Learning from Decay

Essays on the Aesthetics of Architectural Dereliction and Its Consumption

by Max Ryynänen (Author) Zoltan Somhegyi (Author)
Monographs 118 Pages

Table Of Content

Max Ryynänen and Zoltán Somhegyi

Introduction: Learning from Decay – Learning What? And What for?

Our constant curiosity and desire of understanding better our world and ourselves within it leads to a never-ending learning process. Practically anything may merit our attention and can be qualified as a possible subject of our investigation. Even the visions of decay and examples of dereliction may guide us to invaluable discoveries by the questions that arise through the observation of these sites and sights. This interest in the questions that ruins urge and generate we can also read at the very beginning of Brian Dillon’s catalogue text for an exhibition titled Ruin Lust that surveyed the centuries of fascination of artists with ruins: “The ruins are still standing – but what do they stand for? It seems that the harder we think about destruction and decay, the closer we stare at this or that crumbling mass of stone or concrete or steel, and the further we explore the very idea of ruin itself, the less the whole category holds together. (…) We ask a great deal of ruins, and divine a lot of sense from their silence.”1 Hence ruins in particular, just like the reasons and results of dereliction in general, have always been a question, and every period had its own approach towards answering it. Or, we could also say that each era felt the need to learn from decay, which also means finding the exact way of asking the relevant question of which answer lies in the novel reading of the ruin – this is why ruins could serve as documents of the (antique) past, decorative background elements, fake constructions to evoke melancholic and nostalgic feelings, reminders of transience, warning signs of a perhaps inevitable future decay, monumental remnants of recent conflicts or natural catastrophes, symbols of the overtly self-assured human hubris, etc. This curiosity in the examination of still-standing remnants of the past has been inspiring in all ages, encouraging, inducing and appealing those interested in both our past and in our present culture to investigate the qualities that survived through the decay. All this also explains the recent increase in ruin-analyses: among which we can mention a series of thematic books, scholarly conferences, photo exhibitions and dedicated websites and blogs; moreover, numerous academic journals have published thematic issues scrutinising a broad range of aspects and approaches to the reading of ruins. ←7 | 8→

The reason why the title – and the main guiding concept – of our book Learning from Decay might sound strange at first is that traditionally we had been instructed to learn from something refined, in perfect shape that can serve us as an intact model, a unique and exemplary ideal. Something to learn from, i.e. a specimen to be imitated, followed, discussed and analysed, is usually something impressively completed, fully functioning and exceptionally exemplary – and, in fact, these factors and features might seem to be a great deal in contradiction with the essence of the phenomena of decay and ruination. Ruinous buildings, cities and sites lack not only the integrity, but also the everyday life, function, functioning and functionality; these places are facing Nature’s ever-continuing destructing force. They are destined to be left forgotten, or sometimes to be covered, disguised or cleaned up. Decay can be embarrassing, and the ruin, i.e. its striking visual manifestation, is often denied or transformed. We are lucky in those cases when it is understood by later civilisations and cultures that not just the ruined edifice itself as an archaeological example, but also the reasons of its very decay are considered to be worth learning from.

The essays in the book are both “aesthetic” and “provocative” at the same time. On the one hand, aesthetic in the sense that they deal with questions related to the field of aesthetics, and also to the aesthetics of certain places, spaces, artworks, contemporary tendencies, issues in the art world and in our everyday life and even to questions of perception and sensing, emotions and feelings – all these might be connected to the inspiring, what’s more: fascinating phenomenon of decay. On the other hand, our chapters might also seem provocative for some readers, especially when writing on such recent and contemporary phenomena that still today appears less often in aesthetic analyses and discourse connected to such “classical” topics as ruins and decay. Nevertheless, we hope that this “provocation” can remain in the positive and constructive sense of the word, hence provoking, inviting and inspiring further considerations on the very phenomenon of decay and its multiple appearance.

The title of this collection of essays obviously refers to the 1972 book of Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour Learning from Las Vegas, one of the earliest books to embody a bold post-modern spirit – which by now, despite all of its revolutionary novelty, has become a canonised classical reference. Just like Venturi-Brown-Izenour suggested that there is still something we could learn from Las Vegas, or at least consider the “cheap” and (seemingly) invaluable forms of popular architecture, the present authors of the following essays assume that ruination, decay as well as not-yet-entirely-ruined, though seriously cracking parts of old cities are just as inspiring and significant as the breath-taking ultramodern high-rise constructions of the contemporary “starchitects”. What’s more, ←8 | 9→sometimes even the popular(ised) versions of decay, as well as the mass-touristic abuse of classical beauty, can and should be analysed with regard to their possible aesthetic status, i.e. from a point of view and with the methods of our discipline. In today’s world characterised by the lure of the new – even at the cost of their ephemeral durability – the authors suggest that the often disdained phenomenon of decay in any of its appearance is truly worth of examining, as it can include important potentialities, and can provide us with indispensable “learning material” to understand the current state of our culture.

