One man’s meat is another man’s poison, just as sure as one man’s ruin is another man’s… well, ruin. There is little chance of a semantic evasion for a building that has been run down and ceased to serve its original purpose, but at very least a ruin is open to admiration. For a start, ruins are popular, being a frequent subject for photo essays in weekend magazines, and on Twitter, where the author of Derelict London has more than 6,000 followers and an account called Abandoned Places has more than 260,000.
Moreover, even if the noun stays the same, the adjectives can change. A quick search for ‘abandoned’ on Buzzfeed, that ruthless modifier of all things plain into hip-speak, suggests that abandoned buildings can be either “creepy” or “beautiful” depending on their provenance.
The latest exhibition at Tate Britain goes as far as to suggest that we can lust after ruins, taking as its name a nineteenth century German compound (“Ruinenlust”). The sentiment is easy enough to visualise – our forbearers concocted the Grand Tour around it, and who doesn’t admire a Greek temple or a medieval church with a caved in roof? These days, it’s even harder to clear a ruin to build a parking lot than paradise, which may be why Joni Mitchell has retired.
What’s striking about Ruin Lust, the exhibition, is how far this concept has been taken. The first room, which contains just three images, has only one of an idealised if dilapidated church. Instead, on the left we have a fire and brimstone depiction of the destruction of Pompeii by natural disaster, and straight ahead a terrifying abyss surrounded by foreboding concrete that turns out to be a sea defence built by the Nazis in France. Jane and Louise Wilson’s Azeville is terrifying fully assembled, but no less fascinating demolished and strewn about the surrounding countryside in a later room. An odd souvenir for France to keep, perhaps, but one of value nonetheless.
Indeed, the theme of war plays heavily on the exhibition throughout its twentieth century pieces, with scrapheaps of Spitfires (Paul Nash’s
Totes Meer – “Dead Sea”) and scenes of devastation making the point. Yet it comes into its own when it addresses housing, and the built environment that surrounds us daily.
Rachel Whiteread’s photographs of the tower blocks on the Clapton Park Estate, and Keith Coventry’s Burgess Park and Queens Road sculptures make the point that our residential areas, which underwent considerable upheaval in the second half of the twentieth century, are prone to constant reimagining. Just as not everyone wants to live in a squat (represented by Laura Oldfield Ford’s large and very pink TQ3382: Tweed House, Teviot Street), the destruction of old buildings has supporters and naysayers. Indeed, at the same time as this exhibition is being held, 17,000 people signed a petition saying they felt the destruction of the Red Road flats in Glasgow as part of the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony was tasteless, forcing a rethink.
The pride of the exhibition however, is a painting commissioned by Sir John Soane, the architect in charge of designing the new Bank of England. Soane asked for his most famous work to be imagined as a ruin. A cross-section of the bank, with hints at desolation outside, it foresees a time when the building’s original purpose is no longer relevant, and invites thinking about possible new uses. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all architects’ drawings were required to include one of these sketches alongside their shiny happy artist’s impressions?
The exhibition is on until 18 May.