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Ruskin’s seven Lamps of Architecture

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Ruskin’s The Seven Lamps of Architecture is an odd book, unexpected after all I had read of it. I loved many of the footnotes, poetry, sideways meanders. The Seven Lamps are also just a little bit mad: Sacrifice, Truth, Power, Beauty, Life, Memory, Obedience. So biblical. This contains so much of such desperate earnestness it cannot help but be touching. It has lovely passages that in truth could make you see and think differently. It celebrates the beauty of skilled craftsmanship and manual labour. It’s easy to see why Ruskin is always paired with William Morris in the same architectural breath.

It has passages where the earnestness goes beyond all possible bounds and I laughed out loud. Lol was in fact my first reaction, I write it here, more than once, for the first time in this blog. The purple and ponderous privilege of some of this prose erases the sting I hope. Such loftiness doesn’t quite make sense of all of Octavia Hill’s absurdities, who was his student and protege, but puts them a little more in context. He is just so very very certain about every damn thing.

From the introduction, a sad insight into a life of wealth, privilege, and difficulty in relating to other human beings.

The Seven Lamps of Architecture was written during the first year of Ruskin’s marriage to Effie Gray, but no trace of that unconsummated, mutually humiliating, six-year ordeal can be found in its pages. (xvi)

1848-49…such momentous years! Revolutionary years. It is incredible to believe that this should be written in 1848. Europe was on fire, but he spent much of 1848 in Salisbury and Normandy studying the Gothic, then retired for the winter to Park Street, Mayfair to write. Blimey.

In the 1880 preface he writes rather poignantly, but ponderously it must be said:

I never intended to have republished this book, which has become the most useless I ever wrote; the buildings it describes with so much delight being now either knocked down, or scraped and patched up into smugness and smoothness more tragic than uttermost ruin. (xxxi)

The multiple editions allow him to comment on himself in the footnotes, one of the more enjoyable parts of the book. You can imagine him poring over prints and obsessing over things.

Ruskin | Lapham's Quarterly

He has snuck a number of aphorisms in the margins, which are in my National Trust Classics edition (again that connection to Octavia Hill) but not in the first edition which can be found on Gutenberg. I assume he wrote them later. They are tied to the prose but I rather liked the idea of separating them out, to read together, to collect what he believes to be the distilled lessons of his rather profligate prose. These are from the introductory chapter:

Aphorism 1: We may always know what is right; but not always what is possible (2)

Aphorism 2: All practical laws are the exponents of moral ones. (4)

Aphorism 3: The arts of our day must not be luxurious, nor its metaphysics idle. (6)

The Lamp of Sacrifice

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

It is very necessary, in the outset of all inquiry, to distinguish carefully between Architecture and Building… To build, literally to confirm, is by common understanding to put together and adjust the several pieces of any edifice or receptacle of a considerable size. … Let us, therefore, at once confine the name [Architecture] to that art which, taking up and admitting, as conditions of its working, the necessities and common uses of the building, impresses on its form certain characters venerable or beautiful, but otherwise unnecessary. (8)

The complete opposite of modernist architecture, Gropius and Bauhaus. So what’s the sacrifice all about?

III. Now, first, to define this Lamp, or Spirit of Sacrifice, clearly. I have said that it prompts us to the offering of precious things merely because they are precious, not because they are useful or necessary. It is a spirit, for instance, which of two marbles, equally beautiful, applicable and durable, would choose the more costly because it was so, and of two kinds of decoration, equally effective, would choose the more elaborate because it was so, in order that it might in the same compass present more cost and more thought. It is therefore most unreasoning and enthusiastic, and perhaps best negatively defined, as the opposite of the prevalent feeling of modern times, which desires to produce the largest results at the least cost. (10)

As I say, he often uses the footnotes to critique or bestow accolades on himself, as he does on page 24:

10There is too much stress laid, throughout this volume, on probity in picturesque treatment, and not enough on probity in material construction…But the concluding sentences of the chapter from this point forward are all quite right, and can’t be much better put.

