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Georg Simmel Essay The Ruin 1911

This essay on ruins and contemporary art is in the current issue of frieze.

‘I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame. What’s left us then?’

James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)

In 1953, at a time when much of Europe still lay in ruins and the spectre of atomic war loomed ever larger, the English novelist and travel writer Rose Macaulay published Pleasure of Ruins, her classic study of the aesthetics of destruction.1 In a fastidious and, at times, eccentrically written book, she traces the development of a taste for desuetude from Renaissance dream narratives to the ‘heartless pastime’ pursued by Henry James on his travels in Italy. It is not until the final pages that Macaulay acknowledges she is writing among modern examples, and then only – in a short ‘note on new ruins’ – to claim that the wreckage caused by bombing in World War II lacks the proper obscurity to qualify as pleasing decay: ‘Ruin must be a fantasy, veiled by the mind’s dark imaginings.’2 According to Macaulay, the ruined houses, shops and churches of London, Hamburg, Coventry and Dresden would need to be softened by nature and time before being elected to a canon that includes Pompeii and the Parthenon. Macaulay’s language, however, suggests that the wreckage she sees around her enthralls her. Of a bombed-out house, she writes with some lyricism: ‘The stairway climbs up and up, undaunted, to the roofless summit where it meets the sky.’3

Macaulay’s ambivalence about the status of the modern ruin – her own home and library were destroyed in the Blitz – indicates a fundamental confusion at the heart of the Ruinenlust that gripped European art and literature for centuries. In a highly refined and historically precise form, a version of that admiration for decay seems to have seized artists internationally in recent years: we might think, for example, of works as diverse as Roger Hiorns’ Seizure (2008), installed in a decayed London flat, and Joel Meyerowitz’ frankly picturesque photographs of Ground Zero. In other cases, such as Runa Islam’s film of the Museum of the 20th Century in Vienna, Empty the pond to get the fish. (2008), the ruin in question is explicitly that of a mid-century Modernism. Some broad themes survive in this newly desolate but fantastical landscape: on the one hand, the ruin appears to point to a deep and vanished past whose relics merely haunt the present, reminding us of such airy and perennial themes as the hubris of Man and the weight of History. On the other, ruins seem to traffic with the modern, and with the future, in ironic and devious ways. At its height, for example, the ‘ruin lust’ of the 18th century cast itself imaginatively centuries hence: Hubert Robert painted the Louvre in ruins while Joseph Gandy (at the instruction of its architect Sir John Soane) imagined the newly built Bank of England laid waste as if by some future cataclysm. Ruins seem, in fact, intrinsic to the projects of modernity and, later, Modernism.

For sure, the past century did not lack for straightforwardly kitsch or nostalgic versions of the taste for ruins. The most notorious example is Albert Speer’s concept of ‘ruin value’, according to which the monumental architecture of Welthauptstadt Germania – Hitler’s projected replacement of Berlin as Germany’s capital city – was conceived with an eye to its future picturesque decay. In the realm of ruin theory, the sociologist Georg Simmel, in his 1911 essay ‘The Ruin’, still adhered to the Romantic notion that decaying buildings and monuments embodied a one-way slump of the artificial into the chaos of Nature.4 But as several contributors to Ruins of Modernity (2009) – a collection of essays published by Duke University Press and edited by Julia Hell and Andreas Schönle – point out, a keen interest in the art and utility of ruination was also essential to more than one strand of modern thought and practice. Revisiting the classical fragments drawn by Piranesi, Andreas Huyssen concludes that ‘a past embodied in ruined and memory-laden architecture seems to tower over the present of the Enlightenment’.5

But the more pressing instance appears much later, in the frank catastrophism of Le Corbusier. In his essay ‘Air War and Architecture’, Anthony Vidler avers of the projected ville radieuse: ‘The past was either eradicated or transformed, in an 18th-century manner, into ruin fragments in the park […] The city [had] become no more nor less than a cemetery of its own past.’6 In the immediate postwar period, Vidler argues, these vistas of rubble were realities, and the prospect of a vastly more destructive nuclear future consequently haunts the bunker-like Brutalist architecture of, among others, Peter and Alison Smithson.

