Veritas: Then and Now

harvard_logoThe meaning of truth has changed since John Ruskin’s time.  Veritas, the Latin word for truth is the slogan of Harvard University and appears on its seal.  In Ruskin’s time, this seal spelled out the word Veritas across the images of three books, two of which faced outward while the third faced away form the viewer.  This very conscious graphic choice suggested that a part of truth remained unknowable to reason.  Complementing the arrangement of the word Veritas were the words Christo et Ecclesiae or, ‘Christ and Church’ appearing along the perimeter of the seal.  Together, these components illustrated the broader conception of truth that existed in Ruskin’s time, one that encompassed both knowledge and morality.  This conception changed in the modern era. 

In 1936 Harvard’s seal was altered.  That third book was flipped over so its pages are in view and the more explicit reference to spiritual pursuit Christo et Ecclesiae’ was dropped completely (see image above).  In the same year, the Graduate School of Design at Harvard was founded, uniting the schools of architecture, urban planning, and landscape design.  Two years later Walter Gropius would become the chair of that school.  Truth, as it could be found in architecture and the urban environment was about to change, about to more fully adopt secular, modernist values and look to the machine for inspiration.  

Truth in the urban environment for Ruskin was found in the built environment where forms suggested integrity.  This generally meant structures that freely confessed their material components and processes of creation. Today, only in the first decade of the 21st century, truth in the urban setting can be found when that environment accurately signals our aspirations, history, and values; when it can be read as shorthand for the complex combination of ideas that make up the spirit of our age. 

The urban environment is truthful when it reaches back to its history and illustrates context.  The New Victory Theatre in Times Square plays such a role, acting as architectural record and embracing innovation in its public programs. Its baroque details may suggest handcraft that didn’t actually occur, but this process deceit is unimportant.  The details effectively evoke an earlier age and a local aesthetic that has been lost.  Ruskin maintained that machine cut stone was unacceptable because most people in his day saw stone and assumed it to be hand-cut.   The New Victory Theatre’s ornamentation makes no false claims of this kind to a process of handcraft. Given its location, viewers today more than likely see such details and wonder if they were laser-cut by a computer.  The designer’s bag of tricks may be too vast and expanding too rapidly to make standards like those of Ruskin applicable.  

The New Victory Theatre is specific to its environment.  It’s effectiveness and importance grow with every new looming skyscraper in its midst.  The dialogue between this building and its neighbors may not be a pleasant one, but it is important and truthful.  This conversation helps form the integrity of the neighborhood.  The New Victory Theatre would take on different meaning in another environment, such as a new development within the city of Chicago.  If replicated there it might embody a timid lack of imagination.  It might be an example of copying forms with the purpose of comforting with the familiar.

For centuries the implied purpose of tall structures was nearing the heavens but, like truth, that purpose slowly shed its ecclesiastical component after the Enlightenment.  In the 20th century, skyscrapers were the most potent signals of our aspirations, illustrative of a secular pursuit of excellence and the attainment of economic success.  The 21st century urban environment finds truth about our aspirations in a new way.  The zeitgeist has shifted and demands a deeper view.  The elements of visual grandeur familiar in the 20th century are being replaced by planning for inter-generational harmony – better stewardship of the limited resources on spaceship earth.  The vocabulary of form that might truthfully communicate this aspiration is only just developing, but it is likely to be far from that of the 100-story structure and probably won’t include ‘entertainment retail.’

Times Square may trade in fantasy, but it’s an environment rooted in truth.  It is an example of a successful urban policy so cleverly and specifically planned as to include the word ‘glitz.’  Times Square is an economic engine.  Like the combustion engine it may produce friction, noise, and pollutants, but it works.  The apparent truth is that we make choices.  This urban environment may not serve its local residents or workers directly.  In fact, it might make many of them miserable, but the environment makes available revenue that the city might not otherwise capture from visitors.  Truth in the 21st century urban environment involves a communication of priorities and strategy.  The M&M store knows what it’s doing there and so do we.  The trippy spectacle of a Starck hotel doesn’t have to be well lit to illuminate its purpose.   

Ruskin saw a world in which innovation was an overwhelming force that violated the organization and integrity of mediaeval architecture.  Truth was a spiritual pursuit doomed as Christianity declined in importance in Europe.  Today, Ruskin’s elaborate rules seem like quaint antiques but the desire for integrity and the evolution of the meaning of truth in our urban environments are as lively as ever.

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