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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

J.B. Jackson: The Necessity for Ruins

John Brinckerhoff Jackson was the founder of Landscape Magazine and an influential writer in the study of architecture and landscape. He taught at Harvard and Berkeley and helped turn landscape architecture into an academic field.  His essays relate mostly to the United States, but have broad application.

In one of his essays, "The Necessity for Ruins", Jackson compares two different styles of monuments. The first type, long the preferred in the United States, reminds us of an important debt that we owe. It reminds us of great leaders, or events, or declarations that we have pledged to honor, and tells us that we should behave in a certain way as a result. A monument to George Washington would thus force us to recall the struggle for democracy and freedom from tyranny, and demand that we act to uphold these lofty goals. The same is true of Civil War monuments. Jackson points to President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, a speech which schoolchildren were long made to memorize, as an accurate summation of this notion:
"We are met to dedicate a portion of that [great battle-] field as the final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might life...It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us..."
Likewise in any local where inhabitants share a strong sense of religious or political past. Aesthetically, he writes:
"A monument can be nothing more than a rough stone, a fragment of ruined wall as at Jerusalem, a tree, or a cross. Its sanctity is not a matter of beauty or of use or of age; it is venerated not as a work of art or as an antique, but as an echo from the remote past suddenly become present and actual."
On the other hand, Jackson identifies another "trending" type of monument which rather than recalling a specific event or person memorializes a vague sense of past, with unspecific dates and names, a monument to a golden age hovering just beyond living memory. He mentions monuments to the anonymous cowboy, the anonymous newsboy, the anonymous boll weevil, and asks:
"What is the purpose of these monuments? They do no remind us of any obligation, they suggest no particular line of conduct." 
Rather, it is an attempt to commemorate a golden age.
Jackson takes this one step further, and explains that societies that have a definite political or legal origin and semi-sacred documents are more likely to have monuments which are reminders of political covenants, while societies that see themselves as having slowly evolved prefer to celebrate their legendary, half-forgotten origins, looking back to a golden age and trying to restore as much of the original landscape as possible.
Although Jackson seems more at ease with the historical monuments, he suggests a way forward for the golden-age monuments.
"First there is a golden age, the time of harmonious beginnings. Then ensues a period when the old days are forgotten and the golden age falls into neglect. Finally comes a time when we rediscover and seek to restore the world around us to something like its former beauty.
But there has to be that interval of neglect, there has to be discontinuity; it is religiously and artistically essential. That is what I mean when I refer to the necessity for ruins: ruins provide the incentive for restoration, and for a return to origins...The old farmhouse has to decay before we can restore it and lead an alternative life style in the country; the landscape has to be plundered and stripped before we can restore the natural ecosystem; the neighborhood has to be a slum before we can rediscover it and gentrify it. That is how we reproduce the cosmic scheme and correct history." 

I can't say which type of monument is currently en vogue in Israel. But preserving ruins, of all periods, certainly provides us with a strong reminder that we are trying to build a better society and that we are trying to return to a mythical golden age, both of which are vital messages here and now.

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