The book is not aiming at providing the reader with a new, extensive and especially not with an all-inclusive theory of the aesthetics of dereliction, ruin(ation) and decay, and not even the examination and reconstruction of the complete history of these aesthetic ideas. Our goal is rather to investigate some classical as well as recent phenomena, and to propose new elements in their interpretation. In certain cases they are perhaps better known “canonised” examples, while in other instances new areas, for example popular cultural works, are involved in such considerations, from where they were previously pretty much excluded. The two main parts of the book, i.e. the first three essays by Zoltán Somhegyi and the last three by Max Ryynänen, are somehow reflecting to each other by following a similar pattern: In Chapter 1, titled “Layers of the past. On the potential of ruins” Zoltán Somhegyi investigates the possible ways of aesthetic approach of ruins, showing that ruins can have significant potential, although not practical, rather aesthetic and existential potential. When visiting ruins and observing the various physical and temporal layers of the gradually decaying building, this encounter helps us better understand our present through the analyses of our relationship to the past. The examination of the effects of ruination in Zoltán Somhegyi’s Chapter 2, “Glory through decay. Aesthetics around monuments and their ruination”, is further applied to the reading of the function and functioning of monuments. Through a case study, the reconstruction of a curious 18th-century series of paintings representing allegorical tombs – that also allows us to get more insight into the art scene and the nature of art commissions in the Venetian Settecento – the author aims to demonstrate that although monuments and memorials are primarily created to commemorate important figures and events, in some thrilling examples they can also indicate the prospects, possibilities and limits of the modes of remembering. The concept of nostalgia and its possible connection to ruins and architectural decay stands in the focus of Chapter 3 by Zoltán Somhegyi: “Shortcuts to nostalgia? On the attempts of the aestheticisation of the past”. The essay compares the aesthetic effect of fake or artificial ruins of 18th-century landscape gardens and contemporary buildings at the beginning of their dereliction, arguing that although ←9 | 10→their appearance and representation forcefully try to evoke nostalgia, the attempt of aestheticisation of the past will remain unsuccessful. The theoretical analyses of decay and ruined sites continue in Max Ryynänen’s first text, in Chapter 4 “Cheap thrills. On low architectural decay and its pleasures”, where the idea of the classical categorisation and polarisation of high and low in art appreciation and aesthetic pleasure is challenged. It is suggested that certain forms and examples of simple and cheap architecture, even an unpretentious and crumbling suburban hot dog stand, can nevertheless provide a specific sort of aesthetic delight. The Reader is back in Venice again through Chapter 5 “The most serene sinking ruins. Fragments from the history of the aesthetics of Venice”, where Max Ryynänen surveys the various roles of Venice during its history, including the former commercial centre, the art hub, the decaying “sinking ruin” and the tourist destination, where all these different features result in different modes of appreciation of the city, and makes us wonder of the Serenissima’s aesthetic future. In the last Chapter 6 “Historical cityscapes as museums and theme parks”, Max Ryynänen challenges the traditional approach towards old town and historical city centres, by claiming that there might be significant aesthetic, cultural and even social potential when using these sites in a theme park fashion. Hence, instead of leaving them as slowly dying, “museumised” spaces – where even the original inhabitants are moving out due to the difficulties of pursuing their everyday life – some sort of new life could be injected by the careful cultural touristification, which, at the same time, can contribute to the maintaining of the heritage value of the site.

From this, the Reader can spot the basic structure of the book: after the general aesthetic analyses of the phenomenon of ruination on different scales (Chapters 1 and 4) come two case studies connected to Venice and its art world (Chapters 2 and 5) to finally arrive to the examination of experiencing ruination and architectural dereliction (Chapters 3 and 6). Besides the similar pattern, however, the discussion goes from rather classical and high-art works to popular ones – and to the analyses of the problems around the popularised appearance of elite cultural phenomena. The Reader may also discover and enjoy how the focus of interest occasionally influences the two authors’ own writing style too, which again illustrates how the complex phenomena of ruination and decay can inspire thoughts and lead to different areas of investigation.

From this it becomes obvious that the analyses in the book rely on the results of various disciplines and their methodologies. The cross-disciplinary approach thus complements the aesthetic research of the phenomena of decay with methods and modes of reading of art history, sociology of culture, with even references to the historic development of urbanism and mass tourism. ←10 | 11→

Although “provocative” in the above sense, still the book is not an intrusive or bellicose manifesto. We do not want to encourage the readers to accept any sort of kitschy ruin-reference without critique – we merely aim to demonstrate that just like each period had its own ruin-interpretation, we shall have our own too, and when learning from decay, we inevitably need to include references to, sometimes even confront with, and thus definitely learn from our own “Las Vegas” today, i.e. to take in consideration those novel phenomena that challenge our contemporary culture and condition, and that we want to describe, explain and evaluate with the methodologies and apparatus of aesthetics. We can also learn a lot by analysing the process that defines the period that follows the novelty and usage of the constructions. Just like broken artworks, derelict buildings, their remains and eventual reconstruction or reuse can reveal a lot about our culture. This is why we focus on the reading of even the present-day questions by investigating them with bearing in mind their historical connections. Though we aim to discuss ruins and old cityscapes in the frame of contemporary art history and (applied) aesthetics, we are actually pointing to something we see as a fact: i.e. that one of the keys to understand contemporaneity is to discuss its relationship to the past and to the visible traces of history. We are guided by our experience. We feel that the oscillation between the classical gaze towards the past, loose pastime tourist experience and something that could be called ironical astonishment seem to rule in our encounters with the old. The ironical astonishment here points to the fact that often aesthetically stimulating ruins and old cityscapes seem to be those that are somehow openly schizophrenic: cocktails of the old, of its appropriation and of the ever-growing practice and danger of producing fake history. These tendencies that can often and too easily become cultural and even social-political threats too should be discussed and analysed with the utensils and experience we have accumulated while having been learning from the past. “Learning from” always has a double direction: we can try to understand the past – “past”, broadly construed: events, works, products, phenomena, tendencies, etc. – but ideally we do not want to simply stop there, but to use this apprehension and interpretation for the comprehension of our present and possibly future too. This is why throughout the whole book the reader can constantly find temporal crossovers between the classical and contemporary, and the various issues raised in the chapters are connected and completing each other by their dialogue.

Therefore “Learning from Decay” does not only refer to the question of what we can learn from the decay, i.e. from ruined sites, buildings or the representation of ruins, but also what we can do with this knowledge, material and experience; hence: what is this learning for? When examining and interpreting these ←11 | 12→aspects of decay in general, as well as the ruined sites and certain art and architectural works and cities in particular, we invite the Reader to discover further insights that we can gain from observing decay. While pursuing our research and applying classical methodologies, we also would like to demonstrate that the not-exclusively-elitist but broader and bolder reading may lead us to new recognitions and discoveries. For example, we can learn that the touristification of Venice – of which visitors of the city complain today – is not at all a recent phenomena. Or, that a contemporary satirical “counter monument” can help our interpretation of a classical series of artworks from centuries earlier, and that both the modern and the older works can represent the ambiguous aims of the act of remembering. Or, we can see that the commercial aspects of art can heavily influence both the aesthetics and the production of artworks, again something with which we tend to accuse the art infrastructure of recent decades only; however, this had definitely started earlier. Or, we can realise how close a properly built theme park and an actual, historic downtown can come to each other and how it may on the one hand mislead and deceive visitors, and on the other hand how this might be used for directing the attention of the visitors to the better appreciation of the classical values. As mentioned above, with all this we do not want to suggest an uncritical acceptance of any and every use – especially not of the abuse – of the past and its physical, architectural remnants and their representation. We just want to show that through the recognition of the diversity of its appearance we can learn more about the past to safeguard the future. In this way, the singular essays will thus show numerous instances where we have the inspiring opportunity of learning from decay.

