Ruins are a reminder of architecture’s transience, but they also embody often contested projections of meaning and memory
When the American artist Ryan Mendoza recently acquired a small abandoned house in Detroit, he had no intention of living there. Aided by crowdfunding, he dismantled it and shipped it to Europe as his contribution to the 2016 Rotterdam art fair. Extracted with forensic precision like an eroded tooth from a carious urban milieu, the transplanted dwelling was marooned forlornly on a hardstanding next to the fair’s exhibition halls. Its ‘authentically’ decayed state was seen as a testament to the precarious condition of Detroit and, by implication, America as a whole.
Accused of capitalising on the vogue for ruin porn, Mendoza was mildly indignant, seeing himself as saviour rather than parasite. ‘I was going to freeze a moment of America’s history in time’, he said. ‘I wouldn’t let the government bulldoze all the dilapidated houses with all their memories without one being preserved as testimony, a stubborn reminder of all the others.’ Mendoza, who is based in Berlin, filled the house with artefacts from its original owner, claiming that: ‘The idea was to remember the story and history of the house. It was never about ruin porn’.
The white house at verbeke foundation
Mendoza’s The White House has since found a permanent home in the grounds of the Verbeke Foundation in Belgium, one of Europe’s largest private art sites, which opened to the public in 2007. On its website, the foundation is breathlessly described as ‘untidy, complex, inharmonious, living and unmonumental, like the world outside’ and its founder Geert Verbeke as ‘an atypical collector who chooses to live between art and nature’. Like a modern incarnation of European gentry musing on pillaged trophies of antiquity, Verbeke and his paying public can now contemplate a fragment of Detroit and its evocation of an obsolescing civilisation.
Transforming the physicality of abandoned or redundant buildings so they acquire new meaning is a familiar theme of contemporary art, notably in the work of Rachel Whiteread and Gordon Matta-Clark. But Mendoza’s treatment of the Detroit house carried with it a more disquieting sense of objectification. As a conscious expression of ‘otherness’, a foreign body uprooted and reconceptualised for perusal by the self-regarding contemporary art crowd, it reinforced the perceived image of Detroit as a despairing shell of a city.
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Unquestionably convulsed by the socially corrosive fallout from its collapse as an industrial base, Detroit has also had to endure becoming the poster child for ruin porn. Its languishing acres of photogenically eviscerated factories and rotting houses feed a visually ravenous global public, but this has its problems. The cultural fetishisation of decay is not new in itself, dating back to Grand Tour potterings around Italy and Greece, but Detroit has had the misfortune to be trapped in the libidinous glare of the digital multiverse. Unlike the original Grand Tourists, laboriously ticking off the sites of antiquity, today’s questing necrophiliacs need not stir from their armchairs. The existential hazards associated with tramping around Sparta, Chernobyl or the Eight Mile badlands are finessed through the internet’s sluicing conduits, perpetually awash with images.
Punch ‘ruins’ or ‘abandoned buildings’ into a search engine and a zombie tsunami of creeper-encrusted grot, from asylums and factories to shopping malls and swimming pools, rises in a nauseating swell to greet you. For centuries, ruins have been gazed upon and parsed for amusement, gratification and instruction, but ruin porn is an especially hardcore objectification of certain kinds of matter and atmosphere. Of course, we’re all consenting adults, but in the case of Detroit, it shamefully overlooks and overwrites the voices of those who still call the city home. Through its reductivist and disassociative prism, endemic social injustices such as poverty, marginalisation and racism are ignored or ridiculed. Conveniently glossing over the humanity of residents and their struggles, ruin porn replicates the history that created them. This has the effect of further impoverishing not only Detroit itself, but also the wider understanding of capital, race and history.
Interior view of seminary mad4brutalism
‘Ruins embody a set of temporal and historical paradoxes’, writes the art critic Brian Dillon. ‘The ruined building is a remnant of and portal into the past, its decay is a concrete reminder of the passage of time.’ The current era is steeped in spectacular ruination, through a toxic cocktail of disastrous wars, planetary despoliation, the decline of industrial centres and economic stagnation. Images of catastrophe are pervasive and globally disseminated.
