The Afterlife of Dying Buildings: Ruskin and Preservation in the Twenty-First Century

Ryan Roark

Photo of The Garden Museum i Fig. 14.4 Dow Jones Architects, The Garden Museum (2017). London. Photo: Ryan Roark.

In ‘The Lamp of Memory’, the sixth chapter of his The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), John Ruskin called restoration ‘the most total destruction which a building can suffer’ and called it ‘as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture’.[1] Once a building is on its last legs, according to him, it should be put down; he entreated the reader to ‘throw its stones into neglected corners, make ballast of them, or mortar, if you will; but do it honestly, and do not set up a Lie in their place’.[2] His categorical opposition to restoration, along with his vocabulary of life, death, and honesty, were echoed almost thirty years later in William Morris and Philip Webb’s manifesto for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) (1877), which went further, to denounce any intervention into existing buildings. The SPAB manifesto stated that preservation—‘to stave off decay by daily care’—was the only acceptable treatment for old buildings. Seeming to echo Ruskin’s entreaty, Morris and Webb continued: ‘if [a historic building] has become inconvenient for its present use, [better] to raise another building rather than alter or enlarge the old one; in fine to treat our ancient buildings as monuments of a bygone art, created by bygone manners, that modern art cannot meddle with without destroying’.[3]

Despite his early stance against restoration and his association with SPAB’s prohibition of all tampering with older buildings, decades later Ruskin embraced a cyclical view of life in his botany textbook Proserpina: Studies of Wayside Flowers while the Air was Yet Pure among the Alps and in the Scotland and England Which My Father Knew (1875). While his focus in Proserpina was plant life and its constant cycle between decay and growth, he also drew analogies to human life, society, and buildings themselves. This later work is often overlooked, in part because of its scientific inaccuracies and theoretical discrepancies with the Seven Lamps and other canonical texts, but there are several moments of resonance between these two works, twenty-six years apart, suggesting that even when it was less explicitly stated, the parallelism between plant life and the life of buildings and cities was already an influence for Ruskin in his early career. The ecological model of the built environment suggested by Proserpina and sections of the Seven Lamps resonates strongly with current trends in architectural reuse and evolving interpretations of what historic preservation is in the twenty-first century.

Over the past forty years, the definition of ‘historic preservation’ has expanded well beyond what was once usually a decision between conservation and restoration. The first master’s degree in Historic Preservation was awarded in 1973 at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, which is still at the forefront of preservation as an emerging discipline distinct from pure conservation and akin to architecture. In 2004, Jorge Otero-Pailos and other faculty and students at Columbia GSAPP launched the journal Future Anterior, with the explicit goal of a ‘greater injection of critical thought and professional theory’ into the field, which expanded especially rapidly in the United States towards the end of the twentieth century.[4] Future Anterior has served as a critical forum both for discussion and for the ongoing definition of the field. For instance, it was Future Anterior that first published an excerpt from architect Rem Koolhaas’s now famous lecture ‘Preservation is Overtaking Us’, in which Koolhaas noted that preservation is an inevitable consequence of modernity and that the items being considered for preservation are less and less ancient, leading him to muse that ‘Maybe we [in the twenty-first century] can be the first to actually experience the moment that preservation is no longer a retroactive activity but becomes a prospective activity’.[5]

The term ‘preservation’, therefore, now encompasses a whole range of practices on existing buildings of varying ages. Many of those practices at least profess to extend the life of the original building without deceit, offering up unmasked modern responses to original structures, themselves often multiple in older buildings. This chapter examines Ruskin’s thoughts on life and death—both in the Seven Lamps, in the context primarily of buildings, and in Proserpina, in the context primarily of plants—to determine what might be, borrowing from Ruskin’s terms, vital intervention. Like Ruskin, this chapter is concerned with ‘what is lawful, not [necessarily] what is desirable’, and finds no quarrel with the idea that the pretence of restoring the past ought to be ‘unlawful’.[6]

In describing a building’s progression from life to death in ‘The Lamp of Life’, the fifth lamp, Ruskin compared the built environment to ‘the flow of a lava stream, first bright and fierce, then languid and covered, at last advancing only by the tumbling over and over of its frozen blocks’.[7] His language is convincing because it is so evocative, and the slow ebbing-away of life is a satisfactorily melancholy image of the individual human condition. Perhaps counterintuitively, this is quite a modern way of thinking about buildings: the current practice in architecture is to photograph a building right away upon completion and usually before occupancy, before the users can interfere with the building’s intended aesthetic. For this reason, many twenty-first-century architects might not question Ruskin’s lava analogy for the life of a building. However, a lava stream is not actually alive. Moreover, the cataclysmic peak and the suggestion of infinitesimal approach to zero are not accurate depictions of any real model from any kingdom of life, either individual or collective, nor even of the transitive life of artworks. Even Ruskin believed a building reached its peak after four or five hundred years (to say nothing of sculpture or paintings).[8] To be sure, he began his discussion of living architecture by specifying that architecture’s life is bestowed, dependent on the life imbued in it by intelligent and engaged craftsmen, but he went on to talk about it as a living thing whose inevitable death must be staved off, opening up the possibility of analogies to actual life forms. In Ruskin’s ecology, life is bestowed from human hands to buildings, making buildings the terminal progeny of the craftsman.

