John Ruskin’s “Lamp of Memory”

John Ruskin is a wonderful starting point for discussing the meaning of a “landmark.” The recommended reading is a short section from his book, The Seven Lamps of Architecture. (Click the link below to chapter VI, “The Lamp of Memory,” scroll down to page 258-261 and read sections XVIII and XIX.) Ruskin’s life spanned the nineteenth century, and he witnessed the birth of historic preservation as we understand it today. Do his thoughts on the subject surprise you?,+%E2%80%9CThe+Lamp+of+Memory.%E2%80%9D+The+Seven+Lamps+of+Architecture&source=bl&ots=jYgFGTE6E6&sig=nzFLd2enzqg5mqhNE9YLeiWTeEY&hl=en&ei=JIzfS777NIH98AaLssCBCA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6&ved=0CBcQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q&f=false


35 responses to “John Ruskin’s “Lamp of Memory”

  1. Ruskin’s thoughts don’t surprise me, but I read them in the context of today. Today’s environmentalism ideologies teach us to preserve and maintain. Instead of buying a new cell phone simply because we can do so every two years does not mean that we must or that we should. Reducing and reusing is important, and so maintaining what we have by first recognizing its importance leads us to not have to restore.

    In light of Ruskin’s times, I still don’t think his ideas are very shocking. This excerpt reminded me of that PBS series about National Parks, the preservationist Roosevelt, and the need for us to maintain as prevention and not restore as a cure.

    His complaint leads to the question, when is the original thing no longer that thing at all? When is it a complete copy of a copy? I go more into that here:

    • Christina:
      I guess original is in the eye of the beholder. The extent to which original remains original is subjective. In Ruskin’s perview purity of outline mattered a lot and the desecration of that was troubling. Particularly in younger nations like the USA the newer always seems to be better. Unfortunately this is not always the case. Mores, tradition, time, sacrifice and culture remain the hallmark of many old buildings.

  2. I wonder what Ruskin’s ideas of restoration suggests about historical understanding. If buildings and architecture are mere ephemera, what does this suggest about knowledge? We can never give enough care to anyTHING to keep it around forever, but does this mean that we anticipate an historical record of monuments along the lines of Shelley’s “Ozymandias”? Without restoration, we offer the future only the “collossal wreck” of ancient monuments, but can care ever compete with the ravages of time and invention of mind?

    • Well stated Watsonfaith. I guess the modern dialectic discards the old because the old for so many years was untouchable and the social norm. Tradition because a shackle of innovation, innovation and dare I say “progress”.

    • I love that you brought up this poem! I had always thought the point Shelly was trying to make is that the tyrannical leader focuses too much on cultivating “works” and not enough on cultivating his people. Change is inevitable, but fair treatment earns respect; respect leads to a better legacy.

      • But can even “fair treatment” sustain the winds of time? The passing of time makes progrss inevitable, and it doesn’t really matter if one cultivates people, monuments or pastrami sandwiches; in the end, it’s just “the end.” Ouch!

        And remember, in “Ozymandias” the narrator hears this whole story from an unnamed traveller from “an ancient land.” Who CAN really know the past? It is right along the lines of Lowenthal’s title (or book which I haven’t yet received) “The Past IS a Foreign Country.” Can we ever really know it?

        Sorry, I’ve ranted on much too long, but I’m delighted that you commented on the Ozymandias connection!

  3. On one level, Ruskin’s comments do surprise me because he describes restoration as the very opposite of how we think of it today. The “worst manner of destruction” is not what comes to mind. From this excerpt however, it seems that he has an appreciation of ongoing preservation, i.e., taking care of our landmarks so that they won’t need “restoration.” He even suggests that when a things time has come we should let it go gracefully. I kind of agree with this …

    • Letting go is so difficult when we have to let go of things we’ve admired for so long. I guess that’s what landmarks are all about. They represent time and ideas in a very tangible way, the way that memory and story cannot. However, in restoration, we do change the original quality, so maintaining the tangible and intangible is probably the best solution.

  4. I wasn’t surprised by the reading for John Ruskin’s “Lamp of Memory” but I am glad that others in the past have taken the preservation of landmarks seriously and recognized the importance of them or we would all be looking at restored items with no memory of the past to view.

