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Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology



Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: (401) 863-3188
Fax: (401) 863-9423
[email protected]

Chorus discussants: Tess Rafael, Ana Escobedo, Lisa Donovan, Gillian Lang, Elise Nuding, Harry Aspinwall, Harrison Stark

Posted at Apr 08/2009 04:19PM:
Ana Escobedo: I am really interested in the whole idea of the “authenticity” and what it takes to create a ruin. If a ruin is a place of a transgressive and transcendent nature then what is it that imbues the ruin with these kinds of qualities? We discussed briefly in class the factor of age-value, but both modern industrial ruins and rotting old castles are both powerful and viable ruins. Then I tried to think about the presence of a traumatic past. Although a place touched by trauma certainly has an effect on us, I don’t think it is absolutely necessary to create that transcendent feeling.

All this thinking about authenticity got me thinking about the 19th century practice of designing gardens in a faux-gothic style with broken obelisks and “ruins” all over the place. Landscapers wanted to externalize the ruined-past and long-lost memories that didn’t belong to them by sticking classical temples around each curve of an irregularly winding path. If ruins are portals into different temporalities, especially those of periods of great trauma, it seems like these people were trying to find their own portal to a scary Narnia by putting a couple of half-chiseled blocks in their backyard in an attempt to look “romantic”.

However, why aren’t these ruins “authentic”? Why are these gardens destinations instead of a “non-place”? Even if the gardener used authentic ruins picked up on the grand tour, it still wouldn’t create the same effect. Perhaps it may be because the human hand had such an obvious role in the creation of these places. Or maybe because it is a cannibalization and commoditization of the past that was intended to stimulate specific memories, instead of a natural ruin that would stimulate involuntary memories of the viewer, which is a much more personal and powerful experience. I’m still struggling with what makes a ruined place a ruin.

Here is an example of a fake-ruin in a garden from 19th Century Germany

Uploaded Image

Gillian Lang - I too was thinking a lot about authenticity, and the power of age as opposed to created age. Harbison brings up the example of the Best Products stores, and the way that they are in a perpetual state of constructed destruction, or "enforced stillness". He goes on to say that this helps and encourages the buyer by making them feel that they can " death can be held at bay while he makes another purchase". I found this idea of there being comfort in the standstill of time interesting.

This idea made me think of another contemporary example of constructed time. The architect, James Gamble Rogers, designed many prominent buildings on the Yale University campus. He sought to create these Neo-Gothic buildings so as to make them look instantly lived in and aged. He used acid to age the walls, and broke lead pane windows only to fix them in the medieval style. What does this do for a community? What does the appearance of age, purposeful destruction do? Is older always wiser? HTis reminded me of the way that Redford described how the Seljuk added onto a Roman theater in a very ad hoc fashion, but then plastered over their work, and drew in lines to make it look like the even, meticulous work of the Romans. I think that this idea of imitating age, and the solidity of that age is applicable to the buildings at Yale as well.

Also, In thinking more about the academic space, I was wondering about it as a potential heterotopia. I was especially thinking about the way that teh college or university is both timeless, consistently catering to the same type of audience, and simultaneously accumulating age and knowledge. Maybe this doesn't work? I'm not exactly sure.

Posted at Apr 09/2009 01:24AM:
Harrison: I find the case studies of recent industrial ruins particularly interesting. These ruins, rather than represent multiple temporalities as other ruins do, are situated in a sort of temporal limbo - that is, they stand as symbols of ruination and abandonment although they themselves have yet to decay. What this reveals is that there is a deeper meaning to ruins than simply their metaphorical use in terms of biological decay and death - - a building need not be destroyed to evoke a profound discomfort in the viewer. Instead, I would argue, that ruins and abandoned buildings are disconcerting because of their paradoxical relationship to human interaction. These buildings simultaneously invite and resist interaction - creating an unsolvable tension. On the one hand, they still stand in relatively their original form, begging almost to be seen, to be used, to be explored. On the other, the absence of people, and therefore the absence of traces of interaction give the building a sense of inertia, a sense that the space is a mausoleum of sorts. This tension between interaction and further non-use makes the recent industrial ruin a sort of fantastical in-between space, not quite a heterotopia, but not quite a real space either. This tension is exhibited by the way people briefly interact with these buildings - they are observed, documented, explored, but rarely quickly reused.

