ON SATYRS AND BITTERNS
Of all the screwball architectural passions—gingerbread-house fetishes, say, or the mania, in the suburbs, for crenellated and turreted tilt-wall chateaux—surely none are more feral than the hankering for heaps of broken stone. For ruined structures have spurred lusty encomiums since at least the age of Babylon, roiling the staid literature of buildings with “this orgiastic conjuring of the past, this upsurging of furious fancies,” as old Rose Macaulay put it so nicely. “Out come the screech-owls, the dragons, the satyrs, the bitterns, the serpents, the jackals, the bats, even the moles, all the familiar creatures of ruin that haunt demolished cities and glooming fancy,” she added, winking at the hothouse realm of rubble.
Today our wrecked, junked, and brambled buildings are more often barricaded by the curators of antiquity (Rome), recycled as shopping malls (Ephesus: Step right up, get yer vanitas vanitatum, folks!), or bulldozed as liabilites to urban self-esteem (Detroit). But as Gothamites circa 2001 were forcibly reminded, ruins rear up where we least expect them, as shockingly sumptuous rebuttals to Progress. Especially so (as we shall see) are the tumbled stones that stub the sojourner’s toe in our inner, psychic landscapes—the moss-strewn pillars of consciousness past.
Ruins are dangerous, in short; that’s why we need them. A good, rotting ruin gets the juices flowing.
DUST OF MOULDERING GREATNESS
“I must thank all the owners who did not set their dogs on me when I trespassed,” writes a grateful Christopher Woodward in the acknowledgements to In Ruins, his deliciously macabre volume of transience and vulnerability, seemingly scrawled on the run from snarling mutts, overweening historic-site wardens, and the odder, more generalized improvidence that is Time with a capital T.
For this Baedeker of ruinenlust —what you might call the pleasurably perverse appetite for destruction—is a paean to passages of all kinds, but mostly the vanishing ones. As Chateaubriand put it, surveying the majestic ruins of Rome’s Colosseum: “It is thus that we are warned at each step of our nothingness; man goes to meditate on the ruins of empires; he forgets that he is himself a ruin still more unsteady, and that he will fall before these remains do.” Pope Pius II, for his part, called ruins an “exemplary frailty.” Woodward calls them going, if not gone. Ruins are no longer lustily devas- tating artifacts. They’ve all been domesticated.
With trusty Poe in his pocket (“Vastness! and Age! and Memories of Eld!”), this young British art historian makes a wily rampage over manicured hill and down pinscher-patrolled dale, veering off the scripted info-trail at Europe’s broken-pillared destinations, and rummaging on the sly in the onto-logico-historical rubbish bins. All the while, he fumes about the Disneyfication of damage on the one hand—Chateaubriand’s temples of Time have been expropriated as paltry theme parks for the cash-and-carry tour circuit—and the archaeological police state on the other, full of twitchy attendants zealously guarding the on-ramps to the sublime.
The Colosseum is Exhibit A, prima facie evidence of wretched ruinen-bust. Once a bastion of rotting fecundity (“A noble wreck in ruinous perfection!” was Byron’s ecstatic gloss on the structure), the six-acre site boasted no less than 420 species of plants when botanist Richard Deakin lovingly catalogued them in 1855. Ever the phyto-philosopher, Deakin wrote that flowers “teach us hopeful and soothing lessons, amid the sadness of bygone ages,” while rhapsodizing about their “regenerating power which animates the dust of mouldering greatness.” Fifteen years later, alas, the Colosseum was colossally de-mouldered: “every tree was gone, every flower and blade of grass plucked from the ruins by cold-hearted archaeologists.” The site is now a spic-and-span wreck whose gates are shuttered promptly at 6 p.m. “Today it is the most monumental bathos in Europe: a bald, dead, and bare circle of stones,” Woodward broods. “There are no shadows, no sands, no echoes, and if a single flower blooms in a crevice it is sprayed with weed-killer.”
