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The Architecture of Crisis

By Owen Vince.


“in this new context, ruins – such as those in Cole’s The Course of Empire – raised a more serious question about the capacity of ‘our civilization’ to recover from such an ordeal.”

Nick Yablon, Untimely Ruins

“The 33 Most Beautiful Abandoned Places in the World. Can’t wait until the world ends and EVERYTHING looks like this.”

BuzzFeed, 26 March, 2013

Earlier this year, what was described as an “unfinished villa” was put up for sale on the Greek island of Mykonos. This structure – it is too optimistic, too misleading, to call it a “building” – features a potential floor area of 190 sq.m., which, despite being little more than a skeleton of bare, exposed concrete, features (according to the estate agent’s listing) a “living room, separate kitchen, three bedrooms” and a “WC”. The advert goes on to list the property as having a “great sea view”.

And they aren’t wrong – the structure looks out over a sparkling sky-blue bay, flanked by gently rolling yellow-green hills which dip into the ocean. When the pictures were taken – there are several, showing off the vista and the elevated aspect of the property – it was a bright, sunny morning. There is nobody to be seen. Twisted bands of rusted rebar squirm into the air.

What is missing from this picture, however, is both a question and an answer. The question – of course – is, “why is the structure unfinished?”. The answer remains a possibility that exists only on the lip of resolution. Its answer might be: “crisis”. After the financial collapse of 2008, domestic properties – both complete and incomplete – became the primary wound where the disintegration of the sub-prime mortgage market would express itself. As: foreclosure, dispossession, ruination. The Greek and Spanish coasts, which had been slowly accumulating luxury villas on the back of an ever-inflating housing bubble – became the new front lines of this almost tectonic war which saw confidence withdraw as quickly as a light is turned off. The builders packed up their tools and drove away.

What remains is not so much an architecture as an archaeology; a site of devastation and abandonment. During the First World War, reportage and photography of the smashed towns and villages of the Western Front caused the editors of LIFE magazine to take pause – to think again about how to depict these blasted, gravy-brown photographs. Where before ruins had always provided a symbol of satirical neglect, they had been replaced by a haunted agitation, an awkward discomfort. Ruins were – raw. Ruins were a ruptured boil on the body of a civilization that had thought  its primary expression of health was growth. Not much earlier, in 1884, the Home Insurance Building of Chicago became the world’s first “skyscraper”. Its structural steel  and wrought iron fabric represented the promise of the possibility of that structure being infinitely repeated; design was no longer about the detailing and moulding of specific elements, but an endless process of industrial reproduction. The HIB was, as such, the robotic health of the built environment – the logical conclusion of a development toward infinite reproducibility. Ruins – as decimated, necrotic, wounded architecture – were the reversal or denial of that process. They were the assertion that there is an “end”. The arrest of confidence.

Fig 1

But what went wrong, exactly – what changed this attitude, from confidence to anxiety? Ruins had always been beneficent, if not elegant. Rome was in ruins, and “beautiful”. As Christopher Woodward puts it in his (anachronistic yet strangely compelling) In Ruins, “when we contemplate [them], we contemplate our own failure. To statesmen, ruins predict the fall of Empires, and to philosophers the futility of mortal man’s aspirations”. Works such as Leonardo Coccorante’s Harbour with Roman Ruins, c. 1740 – 1750), Marco Ricci’s “A Capriccio of Roman Ruins” (c. 1720s), and Louise-Josephine Sarazin de Belmont’s “The Roman Theatre at Taormina” (c. 1828), hanging in locations such as the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and the British Museum, London, provide testament to a fashionable reflexivity in which it became popular to be seen to “see” ruins. These are paintings which distort and dream – the Colosseum is seen wrapped in weeds and ivy, while shepherd boys and grazing sheep loll around its columns and hills and pushed-over columns break-up the landscape. To accentuate the placid desolation, it was important to deny the continued presence of the city of Rome that was “really there” around it.

