Ruined buildings have lives all of their own – and hold the stories that their beholders impose on them

The skull beneath the architecture: John Armstrong’s Coggeshall Church, Essex (1940) from his work with the War Artists’ Advisory Committee.
The skull beneath the architecture: John Armstrong’s Coggeshall Church, Essex (1940) from his work with the War Artists’ Advisory Committee.

Every architect should visit this exhibition: a ruin is the skull beneath the skin of architecture. Stare first at John Constable’s Hadleigh Castle (below): a six foot canvas of black broken stone, flecked white and grey with seagulls and Thames shore sludge. It was the first picture he painted after his wife’s death, returning in memory to a place to which he’d walked with her in their youth. It is the Tate’s ruin masterpiece, a study of loss and breakage which is one of the saddest pictures ever painted. 

After a John Martin – a lot of John ­Martin goes a very little way – confront the Wilson sisters’ photograph of a World War Two Nazi bunker in Normandy (overleaf). It’s the iconic image of the show, dislocating this piece of cruel concrete from place, time and moral context, like a chunk of asteroid. 

And look for the Gustave Doré’s illustration of an essay by Thomas Macaulay, in which the historian speculated how a New Zealander might one day sit upon a broken arch of London Bridge to draw the ruins of St Paul’s, exactly as tourists from Britain – the latest in a long line of ‘new Romes’ – drew the ruins of the Forum. To Victorian Britain the new colony promised to be the super-race of the future, and ‘the New Zealander’ became an imaginary witness in journalists’ architectural debate. How will posterity judge the worth of what we build? 

That is what the 84-year-old John Soane asked in the view he commissioned of Joseph Gandy’s imagined The Bank of England, Soane’s lifetime’s masterpiece. The complex is presented as a bird’s eye cutaway. It is a meditation on the future of the new Rome, yes, but it is not ‘overgrown’, as the Tate’s staff suggest: old, blind Soane’s assertion is that only the Bank, the bridges and St Paul’s are built well enough to tell the future what a great city London once was.

In fact, of course, the Bank was knocked down and the flimsy stucco terraces of his rival John Nash survived. We might call Soane’s ruin fantasies ‘the passive-aggressive’ in architecture: he first depicted the new-built Bank as a ruin after he had lost a libel case against rivals who mocked his work. Ruins are political, and also personal: into their absences we project our private thoughts and doubts. 

Jane and Louise Wilson’s Azeville (2006), a dislocated chunk of proto-Brutalism from Normandy.
Jane and Louise Wilson’s Azeville (2006), a dislocated chunk of proto-Brutalism from Normandy.

This exhibition is the latest in a series drawn from Tate’s own collection, and the lack of the obvious is more than made up for by surprises such as John Latham’s design for sculptural mounds of coalfield waste in 1976, a masterpiece which might have been. Our coal-mining heritage has vanished more quickly than the medieval monasteries because it is too painful and divisive a presence, suggested the ecologist Professor John Rodwell after the last slag-heap self-seeded as an oak forest was flattened to become a B&Q.

But ruins should be divisive to live. The fate of abbeys divided Catholic and Protestant as they were rediscovered by artists and poets. At the beginning of the 18th century ruined abbeys were quarries of building stone. By the time of Turner’s study of Tintern Abbey in 1794 ruins had become ‘picturesque’, and peopled with picnickers. Our own time has seen a similar aesthetic shift with industrial decay becoming photogenic, ­beginning in 1966 with Bernd and Hilla Becher’s British Council-funded tour of industrial relics. At Broadway Market in Hackney I can buy rust patches to stick on my bike.

I wonder if artistic cleverness has leapt ahead of moral debate. I flew to see Detroit’s ruins and had three of the most exhilarating but disturbing days of my life. Recently, the residents who are invisible in the  coffee ­table books of what’s been dubbed ‘Detroit ruin porn’ have stampeded into artists’ sightlines with placards proclaiming ‘We live here’.

The most interesting intellectual contribution to ruins lust in recent years is by a sociologist Alice Mah, whose interviews with residents in derelict neighbourhoods in Gateshead and Niagara, Canada, exposed a loyalty to place and kinship much deeper than the visual. Mah suggests a theory of proximity: to enjoy a ruin we require distance from the pain and failure, whether it is the wealthy tourist on a day-trip or a GCSE student curious to trace a dead grandfather’s footsteps through the black, broken factory. 

In Britain Tim Tinker’s Heygate Estate has become the local classicus of modern ruins lust: on a Sunday afternoon you will meet fashion stylists, video makers and – above all – artists. I’ve played there, too, but isn’t it troubling that it’s only been ‘discovered’ when emptied of council tenants? Where did they go, and why? The Heygate hurts.

Such ruins also challenge us to think about past, present, and future: how long will the estate’s glitzier replacement last? Who will dismantle The Shard? We build bigger buildings than ever before, and we abandon these more quickly than ever before. If a planning application had to say how a building would be dismantled, it would be more terrifying, I suspect, than the ever-tighter demands of BREEAM ratings. Architecture is in denial about its afterlife, but in a new environmental age I wonder if it is time to re-visit Christopher Wren’s dictum that all architecture should aim to be eternal. Should all architecture aspire to ephemerality? 


Christopher Woodward is director of the Garden Museum in Lambeth, London, and author of In Ruins


 

Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle’ by John Constable, 1828-9.
Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle’ by John Constable, 1828-9.