Indeed, a few squirts of herbicide may as well be napalm to this venturesome little volume’s rag-tag band of ruinistas, a scorched-earth campaign toasting every dreamily ennobling patch of Creeping Bentgrass or Spiny Sowthistle. For Woodward, who directs the Hol- burne Museum of Art in Bath, England, these weedy worlds of ruin provoke “a lofty, even ecstatic, drowsiness”; they spawn “an elated quietude.” And it’s one of the enduring paradoxes of ruinenlust that such genteel delectation rapidly escalates into epic man-vs.-lawnmower conflict. Henry James summed it up aptly when he said: “To delight in the aspects of sentient ruin might appear a heartless pastime and the pleasure, I confess, shows the note of perversity.”
Rotting fecundity, it soon transpired, became my life’s perverse leitmotif when, while working on this article, I was called home to Oregon and found myself knee-deep in boxes of mouldering files: my own wasted landscape of earnest grade-school reports, forlorn missives from long-lost lovers, and college notebooks frothing with non sequiturs and assevera- tions. One sheaf crammed with cryptically scrawled references to “the purity of revolt” and “the problem of benevolence”—Heidegger, anyone?—flopped open to this quotation, which I had furi- ously daubed with pink highlighter:“The worm of nothingness lies curled in the midst of being.” Echoes of Chateaubriand knocked about the chilly garage, as I succumbed to weedy reverie.
(There are also, it should be added, some notes from philosophy lectures at Berkeley with the late Paul Feyerabend, known for his “epistemological anarchism.” Feyerabend rebelled against the shackles of weed-whacking rationality, and I like to think Woodward would appreciate his jaundiced view of scientific method, which he vivaciously skewers in his book Against Method. “There are more observations of the devil,” this great man told a hall of hapless undergrads on October 31, 1989, “than there are of Napoleon.”)
Item: One used textbook, titled Existentialist Philosophy: An Introduction. Provided my notes possess a shred of credibility, the “worm of nothingness” is what Jean-Paul Sartre called consciousness.
Item: Scrap of a confessional letter written in the dismal first days of college. “I’ve just been sitting here in bed for like an hour, thinking,” I told a girl who would shortly dump me. “Everyone here has the impression that I’m a ‘surfer dude.’”
COUNTRY HOUSE SNOOPER
Woodward’s worm-holes are happily brimming with an eccentric cast of voyeurs, among them the intrepid architectural savant John Harris. In his 1998 memoir, No Voice from the Hall: Early Memories of a Country House Snooper, Harris tells of roaming the British countryside in 1957 as a paid field-worker for Sir Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England series. Poking around hundreds of country houses that had been requisitioned by the military and subsequently abandoned—their ornamental canals loaded with fish fattened from six years of lonely leisure—Harris one day bustled up the drive of the Burwell estate in Lincolnshire:
A knock at the entrance met with a strange shuffling inside; opening the door, he was tumbled off his feet by a flock of sheep. They had been penned in the staircase hall, below cobwebbed portraits of the family, by the local farmer. Amid Burwell’s interiors of rococo plasterwork, not updated since the house was built in the 1760s, were sacks of potatoes in the drawing-room, and heaps of grain in the saloon.
The next year Harris’s phone rang; Burwell was in extremis, its roof ripped off and plaster clouds drifting heavenward as demolition men hacked away. (The distraught Harris hurried to salvage six plaster heads from the rubble.) Most of these sweetly creepy estates, Woodward remarks, have long since succumbed to the pitiless “suburban time-clock” and are today “ghostly, sepia-grey mirages in cornfields, golf-courses and housing estates.”
Paradoxically, however, the pillage of such perfectly drowsy shambles was a wake-up call to the ruinistas: “brutal destruction,” as Woodward phrases it, “was the necessary prelude to appreciation.” Nowhere was this dialectic better observed than in the battle over London’s shattered churches and their value as weedy war monuments.
Rose Macaulay, who drove an ambulance through the wasted lanes of London during the Blitz, summed up the eerie appeal of bombed-out churches and cathedrals in her 1953 opus Pleasure of Ruins, marveling at “their beauty, or their strangeness, or their shattered intimidations that strike so responsive a nerve in our destruction-seeking souls.”
