BY Brian Dillon in Features | 01 APR 10
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Issue 130

Decline and Fall

Tracing the history of ruins in art, from 18th-century painting to 21st-century film

BY Brian Dillon in Features | 01 APR 10

‘I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame. What’s left us then?’
James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)

In 1953, at a time when much of Europe still lay in ruins and the spectre of atomic war loomed ever larger, the English novelist and travel writer Rose Macaulay published Pleasure of Ruins, her classic study of the aesthetics of destruction.1 In a fastidious and, at times, eccentrically written book, she traces the development of a taste for desuetude from Renaissance dream narratives to the ‘heartless pastime’ pursued by Henry James on his travels in Italy. It is not until the final pages that Macaulay acknowledges she is writing among modern examples, and then only – in a short ‘note on new ruins’ – to claim that the wreckage caused by bombing in World War II lacks the proper obscurity to qualify as pleasing decay: ‘Ruin must be a fantasy, veiled by the mind’s dark imaginings.’2 According to Macaulay, the ruined houses, shops and churches of London, Hamburg, Coventry and Dresden would need to be softened by nature and time before being elected to a canon that includes Pompeii and the Parthenon. Macaulay’s language, however, suggests that the wreckage she sees around her enthralls her. Of a bombed-out house, she writes with some lyricism: ‘The stairway climbs up and up, undaunted, to the roofless summit where it meets the sky.’3

Jane and Louise Wilson, Sealander, 2006. Production still. Courtesy: 303 Gallery, New York, and the artists.

Macaulay’s ambivalence about the status of the modern ruin – her own home and library were destroyed in the Blitz – indicates a fundamental confusion at the heart of the Ruinenlust that gripped European art and literature for centuries. In a highly refined and historically precise form, a version of that admiration for decay seems to have seized artists internationally in recent years: we might think, for example, of works as diverse as Roger Hiorns’ Seizure (2008), installed in a decayed London flat, and Joel Meyerowitz’ frankly picturesque photographs of Ground Zero. In other cases, such as Runa Islam’s film of the Museum of the 20th Century in Vienna, Empty the pond to get the fish. (2008), the ruin in question is explicitly that of a mid-century Modernism. Some broad themes survive in this newly desolate but fantastical landscape: on the one hand, the ruin appears to point to a deep and vanished past whose relics merely haunt the present, reminding us of such airy and perennial themes as the hubris of Man and the weight of History. On the other, ruins seem to traffic with the modern, and with the future, in ironic and devious ways. At its height, for example, the ‘ruin lust’ of the 18th century cast itself imaginatively centuries hence: Hubert Robert painted the Louvre in ruins while Joseph Gandy (at the instruction of its architect Sir John Soane) imagined the newly built Bank of England laid waste as if by some future cataclysm. Ruins seem, in fact, intrinsic to the projects of modernity and, later, Modernism.

For sure, the past century did not lack for straightforwardly kitsch or nostalgic versions of the taste for ruins. The most notorious example is Albert Speer’s concept of ‘ruin value’, according to which the monumental architecture of Welthauptstadt Germania – Hitler’s projected replacement of Berlin as Germany’s capital city – was conceived with an eye to its future picturesque decay. In the realm of ruin theory, the sociologist Georg Simmel, in his 1911 essay ‘The Ruin’, still adhered to the Romantic notion that decaying buildings and monuments embodied a one-way slump of the artificial into the chaos of Nature.4 But as several contributors to Ruins of Modernity (2009) – a collection of essays published by Duke University Press and edited by Julia Hell and Andreas Schönle – point out, a keen interest in the art and utility of ruination was also essential to more than one strand of modern thought and practice. Revisiting the classical fragments drawn by Piranesi, Andreas Huyssen concludes that ‘a past embodied in ruined and memory-laden architecture seems to tower over the present of the Enlightenment’.5

But the more pressing instance appears much later, in the frank catastrophism of Le Corbusier. In his essay ‘Air War and Architecture’, Anthony Vidler avers of the projected ville radieuse: ‘The past was either eradicated or transformed, in an 18th-century manner, into ruin fragments in the park […] The city [had] become no more nor less than a cemetery of its own past.’6 In the immediate postwar period, Vidler argues, these vistas of rubble were realities, and the prospect of a vastly more destructive nuclear future consequently haunts the bunker-like Brutalist architecture of, among others, Peter and Alison Smithson.

