There is something very intriguing in abandoned places – it could be empty building or landscape with ruins or something else. The ruins give us some hints of their story, history, culture, building history and architectural history, religion, rituals, symbology, theory and even ideology. The traces of what once was there gives us some understanding of the essence of the place but also leaves plenty of room to fantasize about all the possible stories of this place. What makes ruin a ruin? Thinking about it makes only more questions arise. Where the character of a ruin is coming from? Is it time that needs to pass, because over time the story fades from our awareness and there is more room for new ones? Should there be some kind of force which is forming the ruin into a ruin shape? What is a ruin shape? What makes it so special?
Here I try to open up the mystery of ruins, and what could be the factors forming the mystery around it.
Saito1 argues that the aesthetics of broken things lays is finding contrasts. She describes how the evolving of the tea ceremony is related to appreciating imperfection. For example, the most bizarre looking trees were chosen to surround the tea house, most water-beaten stones were used as stepping stones, untreated wood was used to build the tea house just to give it older and more robust look. The next step in the tea ceremony was using broken tea ware – a crack, a sign of ageing were the most desired properties of the utensils. There is even guidance from the 16. Century on how to handle a tea pot with a crack. When thinking about ruins then the contrasts appear in many ways, but mainly in the essence of those places. For example, location. Some structures had such a significance in the past but nowadays they feel out of place because they are left behind and forgotten. Also, the perfect imperfection is feeling of anarchy in so symmetrically planned order where nature is taking over.
Becoming a ruin is a decision
Becoming a ruin is a decision2 claims Bicknell. To elaborate it further more – it may be individual or collective, democratic or nondemocratic decision. Individual decision could be an abandoned house that is no longer used because the family moved away and left it behind. A collective decision could be abandoning a whole complex of facilities like happened to the collective farms after the collapse of Soviet Union in 1990s and many countries independence was restored and the new law ended the system of collective farms. But after the end of collective farm system only few of those complexes found a new use, so the abandoning was a collective decision – people were able to leave behind something what was not optional but forced upon them by the regime. It could also be looked as democratic decision. Nondemocratic decision of forming a ruin could be a natural disaster, vandalism, accident (e.g., fire) or a war what formed the ruins.
A ruin needs a ruining nature
A ruin brings three qualities together – nature, something that is man-made and a man, which all together forms the new integrity, the ruin3. An architectural piece is man-made, also, the choice of leaving this structure unused is man-made. But leaving it alone makes the difference – now nature is playing the role of shaping the looks and character of these structures – there are decay and mother nature is invading the place by penetrating the cracks and openings until it’s all nature again. Ruins are a cocreation of nature and man, in this relationship a man is an artist and the one perceiving the aesthetics of this art which is co-created with nature3. And the third component of this nature, man-made and man, that Hetzler suggest is the man, the one who is the witness of this great mystery of the ruins and, gives it the name – calls it a ruin and gives it a meaning.
Ruins has a connection with nature unlike any other art form, it is an architecture and a sculpture in space and time3. Hetzler brings is the time element claiming time is the link between man-made and the nature. The beauty relies on the immortality of a ruin – we can’t tell by looking at it when it was turned into a ruin, for how long the nature has polished it and for how long it has been treated by the winds, rains and vegetation to become like it is. But time gives it more character, because over time the structures acquires their shape, smell, color, taste and even sound. Hetzler says “A ruin can be defined as the disjunctive product of the intrusion of nature without loss of the unity that man produced”. Of course, vandalism plays an important role because it is speeding up the forming decay, but time is doing that more beautifully and like Hetzler says “without loss of the unity that man produced”. Time along with nature are doing beautiful work – vegetation growing on top of the roofs, on the walls and on the floors. It changes constantly, it grows and it is never the same when you look at it. There is close interaction between man-made and nature – one influences another. A ruin is shaped by the nature and the nature is formed by the ruin. It is never finished; it is a work in progress. It has a feeling to it – feeling of hope. And the smell of decay is related to the taste. And that leads to the colors. Over time the colors of the man-made fade and the colors of nature are standing out and brightening. And then the sound. Broken windows and fallen sealings open it up for wind and they create the acoustic of this place.
But Scarbrough4 is addressing the time aspect from the different angle. She is wondering about the different feeling about new ruins and old ruins and claims the new ruins have the sense of naked honesty, they remind us our mortality and the old ones are the reflection of our culture and history. The awareness of mortality may come from the rapid changes like fire or war where the whole village could be destroyed with a short time. And the “new” ruins don’t yet have the vibe in them that nature brings in with time – the mold and moss and the overgrowing climbers, it’s not anyone’s home yet.
Room for imagination or back to the roots?
Fragments, which could be ruins as well (but also a piece of archeological finding), are mysterious because they do not reveal the whole story. The beauty is we don’t need to know what is missing in order to find beautiful what is remained. Aesthetics of ruins is a specific form of aesthetics3. Fragmentation view gives us the opportunity to imagine the things what are no longer there. It gives the opportunity to play around with the thoughts like “what if this” or “what if that” and we can fill in the gaps. There is plenty of room for creating our own stories and meanings what we decide to associate with this place. And it doesn’t need to be related to the history or with the true stories of the place. The ruins give us some hints of their history, everyday living and sense of belonging. A place in ruins lives only through the memories, photographs, written and spoken stories4.
Ruins evoke nostalgia4. The sense of nostalgia is the reason why old castles dating back to Romanticism period may have ruins in their park area. It was a time of great discoveries in Egypt and elsewhere and time of travels to Asia. So many of the findings have inspired architects to bring this mysterious beauty in the parks. This was the influence of different cultures and the curiosity for humanity’s past, howthe society, architecture and culture has evolved. But there is a possibility to overromanticizing the past. Classicism period is recognizing only the antique architecture the real value.
Beauty relies in contrasts and breaking the symmetry. The more strongly they appear the more intriguing the beauty. Another perfect imperfection is the anarchy of how nature is taking over the symmetrically planned order.
A ruin is uniting different factors – nature, man-made and a man and it is tied up into final beauty by time. A ruin is recognized as a ruin by a man who is an observer who give it a meaning. A ruin is shaped by the nature over time, when they acquire their shape, smell, color, taste and sound. A ruin is never finished; it is a work in progress.
Ruins are mysterious because they do not reveal the whole story. We may not know why the ruins are there, we may not understand the use of those structures. The story could be the outcome of our imagination, but could also be a historical story. We don’t need to know what is missing in order to find beautiful what is remained.
1. Saito, Y. (1997). The Japanese Aesthetics of Imperfection and Insufficiency. – The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. Vol. 55, No. 4, pp 377-385.
2. Bicknell, J. (2014). Architectural Ghosts. – The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. Vol. 72, No. 4, pp. 435-441.
3. Hetzler, F., M. (1982). The Aesthetics of Ruins: A New Category of Being. – The Journal of Aesthetic Education. Vol. 16, No. 2, pp. 105-108.
4. Scarbrough, S. (2014). Unimagined Beauty. – The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. Vol. 72, No. 4, pp. 445-449.