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Some Considerations on the Aesthetics of Ruins

The Eastern concept of immanence is based on use. Its representative buildings, singularly its temples, conserve practically no original elements. The maintenance routine is an interesting one; the different parts of the building are replaced before they are damaged to extend a cycle of maintenance endured by the apprenticeship of the builders. So much so that most of the material that is removed from these temples, still in perfect condition, is given away to someone who needs it for another use, which may be considerably longer than the original.

The Western concept of immanence is based on material. Representative constructions are built once and there they stay, as untouched as possible. Use wears them and gives them a patina until that indefinite moment when they go from being run-down to being in ruins, whether due to intensive use or to abandonment.

The Western trend is to avoid this state of ruin by periodically restoring buildings, which are required to look shiny and new. Solemnity comes not with age, but with the magnificence of the space, the weight, the scale and the structural daring. It is the typology, not the material that speaks to us of a building’s importance. Up until Romanticism.

Romanticism was a reaction to unbounded, inhuman, abstract progress that constructed collectively, overlooking details and individualities. The progress associated with the Baroque and the Neoclassicism was based on flow. Property was no longer accumulated. It moved. Currency ceased to have a fixed value and began to be traded. Changes were exponential, sweeping away thousands of years of use. The reaction to this was nostalgic, yearning not so much for the past as for the idea of the past, the happy memories associated with a time that was remembered as better, whether this was true or not. Such memories are always subjective, partial and sensual. Romanticism was characterised by nostalgia and sensualism.

We associate this fact with the convulsive circumstances surrounding the formation of the geopolitical map in the nineteenth century, which, with few variations, continues to be ours, calling for the construction of a glorious past that needed built evidence to be credible. This required collective anchorage points. New ruins. This was the time of the Parthenon Frieze displayed in the British Museum (since 1817), the Winged Victory of Samothrace displayed in the Louvre (since 1886), and later of The Cloisters Museum, organized around four cloisters dismantled in Europe between 1934 and 1939 and moved to New York.

The ruin, the fragment and the patina began to coexist with their recreation and with the need to create a fictional past that was better than the past for which there was evidence. It was the time of the origin of the aesthetics of the ruin, of Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879) placing a bold metal spire above the transept of Notre Dame. A spire that was bold as much in terms of historic recreation as structurally. A spire that entirely changed the perception of a church that was no longer valid for what it was, but for its potential to evoke the past, independently of its credibility. It was, finally, the time of the aesthetics of abandonment, of the artificial nature of the English landscape garden, of the construction of ruins in the form of follies with the sole value of commemorating what never was.

These two operations are interesting for another reason: the ruin has no value in itself. What has value is the operation on the ruin, either to reconstruct it, to recreate it or to move it. The untouched, abandoned ruin has no prestige. It only has the potential to become. The ruin maintained, intervened and valued creates an instant anchorage point for a particular or collective identity.

The ruin, in the West, is always transitive: we want it for what it was or what it can be turned into. Therefore, we can argue that the Western concept of permanence is much more fragile than might appear at first glance: it is not possible without constant maintenance. We only have to think of our great memorials, which always incorporate an ephemeral element to make them complete: a guard, a permanent flame, fresh flowers.  Thus, I think it is not possible to speak of ruins, only of their aesthetics.

This aesthetics currently takes the form of two trends.

The first is that of the memorial: a reoccupied building that combines its everyday use with a chosen collection of signs which evoke remarkable aspects of the building’s history. Norman Foster’s Reichstag (Berlin, 1999), is the paradigm example of this trend.

The second speaks of the aesthetics of the ruin in new buildings. It can be divided roughly in two: the aesthetics of old materials with a patina, worn or reused, and the aesthetics of the recreated ruin. A seminal example of old materials is the pyramid at Le Corbusier’s Notre-Dame-du-Haut de Ronchamp (1955) and, most importantly, its east wall, built by imprisoning the stones of the old church (a church that was arbitrarily demolished) within a concrete structure in an operation comparable to the initial intentions of the Dom-ino structure. It has since developed in myriad examples that I would illustrate with the work of Herzog & de Meuron. At the Studio Rémy Zaugg (Mulhouse, 1996), the side wall has a patina caused by water that runs down from the roof, oxidising its metal sheet and turning the wall into something like an abstract expressionist work created to manifest the scabs of time. The Parking at 1111 Lincoln Road (Miami Beach, 2010), a construction halfway between an abandoned structure and our present-day idea of a Greek temple, constitutes in turn a contemporary reference of the aesthetics of the recreated ruin.

The continuing validity of the aesthetics of the ruin offer an accurate representation of how the architects and the clients of these works see the present time: convulsive, changing, once again in need of anchorage points, of recreations of the past that prepare our framework of action for what is to come or, at least, offer us a little comfort along the way.

30.Apr.2019 3618 views
Jaume Prat Jaume Prat

Jaume Prat (Barcelona, 1975) is an architect and curator. He studied at the School of Architecture of Barcelona (2002), where he is now a professor. He is the author of the blog  Architecture, among other solutions and collaborator of several architectural magazines. He has given lectures in several universities, and has collaborated with several architecture offices such as Josep Lluís Mateo and Enric Massip, and at the RCR arquitectes summer workshop for five years. Together with Jelena Prokopljevic and Isaki Lacuesta, he was the curator of the Catalan Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016. He is also co-author of Escala Humana, a Spanish public television series about architecture.
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