Over the past decade, this contemplation of ruins and abandonment – in the shadow of the necrotic half death which the advancement of Late Capitalism reproduces – has seen a new industry of ruin contemplation emerge. For the former Soviet eastern bloc, Owen Hatherley caustically refers to a genre of expensive coffee table books featuring “Totally Cool Abandoned Soviet Architecture”. Blogs – Abandoned Berlin, abandoned London, abandoned places. Online photo essays and Facebook groups provide expansive records and, often, explorer’s tips, for desktop archaeologists to purr and fascinate over. Hospitals, parking lots, former Olympic parks, football stadia, hotels, resorts and schools. It represents an immense and mortal infrastructure of decaying buildings which are celebrated first and foremost for the degree of their “coolness”, the weirdness of their function, the extent of their desolation. As Lyons argues, the “allure” of these ruins – including Sydney’s Magic Kingdom and the German Spreepark – are captured by “urban explorers”, creating a tendril of connection to the idea of risk, of arriving into an unknown “heart of darkness”. Richard B. Woodward is more caustic, still – to him, so-called “ruin porn” is little more than “immature” and “gawky”.

And nobody ever asks, “why?”. Why were they abandoned, and how?

Our representation of these buildings is important. To a large extent, the work of 18th c. painters and traveling Englishmen shaped how we receive the classical past of Rome. The narrative is always of Rome’s “fall”, rather than its centuries of continuity and development, or of the people who lived after it. The fall of the empire was not an act of depopulation – it was not an apocalypse. As a past, it is compressed and erased to suit aesthetic tastes of what the past should “be” and should look like. Its collapse is credited to little more than the fact that it was its “time” to collapse. The folly of empires and emperors. Edward Gibbon is still leaning over us, wagging his thick-set fingers. For those Romans who still had the “bad” taste to live among or around the ruins, to whom the baths of Caracalla were likely a nuisance, the English painters happily painted them out of the picture. They were too – “real”. Not “authentic”. I find the same problem with Lyon’s insistence that ruin aesthetics are salvaged by their offering of a travel to “the future within the present”, as if they can serve only as a warning. The implication is that the “ruin” is beyond hope, and its causes are unstoppable.

And so, this practice of “looking” is not a neutral activity, and aesthetics are not disconnected from real effects and worlds. Works such as Andrew Moore’s Detroit Disassembled and Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s The Ruins of Detroit represent expansive photo collections taken in the American midwestern city famous for its auto industry and for high levels of inner city poverty. This book was criticised by US magazine Jacobin, who have offered an especially useful evaluation of the consequences of this kind of ruin “porn”:

“Detroit ruin imagery […] geographically circumscribes and isolates the anxiety of decline, making the predominantly African-American city a kind of alien zone. The ubiquitous photos of derelict skyscrapers, churches, businesses, and homes, and abandoned factories like the Packard Plant – the nation’s largest ruin – are  repeatedly compared to war zones, hurricane wreckage, and the aftermath of nuclear explosion”

These photographs of “ruined” neighbourhoods – they go on to say – “explain very little about the complex causes of decline” or its ramifications. Contrasting derelict buildings with the growth of plant life, with trees and vines swelling across vast expanses of clinker brick and concrete, “naturalizes” the ruin, relegating it to the status of an inevitable victim of a wholly natural cycle of birth and decay. The folly of empires. Not, a preventable victim of neoliberal markets; a victim of inadequate social policies; a place “left behind” by the withdrawal of government support. These things are not romantic. Nature – vines writhing through smashed brick – are.

Or, as one blog post on Feministe has put it, “these pictures do show Detroit. But they don’t *represent* Detroit”. Indeed, Julien Temple’s documentary Requiem for Detroit would imply that this representation is of a city that is already dead. This is not a dead city – but is is a dying one. Similarly, the “ruins” of Mykonos – and numerous other islands and coastlines – are not corpses so much as half-dead forms, whose wounding, as an unintended architecture (the exposed concrete was not supposed to be exposed), continually makes present the potential cause of their wounds: finance, crisis, and the markets.