Helsinki – Sharjah
July 2018

1Brian Dillon, Ruin Lust (London: Tate Publishing, 2014), 5. ←12 | 13→

Zoltán Somhegyi

Layers of the Past: On the Potential of Ruins

Abstract: Though it might be surprising to use the word “potential” with regard to ruins, as it is examined in this essay, ruins do have a certain potential. This is however not practical but aesthetic. The encountering of the physical and temporal layeredness of the original edifice through the reflection of the gradual ruination can help us in understanding our present through the analyses of our relationship to the past.

Keywords: ruins, rubble, temporal segments, absence, function

There are sites and cities where the historical “layeredness” of the place is particularly visible, what’s more, even physically tangible for the curious observers. The various temporal shifts can be manifested and sensed in and through the multiple physical and architectural layers that one perceives in the dense urban pattern, for example, in the re-built and over-built segments of towns. The well-known and often-reproduced views from Rome, for example, where the ancient temples stand next to Baroque, modern and contemporary edifices, can be a good example for this, just like many areas of Istanbul, where one can sense and enjoy the parallel presence of the three cities, Byzantium, Constantinople and the modern Istanbul. These sights are popular in great deal right due to their ability of picturesquely showing the various historical layers through the still-standing buildings, through which one can enjoy the appearance of a certain historical continuity of the place’s classical and recent past.

As it often happens however, the temporal layers are not always so directly manifest and present, not so clearly “arranged” on a physical scale in order to be easily observed and aesthetically enjoyed, but are rather condensed in themselves. This is the case of ruins where the still existing though lacunose remnants of the original edifice shall refer to the genuine state and appearance of the construction. The different temporal layers are thus embedded in the missing – gradually more and more derelict – structure. The sensing of the time segments will require the combination of observation and imagination, since the ruin does not directly show each of the singular layers, but right through the fact of ruination incentivises us to become aware of the temporal perspective. This particular and condensed layeredness of ruins can appear both on the level of singular edifices or entire building complexes and towns. Scale aside, however, they all share the feature of having an important role in experiencing temporal perspectives and ←13 | 14→thus in developing their potentials. Though it might be surprising to use the word “potential” with regard to ruins, as it will become clear, ruins do have certain potential, and this is what shall be discussed in this chapter more in detail.

When the Italian traveller Antonio Baratta visited Istanbul in 1831, after having listed the different types of monumental architecture in the city – amphitheatres, triumphal arches, baths, temples, aqueducts – he complained about how sadly ruined these all were, and affirmed how lacking was what had remained: “The rage of time, and that of man, even more fierce than that of time, has reversed, exhausted and annihilated all these great productions of intelligence and effort. Few and damaged ruins are the only memories that have remained of them, documents almost meagre to make faith of what History has bequeathed to us.”1 In this quick affirmation from his travel notice, we can find a really significant question that brings us right in the middle of interesting considerations about the status, function and aesthetics of ruins. “Quasi scarso”, i.e. “almost meagre” he writes, what has remained to make faith, or to let us imagine what there was. In the Italian traveller’s interpretation ruins are memories, testimonies and still-surviving tangible documents that report on the Antique beauty and grandeur – the less ruinous they are, the more we can understand of the original construction. As we know from the reception history of ruins, their appreciation and interpretation largely depended on both the quantity and quality of what has remained.2 This had then influenced the approach to the question of ruins and ruination too: in the Renaissance, for example, they were interpreted as elements or, even more: signs and symbols of the Antiquity’s grandeur, “readable pieces of memory” out of which knowledge on this very Antiquity could be reconstituted. Later however, especially throughout the 18th century, ruins served as picturesque elements that, from the Romanticism onwards, could also become suggestive symbols of the sublime power of Nature and reminders of catastrophic destruction that could derive from and be caused by both Nature and the human nature.3 By the time Baratta saw the ruins of Istanbul and described them in his travel account, they were in such decay that they were ←14 | 15→almost incapable to serve as “real” ruins, i.e. to picturesquely report on the past. Being influenced by the Romantic interpretation of ruins and ruination, as well as being interested in the surviving elements of antique beauty and grandeur, in his description he synthesised the aforementioned approaches to ruins, the historical interest and the Romantic admiration. This is why Baratta concisely expressed his concerns about the scarceness of the visual and tangible information on Antiquity that survived Nature’s and humans’ fierce rage. He was also right in reminding his readers that ruins are not stable in their state and in their appearance. Decay is a continuous process and depending on in which phase the observer “steps in” or encounters the architectural piece while in its dereliction, different levels of insight can be gained. From his description it seems that Baratta clearly realised this fragile character of the ruins he had been observing. This fragility we can understand in a double sense: not only in the constructions’ derelict physical state, constantly being exposed to further material damage, but also when referring to their ever weaker ability of being able to refer back to the original. For Baratta the ruins were still witnesses of the past for a while, but not for eternity, as he bitterly though precisely realised. They were on the edge of not being able to remain tangible and visible testimonies from and about the past anymore, and to disappear completely because of Nature’s activity. Therefore the destruction – or the rage of Time, as Baratta formulated it – is caused by Nature that ruins a building, making it unused and unusual in time and with time. Ruins’ nature is their strong connection with Nature. In the ruination process Nature becomes the key actor, and we can identify three elements or even “criteria” for this process: functionlessness, absence and time. In order to understand better ruination itself, as well as its connection with the natural forces and also the difference between the slow and sudden forms of destruction, let’s first see these three criteria.4

A ruin is defined by the loss of the function of the original building. Robert Ginsberg goes even further when he writes in his influential book on the aesthetics of ruins that: “The ruin liberates function from its subservience to purpose. (…) The ruin is the temple of the non-useful.”5 Functionlessness is therefore ←15 | 16→a decisive criterion in ruination, or, to put it in another way: until a building fulfils its original function, or can be used in a slightly modified function, it cannot be a “real” ruin, only a building that needs to be restored, reconstructed or modernised. The function of the building may change or get modified, further functions can be added to the previous ones, but until the building has a function, i.e. until it can be used in any practical way, it cannot be considered a ruin.