The Blitz, it must be said, spawned something of a ruinist revival. Out of the twisted shrapnel came some of the most luminously troubling literature on urban destruction bar none. As bombers screamed overhead and churches burst into flame, aesthetes such as Kenneth Clark ripped off their blast helmets to deliver the public service advisory: “Bomb damage is in itself Picturesque.” (“This could only have been said in Britain,” Woodward dryly observes.) Artists such as John Piper gallantly scurried about with sketchbooks in hand, working up genie-like spectres of guttering buildings. Piper recalled being dispatched to Coventry, where on November 15, 1940, hundreds of German bombers rubbled the city. With fires still leaping from the cathedral windows, and mangled bodies lying about, he tapped on a nearby office door, where he found a secretary unperturbedly typing away:
I said, “Good morning. It’s a beastly time, isn’t it?” And she explained that she had only just come on duty. I told her I had been ordered to do some drawings. She said, “Of course, you can have my place.” She moved her typewriter to the other side of the room and I started drawing the Cathedral.
The resulting image, in which “we seem to see the apse through a shimmering haze of heat, the stone tracery—which remained intact in reality—dissolving like wood-ash,” became Britain’s Guernica. Piper’s extraordinary visions were instantly ravished by the British public as a testament to national resilience. (An ancillary aim of this energetic War Artists Advisory Committee program, Clark fessed up, was to keep artists from being blown to bits.) Yet broad-brush patriotism was hardly Piper’s style, and his immersive study in the incendiary arts left him pondering more complicated truths. The Luftwaffe, it turned out, had blasted the doors of perception right off their hinges. The likes of Picasso and Ernst, the artist later wrote, “prophesied the beauty as well as the horror of bomb damage, and as visual planners they are at the moment unrivalled. Bomb damage has revealed new beauties in unexpected appositions.”
But even as the bombs fell, aesthetic tensions flared over the shel- lacking of these potent Cubist abstractions. “I know perfectly well that I would rather paint a ruined abbey half-covered with ivy and standing among long grass,” Piper grumbled one year after Coventry, “than I would paint it after it has been taken over by the Office of Works, when they have taken off all the ivy and mown all the grass.” Stubbornly pro-weedist to the last, Kenneth Clark and company (compatriots included T.S. Eliot and John Maynard Keynes) embarked on “the last great fling of the British Picturesque,” proposing that six bombed churches be retained in situ as open-air gardens, living memento mori for future generations who would otherwise be bereft of the past. “The shabby heap of stones, flowering with willow-herbs as pink and lively as the flames which earlier sprouted from their crevices, will disappear, and with their going the ordeal which we passed will seem more remote, unreal, perhaps forgotten,” they warned.
“Save us, then, some of our ruins.”
MY OWN PRIVATE BURWELL
Ruins, I have decided in my own weedy wanderings, can be a worthwhile way to consider one’s past. Byron, asked by a friend how he could bear the dankly crushing winters of Venice, is said to have replied: “I have been familiar with ruins too long to dislike desolation.” Perhaps we’ve all got our own private Burwell, sheep bleating softly in the staircase hall, burlap bundles of indeterminate origin crammed in the drawing-room, so much stony rubbish of the psyche.
Item: One ominous crate bulging with documents from traumatic creative writing workshops. The ink is refreshingly blunt. “Unbearable pedagogy,” one colleague declares in response to my first, disastrous attempt at a workshop essay. “It bothered me tremendously,” another confesses, “sorting through sentences, searching for the object and subject and predicate. I couldn’t figure it out.” A third avers point-blank: “The worst combination of poetry and criticism.” Sentient ruin, indeed.
Item: Fragment from an undated interview with Gabriel García Marquez. “The only new idea that could save humanity in the twenty-first century,” he ventures, “is for women to take over the management of the world.”
THE OMEGA MEN
“Every new empire has claimed to be the heir of Rome,” Woodward observes, “but if such a colossus as Rome can crumble—its ruins ask—why not London or New York?” Thus he invokes not Goethe or Dickens but (you knew it was coming) a bewildered Charlton Heston encountering ruined Gotham in the 1968 masterpiece Planet of the Apes, whose celebrated finale depicts the Statue of Liberty buried up to her waist, torch akimbo, the city vaporized by nuclear armageddon. Shattered intimidations for our destruction- seeking souls?