Of course, there’s an argument that, by not “looking away”, that by paying attention to and recording ruins, we are dragging an architecture which ordinarily resists or escapes representation into the light. This highlighting of urban deprivation and economic crisis is, as the Jacobin author also points out, a ‘good’ thing to do. But it is not necessarily a question of showing so much as “framing”, of the narrative frameworks into which we insert these ruins. For the 18th c. painters, ruins served as a means to amplify the succession of the new British empire over the ruins of Rome – a “new world power” could rightly stroll among the desolation of a power that did it wrong. “You think they were powerful, well, you’ve seen nothing yet”. When we depict ruins without reference to human activity, when we deepen a narrative of “naturalization” and of ruined aesthetics, we eclipse ruination as a problem. And it is a problem. It is a tragedy with preventable causes.

Fig 2

Looking at ruins and seeing beauty, seeing something aesthetic and “awesome” and desirable, represents a refusal to engage with the systems of policy, finance, and crisis which give rise to space and dismantle it. All these coffee table books and blogs do little more than comfort and accustom us to urban and architectural ruination – they do not shock us, or prompt us to ask questions. The property company in Greece expects us not to ask questions. And yet, we must still look at these buildings – they demand confrontation. The issue is, how can we look at them without erasing them, or seeing only what we want to see? As John Leary puts it in his article on the phenomenon of “Detroitism”:

“Ruin photography, in particular, has been criticized for its “pornographic” sensationalism, [while] others roll their eyes at all the positive attention heaped on the young, mostly white “creatives,” which glosses over the city’s deep structural problems and the diversity of ideas to help fix them. So much ruin photography and ruin film aestheticizes poverty without inquiring of its origins, dramatizes places but never seeks out the people that inhabit and transform them, and romanticizes isolated acts of resistance without acknowledging the massive political and social forces aligned against the real transformation, and not just stubborn survival, of the city.”

To take photographs and to share accounts and images is not of itself a bad thing – surely, to not depict is worse, because it is tantamount to forgetting and evasion. Bringing crisis and the evidence of structural deprivation into the public arena is a “good” thing, yes. But as was said above, this is not a conversation about “showing”, but of how we show. It is to ask whether  there a way out of this trap, to depict decline in a way that is responsible and responsive, that retains its experimental and avant garde element of dissonance and shock, while not reducing the abandoned architecture to the status of a prop for experimentation, a surface from which images slide?

Lotte Schreiber, the German experimental documentary film-maker, offers a potential route out of this complex and uncomfortable paradox. Her 2005 film, Domino, was shot before the financial crisis of 2008 but picked up on the fact that abandonment was already an established phenomenon from before it, albeit on a smaller scale. Her film depicts a series of “unfinished” villas and structures, similar to that for sale on Mykonos today, in the contexts of their landscapes. It means that we don’t necessarily encounter the problem of images or representations that offer “resistance to any narrative content or explication.”

But really the film constitutes two, inter-penetrating films – one is shot in grainy, still 35mm black and white footage and provides a style of more conventional, evasive “aestheticisation” where the camera lingers over these voided structures, emphasising their integration with the natural landscapes around them; distant, hazy islands, sloping hills, flat seas. Stripped of colour, warmth, and movement, they function like grave stones and reject all questions as to the structural conditions which led to their isolation and abandonment – questions which might yield answers such as that the investors entered financial difficulties, companies went out of business, loans and mortgages failed. Even before 2008, there was an evidence of a gutting to come.

