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On the Modern Taste for Cast Iron

Walking down the streets of Soho these days, one rarely sees the light of day or feels the warmth of the sun, which is no small thing now that the low, yet constant, light of autumn has given way to the even lower and more fleeting light of winter. The cause of this unnatural darkness is scaffolding. On some streets in my neighborhood, so many buildings are being restored that the scaffolding forms a continuous overhang--a sort of ugly, makeshift arcade--stretching almost an entire block. Everywhere gangs of unskilled and no doubt undocumented and underpaid laborers are busy steam-cleaning, sometimes sand-blasting, decades of grime and layers of paint off the cast-iron facades of nineteenth-century commercial lofts. The New York City Landmark Commission designated Soho an historic district in 1973 because of its large concentration of these architecturally distinctive cast-iron buildings. Their charm is undeniable. Where else in New York is there a neighborhood of five- to six-story buildings, stately in appearance, with elaborate decoration based on classical orders and motifs--grand corinthian columns on one floor, ornamented balustrades on another, flattened arches topped with ornate cornices on yet another, even pediments, classical sculpture, and decorative urns at roof level?

Yet, for a number of years now, I have been increasingly ambivalent about the charm of my neighborhood and this is the direct consequence of reading John Ruskin. I can still remember the feeling of being caught up terribly short when I first read The Seven Lamps of Architecture, originally published in 1849--around the same time the cast-iron building that I live in was being constructed. The chapter that did so much to unsettle me was "The Lamp of Truth" and in it, Ruskin attacks "deceit" in architecture when it comes to the nature of the material being used or the amount of labor involved (a doctrine that would reach its apex in the modernist architectural aesthetic of truth in materials). I knew Ruskin was famous, even in his own time, for his often extravagant moral and aesthetic pronouncements, but I was taken aback when, at the close of a pitched argument against machine-made ornament, he declared, "I believe no cause to have been more active in the degradation of our national feeling for beauty than the constant use of cast-iron ornaments." Cast-iron ornaments--the very feature that led to Soho's landmark status--responsible for the degradation of our feeling for beauty? I, of course, was aware that the columns, balustrades, and cornices all around me had not been wrested into existence by the labor of stonecarvers; that they had, instead, appeared instantaneously by way of prefabricated molds. Every once in a while as we have walked down the street, my husband has pointed out a cast-iron panel that has come loose; one can clearly see that it had been bolted--like a veneer--onto the brick surface beneath it, that its mass and depth are illusions.

Still, even knowing this, it had never occurred to me--that is, before reading Ruskin--that there was anything wrong with this illusion. I had always felt delighted, even privileged, to live among these rather eccentrically ornamented buildings, especially in New York, a city renowned for its classic modernist architecture, the epitome of the stringent machine aesthetic. But the further I read, the more unsettled I became, as I was made to see the world from a perspective radically more acute than my own. "No ornaments," Ruskin observed, "are so cold, clumsy, and vulgar, so essentially incapable of a fine line or shadow, as those of cast-iron." The Landmarks Commission and its civic pride in precisely this kind of ornament immediately came to mind, as did all the people in Soho sinking fortunes into cleaning and restoring their building fa?ades, not to mention, with some embarrassment, my own delight in these ornaments. It would, I thought, take an enormous fine-tuning in perception to actually see the classical ornaments of Soho through the eyes of one accustomed to the look and feel of the handmade, which would mean recognizing them for what they are--"deceits."

Ruskin, who felt in his bones the difference between "real decorations" and "vulgar and cheap substitutes," would have been aghast at, but perhaps not surprised by, the modern taste for cast iron. Thirty years after the first edition of Seven Lamps appeared, he brought out a new edition, which he freely annotated. One footnote that he added to his earlier attack on the dishonesty of mass-produced ornaments read: "Again too much fuss and metaphysics about a perfectly simple matter; inconclusive besides, for the dishonesty of machine work would cease, as soon as it became universally practised, of which universality there seems every likelihood these days." That is, I suppose, where we find ourselves today--so at home in the hard, straight, regular, utilitarian structures and surfaces of our machine-made, sheet-rock, vinyl world that few of us are even aware that there was once an entirely different world, a world made by hand.

