Tales of Loss and Rediscovery

At least since the 18th century, many of us have found ruins and fragments to be tantalisingly alluring. We have celebrated their aesthetic appeal in paintings by Robert Des Ruines and in architectural follies. But 20th century Modernists – in philosophy, literature, art and architecture – articulated a deeper truth about ruins. They understood that ruins weren’t just aesthetic conceits – but hints as to the nature of reality itself. When a British referendum and an American election appears to have overturned the world order through a thick fog of lies and fake news – this realisation couldn’t be more pertinent. A technology – the internet – that was supposed to bring us closer together is powerfully polarising and fragmenting us at an alarming speed, and we had better get used to it.

Robert Harbison poetically tells this timely cultural story of meaning in his book Ruins and Fragments Tales of Loss and Rediscovery.

Ruins and Fragments

by Robert Harbison

What is it in the air of the present that makes us suspicious of works or histories that are too smooth, too continuous? That makes us feel fragmentariness has a kind of meaning in itself before there’s any content to fill it? Is it that urban experience is inherently discontinuous and fragmented, or that the only truths we can believe are partial ones?

Certainly much interesting work of the last century makes us feel that we’ve got part of something, not the whole – Carlo Scarpa finding a ruin in a seemingly complete building at Castelvecchio in Verona, inventing an archaeological dig where no one had seen any fracture before, or Ezra Pound discovering a discontinuous ruin in Elliott’s lengthier draft of his Waste Land, removing sections and shortening others to leave it resembling an incomplete inscription, remnant of something once longer and more intelligible.

Ruins and Fragments Carlo Scarpa (1906-1978) at Castelvecchio, Verona

A modernist architect lays bare discontinuity and ruin in an old building: Carlo Scarpa (1906-1978) at Castelvecchio, Verona.

One reviewer has used the word teeming to describe my book, which looks at ruins and fragments of many kinds, starting from the belief that both these concepts play a much bigger part in culture than is usually thought. I have been fascinated by how often important works from the past come to us in damaged or incomplete form and need to be put back together before they can be appreciated. I want to show in this book that much of the most adventurous writing, art and even architecture of the last hundred years has expressed itself in fragmentary form, sometimes to express a pessimistic view of the situation in which it finds itself, but just as often to express openness to new possibility. So the fragment and the fragmentary is felt as bursting with untapped potential and suggestion.

The book explores and takes pleasure in the universal phenomenon of decay

Of course dark themes are not absent from Ruins and Fragments. The book explores and takes pleasure in the universal phenomenon of decay, the tendency of human productions, even art, to fall victim to neglect and obsolescence, the universal fate of buildings in particular to lose their initial freshness and cease to function as originally intended, and the increasing likelihood that they will not last.

Part of the fascination of the subject is how differently broadly similar fates occur in different cultural fields: buildings collapse much more quickly than poems. The most interesting literary cases of ruin – like Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the most overwhelming of all – are constructed by their authors to resemble organic decay. Buildings deliberately imitating ruin seem more superficial exercises; in architecture ruin is not a joke but a universal fate that comes all too quickly without special encouragement.

Ruins and Fragments Gigantomachy frieze, Pergamon Altar, Pergamon Museum, Berlin

Gigantomachy frieze, Pergamon Altar, Pergamon Museum, Berlin.

Ruins and Fragments opens with a big monument in Turkey which had completely disappeared until a German highway engineer uncovered fragments of it about a hundred years ago. The story of how most of this building from Pergamon ended in Berlin, except for a bit that got away and landed in Worksop, is full of surprises, like a 13 year long detour to Leningrad. I have always relished the sheer physicality of actually digging the dirty fragments out of the ground so that you need to scrub off the debris before you can read them at all. Thus ancient rubbish dumps become a prime source of whole plays of Sophocles or, even more tantalising, incomplete scenes where we can only guess at what is missing.

There is a whole class of film and literary work that excavates deprived lives and brings forth unsuspected depths of rich texture. Here the book ropes in a film about derelict Chinese factories, a cinematic autobiography set in a Scottish mining town and a poetic account of the tribulations of dirt poor farmers in Alabama, all forms of human ruin whose surroundings are perceived as strangely beautiful.

In the same vein we venture into a series of ad hoc constructions formed of carefully hoarded debris that it took an observant eye to distinguish from junk, at Deptford in London, Jaywick Sands Essex and the verges of the Acropolis in Athens.

Ruins and Fragments One of the earliest examples of American Brutalism, Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building at Yale, showing the special finish of ridged concrete surfaces obtained by attacking them with hammers.

