“America you have it better
Than our old continent
You have no ruined castles
And no primordial stones”
American ruins have become increasingly prominent, whether in discussions of “urban blight” and home foreclosures, in commemorations of 9/11, or in postapocalyptic movies. From numerous scenes of urban desolation—from failed banks, abandoned towns, and dilapidated tenements to the crumbling skyscrapers and bridges envisioned in science fiction and cartoons — readers and moviegoers of the early 21st century have become familiar with such visions of an American city. Typically, but not exclusively New York – transfigured through ruination and depopulation into a potentially fruitful yet inscrutable site for archeologists. Imagined ruinscapes, populated variously by cyborgs, gangs, vampires, zombies, or survivalists, have served as a stock backdrop to postapocalyptic science-fiction cinema, novels, comics, and video games.
There are deviations as well as derivations from European conventions. Unlike classical and Gothic ruins, which decayed gracefully over centuries and inspired philosophical meditations about the fate of civilizations, America’s ruins were often “untimely,” appearing unpredictably and disappearing before they could accrue an aura of age. As modern ruins of steel and iron, they stimulated critical reflections about contemporary cities, and the unfamiliar kinds of experience they enabled. Nick Yablon argues that modern American ruins were cheap, banal, illegible, and ephemeral and in their essense they were “untimely.” Owing to their rapid creation and consumption, they lacked the temporal distance necessary for nostalgic appreciation and historical situation. Their modern materials also yielded troubling impermanence. Old before their time, and yet somehow not old enough, these “day-old ruins” highlighted the incongruity of a young nation undergoing destruction while still in its earliest stages. By interrupting linear narratives of progress and decline, these ruins exposed the uneven nature of American urban development, in both its outward processes and its cultural manifestations.
In stark contrast to the grandiose neoclassical piles conjured by its antebellum landscape painters and poets, the actual ruins found in the urbanizing landscapes of nineteenth-century America tended to be prosaic, even tawdy structures. Materials and styles of constructions in the United States presents further information. Houses built of cheap material such as wood, and with crude techniques such as the balloon frame, do not offer resistance to decay, fire, or vegetative growth. Conversely, the newer industrial materials of steel, iron, glass, and concrete are too durable – liable only to rustm shatter, or crack. Connoisseurs of ruins instead favour stone (ideally marble) structures and bronze objects for the modulated way they register the effects of time. Ernst Block says that the machine age has produced buildings that “cannot grow old, but only ro[t] in the course of years” (386-87).
In southern cities such as Naples, Italy, Block observed, modern ruins such as broken water pipes and abandoned railroad tracks are permitted to remain in place for years, and may even have unintended benefits (in this case, channeling water down the tracks into the drier districts). But given the rapid and seemingly relentless process of capitalist urbanization in the United States, its ruins typically prove ephemeral. Despite some efforts to preserve them for future generations, the ruins of fires, earthquakes, or bankruptcies tend to disappear almost as quickly as they have materialized, recycled for their precious building materials, deployed as landfill, or simply erased to clear the way for new grounds of capital investment.
“I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame. What’s left us then?” James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
In the past millennia of European history, many great civilizations have constructed cities filled with temples, theaters, palaces, and other structures of striking beauty.However, W.G. Sebald has written four novels, which navigate the haunting and labyrinthine topographies of destruction in Europe after WWII. The physical presence of the ruins of modernity is dilipidated train stations, abandoned industrial lands, wrecked ships, discarded colonial objects, bombed-out buildings, and decaying institutions of power. Through them Sebald reveals the violent underbelly of progressive hopes of modernization: the exploitation of nature, the genocidal legacy of European imperialism and overseas empires, and the human and natural catastrophes of warfare.
In 1953, at a time when much of Europe still lay in ruins and the spectre of atomic war loomed ever larger, the English novelist and travel writer Rose Macaulay published Pleasure of Ruins, her classic study of the aesthetics of destruction. In a fastidious and, at times, eccentrically written book, she traces the development of a taste for desuetude from Renaissance dream narratives to the ‘heartless pastime’ pursued by Henry James on his travels in Italy. It is not until the final pages that Macaulay acknowledges she is writing among modern examples, and then only – in a short ‘note on new ruins’ – to claim that the wreckage caused by bombing in World War II lacks the proper obscurity to qualify as pleasing decay: ‘Ruin must be a fantasy, veiled by the mind’s dark imaginings.’ According to Macaulay, the ruined houses, shops and churches of London, Hamburg, Coventry and Dresden would need to be softened by nature and time before being elected to a canon that includes Pompeii and the Parthenon. Macaulay’s language, however, suggests that the wreckage she sees around her enthralls her. Of a bombed-out house, she writes with some lyricism: ‘The stairway climbs up and up, undaunted, to the roofless summit where it meets the sky.’
