Friday, 14 December 2012

Prince Charles and John Ruskin: a Tale of Two Cultural Conservatives

“While your divine intelligence and will, Imperator Caesar, were engaged in acquiring the right to command the world,…..I hardly dared , in view of your serious employments, to publish my writings and long considered ideas on architecture, for fear of subjecting myself to your displeasure by an unseasonable interruption……I began to write this work for you, because I saw that you have built and are now building extensively, and that in future also you will take care that our public and private buildings shall be worthy to go down to posterity by the side of your other splendid achievements. I have drawn up definite rules to enable you, by observing them, to have personal knowledge of the quality both of existing buildings and of those which are yet to be constructed. For in the following books I have disclosed all the principles of the art.”

The Ten Books on Architecture: Vitruvius  (80-15 BC)

The Ten Books on Architecture by Vitruvius, the only text on the subject to have come down to us from ancient Greece and Rome, provides not only a manual of Classical architecture but  also provides a clear insight into the nature of the politics of the time. The fact that Vitruvius not only dedicated the book to Caesar but claimed that his book
“disclosed all the principles of the art” provides, for me, also  a certain amount of humour since today, no architectural theorist would claim to have settled, finally and irrevocably, all theoretical controversies surrounding architecture. However, while no two architectural theorists can agree on everything, one British architectural theorist, namely Prince Charles seems to have acquired a quite remarkable level of certitude in his own beliefs.
Prince Charles first  intervention in the debate on architecture came  in the 1980s. This  consisted of  a  television program and a book, both entitled  “A Vision of Britain.” In the television program he examined a drawing, illustrating the  primitive hut of classical architectural theory, a group of tree trunks which fortuitously grew close together with branches strewn across the top forming rafters and beams. 

From this he seemed to   conclude that the Classical style of architecture, since it derived from nature was  therefore  eternally relevant, seemingly appropriate in all times and places. Since that time he opened the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment and founded the village of Poundbury. He has also conducted high-profile interventions into developments such as the Chelsea Barracks site effectively torpedoing the design by Rogers Stirk & Harbour, insisting his preferred design “relates to nature.” 

Leaving aside the issue that deliberately scuppering an architectural project does raise very real constitutional issues, he insists he does not advocate simply a style such as Classicism. In a speech he gave to The Royal Institute of British Architects in 2009 he  stated:
“I am sorry if I somehow left the faintest impression that I wished to kick-start some kind of “style war” between Classicists and Modernists; or that I somehow wanted to drag the world back to the eighteenth century.”

His approach, it seems deals not with style but with social issues such as “bottom-up” planning, architecture which deals with problem solving. The antithesis of this might be seen as those obsessed with form and Prince Charles admits classicists can be as guilty of this as modernists. He states:

“I propose to speak of “organic” rather than Classical or Traditional architecture
And this, he partly explains is:

“one which is informed by traditional practice, and by traditional attitudes to the natural world”

But here, he seems to have embraced a rather circular form of reasoning.

The idea that Classical architecture, self-evidently relates to nature is rather more contentious than Prince Charles seems to realise. The subject has been discussed down the ages, especially during the 18th and 19th Centuries  when the subject of the hypothetical origins of classical architecture in nature became a huge bone of contention between various architectural theorists. Leaving aside the views of Vitruvius on the origins of architecture, the primitive classical hut was basically an idea invented by 18th Century  theorists such as Abbe Laugier in France and William Chambers in Britain. This led to a more rational conception of classical architecture; Laugier argued that the five classical orders were based on columns and hence should only be used as freestanding elements and never in relief.  In the 19th Century, British architecture turned towards a revival of the Gothic. This style had never entirely died out, surviving in unlikely quarters such as  18th Century notions of the picturesque, keeping the  style alive until its  19th Century   re-flowering.   Augustus Welby Pugin, architect of the  Houses of Parliament would only countenance  a Gothic rather than Classical approach. Indeed, he believed Classical architecture was flawed from its very inception. A primitive timber hut may have been the inspiration behind the Greek Classical Temple. But these forms cannot simply be transposed from timber to stone. A key example of this were triglyphs. Triglyphs were the vertical channels on the frieze of a Classical temple which represented the ends of timber rafters. The features were considered to be representations since the frieze of a Classical temple was constructed in stone, not timber. And hence, this motif, when reproduced in stone, indicated that the architecture no longer truthfully expressed the structure. 

Pugin wrote:


“Grecian architecture is essentially wooden in its construction….never did its professors possess either sufficient imagination or skill to conceive any departure from the original type… it is extraordinary that when the Greeks commenced building in stone the properties of this material did not suggest to them some different and improved mode of construction.”

  The other great instigator of the British Gothic revival was John Ruskin who shared with Pugin a dislike for Classical architecture. 
Ruskin wrote the book “The Stones of   Venice”, on the  Italian city in the shadow of the Alps, which he regarded, rather strangely as the birthplace of Gothic architecture. Here, he describes the kind of architecture he admires in the great chapter “The Nature of Gothic.” Ruskin makes much of the savageness of the northern climate and the quickening of energy which must accompany endeavours, qualities which people of the north expressed in their architecture. Ruskin was a great advocate of architecture which “relates to nature,” and firmly believed that in the context of Northern Europe, Classical architecture was incapable of fulfilling this role.

