This post is adapted from one of my comprehensive exams in my doctoral program.
What does it mean to take pleasure in ruins? There’s a German name for it: ruinenlust. It turns out this is pretty much a European (and European-American) phenomenon, born out of a Romantic sensibility—that is to say, it’s relatively recent. Taking pleasure in ruins is sometimes equated with the “aestheticization” of ruins—what is commonly now called “ruin porn.” The critique of such a narrow understanding of aesthetics will have to be another blog post. Suffice it to say that its broader meaning incorporates how we learn, through our senses, what we ought to love. (My sources for this are primarily Thomas Aquinas, Alexander Baumgarten, and, especially, Charles Sanders Peirce.) So let us return to our ruins.
When I say “ruins,” the image that pops into your head probably depends on where you live and what your experiences have been. It is common to think of such ancient structures as Angkor Wat or the Parthenon, but there are other types of ruins, each with different (though overlapping) sets of aesthetic concepts and responses. For my purposes, I will categorize “ruins” into three broad categories: ancient (e.g., classical and medieval ruins in the West), ersatz ruins, also known as “artificial ruins,” a subset of which is the folly; and modern, also called “industrial” ruins. There are other ways, of course, to classify ruins—for example, by the cause of destruction (war, the effects of time, natural disaster, abandonment, etc.), which will also play a part in my discussion. When we know how a ruin became a ruin, such knowledge impacts our aesthetic experience of the ruin. But in many cases we simply do not know, and part of the enjoyment (for those who enjoy ruins) is imagining what might have happened.
Aesthetic attitudes toward all kinds of ruins have varied according to philosophical, religious, and political frameworks. For example, Christian polemicists have pointed to Greek and Roman ruins as an allegory of Christianity having supplanted the pagan Greek and Roman religions. But ancient ruins have also been upheld as reminders of a particular nation’s or culture’s proud history.
The most common source of such pride, naturally, is the ancient (pre-modern) ruin, as its continued existence hints at past wealth, power, or expertise—a culture’s ancestors’ having had the materials, such as marble, as well as the knowledge, skill, and workforce to build structures that have lasted. Ancient ruins have not always evoked such pride, however. In many parts of the world, ruins were simply part of the landscape until European tourists started showing up to see them. And in pre-modern Europe, disused or ruin structures were often left abandoned and forgotten, or they were treated as mines, so that materials such as large blocks of marble would be removed and re-used elsewhere. In other cases, new buildings were erected over ruin sites (as was a common practice in the ancient Near East) or integrated into them. The Piazza del Anfiteatro in Lucca, Italy consists of newer buildings that, over time, completely displaced the ancient ampitheater that used to be there—a little bit like the engine of my ’97 Dodge, I’m sure…
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, archaeologists were quite busy digging up ruins and artifacts. A fascination with ruins became a tourist industry. Eventually, ruinenlust developed as a romantic reaction to the Enlightenment aesthetic that prized perfect proportions and other abstract ideas as contemplated by the (disinterested) rational mind. In contrast, ruins were wild, incomplete, irrational, and highly sensual. Rose Macaulay’s classic early-twentieth century book, The Pleasure of Ruins, describes this aesthetic well. For Macaulay, the aesthetic pleasure offered by ruins is bound up not only in the visual appearance (although that certainly is part of it) but also in the sounds and smells of the plants, animals, and elements—water and wind, in particular—that have made their home at the site. She seems disappointed in any ruin that lacks “screech-owls” and jackals, ivy and wildflowers.
In the US, the lack of ruins (recognizable to Europeans as such, anyway) was alternately seen as an embarrassment—a sign that history was lacking—and as possibility. For Americans, it indicated that this continent was virginal, waiting to be civilized by European immigrants. It played into justifications for subjugating the Native peoples: as they had produced no ruins, they must have yet to produce any culture (again, recognizable by European-Americans). Visitors from Europe sometimes viewed the lack of ruins as a mark of the Americans’ cultural immaturity. But some European tourists (such as Alexis de Tocqueville) sought out other kinds of ruins, from Native burial mounds to log cabins abandoned by westward-traveling pioneers.
During the same period, as the aesthetic interest in ruins grew, and with it, the understanding of ruins as symbols of nationalist glory, the ersatz ruin emerged. This phenomenon was especially popular in England. Land owners might build a small “ruin,” a broken column, or a shack of sorts, made to look ancient, in a corner of their property—some going so far as to get a hermit to live in it! Other property owners constructed larger artificial ruins or collections of “ruins.” A house might be designed to look as if it had been built into the Gothic arches of a ruined church, for example, even though no church had existed there. Some houses used visual tricks, optical illusions that might give the impression of structural instability. Such “follies” were meant not to imply a grand past but to play with the visual aesthetic of ruins.