The ravaged city, we now know, is an irresistible trope. In 1885, nature writer Richard Jefferies published After London, a shocking vision in which the once downtrodden social critic exacts his revenge upon the pestilent, soot-stained metropolis. The novel depicts a putrid city besieged by the flooded Thames, disgorging sewers, and powder-puff mansions crumbling to the touch.Woodward admiringly beholds the carnage:
Rats eat the food stores, dogs run wild, and the weeds at the edges of the fields advance to strangle the young corn. Roads disappear under brambles, yellow charlock and wild flowers, and villages are buried by silt and reeds. Through the eyes of a writer who made his reputation with telescopic descriptions of flora and fauna, we see the virulent, wild power of Nature which lies below the peaceful, trim surface of the English countryside.
Probably the most glorious vision of London’s ruin, however, concerns the Stock Exchange of the Bank of England, rebuilt in 1795 by Sir John Soane. This eccentric architect commissioned his young protégé Joseph Gandy to paint the magnificent domed hall upon its completion. Gandy duly complied, but one week later offered Soane a second rendition of the painting, this time depicting the building in noble tatters, a stately heap of rubble amid a gor- geously worked-up wasteland. “Few architects have better under- stood the illusions and ironies of their medium,” comments Wood- ward, who toiled at Soane’s Museum in London for five years. “And no man has ever been more distrustful of posterity than Soane.”
THE SUN SHONE ON THE NOTHING NEW
Posing one’s triumphs as ruins, Woodward suggests, gives them the enduring grandeur of antiquity. It’s a thumb of the nose to all those stuccoed McMansions that would have long since rotted asunder. Charles Dickens put the definitive spin on the appeal of crumbling glory in his Letters from Italy:“Never, in its bloodiest prime, can the sight of the gigantic Coliseum, full and running over with the lustiest life, have moved one heart, as it must move all who look upon it now, a ruin. God be thanked: a ruin!”
Frankly, however, my experience suggests that the weedy wastes of a writerly life may best be left for the sheeps’ grazing.
Item: Peevish notes scrawled during an early bicycle tour in France.“Paris sucks. Except for the Musée d’Orsay with Degas, Monet, Van Gogh, Renoir, Cézanne. The Louvre is not an art museum it is a fucking circus. The Eiffel Tower is not worth taking a picture of.”
Item: Letter fragment regarding an urban gardening epiphany. “I mean Christ I was weeding this garden the other day and it actually happened that I grabbed a worm or a part thereof anyhow and drew back in sudden terror, for I so pathetically feebly, um, forgot that worms squirm and writhe through the dirt, which is absolutely the most obvious reality one could encounter.”
Item: The first paragraph of Samuel Beckett’s Murphy.
The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. Murphy sat out of it, as though he were free, in a mew in West Brompton. Here for what might have been six months he had eaten, drunk, slept, and put his clothes on and off, in a medium-sized cage of north-western aspect commanding an unbroken view of medium-sized cages of south-eastern aspect. Soon he would have to make other arrangements, for the mew had been condemned. Soon he would have to buckle to and start eating, drinking, sleeping, and putting his clothes on and off, in quite alien surroundings.
Woodward’s inspiration for his book, he lets on, was Charles Sprawson’s cultural history of swimming in rivers and lakes, The Haunts of the Black Masseur. So it’s perhaps expected that in his chapter on “Haunted Houses,” the mouldering confections of Poe, Dickens, and Byron are joined by John Cheever’s story “The Swimmer,” that olympiad of backyard pool-hopping that culminates in exquisite suburban entropy. Ned Merrill’s eight-mile journey home through his neighbors’ swimming pools—“the passage of a divine swimmer across the calendar toward his doom,” as Michael Chabon put it—is nicely parsed here, notes of 1960s bonhomie (“Why, it’s Ned! How great to see you! How’s Lucinda? How’s those pretty girls? Still running that little red Jaguar?”) giving way to Ned’s eventual shock of realization as he hits the home stretch, only to find the lawn unkempt, the house padlocked and abandoned, his hands stained red from the rusty garden gate.
