or attractiveness of its features, to embarrass our investigation, or betray us into delight."

Notre-Dame de Paris

The Form of Gothic

Tintern Abbey
Previously, I discussed the "Spirit of Gothic", highlighting the perspective of 19th century author, artist, naturalist John Ruskin from his treatise "The Stones of Venice" wherein he describes Gothic first in terms of its internal nature, the moral characteristic, the mental expression, the source of its power that he simply describes as its Spirit. Ruskin further elaborated on the external identifying physical features, what he describes as the "Form of Gothic". Likewise early 20th century architect and author Claude Fayette Bragdon contributed insightful commentary into what distinguishes the Gothic as a deeply humanistic yet unique architecture in a series of essays collectively entitled "The Beautiful Necessity". Drawing from these two sources I'll attempt to undertake an examination of the true Nature of Gothic, its Spirit as manifested in physical Form.

The Pointed Arch 

Worcester Cathedral
Gothic was not the only architecture to have made use of the pointed arch; however, it certainly exploits the form to its fullest potential, particularly noteworthy in the vaulting of its interior ceilings. Western architecture specifically witnessed three developments in ceiling design: post and lintel exemplified by the Egyptians and Greeks, the rounded arch, including barrel vaults and domes reaching a pinnacle of achievement during the Lombardic and Byzantine Romanesque, and finally the myriad of possibilities associated with the pointed arch and resulting vaults of the Gothic. Closely associated with what Ruskin earlier identified as the spirit of Variety, he noted that "capable of perpetual variety, the pointed arch was not merely a bold variation from the round, but it admitted of millions of variations in itself; for the proportions of a pointed arch are changeable to infinity, while a circular arch is always the same." 

The Acute Gable 

We can think of the Gothic ceiling itself really as a gable with curved sides as an arch is truly a continuous curve and can't actually be "pointed". The Gothic ceiling does not serve as the external roof of the structure as occasionally might occur in the domed roofs of the Romanesque. What distinguishes the Gothic gable however, it that the angle declining from its ridge is nearly always acute and severely acute in its best examples. In its natural home of the Northern climates this acute pitch of the roof serves the practical function of preventing heavy snow accumulation. So in a summary to this point we can identify the form of the Gothic roofing system as an acute gabled roof surmounted above a pointed arch or "curved gable".

Notre-Dame de Paris


Palazzo Ducale
Aside from ornamental enrichment there are really two types of foliation that are manifest in Gothic architecture, both being associated with the pointed arch. The first is the general outline of the pointed arch itself, necessary as its greatest potential structural weakness is the possibility of giving way on the sides if receiving downward force upon the point above. The practical solution obtained was to integrate cusps on either side, although not intended precisely to imitate foliage, would imbue as Ruskin observed "the same characters of beauty which the designer had discovered in the leaf." Hence the architectural term "foliation" meaning "leafy or leaved" to describe this type of opening.

Bishop's Eye, Lincoln Cathedral
The spirit of Naturalism keenly expresses itself with second expression of foliation characteristic of the Gothic, that of foliated traceries filling windows and portals. Again, this was not in direct imitation of nature but drew upon her as a source of inspiration as Ruskin opines, "The idea that large Gothic structure, in arches and roofs, was intended to imitate vegetation, is, as above noticed, untenable for an instant in the front of facts. But the Gothic builder perceived that, in the leaves which he copied for his minor decorations, there was a peculiar beauty, arising from certain characters of curvature in outline, and certain methods of subdivision and of radiation in structure. On a small scale, in his sculptures and his missal-painting, he copied the leaf or thorn itself; on a large scale he adopted from it its abstract sources of beauty, and gave the same kind of curvatures and the same species of subdivision to the outline of his arches, so far as was consistent with their strength, never, in any single instance, suggesting the resemblance to leafage by irregularity of outline, but keeping the structure perfectly simple, and, as we have seen, so consistent with the best principles of masonry."   

Clustered Columns

In my previous post I had affirmed that Gothic architecture might very well be the most humanistic architecture ever conceived. I would point to the principal means of support, the system of columns to uphold this contention. Like the pointed arch the clustered column allows for a myriad of adaptations whereas the single shafts of the Classical orders (admittedly of anthropological origins and humanistic themselves) establish whilst constraining the proportional variations possible in the resultant architecture of which Ruskin provides the following critique, "we must no more expect to derive either pleasure or profit from an architecture...whose pillars are of one proportion, than we should out of a universe in which the clouds were all of one shape, and the trees all of one size." 

Amiens Cathedral
Gothic cathedrals are known for their ascending heights. However, whereas the Renaissance solution for a similar effect such as at St. Peter's was to enlarge the column, creating colossal orders, the Gothic masons found a means through the articulation of the clustered column to maintain a scale in relation to the individual, a point well articulated by Claude Bragdon, "architecture is not necessarily the most awe-inspiring which gives the impression of having been built by giants for the abode of pigmies; like the other arts, architecture is highest when it is most human. The mediaeval builders, true to this dictum, employed stones of a size proportionate to the strength of a man working without unusual mechanical aids; the great piers and columns, built up of many such stones, were commonly subdivided into clusters, and the circumference of each shaft of such a cluster approximated the girth of a man; by this device the moulding of the base and the foliation of the caps were easily kept in scale."