  5. I think Christina’s analogy of Ruskin’s thinking to modern environmentalism is a interesting. Modern environmentalists don’t advocate preserving an ecosystem as it existed in the past so much as they call for ecosystems to be allowed to evolve on their own accord. They should be allowed to live and die without our interference. I think Ruskin was going in a similar direction. Oftentimes we misuse restoration as kind of a Disney version of history, creating an idealized image that really didn’t fit the reality of their time. When these structures were most vital, they were dirty, chaotic and often not more respected than a functional building is today. Restored versions are often museum-like: cold, clean, beautiful and sterile. They have the shell of the original structure but the life that made them special is gone.

  6. Many of the neighborhood buildings in the Brooklyn waterfront communities are part of family histories. It is hard to imagine the heads of those families, the current owner inheritors of the properties, would claim that an apartment building is a temple or a sacred space. The idea that God dwells there, or that the sacred dwells in the births, passions and deaths of the family itself would be more familiar. Our home is a landmark in a field of change. My memories reference the ancient gas station sign post beside our old apartment building. I return and this landmark is gone. The gas station has become a new queens style apartment building. The lots on the east river in Northside Williamsburg where half mad artists played croquet among the weeds and rubble and homeless men lived in self electrified plywood shacks has been turned into a monumental public lawn, safe, clean, scrubbed of decades of construction debris and quick piss, replaced with smears of dog feces and the shorelines delicate kiss. I fear not, for the sacred in memory cannot be entirely dug up or dragged away. It is the play of our lives.

  7. FYI: I just read the essay in NYT Magazine from April 25 by Rick Marin entitled “Lives: Objects of Accumulation: Packing up an entire houseful of stuff and memories.” While it doesn’t discuss place, it does discuss the human relationship to things, and how things become objects of the past, and how they then become the past itself. A pretty good read:

    • Christina: Thanks for the link. It is a good read. I went through the same thing six years ago with my dad’s property. What to keep and what not to keep were the two biggest questions? When do we “cut the cord” on history?

  8. Well, I suppose it is safe to say that Ruskin wasn’t an advocate of restoration. So in response to the primary question of this post, I was indeed surprised by his persepctive, especially by his numerous analogies between restoration and death. It certainly emphasized his viewpoint in a powerful and provacative way.

  9. I was not so much “surprised” by Ruskin’s thoughts as I was taken with the truth and originality of his arguments [ As long as we are talking about significant “landmark” structures on the level of monuments and with a dictionary meaning of “landmark”: ” a building or site that has historical significance”]: Restoring a landmark architectural structure, says Ruskin, is actually destroying it; restoration is an impossibility because embedded in any landmark architectural structure is the “spirit” of the “hand and eye of the workman” who created the struture; and a restoration cannot recreate that original spirt. I have seen in a documentary film about the Statue of Liberty that, heaven forbid, were it to be destroyed by terrorists we have computer blue prints so detailed that it could be restored to every half inch of the original. But if that were to happen, would it be the same? I don’t thnk so. Apropos of that, I was especially taken with what is a clear expression of Ruskin’s thoughts here: when time and use or circumstances have worn down even a half inch of a landmark structure’s surface, that lost half inch is part of the soul, as it were, of the landmark structure and cannot be restored. But coming down from those lofty aesthetic sentiments, I have some more pragmatic views about restoration. For example, my first thoughts about Ellis Island. When I visited it for the first and only time some years ago, I was pleased that it had been “restored” from its extreme deterioration and neglect so that I now as a tourist could visit it and contemplate on that site what it meant in our American experience. But I was also incensed, as I think Ruskin would be, that the powers that be had allowed it to deteriorate in the first place. And as I recall, some of the old photographs (original works of photographic art, I suggest) on display there seemed to capture the spirit of Ellis Island more than the site itself and created a sense of loss and regret more than the polished physical restoration. But I’m not sure those who actually experienced Ellis Island (and their descendents) on their entry into the United States would have any sense of loss and regret at all and might welcome its complete destruction instead of its preservation. But its preservation, like the preservation of the Nazi concentration camps, is an important “lest we forget” caveat. So, Ruskin notwithstanding, I generally favor the restoration of landmarks indeed!

