What’s our fascination with ruin? Our obsession with destruction and decay? There is undeniably something captivating about it isn’t there?
Consider the romantic allure of dilapidated Margate, the strange, yet guilty, appeal of the photographs that fill your Instagram feed of photo shoots on boarded up council estates which have certainly seen better days and our fascination with the solitary electronic music which echoes the urban decay of a post industrial North American ‘rust belt’ city like Detroit.
Ruins have long served as the setting of novels, films and photographic essays; the obsessions of photographers, writers and film makers alike.
And then, there’s so-called ‘ruin tourism’. How many of us broke into abandoned hospitals as teenagers to smoke a spliff, believing elaborate urban myths about how they were once Victorian mental asylums? Think also about abandoned theme parks, like Spreepark in Berlin. While you’re there, remember the appeal of the first time you stepped into Berlin’s Berghain, an abandoned power station which is somehow preserved in a state of enduring decay and frozen in constant decline.
An abandoned structure is a space which once served a specific purpose. It doesn’t matter whether it’s small, a modest two up two down house in the middle of nowhere, or large, a sprawling concrete factory complex with rows and rows of windows. Empty places convey the economic failures which caused them to be abandoned, to shut down. But they also signify so much more. An abandoned home speaks of the people who once lived there, their stories linger as suggestions of lives lived out in all their complexity.
We find ourselves asking: who lived here? Where did they go? Why did they leave? How many memories are being erased as this place falls down?
On Hackney Road an old hospital was recently demolished. It is being turned into a luxury development of flats which goes by the name Mettle and Poise. As they pulled it down, with cranes and bulldozers, you could see the layers of years being peeled back. Different paint tones and wallpaper patterns, held together barely by crumbling concrete and disfigured metal poles. The bones of a building.
Looking at it, it was hard not to wonder about all of the people who passed through: the patients who got better and left and those who remained sick and stayed, the staff who tended to them, pacing the corridors at night.
Today, things literally vanish and new things appear in their place. Old buildings, which have stood for centuries, are knocked down and within a few days modern structures are quickly erected in their place, completely erasing what once was and changing our perceptions of the space.
Ruins are remainders and reminders. Therein lies their power. They become part of the landscape, and then, a landscape in their own right. There’s something quite primal about the draw of them; they seem to reassure us somehow that death might not be the end, that something of your influence, existence and presence might remain after you move on. It’s a kind of bittersweet sorrow.
A decaying building, whether that’s a family home or industrial plant, says something to us about the inevitable process of history. Just as a decaying British seaside town or post-industrial city in decline, once buzzing with life and business, reminds us that economics, culture and society are ever evolving, this is the stuff of grand, overarching historical narratives in which we all play a small part; processes of beginning and endings, birth and decay to which we will all eventually and inevitably succumb.
What we feel when we look at ruins is at once a sense of comfort and a realisation of our own fleeting presence, our current vitality versus our ultimate mortality.
Ruins, abandoned and decaying, serve to remind us of what has been lost. Of what once was. But they also confirm to us that life really does go on, that this is inescapable. Somehow, there’s comfort in that.
You build a house, in the middle of nowhere. You maintain it and care for it for as long as you’re there. And, when you are gone, nature will creep back in; it will grow between the bricks, seep under the floorboards, creep up the walls as damp rising and nest in the roof.
Decay, ruin and destruction, is more than merely an aesthetic. More than a stylistic backdrop for a photo shoot or music video. It speaks to us because it reminds us of something fundamental about our own existence: that time passes and things change, life unfolds, whether we like it or not, whether we are paying attention or not.