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Ruins: Beautiful Decay

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A new collection of essays traces how modern ruins have inspired artists and architects, writes Douglas Murphy

It is a well-worn cliché that architecture is the most optimistic of cultural activities. It’s not hard to see why, when the very intensity of activity required to erect a building demands the most solid commitment. But this is also one of the many reasons why ruined buildings are so fascinating to us; the most strenuous reaching to heaven produces the richest melancholy when we are faced with its decline.

The last great period of ruinenlustin the romantic age between the late 18th and early 19th centuries, saw poets and painters lustily clambering over the fragments of Rome, while aristocrats built themselves ruined monasteries for lugubrious gratification.

Recently, we have been living through another blossoming of ruin culture, although one whose gaze is turned upon the recent past and the physical remnants of the 20th century. A rich vein of artistic production has been taking Modernist architecture as a means to pose questions of history, ideology and utopian belief. The latest book in the Documents of Contemporary Art series on artistic concepts, is Ruins, which draws together a number of significant texts on the theme.

Edited by Brian Dillon, these essays and extracts plot a journey through the development of our current obsession with ruins. An early highlight is German sociologist Georg Simmel’s essay The Ruin(1911), perhaps the best condensation of the romantic theory of the ruin as a moment of sublime equilibrium between man’s heavenward stretch and nature’s downward pull.

From here, we travel through various 20th-century responses to ruination: a passage from Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture(1923) exemplifies determination of early Modernists to transcend and abolish the ruins of the 19th century, while architect/theorist Paul Virilio’s morbid fascination with Nazi coastal fortifications in Bunker Archaeology (1975), hints at how architecture attempted to respond to the disaster of the Second World War.

According to Dillon, artist Robert Smithson’s A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic (1967) was pivotal in creating a genuinely contemporary sense of the ruin. An ironic travelogue describing a bus trip to his New Jersey home town, Smithson eulogises building sites and industrial detritus as if they were monuments on a par with antiquity, and in the process shifts the ruinous eye from the monumental to the quotidian and begins to form a more complex attitude to ruin-time.

What becomes clear is that the modern ruin is not only a remnant of the past, but that its fragments contain a history of the future as well. Our still-visible failure to achieve this Modernist future has become a fertile source of inspiration for artists; Victor Pasmore’s bathetically heroic Apollo Pavilion in the Wilson twins’ video works, Toby Paterson’s structured paintings, or the remnants of collective housing projects used in the installations of Roger Hiorns.

The texts collected here repeatedly return to Walter Benjamin’s analyses of technology, politics and aesthetics from the early 20th century, and indeed in Benjamin’s sprawling work you can already see the notion of Modernism as a fragmented, ghostly invocation to radical change forming. It is this ‘dialectical ruination’ that fuels recent (mainly cinematic) investigations into history, space and utopia, such as those of the Turner-nominated Otolith Group or filmmaker Patrick Keiller.

As a primarily textual resource, Ruinsrequires the reader to be familiar with (or at least willing to research) the artists and works in question, and there are a number of texts whose interest for architects will be perhaps negligible. Furthermore, those familiar with ‘Deconstructivism’ might have encountered some of the ideas before; Jacques Derrida is here, as is Anthony Vidler’s The Architectural Uncanny (1992).

When attempting to grapple with ideas such as these in their own work, architects all too often lapse into mannerism or caricature; the ruin-inspired columns of Peter Eisenman’s House VI (1975) are just as tacky as an 18th-century folly. But in an age such as ours, with the future seeming more bleak than it has for generations, this book is an excellent resource for investigating why art is so fascinated by a culture it seems that architecture would rather forget, and gives many reasons why we can’t, and shouldn’t, let go of the ruins of our recent past. Douglas Murphy is an architect and writer

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