What is the Aesthetic of Ruins?


The aesthetic of ruins can help us understand aspects of interior design in terms of the lack of human presence indicating elements we might otherwise ignore. To explore this theme, I will examine how theorists have thought about the aesthetic of abandonment in relation to the beauty of abandoned structures, beginning with the work of Gordon Matta-Clark, in leading us to rethink our lived in environment apart from just its visual aspect. Gay Watson introduces the idea of emptiness as a therapeutic perspective and following this I discuss the origins of beauty in impermanence, non-selfhood and emptiness. I also analysis beauty existing in ruined buildings that reveals the relationship between space and human beings, supported by the work of Henri Lefebvre.

In order to link the use of abandonment and aesthetic beauty, the background to Gordon Matta-Clark will be briefly outlined. Known for his site-specific ‘building cuts’ made in the 1970s, Matta-Clark draws our attention to the fact that we are usually too busy to notice the other significances of our living space besides its domestic function. Apart from its interior equipment, we care little about a building’s character, which may lack functionality or an attractive aesthetic. Matta-Clark’s works usually focus on the abandoned building from which he removes sections of ceilings, floors, and walls, as a part of so-called “Anarchitecture”. He spent several years studying French literature in Paris in 1968, the source of his interest in French deconstructionist philosophers and the Situationists. His famous concept “the reuse of pre-existing artistic elements in a new ensemble” for example, was developed from this cultural and political radicalism (Feuvre & Le Attlee, 2003). His “building cuts” where a house is cut in half vertically radically  alter the perception of the building and its surrounding environment.

Although Matta-Clark studied architecture at Cornell University, he didn’t participate in any conventional projects, caring  more about the significance of improving spaces and encouraging people’s attention on these type of ruined spaces, rather than creating the comfortable living room which was taken for granted. The projects chosen by Matta-Clark represent the decay of the city and its forgotten corners. Using simple but strong decoration to alter people’s view about ruined spaces, his experimental work tells people what they need by offering ‘nothing’; or according to his widow Jane Crawford: “He was a man who wanted to walk through walls and on water […] A man for whom the surface of things was a challenge rather than a barrier” (Feuvre & Le Attlee, 2003).

His offering of nothingness in a ruin means we can understand his behaviour as looking for wormholes, escape hatches, exits through which he could tumble to another level of society. His palette was the flotsam and jetsam, the discarded and ignored rubbish of modern life, the waste products of the capitalist machine. Matta-Clark’s aim in his short 35 years was devoted to proving to people that what they really need was an ordinary part of nature, compared with the ‘well-designed’ spaces.

Matta-Clark’s admirable and dauntless attempt to demonstrate the other side of abandonment to us represents the loss of basic living equipment and raises our concern towards our living environment. Matta-Clark’s works focuses on the overall human scale of architecture, and provide us with a new way to observe the space where we live every day as a spectator. Only when we face the situation where we have to face the basic problem of human beings can we realise what we really need. Thus, we can get rid of those decorations that we actually don’t need at all and engage with the theories around anti-design, conducting experiments by creating a space with all the equipment that doesn’t fit people’s use and habits.

What exists in ruined spaces or discarded buildings is more than just darkness and damp. We mostly speak of “ruins” in derogatory terms, drifting towards the view that it’s irrelevant to culture or aesthetics; such as the definition by Cambridge Dictionary of “ruin” is: (of a ​building or ​city) to be ​extremely ​badly ​damaged so that most of it has ​fallen down. There’s nothing wrong with the explanation but what if it was measured including the knowledge of a more contemporary aesthetic trend, so that understanding is far less closed. In both Eastern and Western art the meaning of “ruins” has been enriched and expanded in modern times, with a more profound explanation given.

The meaning of “ruin” changes from the European Renaissance inspired by the artworks buried in the rubble in ancient Greece and Roman times and gradually develops into an appreciation of “missing beauty”. The important process in the development of the status of the aesthetic value of “ruins” was the Romantic movement in the late 18th century and early 19th century. During this period, the emergence of the apparent disadvantages of the industrial revolution, coupled with counter-enlightenment witnessed the advocation of a “return to nature”. The Romantic Movement cherished the memory of rural life and the pursuing of magical and mysterious subjects, which can be typically found in ruined European castles.

Gay Watson’s study of A Philosophy of Emptiness explains the origins of the development the appreciation of its beauty based on the sociology of religion . A philosophy of emptiness accommodates the loss of foundation, substance and unquestionable metanarratives by opening a space for the uncertainty that is not a vacuum of nihilism. Having pointed out that a philosophy of emptiness is rooted in practice, Watson continues her exploration of the concept of emptiness as developed in Buddhist Philosophy. This advocates the illusion of an essential, stable, independent self, leaving in its place a self perpetually in nature. Watson’s statements on Buddhist Philosophy reveal the relationship among impermanence, non-selfhood, and nihilism, helping us to create a special view to understand and appreciate the beauty behind the surface of abandonment. Watson also turns to the way emptiness figures in Taoism. In spite of the fact that the main thoughts from Taoism share significant affinities with Buddhism and promote the later development in Buddhism, Taoism’s philosophical account for emptiness is far less deep. The Tao, the nameless way of things, is emptiness understood as a source. It is the vessel in which all things come to be and pass away that accounts for the procession of things: being nonbeing, presence and absence (Ian DeWeese-Boyd, 2015).