  10. I agree with Dale’s pragmatic comments about a monumental structure. A monument is a memorial to a shared experience. The restored Ellis Island is not the original Ellis Island immigration facility, yet the use of the space for education and preservation of knowledge and information provides an important experience for visitors today. The displays show a much more detailed overview of what must have been a confusing experience for new immigrants, a view they could not have achieved. This reminded me of the aftermath of 9/11 when some people wanted to rebuild the Trade Center or create a new Trade Center, while other people wanted to create a memorial and education center. The original Trade Center was never a success. There was a great deal of empty space in the towers, and non-profit and government offices were located there. The Towers were a landmark. When they went down, the cityscape and a major architectural statement about the power of New York changed. One of my colleagues at Brooklyn College was riding the F train on that day, and as it rounds a corner it is elevated and you could see the Towers in the far distance. He said that as the people in the car looked over as they routinely did on their ride, the Towers were gone. Someone noticed that the Towers were gone. The entire car fell silent. I narrate this experience of loss second hand as a story teller. The story refers to a violent end of a landmark and the response of a small group of people in a train car several miles away. Ruskin was a romantic. I don’t think the spirits of the original makers care whether the monument is preserved or rebuilt or gone to dust. We care. We attribute meaning and value to the monuments, or like the neglected tombs in graveyards, they crack and fall apart.

  11. Rustin makes the case for preservation of architecture not restoration of it. I can agree with that, and I see the links with the environmental movement too. If you preserve the environment (whether natural wild spaces or an art deco theater building in Houston or Ellis Island’s immigration center), then you don’t have to restore it.

    Sadly, American society likes (and tax codes prefer) the new over the old, which means we have more restoring to do than preserving once enough time has passed.

  12. Where does knowledge reside? Is the structure of a building an expression of knowledge? Like art, the material presence of the idea of the building is important. But when they clean the Sistine Chapel, are they “preserving” the artwork that is thinning under centuries of smoke and human sweat, or restoring it? The painting looks so different, it is restored, because the gook and discoloration were important to the integrity or integral movement of the painting’s history. I have an old ash can era painting of a street scene in the Bronx. The painter is unknown. It is a wonderful artwork for me. There is a yellowish discoloration that is really bad on the top of the painting. A fellow from the Chicago art preservation told me the yellowish haze was probably tar from cigarette smoking. He can clean it off. But was the artist the smoker, interacting with his own work? Or the second owner? Isn’t his or her interaction with the surface part of its history? Is it painting preservation or restoration? Are they both the same project applied to each individual item according to its circumstance?

  13. What is our dominant style in the U.S. when dealing with “landmark” places? Do we mainly do what Ruskin saw as destruction?

    I was struck in Europe by Germany and France handling landmarks (buildings) very differently. Germany has rebuilt, for example churches in Cologne, from the ground up. In France, it seemed to me, ruins could be protected (new cap on crumbling wall) but not rebuilt.

    Do countries have a “style”?

    • ssmithcitytech

      And if so, what does the “style”– the attitude toward preservation–say about a society? Is it related to the prevailing sense of confidence in the future? Revolutionary America had no concern for ‘preservation.’ Germany and Poland undertook the complete recreation of numerous buildings destroyed during WWII.

      Certain deeply embedded Eastern practices dictate a complete rebuilding of the temple at a set interval of years. You can imagine a culture clash with international (Western) organizations concerned with preservation!

      And from this, I recall “The Same Axe Twice”: “In remaking an ax, in restoring a house, we carry the fire of the original spirit. We commit anew, plant, put our hands to touch the work of a craftsman hundreds of years gone, and then once again feeling that work, pick it up again. And therein lie renewal and hope.”

    • Interesting that you bring up Germany and their landmarks. I’m currently reading “The Ghosts of Berlin” by Brian Ladd. It’s an interesting read in regards to preservation and restoration. Who determines what should be restored or preserved? When is something worth restoring or preserving? What dictates the value of a landmark, building, public space, etc….?

  14. The sentiment of Ruskin’s piece was unexpected, but I must admit he has forced me to think in a new direction. One can argue there is something garish and vacuous in restored “monuments” (I wonder how Ruskin would define “monument”; in other words, what is worthy of regular maintenance?) No matter how careful the effort to duplicate the original, the resulting product is something new and surprising to the eyes of those familiar with the old. A kind of austerity is lost in the process. One of the things I enjoy in visiting an old building is the evidence that others have been there before me. I like speculating about who they were. I can’t tell you how many church steeples I have seen restored from vibrant green to their original golden color and have felt like something cherished has been wiped out of the skyline. These are small losses, but Ruskin reminds me that loss is inevitable, whether it is through restoration or natural destruction. Our role is to sustain and enjoy while we have the opportunity.

