From Pompeii to Detroit: Why ruins fascinate

Decaying structures, from crumbling castles to industrial ghost towns, have long fascinated us. A new exhibition investigates their appeal.

The explosion of interest in images of abandoned buildings over the past few years has been labelled “ruin porn”: in fact, it is something much more complex, as a new exhibition at London’s Tate Britain sets out to show. The gallery has chosen the phrase ‘ruin lust’ – from the German word ‘Ruinenlust’ – for its overview of artists’ obsessions with the crumbling and dilapidated.

“There’s always more going on when we look at these structures and places than simply a prurient interest,” says Tate curator Brian Dillon. “There’s a real mixture of emotions that includes horror, nostalgia, regret – but also a kind of thrill, a sort of sublime excitement. A lot of artists have responded to this, thinking about ruins not only as things to be pored over in a slightly disreputable way – but to see them as filled with a kind of potential.”

An Italian tourist site reveals much about our complicated relationship with ruins. The ancient Roman city of Pompeii – buried by falling ash from Mount Vesuvius in 79AD – became a popular subject for artists after it was excavated in 1748, coinciding with a rise of interest in classical remains. “There is this moment in the 18th Century when there is a real explosion of interest among painters and poets,” says Dillon.

"It’s a theme in the arts and literature of that period, that the destruction of the past is a warning from history about what might happen,” he says. "It’s to do with an unease about being modern. That no matter how modern we are, no matter how much progress we make – it will all come to an end, it will all fall away just like the civilisations of Greece and Rome.”

A handful of dust

The insight that past destruction gives us into our present era could be an explanation for the popularity of images showing 20th Century industrial decay. “In the past few years, there has been a re-explosion of a much more popular interest in looking at urban and industrial ruins,” says Dillon. “You could say that’s bound up with financial crisis, and the wake of that. The photographs of Detroit are a clear example of that.”

French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre published their influential book Ruins of Detroit in 2010. They have also documented abandoned theatres that have been demolished or converted into churches, supermarkets and bingo halls.

In another project, the pair turned their lenses on an island off the coast of Nagasaki in Japan, once a mining town with the world’s highest population density. With the decline of Japan’s coal industry, Gunkanjima was abandoned: its ruination one of slow decay as opposed to Pompeii’s abrupt apocalypse.

The process appeals to Marchand. “Industry is about exploiting nature,” he says. “Seeing nature growing back in those buildings, there's a certain sense of morality or irony within the ruins when they are reclaimed.”

He believes that the ideology behind structures adds to the appeal of their decay. “It's about architecture that gives a sense of psychology – of course, the car is related to Detroit, and what's interesting is that the car destroys the city because it creates a city where people are allowed to move further away.”

The eventual destruction of buildings is often part of an architect’s vision. Adolf Hitler’s chief architect Albert Speer came up with the concept of ‘ruin value’, planning the buildings of the Third Reich with a view to their picturesque decay centuries hence. In 1830 John Soane, who designed and built the Bank of England, commissioned Joseph Gandy to paint an aerial view of his most famous building as an overgrown ruin.

According to Dillon, the true value of a ruin is in its ability to allow us to move across time. “Ruins are attractive because they’re not just things that have survived, but they also point towards something.”

Marchand agrees. “To us, the ruin allows you to see the past, as well as your present condition, and what you're going to be – you can see all those three at the same time.”

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