The Poetry of Decay

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Author Mark Minkjan

SummaryUrban and architectural decay provides stimuli for the mind and has been the creative inspiration for many artists and writers.

Themes Ruin & Dystopia

Content FA Perspectives

Date12 May 2013

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Urban and architectural decay often appeals to the imagination. While some consider the unfinished parts of the city as ugly or disturbing, others feel they make an area more interesting than the picture perfect urban fabric. The city’s scars are stimuli for the mind. They raise questions, about memories and imaginations of a foregone past, and of potential futures. They visualize the passage of time and the inevitability of collapse. On a smaller level, they show traces of faded lives, moved communities and shrunken economies. The voids provide space for the observer to interpret them as he likes, to fill them with imaginations and meanings.

Decay provokes thoughts and actions and is the creative inspiration for many artists and writers. 

Joseph Gandy’s depiction of John Sloane’s Bank of England as a ruin, 1830.

Not a new thing
The fascination with these spaces is widespread and perennial. Decaying structures, derelict places, abandoned lots and other urban imperfections have been the inspiration for many artists and writers since long ago. This goes back to Piranesi’s depictions of Rome and Hubert’s one of the Louvre’s Gallery as a ruin in the 18th century, was present with Joseph Gandy who painted the Bank of England after its fictional destruction, in John Ruskin’s writing about historic preservation and that of Sigmund Freud in Civilization and its Discontentsand continues with Walter Benjamin using ruins as allegory, and Rose Macaulay’s The Pleasure of Ruins. These are only a handful cases in which decay influenced well-known writers and artists.

982Brian Dillon’s (ed) “Ruins”.

21st century literature
But the obsession is not something of the past. In recent years, much literature about the topic has been published, trying to explain why the ruin prompts such instinctive responses in us that are filled with melancholia, nostalgia and imagination.
Examples are Christopher Woodward’s In Ruins, Brian Dillon’s Ruins, Julia Hell and Andreas Schönle’s Ruins of Modernity and single articles, such as the recently published Reckoning with Ruins by Caitlin DeSilvey and Tim Edensor. In general, the literature shows a gradually shifting attention from the classical ruins to modern ruins. These are roughly the ruins that emanate from industrialisation and urbanisation from the 19th century onward.
 “Imagination Station Detroit”, image by Andrew Moore.

Also in arts the preoccupation with urban voids has increased, not in the last place in photography. Everyone at least knows someone who is active in urban exploration, secretly entering abandoned structures, and capturing them in photo. Photographers have made it to the reputable museums and galleries with series depicting abandonment, decay and emptiness, showing the collapse of the futures of the past and the metaphoric resonances of voids (and sometimes being accused of engaging in “ruin porn”). These photographers include and Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre who became superstars with their work on Detroit, Andrew Moore, who shot the decay of New York, Detroit and other places, Simon Marsden who captured ruins as haunted sites, Steven Siegel showing New York’s decay in the 1980s and Shaun O’Boyle who documented America’s 20th century flip side.

New York in the 1980s, image by Steven Siegel.

Ballroom, American Hotel, Detroit. Image by Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre.

Ruin art
Also in arts, a growing interest in ruins and leftover space is manifest. The notion of failed modernist utopia is not seldom a topic in contemporary works of art. Artists such as Karin Kihlberg and Reuben Henry, and Cyprien Gaillard refer to decay, transience, destruction and ruination in their work.

Cyprien Gaillard’s “La grande allée du château de Oiron”. Gaillard dumped crushed rubble from a demolished tower block on the main alley of a Renaissance Castle. Image by Cyprien Gaillard.

Cyprien Gaillard’s “Pruitt-Igoe Falls”.

The importance of voids for interpreting the city
Italian-born architect Simone Pizzagalli has an interesting take on the notion of decay, leftover space and voids. In his Archiprix-winning essay Space, Poetics and Voids, he underlines the narrative importance of voids. In the essay, he draws the parallel between language and space (via cinema), in order to show that the city can be interpreted as an arrangement, a sequence, in which the void has an important place. In language, silence is an meaningful component that carries culture, history and tradition. Pizzagalli writes that in spoken language, “silence becomes a space more than a real void, a pause that is absence of sound but enriched by a tension of meaning, in itself as silence, or in relation with what was before and after”. In written language, voids between words, lines, paragraphs and chapters, the reader can fill in his own meanings and realities. He quotes Italo Calvino who writes in Invisible Cities that Kublai Khan likes to wander through the voids not filled with words, “become lost, stop and enjoy the cool air, or run off”. He connects the thoughts of Roland Barthes, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Albert Camus and others to support his own.

gordonmatta-clark“Building cuts”, works by Gordon Matta-Clark.

fotoIsolated vestiges from the work “Office Baroque” (1977) as seen in one of the pictures above, taken from a building in Antwerp that was demolished after Matta-Clark worked on it. On display at Hamburger Bahnhof, image by Mark Minkjan.

Pizzagalli eventually ends up at space and the built environment, where voids are not a lack, not nothing. They are important elements that help us interpret the space around us. He has a particular interest in Gordon Matta-Clark, who did not just use the void as a building block in his works of art, he created voids himself as an act of preservation. He physically cut buildings that were about to be demolished. By creating the void, Matta-Clark charged the structure with a certain tension, leaving an impression in the mind of the observer and by doing so, preserving the building.

Hotel BallymunHotel Ballymun, images by Hotel Ballymun.

A somewhat similar act was done by the artist Seamus Nolan work at Dublin’s Hotel Ballymun in 2007. In the month prior to the demolition of the Clarke Tower, one of the last remaining high-rises in Ballymun, its 15th floor served as a hotel, offering nine hotel rooms. Simultaneously, a programme of art, performances, debates and social events took place. The project encouraged the visitors and spectators to reconsider the building, making it leave an impression and go out with a bang instead of quietly disappearing.

In his essay, Simone Pizzagalli says: “void contains in itself all the potential of the space, all the relation not written and experienced. [..] Void is the place of tension of something that will be, a space in power, but also the only place where the recollection of reality, the composition of the parts, fragments, of life can happen.”

These imperfect, incomplete, broken and illusionary fragments of the built environment are important components in narration and relate people, places, histories and futures. They will surely remain the creative inspiration for many.

Mark Minkjan is an urban geographer and Editor in Chief at Failed Architecture. He blogs at citybreaths.com.  

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The Poetry of Decay

Author Mark Minkjan

SummaryUrban and architectural decay provides stimuli for the mind and has been the creative inspiration for many artists and writers.

Themes Ruin & Dystopia

Content FA Perspectives

Date12 May 2013

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