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REVIEW: In Ruins

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By Christopher Woodward. Chatto & Windus, 2001. 224pp. £12.99

When Christopher Woodward was assistant curator at Sir John Soane's Museum, one exhibition that he organised there was 'Visions of Ruin: Architectural Fantasies & Designs for Garden Follies' - a display of suitably ivy-wreathed drawings by Chambers, Adam, Gandy and the like (AJ 22.7.99), writes Andrew Mead .

Woodward must have been in his element then, as this entertaining and evocative new book makes clear. A Home Counties child, he had a 'road-toDamascus'moment one evening in an unlikely spot - the environs of Welwyn Garden City. Lazing in the grounds of a neglected manor house, he came to this conclusion: 'Its decaying embrace was a refuge from a suburban time-clock. . . I now understood the physical, magnetic attraction of so many features in the countryside stranded by the march of progress.'

The book is freighted with the names of sites where Woodward has since indulged and refined his taste for the ruinous: Ephesus, Merida, Palermo and, above all, Rome. 'The greatest treat has been an excuse to read the 10 volumes of Chateaubriand's Memoires de l'autre tombe , ' he says - but don't worry.

Beside his observations on the ways that ruins have preoccupied writers and artists - Shelley, Flaubert and Hardy; Clerisseau, Cole and Piper - you find references to Muhammad Ali and Planet of the Apes .

Woodward wears his learning lightly and has a capacity to surprise.

His bane (as was Piper's) is the 'cold-hearted' archaeologist, enemy of the Picturesque , who tidies up ruins, labels them, and robs them of their resonance. In this respect, the fate of Rome's Baths of Caracalla is especially lamented. 'No ruin can be suggestive to the visitor's imagination unless its dialogue with the forces of nature is visibly alive and dynamic, ' he decides.

Apart from the cryptic ex-Ministry of Defence site on the Suffolk coast at Orford Ness, Woodward doesn't explore the ruins of the more recent past. A visit to the abandoned wing, gaping and overgrown, of Duiker's Hilversum Sanatorium (1926-28) is as affecting, or disturbing, as anything that Woodward describes - the Utopian aspirations at once so near and so far. But that hardly mars this enjoyable book which, for all its surface ease, is deeply felt.

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