Posted at Apr 09/2009 01:33AM:
Harry: I think that school could definitely be a heterotopia, and that's a great point to bring up. It exists outside of normal life (as so many people find, to their shock - or so I hear), with its own institution, its own way of doing things, like an isolated world. It's designed for a specific moment in life, like a ritual, at the point where many kids leave home for the first time, a formative, distinct life for four years. In that way, it does take place nowhere, of a fashion, because this place is not a part of real life.

I'm very interested in Edensor's idea of relics and ruins being "focal points for remembrance" - even if that memory is contrived, as with the Borestone - and industrial, uncompromising, potentially unpopular ruins as the source of counter-memory. In some ways I think this can complement what Harbison says about our love of ruins as an affirmation of decadence. These are places that defy our short lives and contemporary culture. They have become representations of something other, whatever that might be, fixed in time and space. It's not surprising that they can create feelings of dread and awe, but there is, as Harbison says, something perverse about our desire to confront something so alien.

I've been very interested for a while in finding links between our relationships to architecture and place and our relationships to our bodies. Perhaps our macabre fascination with ruins can at some level be linked to our fascination with death and decrepitude. Back when we were looking at weathering, it was interesting to look at the desire for a building to show no aging versus showing aging in a beautifying way, because it's so easy to find a parallel in a human desire to remain youthful versus a desire to age gracefully and wear the signs of weathering and venerability proudly. So if we are fascinated by ruins and death the same way, then is it our own death we're seeing? Mortality can be terrifying, but instead of avoiding the thought we dwell on it for so much of our lives. Places can comfort us by acting as an extension of our bodies and our lives (and I think that they do - think of how much you fit into your own home - I know that I sometimes find it hard to separate myself from the place) since they are physically more durable and longer lasting. When a place we're particularly attached to is destroyed, we feel it almost like a lost limb. Perhaps we love ruins because there is a human need to be reminded of mortality. Then again, from the moment a building starts to become a ruin, it is something different, something much longer-lasting. It's the kind of immortality that doesn't fight its surroundings. The chaos of a ruin is beautiful in its own way; It is beautiful for the fact that it is now evolving naturally, affected by the destructive (and constructive) forces around it, being reclaimed as part of greater organic force. The boundaries of an entity are breached, and it starts to merge with everything, becoming eternal in destruction. There's something wonderful in the ruination of something, even so far as the passion of Christ's stigmata. I think that, at least for myself, the process of ruination - being reclaimed, leaving only sinking traces - has their own beauty.

Tess: I have been thinking a lot about the temporality and fragility of ruins, not only in terms of their inevitable physical decay, but more in terms of authorship and ownership. Be it through Dylan Trigg’s example of a Holocaust survivor revisiting the site of the concentration camp he was held in, or Robert Harbison’s description of his childhood site being rehabilitated and manicured, I was struck by the ephemeral nature of ruins, and the ways in which the landscape can abandon your memories. The feeling of betrayal described in both cases speaks to the need to have a landscape for memories to cling to and the frightening prospect of memory perishing along with its site. As Dylan Trigg puts it, the place where one experienced an event is “undercut by the radical singularity of the traumatic past”. This terrifying singularity applies to non-traumatic memories as well. The rewriting, or erasure, of a ruin can then lead to a greater void. (Or, perhaps, a heterotopia?)

I’m interested in this tension between the human need to bare witness to an event through the landscape in which it took place and the bodily displacement from the landscape once the site has been rewritten and sold. It leaves you with a burning uncertainty: It happened here, but where did here go?

In a slightly different vein, I am also interested in the idea of industrial ruins as portals…how these marginal, fleeting spaces break the cycle of habitual controlled performance and interpretation in a city. The mysterious nature of these ruins stimulates the imagination, mind and senses in a way that makes you break out of routine, really look at things again, and as a result question things again. There is a pretty incredible freedom inherent in ones engagement with ruins, or any kind of forgotten, neglected space. There exists an open invitation for interpretation and alteration in these sites. Few arenas in the urban environment invite everyday people to leave their mark on the landscape, conceptually or physically, and I think people feel a basic need to have the land bear witness to their existence in some form. This, too, brings up ideas of ownership and authorship (public/private).