Distinguishing Architecture from Mere Building

“He was a critic who could out-paint most painters, a great educator who reinvented how we see art,” says British writer Philip Hoare of the Victorian polymath John Ruskin (1819-1900). Last year I wrote a post titled “Poets and Botanists” based on a portion of Ruskin series “Modern Painters” in which he talks about the two ways in which one can acquire knowledge of any kind – that by humble observation (as a poet) or by arrogant dissection (as a botanist) – the object of enquiry in this case was a plant. Ruskin, all in all, passionately advocated a close relationship with nature.

John Ruskin, Wikipedia [Public Domain]
A few days ago I encountered another work of his – this one on architecture – called The Seven Lamps of Architecture – published in 1849 after a visit to northern France during which he had aimed to examine the fundamentals of Gothic structures. The book – a broad treatise that explored but went beyond the Gothic – became an instant classic upon release and continues to inspire students and practitioners of architecture – and other arts as well.

Ruskin’s treatise was developed around a vision of aesthetics that went from macro to micro. Communal creativity at the level of the city had a direct impact on individual creativity at the level of the citizen. Architecture – “the art that disposed and adorned edifices” – came first, and it influenced – negativity or positively- smaller and more personal arts like painting and sculpture. Ruskin wrote:

I believe architecture must be the beginning of arts, and that the others must follow her in their time and order; and I think the prosperity of our schools of painting and sculpture, in which no one will deny the life, though many the health, depends upon that of our architecture.

How did Ruskin “define” Architecture? He did so by distinguishing it from “Building”. He wrote:

The Seven Lamps of Architecture by John Ruskin (1989, Dover Publications)

To build, literally to confirm, is by common understanding to put together and adjust the several pieces of any edifice or receptacle of a considerable size. Thus we have church building, house building, ship building, and coach building. That one edifice stands, another floats, and another is suspended on iron springs, makes no difference in the nature of the art, if so it may be called, of building or edification. The persons who profess that art, are severally builders, ecclesiastical, naval, or of whatever other name their work may justify; but building does not become architecture merely by the stability of what it erects; and it is no more architecture which raises a church, or which fits it to receive and contain with comfort a required number of persons occupied in certain religious offices, than it is architecture which makes a carriage commodious or a ship swift.


“To build, literally to confirm, is by common understanding to put together and adjust the several pieces of any edifice or receptacle of a considerable size…but building does not become architecture merely by the stability of what it erects…” (Photo: Pixabay)


When these “mere buildings” went beyond functionality, when they began displaying elements that were, in actual fact, unnecessary and unneeded – that was the beginning of Architecture. Ruskin:

…no one would call the laws architectural which determine the height of a breastwork or the position of a bastion. But if to the stone facing of that bastion be added an unnecessary feature, as a cable moulding, that is Architecture. It would be similarly unreasonable to call battlements or machicolations architectural features, so long as they consist only of an advanced gallery supported on projecting masses, with open intervals beneath for offence. But if these projecting masses be carved beneath into rounded courses, which are useless, and if the headings of the intervals be arched and trefoiled, which is useless, that is Architecture.

So basically, for Ruskin, architecture was a “decorative” enterprise on a grand scale, which, he believed, was to be executed in a way that it could ennoble public life and elevate the human mind.


These battlements might be “architecture” to Ruskin because they are decoratively shaped. The preciousness of their design transcends their functionality. (Photo: Pixabay)


The “seven lamps” – principles for architecture – that Ruskin talks about are: Sacrifice, Truth, Power, Beauty, Life, Memory and Obedience. Check the book out to learn more!



5 thoughts on “Distinguishing Architecture from Mere Building

  1. Interesting post. I am a fan of Philip Hoare and have seen him speak on a number of occasions, though also a fan of Mike Leigh and love his films. Ruskin was a big influential man of his day, so there are bound to be conflicts about him. As for art and architecture – I have no doubt that he knew his stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He’s been reduced to a “prude and a fop” – says Hoare – can’t really comment on that. But yes, he knew his stuff and was a great prose stylist. Many of his observations remain simply invaluable.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. He left a collection of artefacts to Sheffield to improve the knife grinders who were mostly short lived and poorly educated. Locals still seem bemused by the gift. His refusal to consummate his marriage was scandalous at the time, made into a recent film.

    Liked by 1 person

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