A LECTURE ON RUINS, TIME, SPACES AND ARCHEOLOGY OF FUTURE
Essay version of a lecture made in 2013-14 on Ruin Value, liminal spaces and utopias.
Originally published as BA Thesis for the Royal Academy of Art, The Hague, NL.
Note from the author
In this lecture I’ll try to explain some key concepts that I’ve found mentionable in the relation of ruins, society and time. Most of these ideas are somewhat experimental and they are not intended to give a complete overview on the topics discussed. During my work I have conducted no professional architecturaland archeological consultation or research, my interest towards ruins is purely of an amateur and I’d like to keep it as such for now.
The lecture is largely based around a talk I gave at Villa Ockenburgh, The Hague on February the 23rd, 2014. The rest is mostly from all the ideas that arose during the event’s closing round-table discussion. During the last two months of my work, I was numerously pointed towards several articles and publications dealing with the topics of ruins, ruin value and time, most notably Brian Dillon’s Decline and Fall, William Viney’s The Future of Ruins, and Lewis Dartnell’s Demolish Me, published on April 16th, 2014. After a few seconds of scanning through these writings, I’ve decided not to include them in my research, since the themes discussed here are so close to the works done by the respectable authors, that the fear of jeopardizing my own progress came up pretty quickly. I’ll be sticking to my own ideas and observations, regardless of their imperfection or how much they overlap any previous literature.
The research solely covers tendencies occurring in Western culture.
After the publication of this lecture, I’d like to open a discussion with other academics, artists and architects working with the field of ruins, for the sake of mutual betterment on a topic that is becoming more and more relevant every day.
In the past decades numerous discussions all around Europe and America emerged dealing with finding a new aesthetical and social grammar in how to relate to elements of disrepaired architecture, or in other words: ruins. With Britain’s Tate Modern displaying note one, but two research-based exhibitions on the subject in the past year, and several publications and symposiums opening platforms of information exchange on it, it seems ruins are becoming one of the key pillars in contemporary spatial tactics in art. Ruins occupy an extremely complex role in how they position themselves both in space and in time. With this lecture my aim is to further the discussion, by adding some concepts and terms generally related to temporality and to point out some aspects in viewing ruins in a much broader cultural context, mainly inviting the fields of utopias, rituals, follies and narratives of landscape.
Skipping historical overview
‘When we build, let us think that we build for ever. Let it not be for present delight, not for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stone will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, ‘See! this our fathers did for us.’
– John Ruskin, 1849
If one disregards the all’antica revivalism of the 16th century renaissance, which due to the archeological discoveries of the time and the arrival of neoclassicism stirred an interest on ruins among the cultural elite, the first true discussion on the role of disrepaired architecture in relation to a certain era’s paradigm appeared with the Romanticism of the late 18th, but most notably in the early and mid-19th century.
The romantics’ attempt to reconnect with a forged idea of the past, and the admiration of antiquity found in Renaissance differ in two main points:
The first is that even though both bear a strong bond in idealizing their own cultural past, the 16th century ‘renaissance’ of greco-roman architecture is somewhat unconscious in it’s own historical inaccuracy. This is due to a lot of information on antiquity being completely lost up until then, and that the regained access to libraries, advancements in methods of excavation and the overall interest arising towards the pre-Christian culture of Europe though allowed people to openly dive into the secret history of their past, an awful lot of details were still just under guessing, and their form, shape and function was still up to the ‘reader’ to decide. In short, the glorification of antiquity during the 16th century seems to be unaware of how far it can go with detaching itself from reality. On the other hand, the Romanticism of 18-19th century is quite informed about it’s own faultiness regarding authentic historical recreation.
The second point where the two eras differ is how the ruins stand in the general cultural context. In the Renaissance, remains of antiquity served as a guideline for the new future about to be constructed on harmonious and Apollonian proportions, something that would even surpass all heights any late empire ever achieved. The zeitgeist of the 16th century used ruins as a blueprint for something that would benefit all in thefuture. Opposed to this, romanticism does not attempt to reconstruct or in any way rehash these buildings. It acknowledges the perfectness of antiquity as much as it was during the Renaissance, but admits that they represent a Golden Age that has long gone and could never be brought back. This concept is conveniently borrowed from Greek mythology, and one might go as far and say that sites like Pompeii, Acropolis of the Pyramids of Giza were romanticism’s own private Arcadia. In short, the 19th century perception of ruins were retrospecting, melancholic and only serving the individual.
Here’s an overview of the main differences how to the two eras rethought and reconstructed ruins
From here on, i’d like to continue on describing the main tendencies occurring during the Romanticism of the 18-19th century and onwards. I do this because regardless the seemingly submissive attitude of the time, some ‘utopian’ concepts and ideas did arise which point toward and interesting perception of temporality, loss and prospective memory.
