Review of Lars Spuybroek, The Sympathy of Things: Ruskin and the Ecology of Design

Review of Lars Spuybroek, The Sympathy of Things: Ruskin and the Ecology of Design. 2nd revised and expanded edition (Bloomsbury, 2016), 321 pages, £26.99

Reviewed by Carl Knappett



This book develops a new ‘Gothic’ ontology that contributes originally to the ontological turn. It places this abstract materialism in a rich historical context by mining earlier forms from the 19th century, for which Ruskin is the author’s chief informant and guide, though also led by Semper and many others. This is a notable aspect of Spuybroek’s contribution since much of the scholarship in the material and ontological turns overlooks these earlier histories. The theme of ornament, so topical in the 19th century, may be attracting renewed interest in art history, but nowhere is it as strongly tied to current theoretical debates in materiality as here. Moreover, the author envisions a radical future for design and technology – one that fully embraces the feeling and sympathy of things.



Gothic, ornament, ontology, design, sympathy, materiality, things



In this entangled work, Lars Spuybroek immerses himself so completely in the problem of how things are designed that he is able to identify a new ontology for things, one that he calls Gothic.  By choosing such a term he is of course indicating that it is anything but new, situating this ontology in the past; but he is at pains to release the Gothic from its historical limits, even outlining an emergent ‘digital Gothic’ in the present. This richly anachronic web he weaves is dizzyingly original, identifying a seed for a future-oriented ontology that nonetheless has an earlier iteration. His contribution deserves considerable attention from the transdisciplinary ‘ontological turn’ (Holbraad and Pedersen 2016).

Spuybroek may wield his ontology to take aim at the design of all possible things, but he is an architect, and the particular things that serve as historical anchor are Gothic cathedrals and the various commentaries thereon; while his future gaze takes in the potential for a more sympathetic and ecological design for buildings that moves past modernism and postmodernism. A preemptive indication of the wide scope of his enquiry is to be found in an addition to this revised second edition, a new foreword written by the social theorist and philosopher Brian Massumi. This insightful addition signals quite clearly the work’s ambitions to reach across the humanities and social sciences – and that the current reviewer is an archaeologist rather than any kind of expert on either John Ruskin or architecture might suggest the strategy has worked. Spuybroek begins in his first chapter, ‘The Digital Nature of Gothic’, with his ‘guide’ to the Gothic, Ruskin. Spuybroek feeds off Ruskin’s passionate advocacy of the Gothic, elaborating a series of its characteristics, such as its ‘savageness’, and ‘changefulness’. The Gothic is savage because it lets the worker, the stonemason, decide what to do, and this inevitably introduces mistakes; its changefulness resides more at the level of design, with variety sought in “the tracery of the windows, the pointedness of each arch, and the meshing of the ribbed vaults” (5). If the savagery of the stonemason is “rough and incremental” (6), and the input of the architect is “smooth and delicate” (5), they nevertheless amalgamate such that “work is in design, and design is in work” (6). Spuybroek thus underlines the importance to Ruskin of understanding how the Gothic integrated both force and form – in a relationship he calls ‘configurational variation’ (quite different from the ‘proportional variation’ of the Renaissance). One can identify various motifs in Gothic architecture, but these are not fixed figures – they are organizational forms that can be endlessly varied and modulated. Then different figures can be related to one another through “proliferation techniques” (10) – producing emergent form from the bottom-up rather than hierarchically. This is the argument for the Gothic being so fundamentally relational, all the way up so to speak – and for it being at root entirely digital in character. This may seem an outlandish claim at first, but the endless potential for configurational variation is surely one of the great strengths of computer-aided design, and so modern technology can be rendered entirely compatible with this ontology – even though it is often put to use within a completely other ontology, in Spuybroek’s view. Here the architects Enzo Piano and Frank Gehry, who are sometimes held up as paragons of how to bring craft into design, are castigated for “how not to use computing”, as their digital interventions produce only “quasi-variations”, far from the complex braidings of the Gothic (36). Spuybroek rails against the misuse of contemporary technologies, much as Ruskin did against Victorian technologies, dominated by repetition – the antithesis of ‘changefulness’.

