ed allen

No one has had a bigger influence on what I’ve taught and how I’ve taught it than Ed Allen, whose death earlier this month was announced by the Building Technology Educators’ Society last Friday.

As an undergraduate, I had a copy of the first edition of Fundamentals of Building Construction and remember appreciating its patient, explanatory tone. Allen came from a practice background but after making the switch to teaching he took technology pedagogy seriously and his book (six editions later) is now one of a handful of his publications that show up in tech classes and, often, dog-eared and well-loved, on studio desks.

Ed was a key figure in the BTES’ founding in 2006. He was a mentor to dozens of us who, like him, wanted to take what we’d learned as practicing architects and apply it in studios and classrooms. Most of us had technology courses that were separated entirely from design classes–banished to the basement, in grad school–and followed his lead in trying to make tech more design-based and to bring structure, environment, and materials into studio as the vocabulary and grammar that underlay most thoughtful design work. Ed volunteered his time to give our inaugural keynote–I don’t think we could afford to cover his travel, much less pay him an honorarium–and he set the tone for the whole organization as a supportive community that has always shared ideas willingly, kept the bar high for teaching and research, and made time for drinks and dinner after conference sessions.

When we began putting our tech coursework notes together as a textbook in 2004, Building Construction Illustrated was our model. I don’t think we’ve cut into Ed’s sales any great amount, but it’s heartening to see Design-Tech on the shelves as an adjunct to his books–in the same spirit but with a broader focus, and our notes consistently point to his publications for students who want to go deeper. In 2009, when we began overhauling our undergraduate technologies curriculum, Ed flew out to spend three days workshopping with us (we did cover his travel for that), and on his way out he gave us copies of his self-published booklet of aphorisms on teaching and design. I still read from it like a book of zen koans–it’s consistently brilliant and correct about so much. In his honor, two of my favorites:

Design: If you get the form right, the math will follow. Teaching structures as a design discipline rather than an engineering discipline was fundamental to Ed’s pedagogy. Understanding principles, especially why structural shapes are the way they are, is key to good design, and if you understand those and are fluent in them, the calculations are rarely surprising. During my Nervi research I ran across any number of instances where Nervi, essentially, said the same thing. Mathematics are structures’ tactics. Design is the strategy.

Teaching: Your job as a teacher isn’t to cover the material. It’s to uncover a small corner of it and let students’ curiosity lead them to find the rest. Exhaustive lectures covering every possible permutation of structural design, or deriving every single formula, waste time and turn students off. Using that time to go deep on one instance, showing how beautiful the principles behind it are and giving students routes to finding out more turn the tables–instead of us teaching structures, we’re setting up the conditions for students to learn structures, which is more effective–and far more meaningful.

I last saw Ed at the IASS conference in Boston in 2018. As he did with every teacher or architect he met, he remembered me right away and we had a long, warm talk about how our program was doing, the reprint of Nervi’s Aesthetics and Technology in Building that I’d just helped bring out, and a half dozen interesting papers that he’d seen on digital teaching and design. He was in his element, surrounded by people he’d mentored and ideas that challenged him. More than his books and his teaching, that friendly, engaging, and utterly genuine love of the community that he was such a big part of is his great legacy.

Macron, Notre Dame’s spire, Ruskin, and architectural morality

Last week saw the announcement by French president Emmanuel Macron that the spire of Notre Dame is to be rebuilt as an exact replica of the one that was lost in the fire of last April. The announcement was no surprise, given that the French senate ordered that the reconstruction reproduce the “last known visual state” of the cathedral, but it puts to rest any idea of a modern reconstruction.

Such a re-visioning of the lost roof and spire was the subject of more than one ideas competition and a flood of unsolicited proposals from architects worldwide. Many argued–not incorrectly–that the cathedral had evolved over time, even during the Gothic era, to match changing tastes and cultural ideals. Fires had often been cause to rebuild in new styles, and on paper the thought of rebuilding a cathedral using modern materials, or with contemporary concerns at the forefront, seemed like an inspired take. Louis Kahn, after all, famously pointed out that “Beauvais needed the steel we have today.”

