his harshest critic

I recently re-read Ruskin’s The Seven Lamps of Architecture, in the third edition of 1880. Ruskin had originally published the book in 1849, when he was 30 years old, and though it had proved quite popular, later in life Ruskin was reluctant to authorize a new edition. His reason? He hated the book.

He finally gave in, but insisted to the publisher that he be given the opportunity to annotate it. The resulting ongoing ill-tempered commentary is very entertaining. 

Even when he liked what he had written, he could be cynical. For instance, he approved of the glorious and justly famous passage in which he repudiates the tearing down of old buildings: 

Of more wanton or ignorant ravage it is vain to speak; my words will not reach those who commit them, and yet, be it heard or not, I must not leave the truth unstated, that it is again no question of expediency or feeling whether we shall preserve the buildings of past times or not. We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us. The dead have still their right in them: that which they laboured for, the praise of achievement or the expression of religious feeling, or whatsoever else it might be which in those buildings they intended to be permanent, we have no right to obliterate. What we have ourselves built, we are at liberty to throw down; but what other men gave their strength and wealth and life to accomplish, their right over does not pass away with their death; still less is the right to the use of what they have left vested in us only. It belongs to all their successors. It may hereafter be a subject of sorrow, or a cause of injury, to millions, that we have consulted our present convenience by casting down such buildings as we choose to dispense with. That sorrow, that loss, we have no right to inflict. 

On the phrase “my words will not reach those who commit them” the older Ruskin wrote, “No, indeed! — any more wasted words than mine throughout life, or bread cast on more bitter waters, I never heard of. This closing paragraph of the sixth chapter is the best, I think, in the book, — and the vainest.” 

But he is rarely as kind to himself. Of a passage on the Gothic architecture of Venice he noted, “I have written many passages that are one-sided or incomplete; and which therefore are misleading if read without their contexts or development. But I know of no other paragraph in any of my books so definitely false as this.” And one of the funniest moments comes in response to a passage about neo-Gothic architecture, which was just getting started in 1849: 

The stirring which has taken place in our architectural aims and interests within these few years, is thought by many to be full of promise: I trust it is, but it has a sickly look to me. 

Ruskin’s comment in 1880: 

I am glad to see I had so much sense, thus early; — if only I had had just a little more, and stopped talking, how much life — of the vividest — I might have saved from expending itself in useless sputter, and kept for careful pencil work! I might have had every bit of St. Mark’s and Ravenna drawn by this time. What good this wretched rant of a book can do still, since people ask for it, let them make of it; but I don’t see what it’s to be. 

This wretched rant of a book — why didn’t I practice drawing instead? 

Edward Heathcote, with a piece that provides an interesting counterpoint to my recent post on a 1950s skyscraper:

Sennett refers to the difference between Billionaires’ Row and the Rockefeller Center, a place of constant public and civic activity. In Rem Koolhaas’s 1978 book Delirious New York, written as the city was mired in bankruptcy but while its cultural scene was, arguably, at its apex, the Dutch architect argued that the skyscraper contained all the potential of a self-contained city. A “social condenser” is what he called it: “A machine to generate and intensify desirable forms of human intercourse.” 

The slender profile of 111 W 57th represents the proud nail in the coffin of that potential. It transforms an archetype which was, since its birth at the end of the 19th century, a container built to accommodate the complex needs of the contemporary metropolis. 

The skyscrapers of the golden era, the 1920s and 1930s, aspired to the condition of the vertical city, connecting the street to the sky via a labyrinth of corridors and arcades, shops, hotels, restaurants, subways, studios, theatres and, of course, offices with their own set of stratifications from secretaries to executives. This skinny tower aspires to something very different, the exclusion of the 99.99 per cent.

Ultimately, this is a skyscraper that has been built because it was possible, physically, economically and politically, to build it. Finance and engineering collide in the refinement of a new, very contemporary type of tower. It is, in its way, just as emblematic of its time as the buildings of the 1920s were of theirs. The economies of global cities are built on real estate, that is how they maintain growth. These towers may look insubstantial, but this is not a glitch. It is the new reality in which unimaginable wealth towers over the city uncontained, not by accident but by design.


Skyscraper (1959) is a 20-minute documentary film — mainly in black-and-white, though color enters in an interesting way near the end — about the construction of a building in Manhattan called the Tishman Building, then carrying the address 666 Fifth Avenue. The number was recently changed to 660, which it could have been all along, since the building occupies several lots, including both 660 and 666. Perhaps its current owner, one of Jared Kushner’s companies, thought the association of a Trump family member with the Mark of the Beast was subject to unfortunate interpretation. But when it was completed in 1957 the three big sixes were quite prominently displayed on the façade. 


You can see the film here, though that’s a bad print — if you happen to subscribe to the Criterion Channel you can see a much better version. It’s fascinating in a number of ways. 

