October 20, 2015
This post has been bobbing about in my brain for a long time now, and I’ve yet to fully nail down what it is I want to write about, so enjoy this loose association of thoughts turned into a post.
Architects (and others) seem to have a thing for watching their work come undone. From Shelley’s Ozymandias to “ruin porn,” and everything in between, we modern humans seem to have a fascination with the decay and ruin of our greatest works, especially architecture. English architect John Soane famously had his Bank of England shown in a state of ruin, displayed publicly upon his completion of the project. (To be fair, partly-complete and partly-destroyed buildings can look quite similar.) Renaissance and Early Modern painters, especially Panini, loved producing “caprices” showing the ruins of ancient Rome. Today the artistic way to celebrate decay is with a camera, and Tumblrs-full of photos of Detroit can be found across the web. I even have some of my own! Observe:
I suspect that some of my personal obsession with bad disaster movies (à la Day After Tomorrow) has to do with this same fascination. Today, not only can we see real ruined buildings in the world, we can watch buildings get destroyed before our very eyes on a giant screen, in an accelerated fashion! It takes centuries to build a city like San Francisco, but mere minutes to demolish it in San Andreas. I can work for my entire life to raise a single building, while animators can (virtually) raze it to the ground with a few weeks of 3D modeling.
And yet, even knowing that the movie destruction is all in fun, and while suspecting that our contemporary buildings will look much less attractive in their ruined state than Soane’s, the fascination with real ruins remains. A site I have returned to again and again (in imagination, not in person) is Centralia, Pennsylvania, a city abandoned thanks to an unstoppable, decades-old mine fire that continues to release toxic smoke into the area. The city has been officially abandoned, the highways to it left unrepaired, and its ten or so remaining residents will be the last, their land taken by eminent domain once they are gone. The fire will continue to burn below ground, but the town above will be extinguished.
What happens when towns or neighborhoods are wiped away not by state action or economic downturn, but by natural disaster? Parts of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans look a lot like Detroit, except that its residents did not leave willingly and are still struggling to return. Flooding was the primary cause of ruin, but failed policies are the continuing cause (among other things). Other parts of New Orleans look a lot like cities I’ve visited outside the US, in less-developed countries. It’s amazing to me that in such a well-known city, in such a wealthy country, there can be so much decay. Maybe it’s for the best if we do not rebuild places that climate change will make increasingly untenable, but being in New Orleans makes me want to help build it back again.
And yet. It’s easy to look over the post-apocalyptic landscape and see the beauty instead of the failures. It’s easy to be fascinated with watching our heroic efforts fall apart, in Blade Runner-style urbanism, instead of with the quietly successful urbanism of Her. I don’t have a real conclusion to this post, as I warned at the beginning, but if I did, it would be something like, post-apocalyptic architecture isn’t really architecture but its unraveling, a glorying in our own insignificance and the undoing of all things. Let’s keep it as an art form, but not let it get in the way of making better cities for people.