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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Ruin Criteria IV: Materials (and Time)

We tend to think of ruins as the remains of stone structures. Most likely this is because stone ruins are the most common type. Stone construction has been around for a long, long time, and stones tend to last, whereas wooden buildings decay and disappear more quickly, as do adobe brick structures and igloos. Perhaps partly due to our conditioning and partly because of an actual aesthetic superiority, stone ruins also seem to be particularly appealing.

Despite this predisposition to stone, ruins can actually result from just about any building material that can last long enough. Surprisingly enough, I'm not the first one to mention igloo ruins. While the example is silly, it illustrates my point about duration: ruins take time to develop. Depending on the harshness of the climate, twenty years is probably the bare minimum for anything remotely ruin-like. A material that is not durable enough to remain in existence for twenty plus years is therefore not going to turn into a ruin. Or, to think about it in terms of an igloo, it will become a ruin in five hours and have disappeared by ten. While elements of the revenge of nature do enter into the equation, the lack of time simply precludes this from being considered a ruin. Why does time matter? Perhaps because ruins symbolize a significant loss, and something that comes and goes in a day hardly seems significant. Perhaps it is because part of a ruin is its "continual transition caused by natural deterioration" (Paul Zucker, Fascination of Decay, p.2) and there is no continual transition in something that moves so quickly. Ruins are supposed to be "fragments of an earlier age," and 10 hours ago doesn't quite qualify.

So material does matter, but only until a certain threshold of durability. Beyond this border, there are far less limitations on ruin materials.

Chippewa Lake Park - Wooden ruins of a roller coaster.

Adobe Ruins by Adam Schallau

Log Cabin Ruins by John Wilson

Brick ruins in Detroit (from Ghostly Ruins by Harry Skrdla, p. 141)

Steel Mill ruins in Bethlehem, PA


  1. The last picture brings to mind the Seattle "Gas Works Park", an interesting (and wonderful, I think) case of dealing with ruins:
    One can walk through the "ruins", which have been slightly altered and painted.

  2. A lovely site! Thanks for bringing it to our attention.