Some of the filming takes place high above the streets, and certain shots look down on St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The narrator comments that St. Paddy’s had seen three buildings go up at 666, but the real story is more complicated. The first buildings on that stretch of Fifth Avenue were a series of mansions — one of which was designed by the famous architect and infamous human being Stanford White — built for the Vanderbilt family.

William Henry Vanderbilt Triple Palace Fifth Avenue

This one came earlier and was designed by Richard Morris Hunt: 

William Kissam Vanderbilt House 660 Fifth Avenue Demolished NYC copy

They called it Le Petit Château, isn’t that cute. A château with no green thing in sight is no château at all, in my book.   

Gradually these were torn down; by the time the Tishman Building started construction, the area had been reduced, as far as I can tell, to a 12-story office building and a parking lot. (The various histories are a little vague on these points.) 

In any case, in 1957 construction was preceded by demolition, and when the dump trucks carried away load after load of rubble they took it to New Jersey, where it was used to reclaim marshland. So there are who knows how many buildings in New Jersey built on ex-Manhattan rocks. 

When the building opened, among its most notable features was its lobby, which featured two artworks by the great Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, a flowing ceiling and a differently flowing waterfall-wall. 

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These were removed in 2020. Thanks a lot, Jared. 

For a while, plans were ongoing to demolish the 41-story building — stripping it down to its steel frame and then rebuilding it twice as high, to a design by Zaha Hadid. These proved too ambitious. But surely it won’t be long before St. Patrick’s Cathedral watches yet another building on those lots come down and yet another rise up. 

Anyway: the documentary is cool, you should watch it. 

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The courtyard of Kéré Architecture’s Léo Doctors’ Housing, 2019, at the Surgical Clinic and Health Center, Léo, Burkina Faso; described here. Kéré’s “emotional and moral attachment to his humble roots remains strong, and although one has seen other gifted architects morph from self-effacing aspirants into egomaniacal divas, it seems to me improbable that his head will be turned by the tidal wave of adulation that the Pritzker Prize inevitably unleashes. How judiciously he picks and chooses among the many offers that will now come his way — including such typical Pritzker-winner bait as condos in New York’s Chelsea and Miami’s Brickell districts, boutiques for LVMH luxury brands, and wineries for tech billionaires — will indicate how well Francis Kéré can handle the double-edged sword that is architectural fame in our money-worshiping, celebrity-besotted modern world.” 

where have you gone, Hamburger University?

I just spent a few days in Chicagoland, visiting dear old friends and my very dear son. I got a deal from Expedia and stayed at the Hyatt Lodge in Oak Brook, which used to be a hotel owned by McDonald’s as part of the Hamburger University campus. But Hamburger University is no more. (At least, not in Oak Brook.) 

If you walk around the site you see immaculately-tended grounds: 

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And the buildings are well-kept also: 

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Very mid-century modern. But as you look closer you see that the buildings are totally empty: 

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Rather disconcerting. The property has been purchased, and its billionaire owner appears to have undisclosed plans for it. But nothing is happening at the moment, and around the edges things are starting to look a little shabby. 

I think it would be an ideal location for The School for Scale. Just saying. 

Sant’Andrea al Quirinale


From the Met. Bernini’s Sant’Andrea al Quirinale in Rome is to me the most beautiful of churches. I am reading and thinking about Paradise Lost right now, and I have long thought that Paradise Lost is the Sant’Andrea al Quirinale of poems, and Sant’Andrea al Quirinale the Paradise Lost of churches. Maybe that analogy will make its way into my book. 

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“Titanic insanity”

And among such false means largeness of scale in the dwelling-house was of course one of the easiest and most direct. All persons, however senseless or dull, could appreciate size: it required some exertion of intelligence to enter into the spirit of the quaint carving of the Gothic times, but none to perceive that one heap of stones was higher than another. And therefore, while in the execution and manner of work the Renaissance builders zealously vindicated for themselves the attribute of cold and superior learning, they appealed for such approbation as they needed from the multitude, to the lowest possible standard of taste; and while the older workman lavished his labor on the minute niche and narrow casement, on the doorways no higher than the head, and the contracted angles of the turreted chamber, the Renaissance builder spared such cost and toil in his detail, that he might spend it in bringing larger stones from a distance; and restricted himself to rustication and five orders, that he might load the ground with colossal piers, and raise an ambitious barrenness of architecture, as inanimate as it was gigantic, above the feasts and follies of the powerful or the rich.

John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice

Frank Lloyd Wright, draftsman

In Huxtable’s biography of Wright she often comments on the beauty and precision of his pencil sketches: all his professional life he started his days by sharpening, with a knife, his colored pencils. These are from Time.

hide your work

To maintain his Olympian position as the self-described inventor of modern architecture, he could admit to no other interest or influence, or acknowledge any work but his own. We know now that he was an omnivorous reader, in part to compensate for an erratic education, and that he was an avid collector of the latest books and periodicals on art and architecture. He was intensely aware of everything that was going on and immediately receptive to it; he never doubted his own role as an active participant in a period of great creative change. He did not miss a nuance or beat of what was happening abroad.