I dearly love how ranty it all is as well — and look forward to quarantine being lifted, travel allowed, and the ability to see such wonders for myself:

I do not know anything more painful or pitiful than the kind of ivory carving with which the Certosa of Pavia, and part of the Colleone sepulchral chapel at Bergamo, and other such buildings, are incrusted, of which it is not possible so much as to think without exhaustion; and a heavy sense of the misery it would be, to be forced to look at it at all. And this is not from the quantity of it, nor because it is bad work—much of it is inventive and able; but because it looks as if it were only fit to be put in inlaid cabinets and velveted caskets, and as if it could not bear one drifting shower or gnawing frost. We are afraid for it, anxious about it, and tormented by it; and we feel that a massy shaft and a bold shadow would be worth it all. (26)

In the end though, I found this reflection on stone masons quite moving…

All else for which the builders sacrificed, has passed away—all their living interests, and aims, and achievements. We know not for what they labored, and we see no evidence of their reward. Victory, wealth, authority, happiness—all have departed, though bought by many a bitter sacrifice. But of them, and their life, and their toil upon the earth, one reward, one evidence, is left to us in those gray heaps of deep-wrought stone. They have taken with them to the grave their powers, their honors, and their errors; but they have left us their adoration. (28)

Aphorism 4: All architecture proposes an effect on the human mind, not merely a service to the human frame. (8)

Aphorism 5: Domestic luxury is to be sacrificed to national magnificence (17)

Aphorism 6: Modern builders are capable of little; and don’t even do the little they can (21)

I think I’ve heard that last one from my little brother.

The Lamp of Truth

Ah, this language!

I. There is a marked likeness between the virtues of man and the enlightenment of the globe he inhabits—the same diminishing gradation in vigor up to the limits of their domains, the same essential separation from their contraries—the same twilight at the meeting of the two: a something wider belt than the line where the world rolls into night, that strange twilight of the virtues; that dusky debateable land, wherein zeal becomes impatience, and temperance becomes severity, and justice becomes cruelty, and faith superstition, and each and all vanish into gloom. (29)

I confess there are moments I love it. But to get to the nitty gritty, w quickly move towards deceit.

VI. Architectural Deceits are broadly to be considered under three heads:—

1st. The suggestion of a mode of structure or support, other than the true one; as in pendants of late Gothic roofs.

2d. The painting of surfaces to represent some other material than that of which they actually consist (as in the marbling of wood), or the deceptive representation of sculptured ornament upon them.

3d. The use of cast or machine-made ornaments of any kind.

Now, it may be broadly stated, that architecture will be noble exactly in the degree in which all these false expedients are avoided. (35)

No surprise modern material should not find favour. His ranting against iron is priceless, though I know I have all the gifts of hindsight at my disposal:

IX. Perhaps the most fruitful source of these kinds of corruption which we have to guard against in recent times, is one which, nevertheless, comes in a “questionable shape,” and of which it is not easy to determine the proper laws and limits; I mean the use of iron. The definition of the art of architecture, given in the first chapter, is independent of its materials: nevertheless, that art having been, up to the beginning of the present century, practised for the most part in clay, stone, or wood, it has resulted that the sense of proportion and the laws of structure have been based, the one altogether, the other in great part, on the necessities consequent on the employment of those materials; and that the entire or principal employment of metallic framework would, therefore, be generally felt as a departure from the first principles of the art. (39)

X. But whether this be granted me or not, the fact is, that every idea respecting size, proportion, decoration, or construction, on which we are at present in the habit of acting or judging, depends on presupposition of such materials: and as I both feel myself unable to escape the influence of these prejudices, and believe that my readers will be equally so, it may be perhaps permitted to me to assume that true architecture does not admit iron as a constructive material,7 and that such works as the cast-iron central spire of Rouen Cathedral, or the iron roofs and pillars of our railway stations, and of some of our churches, are not architecture at all. (40)

He notes in a footnote the sinking of the ‘Vanguard’ and ‘London’, the breaking of Woolwich Pier into splinters and thus ‘”the anarchy of iron” is the most notable fact’. The anarchy of iron is one of my new favourite phrases. I share his despair at commercialisation of urban spaces, and yet his very tone sets me at odds with him.

XVI. Touching the false representation of material, the question is infinitely more simple, and the law more sweeping; all such imitations are utterly base and inadmissible. It is melancholy to think of the time and expense lost in marbling the shop fronts of London alone, and of the waste of our resources in absolute vanities, in things about which no mortal cares, by which no eye is ever arrested, unless painfully, and which do not add one whit to comfort or cleanliness, or even to that great object of commercial art—conspicuousness. (48)

in the end it is craftsmanship that produces worth — both, as a footnote makes clear, in terms of cost of production and intrinsic value. In this we can be in complete agreement.

all our interest in the carved work, our sense of its richness, though it is tenfold less rich than the knots of grass beside it; of its delicacy, though it is a thousand fold less delicate; of its admirableness, though a millionfold less admirable; results from our consciousness of its being the work of poor, clumsy, toilsome man. Its true delightfulness depends on our discovering in it the record of thoughts, and intents, and trials, and heart-breakings—of recoveries and joyfulnesses of success: all this can be traced by a practised eye; but, granting it even obscure, it is presumed or understood; and in that is the worth of the thing, just as much as the worth of anything else we call precious.