Absence is a second criterion that is also extremely important in understanding the process of ruination. Ruins have missing pieces, nevertheless they don’t confront the viewer simply with this absence, but also with the birth and formation of this absence, i.e. with the way of becoming incomplete. It is about the slow disappearance, and during the slow destroying of the construction the absence is continuously growing. Naturally this connects back to functionlessness too, as the conservation and regular reparation of a building still in use guarantees that the activity in it can be done in a secure and pleasant ambience. On the other hand, a construction that is not in use anymore lacks technical and aesthetic upkeep too, thus allowing absence to “shape” the building.

However, we need to take into consideration a very important distinction: even if a ruin seems to make us face the absence, or the process of absence, at the end it is not simply about the passing, but right to the contrary: about the remaining. It loudly affirms that there is still something. A ruin is something remaining, a remnant. Even if it was originally entire, and in use, and now incomplete and functionless, but still partially it has survived. At first the lack of integrity might appear, but this can be transmitted only through the still-existing, the still-remaining, which reports on the original. That’s why we can distinguish between not-yet-ruin and not-anymore-ruin. The first is the above-mentioned situation, when a building is not a ruin yet, just in a bad condition and needs some restoration to maintain its original or new function and to guarantee the secure use. The latter case, not-anymore-ruin, also often occurs, when the building or building complex or even entire cities disappear so much that we can hardly or not at all imagine the original grandeur of it – in this case the vision counteracts our fantasy’s intention to complete the ruins and to get impressed by its authentic splendour. Therefore we can say that a ruin has its own life that is between not-yet-ruin and not-anymore-ruin. During its life it constantly disintegrates, nevertheless observing the ruin it seems that its main affirmation is not decay but remaining. When we admire the ruin, we concentrate on the remaining, since this is what leads us to the original, and this remnant is what is constantly formed by absence. ←16 | 17→

As of our third criterion, obvious it may seem, though not as simple as it first looks: ruins must be old. If we remain at the classical appearance of ruins, i.e. slow disappearance of the elements of a building, then it requires time. In this way we can also affirm that it is time that offers the “time frame” for Nature for the tranquil work. Time provides the frame for Nature to shape – through the ever-growing absence – a building that has lost its function into a ruin. Drying, weathering, erosion through wind, rain or snow is an extremely slow process, but in these we can admire the unintentional anti-construction of Nature that nevertheless results in an aesthetically attractive artwork. We can almost call Nature itself as a kind of artist here, which creates a new work exactly by overcoming (a classical) artwork. Departing from Georg Simmel’s famous essay on the topic (1907), we can affirm that in the case of ruins it becomes spectacularly evident how Nature surmounts human creation. As Simmel formulated it: “… for now the decay appears as nature’s revenge for the spirit’s having violated it by making a form in its own image. (…) Nature has transformed the work of art into material for her own expression as she had previously served as material for art.”6 Natural elements form (or ruin) a building into a ruin, like an artist, but an important difference must be affirmed: here we have a never-ending process that only has a temporary end result. It is really temporary, as we saw above how a ruin’s life stretches between not-yet-ruin and not-anymore-ruin. An artist stops at a certain point, while Nature continues until arriving to the final point of not-anymore-ruin. Only until this final point can we enjoy ruins aesthetically. In this way, we can say that the ruins’ attractiveness is very much based on the fact that here we can “aesthetically” encounter not only the power of Nature but also the passing of time.

Viewing from this perspective, now we can see why Baratta was absolutely right when not considering the ruins he saw in Istanbul as rubble. Rubble is a consequence of a sudden destruction (either of a natural catastrophe or human aggression) whose final result, an immense pile of debris, cannot be compared to the potential aesthetic attraction of “real” or “classical” ruins that incorporate a great amount of time. That’s why we normally admire the ruins and clean up the rubble.

Even if “few and damaged” are the ruins that Baratta observed, he seems to have understood their potential. It might seem strange to talk about potential in ←17 | 18→relationship with ruins, since normally we consider something with potential when it is – according, for example, to the definition of The Oxford Dictionary of English – “having or showing the capacity to become or develop into something in the future”. So, it either has and incorporates the possibility of becoming something, or at least contains a kind of promise to be able to develop in something that we usually hope to be better, more useful, functional, practical, etc. But when we think of ruins from a practical point of view, they are exactly the contrary: an earlier used and useful building becomes completely useless. With regard to both the original function and genuine appearance of the building, its ruin does not develop further with time, but is getting destructed. In fact, from a strictly practical point of view, we can consider ruins neither useful nor functional: they are per definitionem useless and functionless. This is why for some they might just be considered as unattractive wounds on the texture of the city or landscape. For this radical and pragmatic departure point, these architectural cicatrices – even if surviving since ancient times – were better to be cleaned up rather than being saved or tried to be conserved, so that at least new space can be given for new constructions.

Despite all this, ruins do have potential, but not in the sense of becoming something practical and useful. This is also an aspect highlighted by Paul Zucker in his 1961 article titled Ruins – An Aesthetic Hybrid: “Functional value, of course, do not count with ruins which by their very nature cannot have any practical use.”7 Further elaborating this feature, the ruins not having functional value, we can assume – even if it may seem paradox – that rubble is almost more valuable from a pragmatic viewpoint and for practical purposes: there might be still useful pieces among the debris that we can reutilise again. Bricks and stones from the wall, wooden beams, roof tiles, metal structures, etc., of suddenly destroyed buildings can be the building elements of other edifices. But in most cases and according to the modern principles we do not touch classical ruins with these intentions, only the debris can be scanned through for the search of the still useable pieces. Ruins’ aesthetic value is much dependent on the casual and random work of the “artist” Nature; this is why they are often left in their derelict state. Of course, this differentiation between ruin and rubble – i.e. remnants that should be left as they are because of their aesthetic value and unattractive rubble that could be used for the extraction of raw material – is often not as easy as it seems, and requires a developed historical sense. Just to remind ←18 | 19→us of one of the most famous examples: the case of the Coliseum that was for a long time used as “stone-mine” for new buildings after the fall of the Roman Empire, even in organised and official ways. As we can read in the book by Christopher Woodward on ruins, a bill has been found in the Vatican Archives that documents the paying of 205 ducats for the transport of 2522 tons of stone from the Coliseum between September 1451 and May 1452.8 Curiously, this happened during the (early) Renaissance, i.e. right in the period when Humanist scholars started appreciating ruins for their being “documents in stone” and that they could use in better reading and interpreting Antiquity through its remains. Still, the exact distinction between ruin and rubble was blurred, which permitted the use of an aesthetic ruin’s still-standing elements for other practical purposes.