In chapter two, ‘The Matter of Ornament’, we learn that our contemporary world is so unadorned, and so un-Gothic in many ways, that we need to be rehabilitated and reintroduced to a world of ornament if we are to understand its role not only in the Gothic but also in any sympathetic outlook on things. Ornament has become an area of renewed interest in art history of late, with the 19th century thinkers Gottfried Semper, Owen Jones and John Ruskin as key protagonists, as they are here. While it is difficult after modernism not to think of ornament as an adjunct to matter, Spuybroek insists on their mutual interdependence. His discussion of Semper’s Stoffwechsel is particularly intriguing here, as he shows how, though much misunderstood, it actually offers a kind of ‘abstract materialism’ that allows one to locate ornament in neither mind nor matter, but somewhere in between. Semper took an evolutionary approach that sought to understand the transition from one material state to another – so, for example, he proposed that the walls of buildings were at first just textiles, hanging carpets separating spaces. Over time, solid walls of stone superseded them, though only made acceptable to dwellers if maintaining some textile trace. So, as textile is transfigured into stonework, an abstraction is implied, as one cannot move directly from weaving to carving. But while the stone abstracts textile, “the textile inhabits the stone, not as a material but as a technique and a logic” (70). Thus if a wall is ornamented to look like textile, it is no mere mimicry, but a more thorough growing into one another of material and idea (hence abstract materialism). Naturally, there are other patterns besides the woven, and Spuybroek also introduces here ‘tessellation’, more the pattern of the mosaic; for this, he draws on Owen Jones’s ‘The Grammar of Ornament’. There follows a rather involved account of how Jones, Ruskin, and even William Morris conceived of order and grammar in ornament design. What emerges is that Jones took abstraction away from materiality and placed it in the mental domain – a move opening the door, Spuybroek surmises, towards conceptual art (and hence still further away from the abstract materialism of Semper). What Spuybroek is in search of is quite the opposite, “a general, matter-oriented theory of ornament” (63) that must resist abstraction because “we only have to sympathise with the technological tendencies present in matter itself” (102). He illustrates his point with an example from Ruskin: the tracery in Rouen cathedral would not have been possible in marble or granite, but corresponded and resonated with the soft limestone of the area (102). This takes us back to craft – or rather forward, to a digital craft.

Chapter three (‘Abstraction and Sympathy’) takes us to the heart of the Gothic ontology Spuybroek is defining. As before, he sets up modernism as the enemy, whose inherent abstraction is responsible for our alienation from things due to its stripping away of ornament. Without ornament, it is impossible to feel for things, and without feeling there is no aesthetics. Notions of sympathy and feeling in and between things have become quite foreign to us, and so, as with ornament, Spuybroek feels the need to reacquaint the reader with these ideas. He moves from William James and his concept of the ‘fringe’, to Henri Bergson on intuition and sympathy, and on to Theodor Lipps and Wilhelm Worringer. The idea he develops of things being able to feel among themselves takes some getting used to. He portrays it as a kind of synchronization, as when two people dance. He takes Bergson’s famous example of the Ammophila wasp and the way it stings a caterpillar in multiple spots to paralyse it – the wasp develops an intuition, a “floating and modulating of attention”, which is, in a sense, a sympathy (123). A further example, between inorganic rather than organic things, is when a vase is placed on the edge of a table, and threatens to fall – it embodies a ‘nextness’, as James terms it, and we are drawn into its world, as we feel the limits of the table, and the potential of the vase. The way we feel for things and their relations, Spuybroek further argues, is deeply aesthetic. He moves from philosophers James and Bergson to art historian Worringer to make this argument. Worringer saw two poles in artistic production, abstraction on the one hand and empathy on the other. By reworking Worringer and placing him together with psychologist Theodor Lipps, Spuybroek is able to come to a point where he sees sympathy as lying in between abstraction and empathy. He illustrates this by contrasting two artworks: Titian’s Venus of 1538, which evokes empathy in form but shows little movement or coming into being; and Yves Klein’s Anthropométries of 1960, which conveys movement and force, but little by way of form. Thus, in Spuybroek’s eyes at least, neither painting really generates sympathy, as they do not occupy the middle ground between empathy and abstraction. Despite these imaginative graphic promptings, I still find myself wondering why sympathy should be aesthetic, however attractive as a general proposition is the idea of technological processes being inherently aesthetic. Another slight frustration of this important chapter is that Spuybroek continues to enmesh art history, art practice and philosophy in his argument, when what is arguably required at this point is a clear outline of what a Gothic ontology is and how it relates to other ontologies – on which the author ultimately does deliver, but not until the final chapter.  

