Buildings surround us, intact and crumbling structures measured by the dynamic process of weathering and time. Whatever defenses man constructs, in time the roof shall be stripped away, the walls crumble, the doors swing wide and hollow, the windows break. The force of nature and the entropy of weather shall prevail.
Ruins may be the real remnants of previous inhabitations, or artifice and conceit. Confected from scavenged bricks and forms stolen from the past, the picturesque quality depends not a bit on the authenticity, but on the setting. British ruin-lust began in 1716 with Lord Bathurst and Alexander Pope’s Albert Hall, the first truly “Gothic” playhouse found in a gentleman’s garden, and then the fashion exploded: crenellations with inconstant proportions, “medieval” windows too large to defend against arrows, octagonal towers beneath high escarpments, accompanied by none of the true defensive features. A stable government precluded the need for fortification, and so gentlemen who might otherwise have fought turned to manufacturing the receipts of war; but gently, so that they might become the backdrop for frolics and picnics and gaiety.
The cult of melancholy extended through garden design at Stowe and Stourhead to leave its mark on follies, through literature and theatre, the poems of Wordsworth and Coleridge and Eliot, and in art. Horace Walpole developed the Gothic Revival in form, through architecture at Strawberry Hill, and in fiction in The Castle of Otranto. His novel blends supernatural fantasy with romance, populated by enough plot twists to keep Shakespeare happy; scenes take place in a mouldering castle near an empty church, a stone tower and dismal dungeon, and a hillside cave, all places rife with the echoes of former lives, appropriate backdrops to launch the Gothic novel craze. The eccentric settings for his real-life existence harnessed the irregularity of a great work built over centuries, his version instead constructed between 1749 and 1776. Fan-vaulting, engraved tombs, fretwork, arched windows and turrets became an “oracle of style and taste” which many of his peers in Parliament and others followed.
The architect Sir John Soane also wrote fiction, in “Crude Hints towards the History of My House,” the story of his return to the ruins of home following a tragedy; but he is best known as a collector of antiquarian elements from ancient buildings, filling his house with sarcophagi and sculptures, paintings, scrollwork, brackets, baubles, and ephemera. Soane was appointed the architect of the Bank of England from 1788 until his retirement in 1833, rebuilding nearly every part of the three-acre site. War with France threatened security of the bank and vaults, so he devised an interior-focused arrangement of corridors, courts, and skylit banking halls behind a fortified and windowless screen wall. During his tenure as surveyor, he commissioned Joseph Gandy to paint the stalwart Bank in ruins, a cutaway view for his own delight, his personal Pompeii.
Soane had actual pieces of the abandoned city within his vast collection. Fragments of ancient cultures, from Egypt to Rome and Athens, framed Soane’s Neo-Classical penchant; for an antiquarian, they created a wistful self-portrait of desires and obsessions, stability, and a tangible connection to history.
Travellers to Rome brought back so many fragments of the temples and monuments, it is surprising that there is anything at all left to visit. Sigmund Freud wrote in Civilization and its Discontents, “we cannot help wondering what traces of those early stages can still be found by a modern visitor to Rome – whom we will credit with the best historical and topographical knowledge. He will see Aurelian’s wall virtually unchanged, save for a few gaps. Here and there he will find stretches of the Servian wall that have been revealed by excavations.… One need hardly add that all these remnants of ancient Rome appear as scattered fragments in the jumble of the great city that has grown up in recent centuries, since the Renaissance.”[i]
Tours of the monuments of Rome have long been a design-school requirement, the grand tour, a pilgrimage to the places where architecture was born. Why do we bother with ruins? Is it to experience the visceral impact of history? To imagine the horrors of the past in contrast to our naïve and colorless lives? To acknowledge that perfection (or completeness) can never address our deepest desires? The sense that our own fragile body has survived beyond the demolition of such an imposing and permanent thing as a structure, imparts a wicked frisson of delight.
In many places in Rome, what we see in ruins is the structure beneath the artifice, the underpinnings of brick and tufa and cement once invisible beneath the noble sheets of marble and travertine. “There is anyway something peculiarly mournful about them; they are so sober and tidy, you feel the hand of the workmen in them more than anywhere else, the little individual moment of skill and patience, and probably haste too… spent on something never meant to be seen, and that was never seen again, once the workman was through, until the whole tragedy had been finished for so long the place was anybody’s to go picking around in.”[ii]
Adolf Hitler was obsessed with the ruins he visited in Rome. In 1938 he visited Benito Mussolini in Rome, commanding his attentions for a tour of the city’s great monuments. His state architect, Albert Speer, had proposed “Teorie von Ruinwert” (A Theory of Ruin Value) in 1934, requiring the use of marble, stone, and brick in new edifices, so that they would someday resemble their Roman counterparts. “The idea was that buildings of modern construction were poorly suited to form that ‘bridge of tradition’ to future generations which Hitler was calling for. It was hard to imagine that rusting heaps of rubble could communicate these heroic inspirations which Hitler admired in the monuments of the past. My ‘theory’ was intended to deal with this dilemma. By using special materials and by applying certain principles of statics, we should be able to build structures which even in a state of decay, after hundreds or (such were our reckonings) thousands of years would more or less resemble Roman models…. (Hitler) gave orders that in the future the important buildings of his Reich were to be erected in keeping with the principles of this ‘law of ruins’.” [iii]
In the end, very little remains of the work of the Fuhrer’s architect. The Nazi’s scorched earth policy, to destroy infrastructure to prevent its use by their enemies, was returned to them tenfold. The only projects of Speer’s that still exist today are a portion of the NurnbergZeppelinfeld and a double row of lampposts marking the Strasse des 17. Juni. Not much of a legacy for the man who envisioned the new wonders of the world, but the destruction of the Nazi monuments reflected the political will of the inheritors.
Durable structures of the past were planned to last the duration of an Empire, throughout the reign of dynasties. As the buildings of today decay, they are less likely to leave regal silhouettes for the tourists of the future. Robert Smithson writes, “Instead of causing us to remember the past like the old monuments, the new monuments seem to cause us to forget the future. Instead of being made of natural materials, such as marble, granite, (they are built with) plastic, chrome, and electric light. They are not built for the ages, but rather against the ages. They are involved in a systematic reduction of time down to fractions of seconds, rather than in representing the long spaces of centuries.”[iv]
How shall we design modern monuments with the great attraction of ruins? The American sculptor Robert Morris summarizes the visual register, “Approached with no reverence or historical awe, ruins are frequently exceptional spaces of unusual complexity, which offer unique relations between access and barrier, the open and the closed, the diagonal and the horizontal, ground plane and wall. Such are not to be found in structures that have escaped the twin entropic assaults of nature and the vandal.”[v]
Architects have certainly been accused of vandalizing context in the design of new structures, especially in the ragged forms of decontructivism. But we persist in the desire to create places with the timeless qualities which make them beloved by users, owners, and the community of critics at large. Not all architects are antiquarians, enamoured with details of dentils and moulding and captivated by broken shards; instead we transform these into new and glittering frames of light and mirror. Will these become the 200-year or 2,000-year structures of the future?
The manufacture of artificial ruins established an alternative history, and concocted a glorious heritage for newly minted gentlemen in the eighteenth century. Hitler looked to the future to glorify the present. For the real future of our buildings of today, the Romans shall give some indication: even if buildings are beloved, very few will survive the depredations of man and nature. The useful pieces will be carted away for re-use, scattering the building DNA across the globe, but leaving little trace on the sites where they once stood in their families of stone and brick. It is the triumph of time over strength.