John Ruskin and the Humanity of the Builder

by John Matteson

In the grandeur of this cathedral, the act of seeing transforms from a necessity to a luxury. There is no aspect of the structure that fails to surprise and astonish the eye. I am attracted to the word “surprise” because it seems to me that much of the beauty of St. John the Divine lies in its unpredictability and its almost chaotic inclusiveness. In one space one finds a Poets’ Corner; another wall is dedicated to correspondence from prisoners. Stained glass windows not only portray the Passion and the Resurrection but also commemorate the sinking of the Titanic and celebrate the glories of ice hockey. The cathedral is both an architectural marvel and a shrine to human experience, in both its lowliest and its most exalted. Indeed, it seems that the greatness of this cathedral is that it is a vast metaphor for humanity: diverse but striving toward harmony, grand but imperfect, and always a work in progress.

It is appropriate that our conference on ethics in architecture takes place in this building, which is in itself a lesson in human nature and morality. But as we look around us at this Gothic splendor, we may also see in it questions that we must try to answer. Just what are the moral obligations of the architect? To whom are they owed? Can and should the ethical lessons of a Gothic cathedral be adapted to other, seemingly dissimilar building projects? Are the ethics of architecture finally reconcilable with the demands of a free-market economy? Because I happen to be an English professor instead of an architect, I find it most natural to answer these questions by appealing to literature.

Among the writers in the literary canon who thought seriously about architecture, probably the one most likely to help us answer these questions is John Ruskin, an art critic of the Victorian era. Ruskin’s aesthetic sense continually pressed him to consider how the experiences of art and architecture impress themselves upon individuals and their cultures. When we think about the nexus between ethics and architecture, I suspect that many of us think first, as a matter of reflex, of the obligations owed by the architect to the persons who will use the building. In other words, we tend to think principally in terms of the relationship between producer and consumer, and we assume this to be the most significant relationship in any activity related to commerce. Our ethics unconsciously orient themselves around the relationship between supply and demand.

Ruskin is valuable to us because he did not share these assumptions. He rejected the idea that buying and selling lay at the heart of the ethics of architecture. He focused not on production for the purpose of consumption, but on the moral effect of the production upon the producer. He required above all that the process of building should, in all ways possible, enlist the emotion, the imagination, and the intellect of the laborer. Ruskin chose this approach because his principal frames of reference were not the economics or even the physical realities of building, but rather the sensibilities of religion and visual aesthetics. Although he wrote two significant books on architecture, The Seven Lamps of Architecture and The Stones of Venice, John Ruskin was not an architect, nor, as he himself admitted, did he think like one. In his autobiography, he conceded, “I never could have built or carved anything, because I was without power of design.”1Really, it is hard to imagine another writer who wrote so much and so eloquently about architecture who had so limited an appreciation for the medium per se. In his preface to the second edition of The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Ruskin declared his belief that the only two fine arts possible to the human race were sculpture and painting. By contrast, what we call architecture was “only the association of these in noble masses, or the placing them in fit places.” He went so far as to proclaim that “the architect who [is] not a sculptor or a painter, [is] nothing better than a frame-maker on a large scale.”2 To his discredit, Ruskin lacked the ability, essential to a good builder, to observe the beauty and value that can exist in structure itself. What he did possess, and possess abundantly, was the ability to see from the standpoints of an artist and a religious ethicist. I have just said “artist” and “ethicist” as if they describe two distinct ways of seeing. As I shall explain, however, art and ethics were inseparable for Ruskin, for artistic expression appeared to him to be an essential path to human salvation.

Ruskin was born into a deeply religious family. He remembered in later years how, from the age of seven, his mother imposed upon him the daily task of reading the Bible aloud. They would begin with the first verse of Genesis and, over a period of months, slog through to the last line of Revelations. As soon as they were done, they started again at the beginning. This Sisyphean labor did not cease until Ruskin was fourteen. With her mechanical, unrelenting, prison warden’s approach to the Scripture, Ruskin’s mother impressed upon her son the primary, vital importance of seeking deliverance from evil. But at the same time, she inadvertently estranged him from the orthodox practice of religion. Ruskin did not love his parents, and, he wrote, “Still less did I love God; not that I had any quarrel with Him, or fear of Him; but simply found what people told me was His service, disagreeable; and what people told me was His book, not entertaining.”3 As a young adult, Ruskin tried to come back to religion. He was surprised, however, to discover that his independent investigations of the Bible had produced in him “nothing but darkness and doubt.” What remained of his traditional beliefs diminished as the bombshell of evolutionary theory exploded over Victorian culture. Ruskin lamented in 1851 that his faith was “being beaten into mere gold leaf. . . .If only the geologists would let me alone, I could  do very well, but those dreadful hammers! I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses.”4