Another, more recent entropic investigation—though it doesn’t pop up on Woodward’s ruin-radar—is sociologist Camilo Jose Vergara’s magnificent urban desuetude in the photographic journey American Ruins. In this formidable look at America’s wastelands, Vergara suggests that the nation’s bombed-out inner cities might be deemed permanently off-limits to redevelopment, especially the battered core of depopulated Detroit, which Vergara imagines as a sort of “American Acropolis.” He provocatively pictures the city’s gutted towers as a derelict “skyscraper museum,” where climbing foliage would reclaim the gorgeously crumbling facades, even drawing wildlife to de facto downtown nature preserves. Nothing could be more in keeping with our ruinista’s special case studies of “the perverse fertility of ruin, and of how genius germinates in architectural decay.”
Who knows but that Detroit could be America’s Ninfa? Deemed by Woodward “the loveliest lost city in Europe,” the Italian burg of Ninfa stands in diametrical contrast to the Colosseum’s fascist groundskeeping regime. Clobbered by civil war and left to moulder in the sunshine six centuries ago, Ninfa was preserved for posterity when its famed springs sealed its fate as a disease-ridden wasteland. “In the air humid with malaria the vegetation grew with a feverish vigour,” Woodward breathlessly reports,“as if exhilarating in the absence of human life.” The German historian Gregorovius stumbled through the town’s weedy wastes in the 19th century, his Romantic antennae fully tuned to the floral prospects at hand:
Flowers crowd in through all the streets. They march in procession through the ruined churches, they climb up all the towers, they smile and nod to you out of every empty window-frame, they besiege all the doors…you fling yourself down into this ocean of flowers quite intoxicated by their fragrance, while, as in the most charming fairytale, the soul seems imprisoned and held by them.
Gregorovius’s swooning ode to flower-power still aptly describes Ninfa today, we’re told, thanks to one stout-hearted Ada Wilbraham. The English wife of Prince Onario Caetani banished archaeologists from the premises in the 1880s, and set to cultivating a swirling, bubbling, ruinous realm that “rescued Ninfa from modernity.” Two generations of Caetanis later, the flowers bloom where she placed them. The rutted, redemptive stones she wisely left untouched.
BUILT TO SPILL
New York City, January 1912. Frigidness and bitter winds. Angry flames ravage the Equitable Life Assurance Society Building on Broadway. Officials are on the scene but, according to The New York Times, ice swirls in the very air and melds the firefighters’ gear to frozen streets. It cloaks the men themselves, forcing them to be “chopped and thawed out from time to time that they might go on with their work.” As night falls, the grand façade’s stout lower columns are patinated in ice, red timbers aglow from within. A photograph shows the eight-story structure encrusted with pendulous stalactites, even as its upper stories spit smoke and fire. The caption reads: “Icy ruins of the old Equitable Building, 1912.”
An ex post facto instance of “exemplary frailty,” this image of the stricken New York structure flutters out of Building Gotham, Keith D. Revell’s study of New Assurance Society Building on Broadway. Officials are on the scene but, according to The New York Times, ice swirls in the very air and melds the firefighters’ gear to frozen streets. It cloaks the men themselves, forcing them to be “chopped and thawed out from time to time that they might go on with their work.” As night falls, the grand façade’s stout lower columns are patinated in ice, red timbers aglow from within. A photograph shows the eight-story structure encrusted with pendulous stalactites, even as its upper stories spit smoke and fire. The caption reads: “Icy ruins of the old Equitable Building, 1912.”
An ex post facto instance of “exemplary frailty,” this image of the stricken New York structure flutters out of Building Gotham, Keith D. Revell’s study of New York public policy. In these frenzied days of Gothamite resurrection, it seems only fittingly perverse to plunk this book down as an endnote to our dusty, weedy amblings. Call it the alpha to Woodward’s omega. Our New World grasses may be insufficiently unkempt, but for “ruinous perfection” we are perennially in the running.