A similar “art for art’s sake” visual aesthetic seems to inform much of the photography of modern ruins that has recently become so popular. Whether seeking to capture a fleeting moment or to study the geometrical designs of a building and the decay that disrupts them, many “urbex” (“urban explorer”) photographers seem to pay little attention to the meanings that might be read into their work. Whereas earlier painters generally used ruins allegorically, contemporary photographers seem to prefer not to push a message. Painters had depicted ruins as a primary subject, often in order to contemplate some moralistic idea about human mortality or the ultimate futility of earthly power. Later, the ruins became a backdrop for another subject, but still carried allegorical import, as, for example, when the nativity of Christ was depicted among classical ruins to suggest the passing of pagan religions with the advent of Christianity. These uses fed into the appreciation of ruins as “picturesque,” an aesthetic idea that justifies their appreciation for their own sake, and not for their symbolic value. Perhaps the present urbex photography simply is an extension of that.
Modern ruins, especially in North America, tend to be the result of abandonment resulting from the exigencies of consumer capitalism as well as from technological changes. Older ways of making cars, e.g., such as the multi-story factory, are replaced with more efficient methods—e.g., the single-story, sprawling factory that is easier to build in a rural setting. Workforces shift, or are shifted when cheaper labor is found elsewhere. Or the demand for a product wanes. Not only the factories, but the entire local economy supporting and supported by them, fall into disuse and decay, leading to the abandoned factories, churches, schools, houses, libraries, train stations, office spaces, and other buildings enjoyed by “urban explorers.”
But there is another kind of modern ruin, the one produced more suddenly by disasters such as war, earthquake, tsunami, fire, or terrorist attack. These ruins also fascinate, but our primary impulse is to demolish or restore them (as the economic and cultural resources warrant) in order to efface the memory of the devastation. (Macaulay wrote briefly of war ruins, and left it an open question as to whether or not there was any room for aesthetic enjoyment of them. She leaned toward answering no, citing the fact that any relatively new ruin has not yet reached that state of détente where the ruin continues to exist relatively unchanging. By contrast, photographers Yves Marchand and Roman Meffre cite the ephemeral nature of modern ruins as integral to their project.)
These aesthetic responses to ruins are, naturally, framed within cultural, religious, philosophical, even political contexts, and shaped by cultural attitudes toward decay, imperfection, impermanence, and conceptions of history. For example, Christianity in the West has normally emphasized the perfection of God as the standard of beauty. In addition, Hebrew and Christian Scriptures use ruin as a metaphor for divine judgment. While these are not the only aesthetic concepts available to Christians or to Westerners more generally, the suspicion exists—even among lovers of ruins—that there is something perverse about an aesthetic appreciation of decay. The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi can be helpful here, and can find correlates in Western thought if one searches for them.
“Wabi” is a term relating to a philosophy of life; “sabi” is a corresponding aesthetic. “Wabi” initially meant something like “the sadness of poverty,” but has come to express the spiritual value in living simply, in contentment with what one has, and a mindfulness toward living that appreciates material objects for what they are—however imperfect—and for their impermanence. It involves a profound awareness and acceptance of the fact that nothing lasts forever. “Sabi” is the aesthetic appreciation of imperfection, as well as the age of materials and the effects of time and use. It values patina, even, in some cases, grime. At the same time, it encourages care for material things. The patina comes from use, not neglect or abuse. Several centuries-old temples built of wood, with no aspiration toward permanence, still exist in Japan. I think that speaks to a valuing of place, buildings, and materials, a valuing that has preserved the structures.
In the West, such a value for the very materiality of things as such, for their use, and for their impermanence does exist, and does make up part of the fascination with ruins. But the values of wabi-sabi have not been so well fleshed out, articulated, and intentionally practiced here—they tend to be more the idiosyncratic tastes or values of individuals. In our consumer culture, especially, we value newness, sparkle, and disposability, and also cheap goods that simply will not last, and certainly will not age well. Perhaps we would do well to consider ancient ruins in this light, and to learn from modern ruins where our consumer-culture aesthetic actually leads.
Occasionally, Western architects have imagined their work as eventual ruins. Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, was charged with building structures that would make for beautiful ruins to provide a lasting testimony to the glory of the Third Reich (which was, meanwhile, engaged in the production of ruins throughout Europe and inviting the Allies to likewise produce ruins in Germany). When architect John Soane built the Bank of England in London, one of his draftsmen, Joseph Michael Gandy, drew it as a future ruin—perhaps to symbolize its importance as an institution. A New York periodical invited writers, in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, to describe New York’s buildings in ruins, as an exercise in considering building design and technology. Today, as sustainability emerges as a value among architects, engineers, and building owners, perhaps a similar exercise is being practiced, or should be—if not imagining the building as ruins, paying close attention to chosen materials with an eye toward impermanence. If the West were to adopt the values of wabi-sabi, what would we build?