Such retrospective diagnoses of Modernism’s reliance on ruins actually say little new, though, when viewed from the perspective of postwar art and – especially – in light of a certain contemporary ruin lust. The artistic, literary and theoretical touchstones of the renascent interest in ruins are perhaps too familiar, but worth rehearsing if one wishes to get some critical purchase on the most recent developments, newly invested as those are in a view of Modernism from the vantage of at least half a century. The pre-history of the current craze for modern ruins could be pinpointed to October 1967, with Robert Smithson’s Artforum essay on ‘The Monuments of Passaic’, a text (and photographs) in which the whole of Smithson’s cod-baroque melding of 1960s urban decay and industrial picturesque is forced into the ironic form of an excursion to the New Jersey hinterland where he was born.7 Smithson’s project in that essay (and others of the late 1960s) is explicitly allied with the fiction of J.G. Ballard, whose fantasias of high-rise anomie and ex-urban isolation have likewise not ceased to inspire enthusiasts of the modern ruin. Urban theorist Paul Virilio could join this visionary pairing; his Bunker Archaeology – published in France in 1975 and in English translation in 1994 – was inspired by his first tours, in the late 1950s, of the abandoned bunkers and gun emplacements that comprised the Nazis’ defensive Atlantic Wall on the French coast.8 Virilio treats these littoral relics as if they are both evidence of a lost civilization and avatars of his own avowedly Corbusian architectural practice. But they seem also to promise an alien architecture to come; they are, in short, ruins as much of the future as of living memory.

Martha Ross, How Do We Know What Home Looks Like?, 1993. Video still. Courtesy: Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York, and the artist.

To a large degree, it was this trio of artistic and theoretical reference points that ghosted the ruin-fixated art of the last decades of the 20th century, though some of it engaged in a less mediated way the wreckage of the recent past. In a work such as Martha Rosler’s 1993 video How Do We Know What Home Looks Like?, the decayed and contested architecture of Modernism appears both outdated and up-for-grabs: a fading Utopian inheritance that barely hangs on to its (then routinely disparaged) potential for collective aspiration. Rosler’s intimate exploration of Le Cobusier’s Unité d’Habitation at Firminy-Vert, in south-central France, showed a dilapidated building that had been in part redecorated by its tenants (as per conservative clichés about the impersonality of high-rise living) with aspirantly bourgeois wallpapers and private souvenirs, but still retained a sense of embattled technological community, typified by the radio station installed on its roof. It was, however, among artists who referred, directly or obliquely, to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc that the theme of ruin flourished in the 1990s and beyond. Tacita Dean’s film Sound Mirrors (1999) broods over the remains of British prewar acoustic early-warning technology that seemed to presage the silos and satellite dishes of the Cold War, while later Berlin-based films such as Fernsehturm (Television Tower, 2001) and Palast (Palace, 2004) more readily reflect on the ageing or half-demolished architecture of the East. That strand of explicitly Ballardian ruin lust has continued, too, in certain works by Jane and Louise Wilson – notably, their treatment of Victor Pasmore’s Apollo Pavilion in the postwar town of Peterlee, UK, in A Free and Anonymous Monument (2003), and their own return to the Atlantic Wall in Sealander (2006) – and in the ambitious project of the Center for Land Use Interpretation to document (among many other types of landscape) the defunct sites and artefacts left behind by the US nuclear weapons and space programmes in the second half of the 20th century.