Urban optimism is in full flower in Building Gotham, as Revell marshals a charming cast of “buccaneer bureaucrats” and “zoning bootleggers” who manhandle the metropolis toward what was arguably (and perhaps may still be) the world’s greatest experiment in collective living. Fixing on what he calls “Progressive Era state building” in New York—dating roughly from the unification of the city’s boroughs in 1898 and reaching to 1938—Revell ponders the nexus of civic culture and public policy, honing in on urban arcana such as conflict-ridden freight rail coordination, or the finer points of “police-power jurisprudence” amid quests for the nation’s first comprehensive zoning ordinance.
Ruination would seem inimical to Revell’s onward-and-upward ethos—the Equitable Building would be rebuilt, after all, as the world’s most gigantic office block—and his ardor is fueled more by the travails of, say, the Tri-State Anti-Pollution Commission than by any “elated quietude.” He’s a policy man, in short, limning an urban bildungsroman in which engineers, sanitation experts, comptrollers, and economists throw in their lot as a “civic culture of expertise” that keeps the subway wheels rolling. Building Gotham is a top-down history of the built-up city, the inverse of Woodward’s eccentric meanderings through the shrubby understories of Time.
But read Revell’s history against the grain, and you get curious intimations of Sir John Soane’s fast-forward urban desolation. To take just one example, that great Roman preoccupation with sewage is re-enacted to astonishing
effect in the East River, Gotham’s own Cloaca Maxima. In 1921, Revell tells us, the saturated oxygen level in that waterway reached zero for the first time. New Yorkers had disgorged nearly 750 million gallons of raw sewage into the
city’s putrid rivers every day (the 1930 figure was a Götterdämmerung-esque 1.35 billion), and sewage still sluiced into the lower Hudson River as late as 1986. Talk about fetid oblivion. (Earlier, in 1909, nearly eighty manhole covers in Hell’s Kitchen blew into the sky amid thunderous blasts “like broadsides from a fleet of warships,” as pools of greasy gasoline in the city’s Tenth Avenue sewer line sent “tongues of flame shooting from the earth.” Charlton Heston, eat your heart out.) Gotham’s infrastructure, Revell convincingly shows, is a few degrees closer to “pleasing decay” than civic boosters may ever acknowledge.
Perverse fertility, too, makes a modern-day stopover in none other than New York master builder Robert Moses. Eviscerat- ing with equal relish poor, powerless neighborhoods (sayonara, East Tremont) and a city planning department he believed was a warren of Commie sympathizers, Moses drank deeply from that free-market elixir called “creative destruction.” Sneering at despised “long-haired planners” in 1944, Moses wrote: “In municipal planning we must decide between revolution and common sense, between the subsidized lamas in their remote mountain temples and those who must work in the market place.”The master builder’s meat-axe theory of public works made Piranesi look half-hearted; his hack job on Gotham’s nascent planning commission doomed many of its citizens to the decades-long refrain, sic transit gloria mundi.
WHY IS NEW YORK?
Cities flourish most resplendently, let’s just say, where the wild things are. Revell’s technocratic dream may be Woodward’s worst nightmare, but ruinistas will push up toward the weedy skyline in Gotham as ever in Ninfa. “Before attempting in any large way to exercise deliberate control over what New York physically is to become,” as Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. sensibly put it in 1923, “we ought to have as clear an understanding as we can reasonably get of the answer to the question, never completely to be answered, ‘Why is New York?’”
Rummaging through my own slummy storehouse, I can offer but three partial replies.
Item: Excerpt from a letter by James Joyce to Grant Richards dated June 23, 1906. “It is not my fault that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs round my stories,” Joyce writes of his book Dubliners.“I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilisation in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking glass.”
Item: An early Nineties fragment on protest. “The backlash of the powers to the riots. The predictable scorn of suburban America. The flames.”
Item: Notation of unknown origin. “We put the toilet on the roof, atop the grate. White porcelain before the great blue sky.”✯