“Beauty has never been absolute and immutable but has taken on different aspects depending on the historical period and the country” – Umberto Eco
In Italian Hours Henry James wrote that “to delight in the aspects of sentient ruin might appear a heartless pastime, and the pleasure, I confess, shows the note of perversity.” Perversity is perhaps the correct term for interest in decay and ruins, in spite of figures like Midas Dekkers who are prepared to see such matters in a Heraclitean spirit of celebrating cycles of destruction and renewal. Dekkers cites the example of how the bombing of the Natural History Museum during the blitz led to the rebirth of ancient silk tree seeds from China, woken by the fire brigade’s hoses. Modern society, according to Dekkers, is obsessed with realising the dreams of Dorian Gray, in opposition to earlier conventions of memento mori; the skull in Holbein’s paintings or Donne’s tolling bell. Seeing, as Eliot had it, the skull beneath the skin.
In practice though, although few can bring themselves to be so sanguine our interest in the derelict is rather more deep seated than Dekkers would have supposed. This may well be why I recently found myself standing amidst the burnt out remains of the Crystal Palace, originally built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. All that remains are a set of empty terraces, the sort of enigma that would leave archaeologists with endless speculation. The terraces of the Crystal Palace are graced with headless statues while Sphinxes guard the entrance way to nothingness. Based on the designs of ruined Egyptian temples, the Sphinxes seem entirely at home with their place amidst overgrown oak trees, returned to the same state as the Egyptian ruins they were based on. Behind the trees, a BBC transmitter mast now holds domain over the empty spaces of the park.
Some architecture has within it the potential for decay and ruin; the ruins of the gothic St Dunstan in the East wear their decay as if they had never been anything else, while the baroque ruins of Christchurch Greyfriars are decidedly ill at ease with their decline. As this was one of Wren’s attempts at gothic, decay seems to become it, with the walls and spire still standing while the interior was been turned into a garden; water trickles from a fountain while blue pansies flower where the pulpit would have been; a haven of peace and serenity. The foliage within the church is lush and verdant; it is, however, rather odd to look through the empty gothic arches and see banana trees and magnolias. The delicate vaulting of the white Portland stone almost looks like bleached bones.
Visiting these places, it’s rather difficult not to think of Albert Speer’s theory of ruin value:
“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.
To illustrate my ideas I had a romantic drawing prepared. It showed what the reviewing stand on the Zeppelin Field would look like after generations of neglect, overgrown with ivy, its columns fallen, the walls crumbling here and there, but the outlines still clearly recognizable. In Hitler’s entourage this drawing was regarded as blasphemous. That I could even conceive of a period of decline for the newly founded Reich destined to last a thousand years seemed outrageous to many of Hitler’s closest followers. But he himself accepted my ideas as logical and illuminating. He 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.’”
What often tends to be most disturbing about Nazi ideology is the manner in which it reflects other aspects of Romanticism that are deeply embedded in our culture, just as the spectre of communism casts a shade over certain Enlightenment ideals of progress. Consider the example of Joseph Gandy, the English Piranesi who illustrated John Soane’s designs. Like Gibbon contemplating the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, he had been on the grant tour to Rome where he had explored the Catacombs and the Appian way. At this point, much of Imperial Rome remained in a stated of unconserved decay, with the Colosseum, overwhelmed with trees, vines and other vegetation. The grand tour certainly marked an important point in the history of decay, transforming interest into the theoretical symmetry of classical architecture into an interest into the ruined state of the buildings themselves. In 1855, the English botanist Richard Deacon had published his Flora of the Colosseum, recording the 420 species of plant growing there. The six acres of flora included species so rare in Western Europe that their seeds must originally have been carried there, Deacon conjectured, by the animals imported from Asia and Africa for the city’s games and spectacles. Gandy returned to England and imagined it through the lens of what he had seen, transforming Soane’s Bank of England into a Roman ruin. Just as Speer drew Hitler’s imaginings of Berlin as Babylon, so did Gandy draw Soane’s vision of London as Rome. Nor was Gandy alone in this; the pretensions of the Holy Roman Empire to claim descent from Imperial Rome led to the Hapsburg dynasty building fake Roman ruins on their estate at Schoenbrunn. The Gothic revival in architecture was prefigured with the building of such counterfeits, whether at Pottsdam or at the Hell Fire Caves in Buckinghamshire. All over Europe, country houses acquiried gothic folloies and manufactured ruins, often sitting alongside classical temples in the Palladian vein.
Villages would be moved to make way for these vistas, with only the church for company as a reminder of where the village had once been. Sometimes bits of the cottages would be retained as romantic ruins, evacuated and aestheticised according to the picturesque tastes of the upper classes.