One of the earliest examples of American Brutalism, Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building at Yale,
showing the special finish of ridged concrete surfaces obtained by attacking them with hammers.

The book then tackles the fragment as the main formal principle informing sophisticated works in poetry, prose and film of the early twentieth century by Joyce, Eisenstein, Vertov, Walter Benjamin, T S Eliot and Wallace Stevens. Here the main discovery is seeing how thoroughly these forms have infiltrated each other, until film inspires literature and Zen ideas turn up in western poetry and music. Finnegan’s Wake for example, is a demonic puzzle, teasing us with the idea of a narrative or narratives buried somewhere under all these layers of confusion like compost laid down by lots of intervening cultures. Like other instances scattered through this book, Joyce seems in search of a pre-literate level of consciousness more authentic than anything since language got corrupted, but the only way to get there is through a mist of words.

In architecture of the same period— the 1920s, a decade of furious change —modernism and the ruin-aesthetic coincide. Le Corbusier’s villas of the 1920s were, for example, ruin-like in their bareness and their startling rearrangement of the conventional parts of the dwelling. Similarly new forms of perception that arose through the filter of modernism saw natural land forms as minimalist.

Examples may include certain landscapes (Dungeness), prehistoric sites (Skara Brae) and Japanese works of art (Zen gardens) – all have the same properties and bring together ruin and modernity. With Brutalist architecture of the 1960s, an offshoot of Corbusian clarity, a way is found to import the ruggedness and texture of ruins back into contemporary buildings that had been banished, and new work can share the numinous quality of ruin. Then comes the actual modernist ruin of St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross, Scotland, and a series of postwar projects that finds expressive power via intervention in bomb-damaged hulks.

Ruins and Fragments modernist ruin of St Peter's Roman Catholic seminary in Cardross

Modernist ruin of St Peter’s Roman Catholic seminary in Cardross, Scotland.

Although literature is treated in separate chapters in my book, they are not really separate. That is to say, that having seen physical destruction digested and modified by architects into their own work, we are susceptible to viewing gaps, discontinuities, and slippages in literary form almost literally, as something more solid than an idle metaphor. The physical form of the literary fragment or ruin differs enormously from Coleridge to Montaigne and Burton, from Sterne to Joyce, but each of them is venturing into dangerous territory and convinces us that abysses of formlessness loom alarmingly on every side.

Finally the book tests the seriousness of the subject by pushing further into actual destruction and ruination via Cubism, which wreaks untold havoc on the picture surface (others have gone further since, but Picasso’s daring in 1907 remains a highpoint of negativity), via Kurt Schwitters who makes the destruction architectural, and finally Matta Clark who increases both the scale and the threat. To some observers all these figures seem anti-artists rather than artists, but they remain distinct from true iconoclasts in Byzantium, Puritan England and early Soviet Russia, as they merge more indistinguishably with more recent installation art.

Ruins and Fragments Conical Intersect 2. From “Conical Intersect”

“A simple cut or series of cuts acts as a powerful drawing device able to redefine spatial situations and structural components”. – Gordon Matta-Clark

Conical Intersect 2. from “Conical Intersect” París, France (1975)

Graffiti and street art seem more positive and less destructive to the author of this book than to many other observers, but the line can be hard to draw between the ruin that graffiti causes and the social decay it singles out and subjects to critical scrutiny. Now the book finds itself in a graffiti-laden graveyard, recognises in a corpse the ultimate form of ruin and drifts from there into war-poetry—the Iliad above all—war-torn cities, and the great urban ruin of our era, Detroit.

Ruins and Fragments ends with the other side of the coin from ruin—reconstruction.

The book ends with the other side of the coin from ruin – reconstruction. It turns out to be a deeply problematic concept. Shakespeare’s Globe, Williamsburg in Virginia and Warsaw Old Town are each both real and hopelessly fictional at the same time. Lots of other cases in Cambodia, Greece, Brooklyn, Yorkshire and Japan are considered, some much more compelling than the first examples, others inescapably hilarious, like the architectural park in the shape of Thailand which contains 129 different buildings (or did in 2001), mostly mock ups of famous originals at a wide variety of scales, some life size, others that you can’t stand up in. Most of the efforts to resurrect the disappeared are wonderful, but all of them are doomed to fall short of their unreasonable hopes in the end, all earnestly devoted to slowing down a process that cannot be halted.

RUINS AND FRAGMENTS Tales of Loss and Rediscovery

by Robert Harbison
published by Reakton Books,
RRP £20

Photography supplied courtesy of Reakton Books


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