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Monday, December 13, 2010

Georg Simmel's "The Ruin": The Importance of Nature in Ruins

In a recent presentation, we listed our various Ruin Criteria. We included among them that ruins must show signs of the invasion of nature; in particular, we said, flora is an important component. After our presentation, there were some comments that this criterion was misplaced, with references to sites that may be ruins yet do not have invasive nature.

In another post about the Carmel Fires, a reader commented that fresh ruins like these have been termed "immature ruins." I think that properly captures the spirit of the matter. These ruins are ruins-in-the-making, and in a surprisingly short time nature will invade. But for now, they are prepubescent.

Returning to the question of nature, this is a good opportunity to reference an essay by Georg Simmel, aptly titled "The Ruin" (translated by David Kettler.) Simmel was a great advocate of nature as a central factor in ruins. He describes architecture as a struggle between man and nature, and a completed building as a temporary triumph of man over nature.
"This unique balance - between mechanical, inert matter which passively resists pressure, and informing spirituality which pushes upward - breaks, however, the instant a building crumbles. For this means nothing else than that merely natural forces begin to become master over the work of man: the balance between nature and spirit, which the building manifested, shifts in favor of nature. This shift becomes a cosmic tragedy which, so we fell, makes every ruin an object infused with our nostalgia; for now the decay appears as nature's revenge for the spirit's having violated it by making a form in its own image."
Simmel explains that this gives a ruin a unique position in the art world. Normally, once a work of art is destroyed it ceases to have meaning. But with architecture, a ruin carries a significance: "Where the work of art is dying, other forces and forms, those of nature, have grown." The work of man is combined with the work of nature, the building becomes a natural phenomenon. Additionally, Simmel writes that we appreciate ruins as manifestations of the saying that "all that is human is taken from earth and to earth shall return." Thus ruins are tragic, but not necessarily sad, since it is part of the natural order, "the realization of a tendency inherent in the deepest layer of existence of the destroyed."

As a parting shot, Simmel points out the innate tension that exists within ruins, a tension we in our project have noticed as well. Rather than try to resolve this tension, the ruin preserves it:

"Thus purpose and accident, nature and spirit, past and present here resolve the tension of their contrasts - or, rather, preserving this tension, they yet lead to a unity of external image and internal effect."
The importance of nature in ruins is thus fundamental. Although it is possible to argue with Simmel and explain ruin-fascination in another manner, it seems to us that the struggle between man and nature is latent and vital in ruins.


  1. Wow, I love this post. Thank you.

    I found his essay and then this blog through:

  2. Thanks so much for sharing this article with us. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Josh