How, then, if not through the God of the Scriptures, were people to save themselves? Evidently, through more earthly avenues: partly through the inspiring influence of nature but also, essentially and inescapably, through the ennobling agency of their work. However, not just any work would do. Ruskin believed that there were two kinds of work. The first, lamentably the much more common, was monotonous, imitative, and unoriginal. It deadened and constricted the mind and the soul. Ah, but the other! Work that engaged the worker in an original striving, work that brought into the world a gleaming reflection of the inner spirit; that not only created an artifact, but improved the heart and the hands that created it,—that was work by which one could become part of the mystical splendor of life. This second kind of work was not just a means of making a living; it was the quintessential act of living itself. The fate of one’s soul, Ruskin believed, might well depend upon the kind of work the person was given to do. Give the worker a task that requires no investment of the mind and spirit, and you consign her or him to living perdition. Give a worker the chance not merely to manufacture or assemble, but actually to create, and you lay open the road to a life of redemptive beauty. To those whom the scripture could not preserve, the experience of true artistic craftsmanship might yet give salvation.

Ruskin most famously advanced this proposition in an essay titled, “The Nature of Gothic.” Appearing at the precise midpoint of the second volume of the three-volume work, The Stones of Venice, “The Nature of Gothic” lies both physically and morally at the heart of that study. Ruskin’s purpose in The Stones of Venice as a whole was ethical. By observing the architecture of the city, he meant to illustrate the relation of the decline of Venice’s sense of taste and proportion to an allegedly parallel devolution in her public morals. The Stones of Venice, in a larger sense, illustrates how the choice of an architectural idiom can reflect and, in turn, help to determine the values of a citizenry. Ruskin’s more concentrated objective in “The Nature of Gothic” was two-fold: first to explain the power of work either to elevate or degrade the architectural worker and, second, to advance an intriguing paradox—that to demand technical perfection in an architectural project was not to ennoble the worker but to reduce the worker to a state of slavery.

Ruskin reasoned as follows. Perfect workmanship does not arise from a natural state of things. The moment the average human being sets out to create, she passes from the rarefied realm of the ideal into the inevitability of flaw and mistake. We are imperfect beings, and the things we make and build are naturally inscribed with eccentricity and error. Because these errors are what make us individuals, so-called “perfect” work often strikes us as cold and impersonal. In its aversion to error, such work strains to disavow its human origins. Worse still, the demand for perfection reduces the worker to an unthinking slave. Ruskin writes to the architects of the world, as well as to all others who purchase or supervise creative labor when he declares, “You are put to a stern choice. . . .You  must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both. Men are not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them.”5

It was the triumph of Gothic, Ruskin claimed, that it did not insist on technical precision. Indeed, Gothic, as a physical manifestation of Christian ideals, “recognized, in small things as well as great, the individual value of every soul.

But it not only recognizes its value; it confesses its imperfection, in only bestowing dignity upon the acknowledgement of unworthiness.”6 Gothic architecture responded to a fundamentally Christian injunction: “Do what you can, and confess frankly what you are unable to do; neither let your effort be shortened for fear of failure, nor your confession silenced for fear of shame.”7 Thus the Gothic architect took his builder as he found him, knowing that the execution of the work would be fitful and irregular, but knowing too, that this irregularity was a sign of life, since nothing that lives can be precisely perfect. Ruskin summarized his point succinctly: “All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections that have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be Effort, and the law of human judgment, Mercy.”8

But Ruskin did not see this law of mercy being acted out around him. He saw it least of all in his native England, which congratulated itself because the slightest details of its manufactures were so regular and uniform. In the Victorian obsession with exactitude and perfection, and in the division of labor that made the goals of that obsession realizable, Ruskin saw the figurative dismemberment of the human being:

We have much studied and much perfected, of late, the great civilized invention of the division of labour; only we give it a false name. It is not, truly speaking, the labour that is divided; but the men:—Divided into mere segments of men— broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin or the head of a nail. . . .[In] all our manufacturing cities. . .we manufacture everything. . .except men; we blanch cotton, and strengthen steel, and refine sugar, and shape pottery; but to brighten, to strengthen, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantages.9

Ruskin’s lament was quintessentially one of the industrial age. In his protest against standardization and routinized mass production, he was railing against exploitation and alienation before such terms had joined the arsenal of popular Marxist discourse. This is not to say, however, that Ruskin was some form of proto-Marxist. His outlook was fundamentally more humanistic than economic, and, as we have seen, he sought his solutions in justice and mercy, not in prophecies of violent revolution. He appealed above all to a common sense of decency; he supposed that consumers would be willing to sacrifice their enjoyment of a perfect product in order to make possible the pleasure that is felt when people discover, test, and gradually expand the limits of their personal genius.