Such retrospective diagnoses of Modernism’s reliance on ruins actually say little new, though, when viewed from the perspective of postwar art and – especially – in light of a certain contemporary ruin lust. The artistic, literary and theoretical touchstones of the renascent interest in ruins are perhaps too familiar, but worth rehearsing if one wishes to get some critical purchase on the most recent developments, newly invested as those are in a view of Modernism from the vantage of at least half a century. The pre-history of the current craze for modern ruins could be pinpointed to October 1967, with Robert Smithson’s Artforum essay on ‘The Monuments of Passaic’, a text (and photographs) in which the whole of Smithson’s cod-baroque melding of 1960s urban decay and industrial picturesque is forced into the ironic form of an excursion to the New Jersey hinterland where he was born.7 Smithson’s project in that essay (and others of the late 1960s) is explicitly allied with the fiction of J.G. Ballard, whose fantasias of high-rise anomie and ex-urban isolation have likewise not ceased to inspire enthusiasts of the modern ruin. Urban theorist Paul Virilio could join this visionary pairing; his Bunker Archaeology – published in France in 1975 and in English translation in 1994 – was inspired by his first tours, in the late 1950s, of the abandoned bunkers and gun emplacements that comprised the Nazis’ defensive Atlantic Wall on the French coast.8 Virilio treats these littoral relics as if they are both evidence of a lost civilization and avatars of his own avowedly Corbusian architectural practice. But they seem also to promise an alien architecture to come; they are, in short, ruins as much of the future as of living memory.

To a large degree, it was this trio of artistic and theoretical reference points that ghosted the ruin-fixated art of the last decades of the 20th century, though some of it engaged in a less mediated way the wreckage of the recent past. In a work such as Martha Rosler’s 1993 video How Do We Know What Home Looks Like?, the decayed and contested architecture of Modernism appears both outdated and up-for-grabs: a fading Utopian inheritance that barely hangs on to its (then routinely disparaged) potential for collective aspiration. Rosler’s intimate exploration of Le Cobusier’s Unité d’Habitation at Firminy-Vert, in south-central France, showed a dilapidated building that had been in part redecorated by its tenants (as per conservative clichés about the impersonality of high-rise living) with aspirantly bourgeois wallpapers and private souvenirs, but still retained a sense of embattled technological community, typified by the radio station installed on its roof. It was, however, among artists who referred, directly or obliquely, to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc that the theme of ruin flourished in the 1990s and beyond. Tacita Dean’s film Sound Mirrors (1999) broods over the remains of British prewar acoustic early-warning technology that seemed to presage the silos and satellite dishes of the Cold War, while later Berlin-based films such as Fernsehturm (Television Tower, 2001) and Palast (Palace, 2004) more readily reflect on the ageing or half-demolished architecture of the East. That strand of explicitly Ballardian ruin lust has continued, too, in certain works by Jane and Louise Wilson – notably, their treatment of Victor Pasmore’s Apollo Pavilion in the postwar town of Peterlee, UK, in A Free and Anonymous Monument (2003), and their own return to the Atlantic Wall in Sealander (2006) – and in the ambitious project of the Center for Land Use Interpretation to document (among many other types of landscape) the defunct sites and artefacts left behind by the US nuclear weapons and space programmes in the second half of the 20th century.

If such works courted a kind of military–industrial sublime, and risked at their most self-aware a type of nostalgia, it is surely this latter element that has come to the fore, in more or less self-conscious or critical forms, in the last few years. The variously thoroughgoing or superficial archaeology of architectural and artistic Modernism that has exercised so many artists in the last decade is patently, on one level, a discourse on ruins in a Romantic mode. At first glance, the assertion that ‘modernity is our antiquity’ (as one of the guiding rubrics of Documenta 12 had it) allows for a potentially endless poring over the rubble, and the discovery time and again of our melancholy distance from the formal ambition or political charge of the modern. There is a definite pleasure in this, and one not to be merely disparaged, even as group shows dedicated to the ‘modern ruin’ – the title itself has become ubiquitous – proliferate with, given their subject, a somewhat ironic energy. There is a lot to be said for wallowing, after all. But an attitude of mourning, or downright depressive longing, for the lost object of Modernism, is not the avowed aim of much of this work. Rather, so the curatorial language has it, what is called for is a re-animation (or maybe occult conjuring) of the corpse of Modernism – or, better, of the latent and so far unfulfilled life embodied in its ruins. This raises some taxing problems, not least the question of what one does with the fact, neatly adumbrated by Huyssen and Vidler, that the claim to revivify the ruins of the past was itself a stereotypically Modernist one. At every turn – even, or perhaps especially, when it asserts its hostility to mere revivalism – the contemporary ruin gaze is seemingly mired in a revivalist nostalgia.