If such works courted a kind of military–industrial sublime, and risked at their most self-aware a type of nostalgia, it is surely this latter element that has come to the fore, in more or less self-conscious or critical forms, in the last few years. The variously thoroughgoing or superficial archaeology of architectural and artistic Modernism that has exercised so many artists in the last decade is patently, on one level, a discourse on ruins in a Romantic mode. At first glance, the assertion that ‘modernity is our antiquity’ (as one of the guiding rubrics of Documenta 12 had it) allows for a potentially endless poring over the rubble, and the discovery time and again of our melancholy distance from the formal ambition or political charge of the modern. There is a definite pleasure in this, and one not to be merely disparaged, even as group shows dedicated to the ‘modern ruin’ – the title itself has become ubiquitous – proliferate with, given their subject, a somewhat ironic energy. There is a lot to be said for wallowing, after all. But an attitude of mourning, or downright depressive longing, for the lost object of Modernism, is not the avowed aim of much of this work. Rather, so the curatorial language has it, what is called for is a re-animation (or maybe occult conjuring) of the corpse of Modernism – or, better, of the latent and so far unfulfilled life embodied in its ruins. This raises some taxing problems, not least the question of what one does with the fact, neatly adumbrated by Huyssen and Vidler, that the claim to revivify the ruins of the past was itself a stereotypically Modernist one. At every turn – even, or perhaps especially, when it asserts its hostility to mere revivalism – the contemporary ruin gaze is seemingly mired in a revivalist nostalgia.

One plausible route out of that predicament seems to lie in uncovering occluded aspects of Modernism, often in the form of structures and artefacts that either arise from alternative traditions in the last century or from complex sets of artistic and political relations at the edges of a Eurocentric or mostly masculine canon. The imbrication of Modernism in late or post-colonial contexts is one productive strand of such researches and practice. The photographs, drawings and scale models in Ângela Ferreira’s installation Maison Tropicale (Tropical House, 2007), for example, trace the design and deployment by Jean Prouvé, in the late 1940s, of prefabricated metal dwellings in Niger and in the Republic of the Congo. The post-colonial export of Prouvé’s Modernist housing is mirrored in its peremptoriness by the removal and sale of the prototype buildings on the art market half a century later. A project such as Ferreira’s acknowledges at once the Utopian impulse behind the design, its abstract imposition on the landscape and the depredations of a newly globalized economy that leaves in its wake only a vacant tract of rubble and rusted reinforcement.

Gerard Byrne, New Sexual Lifestyles, 2003. DVD still. Courtesy: Lisson Gallery, London, and the artist.

Certain Modernist structures seem primed, in their very dilapidation and the fog of rumour and misinformation that surrounds them, for such recuperative and corrective treatment. E1027, the celebrated but still mysterious house that the Irish furniture designer Eileen Gray completed near Monaco in 1929, is a particularly resonant case in point. The building, badly decayed and only recently renovated, was for decades wrongly attributed to Gray’s lover Jean Bodovici: a mistake their friend Le Corbusier, who knew the truth, did nothing to correct. (Le Corbusier, in fact, bitterly coveted the house and, to Gray’s fury, personalized it with his own murals; he subsequently built a cabin nearby and died while swimming in front of Gray’s masterpiece.) The Irish artist Laura Gannon’s two-screen Super-16 mm film installation A House in Cap-Martin (2007) captured E1027 as a collection of mournful details – rusting window frames and spalling white render, a sunken solarium filled with autumn leaves – while Susanne M. Winterling’s Eileen Gray; The Jewel and Troubled Water (2008), installed at the 5th Berlin Biennial, combined a sculpture of Gray’s solarium, photographs of the designer and related artefacts, with two 16mm films of condensation on the windows of the atmospherically dysfunctional Neue Nationalgalerie where it was on show. Perhaps the most interesting intervention in Gray’s story, however, has been that of another Irish artist, Sarah Browne, whose installation for the Irish pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009, Carpet for the Irish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, included a searching letter to the deceased Gray, in which Browne explored the designer’s ambiguous place in the history alike of Modernism and Irish cultural heritage.