From these considerations we can see that ruins’ potential is not practical, but aesthetic. They will never be properly useful and useable buildings again, and they cannot even be developed to become so. If such a development happens, then we are obviously at the different cases of restoration, renovation, rebuilding and reutilisation. However, during this kind of activities a ruin ceases to be a ruin, and starts a second life as a repaired building that again requires constant maintenance, through which the edifice can fulfil its function – either following the original one or having a new purpose throughout the reutilisation. Ruins’ potential is therefore not a kind of “becoming”, since they already are. When we observe former buildings as ruins, they have already become ruins. Thus, their potential is rather in the aesthetic double reference both to the original building and to the passing of time: the period that stretches between our present and the time of the building, including not only the time when it was built and functioning, but also the centuries required for its classical and natural ruination. This process of slow decay is what adds to the aesthetic value of the classical ruins, and it is exactly this aspect that cannot be efficiently “recreated” artificially, for example, when building fake ruins that were very popular in the 18th-century landscape gardens. As I analyse it more in detail in Chapter 3, the forced attempt of evoking nostalgic feelings through these artificial ruins can only lead to an unsuccessful aestheticisation of the past.

Therefore we can claim that ruins’ potential lies in their capability of the aesthetic manifestation of this passing of time. This time-reference is spectacularly visible and observable through the layers, both in literal and metaphorical sense. The physical layers in architecture are normally invisible while the building is ←19 | 20→intact, but during the ruination process they become apparent and perceptible. The dilapidation process is a kind of spontaneous peeling off of the building, and this slow decomposition lets the edifice’s structural composition visible. This can start, for instance, with the roof, to be continued with the deconstruction of the walls and of the floor. The paint, the plaster and the constructing elements behind them (stone, wood, brick, etc.) decay casually and in completely different rhythms, and this randomness contributes in great part to the picturesque result. The possibility of observing these layers contributes to the visual experience and hence to the aesthetic potential of the ruin.

As of the “metaphorical” layers however, we can experience that observing the physical layers of the building that become visible during the ruination process is a bit like visualising the temporal layers of the passing time. Through the ruins we have a complex structure and interplay of time-segments: (1) the time of the construction of the original building, (2) the life of the edifice while it had properly served its original purpose, (3) the long time of its slow destruction, (4) the moments when we observe the ruin and (5) our own given time, that is so much less than the ruin’s existence between the phases of not-yet-ruin and not-anymore-ruin. In comparison to man’s life, ruins’ life is almost unimaginably long, semi-eternal, that is, as we have seen, the key to understanding ruins’ sublime effect. When encountering the ruin, we can really face time, and it lets us meditate on our historical and existential position in the world. And this does not have to remain a simple encounter and meditative experience, but already has a further “layer of potential”: we may develop occasions of dialogue with the immense amount of time that is embodied in the ruined building. We can even note instances of the use and abuse of this potential, i.e. of the self-manifestation of historical time in and through ruins, and how it can be modified or even falsified. For example, we can aesthetically confront the segments of time by organising art events among ruins: ancient and contemporary meet when we listen to concerts surrounded by ruins, watch open air cinema, see exhibitions or even visit art fairs, hosted in ruins or in modern buildings on their way of ruination. Hence by highlighting the difference between the various time-segments further and more sophisticated time-experience can be gained, which efficiently contributes to the aesthetic “efficiency” of the exhibited or presented artworks. On the other hand, abuse and unfair exploitation of the potential of ruins is, for example, when they are used as “historic scenery” or are reconstructed in a fake way or even intentionally built as fake to generate, modify or reinforce patriotic-nationalistic feelings related to the past.

Above we have differentiated between ruins and rubble. In this sense and argumentation ruins were considered aesthetically valuable, since in them ←20 | 21→and through them we are confronted with a historical perspective. Not simply because they are remnants from another, older age, but especially because their “classical”, natural – i.e. Nature-driven – and therefore slow ruination takes a long time. Similar considerations lead Marc Augé to his often-quoted statement from his 2003 book titled Le temps en ruins: “Future history will not create ruins any more. It will not have time for it.”9 In this (socio-)critical approach Augé indicated his twofold concerns: on the one hand questioning if we still have the same or at least a similar amount of time – a few millennia, like what divides us from Antiquity – that is required for the natural ruination to have aesthetically pleasing remnants. On the other hand, he also doubts whether the non-places or “non-lieux”, which are typical of our times and that are being built on an ever-growing pace, have the potential at all to get derelict in a similar way as classical edifices.

All this explains that sudden ruination caused by natural catastrophes or human aggression is instant that results in rubble and debris that obviously does not evoke the same feelings and thus does not generate the same aesthetic fascination as that of ruins. Curiously, however, even if rubble does not register on the same scale as ruins do due to the aforementioned reason in the difference in the time required for their decay, they still might have some sort of “potential”, of which understanding Simmel’s considerations again seem very helpful. As he wrote about classical ruins: “For this reason, the ruins strikes us so often as tragic – but not as sad – because destruction here is not something senselessly coming from the outside but rather the realization of a tendency inherent in the deepest layer of existence of the destroyed.”10 Hence according to Simmel, facing the slow, gradual and natural ruins is tragic but not sad, since they appear as the manifestation of an unavoidable tendency, what’s more: law, of Nature to overcome our constructions. This is understandable following Simmel’s argumentation, as he famously interpreted architecture – at the beginning of the same essay – as a temporary balance between two opposite powers: “Architecture is the only art in which the great struggle between the will of the spirit and the necessity of nature issues into real peace, in which the soul in its upward striving and nature in its gravity are held in balance.”11 This is why for us, as much later observers, the manifestation of Nature’s law can appear as a potentially aesthetic ruin that is “tragic, but not sad” (Simmel). In fact, as it often happens, it can even ←21 | 22→provide us with a certain sense of consolation: perhaps it is exactly this added aesthetic value what helps us accepting the necessary decay that is apparent in the derelict sight.