Ruskin, evokes the  British climate and landscape with its heathland, ice, snow; language which  amounts to a sort of   word-painting.

“we should err grievously in refusing either to recognize as an essential character of the existing architecture of the North, or to admit as a desirable character in that which it yet may be, this wildness of thought, and roughness of work; this look of mountain brotherhood between the cathedral and the Alps;”

Evidently, he considered Gothic to be a sort of ' organic' architecture. For instance, he wrote in ' The Seven Lamps of Architecture' the following on piers in Gothic cathedrals:

'the resemblance in its shafts and ribs to the external relations of stems and branches.. . . necessarily induces in the mind of the spectator a sense or belief of a correspondent internal structure; that is to say, of a fibrous and continuous strength from the root into the limbs... ' .

Taking Pugin’s argument, that classical architecture was an essentially dishonest imitation of a timber hut, he argued that there could be no beauty in architecture without truth. In what is arguably the greatest book ever written about architecture, "The Seven Lamps of Architecture", Ruskin devotes an entire chapter to "The Lamp of Truth." Here he eloquently condemns all forms of untruth in architecture. The first is

"The suggestion of a mode of  structure or support other  than  the true one:”

However, he also states

  "The architect is not bound to exhibit structure; nor are we to complain of him for concealing it, anymore than we should regret that the outer surfaces of the human frame conceals much of its anatomy; nevertheless , that  building will generally be the noblest, which to an intelligent eye discovers the great secrets of its structure, as an animal form does, although from a careless  observer they may be concealed".

  He also condemns
"The painting of surfaces to represent some other material than that of which they actually consist (as in the marbling of wood)"


"The use  of cast or machine-made  ornament of any kind.”

He argues that

"For it is not the material, but the absence of human labour, which makes the thing worthless:"

He despised the sort of architecture that was being produced all around him by the industrial revolution. He was employed as a consultant to the architect Benjamin Woodward who was designing the Museum of Natural History in Oxford  but resigned when he realised that the building would have some similarities with  a Victorian railway station, with stone and brick used at the front and iron and glass  at the back of the building. The Crystal Palace, built for the Great Exhibition of 1851 may have had a touch of Regency elegance about it, reminiscent of Nash, but Ruskin viewed it with similar disapproval. However, I would argue  that, as time went on, Ruskin began to have to have doubts about his rigid architectural conservatism.



In 1859, Ruskin produced essay on the subject of industrial materials, “ The Work of Iron, in Nature, Art &  Policy.” Iron, Ruskin states, can be seen in the British landscape in the form of ochrerous stains, that is oxidised iron or rust on hillsides or in streams. A conclusion that might be reasonably drawn from this is that metal, used as a material in architecture can relate to nature.

He states:

“what do you suppose dyes your tiles of cottage roof? You don’t paint them. It is nature who puts all that lovely vermilion onto the clay for you; and all that lovely vermilion is this oxide of iron.”

Whether he thought iron could produce appropriate forms for architecture can be gauged by the following statements. Architectural writers were so pre-occupied with the academic approach that there was much controversy over whether buildings realised with iron  could be considered to be architecture at all. Ruskin,  capable of almost schizophrenic views on this subject was able to write the following views in the 'The Seven Lamps of Architecture';
“True architecture does not admit iron as a constructive material.”
And again;

“the time is probably near when a new system of architectural laws will be developed adapted entirely to metallic construction.”

Here, for the first time, Ruskin acknowledges that new technology may fundamentally alter approaches to architecture. The French architect, Viollet-le-Duc, spent most of his career restoring his country’s cathedrals. He also wrote a number of great theoretical treatises on the nature of materials and embraced with rather more enthusiasm, the potential  new technology offered:

"We hear it maintained in the present day, as it was formerly, that iron cannot be employed in our edifices without dissembling its use, because this material is not suited to monumental forms. It would be more consistent with truth and reason to say that the monumental forms adopted, having resulted from the use of materials possessing  qualities other than those of iron, cannot be adapted to this latter material. The logical inference is that we should not continue to employ those forms, but should try to discover others that harmonise with the properties of iron.”

Here we can sense the stirrings of something new in architecture, detectable even in Ruskin.

The Gothic revival overturned the Classical tradition of axis and the orders and celebrated qualities such as asymmetry, originality and “truth to materials”. Once these ideas  had been accepted , the floodgates were opened to a wave of architectural innovation.

Prince Charles may feel that in the Georgian era, there was a sort of universal benchmark of quality, below which architecture did not seem to drop and that modern architecture has not achieved this. In many ways I would agree. However, there is at least one member of the Royal Family who seems to view with favour the work of at least one eminent modern architect. The Order of Merit is an award which is the personal gift of the Queen to bestow. In 1997 she gave the award to Norman Foster. 

( A version of this article appeared in The Salisbury Review).

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