According to Ruskin’s Seven Lamps, although it is the human hand which gives the building life, the workman himself is most often inspired by vegetal life forms. Ruskin professed to find the green world altogether more agreeable than the grey one, save for the human sympathy which buildings alone can transmit between generations.[9] For instance, he believed one of the things that made ruins so pleasant was the return of actual plant life, as illustrated in Plate Two of the Seven Lamps, which shows the harmonious juxtaposition of carved details abstracted from vegetal forms alongside new plant growth (Fig. 14.1). Ruskin said all ‘invention of beauty’ came from direct imitation of nature, and yet he also extolled the frank imitation of noble ancient architecture and raised the possibility of an ambiguous definition of nature when he praised the ‘marvellous life, changefulness, and subtlety’ of the Byzantines, whose buildings were based, according to him, not on geometric principles like symmetry, but on ‘feeling’. Of their creations, he wrote, ‘we reason upon the lovely building as we should upon some fair growth of the trees of the earth, that know not their own beauty’.[10]

R. P. Cuff after John Ruskin, Part of the Cathedral of St Lô, Normandy. Engraving, reproduced in The Seven Lamps of Architecture
Fig. 14.1 R. P. Cuff after John Ruskin, Part of the Cathedral of St Lô, Normandy. Engraving, reproduced in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849). Library Edition, Plate Two, facing 8.81.

The ‘mysterious sympathy’ of recycled walls

A fluid understanding of individual lives and ecosystems surfaced in Ruskin’s spiritualist-scientific texts of the 1870s and 1880s, including Proserpina, titled after the Roman goddess who travels annually between the underworld and the earth’s surface, prompting a never-ending cycling of seasons of plant life. Proserpina put forth various arguments for the permanence of life, a far cry from the pathos of the ‘lava stream’ model. As a younger man, Ruskin had closed ‘The Lamp of Life’ by lamenting that ‘our life must at the best be but a vapour that appears for a little time and then vanishes away’.[11] By stark contrast, in Proserpina he wrote that ‘life, when it is real, is not evanescent; is not slight; does notvanish away. Every noble life leaves the fibre of it interwoven for ever in the work of the world; by so much, evermore, the strength of the human race has gained’.[12] This statement echoes the premise of ‘The Lamp of Life’—that human life transmits itself through the hands of the vital craftsman to the enduring fabric of the built environment—but it seems to represent a shift in focus from the individual life to collective life.[13] In reconsidering the world of plants, Ruskin’s model of life became cyclical rather than asymptotic.

As Basque philosopher Michael Marder, author of Plant Thinking (2013), has pointed out, people do not typically distinguish between the identities of individual plants, meaning that today’s plant stands in for the plant of the past and presents the image of continuity and permanence.[14] For Ruskin, who was unusually sensitive to the details of the plant, this may have been truer for some species than for others. The first chapter of Proserpina is ‘Moss’, because, as Ruskin confessed at the outset, he did not know what moss actually was, and it appeared to him to be immortal.[15] As he delved deeper into its structure, he discovered that the reason for its effective permanence was that, unlike the perennial plants which seemed to die annually (but always returned to life in the spring), each moss fibre was both ‘especially undecaying’ in its upper portion and ‘especially decaying’ in its lower portion, so that the one entity represented all stages of decay and renewal at once.[16] Victorian scholar Mark Frost has pointed out that ‘Moss’ was written significantly earlier than the rest of Proserpina, which is more concerned with Ruskin’s dissatisfaction with Darwinism and the rise of materialism. Ruskin’s musings on moss, by contrast, are unencumbered by this agenda and reveal a ‘characteristic mingling of anthropocentric and biocentric, of spirit and material’.[17] Frost’s reading focuses on with Ruskin’s appreciation of the ‘mundane’ as exemplified by his writings on moss, as well as on iron, both of which materials change gradually but surely. According to Frost, the very act of scrutinising these typically unscrutinised, ubiquitous materials might be considered an ecological act, in the sense that it provides perspective on man’s role with respect to nature and the built environment: Ruskin ‘invites his readers to gaze upon immensity, and to at least glimpse the possibility of reconfiguring human existence as part of a much greater whole’.[18]

After ‘Moss’, Ruskin divided plants roughly into ‘leaf’ and ‘root’: the two halves which allow plants to communicate simultaneously with life above ground and with the underworld, the world of the past.[19] Ruskin’s interest in change and decay is evident in his choice of a frontispiece for Proserpina, a plate showing two sprigs of common heath, one ‘blossoming’ and one ‘stricken in days’ (Fig. 14.2). Of this plant he wrote that ‘the richest piece of Gothic spire-sculpture would be dull and graceless beside the grouping of the floral masses in their various life’.[20] He went on to lament the difficulty of drawing the plants accurately, due to their constantly changing state. He chose to show the heath at two different stages of life, presumably to represent the constant cycling of growth and decay, yet he acknowledged that even these fixed images were deceptive in their inability to represent change.

G. Allen after John Ruskin, ‘Blossoming—and Stricken in Days’: Common Health or Ling. Steel engraving, reproduced on the frontispiece to Proserpina
Fig. 14.2 G. Allen after John Ruskin, ‘Blossoming—and Stricken in Days’: Common Health or Ling. Steel engraving, reproduced on the frontispiece to Proserpina (1875–86). Library Edition, Plate Nine, facing 25.189.

Throughout Proserpina, Ruskin, like many botanists before and after him, used architectural analogies to explain plant structure. These included three parts of the root which he named store-houses, refuges, and ruins. In contrast to his earlier injunction to tear down and pulverise structures which had decayed too far, in Proserpina he argued that the structure remaining within the ruin provided ‘a basis for the growth of the future plant’.[21] This was not ruin as inspiration; this ruin was literally a foundation and source of material.