In chapter four, on ‘The Radical Picturesque’, Spuybroek continues with his aesthetic theme. He introduces the picturesque into the equation because aesthetics is often conceived in terms of a spectrum between the beautiful and the sublime, with the picturesque occupying an intermediary position between these two poles (158). The picturesque may evoke a rather sentimental image, but the author here sees it as a radical state in which the thing’s succumbing to time is made apparent. If beauty is form and the sublime is force, then the in between, the picturesque, manifests the work of force on form, whether in the making or the unmaking of the thing. Spuybroek thus sets up the picturesque as part of “the aesthetics of sympathy” (164). However, he also moves the argument on from aesthetics to ontology by eliding the two – aesthetics is ontology. The transition from aesthetics to ontology is largely effected by the introduction of Heidegger’s thinking on ‘the thing’ into the fray, with his famous discourse on the jug here put into an imagined dialogue with Ruskin. The jug to Heidegger is somehow absent when not in use – it is like a waiter that slips into the shadows when not serving. The jug that Heidegger has in mind is presumably unornamented, a smooth modern thing; something that would be anathema to Ruskin. For Heidegger, the jug only comes into being, so to speak, when it is operationalized by its surrounding relations with humans and other things (glass, table, etc). For Ruskin, Spuybroek quite reasonably supposes, the jug would have to be ornamented – and would have to stand for itself before entering into relations with others. Thus it could never be merely useful, for this is a kind of passivity, whereas Ruskin sees such things as much more active and participatory. Spuybroek further sees quite stark differences between the two thinkers in how they conceive of design in relation to the sublime – while Heidegger sees design as a means of turning away from or negating the sublime, Ruskin instead envisions the sublime as something to be parasitically manipulated and built from. Spuybroek begins to unfold his ontological argument further by placing his insights in relation to other thinkers, like Bruno Latour, whom he feels occupies a position quite close to that of Heidegger, in the sense that the relational position of the thing in a network seems of prime importance; while Spuybroek insists that this way of thinking fails to capture how things exist aesthetically in felt relations.

Spuybroek finally distinguishes his Gothic ontology from other ontologies in chapter five, ‘The Ecology of Design’. Not only does he discuss at some length the differences with Darwinian thinking, particularly on beauty and design—saying effectively that beauty designs itself (design without a designer)—but he also elaborates on the idea he floats at various stages of the book that things exist in entanglements. Yet, his version of entanglement is quite different to that he says is implied elsewhere in the literature – and he has in mind the idea from DeLanda’s assemblage theory of Deleuzian ‘relations of exteriority’. One might imagine different things to become ‘entangled’ as they enter into relations with one another. A glass has no necessary relation with the table on which it stands (Deleuze maintains) because a glass can stand anywhere and a table can hold anything. Thus when they come into contact the relations are exterior ones. As more things are implicated in the mix, the entanglement grows. However, Spuybroek’s challenge is this: the glass and the table have some preexisting correspondence between each other because they have both internalized flatness. They feel one another before they touch, reaching out to each other. Hence for Spuybroek, the ensuing entanglement has a quite different character – it is “the occurrence of a thing as felt in another thing” (243). These explanations of his entanglement theory/Gothic ontology are extremely useful, though anthropologists might have wished for further exploration of how they relate to Tim Ingold’s idea of the meshwork—Spuybroek does recognise the many similarities between his book and Ingold’s 2007 book ‘Lines’ (215, fn. 19)—and Alfred Gell’s ideas on art and technology, also covered here though mostly in passing (215, fn. 18). Furthermore, archaeologists will surely be curious about the relationship with the entanglement theory of Ian Hodder, which is based around the concept of dependency rather than sympathy (Hodder 2012). One suspects that it might come in for the same criticism as does assemblage theory for its construction of relations of exteriority rather than interiority between things. Still, there are some interesting comparisons, in that both Spuybroek and Hodder have an eye on the future, with the former envisaging some positive potential for creativity (a digital Gothic) in the design of things, while the latter is rather more dystopian, seeing entrapment along paths of dependency all around.

Spuybroek’s anachronic method, in which past, present and future all seem coextensive throughout, can make the read quite disorienting at times. His book might not seem especially long at first, but so densely packed is it with ideas from so many sources that the reader will soon begin to feel its weight. I have found myself carrying it around on many trips, trying (and mostly failing) to get to the bottom of it. I cannot be sure what architects, art historians of the Gothic, or 19th century specialists will make of it, but this book is undoubtedly a rich and original source of ideas for anyone across the many disciplines that increasingly care about materiality in the past, present or future.



Hodder, I. 2012. Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Holbraad, M. and M. Pedersen, 2016. The Ontological Turn: An Anthropological Exposition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



Carl Knappett teaches in the Department of Art at the University of Toronto, where he holds the Walter Graham/ Homer Thompson Chair in Aegean Prehistory. While the things of the Aegean Bronze Age are his main focus, he has attempted to develop an interdisciplinary approach to the meaningfulness of things through publications such as Thinking Through Material Culture (Penn Press), and An Archaeology of Interaction (Oxford University Press). He has conducted fieldwork at various Aegean sites, mostly studying pottery assemblages, and directs the new excavations at the Minoan town of Palaikastro in east Crete. (Contact: