John Ruskin On Perfection and the Nature of the Gothic

In a one of his attempts to hold back the tides of the great industrial crappening, William Morris published a beautiful edition of an excerpt from John Ruskin’s sprawling tome, The Stones of Venice. You can read and download Morris’ Kelmscott Press edition, The Nature of the Gothic, via

I thought Root Simple readers would appreciate this excerpt:

But, accurately speaking, no good work whatever can perfect, and THE DEMAND FOR PERFECTION IS ALWAYS A SIGN OF A MISUNDERSTANDING OF THE ENDS OF ART.

This is for two reasons, both based on everlasting laws. The first, that no great man ever stops working till he has reached his point of failure: that is to say, his mind is always far in advance of his powers of execution, and the latter will now and then give way in trying to follow it; besides that he will always give to the inferior portions of his work only such inferior attention as they require; and according to his greatness he becomes so accustomed to the feeling of dissatisfaction with the best he can do, that in moments of lassitude or anger with himself he will not care though the beholder be dissatisfied also. I believe there has only been one man who would not acknowledge this necessity, and strove always to reach perfection, Leonardo; the end of his vain effort being merely that he would take ten years to a picture and leave it unfinished. And therefore, if we are to have great men working at all, or less men doing their best, the work will be imperfect, however beautiful. Of human work none but what is bad can be perfect, in its own bad way.

The second reason is, that imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we know of life. It is the sign of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of progress & change. Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent. The foxglove blossom, a third part bud, a third part past; a third part in full bloom, is a type of the life of this world. And in all things that live there are certain irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty. No human face is exactly the same in its lines on each side, no leaf perfect in its lobes, no branch in its symmetry. All admit irregularity as they imply change; and to banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality. All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be Effort, and the law of human judgment, Mercy. Accept this then for a universal law, that neither architecture nor any other noble work of man can be good unless it be imperfect; & let us be prepared for the otherwise strange fact, which we shall discern clearly as we approach the period of the Renaissance, that the first cause of the fall of the arts of Europe was a relentless requirement of perfection, incapable alike either of being silenced by veneration for greatness, or softened into forgiveness of simplicity.

Irving Gill: the Greatest Architect You’ve Never Heard Of

Last week I met up with a friend in San Diego, where I lived for ten years in the 1990s. I took a long walk between downtown and the neighborhood where Kelly and I shared an apartment, Hillcrest (home, incidentally, of the world’s greatest dive bar, Nunu’s). Along the way I kept spotting houses and apartments designed by the less-famous-than he-should-be early 20th century architect Irving Gill.

In the first decade of the 20th century, Gustav Stickley promoted Gill in the pages of the Craftsman Magazine. But many of Gill’s buildings fell prey to the rapacious and indiscriminate mid-twentieth century wrecking ball and he fell into obscurity.

He’s often thought of as a kind of proto-modernist but I’m not so sure. His buildings also have a neo-primitive quality, like a mashup of adobe missions, vernacular Greek architecture and a de Chirico painting. More than any other architect I know he understood the Mediterranean climate of Southern California and designed buildings appropriate to the climate.

I don’t know why we don’t have more courtyards like this one designed by Gill.

He pioneered concrete tilt-up construction and was a master of the multi-unit bungalow court.

Most of all I think he understood form and proportion. That’s how you can spot his elegant buildings.

If one were to write the Southern California version of William Morris’ News From Nowhere, I think our local road not taken utopia would have been built by Gill.

The Amazing Online Building Technology Heritage Library

Are you an old house nerd? Do you enjoy old building material catalogs? Get ready to cancel Netflix.

The geniuses at the Association of Preservation Technology (APT) have teamed up with Internet Archive to digitize 9,500 pre-1965 construction and building technology documents for your perusal via the Building Technology Heritage Library.

Enjoy strange Murphy bed contraptions? They’ve got you covered:

Tiny Hawaiian kit homes:

Vintage seed catalogs:


Fuddy-duddy 1920s home furnishings:

1960s lamps:

And a few bad ideas:

In case you’re wondering, Jim Brown’s boyhood dream was to build giant factories to manufacture livestock fencing.

But seriously, there’s a lot of useful information here for preservationists, graphic designers and anyone interested in how things used to be built.

122 Artist, Gardener and Activist Renee Garner

Image: Renee Garner.

There’s a struggle in cities, around the world, to make streets safer for everyone, especially our children and elders. One hundred years of car-centric planning has created cities and suburbs that are ugly and dangerous. Renee Garner is fighting a plan to turn the road in front of her home in Matthews, North Carolina into what would be, in effect, a multi-lane freeway. During our conversation we talk about her activism and what happened when a local reporter uncovered a trove of mean spirited text messages about her from the (now former) mayor. In addition to her efforts to stop the John Street widening project, Renee is an artist, illustrator and avid permaculturalist. You can find Renee’s website at Check out her amazing illustrations here.

If you’d like to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected] You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. Closing theme music by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Random Acts of Beauty

Thank you librarians of this world for your shelves of suggested new books. The librarians of LA’s Central Library have been a big part of my effort to cut down on screen time in the evening (during the day my workshop and home restoration duties force me away from that infernal iPhone).

Librarians have a real talent for suggesting books I’d never find on my own such as Wiener Werkstätte Jewelry. Behold, the striking pendant above designed by Koloman Moser in 1905.

William Burges Cardiff Castle.

Another serendipitous find, Gothic Revival by Megan Aldrich introduced me to the work of architect William Burges. A recent Guardian article featured a tour of Burges’ Tower House in London that just happens to be owned by Led Zeppelin founder Jimmy Page. The ceiling of Burges’ Cardiff Castle, above, shows Burges’ extreme commitment to ornament and detail.

Lastly, when it comes to screen time, I’ve been thinking about re-watching the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker, in particular. Like all of Tarkovsky’ work the film is poetic and ambiguous. In Stalker, Tarkovsky addresses two of the issues that keep me up at night: ecological disaster and a culture that has become overly literal minded.