— Ada Louise Huxtable, Frank Lloyd Wright: A Life. It’s fascinating to see how Wright was so profoundly captivated by the Romantic myth of the solitary genius that he hid, in his lifetime quite successfully, his relentlessly wide-ranging curiosity and his encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary developments in architecture. How enlightening it would have been to hear Wright’s commentary on all those movements — but he kept all his thoughts to himself lest someone discover that he knew the work of any other architects.

“an expression of what we are”

“The pseudo-Gothic was much ridiculed, and nobody builds like that anymore. It is not authentic, not an expression of what we are, so it was said. To me it was and remains an expression of what we are. One wonders whether the culture critics had as good an instinct about our spiritual needs as the vulgar rich who paid for the buildings.” — Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind. Reading the book again after so many years I find it deeply wrong-headed, and yet also full of wonderful passages, as for example this one about how as a fifteen-year-old freshman he fell in love with the University of Chicago.

John Ruskin, Abbeville: Church of St Wulfran from the River (1868).

About the moment in the forenoon when the modern fashionable traveller, intent on Paris, Nice, and Monaco, and started by the morning mail from Charing Cross, has a little recovered himself from the qualms of his crossing, and the irritation of fighting for seats at Boulogne, and begins to look at his watch to see how near he is to the buffet of Amiens, he is apt to be baulked and worried by the train’s useless stop at one inconsiderable station, lettered ABBEVILLE. As the carriage gets in motion again, he may see, if he cares to lift his eyes for an instant from his newspaper, two square towers, with a curiously attached bit of traceried arch, dominant over the poplars and osiers of the marshy level he is traversing. Such glimpse is probably all he will ever wish to get of them; and I scarcely know how far I can make even the most sympathetic reader understand their power over my own life.


Colossal head of Serapis



This head depicting the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis is from a colossal statue that stood over 4 metres tall. The statue is thought to be from the Temple of Serapis, a huge sanctuary measuring 101 metres by 78 metres, which once stood in the ancient Egyptian city of Canopus. The impressive remains of this sanctuary were recently discovered by underwater archaeologists led by Franck Goddio.

In this statue, Serapis wears his characteristic headdress, a corn measure known as a kalathos, symbolising abundance and fertility. Alongside his funerary and royal roles, Serapis was worshipped for his healing powers, which according to ancient historians were particularly potent in Canopus. People came from afar to sleep within the temple complex in order to be healed by ‘incubation’, when miraculous cures were delivered in a dream.

The god Serapis is said to have been introduced to Egypt by the ancient Greek ruler Ptolemy I. Serapis was aimed at Greeks living in Egypt and his worship developed where Greek presence was prevailing, notably in Alexandria and Canopus. The popularity of this universal god also flourished outside Egypt in the Greek Mediterranean world, then later in the Roman Empire.

Colossal head of Serapis. Canopus, c. 200 BC. On loan from Maritime Museum, Alexandria. Photo: Christoph Gerigk.
© Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.

Every human action gains in honor, in grace, in all true magnificence, by its regard to things that are to come. It is the far sight, the quiet and confident patience, that, above all other attributes, separate man from man, and near him to his Maker; and there is no action nor art, whose majesty we may not measure by this test. Therefore, when we build, let us think that we build for ever. Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, ‘See! this our fathers did for us.’

The Seven Lamps of Architecture, by John Ruskin. I am deep into Ruskin at the moment, so fair warning: there could be a good many quotations from him in the coming days.

John Ruskin’s house, Brantwood.

There is a sanctity in a good man’s house which cannot be renewed in every tenement that rises on its ruins: and I believe that good men would generally feel this; and that having spent their lives happily and honorably, they would be grieved at the close of them to think that the place of their earthly abode, which had seen, and seemed almost to sympathise in all their honor, their gladness, or their suffering,—that this, with all the record it bare of them, and all of material things that they had loved and ruled over, and set the stamp of themselves upon—was to be swept away, as soon as there was room made for them in the grave; that no respect was to be shown to it, no affection felt for it, no good to be drawn from it by their children; that though there was a monument in the church, there was no warm monument in the heart and house to them; that all that they ever treasured was despised, and the places that had sheltered and comforted them were dragged down to the dust. I say that a good man would fear this; and that, far more, a good son, a noble descendant, would fear doing it to his father’s house. I say that if men lived like men indeed, their houses would be temples—temples which we should hardly dare to injure, and in which it would make us holy to be permitted to live; and there must be a strange dissolution of natural affection, a strange unthankfulness for all that homes have given and parents taught, a strange consciousness that we have been unfaithful to our fathers’ honor, or that our own lives are not such as would make our dwellings sacred to our children, when each man would fain build to himself, and build for the little revolution of his own life only.

— Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture