Erecting ruins

The etymology of ruins points to fallen stones. According to Oxford dictionary, it arrived to English from the Old French ruine, and this from Latin ruina, and ruere ‘to fall’. The general understanding of ruins thus points to the remains of a former building which, having suffered destruction or decay has arrived to us as mute witnesses of the pass of time, of the inexorability of decline and death of all sublunary objects, and, in modern jargon, of the ultimate rule of entropic forces over all things living.

Démolition d’un mur (1896) is an early short film by the Lumière Brothers that show four men using ratchets and sledgehammers (one of them, Louis Lumière) to tear down a wall. Johannes von Moltke (2011) emphasizes that the projection, in what constituted the real appeal of the film, usually included its reversed footage (0.44, in this video), so the audience first saw a ruinous wall collapsing and, later on, being erected.

However, a close examination of the ruin phenomenon reveals a somewhat more nuanced picture, in which ruins are not so much the effect of collapsing and falling but of construction and erection. I am not, only, making use of post-structualist slang by reading, erasing or citing reality as if it was a text, although this area is perhaps the one in which such strategies come closer at materializing. Labeling, naming, writing a specialist report or a book: the resulting discourse can actually affect the status of material remnants and thus contribute to their erection as ruins. Consider the report of an archaeological team, which can determine the future of remnants as ruins, or on construction workers under the orders of a non-too-scrupulous boss who decides to cover up fragments and pieces of clay or stone to avoid the delay of an official assessment.

First, though, let us look at some examples of active agencies in the actual erection of a ruin.

In his travel through ruin sensibility in history, In Ruins, Christopher Woodward relates the interesting tale of the making of a ruin.

“Ten years later [Henry VIII’s taking over the property of the Catholic Church]. The monks have been expelled, and wind and rain whistle through gate, cloister and choir. The soaring stone vaults of the church are picked clean like the rib-cage of a whale. The bells toll no more, sold to be melted down for their value as metal; the stained glass and the lead on the roof have also been sold for scrap. The villagers in their hovels suddenly have a quarry on their doorstep and stone walls replace those of timber and mud. Simple, squared blocks are most highly prized. The rounded drums of columns are only valuable as mill-stones, while ornamental, pinnacles, or awkwardly shaped arches are of no use to anyone. This practicality explains the distinctive silhouette of the ruin”. (2011: 110)

It is illuminating to see a ruin as a quarry: what we see it is not so much the result of the forces of time and whether, but of practically-inclined hands looking for reusable stones and leaving behind the useless pieces. Romanticism would turn this scrap, a residue, into a privileged aesthetic object, by means of the Picturesque and Christian metonymy.

Caspar David Friedrich, Eldena Ruin near Greifswald (c. 1824-1825), via Duke University

In their active destruction-construction practices, Woodward’s villagers are quite similar to the artistic-architectonic works of Gordon Matta-Clark, of whom I referred before (this post is partly inspired by a recent visit to Barcelona’s contemporary art museum MACBA and the exhibit of their amazing collection of Matta-Clark documentation). In the process of destroying a building, in projects such as Conical Intersect and Office Baroque, he was constructing a ruin, the paradox being that the destroyed building would be more valuable than the original/functional one, because of the socially-attributed value of the ruin.

Splitting (1974), documentation. (Via Frieze magazine)

His work also highlighted the extent to which a ruin is made of void, gaps, and fragments. To construct with so fragile elements (cutting of beams, sawing of door frames, splitting facades) needed a well-trained architect, and Matta-Clark, an architect by education, was certainly a good one: in the documentary about the creation, in Antwerp, of Office Baroque in 1977, you can see Matta-Clark at work as a architect/ artisan, using a marker and a string for the simplest, effective compass; getting his hands dirty with jigsaws, chain saws and hammers; and most of all, carefully calculating the way to open holes and shapes in a building avoiding its collapse, working around the fascinating paradox which ruins embody, that of “preservation in decay” (Thomas, 2003).

To create a ruin is not an easy matter. It consists of a difficult equilibrium between preservation and the illusion of non-preservation. A proper ruin needs to display what Florence Hetzler, in an influential text, called ‘ruin time’. In his Romantic vision, and taking from Georg Simmel’s pioneer text on ruins, Hetzler places a ruin in the intersection of culture and nature, as the result of a temporal maturation: “The ‘ruining’ may be started by human or natural causes but the maturation process must be done by nature in ruin time”. As an example, he mentions how the Great Wall close to Beijing and visited daily by thousands of tourists is not a ruin (“Ruin time has been removed by too much restoration”). Conversely, the surviving fragment found in deserts and steppes, from Mongolia to Xinjiang, that is “a beautiful ruin, sometimes surrounded by swirls of sand in sandstorms, and surrounded by camels and farm carts as well as by wild horses. The Great Wall includes the landscape through which it serpentines.” (Hetzler, 1998)

The Great Wall, unknown location (via)

