In a nutshell ‘Figures of Ruins and Restoration: John Ruskin and Viollet Le Duc’ is a poetic description of ironic ideologies. The article is a chapter of the book ‘Architecture and modern literature’, published by The University of Michigan Press (Spurr, 2012). The Author, Prof. David Spurr of the University of Geneva writes about modern English literature, art and architecture.
The essay, in my view, is an exploration of a time (the 19th Century) that initiated a break from the past and its effects on art and architecture. It discusses the two ideologies – symbol and allegory, as a means to find the meaning and role of history in the present and in the future. These two concepts are deeply discussed through the minds of Violette Le Duc and Ruskin, pioneer thinkers in their fields who saw the Gothic expression as ideal in all senses. While the essay is about the two mentioned people, through them, it delves into what they said and represented and how it began a conversation that is relevant even today. The quest for modernity begins by discussing ruins and their restoration.
Understanding the Pros | John Ruskin
The essay, while deep and complex, seems like a journey to understand. The passages are easy and they smoothly transcend through topics. However, certain technical concepts in literature and architecture will seem hard for people to grasp if they are not familiar with them. As an architect myself, I had to do multiple readings and references to understand certain ideas discussed in the context of literature. On the third time reading the passage, I finally was able to receive an integrated picture of the intent of the passage. Hence, it prods one to think for themselves and attach meaning to their own lived experiences to understand the essay while also encouraging us to step into the shoes of various scholars in history.
The milieu of the essay intrigues us to critique the beliefs and ideas of the people who wrote about art and architecture in the past and makes us realise how those beliefs evolved into today’s ideas of restoration and conservation.
Structure and Subject
The most emphasis is given to the two opposing ideologies- allegory and symbol. Allegory in literature is positioned to be parallel to the figures of the ruins in architecture while symbols in literature parallels restoration in architecture. The essay can be seen in two parts. The first part introduces the concepts of allegory and symbol in literature and exhibits various opinions and perspectives on the same through scholars like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Georg Friedrich Creuzer and Walter Benjamin. By the end of the first part, we would be able to have an insight into the psychologies of the above-mentioned writers and the philosophies that they represented. The second part delves deeper into the parallels in architecture. While Viollet Le Duc stands by restoration, John Ruskin stands by ruins. Superficially, the content might project a binary view. Nevertheless, the narration is nuanced, multifaceted and investigative in nature. It is reinforced in the introduction of the passage that it will not adhere to stereotypes and will actively choose to break away from them.
Opinion | John Ruskin
Apart from the already mentioned complex technicality of the paper, it is a heavy read. To assume the full meaning of the article, one needs to have a basic knowledge of the field of architectural restoration today. However, the book as a whole does give context to this chapter elaborating on different themes of architecture in different periods. It would have been interesting if there was a short note on how the theories discussed in the article affect today’s ideas of conservation.
It is not lost on me to acknowledge that John Ruskin was one of the pioneer thinkers with respect to heritage management. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) manifesto was influenced by John Ruskin’s ideology for treating built heritage (“Prophet of Preservation: Ruskin’s influence on the SPAB,” 2021). In the Indian context, the conservation manual of ASI also borrows from the same principles. It has impacted conservation and restoration for almost a century now.
On the other hand, Viollet Le Duc represents the symbolic perspective of using present-day technology to restore a yesteryear’s structure as exhibited in many of his French restoration projects. We see traces of similar treatments advised in various ICOMOS charters of conservation. In the Indian context, INTACH provides a counter approach to ASI’s (Archaeological Survey of India’s) principles, exploring the possibilities of restoring and conserving built heritage using craftsmen of today.
While reading, one might experience that there is really a very thin line between the two topics that are discussed; allegory and symbol. The end goal of both in the architectural sense is to curate historic buildings. It becomes increasingly obvious to discover that their principles are interchangeable in nature. The intent to restore a building through relevant technology reverberates with the will to experience the nostalgic past. The will to appraise the ruins of the building reflects the desire to feel a more melancholic nostalgia for the given past. However, the whole discussion to relate to the past essentially means that it is happening in the present and it will happen in the future. There was a clear line created between the nineteenth century and its history; and these discussions paved the way for the field of heritage management and restoration today.
The author concludes in the paper that there is a personal form of nostalgia and modernism in both Viollet Le Duc and John Ruskin, that reflects in their theories (Spurr, 2012). There could not be a more perfect inference drawn from their lived experience. This essay could be a starting point for a discussion to critically appraise and measure the progress of the heritage industry. Are the 21st-century ideas of restoration the same as the 19th-century ones? Alternatively, are the 19th-century ideas just the inception of a more evolved pathway to restore sensitively without leaning too much into nostalgia?
- Prophet of Preservation: Ruskin’s influence on the SPAB [WWW Document], 2021. . spab.org.uk. URL https://www.spab.org.uk/news/prophet-preservation-ruskins-influence-spab (accessed 8.25.22).
- Spurr, D., 2012. Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc [WWW Document]. Architecture and Modern Literature. URL http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1qv5nb5.9 (accessed 8.25.22).