Ruins become part of cityscape

Shortly before the opening of a new series of forums and displays, Christchurch Art Gallery curator KEN HALL discusses ruins and images of ruin in relation to the architectural heritage structures that might remain in our reconfigured cityscape.

Two months after 9/11 The New York Times architectural reviewer Herbert Muschamp, aware that he was treading at the edge of sacrilege, spoke of the beauty of the remaining walls at Ground Zero and made comparison between the twisted debris and a recently completed Frank Gehry project nearby.

The rubble was being hastily removed, but he saw opportunity within the ruins for a type of memorial; he also proposed the engravings of Piranesi as "required study for those now gazing on Ground Zero".

His aesthetic response was echoed by critic Susan Sontag after her viewing of high-key photographs of Ground Zero by Joel Meyerowitz: "There is beauty in ruins. To acknowledge the beauty of photographs of the World Trade Centre ruins in the months following the attack seemed frivolous, sacrilegious. The most people dared say was that the photographs were 'surreal', a hectic euphemism behind which the disgraced notion of beauty cowered. But they were beautiful, many of them . . ."

Understandably, the discussion of beauty wrought through trauma can pose difficulties. Meyerowitz himself found it "hard to come to terms with the awful beauty of a place like this"; his struggling, almost thrilled, account recalling the apocalyptic visions of English painter John Martin when he described "a spectacle with a cast of thousands, lit by a master lighter and played out on a stage of immense proportions".

Art and literature reveal endless dramatic pleasure taken from ruins, in which the aesthetic of the sublime is recognised in part as an aid to naming, "the confusion that comes over us when faced with wholesale destruction: we experience storms, battles, earthquakes, and revolutions as equally impressive facts of both nature and history".

A surprising number of works in the Christchurch Art Gallery's collection depict ruins (and how different they look to us now), from the grand destruction of Piranesi to the neo-Romantic abstraction of Frances Hodgkins in Phoenician Ruins (1937), where attraction to architectural decay is accompanied by her characteristic painterly vigour.

Abstract qualities and pleasing forms also prevail in John Weeks' spatial construction Ruined Stronghold, Grand Atlas, Morocco (undated), as well as in Doris Lusk's unsettlingly prescient Finale (1982), a work decrying Christchurch's partiality to demolition.

For the 18th-century Grand Tourist, ruins signalled timeless endurance (the artist's or poet's reflective contribution was naturally diminished where architectural forms remained intact). Ruin appreciation provided allegorical, poetic or metaphysical lessons - reinforcing the idea of vanitas, they were a metaphor for the human condition. In earlier Renaissance painting, religious ideas were conveyed by crumbling ruins, the Holy Family in their midst symbolising the new order against a background of antique decay.

In Italy, political meaning also became attached to ruins as a growing nationalist symbol - something generally overlooked by poets or painters in pursuit of Romantic reverie. Images of ruins became intensified in meaning through the inclusion of small-scale human figures, which were part of an established vocabulary.

The ruins themselves were essential within the Grand Tour experience, just as today they are an understood part of the global tourist trail. Staying with the here and now, we might identify a trap.

In allowing sightseers to be momentarily transformed into poetic thinkers through presenting ruins as an attraction, we should recognise (as author Brian Dillon outlines) that: "For all its allure, its mystery, its sublime significance, the ruin always totters on the edge of a certain species of kitsch.

The pleasure of the ruin - the frisson of decay, distance, destruction - is both absolutely unique to the individual wreckage, and endlessly repeatable, like the postcard that is so often its tangible memento."

If this risk is deemed not very great in our own time and place, then dare we ask the value of ruins for this city? In considering the remaining two-million-ton pile of debris of the World Trade Centre (transfer this thought to Bottle Lake Forest Park), Patricia Yaeger wrote of being "forced to encounter a formally built environment as its components - as lost labour, lost structure."

In this city, with its enormous loss of Victorian architectural fabric, whether neo-classical or gothic revival, we might add the ideas of lost continuity and lost knowledge - invaluable reminders that this is no longer how we build or think. An attempt to retain more of this fabric as ruins could have meant much: it would certainly have provided tourist bait.

John Ruskin in 1849 invited his readers to recognise that where we live "belongs as much to those who are to come after us as to us". In this city, the demolition and removal of so very much means that many possibilities to be explored - whether for artist or for everyman - have been efficiently lost.

Ken Hall is curator at the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu.

This feature first appeared in the March/May edition of the art gallery's magazine Bulletin.

Quotes in this feature are drawn from:

  • Herbert Muschamp, The Commemorative Beauty of Tragic Wreckage, The New York Times, November 11, 2001. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others.
  • Maria Sturken, Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero, Durham.
  • Brian Dillon, Fragments from a History of Ruin, Cabinet, Issue 20, winter 2005-6.
  • Patricia Yaeger, quoted by Lazlo Muntean in Rubble as Archive, or 9/11 as Dust, Debris, and Bodily Vanishing, Trauma at Home: After 9/11.
  • John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture

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