John Ruskin’s essay “The Lamp of Memory” explores the role architecture has in culture. In the work, Ruskin promotes the “lamp of memory” as a standard by which all good architecture should be judged. He asserts that buildings should “be made historical and preserved as such.” Ruskin argues that architecture should last in order to reflect for future generations the culture of the time in which buildings were constructed. Edifices should be built to endure, and they should be decorated according with embellishments of an appropriate “metaphorical or historical meaning.” Good buildings will reflect to future generations the standards and culture of the era in which they were built. In exploring the necessity of preservation of architecture, Ruskin comments on how such sustaining is essential for humanity:
Men cannot benefit those that are with them as they can benefit those who come after them; and of all the pulpits from which human voice is ever sent forth, there is none from which it reaches so far as from the grave.
Nor is there, indeed, any present loss, in such respect, for futurity. Every human action gains in honour, in grace, in all true magnificence, by its regard to things that are to come. It is the far sight, the quiet and confident patience, that, above all other attributes, separate man from man, and near him to his Maker; and there is no action nor art, whose majesty we may not measure by this test. Therefore, when we build, let us think that we build for ever. Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labour and wrought substance of them, " See! this our fathers did for us.”:28 For, indeed, the greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, [233/234] 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 colour, 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.
Here Ruskin has established that the true measure of a good building is how well it represents to future “waves of humanity” its origins and age. Architects should attend to a building’s ability to withstand prosperity.
1. How does Ruskin establish his authority to discuss the glory of buildings?
2. Ruskin’s sentence above that begins “It is in . . . ” is an aggregate of many claims. How does his repetition of “it is in,” referring to where the glory of a building lies, strengthen his assertion?
3. How would Ruskin judge modern architecture (i.e. that of the Rock)? If a building is decaying or looks ungracefully aged, does this not mean it has been “washed by the passing waves of humanity”?
4. From where do we determine what old architecture is reflective of a nation’s “identity”?
Last modified 2 March 2011