  15. jeanarrington

    I enjoyed imagining the quiet dignity of our commercial streetscapes had Ruskin prevailed in his plea for probity and prudence. I mean, if in the late 1800s he sees people being “baited to a shop as moths are to a candle,” what would he say today?

    I also wondered about his argument that a vulgar environment sullies lovely forms. Or does a lovely form in a vulgar environment give us a momentary respite, a moment of being lifted out of the environment?

  16. Ruskin:
    Reading this excerpt, I was struck by Ruskin’s unique and mystical approach to the idea of architecture; no longer are we limited to bricks, mortar, ratio, measurement, and mathematics, since he adds the notions of meta-physical ideas such as the structure’s soul and the “life of the whole”, and “spirit of the dead workman.” I live in a historical neighborhood and have witnessed first-hand his complaint that “restoration” is sometimes putting “up the cheapest and basest imitation that can escape detection.” Many of the houses in my neighborhood suffered by being restored, by having their 100 year old plaster walls knocked out and replaced with HomeDepot drywall, and other such travesties. Perhaps the most important point Ruskin makes is that there is no such thing a true, faithful restoration, and so the answer lies in his instructions to “watch with anxious care” and to ”guard as best you may….”, or in other words, to try to prevent neglect from damaging structures prematurely, and to value what is already existing. Now, as Christina has pointed out, this goes against our nature since our current view is new- is- better. Restore or tear down or let fall down? I guess there is no answer to watsonfaith’s question of do we restore or do we “offer the future only the colossal wreck of ancient monuments”? I enjoyed Dale Adams comments on the insights of Ruskin. Just like the author of “Reading Lucy,” I’m being distracted by becoming immersed in Ruskin’s other chapters. I had read a little of his work in an Architectural History course and had enjoyed it, but now I’m outright distracted by these other Lamps!

  17. In the immortal cadence of what’s’erface, STRAY, Baby, STRAY!

  18. The Ruskin excerpt brought up a lot of questions, more than it surprised me, tbh. For example, where is the line between preservation and restoration? Agreed that the better we preserve a building, the less need for restoration. But even a well-preserved building, given enough time or dire enough circumstances, will be used for something other than its original purpose. Is re-purposing a building then also a betrayal of the original designers & builders? I’d argue that for any building to stay around, it must serve some contemporary purpose, and not be purely an ode to the past (unless it is actually a designated memorial site). Other questions: who are the ‘experts’ who get to decide what should be preserved and what should be changed or destroyed? Whose needs win out: the needs of developers (I’m looking at you, Miami), the needs of the community? And even if it’s the needs of the community, which segment of the community?

  19. Diane Whitney

    Following Ruskin’s thought that “better a crutch than a lost limb”, we would certainly better spend our time caring for the naturally aging historical sites and monuments we have, repairing and managing the structural dilapidations as they occur, instead of waiting until it is too late. But we are concerned instead with managing our spaces for profit. Florida has been quite negligent about caring for its historical sites, usually choosing instead to tear an old place down instead of retrofitting it to meet current (and ever-increasing) standards of building codes, accessibility and expectations of local aesthetics.

    Ruskin would not appreciate seeing what we in my southern city have done with historically pertinent buildings and homes, turning them into innumerable offices for lawyers, developers, state corporations and doctors, for we have set up what I fear is many a “Lie in their place”.

  20. Ruskin’s rant against restoration was an eye-opener for me. I think I always associated restoration with preservation–that the two were part of the same process and not antithetical. I especially welcome his respect for the life and spirit of the original. I just saw the Da Vinci exhibit that is making its way across the United States. Here there are countless reproductions of his manuscripts, his paintings and models from his drawings. Reproductions of the manuscripts come closest to being awesome. The models were particularly disappointing–lacking the life and spirit of the drawings in the manuscripts. Would I have been quite so disappointed if I hadn’t just read Ruskin?

  21. I made a special trip to the University library to acquire this book, which was over 100 years old. The pages were falling out of the book and the librarians were quite amused that I was checking it out. I think I got the right book because it is about architecture. I was afraid I was going to damage the book, so I returned it right away. I must have Xeroxed the wrong pages because the pages 258 to 261 that I read were about roof gables. I am on vacation in Europe trying to keep up with all the week 2 and week 3 readings and I have been looking at the roof gables in France all day, thinking they were relevant to the workshop. I guess I got it wrong, and I will try to link to the correct reading when I get home. (This might be the last time you invite a science person to an NEH workshop…)

    • Keith Anderson

      I also found the page numbers to be inaccurate. Fortunately, or unfortunately, as the case may be, I wasn’t in Europe and so had the opportunity to photocopy the right pages.

