Looking at Architecture with Ruskin
John Ruskin: The Argument of the Eye
The relation of a traveler to his guidebook is a sensitive one; an unsuitable choice can blight your expensive and brief visit to a distant city as surely as finding yourself there with an incompatible lover, or a fussy eater, or someone whose feet hurt. Anyone who has trudged across miles of strange streets to find himself looking at a dull municipal mural or museum that’s shut has some intimation of the delicacy of this relation; not only must your guidebook have its facts straight, it must understand what you have come there for.
For Venice, the Victorians had their reliable Baedekers and their abridged editions of Ruskin’s Stones of Venice, from which they imbibed new ideas, for instance that St. Mark’s did not look, as Mark Twain had put the representative view, like a “vast and warty bug taking a meditative walk,” but was beautiful instead. Ruskin is still a marvelous guide, stimulating if crochety—a marvelous guide but an unsafe ruler, someone has said. But until now, seeing Venice with Ruskin meant lugging the heavy three volumes of Stones in your carry-on, or taking a Xerox of the appendix, “Venetian Index”; and you would find using it difficult because of the way everything has been moved and changed.
Ruskin brought to Venice not the dutiful receptiveness with which the authors of most modern guides smile, like the Last Duchess, on everything, but a historical thesis, a strong preference for Venetian Gothic, a passion for Tintoretto, and a dislike of Titian, Renaissance architecture, and much else. His dislikes are as invigorating as his passions: “it is impossible to conceive a design more gross, more barbarous, more childish in conception, more servile in plagiarism, more insipid in result, more contemptible under every point of rational regard,” he tells you of Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore, which you had been thinking looked quite nice. He forces you to cling to your regard for Palladian building or abandon it, but it is the dialectic that is energizing, and educates the eye. As Charlotte Brontë wrote of Modern Painters, “I feel now as if I had been walking blindfolded—this book seems to give me eyes,” so do you need your eyes and wits about you here, if only to argue with this opinionated companion.
In this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle (November 14, p. 5), Alan Temko, the architecture critic, praising an office building complex planned for Levi Strauss, strikes out with truly Ruskinian intemperance at “preservationist spooks” and “the creepy Landmarks Advisory Board, whose adoration of the past verges on necrophilia” (the board had wanted some arches on a façade). In Manhattan a high-rise develops a Mansard roof; housing projects everywhere, in sudden defiance of many tenets of the modern style, sport the shed roofs and redwood siding of the northern California vernacular style. It is in the context, perhaps, of the growing division between the mandarins of modern public architecture and buildings that people actually like that …
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Ruskin’s Originality June 14, 1979