In Seven Lamps, Ruskin’s attention to the endurance of material properties and value seemed to presage this later work, all too often written off as mystical and eccentric. In ‘The Lamp of Life’, he described the ‘life’ of architecture as the human intelligence and spirit conveyed through handwork, which must necessarily eventually decay with age, even if conservation might slow that process.[22] However, in ‘The Lamp of Memory’, when explaining the material value of age itself, Ruskin wrote that architecture gained vitality as it bore witness to more and more human lives and, he implied, prompted the imagination of past lives:

For indeed, the greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, nor in its gold. Its glory is in its Age, and in that deep sense of voicefulness, of stern watching, of mysterious sympathy, nay, even of approval or condemnation, which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing waves of humanity. It is in their lasting witness against men, in their quiet contrast with the transitional character of all things, in the strength which, through the lapse of seasons and times, and the decline and birth of dynasties, and the changing of the face of the earth, and of the limits of the sea, maintains its sculptured shapeliness for a time insuperable, connects forgotten and following ages with each other, and half constitutes the identity, as it concentrates the sympathy, of nations : it is in that golden stain of time, that we are to look for the real light, and colour, and preciousness of architecture.[23]

Ruskin’s understanding of the material values of age, embedded workmanship, and ‘voicefulness’ could contribute significantly to contemporary discourse on preservation—which is itself often ambivalent about material juxtapositions—if only he were not so often read as prohibiting all intervention.

In fact, in praising the architecture of the Lombards, Ruskin admitted the possibility of the productive cycling of material, both conceptual and physical. He called Lombard architecture:

rude and infantine in itself, and surrounded by fragments of a nobler art of which it is quick in admiration and ready in imitation, and yet so strong in its own new instincts that it re-constructs and re-arranges every fragment that it copies or borrows into harmony with its own thoughts … I do not know any sensation more exquisite than the discovering of the evidence of this magnificent struggle into independent existence; the detection of the borrowed thoughts, nay, the finding of the actual blocks and stones carved by other hands and in other ages, wrought into the new walls, with a new expression and purpose given to them.[24]

Here he made the brief but critical jump from imitation, about which he wrote freely in the Seven Lamps, to actual physical intervention. The physical re-appropriation of materials which still bore the traces of previous workmanship and life evokes the seasonal cycling of some plant life, raising the possibility that his later writings on the permanence of life were not actually discontinuous with this foundational ‘Lamp of Life’. The passage about the Lombards serves as an introduction to Ruskin’s ideas about what he called ‘vital imitation’, which, in light of the description of spoliation above, does not necessarily preclude intervention. The two characteristics he extolled in vital imitation, Frankness and Audacity, could be considered as two hallmarks of what one might call vital intervention: it must be honest about the age of all materials and the origins of ideas, and it must be bold in its commitment to the mark of the present day.[25]The former condition is commonly accepted by perhaps most preservationists and architects, but the second is more radical. While some conservative conservationists decry the arrogance of contemporary intervention, to refuse to add a new layer to any of the stuff of the past—that is, to believe that the present is more than the meeting point of past and future—is fundamentally ahistorical. Ruskin acknowledged this continuum in ‘The Lamp of Memory’ when he wrote of ‘planting forests that our descendants may live under their shade, or of raising cities for future nations’.[26] He called for all new buildings to be ‘historical’, to instruct future generations as to the character of the present.[27] A fundamental piece of this character was the present relationship to the past, of which Ruskin and Morris seemed to despair by the end of the nineteenth century, in the face of rapid industrialisation and modernisation.


Renovating Ruskin for the twenty-first-century architect

Now that preservation has become the subject of extensive critical inquiry, Ruskin’s language about the historicity of buildings and the cyclical nature of time seems more relevant than ever. Indeed, in the introduction to the first Future Anterior, Otero-Pailos echoed Ruskin when he described ‘preservation’s foundational theoretical and historiographical problem of having to speak for two eras (the past and the present) in the name of the future’. He went on to acknowledge that all creative work is concerned with the past, present, and future, while noting that preservation involves a more explicit negotiation between past and future and their hold over the present; as he pointed out, among creative professionals, preservationists are perhaps unique in being paid more for research into the past than for projection into the future.[28] In another early editorial, Otero-Pailos described historic preservation as being liberated from ‘the Cartesian belief, inherited from architecture, that ideas precede buildings and are inserted into them as “intentions,” only to be later discovered by historians’; preservation is instead ‘based on feedback circular thinking’.[29]To borrow one of Ruskin’s terms, the vital treatment of an existing building is not only a conversation with, or attempt to understand, past generations, but a duty to project forward to future generations.

Vital intervention is also a potentially powerful weapon against that immoral alternative, restoration. Ruskin’s moral railings against the dishonesty of restoration run the risk of seeming quaint today, especially given the widespread contemporary distaste for nostalgia, which is often considered to be anti-progress. Early twenty-first-century architectural theorist and historian Svetlana Boym tackled this conception of nostalgia in The Future of Nostalgia(2001). Boym distinguished between two types of nostalgia, restorative nostalgia, which seeks a return to a past state of glory, and reflective nostalgia, a creative and progressive impulse shared across humanity, a longing prompted by the fundamental unknowability of the past. She wrote: ‘Creative [or reflective] nostalgia reveals the fantasies of the age, and it is in those fantasies and potentialities that the future is born. One is nostalgic not for the past the way it was, but for the past the way it could have been. It is this past perfect that one strives to realize in the future’.[30] It must be noted that Ruskin himself did not always avoid restorative nostalgia and sometimes actively yearned for the past. The elision between reflective and restorative nostalgia is in fact easy to make, and it is perhaps due to the difficulty of maintaining this distinction that many twentieth-century architects shied away altogether from nostalgia and charges of historicism.

What makes aged material valuable, apart from embedded labour, is precisely the suggestion of what could have beenin the past. Boym concretely linked the presumption to know what the past actually was with the practice of restoration and with toxic nationalism, bringing Ruskin’s moral injunction against restoration into the twenty-first century and making it more imperative than ever. Creative nostalgia invites imaginings of the multiple alternate realities which the past might represent today. Such imaginings can be passed down for the consideration of future generations by vital interventions into the built environment. Ruskin’s Frankness and Audacity are critical in this process, to avoid what we know today as ‘alternative facts’: dishonesty about what actually was in the past.

