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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Humans as Parasites: George Hersey's Take on Ruin Worship

Although it has been three and a half years since the last post on our blog, I recently came across an interesting take on ruins. The Monumental Impulse (MIT Press, 1999) by George Hersey explores how architecture sometimes mimics natural phenomena. Hersey explores various creatures that build, structures that look like cells or DNA, and of course buildings that are phallic or vaginal. The book is strongest when exploring examples in nature, with the section on bowerbirds standing out. In most other sections the argument feels very forced, with no substantial evidence that this is anything other than superficial similarities.
In the final chapter, however, there is an insight that relates to ruins, in a section relating to parasites:

"A building's users are also its users-up - its parasites. Think of what happens, say, to a historic cathedral, castle or palace. The visitors wear out carpets and floors, mark the walls, and bore, annoy, insult, manipulate, or otherwise wear down the staff (we will consider the staff to be the monument's auto-immune system). Yet at the same time, the very presence of these tourist-parasites is flattering. They are there to admire. They want to take something of the building's beauty with them. (Sometimes they do this quite literally.) The whole history of Ruinenlust, of ruin worship, could be rewritten as a study in parasitism."  (The Monumental Impulse, 182-3) 
The metaphor is interesting, in that it illustrates the conflict between use and maintenance. If a building has no one to attend to it, it will become a ruin. Having lots of traffic both hastens the destruction and provides (potentially) the resources and impetus to withstand the destruction. The building's users, however, are unlike parasites in that the building only exists to serve the users, and without users the building would disintegrate nonetheless.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Ruins of Temporary Structures

A philosophical question:
If a building is never meant to be permanent, does it leave a ruin? Rebecca and I took a stand on this issue when we made one of our six rules of ruins that the building must have been built with the intention of permanence. Tents and igloos don't leave ruins, we posited.
What about if the building was built for a temporary purpose, but was meant to appear permanent?
I recently saw a series of photos of a set built for the original Star Wars movie, long since abandoned and fallen into ruins. Very nice photos, which have lasted some 30 years despite their impermanent origin. So, are these ruins?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Jet Star Roller Coaster Ruins

Hurricane Sandy did a fair amount of damage to the U.S. east coast last month. Some friends of mine lost power for almost two weeks, and there were certainly dramatic pictures of flooding, notably in the subway and Ground Zero. So of the pictures were so bizarre that Atlantic Monthly ran a piece trying to sort the fakes from the real ones. Of course, faking ruins is an old tradition, both in real life with architectural follies, and in photoshop. We've also talked about ruins from current events, and how they are premature ruins. When things are so fresh, you don't know how they'll look in a week, or a month, or a year, especially if the demolition crews haven't yet arrived.

My favorite ruins picture from Sandy is the Jet Star Roller Coaster in Asbury Park, NJ, which was totaled and left standing completely in the sea. Apparently it's not just that the roller coast was surrounded by water, but rather it was physically moved by the water, thrown into the sea. We've seen ruined Roller Coasters before, and it's always dramatic. It probably has to do with the juxtaposition of pure fun - riding a roller coaster in an amusement park - with total destruction.

This roller coaster is like a 3-Dimensional Spiral Jetty. Wouldn't it be great if people could go out swimming around it, watch it become encrusted with barnacles and whatnot, especially if it was in view of other, working roller coasters? There was some talk (by the mayor, Bill Akers) of leaving it as a tourist attraction, but that has sadly been shot down. Come on people, dream a little! This could be such a cool water park! Yes, there are safety issues, but the people of Asbury Park are missing out on a golden opportunity. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Does ivy ruin buildings or make them?

Pictured is a little ivy covered house in the village of Nomexy-Chatel on the banks of the Moselle River in the North East of France, taken on a recent trip.

Recently I read a magnificent article on ivy and the 'ruination' of buildings.
I am an ivy lover.
Ivy growing up, on, around and in buildings is the height of the romantic ruin, even on functioning buildings, it seems to me wonderful.
A combination of man made and god made.
A mix of the harsh, right angles of concrete/brick buildings, and the wild beauty of the green ivy climbing haphazardly up the building.
The article, written by Christopher Gray, in the NY Times, briefly goes into the history of the discussion as to whether or not ivy is destructive to functioning buildings.
It appears that in the late 1800's ivy was pronounced by both Chambers' Encyclopaedia of London and Edinburgh as well as the The New York Tribune as not only being harmless to buildings but as ''gracefully clothing'' them "with the interlacing vine". However, shortly after, The American Architect magazine, in the early 1900's described the climbing vine leaves as "coarse and rank" hiding beautiful architecture, and even quoted the English Builder magazine saying, "there exist two principal ways of destroying buildings, both equally efficient: a) dynamite, b) ivy." !!!
The argument went back and forth over the years, until recently, in 2010, an Oxford report was published, called Ivy on Walls, which gives a more scientific and decisive answer to the issue.
It seems that ivy does not damage masonry walls. On the contrary it even protects the brick surface from being attacked by 'airborne pollutants', and moderates the temperature and humidity around such walls, thereby reducing damage made to brick walls by extreme fluctuation in temperature/humidity.
This magnificent article even quotes from a a poem written by Byron in 1817 on the romance of the decaying Colosseum (I don't recall if Josh found this and already previously quoted this, if so, apologies, but it is nevertheless a superb quote regarding the romance of ruins...):