His drawings are quite lovely and the book is full of them though it is not always clear how he intended them to illustrate the text. Here, however, he does go on a bit about gothic tracery.


He reaches towards the height of the gothic:

XXIII. The change of which I speak, is inexpressible in few words, but one more important, more radically influential, could not be. It was the substitution of the line for the mass, as the element of decoration. (60)

Now, the great pause was at the moment when the space and the dividing stone-work were both equally considered. It did not last fifty years. (61)

He hated what came next. Lol.

It would be too painful a task to follow further the caricatures of form, and eccentricities of treatment, which grow out of this singular abuse—the flattened arch, the shrunken pillar, the lifeless ornament, the tiny moulding, the distorted and extravagant foliation, until the time came when, over these wrecks and remnants, deprived of all unity and principle, rose the foul torrent of the renaissance, and swept them all away. (68)

There is another awesome footnote comment on the paragraph that follows this:

The closing paragraph is very pretty –but unfortunately–nonsense. The want of truth was only a part, and by no means an influential one, of general disease. All possible shades of human folly and licentiousness meet in late Gothic and renaissance architecture, and corrupt, in all directions at once, the arts which are their exponents. (68)

Aphorism 7: The guilt and harm of amiable and well meant lying (30)

Aphorism 8: Truth cannot be persisted in without pains; but is worth them (31)

Aphorism 9: The nature and dignity of imagination (33)

Aphorism 10: The proper structural use of iron (40)

Aphorism 11: The inviolability of Divine Law not of necessity but of ordinance (43)

Aphorism 12: Great painting never deceives. Compare, and add to this aphorism as part of it, the fourth paragraph of this chapter (45-46, how hard he makes you work! Especially as the 4th chapter is all about sin)

Aphorism 13: (expanded afterwards in “Stones of Venice”) The facing brick with marble is only a great form of Mosaic, and perfectly admissible. (50)

Aphorism 14: The proper colours of Architecture are those of natural stones (52)

Aphorism 15: Cast-iron ornamentation barbarous (56)

Aphorism 16: Tracery must never be considered or imagined as flexible (62)

The Lamp of Power

It’s not the size that counts really…but actually no, it is the size that counts.

V. While, therefore, it is not to be supposed that mere size will ennoble a mean design, yet every increase of magnitude will bestow upon it a certain degree of nobleness: so that it is well to determine at first, whether the building is to be markedly beautiful or markedly sublime; and if the latter, not to be withheld by respect to smaller parts from reaching largeness of scale; provided only, that it be evidently in the architect’s power to reach at least that degree of magnitude which is the lowest at which sublimity begins, rudely definable as that which will make a living figure look less than life beside it. (74)

VIII. What is needful in the setting forth of magnitude in height, is right also in the marking it in area—let it be gathered well together. … Of the many broad divisions under which architecture may be considered, none appear to me more significant than that into buildings whose interest is in their walls, and those whose interest is in the lines dividing their walls. In the Greek temple the wall is as nothing; the entire interest is in the detached columns and the frieze they bear; in French Flamboyant, and in our detestable Perpendicular, the object is to get rid of the wall surface, and keep the eye altogether on tracery of line; in Romanesque work and Egyptian, the wall is a confessed and honored member, and the light is often allowed to fall on large areas of it, variously decorated. Now, both these principles are admitted by Nature, the one in her woods and thickets, the other in her plains, and cliffs, and waters; but the latter is pre-eminently the principle of power, and, in some sense, of beauty also. For, whatever infinity of fair form there may be in the maze of the forest, there is a fairer, as I think, in the surface of the quiet lake; and I hardly know that association of shaft or tracery, for which I would exchange the warm sleep of sunshine on some smooth, broad, human-like front of marble. (77-78)

There ensues then a little discussion with himself, he wrote originally:

IX. This, then, being, as I think, one of the peculiar elements of sublime architecture, it may be easily seen how necessarily consequent upon the love of it will be the choice of a form approaching to the square for the main outline.