If the idea of a multiplicity of pasts, or of identities for a building, sounds strange today, it is important to recognise that the segregation of such things is a peculiarly modern idea. The medieval builders whom Ruskin admired so much did not think of buildings as having singular authors, dates of authorship, or identities. Art historian Richard Krautheimer has even posited that medieval people had access to a process of thought unknown today, called ‘multi-think’, in which ‘multiple connotations and images “all ‘vibrated’ simultaneously in the mind”’, an argument revisited in Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood’s influential Anachronic Renaissance (2010).[31] It was perhaps the perceived loss of this particular mode of thought that Ruskin and Morris lamented when they came to the conclusion that modern builders were inferior to their predecessors and incapable of dealing responsibly with older buildings, which had so many layers of material and craftsmanship.

When the Venice Charter—arguably the most prominent conservation and restoration manifesto of the twentieth century—was written up in 1964, its authors acknowledged the multiplicity of buildings even while championing conservation, allowing restoration, and discouraging addition. In their words (and with added emphasis): ‘The valid contributions of all periods to the building of a monument must be respected, since unity of style is not the aim of a restoration. When a building includes the superimposed work of different periods, the revealing of the underlying state can only be justified in exceptional circumstances’.[32] The Venice Charter, although often read as highly conservative, paved the way for contemporary practices of intervention in one other critical way: it made explicit the idea that work carried out on a historic building ‘must be distinct from the [original] architectural composition and must bear a contemporary stamp’.[33] This injunction is typically manifested in the use of comparable but aesthetically non-competing materials to complete ruined architectural elements, for example, casting a smooth white concrete column to sit between a historic grey stone capital and base. However, this practice also lays the foundation for more audacious trends in ‘preservation’ which seek to differentiate themselves from less responsible alternatives, and which suggest that the time has come for renewed faith in creative nostalgia, multiplicity, and vital intervention.

One of the most celebrated examples of such intervention in recent years in Britain is the Stirling Prize-winning rebuild of Astley Castle (2012), by London architects Witherford Watson Mann (Fig. 14.3). This intervention was made possible in part by a cataclysmic fire in 1978, by the prohibitive cost of restoration, and by the fact that the so-called original building was undeniably multiple with various layers of construction from the twelfth to the twentieth centuries. Like Ruskin’s plant ruins, the masonry walls provide all the necessary foundation for the new construction, while the new construction stabilises the previously unstable masonry walls. Crucially, this project was conceived as a statement on the relationship of present to past and future. William Mann calls it:

a reflection on time in architecture, an assertion of continuity and change. It is a rejection of the ideas of ‘return’ and ‘rupture’ that condition too much action on buildings of the past: ‘return’ in the form of restoration, and ‘rupture’ in the form of self-consciously discontinuous new construction. … [T]hese positions share the belief that history is past. By contrast, we are convinced that history is not what happened to other people, but a dimension of human nature, and a fundamental part of our working conditions, even in the modern age.[34]

The architects acknowledge that their building too will one day be the site for future interventions, that it is not at a stopping point, but an intermediate point in its history. At the same time, their work was necessitated primarily by a major moment of rupture—the 1978 fire—not solely the natural process of decay, and this major event in the building’s life is visible in their response. Rather than create (or restore) domestic-scale spaces that echo the most recent organisation of the building before the fire, Stephen Witherford, Christopher Watson, and William Mann used the opportunity presented by the fire to create some ‘uncanny’ spaces—most notably the dining room—that refuse comfortable typological recognition and instead focus attention on the explicit juxtaposition of medieval and fifteenth-, seventeenth-, and twenty-first-century architectural elements (Fig. 14.3).[35]

Photograph of Astley Castle
Fig. 14.3 Witherford Watson Mann Architects, Astley Castle (2013). Nuneaton. Photo: © Philip Vile. Courtesy of Witherford Watson Mann Architects.

Astley Castle’s dining room has large windows and an oversized skylight, all without glass, opening the space up to the elements and challenging visitors to question their assumptions about enclosure, thermal comfort, and spatial continuity between building and environment. The inclusion of what is typically the exterior (or ‘nature’) within this performative hodgepodge of different eras of building suggests a sympathy between the act of architectural renovation and ecological processes. Although the space has been restored, in a sense, leaving it open to the elements invites viewers to recognise that it (like all buildings) is constantly decaying and changing.

For Witherford Watson Mann, every construction has a ‘deep structure’ which persists throughout its history and must be respected and retained in an intervention.[36] In the case of Astley Castle, the deep structure is largely cellular, as the castle was built up as successive masonry structures precisely to avoid destruction by fire. The rules of the deep structure set the parameters for the new intervention. For instance, once the architects conducted a close inspection of the ruin, they determined the large masonry fireplace to be integral to the structure, and although they had originally omitted it from their redesign, they developed a concrete lintel to allow them to construct the new walls around the fireplace and abutting the stabilised surviving masonry walls.[37]

In curating the juxtaposition seen most dramatically in the dining room, the architects were conscious of choosing materials that would complement the original. Structurally, they used only masonry (concrete and brickwork) to stabilise and buttress the exterior masonry walls.[38] Most of the visible new masonry is brick, in a similar colour to the existing sandstone and limestone, but with an entirely different texture in both surface and jointing.[39] The new carpentry, which is all interior and provides no structural support to the exterior, uses modern timber lamination technologies that allow the interior to remain free of any visible steelwork, so that all materials are of a similar colour palette and the new materials are affordable modern versions of the originals: brick masonry for stone masonry and timber for timber. This sympathetic material juxtaposition recalls the Venice Charter’s ruling on material and thus fulfils Ruskin’s call for frankness. It is far more audacious than what the Venice Charter prescribes, in both its use of interior scale and its leveraging of new technologies and contemporary, minimalist wood joinery. In the sense that preservation is finding ‘new routes to the understanding of old things’, Astley Castle might certainly fall under a rubric of preservation of which Ruskin could approve.[40]

A material strategy is also at the heart of Dow Jones Architects’ addition to the Garden Museum, redeveloped in two phases in 2008 and 2017 (Fig. 14.4). The museum, next to Lambeth Palace in London, was founded in 1977 for the purpose of saving the church of St Mary-at-Lambeth, a Victorian building slated for demolition along with its medieval tower dating back to the twelfth century.[41] Architects Biba Dow and Alun Jones’s intervention includes a prefabricated cross-laminated timber structure inside the church and an external extension to the building in the form of three lightweight metal and glass pavilions enclosing a courtyard that coincides with the old churchyard.