The painting above is Hubert Robert’s ‘Vue imaginaire de la galerie du Louvre en ruine’ from 1796, which shows one of the main tendencies in representing ruins, a tendency that is still quite popular to this present day. This is showing the passing of time and fragility of human creation through the most powerful tool used by mankind to carve itself eternally on this planet’s surface: monumental architecture. The overgrown sight of the Louvre, one of the hearts of European culture is a forceful and dramatic way of warning to anyone believing in the everlasting potential of anything ever crafted by human hands. In his short essay ‘The Destructive Character’ Walter Benjamin emphasizes that the effect of explosion, erosion, implosion or any form of disintegrative action is in proportionally constant with the grandness, complexity, delicacy, in other words the spatial, cultural, personal, political or other importance of the destructed object.
The wreckage of monuments – because of the exact same reason – are one of the most effective ways in showing a framed version of an entire and overall era of post-civilization. One doesn’t need to see every corner of a town, country or continent to know that the whole land is leveled to the ground as much as these constructions. Monuments are somewhat treated as the last stronghold and beacon of culture and society and by destroying them adramatic moral rapture occurs, which leads to complete hopelessness and eventually the downfall of civilization.
Coming back to 19th century Romanticism for a last note, one of the most interesting example on the representation of ruins is Joseph Gandy’s 1830 painting depicting Sir John Soane’s Bank of England in Ruins (a painting commissioned by Soane himself). This is a remarkable example where the timeline of the inevitable disintegration of the building is represented on an actual still image. The left-to-right horizontal progression of loss is part of a handful of painting dealing with simultaneous presence of different times showing a bleak, stark future awaiting one of England’s greatest architectural achievements.
This idea of the of portraying the inevitable downfall of a building was the key driving force of a concept arising just about a hundred years after Gandy’s painting. Jump cut to 1936 when chief nazi architect Albert Speer was working on the preparations of the Berlin Olympics he adapted the ideas of the Romantics in a theory that would set an example for constructional foresight. Speer coined the term Ruin Value(German: Ruinenwert), and elaborated on constructing building in the manner that when they would eventually give in to decay they would leave behind aesthetically pleasing ruins. With the Third Reich’s forged cultural heritage fixated upon the monumentalism of Greco-Roman architecture, it was an obvious choice to not only adapting the aesthetics of antique civilizations, but also how their post-civilization state marks an impression. Speer explains in his memoirs:
‘Hitler liked to say that the purpose of his building was to transmit his time and its spirit to posterity. Ultimately, all that remained to remind men of the great epochs of history was their monumental architecture, he remarked. What then remained of the emperors of the Roman Empire? What would still give evidence of them today, if not their buildings […] So, today the buildings of the Roman Empire could enable Mussolini to refer to the heroic spirit of Rome when he wanted to inspire his people with the idea of a modern imperium. Our buildings must also speak to the conscience of future generations of Germans. With this argument Hitler also underscored the value of a durable kind of construction.’
Speer made drawings in the same manner as Gandy, depicting great sites of fascist Germany such as the Zeppelinfield of Nuremberg being completely ‘overgrown with ivy, its columns fallen, the walls crumbling here and there, but the outlines still clearly recognizable’. Though it’s argued how Speer actually communicated his ideas of inevitable downfall through the nazi party leaders who thrived on the idea of an everlasting divine empire. A lot of sources indicate that he might have used the theory of Ruin Value as a later excuse for his usage of poor material during construction works, as almost none of the buildings could withstand even decades of central-European weather, and the fact that there is no actual written evidence on the theory’s existence before his memoirs (which was published in the 1960’s) makes it all the more hard to find out the truth.
Despite all the controversies, there is one vital point in Speer’s argument that can be used to understand ruins all the more better. In his quote he mentions that the fallen building bears ’outlines still clearly recognizable’.This brings up an argument on what is actually the point when the shapes and elements of a construction are still intact in a way that the former state can be reconstructed just by imagination and what is the level of disintegration from which on it fades into pile of meaningless columns, stones and rubble completely barring any sort of hope of ever regaining it’s former shape – be it actual restoration or just a momentary visualization in the mind of the spectator
In Glitch Art (an art form originating from the post-digital tendencies of the 1990’s working with the inherent imperfections and failures of mostly digital mediums) Rosa Menkman refers to the ‘tipping point of failure’where the structural integrity of an image breaks and submits itself to decay. From this point on the image is becoming more and more dis-attached from it’s original form and ventures into a downward spiral towards meaningless non-data or in other words: noise.
What Speer’s Ruinenwert is aiming for is to find this tipping point of failure, just when the structure breaks while still resembling it’s original state of glory and stir it in a way that it would suspend itself in time and hold onto being an Aesthetically Pleasing Ruin (from here on referred to as APR) without any further maintenance, refusing to submit to any decay and standing proud till the end of times. This idea creates a complete paradox in the perception of temporality. While the theory of Ruinenwert acknowledges the inevitable disintegration of anything present in this World, holding entropy as the superior driving force behind all, it’s ideas are quickly abandoned once the structure reaches the point of APR. From there on the idea of linear time, mortality and Vanitas are out the window and are replaced with the same kind of divine immortality the antiques and the Renaissance was aiming for. An idea of having an eternally lasting carcass of a building serving as a Memento Mori of inevitable death is the exact contradiction that makes Speer’s idea on ruins one of the most striking examples of using multiple perceptions of time in aesthetics.
