Book Review on Hiroshi EMOTO, History Builds: American Architecture and John Ruskin 1839-1968 (Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 2019) 

Kohyoh YANG
M. Eng. The University of Tokyo
A member of media project “Many Conference”

Translation by Yuya NIIJIMA

              In recent years, many city/town halls and other politics-related public architecture in Japan have certain themes like “character (らしさ)”, “everyone’s (みんなの)” or “openness (ひらかれた)”. That’s because construction of these buildings has to go through political processes, such as public proposals and briefings. These public facilities built with democratic consensus are considered to be clean, equitable, accessible, and free of dissenting opinions.

              On the other hand, when they were designing the Japanese National Diet Building (built in 1920-36), there were various disputes over topics of public architecture. People discussed which architectural style should be used to portray the nation. Western/Eastern, and all the architectural ideologies – various styles and their associated discourses were at odds with each other. It was their first attempt in the modern era to explore what “Japan-ness” means through architecture. This type of national-scale discussions over architectural styles was held not only in Japan, but also in many other countries during their periods of national development. HISTORY BUILDS portrays one of them – architectural circles in nineteenth-century America.


              The traditional classification system that organizes architectural styles in the order of Greek, Roman, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Classicism and Modernism (and Post-modernism) began to form in the eighteenth century. Although this system is not necessarily effective in terms of categorizing modern architecture or studying architectural history, it was at the center of discussion in the architectural circles of nineteenth-century America. As the book describes, there was a debate over whether the national architectural style of America should be Gothic Revival or Classicism. The key figure on this matter was John Ruskin. At that time, America was in the middle of industrial development, and attention to art and architecture only followed later. Integration of art and architecture into practical industrial aesthetics was therefore a core theme behind the discussion, and Ruskin was often referred as a theoretical support.

              Following the European architectural styles, America inevitably goes through the architectural trends that Europe in the similar era experienced. This is because the country had not experienced the whole rise and fall of such trends. This process often involves debates about orders and theories by which these styles should be adopted. This phenomenon is not limited to Japan and America, which have a relatively short history of adopting European architecture. From the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, there was a similar debate in England about whether Gothic or Greek Revival would embody the British spirit better than the other, and which one was more appropriate to realize the social ideals of the time – a debate similar to what we would see in America a century later. History repeats itself.


              History is not the only thing that repeats itself. In much the same way, certain theories and principles are brought up time and time again in architectural discussions. Ruskin, discussed in this book, is at the center of these recurring discussions. Interestingly, his works have been used to support different positions each time, rather than appearing to back one certain idea. For example, when Viollet-le-Duc and Ruskin were compared, the theoretical mainstay of Gothic Revival seems to have shifted from Ruskin to Viollet-le-Duc, while in another time Ruskin and Horatio Greenough contrasted symbolism versus functional beauty, creating a notion of polarity between functionalism and Ruskin. In this way, his ideas have been employed to contrast many different architectural styles. This may be because his arguments are so multifaceted.

              For example, in Chapter 3 “”The Two Paths” of the Gothic Revival”, Ruskin’s discourse, as the title suggests, splits into two paths; Gothic Revival and Classicism.

              The first path, the Gothic Revival, is seen in “The Fashion of Furniture” by Russell Sturgis, where he discusses the right ways to craft furniture and the sturdiness of it in the Middle Ages.

              In it, you can see how advocates who employ Ruskin as support change their standpoints over time. This event coincides with the evolution of the theoretical foundations of Gothic history development in America. At that time in the American Gothic history, Charles Herbert Moore wrote Development & Character of Gothic Architecture (1890), followed by Sturgis’s The European Architecture: A Historical Study (1896). The former literature argues that the essence of Gothic architecture lies in the structural system that has gradually evolved in the development of styles. The latter also provides a similar historical view of structural development. By this time, the theoretical mainstay of the Gothic architecture had shifted from Ruskin to Viollet-le-Duc (who, at first, represented Classicism). “The Fashion of Furniture” states that none of the furniture kept for sale in America was “rightfully made”, and emphasized how they should be made in terms of their durability and rationality of assembly. This later leads to functionalism.