This insensibility is so thoroughgoing that, for a long time now, building owners in Soho have not even tried to keep up the illusion by painting their facades the color of marble. Some are painted black, others pastel, and still others have been stripped down to the iron, varnished, and left bare, apparently in accord with the modernist aesthetic of truth in materials. The columns and ornamental details of my own building have always been painted a dark forest green. And then it occurred to me that if I'd had even the slightest idea that instead of seeing eccentric classical orders, I was supposed to see grand marble ornaments--which is what the people walking down these same streets over a century ago saw, the very perception that Ruskin was trying to correct--I would have found our dark forest green columns, not to mention the cast-iron columns that have been left unpainted, very strange sights indeed.

But before reading Ruskin I didn't. Because I took delight in ornamentation for its own sake, I simply enjoyed it, oblivious to the aesthetic facts so plain to Ruskin, that cast-iron "marble," in comparison with real, hand-carved marble, was "cold, clumsy, and vulgar, ... incapable of a fine line or shadow."

Likewise, I didn't know enough to know that there were also moral implications to my delight. The primary source of our delight in ornament, in Ruskin's view, is "the sense of human labor and care spent on it"--"our consciousness of its being the work of poor, clumsy, toilsome man. Its true delightfulness," he insisted, "depends on our discovering in it the record of thoughts, and intents, and trials, and heartbreakings--of recoveries and joyfulness of success." It is precisely these traces of the living human spirit that can never find expression in mass-produced machine work. Indeed, for Ruskin, the sheer ugliness of so many things of the world--particularly those produced through the industrial division of labor--could be traced directly to the psychic condition of the degraded worker; beauty and ugliness, in his eyes, were tangible, physical manifestations of the spirit of particular people, both living and dead. From the vantage point of Ruskin's highly moralized aesthetic sensibility, the use of architectural deceits were "as truly deserving of reprobation as any other moral delinquency." And from this same vantage point, I felt, somewhat embarrassedly, my delight in cast-iron ornament to be a sign of a thoroughly corrupted taste.

Which returns me to all the busy restoration going on in Soho these days--the cleaning of fa?ades, the repairing of chips, the filling in of cracks, the addition of new plates of cast iron or, more often than not, new plates of machine-molded fiberglass, the application of new coats of paint, often cream or gray, not because anyone is trying to recreate the look of marble (an entirely alien notion), but because neutral color has become the style these days. All this care and expense in the name of preserving these decaying nineteenth-century edifices no doubt speaks to the longing for ornamentation in a world of machine-finished surfaces as well as to a feeling of respect, indiscriminate as it is rare in America, for things that have come down to us through history. And, of course, now that Soho has become chic, there are pecuniary motives in maintaining this now absurdly valuable property.

But, more than anything else, all this busy labor ratifies Ruskin's prophecy, which was meant to be ironic, that "the dishonesty of machine work would cease as soon as it became universally practised." Restoration in Soho, then, resembles nothing so much as if, in the future, gardening were to become too costly and the skill eventually extinct, so that only fake gardens, composed of plastic flowers, trees, and lawns, were to take the place of living ones. Their owners, however, having never experienced the pleasures of real gardens, would love them all the same, and happily employ unskilled laborers to tend to them by painting the bark of birch "trees" white, substituting cracked molds of old heritage "rose petals" with flawless ones, and replacing worn patches of "grass" with new pieces of astroturf. But, no, this is not quite right. Rather, it is as if unskilled laborers were to construct gardens out of fiberglass molds of all varieties of plants, but, not knowing what these things were supposed to imitate, paint them whatever colors happened to please their equally oblivious owners.

Rochelle Gurstein is the author of The Repeal of Reticence (Hill and Wang).

By Rochelle Gurstein