Photo of The Garden Museum
Fig. 14.4 Dow Jones Architects, The Garden Museum (2017). London. Photo: Ryan Roark.

Like Witherford Watson Mann, within the existing masonry building, Dow Jones eschewed visible metalwork while making use of contemporary timber lamination to create something whose elements, according to architecture critic Rowan Moore, ‘act in sympathy, but keep their identity’.[42] The timber structure, which was required to be entirely removable and without foundations, winds asymmetrically through the church’s aisles and leaves the nave as a sort of indoor plaza within the church. The fully exposed sides of the timber structure, including stairways, walkways, and double-height walls, are finished to match the smooth white-grey stone that comprises the church’s columns and lines its arches. The mottled quality of the surface treatment is enough to make a visitor look twice, yet the ‘back’ sides of the timber structure—for example the outside of the staircase that faces the church’s exterior wall instead of its nave—are left unpainted, with the unmistakable appearance of high-quality plywood, a frank marker of the division between ‘original’ and intervention.[43]

The more audacious intervention to the Garden Museum is the exterior addition, with its slender steel colonnade and glass walls topped with bronze tile. The lightweight pavilion structure directly abuts the church and has evoked comparisons to modernist architect Mies van der Rohe.[44] Glass is one of the more commonly used materials in contemporary reuse projects, particularly in London, presumably because of its transparency and reflectivity.[45] While all-glass interventions into masonry buildings are sometimes designed to cede importance to the older buildings, Dow Jones’s pavilions with their vibrant bronze roofs make a bold statement as an addition to a nineteenth-century church with a medieval tower. In fact, the architects conceived of their strategy for the addition as a process of layering—not vertically as in the case of Astley Castle, but horizontally, from tower to church to pavilions, with ranks of trees in between, leaving the original building visible above and through the addition.[46] Alongside this compositional strategy and the importance of visibility, the choice of material was a definitive decision in designing this intervention: the dominant new material needed to be sympathetic to its context, but also bold enough for differentiation, as a distinct new layer.[47] Dow and Jones selected the bronze because of its contrast against the grey of the stone and the green of the trees and because of an interest in its projected change over time, recalling Ruskin’s comments about trying (and failing) to illustrate the constant changefulness of plant life.[48]

The Garden Museum’s bronze-clad pseudo-Miesian pavilions define a newly enclosed courtyard, whose extent was defined for the architects largely by the inclusion therein of several ornamented high-profile graves, including those of Captain William Bligh and seventeenth-century horticulturalists John Tradescant and John Tradescant, Jr.[49] Some of the tombstones are integrated into the courtyard’s walkways, straddling the border of smooth, contemporary concrete walkways and brick landscape paving, creating upon the courtyard ground a horizontal collage which is the corollary of the building’s vertical composition, and which foregrounds decay alongside the plant life also abundant in the courtyard.

Astley Castle and the Garden Museum both began with Grade II-listed properties, meaning that the material value of the existing was not in question. By contrast, Haworth Tompkins’s project Dovecote Studio (2010) is perhaps more purely Ruskinian in its recognition of the value of material which is unremarkable except for its age alone (Fig. 14.5). In this project, on the campus of Snape Maltings Concert Hall in Suffolk, a new Cor‑ten steel building was fabricated on site and then inserted into the remaining lower half of an anonymous, decayed brick building from a mid-nineteenth-century malt factory, to create a twenty-first-century music studio. The ruin itself was stabilised before the new building was inserted; the preservation of such a relatively new and relatively low-profile structure recalls Rem Koolhaas’s declaration that ‘preservation is overtaking us’. Here, the act of preservation is primarily one of acknowledging the old and the symbolic weight it holds for the present. The ruin itself serves only a commemorative function of an anonymous past, and yet is still seen to be an essential part of the new building. Meanwhile, the steel insert replicates the original interior boundary of the building with a new surface, evoking the preservation or restoration of a space rather than of material. This approach is not necessarily at odds with a model of intervention based on Ruskin’s attitude towards the material of the past, but this project reserves that material approach for the building’s exterior, while the interior is insulated and clad entirely in cross-laminated timber, a new material unrelated to the building’s past.

Haworth Tompkins, Dovecote Studio
Fig. 14.5 Haworth Tompkins, Dovecote Studio (2010). Suffolk. Photo: © Philip Vile. Courtesy of Haworth Tompkins.

Dovecote Studio raises the question of the differential roles of preservation, material or otherwise, in the interior and on the exterior of an intervention—a fundamentally urban question. While Dovecote Studio’s setting is not urban, it is part of a greater concert hall campus, and before its construction the ruin was described as being meaningful from afar to visitors to Snape Maltings.[50] The building continues to be viewed primarily from the exterior in the context of the campus, while the user inside the heavily insulated building might soon forget that she is inside a ruin. From the outside, the Cor‑ten steel serves as a sort of diagram, both of the building’s original form and, perhaps more crucially, of the harmonious coexistence of past, present, and future creative production. In the context of a city or campus, in order to avoid what Svetlana Boym called restorative nostalgia, it is necessary that the juxtaposition of old and new be visible from the outside—an argument against the popular trend of full facade retention in London and other cities, a trend neither frank nor audacious and certainly less Ruskinian than the conscious layering of new walls upon old.