One plausible route out of that predicament seems to lie in uncovering occluded aspects of Modernism, often in the form of structures and artefacts that either arise from alternative traditions in the last century or from complex sets of artistic and political relations at the edges of a Eurocentric or mostly masculine canon. The imbrication of Modernism in late or post-colonial contexts is one productive strand of such researches and practice. The photographs, drawings and scale models in Ângela Ferreira’s installation Maison Tropicale (Tropical House, 2007), for example, trace the design and deployment by Jean Prouvé, in the late 1940s, of prefabricated metal dwellings in Niger and in the Republic of the Congo. The post-colonial export of Prouvé’s Modernist housing is mirrored in its peremptoriness by the removal and sale of the prototype buildings on the art market half a century later. A project such as Ferreira’s acknowledges at once the Utopian impulse behind the design, its abstract imposition on the landscape and the depredations of a newly globalized economy that leaves in its wake only a vacant tract of rubble and rusted reinforcement.

Certain Modernist structures seem primed, in their very dilapidation and the fog of rumour and misinformation that surrounds them, for such recuperative and corrective treatment. E1027, the celebrated but still mysterious house that the Irish furniture designer Eileen Gray completed near Monaco in 1929, is a particularly resonant case in point. The building, badly decayed and only recently renovated, was for decades wrongly attributed to Gray’s lover Jean Bodovici: a mistake their friend Le Corbusier, who knew the truth, did nothing to correct. (Le Corbusier, in fact, bitterly coveted the house and, to Gray’s fury, personalized it with his own murals; he subsequently built a cabin nearby and died while swimming in front of Gray’s masterpiece.) The Irish artist Laura Gannon’s two-screen Super-16 mm film installation A House in Cap-Martin (2007) captured E1027 as a collection of mournful details – rusting window frames and spalling white render, a sunken solarium filled with autumn leaves – while Susanne M. Winterling’s Eileen Gray; The Jewel and Troubled Water (2008), installed at the 5th Berlin Biennial, combined a sculpture of Gray’s solarium, photographs of the designer and related artefacts, with two 16mm films of condensation on the windows of the atmospherically dysfunctional Neue Nationalgalerie where it was on show. Perhaps the most interesting intervention in Gray’s story, however, has been that of another Irish artist, Sarah Browne, whose installation for the Irish pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009, Carpet for the Irish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, included a searching letter to the deceased Gray, in which Browne explored the designer’s ambiguous place in the history alike of Modernism and Irish cultural heritage.

This kind of tangential address to the extant remains of architectural Modernism is another alternative to nostalgic rapture in the face of austere decay. Gerard Byrne, whose art has long evinced an interest in postwar Modernism, has, at the same time, almost wholly eschewed the sort of reverence that has become the reflex response to monolithic settings in melancholy distress. In fact, the buildings in which several of Byrne’s videos have been shot – notably New Sexual Lifestyles (2003), filmed in the Goulding Summer House, a restored Miesian glass-and-steel pavilion in the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains in Ireland – are not really ruins in the material sense; rather, they appear confusedly out of time, caught in the anachronic web of artistic, intellectual and pop-cultural history that the artist spins around them. His film installation subject (2009), shown at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds last year, was an oblique response to the architecture of the University of Leeds: a campus whose architects, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, are best known for the soft-Ballardian Barbican complex in London. Byrne’s Brechtian repurposing of texts from the university’s archives as naive acting exercises seemed to place the hushed lecture theatres and sparse plazas of the campus in a curious non-time derived from the postwar history of student activism and civic or institutional paternalism.

