Nevertheless, there was and continues to be a problem. Romantic, social reformer, artist and critic John Ruskin clearly articulated how the polemic of revolution obscured their view of the reality surrounding them, "There is no such thing in the universe. There can never be. The stars have it not; the earth has it not; the sea has it not...if there be any one principle more widely than another confessed by every utterance, or more sternly than another imprinted on every atom, of the visible creation, that principle is not Liberty, but Law."
Freedom and Expression
Maintaining Ruskin's primary focus on architecture, I'll ask what type of freedom was being sought? Freedom from nature, such as the "law" of gravity and the properties of materials? Well, certainly there was the urge to shun traditional materials in favor of industrially produced ones such as steel and portland cement by the mid-19th century. However, the rejection of traditional materials and corresponding embrace of industrial materials along with the new forms made possible by them would only provide a short lived illusion of freedom. The architects' exploration of form soon became exhausted, of course being subject to the physical properties of the new materials. The turn to industry for freedom undermined traditional manufacture and craft, ironically diminishing the total available materials, means and methods available to the field of architecture. The construction materials of industry have since been increasingly standardized leading to further consolidation of production thru global distribution. Admittedly, advances in engineering and now computer technology occasionally generate a new material or method; however, this is often at great economic and ecological cost. Ultimately there is today scant prospects to liberate architecture from the ever limited material selection of industry.
|Modern São Paulo, Brazil|
As previously alluded to, there was also an autonomy that was being sought for, the freedom for the architect as an artist to pursue his art. Ruskin here challenges architecture as an individual art and provides several points of reason in support that also demonstrate that such an individualistic approach undermines freedom more generally. He opens his essay by maintaining that architecture is, "the embodiment of the Polity, Life, History and Religious Faith of nations." Otherwise stated, architecture is wholly civic, the very antithesis of an individual activity. Yet, in so being it is elevated beyond the possible caprice of any one individual to attain the crowning grace of the arts. He goes on to stress this exalting social dimension of architecture indicating that it, "requires for its practice the cooperation of bodies of men", and also that is extends a, "continual influence over the emotions of daily life." Added to this is the temporal dimension, architecture having the potential to affect the individual and collective life of families and peoples over many successive generations. Ruskin allows that there is opportunity for a measure of individual expression in architecture, in point of fact that it can't be helped; however, he maintains that the arts of painting and sculpture are more intrinsically expressive as a medium in composition and use. Reaffirming the social nature of architecture he adds that the restraint brought to bear ought to be, "commensurate with the greatness of the numbers whose labor it concentrates or whose interest it concerns."
Style as a Linguistic Analogy
"Style" is a term that has been sullied, vilified really in contemporary architectural practice. It has been ridiculed as affected, copyist, unoriginal, pastiche, kitsch and every other derisive label that can be mustered. Yet, style is nothing more than a convention, architectural in nature. Similarities can be drawn to language, a convention linguistic in nature. For example, out of all the possible sounds within the range of what can be physically voiced and heard by human beings, in the process of maturation we "copy" a few and discard the rest which constitute our language or alternatively our "style" of communication. That language is limited is uncontroversial. That a fully developed language has an infinite range of expression is likewise uncontroversial. The fact that many other people use the same communication style, "language" is the social benefit that makes it extraordinarily beneficial. Our lives are better because of it. Ruskin makes the case that infinite expression and similar social benefits hold true for our built environment, a culture adhering to an architectural style.
Arnolfini Wedding, Jan van Eyck
“Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty if only we have the eyes to see them.” - RIP John Ruskin
Contributed by Patrick Webb