On paper this seemed like a fine approach. Online, the results were, perhaps, not contemporary architecture’s finest hour. Spires made of crystal, voluptuous, curved greenhouse roofs, the tongue-in-cheek collages of car parks and fast food restaurants all suggested a rush on the part of designers to use the fire as an avenue for cheap publicity, and few of the ideas drew any public support. The French Senate’s reaction was swift, and welcomed by much of Paris.

The lost spire was not, of course, a Gothic structure; it was built in 1859 to the designs of Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc as part of Napoleon III’s campaign to restore monuments damaged in the Revolution or neglected as symbols of the ancien regime. This overlapped with the emperor’s wholesale rebuilding of Paris, which included Hausmann’s boulevards, railway stations, and new commercial and residential sectors, and Viollet-le-Duc’s ‘restorations’ often involved reconfiguring or even re-designing monuments to live up to the Emperor’s ideal of the glorious era of medieval France. Viollet-le-Duc removed and replaced statuary and ornament that had been damaged, but he also replaced or built entirely anew building elements to bring monuments into conformity with contemporary ideals and images of what the Gothic, perhaps, should have looked like.

Notre Dame at the start of the restoration process, in 1847. Photo by Hippolyte Bayard, 1847.

Notre Dame, as it came down to us, was a medieval structure cloaked in a Second Empire vision of the 13th century; Viollet rebuilt the structure’s flying buttresses, removed later additions that had encrusted the base, constructed a wholly new sacristy and topped the crossing with a new, oak and lead spire. There had been a spire on the original church, but it had been removed in the aftermath of the Revolution. Viollet’s version was nearly sixty feet taller than the original and modeled after the later, High Gothic spire at Amiens. It was typical of the campaign to not only restore, but to improve upon the work of the original builders, an approach that is anathema to today’s preservation community but one that, in this case, left the structure with a consistent exterior style and an iconic skyline. Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration is what everyone alive today knows as “Notre Dame,” and the few images of what the cathedral looked like before the restoration have practically disappeared in the torrent of photos, images, selfies, and films of its 19th century incarnation.

So, on one level there’s an intriguing story here about how attitudes circle around, how a modern approach in one century produces a building element that’s seen as both historic and outdated in another, and how preservation is constantly engaged in a debate between fidelity to ‘originals’ on the one hand and a realization that the essence of an historic structure is often dependent entirely on the values and prejudices of the day. But, by odd coincidence, Macron’s announcement came in the middle of my trying to revive a project on John Ruskin, specifically his hastily composed reaction to the opening of the Crystal Palace that was inserted into the first edition of The Stones of Venice as an appendix in 1851. Ruskin, not surprisingly, was not a fan, seeing the structure as transitory, illusory, lacking character, and symbolizing the triumph of industrialization over craft. Such secular optimization, he felt, lacked humanity in its realization and in its experience. He found the displays within to be vulgar and cheap, and the whole enterprise to be a commentary on the hubris and newly sanctioned drive for profit of the era. “Largeness of dimension does not necessarily involve nobleness of design,” he argued, and went on to damn its creator, Joseph Paxton, with the faintest of praise:

“The quantity of bodily industry which that Crystal Palace expresses is very great.  So far it is good.

“The quantity of thought it expresses is, I supposed, a single and very admirable thought of Mr. Paxton’s, probably not a bit brighter than thousands of thoughts which pass through his active and intelligent brain every hour,–that it might be possible to build a greenhouse larger than ever greenhouse was built before.  This thought, and some very ordinary algebra, are as much as all that glass can represent of human intellect.  ‘But one poor half-pennyworth of bread to all this intolerable deal of sack.’ Alas!”


John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice. (New York, P.F. Collier, 1900.) 406-407.

That, alone, is a powerful indictment–the punch line is a quote from Shakespeare’s Richard IV, in which the titular prince complains about the ratio of bread to wine he’s been left with, and Ruskin makes a clear judgment about the lack of architectural nourishment on display versus the intoxicating effects of so much glass and delicate, gymnastic structure.

But, not content to leave the reader with the sense of a tectonic hangover, Ruskin goes on (in this essay and a later one, in 1854) to compare the Palace’s opening with two other cultural moments: the death of painter J.M.W. Turner, in December, 1851, and the very restoration program that would, by the end of the decade, see Viollet-le-Duc’s spire rise over Notre Dame. These, at first glance, are pretty incongruous comparisons. Neither had anything to do with glass houses or industry. But in setting the Palace’s ‘intolerable deal of sack’–it’s vaporous, sensational aesthetics–against the sublime land- and seascapes painted by Turner and the “mathematical” restorations being carried out for Napoleon III, Ruskin was elaborating on one of his great themes–the moral effect of architectural aura. Raised in an evangelical household, his belief in a ‘protestant Gothic’ gradually gave way to a more secular interest–famously, Darwin’s Origin of Species shook his faith and turned his argument toward a more socialist bent after 1858.

