Ruskin was Right

Our trip to see Sheffield's Guild of St George exhibition, created by John Ruskin, was thought-provoking.

As we enjoyed the artworks, illustrated books and stones, we were especially struck by a quotation which was prominently displayed. This is as true today was when Ruskin first wrote it in 1849.

"When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for."
- John Ruskin

I was also reminded of a series I've been listening to: Building Soul. In this series, a range of speakers have been discussing modern architecture and in particular why modern buildings are often bland - and short-lived.

Whilst we have ancient churches and other fine buildings which have survived for centuries and are still considered 'good' buildings, many modern buildings only last a short time.

Typical modern cityscape: late 19th century building with unflattering modern add-on; early 19th century building; both dwarfed by a bland 21st century sky-scraper; and the ubiquitous scaffolding as city centres become permanent building sites. But which building will last the longest?

The blandness of modern buildings is partly related to the planning process. As well as satisfying the various regulations, planning applications must also satisfy the people involved in the process - planning officers, heritage officers, councillors - all of whom are human and have personal preferences. A bland design means there is less for them to object to.

Ruskin would probably also have had something to say about whether this constant demolition and rebuilding truly creates wealth, or whether it was more about 'illth', the term he coined to describe the behaviour of the self-enriching merchants of the Victorian age, which he regarded as the opposite of wealth.

At a time when we are all thinking more about the environmental impact of everything we do, should we see buildings as essentially disposable items with a life measured in decades rather than centuries?