However, in the sudden destruction of buildings or entire cities by natural catastrophes and especially by human violence, it is something that is considered not only tragic but explicitly sad too. And actually not only because in this case the decay does not appear as a “logical” and inherent consequence of a man-made construction being exposed to Nature’s forces, but exactly because of the unexpectedness of the decay. What’s more, this crucial emotive impact of the painful and traumatic experience when visiting and observing the recently and suddenly destroyed edifices and regions is explainable also through the greater grade of (possible) personal involvement in the decay. Direct and personal memories can be connected to the vanished buildings, or, even if not – i.e. if visiting the derelict sight as a stranger – the feeling itself that “it could have happened to me and to my home” is unsettlingly uncanny, hence the opportunity of the birth of a positive aesthetic appeal is excluded. The recentness or even too-closeness of the suddenly finished life is leading to a disturbing sensing of the suffering of others, out of which we are unable to develop any sort of approaches to debris and any reading of rubble that is “tragic but not sad”; it will inevitably be sad too. This differentiation in the approach towards classical ruins and debris we can also read in Jean Starobinski’s seminal book titled The Invention of Liberty: 1700–1789: “For a ruin to appear beautiful, the act of destruction must be remote enough for its precise circumstances to have been forgotten: it can be imputed to an anonymous power, to a featureless transcendent force – History, Destiny. We do not muse calmly before recent ruins, which smell of bloodshed: we clear them away as quickly as possible and rebuild.”12

We shall add to this, however, that – as Helmut Puff analysed it profoundly, referring to Simmel’s, Starobinski’s and Rose Macaulay’ converging considerations, and with regard to Maerten van Heemskerck’s well-known painting Self-portrait with Ruins from 1553 – this distinction between the two forms and results of dereliction was not always as common and especially as clear as now. For example, in the 16th century the interpretation of the classical ruination of the Coliseum and the recent war-related destruction of the same monument were less separated, and they could both appear in the era’s ruin-representations.13 From this it becomes evident that this differentiation between ←22 | 23→the aesthetic potential of ruins and its lacking in rubble is the result of historical awareness and consciousness, just like the managing of the different forms of architectural dereliction as we saw above with the same example of the Coliseum and its (ab)use of stone-mining.

When encountering various forms of ruins and architectural dereliction and with the development of historical awareness different aesthetic responses might be born. As we saw above, a pleasing aesthetic appearance cannot be attributed to debris, nevertheless curiously even such rubble might have a certain sort of potential that can have an impact on our self-understanding right through the sudden way of decomposition. In the classical ruins, when Nature peels off the physical layers that are thus gradually becoming visible, it will refer to the self-manifestation of the coexisting temporal layers of the past, but the immediate destruction of a building that results in rubble mixes up this temporal layeredness. Hence, just like the different architectural sections and physical layers of the edifice will be muddled up in a confusing and disorientating way in the debris, the same happens with the temporal shifts and layers that make us incapable of properly sensing and investigating the perspective towards the past. As a last chance of our self-defence against the chaos, we automatically try to incentivise our imagination while reflecting upon the mixed and missing dimensions. This is why, in case of rubble, the disturbing scene can lead to a strong and complex interplay of reality, imagination and (indirect) memory, even if, however, it will never let the viewer completely get distracted from sensing the tragic and sad appearance of the sight. We can find the careful description and explanation of this process in an essay by Jalal Toufic, with regard to the debris of Beirut’s downtown:

In 1992, Dîma al-Husaynî, then a fifth-year architecture student at the American University of Beirut, went, as part of an excursion by her class, to the destroyed city center, before the sandbag barricades were cleared and the area officially opened. The duty to look at the buildings from an architectural perspective and to position them within a mental map while the different regions were being mentioned (“This was Sûq at-Tawîla. This was Bâb Idrîs …”) entered into conflict with the emotional reverberation of these names, and the second- generation memories, imbibed from her parents, they elicited. The too-many stimuli with which she had to deal during the excursion left the whole episode in abeyance, making it very difficult to take stock of what occurred. Later, in her home, she tried to recall what she saw. Instead of the destroyed, deserted city center, it was the city center of the memories of her parents, the colorful, populated city center that sprang to her mind. It was with difficulty that she could recall the destroyed city center and superimpose it on the pre-war city center. This corroborates that there is a very old past that the present of ruins itself secretes, for indeed in that case it is natural that it would be more difficult to remember the destroyed city center, which is maybe ←23 | 24→as old as Baalbak, in any case older than the 1940s, than to remember the city center imbibed through the memories of the parents, hence which belongs to the 1960s, 1950s, 1940s. It was only by the third or fourth visit to that area that she really felt that the destroyed city center was the reality—what facilitated this realization was her noticing the presence of refugees in some of the destroyed buildings.14

The encountering with the recently and suddenly destroyed city centre could of course not generate an aesthetic appreciation of the sight, what’s more, it was even difficult to accept it as “reality”. The only way of having some relief from the confusing vision of the confused physical and temporal structures was to superimposing the imaginary view of “normality” on the abnormal. And, paradoxically, the only way to realise “reality”, the definite fact of the destruction of life, was to notice the continuation of life itself in the present and future: the using of the derelict spaces by refugees as temporary shelters.

From all this we can see that through their aesthetics or through the missing of this very aesthetic perspective there is a potential for learning from ruins, rubble and decay. Not each and every type and form of architectural dereliction and decay is aesthetic, and their appreciation and interpretation, as we have seen above, largely depends on the era’s historical sense regarding the function of these very remnants. Still, the various possibilities and modes of perceiving the layers of the past embedded and condensed in ruins and mixed up in rubble can definitely assist us in positioning ourselves in our temporal and historical perspective. Thus, when asking about their potential, we can say that ruins, even if transported into the imaginary dimensions of a (self)projected future, can help us in understanding our present through the analyses of our relationship to the past.

1Antonio Baratta, “Costantinopoli nel 1831, ossia Notizie esatte e recentissime intorno a questa capitale ed agli usi e costumi de’ suoi abitanti,” in Il romanzo di Costantinopoli. Guida letteraria alla Roma d’Oriente, ed. Silvia Ronchey and Tommaso Braccini (Torino: Einaudi, 2010), 85. (In my translation from the Italian).

2Brian Dillon, “Fragments from a History of Ruin,” Cabinet Magazine 20 (Winter 2005–2006): 55–60.

