It Was What It Was: Modern Ruins: Gilda Williams on the Politics and Aesthetics of Ruins

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A word close to 'ruin' is 'derelict', yet these two terms prompt opposite reactions--a ruin inspiring poetry, the other calling for demolition. What exactly is the difference between them? London is host to a thriving sub-city of derelict architectures--abandoned pubs, boarded terraces, trails of vacated shops--but, arguably, few real ruins.

Go to to see how one of London's most impressive and last remaining industrial ruins is on the verge of reclamation, to be swamped by the usual crop of high-rise residential blocks. Watch the words 'Pruitt' and 'Igoe' form as if by magic before your very eyes. The demolition on 16 March 1972 of the doomed Pruitt-Igoe residential towers of St Louis--whose dark, deserted, concrete 'streets in the sky' proved an ideal hunting ground for a flourishing community of muggers--was claimed by postmodernist architectural historian Charles Jencks as 'the day modernism died'.


Weirdly, the successive era, our contemporary period, probably also began with a ruin: the collapse of the Twin Towers in 2001, which ushered in a whole new (and still unresolved) world order. Weirder still, both Pruitt-Igoe and the Twin Towers were built by the same architect, Minoru Yamasaki, giving him the dubious title of the most significant architect of cataclysmic ruins of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. He died in 1986, and was thus spared having to watch, for the second time, another of his architectural achievements spectacularly razed to the ground. We might, however, keep an eye on his other, still-standing edifices (for example, King Fahad International Airport in Saudi Arabia) in case another should perish and take the rest of the world down with it.

For almost two decades after it closed as a power station in 1981, Bankside stood like a ruin on London's Southbank, eventually to be reborn in 2000 as a testament to the unexpected mass appeal of modern art. Art and ruins have entered into a close alliance, with artists regularly called in to 'do something' with unused yet still viable places that nobody else seems either foolhardy or imaginative enough to cope with. Back in the recession of the early 1990s, in 'Project Unite' curator Yves Aupetitallot invited artists including Jim Isermann, Philippe Parreno and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster to 'do something' with Le Corbusier's crumbling masterwork, Unite d'Habitation, near Marseilles. At the time, Le Corbusier's 12-storey social experiment stood half-empty; now it boasts a thriving community of modernist aficionados. In the summer of 2009, New York City's vacated Governor's Island, a former military site abandoned in 1995, hosted 'This World & Nearer Ones' curated by Mark Beasley and featuring 32 international artists (Reviews AM329); can the developers be far behind? On this site heading towards ruin, Teresa Margolles imported another ruin: Shot-Up Wall, 2008, a segment of cinderblock wall scarred with bullet holes and flecks of blood--the actual backdrop for a gang execution in the artist's home city of Culiacan, Mexico. In a work that is, one could say, the deserted ruin of the wall behind The Execution of Emperor Maximilian, 1868-69, after Manet's exquisitely painted firing squad has gone home and the heap of bodies cleaned up, Margolles' brief length of wall returns us to one of Romanticism's most beloved paradoxes: as a fragment, a ruin is more loaded with meaning than when it was part of a whole.

Artists have traditionally demonstrated a remarkable willingness to live and work inside ruins too. Artist in squats like those at Tacheles in Berlin and RAMPart in London save urban architecture from decay only to face eviction or, as Svetlana Boym describes Tacheles residents, to be reduced to playing bohemian extras in semi-dilapidated neighbourhoods 'where Bavarian bus tours stop for a taste of exotic Berlin radicalism'. …


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