Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Ruskin: Global Ecology

John Ruskin's conception of architectural agency is wonderfully global and, thus, just as relevant for the 21st as for the 19th century. In order to eradicate "the pestilence of the Renaissance" and the monopoly of "Classicalism" in western culture, Ruskin develops a global ecology of influence. Architecture becomes the total synthesis of multi-regional influences that are both cultural and environmental. When Ruskin published The Stones of Venice, scholars knew almost nothing about the chronology of medieval buildings. As a result, many of Ruskin's premises have been discounted by 20th-century scholarship. When positivist art history (Panofsky, Wittkower, Krautheimer, etc.) migrated from Germany to America after World War II, it managed to fully banish the Ruskinian world-view that had dominated for a century, since Charles Eliot Norton's establishment of a Ruskinian art program at Harvard. The Germanic tradition (via Panofskian iconology) reduced art history into social history. It is interesting to note that, within his lifetime, Ruskin resisted this development in his encounters of early positivists rampaging through Europe's archives. For Ruskin, the positivists spent too much time studying social documents and less time studying the works of art. To a certain extent, I am trying to reconstruct the Ruskinian world-view if only to reconstruct a lost century in American cultural history. So, I would like to focus on Ruskin's globalist paradigm.

For Ruskin, classical and Renaissance architecture should be abolished for being developmentally static, formulaic and easily reproducible by technological media. As a style of grand perfection, the classical vocabularly disguises the process of manufacture. If Ruskin were to use a contemporary situation, he would criticize a mass-produced classical molding from Home Depot because it disguises the oppressed Chinese factory worker that manufactured it, as well as the Hispanic day-laborer who will install it in a suburban home. A global view of architecture allows both China and Mexico to participate in the production of architectural meaning (although Ruskin felt that Chinese and Mesoamerican architecture were as static as modern European classicism, and he preferred Islamic and medieval paradigms).

Ruskin makes a pretty interesting argument in "The Quarry," ch. 1 of The Stones of Venice. Modern architecture begins with the Roman inheritance that gets transformed by the influences of two climatic and cultural extremes from the north and the south. A "glacier stream" from the north (Lombard, Norman) hardens it, while and a "lava stream" from the south (Arab, Byzantine) heats it. Ruskin chooses Venice as his ideal because it illustrates the process of cooling and thawing as it meets between the geographic extremes. In Venice, three global cultures come together to produce a processual synthesis. The classical inheritance of Rome, the frigid barbarian north and the luscious global south all come together in Venetian Gothic to produce the single most important lesson for the architectural future.

Ruskin's subjective theory of architecture is globally compelling, although problematic from a variety of view points. For instance, Postcolonial discourse has criticized Ruskin for asserting Venice as a colonialist prototype. Ruskin's Venice is compelling because it resembles the processes of hybridization that the British Empire must execute in India and Africa, in order to dominate. See, for instance, Daryl Ogden "The Architecture of Empire: 'Oriental' Gothic and the Problem of British Identity in Ruskin's Venice," Victorian Literature and Culture 25 (1997), pp. 109-120. Ruskin's architectural chronologies and real geographies are difficult to sustain. For instance, he sees Byzantine and Romanesque architecture as part of a unity, which informed both Byzantine and Romanesque Revival movements in the 19th century. It is difficult to distinguish Byzantine and Romanesque elements in the style of H. H. Richardson, for example. Even if it's not possible to adhere to all the details of Ruskin's schema, we must admit that we still use his concepts of influence and cultural hybridization.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States