3See more details and analyses on the history of the representation of ruins in Michel Makarius, Ruins (Paris: Flammarion, 2004).

4The next four paragraphs regarding these three elements (functionlessness, absence and time) are following an earlier consideration of mine on ruins: Zoltán Somhegyi, “The Aesthetic Attraction of Decay. From the Nature of Ruins to the Ruins of Nature,” in Aesthetics in Action. International Yearbook of Aesthetics, Volume 18, ed. Krystyna Wilkoszewska (Krakow: Libron, 2015b), 319–326, especially 320–23.

5Robert Ginsberg, The Aesthetics of Ruins (Amsterdam–New York: Rodopi, 2004), 33 and 45.

6Georg Simmel, “The Ruin,” trans. David Kettler, in Georg Simmel 1858–1918. A Collection of Essays with Translations and Bibliography, ed. Kurt H. Wolff (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1959), 259 and 262.

7Paul Zucker, “Ruins – An Aesthetic Hybrid,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 20, no. 2 (Winter 1961): 128.

8Christopher Woodward, Tra le rovine. Un viaggio attraverso la storia, l’arte e la letteratura, trans. Libero Sosio (Parma: Ugo Guanda Editore, 2008), 15.

9Marc Augé, Rovine e macerie. Il senso del tempo, trans. Aldo Serafini (Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2004; orig. 2003), 137. (quoted in my translation from the Italian edition)

10Simmel, “The Ruin,” 263.

11Simmel, “The Ruin,” 259.

12Quoted in: Helmut Puff, “Self-Portrait with Ruins: Maerten van Heemskerck, 1553,” The Germanic Review 86 (2011): 271.

13Puff, “Self-Portrait with Ruins,” 271–272.

14Jalal Toufic, “Ruins,” in Thinking: The Ruin, ed. Matthew Gumpert and Jalal Toufic (Istanbul: Istanbul Studies Center, 2010), 37. ←24 | 25→

Zoltán Somhegyi

Glory Through Decay: Aesthetics Around Monuments and Their Ruination

Abstract: Monuments and memorials are primarily created to commemorate important figures or notable events. However, both in classical and contemporary art we can find works that apart from the primary functions of paying homage also investigate the very phenomenon of our intentions and modes of remembering, as well as the prospects of possibilities while doing so. These questions are in the focus of this chapter, especially with regard to a curious 18th-century series of paintings, the analyses of which will also help us in understanding further layers of significance of a contemporary piece too.

Keywords: monuments, memorials, remembering, allegorical tombs, David Shrigley, Owen McSwiny, Venice

Ketchup, milk, aspirin and Nutella. Just a few items from an average shopping list that any of us write on a regular basis. It becomes surprising though when we see the same items preserved and immortalised in one of the most noble forms possible: perpetuated on an impressive and several metres high granite block.

Such a particular monument waited the passers-by on the Doris C. Freedman Plaza in New York City’s Central Park throughout autumn and winter of 2016–2017: the British artist David Shrigley’s work titled Memorial that was eternalising a grocery shopping list.1 The large-size solid granite slab listed the casual elements needed for our everyday life with elegant and classical capital letters row by row. The work plays in a polite and witty way with the elaborated concept of public monuments. Obviously there is a curious and intellectually fertile dichotomy between the appearance and function of this art piece. Traditionally public monuments are erected in the memory of exceptional historical, political or cultural personalities or to commemorate particular historical events, thus making later generations remember them. In David Shrigley’s work however, this original purpose is then in diametric opposition with the radical ephemerality of the immortalised and commemorated content, i.e. with the items of the shopping list that are neatly inscribed, what’s more: carved, on the clean and perfectly flat surface of the monumental granite block. ←25 | 26→

David Shrigley’s satirically controversial work thus questions the function, possibilities and limits of the tradition of classical monuments. However, it is not only in contemporary art where we can find novel approaches in the interpretation of the act of commemorating, an act whose history is practically as long as humanity’s. Already in previous centuries we can see such works – either real, physical, three-dimensional constructions or pictorial representation of either actual or only imaginary memorials – that apart from the primary functions of paying homage to someone or keeping alive the memory of an event also investigate the very phenomenon of our intentions and modes of remembering, as well as the prospects of possibilities while doing so. These questions will be in the focus of this chapter, especially with regard to a curious 18th-century series of paintings, used as a case study, the analyses of which will at the end also help us in understanding further layers of significance of the contemporary piece too.

The reasons for the perpetually active interest in the purpose of monuments in general and in the boundaries of the function of these commemorative pieces in particular come from the fact that monuments themselves often have a rather awkward relationship to memory and to the process or imperative of remembering. Monuments are ideated, created and erected to commemorate, but in this way something curious happens: they almost contribute, at least indirectly, to the forgetting of the person or event to be remembered. Through the particular externalisation of the act, process and duty of memorisation, one tends to forget and leave behind the subject of the monument: it is tempting to not memorise the historical event or figure, since the monument is standing there to eternalise them. This paradox relationship between the original intention of the monument – or, in fact, of its ideators and erectors – and its actual functioning is an often recurring element also in the theoretical investigations of the topic. When enquiring the reasons of this fading of monuments’ efficiency, there are several – though at the end rather converging – answers. Pierre Nora explains this phenomenon through the split between history and memory: the increasing importance that we give to the external signs, places, symbols and institutions of memory – what he calls “lieux de mémoire” – is a sign of the decrease of natural memory. In his words: “These lieux de mémoire are fundamentally remains, the ultimate embodiments of a memorial consciousness that has barely survived in a historical age that calls out for memory because it has abandoned it.”2 And this will lead to the vulnerability of monuments and of the memory that they were ←26 | 27→responsible to maintain. As Reinhart Koselleck formulated it: “More than anything else, memorials erected permanently testify to transitoriness.”3 This transitoriness and the gradually fading effect of the monument – as well as of the memory to whom or for what it was erected – can be explained by the rather quick familiarisation with these sites and the routine-like appearance of many monuments. When getting used to the commemorative construction, one tends not to perceive it any longer, as it was observed by Robert Musil already in 1927 in his often-quoted essay, where he defined monuments as “invisible”, being their most noticeable characteristic that of remaining unnoticed.4 However, as Aleida Assman reminds us in her recent book, further developing Musil’s considerations, it is not necessarily only the remembered person or event whose memory fades, but also the monument itself in its physicality can be destroyed, de-installed, completely changed, etc., and thus the original aims destined into forgetting.5 In certain cases, however, monuments can also have a revival and revaluation, occasionally with reopening discussions around them and with the reconsideration of the immortalised event or figure – of which even in these months we could quote examples from different countries around the world.