In the footnote he comments upon himself (lol, yet I could never object to sarcasm against the love of the dividend):

Yes–I daresay! but how are you first to get the love of it? To love sublime architecture is one thing; to love a sublime dividend or a sublime percentage is another–and to love a large smoking room or billiard room, yet another (79)

He s very caustic here throughout the footnotes about those who tear beautiful buildings down to erect rubbish in their place. But I confess I really rather love this:

So that, after size and weight, the Power of architecture may be said to depend on the quantity (whether measured in space or intenseness) of its shadow; and it seems to me, that the reality of its works, and the use and influence they have in the daily life of men (as opposed to those works of art with which we have nothing to do but in times of rest or of pleasure) require of it that it should express a kind of human sympathy, by a measure of darkness as great as there is in human life: and that as the great poem and great fiction generally affect us most by the majesty of their masses of shade, and cannot take hold upon us if they affect a continuance of lyric sprightliness, but must be serious often, and sometimes melancholy, else they do not express the truth of this wild world of ours; so there must be, in this magnificently human art of architecture, some equivalent expression for the trouble and wrath of life, for its sorrow and its mystery: and this it can only give by depth or diffusion of gloom, by the frown upon its front, and the shadow of its recess…And among the first habits that a young architect should learn, is that of thinking in shadow, not looking at a design in its miserable liny skeleton; but conceiving it as it will be when the dawn lights it, and the dusk leaves it; when its stones will be hot and its crannies cool; when the lizards will bask on the one, and the birds build in the other. (84)

That is so beautiful, you should pause here read it again.

It is not fair of me to pick out the beautiful and follow it on immediately with the utterly ridiculous. Yet I must.

Another hilarious footnote:

I have written many passages that are one-sided or incomplete; and which therefore are misleading if read without their context of development. But I know of no other paragraph in any of my books so definitely false as this. I did not know the history of Venice when I wrote it… (96)

so to summarise:

pressing now only the conclusion, as practically useful as it is certain, that the relative majesty of buildings depends more on the weight and vigor of their masses than on any other attribute of their design: mass of everything, of bulk, of light, of darkness, of color, not mere sum of any of these, but breadth of them; not broken light, nor scattered darkness, nor divided weight, but solid stone, broad sunshine, starless shade. (99)

Lovely, but then lol again:

It is not modern work only; we have built like frogs and mice since the thirteenth century (except only in our castles). (101)

I find quite interesting his ranting about domestic architecture — his demands on it are so entirely impossible with the number of human beings alive upon the planet in his time, much less ours. Yet he is right to damn it, and I rather like his prescriptions for shadows and more shadows.

Of domestic architecture what need is there to speak? How small, how cramped, how poor, how miserable in its petty neatness is our best! how beneath the mark of attack, and the level of contempt, that which is common with us! What a strange sense of formalised deformity, of shrivelled precision, of starved accuracy, of minute misanthropy have we, as we leave even the rude streets of Picardy for the market towns of Kent! Until that street architecture of ours is bettered, until we give it some size and boldness, until we give our windows recess, and our walls thickness, I know not how we can blame our architects for their feebleness in more important work; their eyes are inured to narrowness and slightness: can we expect them at a word to conceive and deal with breadth and solidity? They ought not to live in our cities; there is that in their miserable walls which bricks up to death men’s imaginations, as surely as ever perished forsworn nun. An architect should live as little in cities as a painter. Send him to our hills, and let him study there what nature understands by a buttress, and what by a dome. (101)

Aphorism 17: The two intellectual powers of Architecture: veneration and domination [lol]

Aphorism 18: The religious nobleness of Byzantine architecture

The Lamp of Beauty

Ah, this strange, and strangely limited, Victorian ideal of beauty.

III. Now, I would insist especially on the fact, of which I doubt not that further illustrations will occur to the mind of every reader, that all most lovely forms and thoughts are directly taken from natural objects; because I would fain be allowed to assume also the converse of this, namely, that forms which are not taken from natural objects must be ugly. (105)

He holds by this but does, to be fair, note that most of what he writes later is all wrong (see aphorisms, lol). He has a grand diatribe on writing and alphabets and their inherent ugliness, this in particular is enjoyable about ribands. I have never given much thought to ribands to be honest, how sad that it can only flutter.

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. Never use it. Let the flowers come loose if they cannot keep together without being tied; leave the sentence unwritten if you cannot write it on a tablet or book, or plain roll of paper. I know what authority there is against me. (112)

On the separations of work and art (though art emerges from a combination of manual and intellectual work) so it is more about ensuring tools and certain kinds of purely functional space remain plain. Curious concept.

