Book Review on Hiroshi EMOTO, History Builds: American Architecture and John Ruskin 1839-1968 (Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 2019)
Ruskin Library Letter, No. 80, 20 October 2020
Assistant Professor, Kyoto Institute of Technology
Translation by Yuya NIIJIMA
From the first appearance in the literary world to the modern day, John Ruskin and his works have always been a topic of discussion with contemporary interest of each era. What people found in his arguments and how they told them — these are inseparable from the storytellers’ own values. The representation of Ruskin in each of the myriad discourses thus varies from one another. They differ in a variety of ways depending on the associated era, region and context. Some of them are connected, while some others happen to be contradictory.
HISTORY BUILDS by Dr. Hiroshi Emoto focuses on the American architectural circles from the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century, where such discrepancy in interpretation of Ruskin’s works continuously and collectively formed, to decode how his works were read, interpreted and expounded. It is a chronicle of contemporary architects, architectural historians, and ultimately, modern America itself, projected on the influence of John Ruskin — a history of history they have created as the self-portrait of American architecture.
Underpinning this epic attempt to research the diffusion of Ruskin’s ideas and construct American modern architectural history is Dr. Emoto’s total attitude as a modern observer. Authors of the historical literature mentioning Ruskin were, without exception, not free from forming their unique interpretations of Ruskin’s works. Dr. Emoto goes back to the fundamental work of accumulating historical materials in great depth and analyzing them with a conscious aversion to forming his own interpretation, to reveal the unknown truth of the production of knowledge regarding Ruskin.
In order to understand historical discourses in a contemporary manner, Dr. Emoto defined relevant cities and individuals as a unit of fixed-point observation, and paid close attention to the environment from which the discourses originated. The existence of architects and architectural historians on the frontlines of discussions; their personal and organizational interactions with thinkers, furniture craftsmen, and engineers; the position of writers in the publishing industry appearing in advertisements; publishing conditions concerning pirated copies; trends of European styles of architectural education in America; the linguistic environment of American architectural communities where French literature could be read in its original works; the presence of Viollet-le-Duc, whose arguments were considered both in parallel with and opposite to those of Ruskin’s; and the discovery of H. Greenough, whose ideas were buried under the popularity of Ruskin — these overlooked facts and ambiguous situations in America are brought to light in this book. It should also be noted that the book showcases a collection of portraits of the disputants and illustrations of the architecture at issue, making the whole narrative very lively.
The keen author with a perspective on the historical scale of time covered multiple languages, paid attention to details like advertisements appearing in the corners of newspapers, and eventually gathered the extensive collection of historical materials, all in just under six months. Such efficiency was facilitated by digitized catalogues and historical materials made available by libraries and research institutes around the world — a perk of modern era technology where the past is being aggregated in big data. The analysis of this huge amount of historical materials must have required information-technology literacy, and conceptual thinking from a historical perspective that is beyond the coverage of the standard use of information technology. In recent years in the field of architectural history and urban history, the macroscopic analysis of cadastral materials using artificial intelligence and the analyses of minute traces of ancient structural remnants using three-dimensional laser scanning have produced results by bringing about new perceptions of history. This book takes a similar innovative effort exploring the potential of historical research in the digital age.
Dr. Emoto’s creative observation picked up the voices of those who certainly existed in the supposed blank of the heroic, formulated history of modern architecture written in the mid-twentieth century. What has been revealed from there was the fact that, from their earliest days to their acquisition of international influence, the American modern architectural circles referred to Ruskin time and time again, sometimes as a theoretical mainstay of ideal architecture; some other times as a stumbling block to be overcome. Forming of self-portrait of American architecture involved polarising theories both supported by Ruskin’s works — the process of the Classic and Gothic surpassing each other, leaving the past and redrawing the future. Both parties regarded the architecture of H.H. Richardson and the practice of Collegiate Gothic, which were considered to be effective in solving contemporary issues, as fusion points from their origins. American architectural history, which began to be recorded in the late 1910s, also selectively abandoned its past in order to attract its contemporary milestones and position itself as the origin of international trends.
HISTORY BUILDS also underscored the importance of existing knowledge, interpersonal exchanges, and information networks that connect cities to affect the knowledge production. It reveals that the difference in interpretation on the same timeline was present between the east coast and the midwest, which are the main regions of interest in this book. This certainly makes me wonder how the situations in the West Coast and the South were like. On the West Coast, Jokichi Tominaga, who later worked for a prominent Classic architect office in New York, studied at Oregon University in the 1910s. While Tominaga was receiving the Beaux-Arts-style education in architecture, he recollected reading The Stones of Venice, part of which he “remembered reading in Japaneseback in junior high school” in his English literature class (Jokichi Tominaga, Petit Trianon: Memoir of an Architect, 1968). Although his interpretation remains unknown, there certainly were some environments where he read Ruskin. The unique perspective of this book makes readers curious to know whether there was a voice coming from these areas, whether it can be regarded as an enclave of the Midwest, or what the current situation of availability of relevant historical materials is.
Observations that emphasize inter-city exchanges will reveal Ruskin’s influence across the country and the relationship between them, and will provide a detailed and systematic account of American modern architectural history. Some of these cities are outside the U.S. border. What awaits beyond these observations is the revision of modern architectural history. Such an attempt is possible only with the existence of Ruskin, whose multifaceted writings have been read all over the world. Ruskin’s influence in Japanese architecture (LINK ), which the author examined in a separate research before moving onto the case in America, differed in both the breadth of interpretation and the degree of reference. Observations around the world will find someone else’s Ruskin somewhere that may still be in the historical, or our conscious and technical vacuum. The book takes a big step forward into this world.
Collecting historical materials from an empirical viewpoint is apparently a recent worldwide trend in Ruskinian studies. “Historical Overview on the Study of John Ruskin’s reception in the Architectural World” (Journal of SAHJ 71, 2018.9) (LINK ), which is roughly equivalent to the criticism of previous works in the author’s doctoral thesis which this book was based on, provides an overview and perspective on the history of Ruskin’s influence. I would like to introduce it as a preliminary read for making the premise of this book clearer. Although not included in the book, this paper can be viewed from J-Stage.