"Ivy usurps the laurel's place of growth
But the Gladiators' bloody Circus stands
A noble wreck in ruinous perfection!"

If only the ivy had been left to climb the ruins of the Colosseum...

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Way of All Flesh

Midas Dekker's book, The Way of All Flesh: The Romance of Ruins, is a meditation on life and decay. It covers an astounding array of topics without really forming an hypothesis. Nonetheless, it is an interesting and thought-provoking read that is at times also uncomfortable, such as when there are pictures of preserved dead babies.

The most pertinent chapter to our studies is chapter 2: Romantic Ruins. Dekkers writes that he understands the need to restore buildings, but also wishes that somewhere there should also be places where buildings, locomotives, and animal carcasses are free to "truly rest in peace", decomposing or falling apart without interference (p.28) Regarding trains, he writes that in Netherlands (his home)
"Nothing, ever, anywhere, can die a natural death there anymore. Still warm from their fianl fun, old locomotives are put out to pasture according a to a schedule. Nuts and bolts are collected as if they were evidence for a murder trial and then polished to become pieces de resistance in those mausoleums known as railway museums. There the locomotives stand, as unauthentic as can be, too new to be old, yet too old to be new - sterilized, social misfits. Somewhere, beneath all those layers of varnish, is supposed to be the real locomotive, but you certainly can't see it. How can such an anomaly ever evoke anything in anyone? As readily as I can imagine the engine driver standing in such a Bolivian wreck or hear the fire roaring on the grate or smell the stokers' sweat, it is difficult for me in railway museums to envisage anything but the men restoring it. The links with the past have been polished out of existence."(28-29)
Dekkers gives a history of ruins and ruin fascination, a story that does not require rehashing for readers of this blog. But he brings in a wide array of analogies that shed light on our discussion. He talks about spoiled food, old men, and bacteria. He elaborates on the forces of nature that cause ruins, in a way that is reminiscent of Simmel but with a wildly different tone. In the end he arrives at a similar plea to that which we have made for the preservation of ruins:

"Give us back our ruins! Throw a few crumbs to the fungi and the beetles - a little villa here, a little warehouse there, an abandoned waterworks site over there - something the creatures can really get their teeth into. A waste of old buildings? It doesn't have to be old buildings; nature loves new buildings too. Just make a few holes in the gutters or rain pipes and within no time they'll be the ideal mouthful, thanks to the sour urine of moisture-loving micro-organisms. As well as a Monuments List of old buildings earmarked for restoration, there should be a Ruins List of new buildings earmarked for ruin. I have a few suggestions, if anyone's interested."(p. 57)
A ruins list - what a lovely idea!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Rejecting Diderot, or the comeupance of 'Ruined Buildings'

In a previous post Rebecca quoted Denis Diderot as food for thought. Diderot raises an interesting point in his writing when he discussed which buildings are eligible to become ruins. Jukka Jokilehto describes Diderot's approach in his "History of Architectural Conservation":
"The concept of a 'ruin' was related to ruins of important monumental buildings; beautiful buildings made 'beautiful ruins'! The remains of less important houses could only be 'ruined buildings'." (Jokilehto, p.52)
This is a concept we did not properly consider in our review of ruins. Diderot felt that only important, beautiful buildings could become ruins in the Picturesque sense. In our ruins criteria we did not acknowledge this idea. But I think our project must clearly reject it - we, after all, dealt with ruins of industrial buildings, ruins of mass-produced buildings, which were not 'beautiful'. Nonetheless, we found that the Rosh Ha'ayin ruins were significant and could enrich the city. Diderot's concept, while fitting with the canonical, reflexive ideas of ruins, is exactly the stance against which our project rebelled. As has already been discovered by cities that have included industrial ruins into their parks, ruins of lesser buildings can be every bit as sublime as ruins of palaces and temples.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Grossinger's Resort Ruins

Yahoo! recently ran a story about Grossinger's, a nice resort in New York that has been abandoned and fallen into ruin. My wife told me that her grandparents went there on occasion, and I believe that my grandfather once took my parents there for a vacation over Passover. In any case, the pictures show the ruins of the resort. One can imagine how the building will continue to deteriorate over the years.
See here for the link.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Ruins of the War of Independence

I ran a search on "ruins" on the website of the Israeli Government Photo Archives and came up with a number of images, mostly from the War of Independence.

