Ruinophilia: Appreciation of Ruins Svetlana Boym
The early 21st century exhibits a strange ruinophilia, a fascination for ruins that goes beyond postmodern quotation marks. In our increasingly digital age, ruins appear to be an endangered species, physical embodiments of modern paradoxes reminding us of the blunders of modern teleologies and technologies alike, and of the riddles of human freedom.
“Ruin” literally means “collapse”—but actually, ruins are more about remainders and reminders. A tour of “ruin” leads you into a labyrinth of ambivalent temporal adverbs—“no longer” and “not yet,” “nevertheless” and “albeit”—that play tricks with causality. Ruins make us think of the past that could have been and the future that never took place, tantalizing us with utopian dreams of escaping the irreversibility of time. Walter Benjamin saw in ruins “allegories of thinking itself,”1 a meditation on ambivalence. At the same time, the fascination for ruins is not merely intellectual, but also sensual. Ruins give us a shock of vanishing materiality. Suddenly our critical lens changes, and instead of marveling at grand projects and utopian designs, we begin to notice weeds and dandelions in the crevices of the stones, cracks on modern transparencies, rust on withered “Blackberries” in our ever-shrinking closets.
Since antiquity, there has been an isomorphism between nature, architecture, and the human body. In decaying columns one can see tree trunks, while phantom Atalantas and caryatids haunt porticos all over the globe. The uncanny anthropomorphism of ruins was discovered as early as the 16th century in scenes from the anatomic theater, where the dissection of the human body took place against the backdrop of classical ruins.2 Vertebrae and carcasses overlap in the double vision of ruins. Ruins embody anxieties about human aging, commemorating our cultural endeavors and their failures. Joseph Brodsky once compared his ruined teeth to the Parthenon; while the comparison does not do justice either to the classical ruins or to the bad teeth of Leningrad, it captures poetically their uncanny symmetry.
While half-destroyed buildings and architectural fragments might have existed since the beginning of human culture, ruinophilia did not. There is a historic distinctiveness to the “ruin gaze” that can be understood as the particular optics that frames our relationship to ruins. Contemporary ruinophilia relates to the prospective dimension of nostalgia, the type of nostalgia that is reflective rather than restorative and dreams of the potential futures rather than imaginary pasts.
In my understanding, nostalgia is not merely antimodern, but coeval with the modern project itself. Like modernity, nostalgia has a utopian element, but it is no longer directed toward the future. Sometimes it is not directed toward the past either, but rather sideways. The nostalgic feels stifled within the conventional confines of time and space. The ruins of 20th‑century modernity, as seen through the contemporary prism, both undercut and stimulate the utopian imagination, constantly shifting and deterritorializing our dreamscape.
The contemporary obsession with ruins is neither a Baroque meditation on worldly vanitas, nor a romantic mourning for the lost wholeness of the past.3 Rather than recycling romantic notions of the picturesque framed in glass and concrete, the ruins of modernity question the making of such a “world picture,” offering us a new kind of radical perspectivism. The ruins of modernity as viewed from a 21st‑century perspective point at possible futures that never came to be. But those futures do not necessarily inspire restorative nostalgia. Instead, they make us aware of the vagaries of progressive vision as such.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Georg Simmel formulated a theory of ruins that resonates with contemporary preoccupations. According to Simmel, ruins are the opposite of the perfect moment pregnant with potentialities; they reveal in “retrospect” what this epiphanic moment had in “prospect.”4 Yet they do not merely signal decay but also a certain imaginative perspectivism in its hopeful and tragic dimension. Simmel saw in the fascination with ruins a peculiar form of “collaboration” between human and natural creation: “Nature has transformed the work of art into material for her own expression as she had previously served as material for art.”5 Such framing of ruins reveals a multidirectional mimesis: men imitate nature’s creativity, but a natural setting endows human creations with a patina of age. The contemporary ruin-gaze is the gaze reconciled to perspectivism, to conjectural history and spatial discontinuity. The contemporary ruin-gaze requires an acceptance of disharmony and of the contrapuntal relationship of human, historical, and natural temporality. Most importantly, present-day ruinophilia is not merely a neoromantic malaise and a reflection of our inner landscapes. Rediscovered, off-modern ruins are not only symptoms but also sites for a new exploration and production of meanings.