What’s clear from work like Byrne’s is that, at one level, the most sophisticated response to the modern or Modernist ruin is to neutralize its nostalgic charge with other modes of time travel. Though that is not to say that there is not still mileage in facing down the ruins of even the most familiar 20th-century iconography. Bernd Behr’s Weimar Villa (2010), for example, juxtaposes the construction of a Bauhaus-themed gated community in China (designed by none other than Albert Speer Jr.) with the exhumation of one of Walter Gropius’ Master Houses in Dessau, once inhabited by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. And Cyprien Gaillard’s film Pruitt Igoe Falls (2009) rhymes the 2008 demolition of the Sighthill tower block in Glasgow with the destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1972: an event that Charles Jencks notoriously claimed marked the terminal point of the entire Modernist adventure. The most provocative recent take on that subject has been that of a critic, not an artist, and one who acknowledges that there may yet be some radical force left in the ruin-nostalgia that so many artists are so keen to disavow even as they mine the last seam of its art-world popularity. Owen Hatherley’s book, Militant Modernism (2009), is, among other things, an argument for the precisely political valence of a backward look at the ruins of Modernism, directed, in his case, at the ghosts of Britain’s postwar social-democratic romance with Brutalist housing.9 As Hatherley puts it in a passage that is both knowingly indebted to the ruin lust of the Romantic past and determinedly oriented to the future: ‘Brutalism is not so much ruined as dormant, derelict – still functioning even in a drastically badly treated fashion, and as such ready to be recharged and reactivated. This rough beast might still slouch towards a concrete New Jerusalem.’10 It remains to be seen whether, in contemporary art, the archaeology of modern ruins has exhausted its moment, or whether it’s exactly in its late phase that it may yet unearth traces of that future.

1 Rose Macaulay, Pleasure of Ruins, Thames & Hudson, London, 1984
2 Ibid., pp. 454–5
3 Ibid., pp. 454–5
4 Georg Simmel, ‘The Ruin’, in Essays on Sociology, Philosophy and Aesthetics, ed. Kurt H. Wolff, Harper & Row, New York, 1965, p. 259
5 Andreas Huyssen, ‘Authentic Ruins: Products of Modernity’, ibid., p. 26
6 Anthony Vidler, ‘Air War and Architecture’, ibid., p. 34
7 Robert Smithson, ‘A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic’, Artforum, October 1967. Reprinted as ‘A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey’, in Robert Smithson, Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1996,
pp. 68–74
8 Paul Virilio, Bunker Archaeology, trans. George Collins, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1994
9 Owen Hatherley, Militant Modernism, Zero Books, Winchester, 2009. Hatherley’s more extensive and detailed treatment of the wake of that brief moment of official Utopianism is forthcoming in A Tour of the New Ruins of Great Britain, to be published by Verso later in 2010.
10 Ibid., p. 42

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Dimitrios Constantinou, The Temple of Zeus, 1860. Image from Michel Makarius, Ruins (2004).


For the eyes that have dwelt on the past, there is no thorough repair.
—George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

1. For the Renaissance, the ruin was first of all a legible remnant, a repository of written knowledge. Classical ruins had preserved a certain stratum of the linguistic culture of Greece and Rome: the inscriptions on monuments, tombs, and stelae. Other mute objects—fragments of statuary, columns, bits of orphaned arch or broken pediment—composed in themselves a kind of script made of gesture, line, and ornament. In 1796, the French archaeologist Antoine Chrysostome Quatremère de Quincy would ask, “What is the antique in Rome if not a great book whose pages have been destroyed or ripped out by time, it being left to modern research to fill in the blanks, to bridge the gaps?” But already, at the end of the fifteenth century, the rubble of the classical past had been figured as a sort of scattered cipher: a text that was alternately readable and utterly mysterious.

It happens most dramatically in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: the curious literary work attributed to one Francesco Colonna and first published in 1499. At the level of its language, the book is strange enough: it is written in a mélange of Greek, Latin, and Italian that led the critic Mario Praz to declare its author “the James Joyce of the Quattrocento.” Its narrative, however, is equally odd, and tells us a good deal about the conceptual proximity, in this period, of the architectural and the written enigma. The Poliphilo of the title travels in search of his lost love, and finds himself in a territory strewn with classical detritus: capitals, epistyles, cornices, friezes, kiosks, and pyramids; all, as he only dimly discerns, somehow significant. There are obelisks inscribed with hieroglyphics, linking the text to the long tradition of the emblem: the conjunction of word and image in which the reader is meant to divine a moral meaning. It is no accident that the emblem books of the following two centuries are full of such devices as disembodied hands, butchered torsos, and empty masks. Knowledge, so the emblematic ruin insists, is a matter of piecing together a sundered past.