XIX. Hence then a general law, of singular importance in the present day, a law of simple common sense,—not to decorate things belonging to purposes of active and occupied life. Wherever you can rest, there decorate; where rest is forbidden, so is beauty. You must not mix ornament with business, any more than you may mix play. Work first, and then rest. Work first and then gaze, but do not use golden ploughshares, nor bind ledgers in enamel. Do not thrash with sculptured flails: nor put bas-reliefs on millstones. (119)

He has a particular diatribe against railway stations which seems unfair — I mean, Glasgow Central or LAs Union Station is a wonder and I wouldn’t hear a word against them, but from a man who perceives no beauty in iron I suppose there can be no wonder at all:

XXI. Another of the strange and evil tendencies of the present day is to the decoration of the railroad station. Now, if there be any place in the world in which people are deprived of that portion of temper and discretion which are necessary to the contemplation of beauty, it is there. It is the very temple of discomfort, and the only charity that the builder can extend to us is to show us, plainly as may be, how soonest to escape from it. The whole system of railroad travelling is addressed to people who, being in a hurry, are therefore, for the time being, miserable. No one would travel in that manner who could help it—who had time to go leisurely over hills and between hedges, instead of through tunnels and between banks: at least those who would, have no sense of beauty so acute as that we need consult it at the station. (121)

but also has a go at Kings College, so it’s a least equal opportunity. Lol.

What a host of ugly church towers have we in England, with pinnacles at the corners, and none in the middle! How many buildings like King’s College Chapel at Cambridge, looking like tables upside down, with their four legs in the air! What! it will be said, have not beasts four legs? Yes, but legs of different shapes, and with a head between them. So they have a pair of ears: and perhaps a pair of horns: but not at both ends. Knock down a couple of pinnacles at either end in King’s College Chapel, and you will have a kind of proportion instantly. (126)

another (!) hilarious aside

Never give separate mouldings separate colors (I know this is heresy, but I never shrink from any conclusions, however contrary to human authority, to which I am led by observance of natural principles) (138)

Aphorism 19: All beauty is founded on the laws of natural form [footnote: The Aphorism is wholly true: but the following application of it, often trivial or false. See the subsequent notes. lol.] (105)

Aphorism 20: That is most “natural” which is most easily and ordinarily seen [footnote: This is an excellent aphorism; and I am proud of having so early seen the danger of anatomical study, so often dwelt on in my later works.] [lol.] (106)

Aphorism 21: Symmetry is not abstraction [footnote: ‘This short Aphorism is one of the most important in the book’] (132)

Aphorism 22: Perfect sculpture should be a part of the severest architecture (135)

The Lamp of Life

I think this might have been my favourite lamp.

no inconsiderable part of the essential characters of Beauty depended on the expression of vital energy in organic things … things in other respects alike, as in their substance, or uses, or outward forms, are noble or ignoble in proportion to the fulness of the life which either they themselves enjoy, or of whose action they bear the evidence, as sea sands are made beautiful by their bearing the seal of the motion of the waters. And this is especially true of all objects which bear upon them the impress of the highest order of creative life, that is to say, of the mind of man: they become noble or ignoble in proportion to the amount of the energy of that mind which has visibly been employed upon them. But most peculiarly and imperatively does the rule hold with respect to the creations of Architecture, which being properly capable of no other life than this, and being not essentially composed of things pleasant in themselves,—as music of sweet sounds, or painting of fair colors, but of inert substance,—depend, for their dignity and pleasurableness in the utmost degree, upon the vivid expression of the intellectual life which has been concerned in their production. (148)

How lovely are these figures from the Cathedral of Rouen, which I quite wish to visit.


XXIV. 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? It may be the hardest work possible, and the harder because so much pleasure was taken in it; but it must have been happy too, or it will not be living. (173)

Was the worker happy…I forgive Ruskin all his privileged pomposity just for this.

Aphorism 23: All things are noble in proportion to their fulness of Life. (148)

Aphorism 24: Perfect finish characterizes alike the best architecture and the best painting. (154)

Aphorism 25: All good work must be free hand-work. Compare §24

Aphorism 26: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might;” and no other might.

The Lamp of Memory

This now, this is the most doubtful lamp. There are too many of us for whom there were no good old days.

How cold is all history how lifeless all imagery, compared to that which the living nation writes, and the uncorrupted marble bears! how many pages of doubtful record might we not often spare, for a few stones left one upon another! The ambition of the old Babel builders was well directed for this world: there are 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; it is well to have, not only what men have thought and felt, but what their hands have handled, and their strength wrought, and their eyes beheld, all the days of their life. (178)

Men men men and their metaphorical meanings.

it is in becoming memorial or monumental that a true perfection is attained by civil and domestic buildings; and this partly as they are, with such a view, built in a more stable manner, and partly as their decorations are consequently animated by a metaphorical or historical meaning. (178)

We return again to domestic building, and again a betrayal of privilege. Not that I don’t wish all of us might have a home worthy and lasting to pass down through the ages. But ages must also have room to build anew, and it must be very hard to live comfortably in a temple.