Two centuries ago, Friedrich Schlegel commented on the pace of transformation of modern ruins: “Many of the works of the Ancients have become fragments. Many of the Moderns are fragments the moment they come into being.”6 The pace of modern time precipitates both construction and destruction, sometimes imploding temporal duration. Modern ruins are particularly poignant because they are belated and contemporary at once. In his reflection on Baroque drama, Benjamin commented that in ruins, “human history is physically merged into the natural setting.”7 Looking back at the 20th century, we find an incredible diversity of ruins of modernity—from decaying constructivist “Houses of Utopia” built with visionary aspirations and poor building materials, to ordinary workers’ houses or projects on the urban outskirts; from the remains of old factories and industries that no longer have a place in the postindustrial economy, to the unbuilt avant-garde towers, which now look like ruined towers of Babel and remain as culture’s unused creative limbs. We see there even paradoxical mergers that Benjamin and Simmel predicted almost a century ago: of suprahuman state models and human practices, of individual aspirations and collective pressure, of ascending dreams and down-to-earth, everyday survivals.8 There is one important difference between ruinophilia and nostalgia: ruinophilia is less afflicted by the personal story; it is not a longing for home or for identity but more of a material and visceral experience of the irreversibility of time that comes together with care for the world. Ruinophilia can be antinarcissistic but not less melancholic, in spite of its perspectivism and inspirations.
In the architectural and artistic projects that recycle industrial forms and materials, the off-modern reveals itself in the form of a ruinophilia, or toleration and acknowledgement of the ruins. New buildings and installations neither destroy the past nor rebuild it; rather, the architect or the artist cocreates with the remainders of history, collaborates with modern ruins, redefines their functions—both utilitarian and poetic. The resulting eclectic transitional architecture promotes a spatial and temporal extension into the past and the future, into different existential topographies of cultural forms.
Off-modern ruinophilia acknowledges the disharmony and the ambivalent relationship between human, historical, and natural temporalities. It reconciles itself to perspectivism and conjectural history and allows us to frame utopian projects as dialectical ruins—not to discard or demolish them, but rather to confront them and incorporate them into our own fleeting present.
1 / Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, NLB, London 1977, p. 177–178.
2 / Michael S. Roth with Claire Lyons and Charles Merewether (ed.), Irresistible Decay: Ruins Reclaimed, Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, Los Angeles 1997.
3 / When nostalgia was first diagnosed as a disease, Europe was struck by an epidemic of feigned nostalgia that was just as difficult to cure as the actual one. In the history of architecture, the fashion for ruins and the discovery of archeology went hand-in-hand with the construction of artificial ruins. Moreover, imagined artificial ruins might have anticipated the archeological discoveries. It is not by chance that many 17th‑ and 18th‑century paintings of ruins presented them as porous architecture; ruins appear as vedute, gateways to the landscape, elaborate man-made frames that mediated between history and nature, between architecture and the elements, the inside and outside of dwellings. The time of the fascination for ruins coincided with the fascination for new optic devices, from lorgnettes to dioramas. Nostalgic vision colored the “ruin-gaze” which required a “progressive lens” for both the myopic and the farsighted.
4 / Georg Simmel, “The Ruin,” Essays on Sociology, Philosophy and Aesthetics, ed. Kurt H. Wolff, Harper and Row, New York 1965, p. 262. “This is as it were a counterpart of that fruitful moment for which those riches which the ruin has in retrospect are still in prospect.”
5 / Ibid., p. 262. Ruinscape reveals the ambivalence of the aesthetic enjoyment that seeks unity and transient perfection but only if it is rooted in something “deeper than mere aesthetic unity—in existential metamorphosis, in the process of becoming.”
6 / Friedrich Schlegel, quoted in Irresistible Decay: Ruins Reclaimed (see above), p. 72.
7 / Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, p. 178.
8 / The ruin-gaze challenges the vision of the “originality of the avant-garde” (Rosalind Krauss, The Originality of the Avant Garde and Other Modernist Myths, The MIT Press, Cambridge 1985) or of the continuity of the utopian vision between the artistic avant-garde and the socialist state (Boris Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond, trans. Charles Rougle, Princeton UP, Princeton 1992). Instead it reveals the internal diversity of the avant-garde, its singularities and eccentricities that proved to be as historically relevant and persistent as its visionary elements and collective utopianism.
Adopted from Svetlana Boym, Architecture of The Off-Modern, Architectural Press, New York 2008. See also “Nostalgic Technologies: Notes for the Off-Modern Manifesto” at www.svetlanaboym.com.