Macaulay’s ambivalence about the status of the modern ruin – her own home and library were destroyed in the Blitz – indicates a fundamental confusion at the heart of the Ruinenlust that gripped European art and literature for centuries. In a highly refined and historically precise form, a version of that admiration for decay seems to have seized artists internationally in recent years: we might think, for example, of works as diverse as Roger Hiorns’ Seizure (2008), installed in a decayed London flat. In other cases, such as Runa Islam’s film of the Museum of the 20th Century in Vienna, Empty the pond to get the fish. (2008), the ruin in question is explicitly that of a mid-century Modernism. Some broad themes survive in this newly desolate but fantastical landscape: on the one hand, the ruin appears to point to a deep and vanished past whose relics merely haunt the present, reminding us of such airy and perennial themes as the hubris of Man and the weight of History.
For sure, the past century did not lack for straightforwardly kitsch or nostalgic versions of the taste for ruins. The most notorious example is Albert Speer’s concept of ‘ruin value’, according to which the monumental architecture of Welthauptstadt Germania – Hitler’s projected replacement of Berlin as Germany’s capital city – was conceived with an eye to its future picturesque decay.It was, however, among artists who referred, directly or obliquely, to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc that the theme of ruin flourished in the 1990s and beyond. Tacita Dean’s film Sound Mirrors (1999) broods over the remains of British prewar acoustic early-warning technology that seemed to presage the silos and satellite dishes of the Cold War, while later Berlin-based films such as Fernsehturm (Television Tower, 2001) and Palast (Palace, 2004) more readily reflect on the ageing or half-demolished architecture of the East.
Japan and its own Gunkanjima island in comparison
To its advantage, when people talk about modern ruins, the word haikyo always makes an entrance. In Japan, ruins are known as haikyo (廃虚), (literally “abandoned place”) but the term is synonymous with the practice of urban exploration. Haikyo are particularly common in Japan because of its rapid industrialization (Gunkanjima!), damage during World War II, the 1980s real estate bubble and the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.
Jon from L.A. explains in his blog article “I see Japan… from LA: Haikyo“, the stark contrast between US and Japanese abandoned places: while in Japan its common to leave behind their personal belongings, in the US, if a business or a building is closed down, usually the contents such as furniture, etc. are sold or taken away. He also states that while in the US looters or squatters would have taken care of the abandoned place, there is no such problem in Japan, where for example an abandonded theme park still to this day displays a collection of samurai armour (authentic or not). Overall, he expresses his surprise that things could be just left there.
At the same time, according to a recent survey by Time Magazine, a lot of tourist’s motivations behind visits to modern European ruins were their interest in ‘historical heritage’, ‘understanding’, ‘education’, ‘identification’ and ’empathy’. The only time a tourist would choose to explore a place in Europe because of ‘horror and morbid curiousity’, the exploration would take place in carefully planned and organised attractions, such as the York/London Dungeon, Madame Tussauds Tomb, Jack the Ripper Walk, and similar ‘Ghost’ walks.
However, Japan offers a range of quirky (theme parks, love hotels) and creepy (abandoned ghost towns) places, where urban explorers and tourists can visit and enjoy without any structure or guide.
Dillon, Brian (2010). “Decline and Fall: Tracing the history of ruins in art, from 18th-century painting to 21st-century film”. Frieze Magazine, issue 130, April 2010.
Goethe, quoted in Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country, 110.
Hell, Julia & Schonle, Andreas (2010). Ruins of Modernity. Duke University Press Books.
Korstvedt, Benjamin M. (2010). Listening for utopia in Ernst Bloch’s musical philosophy. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Macaulay, Rose (1953). The Pleasure of Ruins. London: Walker And Company.
Yablon, Nick (2010).Untimely Ruins: An Archaeology of American Urban Modernity, 1819-1919. USA: University of Chicago Press.