BY Mark Morris in Culture Digest | 11 NOV 03
Featured in
Issue 79

Old before their time

Artificial ruins

BY Mark Morris in Culture Digest | 11 NOV 03

When the architecture and design group SITE was commissioned to create a series of supermarkets for the American company Best Products in the late 1970s, its response was to envelop the shop floor in a structure that was already starting to fall apart. Each store was a mock ruin. The standard mall façades were shown to be crumbling, with the strip-mall's boxy silhouette recast as a miniature mountain range. An avalanche of white brick typically announced entry and the broken-tooth gap left above functioned as a curious new logo for the company - an absent keystone. Photographed in the right light, these buildings looked like glaciers floating their way through oceans of asphalt car parks. They were, in their own way, stunning.

The problem with mock ruins is, of course, how badly they tend to age. On a recent visit to Stowe Park in Buckinghamshire I saw signs announcing that the 'ruin' at the edge of the site couldn't be visited as it was 'under refurbishment'. Ruins, the faux ones anyway, only look right when they are kept in mint condition. Real ruins, on the other hand, age well; that is to say, they are materially up to the task of falling apart gracefully. Adolf Hitler's architect Albert Speer fantasized about how his designs for Nuremberg's Zeppelin Field (1934-7) would appear as eventual ruins, but later admitted the shoddy level of construction would have undermined his vision. He didn't have to wait long to see this proved. Classical or Gothic ruins benefit from being made of stone. Until acid rain began to fall in Athens and Rome, everybody was happy to let antique buildings slowly ebb away. Now the better ruins get glass boxes to stop the fun.

But SITE took little inspiration from ruins, real or sham. Rather, the characteristic jagged walls they introduced with Best (at Houston, Texas; Richmond, Virginia; and Sacramento, California) can be found in Joseph Michael Gandy's dreamy Regency painting of Sir John Soane's design for the Bank of England (1788-1833). The image was meant to show off construction details and fireproofing innovations. Gandy bested Soane with an evocative scene of the complex after the apocalypse. Every wall here becomes a slumped battlement; only the arches are left standing.

That 1970s relic the strip-mall was merely the poor man's mall-mall: a covered, secure, environmentally controlled oasis or hell, depending on your worldview. But there is now a new mall type appearing in America that reverts to the strip-mall in certain respects. The new mall isn't covered; it's a ring of wagons whose centre mimics a town square (parking is banished beyond view outside the circle). Once you have left your car and made your way into this square, the effect is pleasant enough. It feels like you're on a film set where the hodgepodge of a real town square has been sanded down and everything is new again. There are even staged vendors deposited in the square at Christmas, selling roasted chestnuts and singing carols.

In my home town, where the local economy can support two malls, there are now 12. As each new mall is built the others stagger back down a list of creeping oblivion. What was the nicest place in town to score a pair of shoes suddenly becomes passé when the next mall is built. And there's nothing scarier than a real mall in ruin, full of 'outlet shops' and devoid of 'anchor' stores. Hipsters say they can just tell the instant a club isn't cool anymore. You can also tell with malls.

Things take a turn when the new mall isn't so new. When the paint starts to peel or a crisp corner is dented (how hard is it to dent concrete?), the writing is on the walls. The film-set square only works so long as everything is pristine, whereas a real town square can tolerate, even be enhanced by, a degree of visual clutter. Where covered malls could protect shop-fronts from premature ageing, the new outdoor breed cannot. A covered mall's age is better determined by a lapse in the style of its décor; the new mall type will never get that chance. Its ruin will be told in the tiniest things: the yellowing lawn, the broken door handle or missing light bulb, the insincerity of the chestnut vendor.

Robert Harbison, critiquing the Best stores, asked, 'Who would have thought that contemporary American shoppers could entertain simultaneously the consumer's fiction of shiny function and fantasies of decay?' Well, they couldn't. Other chains have surpassed Best, and SITE's Postmodern quip is one for the architectural history books. But what a surprise that is in and of itself. Given the glacial cycle of architectural history book editions, a Best store is still the last image to be found in many of them. It neatly casts a shadow back to the start of the book, back to the first illustrations of the ruins on the Acropolis.

Both Harbison and Christopher Woodward, in his new book In Ruins (2003), reference Soane's own house in Lincoln's Inn Fields as a mock ruin par excellence. It is. When Soane's ruins age - as with the little courtyards open to the sky wedged between his cluttered rooms - they manage to do so without fault; his is a Sophia Loren among buildings. Even the to-scale architectural models scattered about patina well, not to mention the casts and real Antique fragments Soane collected and displayed over every available surface. Maybe Gandy didn't so much best Soane as up the ruinous stakes. Woodward writes: 'To a poet, the decay of a monument represents the dissolution of the individual ego in the flow of Time; to a painter or architect, the fragments of a stupendous antiquity call into question the purpose of their art.' For Soane, as well as SITE, the fragment was the purpose. Thank goodness for the now dated photographs in the history books. The Best stores today are ruins all over again, but not in the way that SITE intended.