              And the other path, Classicism, is what is so called the Queen Anne style. A typical example is the British headquarters designed by British architect Thomas Harris at the Centennial International Exhibition (1876). This work was copied among American architects of the time. The style achieves a basis by combining forms in accordance with known rules, using classical details. This was also the method of the Renaissance, the style that had been long dominant in Europe. It has also long been a mainstream teaching method in France’s École des Beaux-Arts, and thus it impacted the American architecture circles at the time.

              This duality of Gothic Revival and Classicism, described as “Classic line, Gothic sentiment” by A. J. Bloor at the AIA’s 10th Annual Conference in 1876, was one of the major debates in the American architectural circles of the time, but as noted earlier, there were similar debates in England too. And these two streams seem to evoke an eternal cycle of thought at its core beyond architecture.

              Classicist methods were first regarded as an essentialism in American architecture at that time, but it also evoked the idea of Platonism. In Platonism, all phenomena and objects are composed of fixed archetypes as ideas that are transformed or combined in various ways. The “transcendental” aspects of American architecture that are repeated in this book may be based on this very idea.

              On the other hand, the functionalism of architecture, which follows Gothic Revival, reflects the spirit of modern natural science, where they observe and analyze nature in detail, and integrates its various functions into architecture. Eventually, Louis Sullivan called this “organic”, creating a trend known as the “Form follows function” in modern architectural thoughts. The use of the metaphor of shipbuilding to explain the spirit of modern architecture, Le Corbusier’s famous “a house is a machine for living in”, and Sigfried Giedion’s introduction of the concept of speed into architecture are also in the genealogy of this movement.

              It seems the root of this contrastive structure between Gothic Revival and Classicism can be organized in the following way: Ideologically, it’s continental rationalism versus British empiricism; architecturally, it’s essentialism versus functionalism; and formally, it’s eclectic versus integrative. Further looking at these contrasting structures from an architectural point of view, it will lead to philosophical propositions such as whether architecture should be viewed ideologically or realistically. Here, you can see the cyclical nature of idealism and realism, which is repeated throughout the history of philosophy, appearing as the form of architecture behind styles.

              These debates are still relevant to this day. They are rather universal across the ages, and various architectural debates of the present day start from such cyclical structure.


              In above chapters I have explained the disputes in America, but a similar process of adopting European architectural styles happened in England before them, and also in Japan after them. In England, there was an empirical expression in the architectural style of the modern spirit after the Industrial Revolution, and in Japan, in addition to the stylistic dispute in the national architecture after the Meiji Restoration, there was also a norm of integration of engineering and aesthetics in the social governance by the “comprehensive technology” of the pre-war foreign policy.

              If one is curious to see if there is a style dispute like this even in modern times, you can take China as an example in recent years. In China, after the economic reform in 1990, post-modern styles of architectural expression flooded in from all over the world. Various ideas and expressions created at that time were somewhat different from those of Europe or Japan. They reflected not only the expression technique but also the way of architecture in modern Chinese society, which was called “critical pragmatism” by Chinese architects.

              Finally, I would like to briefly consider the tendency behind architecture in each country. If England is an empiricist, America is a pragmatist, and China is a critical pragmatist (or socialistic realist), we can assume corresponding trends in the domain of architecture. Comparisons can be made between England, which determines the style of architecture in which the modern spirit is expressed based on observation and verification; America, which specializes in architectural styles from industrial practicality to a capitalist economy; and China, which uses a convenient style of architecture that separates political thought and representation.

              But what about Japan? Since the 1990s, it seems that they are avoiding representational architecture. There, colorless, transparent and democratic architecture is created by consensus.

              Also, the national festivals and events, which were supposed to arouse the symbolism of architecture for the first time in a long time, is now at a complete loss. The absence of a national symbol makes it difficult to know where the future of the nation is heading. Is this what a peaceful and mature nation should be, or is it simply continuing to live through an ended history? As of 2020, we are at a turning point in the turbulent world history. What kind of history will Japan build?

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