Amiens Cathedral
Symmetry, specifically bilateral symmetry certainly provides an obvious state of balance. This occurs vertically of course in the human body, at least if dividing facing its front or back. Nevertheless, nature provides numerous alternative states of equilibrium of which Bragdon highlights an example familiar to all of us, "If one were to establish an axial plane vertically through the center of a tree, in most cases it would be found that the masses of foliage, however irregularly shaped on either side of such an axis, just about balanced each other." He goes on to illustrate how that principle of balance was well understood by medieval builders and informed their work, "A far more subtle and vital illustration of the law occurs when the opposed elements do not exactly match, but differ from each other, as in the case of the two towers of Amiens, for example. This sort of balance may be said to be characteristic of Gothic."

Hopes and Fears for Craft

William Morris, In Memorium
What then of hope? My hope for craft is but a personal manifestation of a greater hope for humanity. Craft is such an intrinsically humanistic endeavour that it might be considered a preeminent measure, a barometer if you will of human culture. However, the readings from the metaphorical barometer of craft are very low indeed, the immediate outlook for mankind...stormy.

The very notion of 'hope' indicates that the way forward is not assured. So for the hopeful, there accompanies trepidation and fear. A fear of loss not easily recompensed, a storm which hides in its dark clouds: war, pestilence with death following closely behind. A day when the chisel falls silent against the stone, the fires of the forge have all grown cold and the handy-work of man is but a forgotten memory.

So what is left for the hopeful to do in the face of fear? What men and women of nobility and purpose have always done. They fight...each one according to his gifts.  More than a century ago a thoughtful, sensitive human being, one very gifted craftsman would take up this fight with every ounce of his being. Thankfully, the poetry and prose of a founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris* survives to us today. I'll briefly share and expand on some of his writings in this post.

The Beauty of Life


To lose the reasons for living for the sake of life. 

The earth was more beautiful once, so very alive. At some point in the not too distant past, man arrived on the scene. Under his influence the wildness of nature was tamed and pacified to a degree; in turn the earth, it might be argued, for a time became even more beautiful and livelier still. No longer. Man who has multiplied and spread to every corner, increases in destructive power whereas the earth becomes uglier and more lifeless each and every day. Where industry and technology are most employed the destruction is swiftest and hardest to remedy. Does this state make any of us happy? I don't believe so, although too many of us are mired in complacency, acceptance or distraction.

Morris identified this inherent conflict of a burgeoning consumer society made possible by the rise of industry, against nature, expressing it thus: "The latest danger which civilisation is threatened with, a danger of her own breeding: that men in struggling towards the complete attainment of all the luxuries of life for the strongest portion of their race should deprive their whole race of all the beauty of life: a danger that the strongest and wisest of mankind, in striving to attain to a complete mastery over nature, should destroy her simplest and widest-spread gifts"

The past few centuries have witnessed this exponentially increasing disconnect of man with his natural environment with devastating effects to the ecology. Of course, this is a suicidal trajectory, as we ourselves are nature, we are ultimately rejecting ourselves. As a craftsman Morris saw nature as the only standard of beauty, intrinsic to our humanity with the universal appeal to divert us from this mad course, "This is at the root of the whole matter, everything made by man's hands has a form, which must be either beautiful or ugly; beautiful if it is in accord with Nature, and helps her; ugly if it is discordant with Nature, and thwarts her...Now the only way in our craft of design for compelling people to understand you is to follow hard on Nature; for what else can you refer people to, or what else is there which everybody can understand?"

A true artist embraces nature and life with all its troubles, struggles and pains rather than this culture of mechanization and death, though the latter be accepted, easy and peaceful.

The Art of the People

There is a persistent delusion that industry and technology has liberated mankind. Historians seem only to record war, pestilence and suffering as if there only existed fear and terror without respite, not one whit of joy in life. Are we to to believe only the written history and discount the reality embodied in the surviving architecture and craft objects of everyday life?

"Once men sat under grinding tyrannies, amidst violence and fear so great, that nowadays we wonder how they lived through twenty-four hours of it, till we remember that then, as now, their daily labour was the main part of their lives, and that that daily labour was sweetened by the daily creation of Art; and shall we who are delivered from the evils they bore, live drearier days than they did,...choose to sit down and labour for ever amidst grim ugliness?

There was much going on to make life endurable in those times. Not every day, you may be sure, was a day of slaughter and tumult, though the histories read almost as if it were so; but every day the hammer chinked on the anvil, and the chisel played about the oak beam, and never without some beauty and invention being born of it, and consequently some human happiness.

Westminster Abbey
When men say popes, kings, and emperors built such and such buildings, it is a mere way of speaking. You look in your history books to see who built Westminster Abbey, who built St. Sophia at Constantinople, and they tell you Henry III., Justinian the Emperor. Did they? or, rather, men like you and me, handicraftsmen, who have left no names behind them, nothing but their work?

History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; Art has remembered the people, because they created."