Prior to this, Burckhardt, writing in his The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, had spoken of the Renaissance had seen the ruins of Rome as of interest to patriots and historians rather than to pilgrims, citing the example of Petrarch and of the unearthing of the corpse of a Roman woman whose remains were treated with as much veneration as those of a saint. The Renaissance came to see ruins as a bridge to the classical world, with inscriptions on monuments, tombs, stelae and fragments of statuary, columns and pediments representing an incomplete Rossetta stone that would unlock the secrets of the ancient world. Alternatively, Renaissance painting woukd depict as a hinterland upon which to present the sacred or suffering martyr, suggesting the ultimate triumph of Christendom over Roman paganism and representing the ambivalence of the Renaissance towards the reconstruction of the classical world.
In time, this was an ambivalence that was to be resolved in favour of the glory that was Greece and the splendour that was Rome, as with Fuseli’s The Artist Overwhelmed by the Grandeur of Antique Ruins showing a figure against the remains of a titan statue (a trope that returns in the gothic novel, such as Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto), despairing of matching its sublimity in his own work. The influence of the grand tour and travel in general was especially important in this regard; Chateuabriand in Ottoman Athens, Nerval in Constantinople, Ruskin in Venice, Flaubert in Egypt, Dickens at the Appian Way and Shelley at the Baths of Caracalla; Ozymandias being both an allegory of the fall of tyranny and a lament for the mutability of things. Equally, it lent a political aspect to things, as visitors from Western Europe went to see the remains of fallen Empires; Venice and Athens had after all, like Britain, once been great maritime powers. Later visions of where London stood were, to put it bluntly, frequently rather self-pitying melancholy prompted by the fall of Empire, as with Macaulay’s vision of a future New Zealand tourist standing on a broken arch of London Bridge and contemplating, “in the midst of a vast solitude,” the ruinous dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral and a desolate city.
In spite of all this, the place of ruin and decay within Romantic aesthetics was a surprisingly precarious one; such things were not explicitly singled out by Kant, he did nonetheless discuss how architecture could partake of the sublime as much as nature. Ruins occupy a space between nature and civilisation that means they can either be seen as symbols of the sublime and transcendent (as one would expect from Kant) or as symbols of the ephemeral. While Romanticism was based upon an appreciation of infinity, this found its expression in an understanding of the world as fragments, as ruins. As Schlegel put it, “many works of the ancients have become fragments. Many works of the moderns are fragments at the time of their origin.” The Romantic aesthetic prized the incomplete and the ephemeral, as with Coleridge’s fragmented epiphany in Kubla Khan or with De Quincey’s citation of Piranesi’s engravings of ruined civilisation in the midst of his disquisitions upon the transsendental.
In this sense, the uneasy relationship of decay to Romantic aesthetics is similar to that between the Gothic novel and Romantic literature. Where Romanticism largely concerned itself with the nounemnal and the transcendental, Ann Radcliffe’s distinction of terror and horror. The former, we are told, partakes of the sublime and expands the soul, the latter only creates revulsion, with many such tales creating horror far more easily than terror. Given the uncertainty as to whether ruins symbolise the transcendent or simply corruption, it was essentially inevitable that ruins would be prominent within the gothic novel, as with Dracula’s castle, Otranto’s ruins or this passage from Melmoth the Wanderer;
“He stood and saw another flash dart its bright, brief, and malignant glance over the ruins of ancient power, and the luxuriance of recent fertility. Singular contrast! The relics of art forever decaying,—the productions of nature forever renewed.”
The sublimity of the ruin was not to be stated fully until Ruskin, who saw architectural decay as a return to nature. Distinguishing between what he termed a lesser and higher picturesque, a concept that seemed to sit between beauty and the sublime. To Ruskin, the picturesque lacked a transcendental aspect and was essentially a response to what he saw as the monotonous, symmetrical and utilitarian character of architecture, a classical conception at odds with Romantic views of nature.
“A broken stone has necessarily more various forms in it than a whole one; a bent roof has more various curves in it than a straight one; every excrescence or cleft involves some additional complexity of light and shade, and every stain of moss on eaves or wall adds to the delightfulness of colour. Hence in a completely picturesque object, as an old cottage or mill, there are introduced, by various circumstances not essential to it, but, on the whole, generally somewhat detrimental to it as cottage or mill, such elements of sublimity — complex light and shade, varied colour, undulatory form, and so on — as can generally be found only in noble natural objects, woods, rocks, or mountains.”
Equally, Ruskin is also concerned with the decay and decomposition of the natural world, with pollution, industrialisation and building. In Modern Painters, he characterises the modern landscape painting as indistinct, occluded by cloud and fog. The natural world has come to resemble, in fact, the murky atmosphere of the modern city, or of the industrial hinterland. The landscapes of Constable, given way to the shrouded land found in Turner, Whistler and Monet.
