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Saturday, June 18, 2011

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)

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