2. In the eighteenth century, the ruin is an image both of natural disaster and of the catastrophes of human history. In fact, it is difficult to tell the two apart. The aesthetics of the sublime is in part an effort to name the confusion that comes over us when faced with wholesale destruction: we experience storms, battles, earthquakes, and revolutions as equally impressive facts of both nature and history. The text in which the universal significance of localized ruin is most elaborately dramatized is Les Ruines, ou Méditation sur les révolutions des empires, published in Paris in 1792 by the Comte de Volney. He begins: “Hail, solitary ruins! holy sepulchres and silent walls! you I invoke; to you I address my prayer. While your aspect averts, with secret terror, the vulgar regard, it excites in my heart the charm of delicious sentiments—sublime contemplations.” The author recounts his travels among the ruins of Egypt and Syria, before his eye ostensibly settles on a view of the Valley of the Sepulchres at Palymyra, where Volney had never been (all that follows is imagined on the basis of illustrations by the English archaeologist Robert Wood). Overcome by a “religious pensiveness,” he imagines the dead streets full of people, falls into a reverie on the cities of Babylon, Persepolis, and Jerusalem, and concludes, as he contemplates silted ports, fallen temples, and ransacked palaces, that the earth itself has become “a place of sepulchres.” Tears fill his eyes as he imagines contemporary France reduced to the same desuetude. A spectral figure now appears before him—the “genius of tombs and ruins”—and spirits him high into the air, from which lofty vantage he sees the globe spotted with deserts, fires, and “fugitive and desolate” peoples. It is a law of nature, Volney surmises, that all things must fall into ruin. But the apparition corrects him: the hideous earthly vision, above which he floats at a sublime distance, is not natural at all. It is, precisely, human history.

3. Romanticism turns the ruin into a symbol of all artistic creation; the literary or painted fragment is more highly prized than the finished or unified work. An aphorism by Friedrich Schlegel states: “Many works of the ancients have become fragments. Many works of the moderns are fragments at the time of their origin.” Everything tends towards the status of a torso: the incomplete or mutilated hunk of sculpted stone. The Romantic impulse is to valorize the very decay of the classical artifact. In 1779, the painter Henry Fuseli depicted The Artist Overwhelmed by the Grandeur of Antique Ruins: head in hands, he despairs at ever matching the splendor of the statues whose remnants are scattered around him in the form of a massive marble hand and a gargantuan foot. Even finished works are reimagined as mere fragments. For John Keats, the figures on a Grecian urn are frozen in time; they are both immortal and unfulfilled, “For ever panting and for ever young; / All breathing human passion far above.”

For Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, in his Laocoön, the classical sculpture represents not a narrative, nor even the frozen climax of a story, but a randomly chosen instant, a single moment that comes to stand for all that is missing. “The more we see,” writes Lessing, “the more we must be able to imagine. And the more we add in our imagination, the more we must think we see ... to present the utmost to the eye is to bind the wings of fancy and compel it, since it cannot soar above the impression made on the senses, to concern itself with weaker images, shunning the visible fullness already represented as a limit beyond which it cannot go.” This is the insight behind a poem like Coleridge's Kubla Khan: the finished work is a short fragment of the text the poet claims originally to have imagined, before his opium-induced reverie was interrupted and he forgot two hundred lines.

The Romantic fragment differs from the earlier literary forms of the maxim, aphorism, and motto in this regard: it refuses to resolve itself into a discrete thought, polished witticism, or paradox among a collection of similar jeux d'esprit. The Pensées of Pascal are the tiles of a mosaic; the fragments of Romanticism—and later of Nietzsche, E. M. Cioran, Walter Benjamin—are like the same tesserae scattered as if by some cataclysmic eruption or invasion.

4. The ruin is made meaningful by the interposition, between object and viewer, of a frail human figure. In the art of the Renaissance, ruins appear first of all as a fractured ground or hinterland upon which to present the sacred or suffering body. In several cases, the Savior or saint in question (St. Jerome, for example, in a wilderness of toppled marble) is shown surrounded by the remains of a vanquished pagan world (which is also a reminder of the viewer's own inevitable end). Less often, the Virgin is framed by a crumbling arch or tottering pillars. In Mantegna's St. Sebastian (1480), a vast landscape of ruin opens out behind the perforated body of the martyr; in the foreground, where a pair of archers are about to vacate the scene, a single stone foot (all that remains of an adjacent statue) rhymes with the saint's.

Andrea Mantegna, St. Sebastian, 1480.


The history of ruins in art records the gradual diminution of the human figure until it is merely a tiny marker of the enormity of the destruction that has been wrought in the scene. In the seventeenth century, the figures shrink to take part in incidental anecdotes in the foreground, or at the edge, of the central drama of decay. Later, in the paintings of Hubert Robert, human beings clamber like infants among the ruins of ancient Rome, or form a thin frill of activity atop the Bastille, as they begin to raze it to the ground.