If the vitality of built walls is transmitted to them by the engaged craftsman, as Ruskin claimed, then as long as the trace of the craftsman remains legible on the material, the material is still vital even if broken into smaller pieces and even after much time has passed. Thus, old materials can lend their vitality to new buildings even when the old building structure is no longer intact. The first Chinese architect to win the Pritzker Prize, Wang Shu, is perhaps best known for the Ningbo History Museum (2008), designed with Lu Wenyu, Wang Shu’s partner and co-founder of Amateur Architecture Studio (Fig. 14.6). The museum foregoes the current tendency towards monolithic materiality in favour of conspicuous multiplicity, using a range of locally sourced recycled bricks and tiles. These heterogeneous materials call to mind Ruskin’s delight in seeing old stones ‘wrought into the new walls with a new expression and purpose’. From a distance, the new walls of the facade look almost smooth, like the monolithic walls popular globally in contemporary architecture. In fact, the architects conceived the building as a mountain: ‘the place for Chinese people to find their lost and hidden culture’, according to Wang Shu.[51] From a bit closer, an assortment of misaligned and differently proportioned windows become apparent, carved into the massive masonry walls and evoking Le Corbusier’s modernist masterpiece Notre-Dame du Haut (1955) in Ronchamp, France. A closer view reveals a surface idiosyncratic in the context of contemporary architecture: a patchy composition of twenty different types of brick and tiles, the sole remnants of dozens of fishing villages that were demolished to make room for large government buildings in the port city of Ningbo. The architects instructed a crew of craftsmen in the tradition of wapan construction, the piling of available bricks and tiles, frequently used in times of emergency, such as after typhoons. The variability of material dimensions and individual craftsmen’s strategies of handling them resulted in significant variation from the architects’ construction drawings. Thus the walls are imprinted with the very sort of imperfections which Ruskin admired in medieval craftsmanship and which he worried might be lost forever in the age of mechanisation.[52] Furthermore, above and beyond abstract concepts of history and life cycles, the reuse of locally produced materials leverages the material’s ‘embodied energy’ (a common phrase in sustainable architecture, related to Ruskin’s concept of embedded craftmanship) and significantly cuts down on the energy typically expended to transport materials to a construction site, making it an important strategy in building ecologically sustainable architecture.

Amateur Architecture Studio, Ningbo Museum
Fig. 14.6 Amateur Architecture Studio, Ningbo Museum (2008). Ningbo. Photo: syrnx /

At another Chinese institution devoted to local tradition, the China Academy of Arts’ Folk Art Museum (2015) in Hangzhou, Japanese architects Kengo Kuma and Associates also used locally sourced roof tiles to build up a series of new masses, monolithic from a distance but with a granular quality at the level of the unit (Figs. 14.7 and 14.8). In contrast to Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu’s decision to represent the site of culture with a symbolic natural structure (a mountain), Kengo Kuma recreated the appearance of a traditional village.[53] Domestic roof tiles were both used as roofing and laid vertically within a wide-set stainless-steel mesh to create a brise-soleil enveloping many of the museum’s expansive glass exterior walls. This use of material draws attention not only to local material traditions and craft of the past, but also to an acceptance of changing purpose and reading over time, as roof tile becomes ornamentation and sun screen. As the tiles are all placed approximately in the same position in which they are laid on the roof—with their concave faces down—they evoke the image of the traditional, clad roof, frozen in the act of disintegrating or delaminating towards the earth. This image can be read as a celebration of new building technologies, allowing the masonry materials to float suspended within a tensile matrix, or as a nod to the passage of time and its inevitable effects on buildings—an acknowledgement that one day all of the building’s materials will be once again available for reintegration.

China Academy of Arts’ Folk Art Museum, exterior view
Fig. 14.7 Kengo Kuma and Associates, China Academy of Arts’ Folk Art Museum, exterior view (2015). Hangzhou. Photo: © Eiichi Kano. Courtesy of Kengo Kuma and Associates.
Kengo Kuma and Associates, China Academy of Arts’ Folk Art Museum, interior view
Fig. 14.8 Kengo Kuma and Associates, China Academy of Arts’ Folk Art Museum, interior view (2015). Hangzhou. Photo: © Eiichi Kano. Courtesy of Kengo Kuma and Associates.

Returning to London, Assemble Studio’s recent renovation of a disused Victorian bathhouse into the Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art, opened in 2018, takes a radical—and not a little controversial—approach to the reuse of both materials and spaces for evolving function and context (Fig. 14.9). Prior to winning this commission, Assemble’s avant-garde practice was known only for temporary constructions and entered the competition for the new art centre as a ‘wild card’.[54] They won over the jury with their vision of the updated Grade II-listed baths as a collage of visibly contemporary materials, gritty original industrial materials, and rusticated materials crafted by the architects to match or complement the exposed nineteenth-century components.[55] At the building’s centre is a double-height space created by carving away some of the ground-floor floor plate to reveal the ‘murky’ basement below.[56] Other primary spaces include two top-lit white-walled galleries—as one expects in a twenty-first-century art gallery—and two galleries comprising the disused water tanks. These last two galleries, whose cast iron walls are unfinished and left raw, are uninsulated, and one is entirely open to the elements as a rooftop gallery.[57] As in Astley Castle, the context of reuse allows the architects to experiment with different levels of energy expenditure and environmental comfort which would likely not be explored in an entirely new building, given contemporary expectations of both comfort and sustainability.

Assemble Studio, Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art
Fig. 14.9 Assemble Studio, Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art (2019). London. Photo: © Assemble. All rights reserved.

