Regulating Ruins

R / L

Ruin chic is the ruin regulated, stabilized and packaged for consumption

YOU can wander into a bar-restaurant-gallery “space” in New York, London, Copenhagen, Berlin, or elsewhere and have the uncanny sense that you’ve been there before. Brushed steel fittings, rusty trough-like sinks, a rough wood bar, and tables that resemble railway sleepers — all these offer a scrubbed-up taste of the area’s manufacturing past. Dim lighting throws shadows on the walls in order to emphasize the texture of artfully torn wallpaper, which in turn reveals layers of wallpaper beneath, suggesting past architectural lives whose veracity the dark makes it hard to establish.

Arguably a rougher, self-consciously urban variant of the “shabby chic” style that came to prominence in the 1980s, this familiar design concept was first adopted by small independent bars, often in formerly industrial and working class areas that had experienced first-wave gentrification as artists and musicians moved in search of cheap rent. Increasingly pervasive, the look is often found in burger chains and small-town hairdressers. Once a knowing nod to the last remnants of inner-city industry, the style came to obscure this context as it spread. It now underscores the former’s absence.

In Budapest, a city which has undergone an ongoing program of government-directed regeneration, the urban ruin aesthetic flourishes. There, fashionable drinkers head to makeshift spots erected in the shells of erstwhile abandoned buildings. Known as “ruin bars,” their layered temporality has been brought into relief as they have grown in popularity. The original ruin bar, Szimpla Kert, is an example of what may be called “ruin chic.” Elsewhere, in London, 19th-century buildings seemingly on the brink of collapse are used as permanent sites for high-end fashion photo shoots and exclusive launch parties. The aesthetic ostentatiously evokes the transitory, and on this rests its appeal: Drinking there is an event to be experienced for a limited time only. The ephemerality is enacted each night by a different crowd, yet the buildings endure: a permanent snapshot of decay.

Though ruin chic dates to the early years of the present century, the ruin as a cultural trope is well established. It first took hold in the mid 18th century as “ruin lust” (from the German word Ruinenlust). The craze was ignited in part by major excavations at Pompeii, Herculaneum, and elsewhere. These sites demonstrated the power of the ruin to tangibly connect living individuals with a historical moment and to offer a visual representation of that connection. The 18th-century appetite for ruins was such that they found their way into contemporary design and architecture. Follies — purpose-built mini-ruins designed to add Romantic detail to the rolling estates of the wealthy — were all the rage. The faux-ruin begins its life in the folly, whose picturesque disrepair exists for visual titillation.

The context in which this early ruin lust took hold casts an interesting reflection on the present moment. The early part of the 19th century was a time of unprecedented urban expansion. The British population grew from 9.3 million to 15.9 million between 1801 and 1841 — a 60-percent increase in just 40 years, most of it occurring in cities. That ruin lust took hold in this context may be interpreted as a subversive fantasy of destruction on the part of artists and architects or as a need to visualize fears of an inevitable decline. Consider the watercolor painting, A Bird’s Eye View of the Bank of England (1830), by the British painter and architect Joseph Michael Gandy. The work is part of a series of cutaway views of the building commissioned by the bank’s chief architect and surveyor, Sir John Soane. That Soane took pleasure in imagining the building in ruins does not indicate an anti-capitalist sentiment on his part; rather, ruin lust was rampant and he wasn’t immune. Nonetheless, to depict Britain’s most recognizable symbol of wealth and power in decay has a political dimension, and the series serves as a reminder that ruins are a projection of political, as well as romantic, desires. Evoking past, present, and future simultaneously, ruins caution that the seemingly unshakable present is transitory.

FIRST instantiated in the 18th century, the ruin gained a new lease of life in the hands of such artists as Jane and Louise Wilson, in their A Free and Anonymous Monument (2003), and Keith Coventry, who painted Heygate Estate (2003). These artists and others translated the ruin’s iconography from crumbling classical palaces to the newer yet no less defunct shells of industry. Much of this creative work finds impetus in the 20th-century German philosopher Walter Benjamin’s writing on the modern ruin, primarily his monumental yet unfinished study The Arcades Project. Benjamin’s final work is an extended consideration of the 19th-century shopping arcades of Paris, which by his time had become dilapidated. Benjamin regards them as symbols of the cyclical temporal logic of capitalism, which sees the same tired goods endlessly repackaged. But Benjamin’s visionary move was to redefine the Romantic conception of ruins as an inevitable loss for an era of high capitalism. Inverting the trope, Benjamin associates ruins not with loss but with return. Like the boom and bust cycles of capitalism, the ruin is fundamentally recursive.

