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Notions of beauty and the sublime are reinterpreted in the digital age

Lars Spouybroek examines John Ruskin’s imaginative convictions on today’s digitally centred preoccupation

No one could accuse Lars Spuybroek of intellectual cowardice. In his latest book The Sympathy of Things: Ruskin and the Ecology of Design, he takes John Ruskin’s massive oeuvre and ‘places him primarily in the context of historical figures that have appeared after him. It is like a history written backwards’.

In doing so, Spuybroek hopes to ‘update’ the Victorian sage and splice his wisdom into the web of our 21st-century computerised culture.In this enormous and far-reaching enterprise, Ruskin meets thinkers as diverse as William James, Peter Kropotkin, Henri Bergson and DH Lawrence, and architects as different as Gottfried Semper and Frank Gehry. He has shouty conversations with Heidegger about the nature and experience of design.

His life-long hostility to the world of machines is abated in Spuybroek’s imagination when Ruskin and Spuybroek, his guide through our contemporary maze, contemplate the potential of the digital world. In it, flexible machines can be made to create one-off items, so Ruskin’s preoccupation with individual craftsmanship becomes superfluous.

In the great dichotomy between beauty and the sublime, the two poles of much traditional aesthetics, Spuybroek comes down firmly on the side of beauty, that concept which was so little used in 20th-century criticism, when, according to him, the sublime ruled the world.


John Ruskin’s study of the entrance to the south transept of Rouen Cathedral. The chalk, graphite pen and ink work was completed in 1854, the year after Ruskin published his influential essay, ‘The Nature of Gothic’ as part of his treatise on Venetian architecture,The Stones of Venice

The sublime, he suggests is ‘the world of forces: moving, vast and chaotic’, whereas the beautiful is the world of feelings, a state to which we should all aspire as did Ruskin. ‘We orient ourselves by feeling, either in space or in time … All relations are felt relations and therefore relations of sympathy.’ yet, ‘aesthetics is primary. for the world to work, it must rely on aesthetics. relations cannot simply be utilitarian and functionalist, like plumbing, and physically, psychologically or mechanically direct’.

This is just a fragment of one of the hundreds of threads that make an astonishingly rich tapestry. It is unlikely that The Sympathy of Things will become a direct inspiration for design in the way that The Stones of Venice did (much to Ruskin’s horror) in the 19th century, but in Spuybroek, Dutch architect and professor of architectural design at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Ruskin has at last found an interpreter with the breadth of learning and a poetic imagination to make his perceptions relevant to our own day.

If The Sympathy of Things will never become a pattern book for designers’ thought, every page makes you think. Wacky it may be, but it is never less than provocative.

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