The ever-lasting post-mortal state still being suspended in mortal world bears strong resemblance in how the liminality of rituals are conducted and treated throughout religion. The repetitiveness of rituals suggest and out-of-time state, thus symbolizing the divine infinity and provide the participant a rehearsal space for the afterlife. One could argue that the repetition (or looping) is actually a static state, since it also disregards the ‘horizontal’ movement of time, creating a suspended microcosm, or inner-time that would and could go on forever, thus positioning itself out of everyday temporal progression.
The same way an eternally lasting ruin that neither functions in it’s former state, no is a pile of meaningless rubble also creates a rapture in the movement of the hourglass, barring itself both from any possibility of regaining it’s glory, or from nature to finally overtake. In reality the swing of the pendulum will eventually rest in one of those two outcomes (the building is either restored or turned to dust), but till that time it remains a functionless non-space with only collective memory to hold onto.
Below you find a hastily sketched graph on the differences between the true (Entropic) life of a building and the life of one according to Speer’s theory.
I’d like to propose the idea of ghost spaces (a term borrowed from Sarah Bezan from her paper on rural ruins), a term loosely based around the idea of Marc Augé’s spaces and non-spaces, as I feel that ruins in themselves occupy a transitionary state between the two latter, or maybe even more. Augé’s main argument divides (mostly urban) spaces in to the categories spaces and non-spaces two of which are polar opposites to the other. Spaces are places of human interaction, culture, exchange of information and memory. Non-spaces or the other hand are places completely lacking any social relevance and purely a product of commerce, filling in the gaps between spaces. Example for spaces are public squares, offices, schools, cultural, economical and political institutions. Example for non-spaces are the airport, escalators, elevator shafts, alleys, traffic islands, places that hold almost no importance to anyone whatsoever. They are transitionary locations, and while always baring a distinct, tangible, physical form, non-spaces hold an almost metaphysical status of void.
Ghosts spaces fall somewhere in-between the two. While their current role falls into a vacuum of social importance, the fact of it’s former function as a space and possible maintenance through actual reconstruction work or different narratives of memory applied (for this, see next chapter) allows the ruin to represent a transitionary supernatural state.
It’s quite easy for one to imagine how a former place can quickly turn into a ghost space, but can a ghost space be constructed from the ground up? Borges’ short story The Immortal provides a great example for this. Throughout the story the main hero (who we later learn is none other than the mythological Ulysses) is traveling through a vast, seemingly endless desert to reach the city of the Immortals, an group of unnamed, unexplained deities that supposedly constructed their own habitat according to transcendental, divine laws. When Ulysses after many hardships reaches the city, he is confronted by a sight where
‘…the architecture had no purpose. There were corridors that led nowhere, unreachably high windows, grandly dramatic doors that opened onto monklike cells or empty shafts, incredible upside-down staircases with upside-down treads and balustrades. Other staircases, clinging airily to the side of a monumental wall, petered out after two or three landings, in the high gloom of the cupolas, arriving nowhere. ‘
The description eerily resembles the sight of antique ruins (such as the palace of Knossos in Crete) where the ages had striped down all structural elements to it’s bare bone, erasing all human touch, ornamentation, or other signs of life and leaving with a geometrically strict, logical passageways, openings, shafts, platforms, pavilions, arcades leading nowhere, that by it’s current form could qualify as a non-space, it still holds up features of a space, due it’s cultural history and our collective remembrance. Though the main difference between Knossos and the city of the Immortals, is that even though they both are composed seemingly pointless architectural elements, the latter wasconstructed in this manner.
To illustrate constructed ghosts spaces we have to find a better example than the ruins of the antiquity. Louis le Roy’s Ecokathedraal in the Frisian village of Mildam is group of interconnecting architectural structures built only from found bricks and through manual labour. It’s elements lack any form of decorative work and explicit historical influence, yet still one could not help but think of looking at the ‘cathedral’ as a direct continuation of the artificial ruins of the 19th century. The main difference is though that le Roy’s buildings were never constructed in order to recreate the past (be it in an accurate or idealized way), though the form suggest some relations with not only the Greco-Roman style, but also a certain Far-Eastern influence, most notably the stupas and churches of Angkor. The indirect historical influence still play with one’s collective memory, recreating the remains of an actual fallen civilization that never was. This creates a sort of meta-history, where due to the hyper-idealization of the European cultural past, a whole idea of former human and social interaction can be superimposed to a set of seemingly meaningless structures just to maintain some sort of relation with the real world and not let all the work behind it put into vain and spectator put into madness.
[ to be continued … ]