The fascination of ruins

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Some of the most arresting images of recent years are those of ruined Detroit, Michigan by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.

They include the United Artists Theatre, ready to give us vertigo with its height and expanse. But it is monotone, silver-grey – a Narnian witch has withered the unfurling decoration. It’s Miss Havisham’s wedding cake: celebratory splendour gnawed and eaten, enough beauty left to mock us, but fragile as ash.

United Artists Theater, Detroit (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre)

United Artists Theater, Detroit (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre)

There are images of hotels, apartments, railway stations – windows like gouged eyeholes of 20th century excess, flaking like the make-up of septuagenarian starlets.

Michigan Central Station (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre)

Michigan Central Station (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre)

This is ruin on the grand scale. The artists record it on camera and talk of the fall of empires. It’s the sinking of the Titanic, the Statue of Zeus or the Sphinx. It is part of something mighty fallen, and reminds us that humans are here and then were here.

Do we think of ourselves when we see these images? Or are we thinking grandly, of the human race?

Place an upturned plastic chair in the centre of the ruined dancehall and we might respond differently. This is something from within our lifetime, not a distant heritage. It’s the chair we sat on at school, the chair we sat on at interview, the one we stacked at the end of countless work presentations. The chair belongs to now. Yet it’s in a dead ballroom because it has had its time and belongs to the dark (or in the photo, the light…).

Ballroom, American Hotel (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre)

Ballroom, American Hotel (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre)

Stop, we think – that shouldn’t be there like that. We can hear the scrape of its metal legs and feel the warm grainy plastic and our living, and it hurts, because we know that’s where we’re going too, sometime.

But we are intrigued, like the Romantics who saw ruins lit by moonlight. They saw dark things and spectres that rose to give Byronic shivers of pleasure. This was fear to sip from books and shut away afterwards. Buildings also shut things away, and are well-worn metaphors for the mind, with dark attics and cellars rarely visited.

Moorland ruin

Moorland ruin (Whistlesinthewind)

They also witness our lives – this is where we are born, learn, work, love and die. Is our energy so powerful that it is absorbed by plaster, brick, stone and wood? Do we think houses become human?

Old houses and empty houses turn quickly into gothic, romantic heroines. Daphne du Maurier writes here of the first sight of her home Menabilly, which partly inspired Manderley in the novel Rebecca, where the house is as much a character as the protagonists:

Grey, still, silent. The windows were shuttered fast, white and barred. Ivy covered the grey walls and threw tendrils round the windows. It was early still,  and the house was sleeping. But later, when the sun was high, there would come no wreath of smoke from the chimneys. The shutters would not be thrown back, nor the doors unfastened. No voices would sound within those darkened rooms. Menabilly would sleep on, like the sleeping beauty of the fairy tale, until someone should come to wake her.

Houses are not meant to be empty. This scares us. They can decline and rot, and remind us of our own bodies. Throw the windows wide, they say. Let some air in.

An empty house beckons us to look into the unknown, an after life: anything could be lurking in the cellar or the attic. We have always known that. So we paper and paint and polish, and keep the structure from returning to the earth. Renew and replenish. Keep the soil from quietly forming in the gutters, moss from lining the path, trees from tapping at the window.

All those Miss Havishams alone, cobwebbed, time-stilled. A house might change hands, and belong to a family. ‘The house lives again,’ people say, because there is energy and love and conflict.

But ruined buildings remind us of the end. And we are fascinated.

Moorland ruin 2

Moorland ruin 2 (Whistlesinthewind)

The Ruins of Detroit exhibition is showing at the Fontana Fortuna Gallery in Amsterdam from May 12th to June 30th 2012.

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10 thoughts on “The fascination of ruins

  1. Beautiful writing. Intriguing photos. Sometimes, its amazing how old things, things time forgot became beautiful and amaze people who see it every day. This weird piece of logic sometimes perplexes me.

    • Thanks – I think their photos are amazing. I often wonder at what point we start looking at everyday things as if for the first time, and what happens to make us really ‘see’ things again.

  2. Such great buildings that seem to echo with the spirits of all the humans who once inhabited that space. I love these photos. So evocative. The United Artists Theater seems like it would make a perfect setting for Phantom of the Opera — a great lair for the Phantom if he ever wanted an above-ground abode.

    • You can really hear something just looking at the photos of Detroit: I think that’s part of why they’re so effective, because the image contradicts what we’re imagining with silence and emptiness.

  3. Wonderful post! Beautifully written – so evocative, poignant and true. I love your imagery and your gothic allusions – Miss Havisham, Manderley/ Menabilly, the fascination of cobwebbed decay and hidden attics, where dark recesses of thought wait… Your words about Byron brought to mind a book I read about him a couple of years ago – how, when he died, people imbued him with an almost vampire-like symbolism of their own hidden psyche – a fear and a fascination. What had he unleashed? Could it be kept down? Would it bite back?

    Ruins are such powerful places to visit – a sense of that life and living absorbed into their walls – echoing whispers of past times as they crumble. I love the photos – yours and the ones of Detroit. And I loved how your words and thoughts circled around the plastic chair, and its particular poignancy for our age and the immediacy of our everyday experiences… Suddenly the gothic belongs to now, not just to long past ruins.

    I can see how the ‘White Crow’ rarely visited cellars of the mind and shadowy, fearful intimations of after life, misted and mingled with all your inspirations!

    • The Byron book sounds fascinating – what’s it called? I did a lot of reading around Lord Byron a few years ago and managed to collect all his diaries from when they were published in the seventies – after all the effort I’ve still only dipped into them however… I did a pilgrimage to Newstead too! Pleased you enjoyed the post, thanks for kind words.

      • The book’s called ‘The Kindness of Sisters: Annabella Milbanke and the Destruction of the Byrons’ by David Crane. I came across my secondhand copy during one of my annual trips to wonderful Barter Books in Northumberland. It’s an interesting read – with an intriguing section where David Crane imagines a meeting between Annabella and Augusta in their later years, and scripts how that may have played out! It also draws interesting links between Annabella, Dickens, Byron’s daughter and Miss Havisham. I’ve been meaning to blog about it for ages (an increasing backlog of blogging intentions keeps running up against scarcity of time!) Sorry for the delay in replying. This week’s half term holiday means finding moments to get on the computer are few and far between!

      • Will look that up – sounds really good. Blogs are like undemanding dogs I think – you can be wrapped up in life for days/weeks/ages and they’ll still be happy to go for a walk when you get the chance! Mustn’t let them be the kind of dogs that bang food bowl loudly when you turn your back, demanding inspiration, life has enough lists…

  4. The photographs are beautiful & poignant. I think ruins always conjour up ideas of previous times & appeal to our imagination – they are like a pinpoint in time that is marking a change from one state to another. So they makes us ask questions & start imagining in a way we wouldn’t do to the same extent when presented with an image of a place not in ruins. Yet everything really has history, it’s just that it doesn’t always present itself to us so strongly.
    I think I had the same sense of this type of thing on visiting bomb sites overgrown with wildflowers when I was a child.

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