But Ruskin, in all his sentimental glory, in his rhapsodic paeans to an aestheticized Christian fellowship, cries out for a reality check. What, finally, does he have to tell us about architecture, and how, if at all, are his prescriptions of effort and mercy to be realized in a competitive marketplace? Moreover, to what purpose are we to consider his praise of Gothic form? Let us concede that the Gothic style, with its expressions of shattered majesty and imperfect but earnest striving, is an ideal choice for an avowedly religious building like a cathedral. Even so, it would be foolish to argue that all other kinds of structures must serve the identical purpose of reminding the viewer of God’s grandeur. Furthermore, one cannot escape the fact that Ruskin, who was a successful critic of painting long before he began to acknowledge architecture, always thought of buildings as surfaces to be looked at, rather than functional three-dimensional spaces in which to carry on the business of life. His work on architecture is concerned primarily with ornamentation; he does not explain how one is supposed to escape the tyranny of perfection when pouring a foundation or sawing a two-by-four. Precision, moreover, is more essential to architecture than to other visual arts. Refining the construction worker’s soul through imperfect labor seems unimportant if it means the wiring is not up to code and the roof leaks. Perhaps most damaging to Ruskin’s argument are two other points. First, he neglects the possibility that routine, unoriginal work, done professionally, may yield its own species of pleasure. Forgotten, too, is the fact that standardized labor, even if not highly pleasurable in itself, takes less time than individualized, creative work; a builder who does not find deep satisfaction on the job may, by dint of speedier production methods, nevertheless have more time to seek that satisfaction on a golf course or a trout stream. Then again, the very core of Ruskin’s task is to inquire into the proper relation between work and enjoyment: should we be content to view work merely as the means by which we purchase pleasure, or should work in itself be an indispensable source of joy? As usual, Ruskin draws a lesson from scripture. He writes:

It may be proved, with much certainty, that God intends no man to live in this world without working: but it seems to me no less evident that He intends every man to be happy in his work. It is written, “in the sweat of thy brow,” but it was never written, “in the breaking of thine heart,” thou shalt eat bread.10

Ruskin’s vision of a mode of architectural production geared toward the creative fulfillment and spiritual deliverance of the worker was in large part unattainable even when he first asserted it. At the very time he was writing The Stones of Venice, London was witnessing the erection of the famed Crystal Palace, a structure whose steel, glass, and prefabricated components heralded a revolution. If Ruskin’s ideas were already destined for quaintness in the 1850s, it is easy in 2002 to regard them as practically absurd. Since Ruskin’s time, populations have grown and economic systems have expanded with once unimaginable speed. Construction in our time has to be fast. It must be efficient. It must avoid unnecessary expense. If Ruskin foresaw the further mechanization of physical labor, he was at least spared the sadness of seeing how far that mechanization would eventually extend. Ruskin also did not anticipate that the alienation that he saw as poisoning the life of the worker might someday encompass not only the process of construction, but also those of conception and design. He could never have imagined on-line catalogs of design components or the idea that an architect might one day resolve decisions of ornamentation, not with painstaking manual drawing or model-building, but with the click of a mouse. Neither could he have expected that modern buildings would often be commissioned and designed, not by individuals at all, but by impersonal organizations. It would have been strange, indeed, for Ruskin to discover the myriad ways in which architecture could divorce itself from the simple human acts of drawing and carving.

And yet, before we dismiss Ruskin’s ideas about the nature of Gothic as entirely obsolete, we should pause to consider that, when we gathered today to discuss architecture as an ethical pursuit, we chose to congregate in the very structure in all of Manhattan that has striven most mightily to realize Ruskin’s ideals. When, in 1972, after a thirty-year hiatus in construction, the dean of St. John the Divine announced that construction would begin again, he announced that “the stonework [would] be done by our own unemployed and underemployed neighbors. We will revive the art of stonecraft.”11 The spirit of the new construction was profoundly Ruskinian: it entrusted a sacred Gothic edifice to hands that would begin the project raw and untutored, in expectation that, as the structure grew and took shape, so, too, would the skills and souls of the workers. That the cathedral actually did become a literal synthesis of stonecutting and soul-making, an exemplar of Ruskin’s demand that the work must affirm the passion of the worker, seems to be confirmed in the words of Simon Verity, one of the master carvers employed in the project: To be a carver, you have to have a passion for it, to love it with all your heart. It’s a desire to create order out of chaos, to seek harmonies.12

Surely, Ruskin would have applauded this method of construction, a combination, someone has said, of outreach and up-reach. And yet his applause might have been tempered by the knowledge of how deeply the impersonality of technology and profit had insinuated themselves into the building of the cathedral. The following is from a recent study of St. John the Divine:

