Learning from Decay

Essays on the Aesthetics of Architectural Dereliction and Its Consumption

by Max Ryynänen (Author) Zoltan Somhegyi (Author)
©2018 Monographs 118 Pages


Architectural decay as well as the reasons, effects, appearance and representation of ruination have always been important sources of understanding the state of our culture. The essays in this co-written book offer broad perspectives on the potential of ruins, on the use and appropriation of derelict architecture and on the aesthetics and also touristification of places by analysing a variety of phenomena in the range from classical to fake ruins, from historic city centres to hot dog stands, from debris to theme parks. The survey travels from Tallin through Venice and Istanbul to Beirut, discussing among others actual spaces, allegorical monuments and nostalgic aestheticisations of the past in high and popular culture, thus showing numerous inspiring opportunities of learning from decay.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Introduction: Learning from Decay – Learning What? And What for?
  • Layers of the Past: On the Potential of Ruins
  • Glory Through Decay: Aesthetics Around Monuments and Their Ruination
  • Shortcuts to Nostalgia?: On the Attempts of the Aestheticisation of the Past
  • Cheap Thrills: On Low Architectural Decay and Its Pleasures
  • The Most Serene Sinking Ruins: Fragments from the History of the Aesthetics of Venice
  • 5.1 Birth and Early Years
  • 5.2 From Marketplace to Ruin
  • 5.3 From Huns to Tourists
  • 5.4 Traffic and State of Life
  • Historical Cityscapes as Museums and Theme Parks
  • 6.1 The Aesthetic Attitude Towards Old Townships
  • 6.2 Masses, Elite Tourists and Inhabitants
  • 6.3 Theme Park and Museum as Frames and Horizons of Experience
  • 6.4 Rethinking Museum, Theme Park and Real City
  • Bibliography

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.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (December)
Ruins Architectural dereliction Historical cityscapes Monuments and memorials Aestheticisation of the past Popular culture
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 117 pp.

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
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
119 pages