Ruins are effectively architecture’s memento mori, imbued with an unsettling melancholic charge that speaks to our deepest existentialist fears and fantasies. As Roman emperors would appoint a slave to whisper in their ear ‘Remember, thou art mortal’, so ruins perform a similar function, an insistent reminder of transience and temporality. ‘The ruin creates a present form of a past life’, wrote the German urban sociologist Georg Simmel in 1911. But they also predict the future in which the structures of the present slide into decline and disrepair, outliving us. Simmel writes of ‘the brute, downward dragging corroding crumbling power’ of nature, which acts on architecture to produce a new form, ‘entirely meaningful, comprehensible, differentiated’.
Etymologically, ‘ruin’ has its roots in the Latin ruere, to fall, connoting a falling apart, the solid melting into air and, as the fallen or fragmented obverse of architecture, ruins are intimately entwined with the course of human civilisation, its conspicuous, unburied corpses. Like bodies, buildings are programmed to decay, imperfection gradually overwhelming them. Yet the active cult of the ruin – preserved, studied, idealised and fetishised – is a relatively recent phenomenon dating from the mid-18th century. Until the Renaissance, most of the inhabitants of Rome were oblivious to its tottering tableaux of ruins, blithely appropriating stones from them for use in new constructions.
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The Palazzo Bucelli in Montepulciano is an especially vivid example of these magpie pilferings, its base rusticated with a collection of Etruscan funerary urns packed in courses like giant bricks. The ends of the urns are sheared off to form facing stones, so the wall is not a literal cemetery. But the metaphor of rustication actualised as an earlier human generation can be seen as an eccentric acknowledgement that we build on, even from, the bones of past civilisations, the city as organic palimpsest. The Chinese architect Wang Shu’s incorporation of rubble from ruined structures into his new buildings reprises this tactic for the current era, a pragmatic recycling and blurring of material, indifferent to its origins, value or history.
Catalysed by archaeological investigations of Roman and Greek sites, a distinct ruin aesthetic evolved during the 18th century. This ‘ruin lust’ manifested itself in Piranesi’s familiar phantasmagoric capriccios and the Picturesque appetite for follies and sham ruins, all contrived to romanticise images of decay. ‘The ideas that ruins awaken in me are great ones’, intoned Diderot in 1767. ‘Everything turns to nothingness and everything passes. Only the world remains. Only time continues.’ Yet the institutional idealisation of Classical civilisation through its ruins also crucially shaped and promulgated a world- view of white European supremacy in which the inconvenient evidence of other cultures could be disregarded. Following the discovery of the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, an extraordinary city complex built between the 11th and 14th centuries, the racist assertion that such levels of sophistication could not have been achieved by indigenous Africans persisted until the end of the colonial era.
Ruins are a way of seeing, embodiments of meaning projected onto heaps of stone. Such meanings are often contested and apply not only to the relics of the past but also to the imaginary ones of the future. One must ‘allow a palace to collapse to create an object of interest out of it’, wrote Diderot. It sounds a harmless, poetic conceit, yet it gave rise to the notion of Ruinenwert or ‘ruin value’, of what buildings would look like as future ruins, as embraced by Albert Speer, who conceived the monumental architecture of Hitler’s incipient Germania with an eye to its future picturesque decay, in the manner of ancient Rome.
According to the French writer and philosopher Bruce Bégout, we are now in the ‘third age’ of ruins, that of the ‘projected’ ruin, in which buildings have no longevity, their decay is almost instantaneous and their disappearance quick, within a generation. The slow process of dismemberment that characterised the relics of antiquity and industry, allowing them to stand out of time as historic ‘exemplars’, is now at odds with the brutal rapidity of the modern ruin’s span.
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An obvious instance of this architectural ouroboros is the famous BEST stores, PoMo shopping-mall boxes knowingly gussied up as modern ‘ruins’, with deliberately crumbling or peeling facades, now themselves either altered or demolished. Less playfully, the image of Pruitt-Igoe’s infamous housing blocks being demolished after only 20 years was cynically appropriated to become Modernism’s indelible visual epitaph, cementing its epic ‘failure’ in the minds of architects, critics, politicians and the wider public.
Like Ryan Mendoza’s transplanted Detroit house, this superficial spectacle of ruination simplified and debased a far more complex set of issues. And in an impact that can still be felt, it helped to legitimise a culture of disdain and hostility to modern housing estates, spawning the current programmes of brutal social cleansing and a hollowing out of the city.
Representing the worst aspects of human nature in its capacity for destruction or neglect, ruins touch raw nerves, but people rarely look away. Disintegration is a turn-on, whether by bombs, earthquakes or municipal TNT. Co-opted for political or propaganda purposes, the image of the ruin has the power to distort, unleashing its own ruinous effects in the real world.