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Ruin Terrors and Pleasures

Many writers since the nineteenth century have tended to see ruins in quasisacred metaphysical terms, that is, as aestheticized and dehistoricized landscapes that find their locus of fascination in the beautiful and melancholic struggle between nature and culture. This fascination produced what became known as ruin lust. German theorist and cultural critic Georg Simmel, at the beginning of the twentieth century, perhaps best articulated this view: “The aesthetic value of the ruin combines the disharmony, the eternal becoming of the soul struggling against itself, with the satisfaction of form, the firm limitedness, of the work of art.” This equation requires equilibrium between matter and nature, “a pillar crumbled—say, halfway down,” for “a maximum of charm” and a sense of unity in which “purpose and accident, nature and spirit, past and present” create a balance of tensions, although the higher pull of spirit is ultimately privileged over the lower pull of nature in a vertical hierarchy of balance.1 The dehistoricized classical ruins that are the subjects of Simmel’s contemplation, however, constitute a different category of ruination and more easily lend themselves to this sort of subjective ennobling and romanticizing as compared to contemporary deindustrial ruins. On a formal level alone, modernist architecture refuses the return of culture to nature in the manner of ancient ruins in large part because the building materials of concrete, steel, and glass do not delicately crumble in the picturesque way that stone does.

Moreover, the classical ruin has already reached its absolute form as an aesthetic artifact, defining its status as a ruin, and its preservation in this state is enforced and maintained by the guardians of the ruins; the remaining pillars and arches are regarded as eternal. The contemporary ruin, however, is in a continuous state of flux, of “becoming and unbecoming,” as the British philosopher Dylan Trigg observes. The glass continues to break, the paint peels away, the floor and the roof are transformed through stages of collapse, all of which constantly redefine the form and therefore our relationship to the form. The sense of the eternal is replaced by a sense of impermanence, the sense of certainty by uncertainty, “by an unfolding of content in which the phenomenology of detail takes precedence.”2 Far more recent in their abandonment and decay, industrial ruins are more likely to be structurally dangerous architectural hulks subject to the depredations of strippers, urban explorers, animals, weather, and other forces. In a continual state of transformation as they decay, industrial ruins largely embody formless decline and disordered space, mirroring the irrationality of the system that has produced them. Contemporary ruins are thus nothing like the Roman, Grecian, and other ancient objects of traditional romantic ruin gazing, which offered modernity a way of conceiving itself in relation to the remains of the ancient past.

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