Ruskin

John Ruskin never regarded decoration as anything other than the sine qua non of the art of building: for him it was the thing that separates a utilitarian shed from dignified architecture. He was more genuinely philosophical on the subject than any other theorist, having analyzed in The Seven Lamps of Architecture what he found satisfactory and unsatisfactory about ornament in numerous buildings and then synthesized his observations into a few coherent principles and a code of application. In The Stones of Venice he elaborated his discussion by cataloging every type of ornament he had observed in historical architecture and assessing its relative merits. Overarching all other considerations was the conviction that decoration is an indispensable aspect of architecture. Color as an inherent property of materials should be part and parcel of the fabric of a building, especially in the creation of patterns with colored materials. But beyond that, ornament should be applied to make the general effect richer and more satisfying.

Ornament that is most satisfactory, Ruskin thought, imitates things experienced in the real world. Although the overall design should be first worked out abstractly and its natural motifs simplified, even to the degree of abstraction, purely abstract motifs should be avoided because they are arbitrary and culturally meaningless. The ornament closest to the viewer should be at once more imitative and more finished in detail than what is far away. Indeed, finely worked detail in ornament that is intended to be seen at a distance is not only wasted but less effective than sketchily worked motifs. Equally, color in decoration should be employed in inverse degree of the imitative quality, being applied liberally only to abstracted motifs. Moreover, its application should be independent of form. Namely, separate moldings should not be given separate colors, and a column should not be striped vertically. Instead, color should go against the shape of the form or be used as a background for forms. Decorative motifs should be taken from contemplative aspects of life rather than active, because the former category is evocative and the latter is necessarily limited to banal illustration. Decorations should be located in or on a building where they can be contemplated by viewers at rest, rather than in areas of activity, where they are easily ignored.

Having cultivated his taste with buildings of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, Ruskin thought of ornament in terms of mosaics, fresco paintings, and carved capitals, medallions, and friezes. Hence his guidelines for decoration have subsequently been regarded as limited to his own particular time and cultural situation, and even as antithetical to modern aesthetic instincts. Reviewed in the light of postmodernism, however, their continuing value is more evident, warranting their quotation in full (from The Seven Lamps of Architecture):

1. Organic form dominant. True, independent sculpture, and alto-relievo; rich capitals, and moldings; to be elaborate in completion of form, not abstract, and either to be left in pure white marble, or most cautiously touched with color in points and borders only, in a system not concurrent with their forms.

2. Organic form sub-dominant. Basso-relievo, or intaglio. To be more abstract in proportion to the reduction of depth; touched with color more boldly and in increased degree, exactly in proportion to the reduced depth and fullness of form, but still in a system non-concurrent with their forms.

3. Organic form abstracted to outline. Monochrome design, still further reduced to simplicity of contour, and therefore admitting for the first time the color to be concurrent with its outlines; that is to say, as its name imports, the entire figure to be detached in one color from a ground of another.

4. Organic forms entirely lost. Geometrical patterns or variable cloudings in the most vivid color.

One of Ruskin's favorite examples illustrating this code was the Doge's Palace in Venice (fig. 12-1), with its richly molded ground-level arcade, embellished with finely detailed figural capitals and large biblical relief sculptures, naturalistically carved, at either corner. The arcade of the next level is somewhat less elaborate and embellished with somewhat abstracted motifs. Above that level, the plain wall is checkered with blocks of pale rose and white

Figure 12-1

Hierarchy of decoration: Doge's Palace, Venice (FH).

Figure 12-1

Hierarchy of decoration: Doge's Palace, Venice (FH).

marble, the pattern of which takes no account of the placement of the framed windows. With respect to another set of principles, he also appreciated that within this highly coherent overall scheme the windows were not all the same size or evenly spaced. This inconsistency, he thought, has the effect of enlivening the general regularity with the tension of a subordinate irregularity.

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