Ruins and Curated Decay

This weekend I read Cailin Desilvey’s Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving (2017). It is a pretty great little book that filled my mind with ideas that cut across a number of things that I’ve been working on (or being tempted by) lately. Her book considers an alternative view of preservation that encourages allowing the formation of ruins rather than the continuous intervention necessary to arrest the decay in historical buildings. She draws on examples from the storm-battered coast of the U.K. and rural Montana that illustrate how allowing certain sites to decay and fall into ruination creates a different attitude toward our material world, nature, and time.

In particular, the process of decay undermines the view that historical buildings should persist forever outside of time. Instead, she proposes a post-human view of these buildings that locate them as part of the natural world, recognizes the dynamic character of the building’s materiality, embraces the potential of  fragmentation, and, nevertheless, still places ruins in historical and mnemonic landscapes. Above all, Desilvey emphasizes that conventional practices of preservation are not the only way to produce meaningful heritage.

The book spoke to three of my projects in slightly different ways.

1. Chelmis. Over the last couple of months I’ve been working on a paper that document the modern (20th century) settlement of Chelmis in the Western Argolid. The site consists of over a dozen Balkan-style long houses in various states of preservation and collapse. What drew us to this site was both a commitment to documenting the 20th century landscape of the Western Argolid, but also our interest in sites of ruin and decay that are not neatly preserved with color coordinated concrete, carefully manicured pathways, and thoughtful conservation plans. The decaying ruins of Chelmis (and sites like it), stand as a kind of counter monument in Greece as they have little legal protection as modern ruins that are both ubiquitous in the countryside and not particularly significant to some national historical narrative (e.g. Classical antiquity, Byzantine and Christian heritages, et c.). In fact, their modest form, association with rural life and transhumant pastoralism, and isolated location provides a scenario where nature and material culture collaborate slowly to obfuscate their history from the national landscape. Our efforts to document these buildings and integrate them into a larger discourse on the Greek countryside is not simply a race against nature and ruination, but part of a larger view of the landscape that is defined by the interplay between natural and cultural processes both diachronically and spatially. These buildings literally embody the work of landscape archaeology.

2. Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission. This year, I started a term on the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission. The Commission’s job, as far as I can gather, is both to document (or assigns to be documented) historic districts, neighborhoods, and buildings in Grand Forks and also to monitor existing historic sites and work with developers, the community, and city leaders to preserve the integrity of city’s historic landscape. This is a good thing, in general, but the work of this commission is complicated. Grand Forks, like most places in the U.S., continues to see growth and development, some of which runs counter to the commission’s charge of preserving the historical fabric of the community.

Desilvey’s book got me thinking about the various historical landscapes present in Grand Forks. These range from typical historic districts like downtown or the Near Southside Historic District to spaces with more complicated legacies, like the ruins of the Lincoln Park neighborhood and the ghostly traces of abandoned neighborhoods preserved on the wet side of the greenway’s flood wall. In fact, the tension between preservation and occlusion manifests in the city’s fabric and almost total absence of ruins represents the community’s struggle against the terrible destruction power of the almost-annual Red River floods.

3. Wesley College Documentation Project. My study of the four remaining buildings of Wesley College at the University of North Dakota didn’t really understand them as being ruins. I recognized, of course, their complex histories as dormitories, administrative offices, classrooms, and lab spaces. I also realized that what we were doing by documenting abandonment was actually documenting the process of these buildings becoming ruins even though this process was ultimately accelerated by the bulldozer. By taking the abandoned buildings serious, documenting their fabric and the objects left behind, ritualizing their final weeks, and commemorating their history in text, music, and images, we managed to engage with the final months of these buildings before their physical form was removed from campus.

What intrigued me the most was the conversation surrounding these buildings in their final months. There were, of course, those who looked for ways to conserve, preserve, or repurpose these buildings in order to remember the history of Wesley College, its leaders, and these “modern” buildings. By maintaining their presence on campus, they would have also served as a reminder that not all that is progressive, innovative, or modern is necessarily destined to persist, to grow, and to improve. The university administration, of course, had valid reasons to remove these buildings. The cost of ruins on a university campus remains steep and they were no longer contributing practical space to campus functions. They also likely saw these buildings as telling the kind of cautionary tale that they aspired to avoid (or at least obscure): progressive fantasies of campus renewal, innovation, and restoration may fail. Ruins, of course, are not particularly welcome by campus leaders because they remind them of their own futility in the face of social and economic change, nature, and taste. 

The potential of ruins to remind a community of time, materiality, decay, and our deep entanglement with nature make them particular valuable monuments. It is all too easy to consign ruins to the countryside where the traditional line between natural and civilization is ragged and blurred. The deeply progressive hopes of communities and campuses need ruins too to temper their own deeply modern impulse toward continuous improvement and remind us that the present rarely planned and always negotiated.   

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