Ruin is a subject that is inevitably divisive, between the importance of conserving a past that is at risk of being irrevocably lost and the aesthetics of decay. This is perhaps particularly acute today, when ancient ruins have typically been preserved and restored. William Morris, who had happily depicted London and the Palace of Westminster as having falled into ruin, nonetheless established a tradition of preserving historical architecture that was contined through other figures like Betjeman. There can indeed be something rather disturbing about visited restored buildings. The act of restoring an old building frequently does so by destroying layer after layer of history to reveal the desired outcome, just as Schliemann did with all of the cities he found at Hissarlik until he was satisfied he had found the Troy he wanted, or as Evans did at Knossos. In other words, it can be an extremely destructive and arbitrary process. There is something rather awkward about the hyperreal recreations of buildings, which seems as lacking in authenticity as the faked ruins favoured in the eighteenth century. Not to mention that the very idea of conservation has the unwelcome tinge of conservatism to it, which sits uncomfortably for someone ill at ease with the idea of tradition for tradition’s sake. After all, most of the buildings prized as part of our heritage were built by either discarding the styles of the past or through the more literal means of destroying the buildings of the past.
So, I wanted to visit an unrestored building instead, of which there can be few better examples than the Midland Grand Hotel, now known as St Pancras Chambers. If there was ever a case study in architectural hubris it was this; built in luxuriant gothic style (it was not unknown for visitors to mistake it for a cathedral and ask when services began), its lack of either central heating or bathrooms ensured its downfall; perhaps rather incongruously so, since its ‘ascending rooms’ were state of the art at the time. Entering inside, elaborate columns coated in gold leaf sit alongside walls where the paint has flaked away and floors where the boards have rotted away. Pre-Raphaelite murals of Chaucerian scenes and wyvern gargoyles rest in the darkness. In spite of my above comments it’s difficult not to feel disconsolate at the Fifties beige or Edwardian burgundy paint covering the gold and crimson Victorian wall patterns. This is particularly so when one ascends the best preserved part of the building; the grand staircase. This imposing lined with gothic arches, through which light seeps into the gloom, leads up to a ceiling vaulted around a central boss, and incongruously painted with a blue sky and gold stars. Even in the dark the blazing colours shine out.
I’d certainly hate to think that such a building would fall further into decay and would love to see what these rooms look like once the paint has been scraped away to reveal the original frescos. But equally, much of why it is so striking is simply because it is a modern ruin; brightly lit and immaculate rooms as opposed to the current dark and cavernous interior would in many ways be a poor replacement. Now that St Pancras is set to become the main terminal for the Eurostar it is being restored; the prospect of what sea change it is now set to undergo is in itself a fascinating one. As Hugh Pearman puts it, cities regenerate themselves from their own scar tissue. It might seem perverse to appreciate the scarring, but perhaps that is just because it has the allure of the ephemeral. So an abandoned railway station in Paris, beloved of art-film makers, becomes the Musee d’Orsay, while a dilapidated power station becomes the Tate Modern. One further difficulty with the contemporary atttitude towards decay is that so many modern ruins are essentially visions of lost future, whose modernist architecture, such as that of Battersea Power Station or the many decaying art deco cinemas, remains more futuristic than was has replaced it. Similarly, much modernist literature was bifurcated between the modernist (the Futurists, most obviously) and the archaic, with its replacement of the medieval with Picasso’s reception of the Lascaux cave painting, the African influence on Modigliani or Pound’s fusion of ancient Greece and China.
Where modern literature represents decay, it only does so in an anomalous form, such as JG Ballard’s Drowned World or The Crystal World; “Down Oxford Street the buildings were festooned with ivy and Virginia creeper. Trees grew from the windows of Selfridges, the pavements and Tarmac were split by plane trees spreading across Marble Arch from Hyde Park… at the bottom of Oxford Street stood the tall Centrepoint tower, its remaining upper windows glinting, while most of the base was covered in vines.” UnlikeWyndham’s apolcalyptic fiction, Ballard sees decay as a form of death instinct, entropic regress, far removed from the sublime or picturesque.
Ruin has essentially come to be regarded as a failure to preserve the past, and has ceased to represent the tragic, sublime or transcendent. John Piper’s “pleasing decay” has translated into “criminal neglect.” In short, it is increasingly difficult to think of Ruskin’s higher and lower picturesque as being readily distinguishable. On the other hand, the modern interest in the ruined and decay is more likely to explore derelict factories, asylums, Icelandic farms, places like Chernobyl, Russian submarine bases or ghost villages than ancient ruins; places that are out of kilter from the notions of urban space as productive, efficient and regular. This is in many respects a form of flaneurism, in the sense meant by Benjamin; bourgeois dilettantes seeking out the derelict and discraded as a vicarious thrill. A form of post-romantic fascination with decay that no longer relates to romantic aesthetics. Such experiences are seen as somehow more ‘real’ and less mediated than the conventional city, as with Benjamin’s own denunciation of the passing of the arcades into the department store; “In the convulsions of the commodity economy we begin to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled… it is the gaze of the flaneur, whose mode of life still surrounds the approaching desolation of city life with a propitiatory luster.”