John Ruskin and Modern Contemporary Architecture

Truth, Beauty, and the Reflection of God: John Ruskin’s The Seven Lamps of Architecture and The Stones of Venice as Palimpsests for Modern and Contemporary Architecture

Mark Hall (Oral Roberts University)

A palimpsest can be understood in two ways, both of which are applicable here. It can be defined as that text which underlies another text (an ur-text)—a present text based on a past one (palingenesis) or determined by it (ananke)—or a text that influences something not of its own genre—art, music, architecture. In architecture palimpsest means the shadow of a past structure that is somehow a part of the new one that has been built. In the The Seven Lamps of Architecture by John Ruskin, the lamps represent seven laws or spirits of architecture itself—sacrifice, truth, power, beauty, life, memory, and obedience. He sees these as the framework for architectural creation and design. In The Stones of Venice Ruskin points out the three virtues of a building: (1) “That it act well,” (2) “That it speak well,” and (3) “That it look well.” With these two Victorian texts as palimpsests for modern and contemporary architecture, a link to the past is established based on foundational moral, ethical, philosophical, and religious principles that are reflected in the buildings themselves. When first principles are applied, aesthetic integrity is maintained, truth and beauty are manifested, and the reflection of God is contained in the building itself. The architecture may also point beyond itself to something else, complementing it, expanding it, or transforming it (such as in Gothic architecture). Applying these Ruskinian laws and virtues to today’s architecture provides a framework that grounds the discipline in meaningful theological and philosophical underpinnings from which inspiration and creativity may emerge. A contemporary example of this is Daniel Lebeskind who was an architect for the Ground Zero Site design. His approach to the project demonstrated his understanding of the World Trade Center as a palimpsest to the new construction happening in New York City. By applying the principles of Ruskin and the inspiration and creativity of architects like Libeskind, today’s architecture can recapture and maintain the beauty that some of the more contemporary designs have given up for utility and cost.