Less than a century ago, John Ruskin set everyone thinking freshly about architecture. He discovered that buildings were alive; every stone had a tongue, and every tongue could tell a story. Many of us are still living by the enthusiasm that Ruskin awakened. We look forward to a trip to Europe which will permit us to read for ourselves these histories in stone - Westminster Abbey, Winchester Cathedral, the Belfry of Bruges, Chartres, the remains of the Roman Colosseum, the great fragment of the Parthenon. Ruskin taught us to see beyond the mere "sight"; he showed that these buildings were the records of a community's life, its interests, its tastes, its economic organization, its social order, its religion.
But art did not "stop short with the cultivated court of the Empress Josephine." On the contrary, architecture is always with us, and a walk around the corner or across the fields will bring us face to face with it. What impression do the buildings that surround us make? Do they contribute, as Ruskin said architecture must, to our "mental health, power, and pleasure"? Or is this the sort of miracle that architecture could work only in the days when it built temples, baths, arcades, and gymnasia? The answer is that architecture is always having a conscious or an unconscious effect upon us. If we botch our buildings, crowd them together, or mistake their proper use, we cannot escape the results of our failure; if we plan them, order them, and design them with skill and love and sincerity, we shall, inevitably, participate in their triumph. Walt Whitman said that there were trees that seemed to drop a blessing when he passed under them. Our buildings are always having the same effect; sometimes it is a blessing, sometimes a curse, sometimes a feeble, limp handshake, with scarcely life enough in it to be positively bad.
1 Adapted from Architecture, pp. 9-13; American Library Association, Reading with a Purpose," No. 23 (1926).
Ruskin's great insight into medieval culture had in one respect a bad effect upon our appreciation of architecture. He chose to call "architecture" only that part of building in which sculpture and painting were conspicuously used. Architecture, for him, did not exist without decoration. So a host of people now have the notion that architecture is something that is added to the building, with a flourish, when the practical work of building is done. In short, art is little more than the icing that is added to the cake. This is a great error. A building may be plastered with decoration and still be hideous or absurd; on the other hand, a structure may be as lean and stark as a corn elevator, and still have some of the massive grandeur of an Egyptian tomb.
The forces that change architecture from one style to another are new materials, new modes of construction, and the rise of new social habits, new modes of thinking and living. All these conditions affect the manner in which the architect marshals a building together; and the style of any period is the total result of these changes. It is as impossible to build in the Elizabethan style nowadays as it would be for Mr. Bernard Shaw to write the plays of Shakespeare. The tradition of using stone or glass may be carried over from one century to another, likewise a mode of construction, like the vault, the pointed arch, or the dome. For that matter, certain proportions, like the height of a column to its width, may become traditional. A style as a whole cannot be carried over, however, and to build "in a style" is to build something dead and uninteresting, because it is not related to the currents of our everyday life.
But do we not want beauty? Yes. And were not the buildings of the past undeniably beautiful? Yes; many of them were. Why, then, should we not bring them over to modern America? Why should we not have Roman courthouses, Gothic colleges, Greek banks, Renaissance office buildings, Tudor or Colonial cottages, or clever mixtures of all these examples?
Beauty, unfortunately, cannot be captured by taking refuge in a "style." Beauty is not something that can be aimed at directly: it is rather what follows when the architect's skill and taste and understanding are devoted to fulfilling the immediate purposes of a building. Each building has a purpose to express. Does it express it? Each building has a place to fill. Does it fill it? Is it made for its site? Can it be seen? Can it be approached? Does it mingle decently with its neighbors? Each building has a function to serve. Does it serve it? Form and function, beauty and use, are coupled together in every excellent piece of architecture. Lacking one or another, a building is deformed. It is useless to deceive ourselves, or to hide our impotence, by trying to fit modern functions into old forms, or attempting to combine twentieth century "uses" with second century "beauties."
At the bottom, then, architecture is not "style" but building.....
[Note.-". . . . The architecture of a city is therefore a matter of supreme moment to its welfare. If the architecture is ugly, it is impossible to keep the populace sensitive to beauty. It degrades and vitiates the aesthetic sense, and tends to deaden the nobler spiritual emotions that attend it. It adds to the misery, the stupidity, and the vicious-ness of people. If, on the other hand, the architecture is uniformly good, it tones the whole community life. Such is the uniform testimony from the 'model village' communities.
"Indeed, I think that we are not at all aware of the immense social asset that uniformly good architecture would be. Fancy a city in which all of the buildings are beautiful, and trace the influence on the lives of the inhabitants. In the first place, it would add greatly to the happiness of people, for, as has been observed, it is the normal function of beauty to make us happy. Unless we have allowed ourselves to become diseased, happiness will attend beauty as naturally as flowers turn to the sun" (Frederick M. Padelford, "The Civic Control of Architecture," American Journal of Sociology, July 1908, 45-46).]