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Exploring Modern Ruins

The remains of failed development are a testament to hubris, but these ‘monuments to risk’ show an alarming beauty in this recent exhibiton

Modern Ruins, a Topography of Profit, was an exhibition by Julia Schulz-Dornburg that looked at the built remains of the recent episode of Spanish real-estate speculation gone wrong. Schulz-Dornburg, a German architect based in Barcelona, presents her visual documentation of these instant ruins as part of an ongoing research project she began in 2010.

It is an incredibly fascinating and timely concern, and having researched the topic myself over the last few years, I have been surprised by how little presence and attention the architectural community has given to the aftermath of this bubble − almost as if the collapse of the real-estate market had left no material traces. But Schulz-Dornburg’s photographs allow us to experience this eerie architectural return on investment. Through her images we enter a dystopian landscape that seems to emerge straight from one of JG Ballard’s books.

A series of 60 x 80cm photos were hung along two out of the three walls in the exhibition space. Each of the ruins portrayed entered into dialogue with the corresponding real-estate slogan that accompanied its photo. In this way, the fictional utopias of the promotional brochures and the unsettling landscapes of investment ruins confronted one another − strengthening their morbid beauty.

Imagine, for example, the view of a whole mountaintop being shaved off into a series of stacked monumental volumes covered in spray-on concrete and pierced by metal anchors. Overlooking the sea, they strongly resembled the Second World War bunkers of the so-called ‘Atlantic Wall’ along the French coast portrayed by Paul Virilio in his Bunker Archaeology. Seeing large parts of the mountain vanished, one couldn’t help but wonder what geologic time scale the real-estate developers might have been thinking about as they promoted their resorts-to-be as ‘back to the origins’.

One photograph showed a large man-made mountain, or tower of sorts. What was once envisioned to become the Golden Sun Beach & Golf resort had now become a real-world incarnation of the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. The visual similarity to Bruegel’s depiction of this Old Testament episode was striking; starting with a wide base, it narrowed level by level as it rose. Each floor featured arched openings. Like in Bruegel’s painting, the top appeared to be unfinished and lost its geometric clarity. Beyond the visual resemblance of this one particular project, the Tower of Babel narrative called into question the human ambition competing with God by building and transforming an urban landscape on a previously unknown scale.


A development occupying an artificial mound recalls the spiral form of Bruegel’s similarly incomplete Tower of Babel – both are symbols of hubris

Though the centrepiece, these photographs only constituted one part of the exhibition. Upon entry you were confronted with an investigation by Schulz-Dornburg into one single, massive resort conglomerate: the ‘Golf Circuit’. As opposed to the photographs focused on the urban and architectural debris resulting from the collapse of a massive development fantasy, this ‘introductory’ section sought to analyse the urban and architectural DNA these developments were based on in the first place − a promise of ‘quality of life’, entire settlements landing like ‘flying carpets’ on the ground, and the literal construction of real-estate iconography as a ‘real fiction’. A sequence of screens showed us promotional real estate videos and a large-scale Google-Earth map, as well as a line-drawing of the conglomerate, attempting to depict the multiple facets of desire, design and construction.

Each of Schulz-Dornburg’s photographs by itself as a powerful evocation of the brute force of tabula rasa, the omnipresence of an infrastructural landscape, the monotony of copy-paste agglomeration, the hostility of the unoccupied, and the ephemerality of built fictions. Unfortunately, the sequence they were hung in prevented them from unfolding their full narrative potential as a series. Neither temporal nor spatial causalities became apparent.


Half-completed villas litter the Spanish landscape, frozen Pompeiian relics of our economic disaster

Schulz-Dornburg’s use of the first wall to display an analysis of the ‘development DNA’ seemed like a parallel endeavour and felt strangely detached from the powerful photographs. This might explain why it almost disappeared in the catalogue of the exhibition. A singular focus on the photographs, I feel, would have strengthened the exhibition, since the depth of her inquiry did not stand up to the potency of her images, nor did it sustain itself as a parallel line of inquiry. Rather, the research stood more as a static ‘survey’ that would be better served by perhaps introducing vectors of change; the transformations, the speed and the halting abandonment that created the current situation.

Yet at the same time I understand and share her interest in analysing the underlying structures of what I would call ‘landscapes of risk’. These monuments of risk, these architectural and urban ruins, will be with us for a very long time. Therefore, next to the photographic portrayal of the as-is condition of this man-made dystopia, a deeper understanding of the underlying infrastructural, material and economic undercurrents was needed to intervene. To me the abrupt abandonment of such development at all stages − on the scale of a whole country − offered us the possibility to look at this freeze as part of a stop-motion production: each frame or stage of development was frozen and therefore offers itself up to be analysed, dissected and ultimately manipulated.

What is needed now is a new round of speculation. And this time it should be an architectural one. It needs to appropriate the remains of the urban, infrastructural and architectural landscapes and imagine alternative futures for a landscape that was reduced to blank slate for (un)buildable investment fantasies by the 1997/98 revision of the Spanish land act.

Modern Ruins, a Topography of Profit

Where: Architecture Forum Aedes, Berlin

When: Ended 9 May

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