Ruskin's The Seven Lamps of Architecture: Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Summer Stewart

Summer has taught creative writing and sciences at the college level. She holds an MFA in Creative writing and a B.A.S. in English and Nutrition

John Ruskin's book-length essay ''The Seven Lamps of Architecture'' details the principles of architecture. In this lesson, a summary and several quotes will help you understand Ruskin's book and its impact on architecture.

Background

John Ruskin was an English art and architecture critic who wrote large volumes of criticism during the Victorian period. Published in 1849, his book-length essay The Seven Lamps of Architecture is his most popular book. It details the seven 'lamps', or principles, of architecture, which are tied to seven moral attributes Ruskin believed to be inseparable from design.

These seven principles of architecture are beauty, truth, sacrifice, power, life, obedience, and memory. The Seven Lamps of Architecture bolsters Gothic architecture and eschews the design principles that developed during the Renaissance. In this lesson, you will get a detailed summary of each principle and quotes that help you fully understand Ruskin's perspective on architecture.

Portrait of John Ruskin
Ruskin

Beauty

In the beauty section of the essay, Ruskin relies heavily on the designs seen in nature and points out that architecture should stem from the natural environment. Nature is the model for beauty. Lines and shapes should be derived from the natural world.

For example, Ruskin states that ''the column, which I doubt not was the Greek symbol of the bark of the tree, was imitative in its origin, and feebly resembled many canaliculated organic structure. ... The decoration proper was sought in the true forms of organic life, and those chiefly human.'' Thus, architecture is an organic human interpretation of the environment and should be respected as such.

Truth

Ruskin's lamp of truth is straightforward and he argued that buildings should be honest. When Ruskin discusses the design and construction of a Gothic roof, he points out that it would be dishonest if ''the intermediate shell were made of wood instead of stone, and whitewashed to look like the rest, --this would, of course, be direct deceit, and altogether unpardonable…''

An honest building is defined as a building that doesn't hide its flaws under decorative notions. Wood doesn't pretend to be stone, and windows are windows, nothing more.

Sacrifice

According to Ruskin, the architect must sacrifice certain design desires in order to please God. Buildings and architecture must be completed so all men can have a holy place to pray to God, and the buildings must adhere to the principles set down by Him. Before ornateness is allowed, rightful and just structures need to be built for the everyday life.

Ruskin writes, ''Do the people need place to pray, and calls to hear His word? Then it is no time for smoothing pillars carving pulpits; let us have enough first of walls and roofs.''

Power

View, setting, and line are discussed in Ruskin's lamp of power principle. Ruskin argues that a building possesses shape, and it is the architect's duty to present that shape in the best possible fashion.

For example, an open field would be more suitable as a backdrop for a large mansion as opposed to expansive mountain ranges. Ruskin felt that buildings deserved to be viewed from all angles, and certain settings and lines of view disrupt the natural power of a building. Architects must consider all vantage points, building position, and the horizon when considering the design of a building.

Moreover, Ruskin goes into depth about the bounding line and avoiding the disruption of continuity. The bounding line is the continuation of an edge that the eye follows on the entire structure. It is imperative to continuity of the entire design, otherwise, ''if the bounding line be violently broken…the majesty will be lost; not because the building cannot be seen all at once…but because the continuity of its terminal line is broken…''

Life

Ruskin insists that great buildings are made by the hands of skilled architects and craftsmen, which is the basis for the lamp of life. Masons and carpenters must pour their lives into a building project. Furthermore, Ruskin takes a strong stance against large-scale building plans, and advocates for a local, unique approach to the design of every building.

Ruskin goes on to explain that all buildings should be made by hand and not by machine. He writes, ''that hand-work might always be known from machine-work.''

Obedience

The obedience lamp of architecture is all about adherence to a sophisticated style that is remarkably English. Ruskin says, ''originality in expression does not depend on invention'', and the architect should be content ''with the customs, which have been enough for the support and guidance of other arts before it and like it....''

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