Therein lies another great service of craft to humanity, the social dimension, the capacity to give joy and meaning to work, that which occupies the greatest part of our waking hours. Yet, the 'developed' world has transformed itself from being a maker society into a consumer economy, industrially producing a million things that no one really wants. Mere distractions from a monotonous life lacking imagination and meaning. There would be little need to 'get away' or 'live for the weekend' if your everyday life was filled with beauty, creativity and purpose, if it improved your community, if it brought pleasure to your neighbors.

Courtesy of the
 American College of the Building Arts 
"Real art is the expression by man of his pleasure in labour", so that "If a man has work to do which he despises, which does not satisfy his natural and rightful desire for pleasure, the greater part of his life must pass unhappily and without self-respect." Yet empty existence is not an inevitability. There was a time not long ago when everyone shared in art, when "everything that the hand of man touched was more or less beautiful" so that one either participated in the making of beautiful things or in using the things made, more often still, making and using both, so that everyone shared in art. "To give people pleasure in the things they must perforce USE, that is one great office of decoration; to give people pleasure in the things they must perforce MAKE, that is the other use of it."

"What is an artist but a workman who is determined that, whatever else happens, his work shall be excellent?" Are we giving ourselves that opportunity? What of our children and grandchildren? Or are we propping up a world built on consumption, greed and profit? "How can we bear to pay a price for a piece of goods which will help to trouble one man, to ruin another, and starve a third? Or, still more, I think, how can we bear to use, how can we enjoy something which has been a pain and a grief for the maker to make?...That evil of the greater part of the population being engaged for by far the most part of their lives in work, which at the best cannot interest them, or develop their best faculties, and at the worst (and that is the commonest, too) is mere unmitigated slavish toil, only to be wrung out of them by the sternest compulsion."

Might we continue to place our hope in industry and technology to save us from this seemingly intractable morass? What remedy can there be for the blunders of technology but further technology? No, the modernized production of the needs of life: food, clothes and shelter have devolved into a highly organized injustice, an instrument of oppression that poisons our planet, strips beauty from our daily lives and stands in opposition to the human spirit. Industry is past the point of reform, it needs be overthrown...humanity needs a post-Industrial revolution. I don't think we are ready though, our life is still not ugly enough. It is almost as if we must complete the full cycle, the complete ecological and social collapse of society. Perhaps facing our own extinction will be enough to shake us from our languid complacency.

The Prospects of Craft in Civilization 

"I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few."

Even if we acknowledge that the ecological and social costs of industry are too heavy to bear for much longer, who can pay for craft but the wealthy, as a pretext of luxury? How can we possibly afford craft again? Simplicity.

Mr. Morris reminds us, "Art was not born in the palace; rather she fell sick there, and it will take more...than that of rich men's houses to heal her again. If she is ever to be strong enough to help mankind once more, she must gather strength in simple places."

What is it that we really need to satisfy our physical needs? Less than we think. How much space can we occupy, how much square footage to we need, how many homes, automobiles, computers? Boats, televisions, cable subscriptions, fantasy leagues? A million things to distract us and waste our life looking after. Do any of the aforementioned, the petty luxuries, pretences of a showy display of wealth, truly enrich our lives? I think not. These commodities are mere fashion, vanities that come and go in our lives as we soon tire of them. In our hearts we recognize they have no value. I believe the drugged pursuit of MORE robs too many of us the time to think and feel, to pass on the inheritance of a better world than was left us. By contrast, "Real art is cheap, even at the price that must be paid for it." and "Simplicity of life, even the barest, is not a misery, but the very foundation of refinement."

Our physical nature is only a small aspect of what constitutes our humanity. What is it that we really need to satisfy our other needs: intellectual, sensual and spiritual? First we must recognize that we have such needs and so does our fellowman. It places a moral obligation before us to contribute to a society where these needs can be fulfilled. I speak the truth when I tell you that you can not truly enjoy something knowing its production crushed and took advantage of other people. Neither can you verily treasure such things by turning a blind eye, in a thinly veiled, willful ignorance, only suspecting its making was with great injustice.

"If you cannot learn to love real art, at least learn to hate sham art and reject it. It is not so much because the wretched thing is so ugly and silly and useless that I ask you to cast it from you; it is much more because these are but the outward symbols of the poison that lies within them: look through them and see all that has gone to their fashioning, and you will see how vain labour, and sorrow, and disgrace have been their companions from the first,- -and all this for trifles that no man really needs! Learn to do without; there is virtue in those words; a force that rightly used would choke both demand and supply of Mechanical Toil."

This message is admittedly inconvenient if not irksome for industry, nothing more than "mere grit and friction in the wheels of the money-grinding machine." However, it is high time to reject its tyranny, reclaim our humanity, stand up for our fellowman and seize our collective right for happiness, for "an art made by the people for the people as a joy for the maker and the user... How could we keep silence of all this? and what voice could tell it but the voice of art: and what audience for such a tale would content us but all men living on the Earth? This is what Architecture, Art, and Craft** hopes to be: it will have this life, or else death; and it is for us now living between the past and the future to say whether it shall live or die."

*All quotes are from William Morris unless otherwise noted
 **Text added

Contributed by Patrick Webb 

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