Social Protest through Architecture: Ruskin's "The Nature of Gothic" as an Embodiment of His Artistic and Social Views

By Farahbakhsh, Alireza | The Midwest Quarterly, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Social Protest through Architecture: Ruskin's "The Nature of Gothic" as an Embodiment of His Artistic and Social Views


Farahbakhsh, Alireza, The Midwest Quarterly


John Ruskin, a prominent Victorian writer and social critic, exerted a tremendous influence on his contemporary artists and sociologists. His ideas regarding aesthetics, architecture, social responsibility, humanity, spirituality, and laborer's rights found many supporters both in his lifetime and after his death. The present essay focuses on his social criticism and his views on architecture, and in particular, on Gothic architecture, as expounded in his famous essay titled "The Nature of Gothic," included in the second volume of his The Stones of Venice. The aim is to realize why and how Ruskin draws upon the external, and especially, the internal features of Gothic architecture to give vent to the reasons for his discontent with the social and economic conditions of his time. The central question, therefore, is how a social critic, here Ruskin, may express his views through introducing the general and specific elements of his favorite architecture. In other words, the purpose of this study is to see how architecture can embody and reflect the prescribed values of a social critic.

In England, as in the rest of Europe, the nineteenth century was a period of industrial revolution, discoveries, invention, exploration, and unprecedented scientific progress, all of which radically altered the social and economic conditions of life. Some of the most obvious manifestations of these alterations include: massive migration from rural areas to burgeoning cities, the construction of big factories, mass production and the emergence of consumer societies, the development of railroads and steamships, population growth, and class difference. Technology not only changed the material life of man, but also its futurism brought about a general sense of optimism; science, progress, and evolution were deemed to be the final saviors of mankind. The discoveries made in astronomy, geology, evolutionary biology, medicine, and natural sciences triggered a re-statement of old beliefs. Darwin's theory of evolution, for instance, shook many of the ideas the Victorians had about themselves and their place in the world and when it eventually became widely accepted, it dramatically changed subsequent thought and literature.

But this is not all. Once the values and tendencies of the new society were established, reactionary attitudes also began to emerge. Writers such as Arnold, Ruskin, and Carlyle in England bitterly criticized the assumptions of the new-born industrial middle class and passionately advocated the revival of medieval social cooperation and harmony between man and nature and mind and body. Ruskin, for example, argues that the title "Dark Ages" given to the medieval times is wholly inapplicable since

    They were, on the contrary, the bright ages; ours is the dark one;
   ... we build brown brick walls, and wear brown coats.... On the
   whole, these are much sadder ages than the early ones; not sadder
   in the noble and deep way, but in the dim wearied way--the way of
   ennui and jaded intellect, and uncomfortableness of soul and body.
   (Modern Painters, 326) 

In his Modern Painting, and in a chapter on Turner's The Garden of the Hesperides, Ruskin argues that any work of art always introduces the moral wealth or depravity of its society. Similarly, in his famous essay titled "Traffic," Ruskin mocks English people's conception of an ideal life, as a world of pleasure and "iron and coal" and asserts that such an outlook ultimately leads to a barren and dehumanized society in which the moneyed classes are totally oblivious to the sufferings of the industrial urban poor. In the same article and on the issue of the mania of success he observes that "the ruling goddess may be best generally described as the "Goddess of Getting-on" ... and all your great architectural works are, of course, built to her" (Selections, 286).

As a disciple of Carlyle, Ruskin invites contemporary England to recognize precisely what its ideologies and values imply. …

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