I have taken rather longer making my way through John Ruskin (19th century art critic)’s pontificating than I would like to have.
In Traffic, giving a speech in April 1964 to mark the opening of a marketplace called the Bradford Exchange, he essentially notes that civilisations have worshipped three types of ‘goddess’ over the years: first the Greek goddess of wisdom, second the Christian goddess of comfort, and third the modern goddess of commerce (whom he rather pithily describes as the ‘Agora Goddess’).
Each of these goddesses has shaped the architecture of those by whom they are worshipped. The Exchanges, then, are for Ruskin the rather contemptible result of the modern worship of the Agora Goddess. He says:
How you would laugh at me if I proposed building a cathedral on the top of one of these hills of yours, to make it an Acropolis! But your railroadounds, vaster than the walls of Babylon; your railroad stations, vaster than the temple of Ephesus, and innumerable; your chimneys, how much more mighty and costly than cathedral spires! Your harbour piers; your warehouses; your exchanges! – all these are built to your great Goddess of ‘Getting-on’; and she has formed, and will continue to form, your architecture, as long as you worship her.
It’s a bright idea, and seems in many ways accurate; ideology shapes form. You only need to consider Haussmann’s renovation of Paris from 1853 to 1870, or Le Corbusier’s creation of Chandigarh to understand this.
However, to denigrate architecture built in worship of the Agora Goddess as compared to the other two, to my mind comes off as a trifle curmudgeonly. The Parthenon is a special place, absolutely, but to venerate its architecture, or that of the many other temples, churches and other buildings erected in ‘worship’ of the pagan or Christian gods, is to ignore their functionality. These places were not built for beauty alone, but rather as shows of wealth and power, as meeting spaces for political, democratic and religious processes, and for a host of other reasons.
Further, walking past the finely-wrought Victorian edifice to the railways and steam locomotion that is Liverpool Street station, as I do every day on my way to work, I see considerable beauty in the iron filigree and regular brickwork. The whole provides a comforting pattern of solidity, and even the soot is a marker of its purpose.
On to the next!
PS This is the sixth in my series of reviews and reflections on the Penguin Little Black Classics series. Each week I read a new one and post my thoughts on this blog. For the full list of posts, please click here.