I do love the diatribe against the Jerry builders though, before they were known as such I think.

As regards domestic buildings, there must always be a certain limitation to views of this kind in the power, as well as in the hearts, of men; still I cannot but think it an evil sign of a people when their houses are built to last for one generation only. There is a sanctity in a good man’s house which cannot be renewed in every tenement that rises on its ruins…I say that if men lived like men indeed, their 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’ honor, or that[Pg 171] 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. And I look upon those pitiful concretions of lime and clay which spring up in mildewed forwardness out of the kneaded fields about our capital—upon those thin, tottering, foundationless shells of splintered wood and imitated stone—upon those gloomy rows of formalised minuteness, alike without difference and without fellowship, as solitary as similar—not merely with the careless disgust of an offended eye, not merely with sorrow for a desecrated landscape, but with a painful foreboding that the roots of our national greatness must be deeply cankered when they are thus loosely struck in their native ground; that those comfortless and unhonored dwellings are the signs of a great and spreading spirit of popular discontent; that they mark the time when every man’s aim is to be in some more elevated sphere than his natural one, and every man’s past life is his habitual scorn; 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; and the crowded tenements of a struggling and restless population differ only from the tents of the Arab or the Gipsy by their less healthy openness to the air of heaven, and less happy choice of their spot of earth; by their sacrifice of liberty without the gain of rest, and of stability without the luxury of change. (179-80)

This again…over the top, yet somehow embodies all the terrible Christian earnestness of which Ruskin is capable.

For, indeed, the greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, or in its gold. Its glory is in its Age, and in that deep sense of voicefulness, of stern watching, of mysterious sympathy, nay, even of approval or condemnation, which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing waves of humanity. It is in their lasting witness against men, in their quiet contrast with the transitional character of all things, in the strength which, through the lapse of seasons and times, and the decline and birth of dynasties, and the changing of the face of the earth, and of the limits of the sea, maintains its sculptured shapeliness for a time insuperable, connects forgotten and following ages with each other, and half constitutes the identity, as it concentrates the sympathy, of nations; it is in that golden stain of time, that we are to look for the real light, and color, and preciousness of architecture; and it is not until a building has assumed this character, till it has been entrusted with the fame, and hallowed by the deeds of men, till its walls have been witnesses of suffering, and its pillars rise out of the shadows of death, that its existence, more lasting as it is than that of the natural objects of the world around it, can be gifted with even so much as these possess of language and of life. (186)

Aphorism 27: Architecture is to be made historical and preserved as such. (178)

Aphorism 28: The sanctity of home, for good men (179) [poor ladies]

Aphorism 29: The earth is an entail, not a possession. Compare §20. (185) [I rather like this one]

Aphorism 30: there is nothing here 🙁

Aphorism 31: Restoration, so called, is the worst manner of Destruction (194)

The Lamp of Obediance

This is maybe the maddest lamp, also the most reeking of Christianity and backward lookingness, if I can be forgiven for making that a noun.

I have named a principle to which I would now assign a definite place among those which direct that embodiment; the last place, not only as that to which its own humility would incline, but rather as belonging to it in the aspect of the crowning grace of all the rest; that principle, I mean, to which Polity owes its stability, Life its happiness, Faith its acceptance, Creation its continuance,—Obedience. (199)

This baffles me a bit. The why of it.

if, amidst the counter evidence of success attending opposite accidents of character and circumstance, any one conclusion may be constantly and indisputably drawn, it is this; that the architecture of a nation is great only when it is as universal and as established as its language; and when provincial differences of style are nothing more than so many dialects…this one condition has been constant, this one requirement clear in all places and at all times, that the work shall be that of a school, that no individual caprice shall dispense with, or materially vary, accepted types and customary decorations; and that from the cottage to the palace, and from the chapel to the basilica, and from the garden fence to the fortress wall, every member and feature of the architecture of the nation shall be as commonly current, as frankly accepted, as its language or its coin. (202)