This kind of tangential address to the extant remains of architectural Modernism is another alternative to nostalgic rapture in the face of austere decay. Gerard Byrne, whose art has long evinced an interest in postwar Modernism, has, at the same time, almost wholly eschewed the sort of reverence that has become the reflex response to monolithic settings in melancholy distress. In fact, the buildings in which several of Byrne’s videos have been shot – notably New Sexual Lifestyles (2003), filmed in the Goulding Summer House, a restored Miesian glass-and-steel pavilion in the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains in Ireland – are not really ruins in the material sense; rather, they appear confusedly out of time, caught in the anachronic web of artistic, intellectual and pop-cultural history that the artist spins around them. His film installation subject (2009), shown at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds last year, was an oblique response to the architecture of the University of Leeds: a campus whose architects, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, are best known for the soft-Ballardian Barbican complex in London. Byrne’s Brechtian repurposing of texts from the university’s archives as naive acting exercises seemed to place the hushed lecture theatres and sparse plazas of the campus in a curious non-time derived from the postwar history of student activism and civic or institutional paternalism.

What’s clear from work like Byrne’s is that, at one level, the most sophisticated response to the modern or Modernist ruin is to neutralize its nostalgic charge with other modes of time travel. Though that is not to say that there is not still mileage in facing down the ruins of even the most familiar 20th-century iconography. Bernd Behr’s Weimar Villa (2010), for example, juxtaposes the construction of a Bauhaus-themed gated community in China (designed by none other than Albert Speer Jr.) with the exhumation of one of Walter Gropius’ Master Houses in Dessau, once inhabited by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. And Cyprien Gaillard’s film Pruitt Igoe Falls (2009) rhymes the 2008 demolition of the Sighthill tower block in Glasgow with the destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1972: an event that Charles Jencks notoriously claimed marked the terminal point of the entire Modernist adventure. The most provocative recent take on that subject has been that of a critic, not an artist, and one who acknowledges that there may yet be some radical force left in the ruin-nostalgia that so many artists are so keen to disavow even as they mine the last seam of its art-world popularity. Owen Hatherley’s book, Militant Modernism (2009), is, among other things, an argument for the precisely political valence of a backward look at the ruins of Modernism, directed, in his case, at the ghosts of Britain’s postwar social-democratic romance with Brutalist housing.9 As Hatherley puts it in a passage that is both knowingly indebted to the ruin lust of the Romantic past and determinedly oriented to the future: ‘Brutalism is not so much ruined as dormant, derelict – still functioning even in a drastically badly treated fashion, and as such ready to be recharged and reactivated. This rough beast might still slouch towards a concrete New Jerusalem.’10 It remains to be seen whether, in contemporary art, the archaeology of modern ruins has exhausted its moment, or whether it’s exactly in its late phase that it may yet unearth traces of that future.

1 Rose Macaulay, Pleasure of Ruins, Thames & Hudson, London, 1984
2 Ibid., pp. 454–5
3 Ibid., pp. 454–5
4 Georg Simmel, ‘The Ruin’, in Essays on Sociology, Philosophy and Aesthetics, ed. Kurt H. Wolff, Harper & Row, New York, 1965, p. 259
5 Andreas Huyssen, ‘Authentic Ruins: Products of Modernity’, ibid., p. 26
6 Anthony Vidler, ‘Air War and Architecture’, ibid., p. 34
7 Robert Smithson, ‘A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic’, Artforum, October 1967. Reprinted as ‘A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey’, in Robert Smithson, Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1996,
pp. 68–74
8 Paul Virilio, Bunker Archaeology, trans. George Collins, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1994

9 Owen Hatherley, Militant Modernism, Zero Books, Winchester, 2009. Hatherley’s more extensive and detailed treatment of the wake of that brief moment of official Utopianism is forthcoming in A Tour of the New Ruins of Great Britain, to be published by Verso later in 2010.
10 Ibid., p. 42

Brian Dillon is a writer. His latest book Affinities: On Art and Fascination will be published in spring 2023 by the New York Review of Books and Fitzcarraldo Editions, London. He is working on a book about Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love.