This dramatic shift in perspective—the insertion of the human as a scarcely visible vanishing point in the composition of disaster—occurs not long before another set of catastrophes is considered and pictured by geologists. In Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830-33), the earth is revealed to have been “lacerated,” riven by scarcely imaginable forces. In the accompanying illustrations, the scale of the upheaval is conveyed by a series of minute figures, perched on the edges of volcanoes or precipices: intrepid tourists lured by the spectacle of destruction. The drawings are the geological equivalents of the Prisons of Piranesi. In 1822, Thomas De Quincey wrote of their endlessly ruined imaginary interiors: “Again elevate your eye, and a still more aerial flight of stairs is beheld: and again is poor Piranesi busy on his aspiring labors: and so on, until the unfinished stairs and Piranesi both are lost in the upper gloom of the hall.” At last, it seems, the individual quite vanishes into darkness and decay.

The human figure reappears, however, within a few years, in the earliest photographs of ancient ruins. In Maxime du Camp's photographs of the antiquities of Egypt, there is inevitably (sometimes tucked to the side of the structure in question, so as not to interrupt the composition unduly) the tiny punctuation mark of a local guide, giving some indication of the scale of the monument. But he is a reminder too—as also in the photographs of Édouard Denis Baldus, taken as part of the French state's mission héliographique, that depict the Roman ruins of France—of the puny stature of the provincial population compared to the grandeur of the ancients (and by extension of the empire that even now is preserving that heritage for the future).

5. If ruination is in part a return to nature, in the nineteenth century nature itself is imagined as already ruined. In the writings of John Ruskin, for example, the natural world appears subject to an alarming erosion: its outlines have begun to blur, its forms to dissolve. Ruskin first bruits his distress at the apparent decomposition of landscape in 1856, in his Modern Painters. The modern landscape painting, he writes, is distinguished (or rather, not distinguished at all) by a certain loss of formal integrity: it has become smoky, cloudy, foggy, ignoble (in the sense, as one says of a gas, of having lost its “nobility,” its purity). The natural world has come to resemble, in fact, the murky atmosphere of the modern city, or of the industrial hinterland. Still, Ruskin does not definitively blame pollution from factories for the strange phenomenon that, in an essay of 1884, he claims has arrived in the skies above London: “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century.” This “plague-cloud,” says Ruskin, has haunted him since the 1870s. It looks, he claims, “partly as if it were made of poisonous smoke; very possibly it may be: there are at least two hundred furnace chimneys in a square of two miles on either side of me. But mere smoke would not blow to and fro in that wild way. It looks more to me as if it were made of dead men's souls—such of them as are not yet gone where they have to go, and may be flitting hither and thither, doubting, themselves, of the fittest place for them. You know, if there are such things as souls, and if ever any of them haunt places where they have been hurt, there must be many above us, just now, displeased enough!” This last is a reference to the dead of the Franco-Prussian War. The passage looks forward, too, to a Europe whose landscape will have been more comprehensively devastated a quarter of a century later, and to another poetic response—T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, with its desperate motto: “these fragments I have shored against my ruin.”

6. In the dialectic between the ruin and nature, the ruin comes to be seen as natural; this is why it is possible to ruin a ruin. A particularly resonant example of a ruin ruined is the archaeological excavation, in 1874, of the Colosseum. In 1855, the English botanist Richard Deacon had published his Flora of the Colosseum, recording the 420 species of plant growing in the site that had been, until the construction of the Crystal Palace in London four years earlier, the largest architectural volume in the world. The six acres of flora included species so rare in Western Europe that their seeds must originally have been carried there, Deacon conjectured, by the animals imported from Asia and Africa for the city's games and spectacles. These precious plants, he writes, “form a link in the memory, and teach us hopeful and soothing lessons, amid the sadness of bygone ages: and cold indeed must be the heart that does not respond to their silent appeal; for though without speech, they tell us of the regenerating power which animates the dust of mouldering greatness.” By 1870, the vegetation had all been stripped away, and a few years later the floor of the Colosseum was dug out to reveal the cellars and sewers. The area flooded, and the center of the Colosseum remained a lake for five years.

