John Ruskin’s “The Lamp of Memory” (text) displays a strong belief in the ability of architecture to transfer the mindsets and beliefs of the past to future generations. He contends that all architecture is inherently valuable, so long as it carries with it a sense of significance. Ruskin emphasizes his preference for “the rudest work that tells a story or records a fact,” as opposed to, “the richest without meaning.” The significance of an architectural work comes not from its size or grandeur, Ruskin argues, but rather its intricacies and unique features. The reverence he feels for any genuine architectural work from a past era evokes the sense of responsibility he feels in passing things down to his descendents. Ruskin believes the body is innately tied to the architecture of the home, claiming that “we cannot remember without her.” This is why he becomes so defiant at the possibility of renovating the old.
Do not let us talk then of restoration. The thing is a Lie from beginning to end. You may make a model of a building as you may of a corpse, and your model may have the shell of the old walls within it as your cast might have the skeleton, with what advantage I neither see nor care: but the old building is destroyed, and that more totally and mercilessly than if it had sunk into a heap of dust, or melted into a mass of clay: more has been gleaned out of desolated Nineveh than ever will be out of re-built Milan. But, it is said, there may come a necessity for restoration! Granted. Look the necessity full in the face, and understand it on its own terms. It is a necessity for destruction. Accept it as such, pull the building down, throw its stones into neglected corners, make ballast of them, or mortar, if you will; but do it honestly, and do not set up a Lie in their place. And look that necessity in the face before it comes, and you may prevent it. The principle of modern times, (a principle which, I believe, at least in France, to be systematically acted on by the masons, in order to find themselves work, as the abbey of St. Ouen was pulled down by the magistrates of the town by way of giving work to some vagrants) is to neglect buildings first, and restore them afterwards. Take proper care of your monuments, and you will not need to restore them.
It also becomes evident that Ruskin remains so attached to the architecture of old because he refuses to accept the fact that contemporary society has come to neglect the beauty of nature. As the city industrializes, Ruskin yearns for the natural, and realizes that a similar essence is still embodied in the buildings that surround him.
The very quietness of nature is gradually withdrawn from us; thousands who once in their necessarily prolonged travel were subjected to an influence, from the silent sky and slumbering fields, more effectual than known or confessed, now bear with them even there the ceaseless fever of their life; and along the iron veins that traverse the frame of our country, beat and flow the fiery pulses of its exertion, hotter and faster every hour. All vitality is concentrated through those throbbing arteries into the central cities; the country is passed over like a green sea by narrow bridges, and we are thrown back in continually closer crowds upon the city gates. The only influence which can in any wise there take the place of that of the woods and fields, is the power of ancient Architecture.50 Do not part with it for the sake of the formal square, or of the fenced and planted walk, nor of the goodly street nor opened quay. The pride of a city is not in these.
The “pride” of Ruskin’s world comes from the stories of the past. He believes we will only be able to recount these stories, of memory and of nature, through the preservation of the ancient world around us. Restoration is inadequate and produces falsities; true conservation of England’s rich architectural history is the only thing that allows nature to avoid the influence of the cityscape, and memory to pass down to future generations.
1. Does Ruskin gain more credibility based on the pure emotion he seems to be pouring into this work? Why does his emotion seem so genuine?
2. What does Ruskin accomplish by using a feminine pronoun to refer to architecture?
3. How does Ruskin’s argument for the sanctity of architecture evoke Carlyle’s discussion of statues and their significance?
4. How does Ruskin create the sense of a personal connection between architecture and the human condition within the reader’s mind?
Last modified 28 February 2011