Assemble’s Adam Willis has described the process of making the art centre as akin to ‘revealing the geological layers of the building’, a description which casts the discovery and excavation of the existing artefacts as possibly primary to, and certainly guiding, the addition of new elements.[58] Interestingly, the older materials—as well as the prefabricated materials used for much of the renovation—are themselves industrial products that might not immediately seem to fit Ruskin’s vision of embedded workmanship. However, as discussed in Mark Frost’s study of ‘The Everyday Marvels of Rust and Moss’, Ruskin’s 1858 lecture on ‘The Work of Iron’ considered iron as nearly a living material that warranted special attention. In Frost’s words, ‘[b]y turning to the everyday sight of rusted iron—and by showing that its significance had been ignored—Ruskin implie[d] to his audience that they should re-evaluate their entire relationship with environment and with each other’.[59]

Furthermore, when recontextualised in a twenty-first-century gallery, the once quotidian iron tanks become indices of past modes of making, which contrast with contemporary fabrication technology revealed elsewhere in the gallery, and with fabrication that is ongoing in the studio spaces adjacent to and sometimes visible from the centre. The Industrial Revolution endangered traditional craftsmanship because of what new processes offered in terms of efficiency, stripping away the inconsistencies of handcraft and speeding up fabrication. For the same reason, today, entirely custom craft is cost-prohibitive for most projects. Adam Willis has spoken openly about embracing the challenges of a limited budget and about the possibilities afforded by adapting industrially produced materials, like the fibre-cement sheeting they used to define part of the building’s facade. Although fibre cement is inexpensive and typically used for barn roofs, the Assemble team used it as vertical cladding after hand-staining the panels to match the mottled cast iron.[60] Many off-the-shelf materials throughout the project have received this sort of careful hand treatment before being assembled into the final collage, inviting visitors to consider relationships between old and new, industrial and handmade, finished and unfinished.

These buildings are all examples of what might be considered vital intervention in sympathy with Ruskin’s own ideas about life and death, honesty, and memory, as evidenced throughout his career from the Seven Lamps to Proserpina. The English examples by Witherford Watson Mann, Dow Jones Architects, Haworth Tompkins, and Assemble Studio represent a growing trend of conscious stratification, offering up a new layer as a substrate for future generations, like Ruskin’s plant ruins. The Chinese examples by Amateur Architecture Studio and Kengo Kuma and Associates represent a trend of self-conscious material reuse and resynthesis into new wholes, perhaps more in line with the honest spoliation of Lombardy, of which Ruskin so approved. What they all share is a respect for the accrued value of material which has passed through many hands and many centuries and an appreciation of the cycling of life across the seasons—a model of architecture, like Ruskin’s moss, which is constantly in the process of both decaying and rebuilding.