Jean Charles Pradinel, after Félix Philippoteaux, “Chateaubriand and Pauline de Beaumont in the Ruin of the Colosseum,” illustration from Memoires d'outre-tombe.


In his essay of 1911, “The Ruin,” the German sociologist Georg Simmel identified the precise relationship that had been disrupted in Rome. “Architecture,” he writes, “is the only art in which the great struggle between the will of the spirit and the necessity of nature issues into real peace, in which the soul in its upward striving and nature in its gravity are held in balance.” In the ruin, nature begins to have the upper hand: the "brute, downward-dragging, corroding, crumbling power" produces a new form, "entirely meaningful, comprehensible, differentiated." But at what point can nature be said to have been victorious in this battle between formal spirit and organic substance? The ruin is not the triumph of nature, but an intermediate moment, a fragile equilibrium between persistence and decay.

7. Where imagined future ruins were once the objects of metaphysical fancy or hubristic imperial dreams, the modern ruin is always, to some degree, a palpable, all-too-real remnant of the future. In 1830, having completed his architectural masterpiece, the Bank of England, Sir John Soane commissioned the artist Joseph Gandy to paint a series of views of the structure in ruins. Ten years later, Lord Macauley wrote of a future New Zealand tourist standing on a broken arch of London Bridge and contemplating, “in the midst of a vast solitude,” the ruinous dome of St. Paul's Cathedral and a desolate city. (In the 1870s, Gustave Doré would imagine Macauley’s New Zealander perched by the banks of the Thames, sketchbook in hand.) The most ambitious projection of the future ruin, however, is that of Albert Speer, who claimed to have seen a concrete hangar, half-demolished, and been convinced that modern materials were unsuitable to picturesque decay: “It was inconceivable that a hunk of rusting metal could one day inspire heroic thoughts like the monuments of the past Hitler so admired. By using special materials, or by obeying certain laws of statics, one might be able to build structures which, after hundreds, or as we fondly believed, thousands of years, would more or less resemble our Roman models.”

The modern ruin—the industrial ruin, the defunct image of future leisure (the vacant mall or abandoned cinema), or the specter of Cold War dread—is in fact always, inevitably, a ruin of the future. And that future seems, retrospectively, to have taken over the entire twentieth century: all of its iconic ruins (Battersea Power Station in London, the atom-age archipelago that now stretches across America, the derelict environment of the former Soviet Union) now look like relics of lost futures, whether utopian or dystopian. For how long will the century gone by still look like it has some frail purchase on futurism? Modernist architecture, especially, seems reluctant to cede its franchise on the future: there is still a thrill of things to come to be felt among the ruins of the early part of the century, as if confirming the statement of Vladimir Nabokov's that Robert Smithson was fond of quoting: “The future is but the obsolete in reverse.”

8. For all its allure, its mystery, its sublime significance, the ruin always totters on the edge of a certain species of kitsch. The pleasure of the ruin—the frisson of decay, distance, destruction—is both absolutely unique to the individual wreckage, and endlessly repeatable, like the postcard that is so often its tangible memento. The very recent, industrial ruin is the contemporary equivalent of the picturesque view of a decaying Roman amphitheatre: it is part of an aesthetic now so generalized as to have lost almost all of its charge as a generic image. The twentieth-century ruin has become the preserve of countless urban explorers and enthusiasts of decaying concrete: the evidence of their obsession is spreading across hundreds of websites devoted to haunted asylums, silent foundries, vacant bunkers, and amputated subway stations. The secret of these places, in short, is out: the motivation behind such a fascination for decay is less clear, however. The ruin, still with us after six centuries of obsession, is no longer the image of a lost knowledge, nor of the inevitable return of repressed nature, nor even of a simple nostalgia for modernity. Instead, it seems almost a means of mourning the loss of the aesthetic itself. Ruins show us again—just like the kitsch object—a world in which beauty (or sublimity) is sealed off, its derangement safely framed and endlessly repeatable. It is a melancholy world in which, as Adorno put it, “no recollection is possible any more, save by way of perdition; eternity appears, not as such, but diffracted through the most perishable.”

Eric Rondepierre, The Trio (Moires series), ca. 1996.

Brian Dillon is UK editor for Cabinet and the editor of the “Ruins” section of this issue. He is the author of In the Dark Room: A Journey in Memory (Penguin, 2005) and writes regularly on art, books and culture for Frieze, Modern Painters, the Financial Times, and the New Statesman. He lives in Canterbury.

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