Grace, History and the Role of Buildings

I’m currently reading John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice and last night I came to several passages that bear on the discussion about the importance of building durable, beautiful buildings generally.

In Chapter 2 of Volume 1, Ruskin sets out to explain how to see which architecture is good and which is bad. He presents two criteria:

…we require from buildings, as from men, two kinds of goodness: first, the doing their practical duty well: then that they be graceful and pleasing in doing it; which last is itself another form of duty.

This is a simple even obvious set of criteria, and yet so many buildings fail it. I’m thinking of this idea in the context of a building like Provo’s city hall, which after a mere 40 years is completely falling apart. Clearly, it has failed in it’s “practical duty” if it can’t outlive a pair of Toyotas.

But entire cities of modern buildings also fail this test. My parents suburban tract home, for example, is sliding off a hill along with the rest of their city. I will almost certainly outlive their house. And how many suburbs of Las Vegas or Phoenix  are both poorly built and entirely graceless?

In any case, Ruskin goes on to argue that buildings also have another function:

…talking, as the duty of monuments or tombs, to record facts and express feelings; or of churches, temples, public edifices, treated as books of history, to tell such history clearly and forcibly.

In other words, buildings record the past and “speak” a story.

The Zion's Bank Building in Provo.

The Zion’s Bank Building in Provo.

This seems to be one of the things we have forgotten in many of our modern buildings. What story are we trying to tell with any of the buildings that have been built in Provo in the last generation? When I look at something like the Zion’s Bank Building, I can only assume we’re trying to tell the world that we’re cheap and tasteless.

Ruskin’s point is especially important because it offers a reason to build that isn’t rooted in the cold economics of post-recession America; in the end (and as a comment pointed out on yesterday’s post) buildings shouldn’t always have to make money.

If they did, or if that was what mattered most, we wouldn’t have inspiring places like St. Peter’s Square or the Berlin Wall art installation.

St. Peter's Square in the Vatican. This is designed to "speak"  well.

St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican. This is designed to “speak” well.

The Berlin Wall isn't a building, but it is a piece of the built environment that is more concerned with what it "speaks" than with economic concerns.

The Berlin Wall isn’t a building, but it is a piece of the built environment that is more concerned with what it “speaks” than with economic concerns.

These are spaces that tell stories rather than generate revenue. And that’s a much higher calling.

A few paragraphs later, Ruskin brings his various criteria into a convenient, three-point list:

1. That it act well, and do the things it was intended to do in the best way.
2. That it speak well, and say the things it was intended to say in the best words.
3. That it look well, and please us by its presence, whatever it has to do or say.

Ruskin offers these points as evaluation tools; he’s trying to establish a way to judge existing buildings.

But for growing cities in Utah and elsewhere, they also offer a kind of very basic checklist or starting point. As we consider which buildings are worth saving and how to begin new ones, these are some of the first issues we should be bringing up.

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2 Comments

Filed under building, Downtown

2 responses to “Grace, History and the Role of Buildings

  1. Pingback: Wayfinding And Preservation In A Small Town | (pro(vo)cation)

  2. Pingback: Test Post 2 | Jim Dalrymple is the High School Basket Ball Champ

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