Therefore, apart from the not automatically evident eternity of the memory of the person or event that is commemorated – sometimes forcefully – through the erection of the monument, the monument itself as a physical object and tangible aid of remembering can also have its own lifespan. These two, i.e. the life of the monument and the grade of remembrance of the monument’s subject, are in many cases obviously directly intertwined, as Maria Inês Teixeira summarised it:

Monuments are living entities. Apart from the predictable observation that they carry meanings, tell stories and make great pictures, monuments have strikingly well-defined life traces – they are pre-conceived, born, they live and are perceived in a specific way during their lifetime, and then they die. They fall as the regime that gave them meaning perishes; as the ideals that gave birth to them become more and more obsolete; as the soldier or doctor that borrowed his name to them is slowly forgotten.6 ←27 | 28→

Hence although planned for eternity and eternalising the commemorated subject, monuments too might fade, sometimes rather quickly, and sometimes even arriving to physical decay before the remembrance of their subject perishes from the collective memory of the community who erected them.

Despite this aforementioned intertwined relationship between the physical state or integrity of the monument and the grade of remembering its subject, glory – i.e. the survival of glory – and physical decay do not automatically have to exclude each other. As we can observe in many intriguing cases in classical arts as well as in contemporary representations, decay is not necessarily negative, neither “emotionally” nor “iconographically”, and this stands for the art of and around monuments too. Both in the viewer’s emotive response and in the reading of the work, decay can have a specific function. Apart from the self-referential showing of the result of the passing time, decay also alludes to the reasons of this very dereliction itself. The powers of Nature that destroy a human artefact – let it be only an object, a monument or on a larger scale a building complex or even a complete city – always provide us with an ambiguous feeling: on the one hand we regret the destruction of our (and our predecessors’) efforts, in other words: the obvious failure of our attempt of creating something everlasting, while on the other hand we admire the amount of passed time that is manifested through the signs of this very ruination. These complex emotional responses arise both when visiting real, actual ruins and when we observe them through a representation, practically indifferently if they are representations of existing ruins or imaginary ones.

We can see these aesthetically stimulating two phenomena, glory and decay, incorporated or even synthesised in a really special group of images from the 18th century that in the following pages I would like to suggest investigating as a thrilling case study. The series of paintings come from the early decades of the Settecento that was, as it is known, the period that provided some of the most significant works in the history of appreciation of ruins. In previous centuries, especially from the Renaissance onwards, the Antique remnants signified an invaluable source of inspiration for architects and artists, surviving elements from the ideal and idealised past to be measured, investigated, documented or even deciphered as a preferred activity of the cultivated Humanists. In the 18th century, however, the classical remains’ meaning and function – just as their “applicability” in the various forms of both architectural and pictorial representation – got even more complex, they could serve as picturesque elements in Rococo contexts, while later in Romanticism they had become warning signs of a not necessarily awaited, though often anticipated and inevitable future. ←28 | 29→

The series of paintings whose contextualised analyses is at the core of this chapter illustrates this passage, standing at the transition period when Antique-style ruins were still regarded as an ultimate canon and source to be at least inspired by – if not even directly to be copied or imitated. However, they also started to be considered fascinating though melancholic reminders of the transience, as proto-Romantic signs of Nature’s overwhelming power on human artefacts and creations. This group of amazing images examined here is intriguing because of several reasons: first, because of the curious story behind the commission of the pictures and the unusual way of how the singular works were required to be executed. Second, because of the particular use of ruined – even if fictive – Antique motives and their contribution to the general aesthetic efficiency of both the singular images and the whole series. In the following I shall discuss these aspects before examining the appearance, features and role of ruination, as well as its connection to memory and the concept of monuments; let’s have an overview of the history of this particular commissioning of the group of paintings.

The so-called Allegorical Tombs is a series of large-size paintings executed in the beginning of the 18th century. The ideator and commissioner behind the series was Owen McSwiny (1676–1754), a bankrupt Irish impresario who fled from his creditors to Italy in the 1710s. Here he commissioned many of the top-ranked artists of his time, including the Venetian Antonio Canal or Canaletto, Giambattista Pittoni, Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, Sebastiano Ricci and Marco Ricci, Giovanni Battista Cimaroli as well as the Bolognese Donato Creti, Francesco Monti, Nunzio Ferrajoli, Pietro Paltronieri and Carlo Besoli, to create paintings representing elegant tombs to commemorate some of the famous personalities of British history, politics, science and culture who contributed to the flourishing of England since the 1688 Revolution. McSwiny was then planning to sell the whole series to the Duke of Richmond. The impressive number of commissioned top-end artists is understandable for several reasons: first of the relatively large size of the singular images (most of them ca. 220 x 130 cm) and the planned 24 pieces of the whole series. Besides this however, McSwiny also needed many artists due to another requirement that turns out to be one of the many aesthetically thrilling features of the series: he commissioned the same-format and same-size images in such a way that – except a few cases – each picture should be executed by three different artists, one of them painting the figures, another one the architectural details while a third one the natural scenery around and behind them. Thus practically each image was supposed to be the collaborative production of several artists. This is quite surprising and rare, although not entirely exceptional. Without entering in details – although due to its particularity an own essay could be dedicated just to the analyses of ←29 | 30→this aspect of cooperation between the artists and its aesthetics consequences – we can remember that there are some examples of similar collaboration from the 17th and 18th centuries; however, normally these involved only two painters, for example, Gaspard Dughet (landscape) and Carlo Maratta (figures) in mythological scenes in the 1660s or Antonio Visentini and Francesco Zuccarelli in a series of architectural paintings in the 1740s.

Biographical notes

Max Ryynänen (Author) Zoltan Somhegyi (Author)

Max Ryynänen is Senior Lecturer of theory of visual culture and the head of the MA program Visual Culture and Contemporary Art at Aalto University. Zoltán Somhegyi is a Hungarian art historian and Assistant Professor at the College of Fine Arts and Design of the University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates.


Title: Learning from Decay