This is some rantiness at its best

It may be said that this is impossible. It may be so—I fear it is so: I have nothing to do with the possibility or impossibility of it; I simply know and assert the necessity of it. If it be impossible, English art is impossible. Give it up at once. You are wasting time, and money, and energy upon it, and though you exhaust centuries and treasuries, and break hearts for it, you will never raise it above the merest dilettanteism. Think not of it. It is a dangerous vanity, a mere gulph in which genius after genius will be swallowed up, and it will not close. And so it will continue to be, unless the one bold and broad step be taken at the beginning. We shall not manufacture art out of pottery and printed stuffs; we shall not reason out art by our philosophy; we shall not stumble upon art by our experiments, not create it by our fancies: I do not say that we can even build it out of brick and stone; but there is a chance for us in these, and there is none else; and that chance rests on the bare possibility of obtaining the consent, both of architects and of the public, to choose a style, and to use it universally. (206)

Ah, the negative freedoms…

VIII. It is almost impossible for us to conceive, in our present state of doubt and ignorance, the sudden dawn of intelligence and fancy, the rapidly increasing sense of power and facility, and, in its proper sense, of Freedom, which such wholesome restraint would instantly cause throughout the whole circle of the arts. Freed from the agitation and embarrassment of that liberty of choice which is the cause of half the discomforts of the world (208)

this is lol all the way

I am confirmed in this impression by what I see passing among the states of Europe at this instant. All the horror, distress, and tumult which oppress the foreign nations, are traceable, among the other secondary causes through which God is working out His will upon them, to the simple one of their not having enough to do. (210)

Aphorism 32: There is no such thing as liberty (199)

Aphorism 33: The glory and use of restraint (208)

His final footnote is awesome. It reads:

I am well content to close my thirty-three aphorisms with this most comprehensive one;–and my fifty-five notes with this still more comprehensive reduction of them to practice for the modern reader:–Build nothing that you can possibly help,–and let no land on building leases. (210)

Ruskin, John (1988 [1849]) The Seven Lamps of Architecture. London: Century.

Sofia’s Cityscapes

Not much time to write about Sofia — not much time for anything at all. But it is a city I quite loved. Incredibly layered, much of the past gone it’s true, but the incredible Roman ruins of Serdica lie beneath it all, swathes of it opened up to view here and there across the centre city in often unlikely places.

The Greek inscription on the first city walls of Serdica, carved over the North and West gates of the city, reads:

Good luck!

The greatest and divine emporers, Ceasars Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Agustus, Germanicus, Sarmaticus, Father of the Fatherland, Greatest Pontiff and Lucius Aurelius Commodus, Germanicus, Sarmaticus, Father of the Fatherland, Leader of the Youth, gave to the city of the Serds a fortress walls when the Governor of the porvince of Thrace was Aselius Aemilianus, Envoy of the Emporer, Propraetore, appointed as governor of that same province.

Above sits a great mix of eras between and around the great communist boulevards and massive state buildings. I was reading Owen Hatherly, and so much of what he wrote about Warsaw, Berlin and all cities not Sofia still held true here. I am not sure how much I am still fascinated by this architecture, like everything else any promise of the early soviets crushed by a ponderous Stalinism…but probably still fascinated. It carves through the older city, yet leaves so much on either side completely untouched.

This city is full of life, grit, graffiti, architecture of many periods and styles, colour, noise, good public transportation (but confusing), delicious food.

While I might not have entirely agreed with the decision to quarantine ‘socialist’ art in the city’s outskirts, I confess did quite love seeing everything in one place.

And its special ode to Lenin.

The other monument to this era is, of course, housing. It’s own post.

A Terror of Cherubs

The only collective noun possible. I hate cherubs, hate their fat little bodies that no wings could possibly get off the ground, hate the mawkish sentimentality that they represent in a period where poverty was so high and infant mortality even higher. So I did not take pictures of the ubiquitous things until I could no longer help myself due to their ridiculousness. It could well be the result of the concupiscence of adult statues that fills Prague
These are quite hilarious, and in spite of myself possibly endearing, in their silly state on either side of a grandiose balcony:IMG_8640

IMG_8641Some more
And even more
An explosion of them in seemingly unconnected pieces from what seems like the very mouth of hell on the side of a church:
The worst is that our excursion into the Savarin Palace to visit the Museum of Communism revealed there are as many inside these Baroque monstrosities as there are outside:
And they didn’t stop with the Baroque, disturbingly enough:
This is only a slight taste of the cherub flesh surrounding you at all times, but I’ll leave you with a couple of more tasteful pictures that give a glimpse of the city, as I haven’t yet done that!