But throughout all of his work–religious and otherwise–the interest in art and architecture that imparts a sense of human limits in the face of the divine (or, at least, the infinite) was to Ruskin the key to moral force in all artistic production. Turner’s paintings were paradigm examples of the sublime, in which human scale and ambition is, literally, sublimated to the ravages and scale of nature. The Cathedrals, with their awesome scale, were great theological machines that imparted a similar humility in those struck by their vastness. And the workmanship on those cathedrals, Ruskin felt, was exemplary of human fallibility; he valued the imperfect carving or the marks of tools precisely because they make us recognize the struggle of mortal hands in shaping the raw materials of the earth toward our divine aspirations. In “The Nature of the Gothic,” he makes a clear allusion to Protestant theology:

Do what you can, and confess frankly what you are unable to do ; neither let your effort be shortened for fear of failure, nor your confession silenced for fear of shame. And it is, perhaps, the principal admirableness of the Gothic schools of architecture, that they thus receive the results of the labour of inferior minds; and out of fragments full of imperfection, and betraying that imperfection in every touch, indulgently raise up a stately and unaccusable whole.


Ruskin, “Nature of Gothic,” 185

This confessional tectonic had, for Ruskin, a salutary moral purpose–reminding us of our own imperfection in the eyes of the divine but modeling a project that could drive us closer, at least.

His complaint against the restorations was, essentially, that they were too good–too precise, too mechanical in their reproductions, too finely honed. The resulting monuments lacked the patina of age, and thus the instructive atmosphere of antiquity; they lost (for Ruskin, anyway) much of the temporal sublime that comes with ruins whose vast timescale dwarfs our lifetimes in the same way that the Cathedrals’ scale sublimates our physical dimensions. The “white accuracies of novelty” replacing the decayed and ruined stones in the restorations replaced an aura that conveyed the structures’ very humanity–their soul:

Grant that it can do all this, and that the new building is both equal to the old in beauty, and precisely correspondent to it in detail.  Is it, therefore, altogether worth the old building?  Is the stone carved to-day in their masons’ yards altogether the same in value to the hearts of the French people as that which the eyes of St. Louis saw lifted to its place?  Would a loving daughter, in mere desire for a gaudy dress, ask a jeweler for a bright facsimile of the worn cross which her mother bequeathed to her on her death-bed?—would a thoughtful nation, in mere fondness for splendor of streets, ask its architects to provide for it facsimiles of the temples which for centuries had given joy to its saints, comfort to its mourners, and strength to its chivalry?”


John Ruskin, “The Opening of the Crystal Palace : Considered in Some of its Relations to the Prospects of Art.”  (London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1854).

The weight–literal and emotional–that old things carry was for Ruskin an important reminder of human limits, an antidote to the blithe hubris represented by the Crystal Palace and to the sensational, short-lived thrills that its insubstantial walls and structure provided. Lingering behind Ruskin’s wrought prose is the sense that the efficiencies and lightness so skillfully developed by Paxton presented a moral danger–architecture as commodity and entertainment rather than as an instructive model of our mortality and our limitations. Lacking character or substance, an industrially produced structure like the Palace might provide momentary pleasure of the senses, as Augustine would have put it, but it can never, as the Cathedrals did, reach our soul through them.

As a fan of both Paxton and Viollet-le-Duc, reading up on this is a bit (*ahem*) sobering. What Ruskin would have made of the current plans to replace Viollet-le-Duc’s spire is an intriguing question–but any moral critique of the fire’s aftermath would no doubt look at the ‘intolerable deal of sack’ generated as ideas for its replacement and seen a clear parallel to the breathless publicity that accompanied the Palace’s opening. One problem with the easy fluency of production is that, while it’s easy to produce intoxicating images, it’s harder and harder to come by genuine nourishment through methods so geared toward the commodification and sensationalism that Ruskin so feared.