[1] Ruskin, 8.242 (The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1849).
[2] Ruskin, 8.244.
[3] The manifesto calls restoration ‘a strange and most fatal idea, which by its very name implies that it is possible to strip from a building this, that, and the other part of its history—of its life that is—and then to stay the hand at some arbitrary point, and leave it still historical, living, and even as it once was’. Besides absolutely necessary supports, it commands the reader ‘to resist all tampering with either the fabric or ornament of the building as it stands’. William Morris, Philip Webb, and other founding members of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, The SPAB Manifesto (1877), accessed 12 January 2020,
[4] Robert Garland Thomson, ‘Taking Steps Toward a New Dialogue: An Argument for an Enhanced Critical Discourse in Historic Preservation’, Future Anterior 1:1 (2004): p. 11. Thomson was a graduate student in historic preservation partially responsible for the launch of Future Anterior, Columbia GSAPP’s biannual journal about historic preservation.
[5] Rem Koolhaas, ‘Preservation is Overtaking Us’, Future Anterior 1:2 (2004): p. 2. As noted in the journal, this is transcribed from a talk delivered by Koolhaas at Columbia University on 17 September 2004.
[6] Ruskin, 8.78 (The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1849).
[7] Ruskin, 8.193.
[8] Ruskin, 8.241.
[9] As just one example out of many, in the chapter on ‘The Flower’ in Proserpina (1875–86) volume one (1875), Ruskin invited the reader to ‘[t]ake a spray of ling ([shown in the book’s] Frontispiece), and you will find that the richest piece of Gothic spire-sculpture would be dull and graceless beside the grouping of the floral masses in their various life’, Ruskin, 25.252 (Proserpina 1, 1875).
[10] Ruskin, 8.139, 209.
[11] Ruskin, 8.220.
[12] Ruskin, 25.247 (Proserpina 1, 1875).
[13] For architecture to be ‘living’, according to Ruskin, it had to be done by happy workmen. ‘I believe the right question to ask, respecting all ornament, is simply this: Was it done with enjoyment? was the carver happy while he was about it? It may be the hardest work possible, and the harder because so much pleasure was taken in it; but it must have been happy too, or it will not be living’, Ruskin, 8.218.
[14] Michael Marder, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), p. 12.
[15] Ruskin, 25.207–8 (Proserpina 1, 1875).
[16] Ruskin, 25.213.
[17] Mark Frost, ‘The Everyday Marvels of Rust and Moss: John Ruskin and the Ecology of the Mundane’, Green Letters 14:1 (2011): p. 18.
[18] Frost, ‘The Everyday Marvels’, p. 21.
[19] Ruskin, 25.218 (Proserpina 1, 1875).
[20] Ruskin, 25.252.
[21] Ruskin, 25.554.
[22] Ruskin, 8.218 (The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1849).
[23] Ruskin, 8.234.
[24] Ruskin, 8.195.
[25] Ruskin, 8.196.
[26] Ruskin, 8.232.
[27] Ruskin, 8.225.
[28] Jorge Otero-Pailos, ‘Now is the Future Anterior for Advancing Historic Preservation Scholarship’, Future Anterior 1:1 (2004): pp. 8–9.
[29] Jorge Otero-Pailos, ‘The Contemporary Stamp of Incompleteness’, Future Anterior 1:2 (2004): p. iii.
[30] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (Basic Books: New York, 2001), p. 51.
[31] Krautheimer here was paraphrased (and partially quoted) by Alexander Nagel and Christopher S. Wood in Anachronic Renaissance (New York: Zone Books, 2010), p. 46. Nagel and Wood suggested that Krautheimer may have been especially invested in arguing for the ‘confusion and irrationalism of medieval thought’, due to a vested interest in stressing the clarity of Renaissance thought, while contemporary art historians may stress the clarity of Renaissance thought to emphasise a ‘delirious twentieth- and twenty-first-century modernity’, with the implication being that, of course, nothing is ever quite that simple. Nevertheless, Nagel and Wood date the rise of the concept of authorship more or less to the so-called Renaissance, contrasting the ‘performative’ model of single-author origins against the parallel tradition of ‘substitution’ whereby an artefact’s materials could be continually replaced without compromising the artefact’s original identity. Ruskin’s fondness for the collective individual handwork of medieval construction and his distaste for neoclassicism, along with some of his writings cited throughout this chapter, suggest that he may have appreciated the tradition of substitution and associated it with the Middle Ages.
[32] ICOMOS, ‘The Venice Charter-1964’, 2nd International Congress of Architects and Technicians of Historic Monuments, Venice, Article 11, accessed 1 December 2020,
[33] ICOMOS, ‘The Venice Charter-1964’, Article 9.
[34] William Mann, ‘Inhabiting the Ruin: Work at Astley Castle’, first published in ASCHB Transactions 35, Association for Studies in the Conservation of Historic Buildings (2013), accessed 12 January 2020,, p. 11.
[35] Mann, ‘Inhabiting the Ruin’, pp. 7, 15.
[36] Conversation between the author, Stephen Witherford, and William Mann, London, November 2017.
[37] Mann, ‘Inhabiting the Ruin’, p. 14.
[38] Mann, ‘Inhabiting the Ruin’, p. 15.
[39] Mann, ‘Inhabiting the Ruin’, p. 17.
[40] This definition of preservation comes from Paul Spencer Byard’s ‘Historic Preservation and the Mind’ in Future Anterior, 1:1 (2004): p. 5.
[41] Rob Wilson, ‘Organic growth: Dow Jones extends the Garden Museum’, Architects’ Journal, 16 November 2017.
[42] Rowan Moore, ‘Garden Museum review—hallowed ground for the green-fingered’, The Observer, 28 May 2017.
[43] Observations made in 2017, shortly after phase two reopening.
[44] Wilson, ‘Organic growth: Dow Jones extends the Garden Museum’.
[45] Now-canonical examples of large-scale glass interventions in London include Foster and Partners’ intervention in the Great Court at the British Museum (2000) and MUMA and Julian Harrap Architects’ Daylit Gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum (2010). In older cities, Apple Stores also increasingly favour this aesthetic, including in London at Covent Garden (Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, 2010) and on Regent Street (Foster and Partners, 2016).
[46] Conversation between the author and Alun Jones, London, November 2017.
[47] In the same conversation, Alun Jones emphasised that the choice of material is always an early and critical decision to be made in an intervention.
[48] Alun Jones in conversation with Ellis Woodman, ‘The Bronze Age’, Garden Museum Journal 34 (2017): p. 12.
[49] Wilson, ‘Organic growth: Dow Jones extends the Garden Museum’. Excavation associated with the construction of Dow and Jones’s addition also resulted unexpectedly in the discovery of the remains of five archbishops of Canterbury from the seventeenth to the early-nineteenth centuries, buried underneath the church. On this discovery, see Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, ‘Remains of five archbishops found near Lambeth Palace’, The Guardian, 16 April 2017.
[50] A project description by the architects claims that ‘[a]lthough decayed, the enigmatic quality of this ruin at the heart of the site—increasingly eroded and overgrown with plants—became well known to concert-goers and visiting musicians’. Reproduced online by Thisispaper, ‘Dovecote Studio by Haworth Tompkins’, accessed 27 June 2019,
[51] Wang Shu quoted by Till Wöhler, ‘Ningbo Museum by Pritzker prize winner Wang Shu’, The Architectural Review, 1 March 2010.
[52] Ruskin was consistent throughout the Seven Lamps in his condemnation of the perfection of technique. For instance, he wrote that ‘as perfect finish belongs to the perfected art, a progressive finish belongs to progressive art; and I do not think that any more fatal sign of a stupor or numbness settling upon that undeveloped art could possibly be detected, than that it had been taken aback by its own execution, and that the workmanship had gone ahead of the design’, Ruskin, 8.198 (The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1849).
[53] Kengo Kuma & Associates, ‘Chinese Art Academy Folk Art Museum’, 2015, accessed 1 December 2020,
[54] Björn Ehrlemark and Carin Kallenberg, ‘Assemble masterfully plays with history in its design for a London gallery’, The Architect’s Newspaper, 6 November 2018.
[55] Oliver Wainwright, ‘Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art review—a glowing DIY labyrinth’, The Guardian, 30 August 2018.
[56] Ehrlemark and Kallenberg, ‘Assemble masterfully plays with history in its design for a London gallery’.
[57] Rob Wilson, ‘Assemble raises the roof on Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art’, Architects’ Journal, 10 September 2018.
[58] Adam Willis quoted in Wilson, ‘Assemble raises the roof’.
[59] Frost, ‘The Everyday Marvels of Rust and Moss’, p. 16.
[60] Wainwright, ‘Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art review—a glowing DIY labyrinth’.

DOI: 10.33999/2021.70