Having established the approaches to emptiness found in ancient Eastern philosophy, Watson turns to ancient Western philosophy. She quoted many voices of the apophatic path of negative theology, e.g. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, John Scotus Erigena, Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, and Jokob Böhme, to suggests Christianity stands as bulwark of permanence and presence against contingency, absence, and emptiness (Ian DeWeese-Boyd, 2015). Watson establish the roots of emptiness based on modern and post-modern thought and to continue her study links it with contemporary art by focusing on the discussion of literary, musical and choreographic emptiness, regarding both of it as a source of art. The contemporary sublime by contrast finds the source of this overwhelming experience in an encounter with immanence that dismantles the individual consciousness and deconstructs language (Ian DeWeese-Boyd 2015). According to Watson, in this sense, we can clearly conclude that the contemporary sublime actually connected with emptiness without design. Artists such as Samuel Beckett, Anish Kapoor and John Cage try to attract people’s attention towards emptiness in a dialogue between “sound and silence, listening and talking, mark and erasure, stasis and movement, artists and audience”. Watson’s research provides us with a new way to think about the deeper meaning of vacancy, or its uselessness in the sense of architectural design in countering the logic that “Beauty lies in Function”, while ignoring the beauty hidden under incomplete appearance.

Henri Lefebvre in The Production of Space, ranging from art, architecture and culture to literature introduced his key concept that theorizing social space was not independent from theorizing society. Society and social space are about each other; they contain each other. A spatial theory is a social theory and vice versa. The aim, however, was not to construct a discourse of space but to expose the actual production of space by bringing together the various kinds of spaces and the way they came about (their genius) within a single theory. This suggests that we have to decode, or read, space (and not to start from concepts, codes, and messages). The reading of space, then, becomes the construction and reconstruction of the process of signification through social-spatial practices. If space is a social product, then knowing space assumes the reconstruction of the production of space.

What Gordon Matta-Clark didn’t talk about is that there will be one day when all the buildings, which were famous once, have to be destroyed due to its loss of function, or the fact that it cannot catch up with the recent style. Can we announce the death of one building when it no longer serves to us? The key aspect of the argument is that what abandonments in the city provided to us are more than the significance of comfortable environments, but also its own aesthetic in the ruined. We can’t deny the fact that what one particular building is used for at the very beginning is to serve people, which means the main purpose may be lost once it is no longer used by us. Safe and strong architectural structure is the basic requirement of daily life, as well as bright and clean interior space. Thus people tend to judge these abandoned buildings or ruins as function-directed shape, but not conventional architectural forms. It was the machines and processes they housed that determined their configurations, molded to purposes known only to those who used them

In Local Cincinnati Architecture (2009) the focus of the is on the aesthetic and experiential qualities possessed by the “plants, mines, mills and factories” of the Industrial Age. Importance is placed on the historical legacy such works of architecture have, as well as the subjective, yet dominant and startling beauty. In discussing the nature of re-use and development, these focal points are clearly represented. However, the piece proceeds to make other observations, such as the point that innovation is easily sparked by allowing remnants of the past to survive. There is value to re-use, not only in terms of revitalizing communities and returning the profit, but also with regards to culture; local urban life, community, arts and heritage are all greatly affected by re-use of abandoned industrial places. When dealing with ‘piratical projects’, like the redesign of the historical building or old buildings, what we prefer to do is try to keep all the details in space, rather than turning it into a brand new but common architecture. I would argue that interior designers should value everything that has happened in a building, including fire accident, detail after a fight, smell of dust and so on, and treat it as a treasure that makes it unique. Functionality is necessary but not everything.

What I have concluded is that the behaviour that treats broken ruins as an eyesore and expensively repairs as new as possible—is actually a sign of a lack of literacy. Ruined landscapes in the city, made up of urban architectural ruined space and naturally ruined scenery, contain the history of the city and people’s memory. Transformation and utilization based on abandonment could save and extend the memory of the city. This essay analysed the significance of ruins in the urban landscape, including this role as a special property of resources. This should be seen in the context of the importance of offsetting the city’s hyperspace, and enhancing the role of self-identification for people; as well as the temporal and spatial diversity of the city’s dependence on ruin landscapes. The attention paid to Matta-Clark’s work introduced the variety of significance in ruined space, arguing that beauty comes under incomplete appearance. The theory that beauty lies in function suggests possibilities beyond functionalism. Watson’s philosophy of emptiness and the significance of vacancy from eastern culture is similar to Lefebvre. Both explain the common significance of ruin in art in how society and social space contain each other requiring a philosophy of emptiness is rooted in practice. My treatments of these areas are necessarily selective, elective, and cursory but my aim is not the sort of exhaustive academic analysis that would cover all the detail in this area, but try to play a role as a sign to remind us of the possibility of beauty in our daily life.



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