But these shots are contrasted with others, constituting a second film that overlaps with the first – these are in colour, and dynamic. They show glimpses and parts of the structures, the camera being handled as if dropped or fumbled. These snatches of film last for shorter bursts of time; seconds or a handful of seconds. We see the same structures, but their static, patient, and monolithic relationship to the landscape around them is distorted. We are in the presence of a moving, “amateur” hand which suddenly establishes the presence of Schreiber’s body in the frame, thus bringing a human presence into both the landscape and architecture of the abandoned buildings. These are inter-cut with shots taken from moving cars, along rained-on roads; traffic passes, between towns and places of work. Others linger in bars and restaurants; others show footage from news channels. And it is important that this is 2005, not 2008, or after; the conventional “truth” is that capitalism only broke-down in 2008, the year of collapse, and not before.

Schreibener’s footage paints a different picture; of capitalism as an “always crisis” which never resolves itself. The desiccated, exposed concrete structures of the Greek coast are evidence enough of this; after 2008, they only became more numerous, and sustained a phenomenology of a “ruptured” continuity that attempts to writhe and reattach itself to a future. It is telling that, in one of the Lumiere’s first films from 1895, the subject was the demolition of a wall. The film – also called “The Demolition of a Wall” – is a single shot sequence which shows workers hammering at the structure before it buckles and collapses in a cloud of dust. Von Moltke, writing on the film for his essay on cinema and ruination, points out that contemporary projectionists liked to then play the film backward, such that “the plume of dust gets sucked into the wall as it assembles itself from a pile of debris and ends up intact”. One of the values of structuring and framing the visual representation of destruction and ruination is that it can create narratives which frame and (re)contextualise it; in 2005, over a century later, Schreiber also utilises two tempos and rhythms of film to deny the permanence and voiding of meaning which the ruin – as a still, listless “shot” – attempts to convey.

Indeed, the purpose of Schreiber’s “contrasted” shots is to continually make history and the present “present”, together, in the same moment. Their tension – between aesthetic stasis and amateur dynamism – complicate and refuse to allow the abandoned structures to remain abandoned, and continually fold them back into an equally jarring context and historicity. Marchand and Meffre call their photographs evidence of “small pieces of history in suspension”, but this serves only to  thwart the continued, structural transformations which render these places visible and invisible, which erode and dismantle them “as” architectures and archaeologies in a continually unfolding now. The fact that the unfinished villas of Mykonos have re-entered the market, that photographers scramble among the derelict factories of Detroit, evidences that these structures continue to function within a market economy, and continue to be commodified and alienated from within them. This is what Schreiber reminds us of in her dual cinema of tension and erasure; that “ruins” are not really abandoned, only stripped of their primary functions and threatened with the terrible risk of becoming a “terrain vague”, a left-over space. But they are not “suspended” in time; rather, their wounding forces them to bleed in-to a continually agitating present. The worst thing we can do is celebrate this; the worst thing we can do is say this is “ok”.



Dora Apel, “The Ruins of Capitalism”, Jacobin, 6 May, 2015

Feministe blog, “The Ruin Porn Post” Feministe.us, http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2011/09/15/the-ruin-porn-post/

John Patrick Leary, “Detroitism”, Guernica, January 15, 2011

Paul Mullins, “The Politics and Archaeology of ‘Ruin Porn’” paulmullins.wordpress.com

Siobhan Lyons, “Debbie does Decay: what ‘ruin porn’ tells us about ruins – and porn” The Conversation, 18 August, 2015

Richard B. Woodward, “Disaster Photography: when is documentary exploitation?” Art News, 2 June, 2013

Deserted Places, “Abandoned villas in the Greek islands”, Deserted Places blog, June 7, 2013

Christopher Woodward, In Ruins, Random House, 2010

Johannes von Moltke, “Ruin Cinema” in Julia Hell and Andreas Schonle, eds., Ruins of Modernity, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010

This essay is a companion piece to a poem, titled “Mykonos”, published in Dead King Magazine Issue 1 (deadkingmag.com).



Owen Vince is a poet, design critic, and managing editor of PYRAMID Editions poetry press. He writes on digital art, experimental video games, and architecture for the likes of The Arcade Review, Failed Architecture, and Unwinnable, among others. He tweets @abrightfar.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 3rd, 2016.