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Ruskin’s radicalism still resonates on his 200th anniversary

Ellis Woodman
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John Ruskin’s ideas transformed the culture of architecture beyond recognition, writes Ellis Woodman

This month saw the 200th anniversary of the birth of a thinker who has exerted an unparalleled influence on the development of this country’s architecture. John Ruskin was born on 8 February 1819 and, by the time of his death 81 years later, had lived to see his ideas transform the culture of the discipline beyond recognition.

The most immediate manifestation of his influence was the Gothic Revival, which his book The Stones of Venice did so much to bring about. But underpinning the promotion of that particular style, Ruskin’s writing embodies ideas on architecture of significantly wider reach, which have continued to resonate for practitioners working ever since.

Central to his position was a criticism of the way the classical imagination had divided the production of architecture into two independent procedures: design and fabrication. Rather than an abstract composition, envisaged in the mind of the architect and mechanically translated into materials by others, he saw the Gothic building as representing an altogether more holistic conception of what architecture might be. It was a building that incorporated the creative contribution of its makers and which, in time, was enriched through adaptation in response to changing needs. Ultimately, the effects of wear and weathering also became part of its identity, prompting him to maintain a vehement opposition to all attempts at restoration.

This concern for the transformation of materials over time is vividly conveyed by a watercolour that he painted in 1871 and which opens John Ruskin: the Power of Seeing, a wonderful exhibition now showing at Two Temple Place in London. Meticulously documenting the growth of moss and the effects of cleavage through frost-damage, this full-scale study of a fragment of brick could be taken as a memento mori directed at the hubristic architect set on building for eternity.

However, for Ruskin, material change was never a cause for regret but rather an indication of vitality. ‘Imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we know of life,’ he wrote. ‘It is the sign of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of progress of change. Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent.’

If you do catch the show at Temple Place, I recommend following it up with another small exhibition that opened recently at the RIBA. Making It Happen: New Community Architecture features four recent public projects that have each grown out of a process of local engagement, in some cases extended to involving the community in the work’s fabrication. 

A Ruskinian belief in the role of architecture as an embodiment of social capital is common to each and nowhere more evidently so than in the case of Grizedale Arts and Hayatsu Architects’ transformation of the Coniston Institute in the Lake District. Founded as the Coniston Mechanics Institute and Literary Society in 1852, this facility was established to provide life-long training in a range of creative disciplines for a population that was then largely employed by the local copper industry.

Roof detail of bread oven at the Coniston Institute by Hayatsu Architects for Grizedale Arts

Roof detail of bread oven at the Coniston Institute by Hayatsu Architects for Grizedale Arts

Source: Motoko Fujita

Roof detail of bread oven at the Coniston Institute by Hayatsu Architects for Grizedale Arts

When, in 1872, Ruskin came to live in the area, he became a keen supporter of the Institute’s activities, and was ultimately elected its vice-president. The new work has included the installation of an information kiosk and community bread oven, faced in hand-pressed copper tiles and charred timber. Next will come refacing of external spaces with a surface of hand-made ornamental tiles. Beautifully designed and made in collaboration with Takeshi Hayatsu’s students at Central Saint Martins, the project testifies to the ongoing relevance of Ruskin’s vision of architecture as both a reflection of nature and a vehicle for social change.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Interesting that Ruskin is suddenly cool!? Beautiful work in the photo but I'm not sure that a) Ruskin approved of the Gothic Revival and b) meant that architects should necessarily 'get down and dirty' so to speak. His aim was to demonstrate that the division of labour brought about by Capitalism was having a deleterious effect on architectural culture, because it made skilled artisans into 'robotic' operatives (this was also the reason he didn't like Classical Architecture, in addition to the fact that it was essentially pagan). For Ruskin, someone like Giotto was an ideal type, in that Giotto learned his trade steeped in praxis, in a workshop/guild setting (not in an academy). I don't think we can seriously say that Ruskin's ideas are so influential until the economy changes in such a way that will allow this to happen. In today's world, this type of 'artisan' based work is out of the reach of all but the wealthiest and can't have the affect on society that Ruskin desired. Ruskin knew that, which is why he wrote a book on economics, which he himself considered his greatest written work. Ruskin is one of those figures who does not reward cursory, but requires real interest and understanding.

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