[The construction of the cathedral] has matured into an eminently practical operation in which. . .the tools of the trade include instruments unprecedented in the history of stonework. Digital cameras, robotic saws and routers, and a linear motion table reduce the monotony of repetitive work and greatly accelerate production. . . .Meanwhile, a separate profit-making, tax-paying entity. . .was  incorporated in 1989. . . .Stone cutters whose progress was slow-paced and confined to elemental work in earlier years can now program machines to do much of the fabrication. . . .Construction and restoration becomes [sic.] more accurate and economical as twenty-first-century technology is applied to the thirteenth- century goal.13

Robotic saws. Profit making. Programmable machines. Accuracy and economy. Even in this most Ruskinian of present-day building projects, the inevitabilities of the machine and the marketplace implacably penetrate. None of us, I think is prepared to deny the utility, even the necessity of these intrusions. And yet, if John Ruskin were to walk these halls with us today, would he be more likely to murmur, “We are surrounded by a miracle,” or, “We stand within a compromise”?

Ruskin’s career was never the same after The Stones of Venice, and the essay “The Nature of Gothic” marked perhaps the decisive transitional moment. Before he wrote it, Ruskin had seen himself principally as a critic of visual arts. Thereafter, he re-invented himself as a critic of society, dedicated above all to exposing the excesses of materialism and exploitation. That the alienation of the architectural worker served as the point at which this transition occurred was no accident, for it shows Ruskin’s realization that the values of a society are inseparable from the art it produces. Architecture was becoming corrupt, he believed, through no fault of its own. It was inevitably responding to the culture that produced it. And since architecture is the most inescapable of visual arts, it is the most ubiquitous artistic barometer of cultural malaise. The most magnificent building, Ruskin implied, was only a grotesque anomaly if the society that encircled it was vulgar and corrupt. Listen to his description of the city he beheld from the steps of St. Mark’s in Venice:

Round the whole square in front of the church there is an almost continuous line of cafés, where the idle Venetians of the middle classes lounge, and read empty journals; in its centre the Austrian bands play during the time of vespers, their martial music jarring with the organ notes,—the march drowning the miserere, and the sullen crowd thickening round them,—a crowd, which, if it had its will, would stiletto every soldier that pipes to it. And in the recesses of the porches, all day long, knots of men of the lowest classes, unemployed and listless, lie basking in the sun like lizards; and unregarded children,—every heavy glance of their young eyes full of desperation and stony depravity, and their throats hoarse with cursing,—gamble, and fight, and snarl, and sleep, hour after hour, clashing their bruised centesimi upon the marble ledges of the church porch. And the images of Christ and His Angels look down upon it continually.14

The architecture was sublime; the human activity around it was an obscene mockery. What good was the building if it could not transform the debauched children who cast lots on its very steps? After The Stones of Venice, it was no longer enough for Ruskin to criticize art. It was hierarchies of human beings, not structures of wood and stone, that begged most loudly for his attention.

However, I would argue that we would err frightfully if we were to accept Ruskin’s fatalistic assumption that architecture can only follow where the rest of society leads it. While it may rarely lie within the power of a single architect to reform the public taste, let alone public morals, it would be sad indeed to suppose that, upon entering a profession, one at once must discard higher obligations in the names of perfection, efficiency, and the bottom line. Ruskin’s contributions to the philosophy of architecture were by no means practical, but it is curiously in their very impracticality that they retain value. His greatest gift to us is that he still challenges us to look outside of the marketplace when making architectural choices. In Ruskin, ethics and aesthetics may be said truly to merge. As the final criterion of architecture, Ruskin proposed happiness—the happiness of the worker certainly, but also the power of physical, manmade mass to speak pleasurably to the soul. If we cannot build always with this happiness as our principal guide, it is still worthwhile to open Ruskin on occasion, if only to remember what this kind of happiness is.


1. John Ruskin, Praeterita, (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1949). 108.  
2. John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture(London: Routledge, n.d.), xvi–xvii.  
3. Ruskin, Praeterita, 35.  
4. John Ruskin, quoted in John D. Rosenberg, The Darkening Glass: A Portrait of John Ruskin’s Genius(New York: Columbia UP, 1980), 30.  
5. John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice(Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1897), II, 162.  
6. Ibid., 160.  
7. Ibid., 160.  
8. Ibid., 172.  
9. Ibid., 165–66.  
10. John Ruskin, “Pre-Raphaelitism,” The Complete Works of John Ruskin(New York: Bryan, Taylor & Co., 1894), XV, 237.  
11. Howard E. Quirk, The Living Cathedral: St. John the Divine, (New York: Crossroad Books, 1993), 24.  
12. George Ancona, Cutters, Carvers, & the Cathedral(New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1995), n.p.  
13. Quirk, 24–25.  
14. Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, II, 72.

This essay was first presented at the “Ethics and Architecture” conference on April 6, 2002, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City co-sponsored by CrossCurrents.


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Source: Cross Currents, Fall 2002, Vol. 52,  No 3.