Last year I visited Oradour-sur-Glane, a small village in France’s Limousin that was completely destroyed by the Nazis in the last days of the war. De Gaulle turned Oradour in a memorial, and nowadays, when a new village has grown next to the memorial, is a fascinating experience to visit that ghost, martyr village. The idea is to preserve Oradour as it was right after the 22nd SS division gathered everybody in the main square, took all women and children in the church and set it on fire, machine-gunning those who tried to space; men were shot in the legs inside different barns and burned alive. A total of 642 people died in a few hours, and the village was looted and burned. Oradour has the air of a theme-park, with a museum, audiovisual exhibit, and bookshop. One feels compelled, perhaps forced, to feel sorry, to feel devastated by the magnitude of the massacre. The way this is achieved is by a careful process of preservation of the remains, which naturalizes what in many senses is a fully elaborated and calculated set, and turns it into a ruin. Regardless whether you think of it as a ‘proper’ ruin  (both Hetzler and Woodward wouldn’t see in Oradour enough space for time and nature to make of it a succesful ruin), preservation strategies do construct a ruin that serves different interests at play: political, national—or nationalistic, and also economic.

The martyr village of Oradour-sur-Glane

Talking about the Nazis, it is well-known how architect Albert Speer, in being commissioned the design and construction of the landmarks of Nazi glory like the Reich Chancellery and the Zeppelinfeld stadium in Nuremberg developed the idea of ‘ruin value’, or Ruinenwert, by which the buildings were created taking into consideration how would they look once they collapsed or decayed: materials and design were chosen, ex ante, in order to compose a beautiful and pleasing ruin that would last for a long time and demanded no maintenance and preservation.

Speer’s plan for Berlin’s Main Avenue, never built (via)

We would say that the problem with Speer’s theory lies precisely in his idealistic understanding of ruins. It unacknowledged the necessary active engagement with stones in a determined direction for a ruin to exist. As Robert Harbison put it, “the perceiver’s attitudes count so heavily that one is tempted to say that ruins are a way of seeing” (1993: 99). We will never know if the Zeppenlinfield would constitute a noble ruin and a touristic attraction if the outcome of WWII would have been different. What we know is that other eyes saw the potential of Speer’s solid and lasting materials (the red marble, or granite, of his Chancellery) and use it to erect, in an ironic twist in history, a different monument, the Soviet War Memorial at Treptower Park.

Discussing the fad for sham, or fake ruins, in the context of 18th century English landscape movement, Sophie Thomas notes how “ruins thus represent the historical relation, rather than history ‘itself'”. And she continues, a few lines later, writing that they “reveal aspects of the ruin’s necessarily constructed relationship to questions of history, and its importance in the creation of the present” (2003: 181).

“Temple of Augustus”, a false ruin created by King George IV’s architect, Jeffry Wyatt, in Windsor Great Park with fragments from Leptis Magna (modern Libya), (via)

It is in relation to China, and the numerous images of urban demolition that made it into its visual culture in the 1990s and 2000s, that I believe such considerations are important. The editors of an recently published volume, Ruins of Modernity, consider that “what we now call ruins began to be perceived and preserved as such during the Renaissance when the awareness of historical discontinuities and the demise of ancient civilizations raised the status of traces from the past” (Hell&Schönle, 2011:5).

Answering to widespread demolition as a result of urban renewal programs, speculation and improvisation, Chinese artists have been attracted to demolition. Were these images to constitute ruins, they might be then understood as an index of a perceived historical discontinuity. However, all things commented before must alert us about the extent to which different strategies are at play in the erection of ruinous monuments, and its consequences. Ruins are mute, and it is each society that makes them speak. As in subtitling a film, the audience will take at truth value what history and art books, street signs and curatorial statements say about a heap of stones.

Rong Rong & Inri, Liulitun No.8, 2003


Jiang Pengyi, Unregisted City No.7, 2008-2010

“Alright, then, we get your point, so, what’s the problem with all this?” I will need another post to expand on the different interests and actors that constitute the discursive-and the not so discursive-field around ruins in China. For now, let me point out that ruins may have weight too heavily upon stones and rubble and thus demobilized the energies and potential they had for social and political contestation, a subjective exploration of memory and sensuality, and the construction of an alternative present.


Florence M. Hetzler (1998) “Causality: Ruin Time and RuinsLeonardo, Vol. 21, No. 1, pp. 51-55

Harbison, Robert (1991) The Built, the Unbuilt, and the Unbuildable. In Pursuit of Architectural Meaning. MIT Press

Thomas, Sophie (2003) “Assembling History: Fragments And Ruins”, European Romantic Review, 14: 2, 177 — 186

Von Moltke, Johannes (2011) “Ruin Cinema”, in Hell, Julia; Andreas Schönle (eds.) Ruins of Modernity. Duke University Press


One comment on “Erecting ruins

  1. […] age and fate. Unless, such real, pure ruins can never actually exist, as I have suggested in other posts.  A ruin is always created, constructed, is always a discursive category that accumulates layers […]

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