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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.

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