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Gothic Revival

New Statesman September 2010

Britain's contribution to the Venice Architecture Biennale has been praised by critics, with good reason. The exhibition, housed in a small, neoclassical pavilion in the Giardini in Venice, explores the relationship between the Victorian art critic John Ruskin and Venice in a questioning way. Dominated by a huge scale model of the London 2012 Olympic stadium, made by Venetian gondola builders and converted into a drawing studio, the exhibition poses some important questions about Ruskin's relationship with architecture's role in contemporary society.

There is a tacit proposition here: Britain does not own and define the city of Venice.
Venice is a city that the English art critic, who was born in 1819, catalogued assiduously. (A small collection of his notebooks is included in the exhibition.) With his book The Stones of Venice, published in 1851, Ruskin made an immense contribution towards establishing architecture as an art form. He posits Venice as a text, which he goes on to decipher, with a specific purpose in mind: he uses the city to make an impassioned defence of the Gothic style - at whose heart he places Venice - as the morally superior form of European architecture. Ruskin's argument is that the Gothic is produced by master builders, dedicated in their tasks to a collective sharing of skill (often in directly venerating God, but not exclusively so), and working in semi-autonomous units throughout Europe.

Up until the end of his life, there remained in this favouring of the Gothic - this transmission of God's word through the tactile language of stone - a mistrust of the centralised authority of the papacy. Though Ruskin was raised as a Protestant by evangelising parents in the 19th century, he found the same sense of brotherhood in the work of masons of the late medieval period. To him, the Renaissance was a period in which mankind regressed morally.

Why should this talk of the Gothic and morality engage us in the present day? Because the focus of Ruskin's argument is not ultimately the evils of the Renaissance, nor even Catholicism. The real enemies, for Ruskin, were democracy and industry. Of particular import to his thinking was the essayist Thomas Carlyle's comparison between the Bury St Edmunds of his day and the same town in the 12th century. Through this juxtaposition, Carlyle extrapolates the need for an industrial aristocracy: a noble feudalism that would protect the working man. Ruskin believed in this.

The Stones of Venice, published in the middle of the 19th century, is a late call for a benign feudalism. The Gothic tradition, Ruskin believed, permits the mason to dictate scale and structure, as opposed to the neoclassical approach, which lends itself to political grandstanding and overly ornate detailing. To Ruskin, the Renaissance was a time of moral turpitude and Venice was more than simply Venice. "Since first the dominion of men was asserted over the ocean, three thrones of mark beyond all others have been set up on its sands: the thrones of Tyre, Venice and England. Of the first of these great powers, only the memory remains; of the second, the ruin; the third, which inherits their greatness if it forgets their example, may be led through prouder eminence to destruction," he wrote.

The Stones of Venice asserts that the British should care for the Italian city or else be destroyed. At the Biennale exhibition, Ruskin's notebooks are contrasted with a photography project by Alvio Gavagnin, a working-class Venetian. There is a tacit proposition here: Britain does not own and define the city of Venice. The drawing studio, which was modelled on the Olympic stadium, was made to be handed to a group of local anarchists called Rebiennale, which recycles art and architecture installations, to be reused by the city.

Liza Fior, who created the pavilion, has suggested that Ruskin was a radical. Fortunately, her installation is more nuanced. Although Ruskin depicted the way in which the industrial age restricted free expression, that does not make him a revolutionary. But what makes the British Pavilion show such a success is that it captures the rigour and brilliance of his observations while setting his more questionable ideas in context.