    • What a perfect opporutnity for you to see the readings of Ruskin taking place. Of course, this depends on what part of Europe you are traveling.

  22. In principle, I can agree with Ruskin’s assertion that restoration is “a Lie from beginning to end.” Make every effort to preserve, yes, as preservation is preferable to restoration. But I draw the line when he speaks of patching here and there, and recommends that one should “not care about the unsightliness of the aid.” Aesthetics do matter. The example on page 45 of Lowenthal’s book provides a good illustration of this with two views of Market Square in Warsaw: one of it crumbling after Nazi destruction, 1944; the second, after Polish reconstruction to restore a national symbol. In a case such as this one, I would say, photo document the “before” exhaustively; then restore and visit the “after” as a reminder of the past.

    Ruskin’s thoughts do not surprise me as I encounter the kind of preservation he describes on a daily basis. I have neighbors in their mid-80’s who take great pride in a small wooden house, the original homestead house, on their property. They maintain it minimally in the fashion recommended by Ruskin, with corrugated tin patches on the roof and 2x4s propping up one side wall. Another wall fell down this past winter, so we now see into one of the four rooms. We drive by and observe the old house each day as it slowly returns to the earth. So while it is an eye sore, I suppose, in a sense, our neighbors are not depriving the structure of “the funeral offices of memory.” We all pay a sort of homage as we watch it decay.

  23. Keith Anderson

    Initially, I found this piece somewhat disheartening. The original “spirit” that informs the construction of any building from bygone times can “never be recalled,” and so all attempts at “restoration” are futile, because they really represent the “destruction” of the original. You can never “restore” the Brooklyn waterfront in that you can obviously never reproduce the economic and social milieu in which it originated. I am reminded of my brother-in-law and sister who purchased an abandoned carpet mill in Spartanburg, South Carolina (originally constructed in the late 1800s) with the intention of dividing the interior up into condominiums. If the downturn in the economy hadn’t wiped them out, they had planned on infusing the “useless” property with some exchange value. They would have only preserved the brick shell of the buildings. After all, the industry wasn’t likely to move back from China anytime soon. No doubt there are developers who have similar plans in store for Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront. Maybe they plan on building malls and parking garages in addition to condominiums and apartments. What will likely be lost if they prevail are the “surfaces that have been worn half an inch down,” those indicators of the passage of time that may or may not contribute “charm” to the architecture. Ultimately, the bank foreclosed on my brother-in-law and sister, and the property was sold off at auction. The new owner, a gentleman from Holland, is planning on dismantling the building and shipping the bricks and heart-pine beams and obsolete pieces of left-over machinery to China… Evidently, there is some profit in that yet. In the final analysis, neither preservation nor restoration is going to take place, and a landmark will be dismantled at the whim of global shifts in the economy.

  24. I’ve known for many years about Ruskin’s book but have never had the notion to read it. I’m glad that it was assigned for this workshop. It is useful and insight for architecture and design students in regards to creation and preservation.

    I agree with Ruskin’s vew that if we take proper care of buildings, we do not need to restore them. However, there are many ancient buildings that are on the verge of destruction, either by elements or negligence, that have allowed us the opportunity to study them which enables us to try and understand their meaning, importance or influence in our current society. These stuctures must be preserved for future generations so the story may be passed down. If presevation entails “patching” to keep the old and show the new, this only adds to the story of the structure.

    I don’t believe any old structure or place should be made to look new. I do believe that an old structure or place can be made to be useful in its current generation without compromising its integrity.

  25. As I consider the historical period of Ruskin’s life and writing, his thoughts concerning the process of historical preservation do not surprise me. He lived at a time of rapid industrialization in Europe and America. He was clearly well aware of and dismayed by the loss of artisan skills that had built the buildings first considered in the early preservation movement. As decades rolled by, the increasing de-skilling of work gave way to off-site fabrication of building elements. Mechanization increasingly replaced age-old artisan skills.

    This reading ties back to page 382 of the “New York Case Study,” “New Parts for Old Buildings.” A “part” can, indeed, be “restored” but at the same time it is really only “replicated.” Ruskin sees a “piece of arch” as a work of art unique in and of itself. This “piece” is a work of art. It cannot be “restored,” only “replicated.” I can understand Ruskin’s position that there is no such thing as “restoration.”

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