A union of ruin, modernity, and capital, Benjamin’s ruin is also a call to action. In The Arcades Project, Benjamin presents his concept of the dialectical image, which is an image or idea that, by dispelling the phantasmagoria to which individuals are enthralled in order to reveal a reality beyond, lays bare the truth of time and history. This sense of a multilayered reality is something Benjamin shares with the Romantics — in particular, the mystical British poet William Blake. Blake presents his material environment as an illusion from which individuals must be awoken, with art serving as a mode of deliverance in service to that end.

Though contemporary readers may find Benjamin’s evocation of illusion too mystical to apply to their own understanding of the world, the sense in which the modern urban environment is a construct that conceals the political forces which animate it may have resonance. It is in this way that, like its 18th-century predecessors, the modern ruin is able to denaturalize the contemporary environment and concomitant ideology. The Parisian arcades, which are central to Benjamin’s concept of ruins, are animated by the tension maintained between stasis and change. Though the buildings themselves are decaying, in their symbolic capacity they are synonymous with the cyclical time of capital and therefore endlessly recursive. Likewise, whereas real ruins display the passage of time in ultraslow motion, the ruin chic building is frozen mid-transformation: it signifies change and yet maintains the opposite.

If ruin chic, the commercial face of ruin aesthetics, is characterized by stasis both literal and political, real ruins take on different shades of Benjamin. Some contemporary theorists have seen the urban ruin as a site for political agitation. In his “Notes on the Potential of the Void” (2012; paywalled), architect and scholar Francesco Sebregondi asks: “What are the conditions of transformation of the city, beyond mere regeneration?” Inspiring this question was the condition of the Heygate Estate, a social housing project in South London’s Elephant and Castle neighborhood which endured years of neglect and disrepair before being demolished in 2014. Writing while an empty Heygate Estate still stood, Sebregondi positioned the building as “a shelter from an urban environment saturated with injunctions.” Shrouded behind hoardings, less valuable to developers than the land it stood on, its destruction was inevitable yet in that moment before its “regeneration” it held, for Sebregondi, a power rested on its uselessness. It was a genuine, unconscripted ruin.

As in Benjamin, the urban fabric takes on ontological significance here: The crucial difference between transformation and regeneration maps onto Benjamin’s distinction between cyclical phantasmagoria and urgent reality. The ruin’s capacity to call the status quo into question turns on change itself: Whose change? What outcome? Is what is to come simply a repackaged version of what has gone before? Behind these questions lies the understanding that ruin chic masks, through its cyclical nod to regeneration, the fact that where power and wealth concentrate within society does not change the balance of power is maintained. Ruin chic bars are not simply mirrors but active agents of regeneration, their presence often a solid indicator of gentrification.

The instability of the genuinely modern ruin may present a space of radical potentiality. This owes in part to the contrast between the multinational, standardized architecture of corporate capitalism and genuine ruins. Unpredictable in its unique decay, a genuine ruin offers an alternative to neoliberal economic appropriation of public space. The ruin chic aesthetic echoes the logic of regeneration: superficial transformation in which the determinate forces remain unchanged. Ruin chic is the ruin regulated, the ruin managed for capital gain, a safe, stable dose of the kinetic energy actual industrial ruins embody.

Willing the deterioration of cities, a process which will inevitably hit the poorest areas hardest, cannot be the answer. But the unregulated ruin, perhaps just glimpsed before the axe of regeneration falls, is a reminder that cities are charged with the potential for real transformation. The ruin joins failure to potential and end to beginning; that is its poetry and paradox. The regulators may not deliver the real social and political change made possible at those points of new beginning. But that doesn’t mean real change is impossible.