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The aesthetics of ruins

January 20, 2010


Hitler and Speer wanted their buildings built out of stone instead of steel and concrete, for they intended to leave majestic ruins at the end of the Reich’s thousand years.  How thoughtful!  But also: hubristic, shallow, and banal.  As if the appeal of ruins lay just in their appearance.  As if the only ruins of any value were the stones of Antiquity.  As if a place alongside them could be secured by imitation.

Hitler’s fascination with ruins, like his thought to engineer them, was perverse.  And it’s not unconnected to his evil.  All the same, it was but a single rotten instance of a perfectly healthy impulse.

Why are ruins so interesting and beautiful?  Sometimes, of course, it has almost nothing to do with their being ruined.  The Coliseum would fascinate in any condition, as would Angkor Wat, Machu Pichu, the Sphinx, etc.  These were special and beautiful even in their own time.  Decay takes away some of their power, but they gain much back by their importance as artifacts.

If you want to isolate the special pull of ruination, you had better turn your attention to more ordinary things, at any rate, things that were ordinary in their own time and special now that their time has passed, things like abandoned factories, houses reclaimed by nature, and so forth.  With enough time even the most common, aesthetically uninteresting things become precious artifacts, if only for personal reasons.  This accounts for ruins’ archeological and memorial significance, but not their beauty.

Sometimes I wonder if there is something rather pubescent in appreciating ruins.  After all, it requires no special training.  As a result there is no chance of being taken in by a subtle effect or misreading a creator’s intentions.  Abandoned things unmask the powerful as far more forgetful, wasteful, impotent, and irresponsible than they claim.  Ruins are often secluded and dangerous and visited alone or unsupervised or in secret.  Since they no longer have a purpose they make no demands and free the imagination.

This is not to say that there’s something essentially puerile about it.  Perhaps people leaving adulthood for old age find ruins just as moving as people entering it.  Ruins have also been pushed to a sort of verge: they are human things given over to nature.

I think it’s also the case that very often buildings simply have a more open, majestic beauty when worked on by decay.  Collapsed, missing, or punctured surfaces sometimes simply improve a building, though not necessarily as a building and certainly not in any practical way, but there needn’t be anything practical about beauty.  Things pass and slip away from us, but when they do they sometimes live a second life because of it.

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