Prague’s Erogenous Zones

The exuberance of rococo nudity in Prague is stunning, in every sense of the term. Large well-endowed women stare down at you from facade after facade with only their stoney flesh to keep them warm:

IMG_9386 IMG_9387

Not my favourite style, but it is carried out with such panache I could not help but be impressed, if only with its absurdity:


I have never seen suggestively positioned, naked and possibly pregnant women used as supports for heavy masonry. The symbolism (or lack of it) fairly boggles the mind unlike the use of Atlas-type figures. They are wearing fish on their heads, however, so I suppose some symbolism is involved, as must also be the case for this guy with a chicken on his head (apologies he too is not nude, we’ll get to the men soon):


Birds are almost as common as naked human beings, and sometimes they came together

IMG_8669With the rococo I simply shrug, though the scale and imagination was most impressive. Unsurprisingly you can only see so many naked women without ceasing to be aware of them or continue taking pictures. What was striking, however, was that this nudity continues on through the ages. There are some beautiful and extremely saucy art nouveau facades, different from anything I have seen before:

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And statues as well

But the social realists have also gotten into the act — though a little more chastely:

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Modern sculpture is of course also represented:


We also found a splendid sign, unique in everything but the nudity, which could equally well predate or postdate everything else pictured here:


But it is not just the woman’s body that is celebrated, though the ladies far outnumber everyone else. This particular celebration has been painted so that it is camouflaged as much as possible, which is exactly what called my attention to it after such a surfeit of flaunting breasts over residential edifices:

IMG_9649I also loved this nonchalant (although well covered) pose on Prague’s famous Municipal House off of Namesti Republiky:


Perhaps some of the most hilarious images are of men and their favourite bits — everyone’s favourite bits apparently:

While at Ještěd Tower in Liberec there was a similar phenomenon, alien but very very male:

More penii and grinning laughing tourists were to be found in front of the Kafka Museum:


It was funny to later that same day run into this suspect statue up at the castle:

Altogether there is one almighty celebration of the human body happening all over Prague. Next — the unfortunate result.


The Monsters of Southwark Cathedral

They crouch beneath the eaves, bright proud glances and power full grown

Southwark Cathedral

They claw their way out through cracks in the flint and the stone of the walls. Emerge slowly, heavy lidded and weary as from a womb, their taloned limbs still to grow into the promise of their massive heads.

Southwark Cathedral

They mourn their sunlit exile from the river’s dark waters, their reduction to mere channels and spouts and perches for pigeons

Southwark Cathedral

And there is madness, tucked into cornered arrays of angles and planes and nothing means anything but the torrent of water that rushes through its vessel paying no mind to the vacant staring eyes

Southwark Cathedral

Endlessly, violently relieved of the weight of memory and ages by the mighty rushing of waters, relieved even of the precise crags of their own face.

The pigeons remain unafraid.


Art, gods and stone

Creation awes me, the act of it. And what we have the capacity to create. And both the time span and scope of humankind’s run on earth. I love how things are so much the same and yet so very different…we all love, but the ideal of love is different. We all fear, but the form of our fears is different. We all speak, but language is so different, and I wonder how much we are shaped by these things, how much of them we shape, how the shaping happens.

I went to the British Museum the last day in London, I’ve been there before but every time I go I see new things that I fall in love with, that remain in my memory. Though I know they are stolen. And this visit I found several panels like this, that I know I have seen before but never loved

Figures drawn from stone, once alive, and now disappearing. And they linger as they go, they would have been already gone if they had not been stolen. And to me their true beauty lies in this return, this state halfway between sculpture and stone…they remind me of Michelangelo’s slaves escaping from the marble, unfinished. But the slaves are an emergence and these represent a death and I find both hauntingly beautiful. And they fascinate me with the confusion between rock and flesh.

The British Museum is overwhelming of course, after a short time the mind stops taking in things really, overburdened with beauty in glass cases. There was also a stunning display of American prints and etchings from Hopper to Pollock…I love black and white drawings and etchings as well and their collection is fantastic. Go see it if you can.

The other things that stood out this trip? Hawks. I love them in their beauty and purity and unconscious cruelty, they are ultimate predators and represent freedom in a way that few other animals can…and I found this

from ancient Egypt, and this:

from ancient assyria, and this

er…from China perhaps? China I think, or possibly Tibet. And each haunting in its own way, showing something deep rooted to be found across such space and time, something profound. I’ve been trying to write it but my words erase its profundity so I shall just leave it for the now.

Still, I have never been to the British museum when the sun was shining, and that itself was beautiful, the architecture is cold and neo-classical, but the light made it beautiful.