Most of these images were taken by Zoltan Kluger, who also photographed Antipatris during this period. One is from Yamit.

Building Life Cycle in Ghostly Ruins

As research has slackened due to the requirements of producing our final presentation, the number of posts on the blog have fallen off dramatically. I assume that in the coming years there may be posts from time to time, although for the most part the blog will become less active.

I was rereading the introduction to one of my ruin books this afternoon, Harry Skrdla's Ghostly Ruins: America's Forgotten Architecture, and I realized that it captured one of the basic principles we have understood about ruins. Ruins are not a natural or final state of a building. Most ruins are in an in-between stage: they haven't been destroyed yet, they haven't been renovated, but presumably one of those two things will eventually happen. Either a ruin will be demolished or disappear on it's own, or else it will be recycled and reused. A ruin is only a stop in the natural life cycle of a building.

Skrdla writes:
"In America few buildings are really abandoned. Someone owns every square foot of real estate, and if you don't believe it, just try claiming an "abandoned" building as your own. Perhaps "unused" is a better word for what we're interested in. Certainly "ruined" describes many of them fairly well,although some are remarkably sound and could be made serviceable again without too much effort.
"Whatever we choose to call them, they are ephemeral. Transitory. These structures exist in a limbo between utility and complete collapse. We encounter them during the relatively brief time before they are no longer recognizable and lose all meaning for us.
"This period lasts much longer for, say, the pyramids than for our structures - we building much less robustly - but the end result is the same. Either mankind of the elements will eventually destroy them.
"Occasionally some lucky few man win a reprieve and, with the help of the preservation-minded, be restored to some version of their former greatness. But these are the minority, and even after "restoration," they are never quite the same.
"In even the best-intended and executed restorations, something is lost - some reality is replaced by our version of reality. The new paint is ours, not theirs. Wood floors, sanded fresh and smooth and shiny again, are like an erased blackboard, robbed of the scratches and depressions earned by years of footfalls. Brass doorknobs, their decorative surfaces smoothed by the touch of a thousand turning hands; wood paneling, darkened with age and the cigar smoke of vanished industrialists - these are part of a building's personality. The imprint of humanity. A permanent record of the people who came and the events that occurred these. Restoration, in its striving for a "perfect" version of a building, often removes these imperfections, and in so doing sterilizes it; negating the part of humans in the building's life.
"Oddly, this only seems to be the case in structures that experience complete restoration. If a building is always occupied to some degree, the occupants gradually contribute their own imprint to the environment. They may repaint when the walls become too soiled, but it is their paint, no ours. A worn lock mechanism may need replacement, but only as part of regular maintenance. Continuity is maintained. Life goes on - and the building retains its soul.
"Part of the charm of abandoned structures is that they are honest. They have reached the end of their lives, no matter what the cause, in their own way, and we respect them for it. They are the revered elders of their race, wearing their wrinkles without regrets. There are no facelifts here. No fountain of youth. We witness their decline and passing as that of aged loved ones, with sorrow, but because of what they mean to us, not their decrepit appearance."
(P. 18-19)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Dina Shenhav's "Tarchish"

Today is international museum day, and a number of Israeli papers had coverage of various exhibits going on in Israel. One of these exhibits, Tarchish (scenario) by Dina Shenhav, has a decidedly ruinous feel to it. The exhibit is being staged at the Nachum Gutman Museum in Neveh Tzedek.

According to Achbar Ha'ir,
"Shinhav's work deals with the human fear of apocalypse. This fear, she believes, is based on events from the dawn of history and up to modern time - places that were destroyed, destruction caused by man and civilization or by nature. The stories of Noah and Sodom in the Bible, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the bombing of the World Trade Center, destruction of forests, earthquakes and tsunamis - all these are natural components of the human genome."
Here is a video of her work. It's worth watching, and an interesting way to capture the feeling of ruins and destruction. She apparently has done other ruinous work before. Here are pictures from her series, "The End of the City", "And the Wind Returneth," and from some of her earlier work.