Rambling on Rubble: The Attraction of Architectural Ruins

by Boris Morin-Defoy, M. Arch I, ’16

 

The opening comments to Mark Gage’s new seminar Ruin and Ruination revived some strong emotions that puzzled me throughout my time in Rome last summer. Specifically, on our visit to Hadrian’s villa, while my peers seemed to relish the textural and painterly qualities of this decayed architectural fantasy, I felt submerged in an elusive sadness. Taking advantage of a moment of distraction while the group searched for Bryan Fuermann’s lost tote bag, I peeled off to make sense of my growing wistfulness.

I felt heavy but intrigued. This dread had an unfamiliar color. The feeling was nothing like the emotions manufactured by ‘sad art’ such as Oscar bait movies. This was not the sadness of string ensembles finely tuned to activate our melancholy sensors. The macabre quality of this space was absolutely unintentional, and therefore, totally real. But what was the anatomy of this feeling?  I was frustrated by the fact that I could only see the shadow or trace of a past beauty. Unable to recreate it in my imagination, I felt an abstract and shameful longing for a reality where I could be contemporary among such monumental splendour. However, even in these daydreams of architectural grandeur I can’t help but be awakened by their gruesome cost to society. An honest account of building materials for the villa starts with marble, porphyry, and travertine, but the list should end with social inequality, suffering, and death. Could the cost of such beauty ever be atoned or is blood intrinsic to it? Is it possible that part of the marvel is provoked by our knowledge of the suffering embedded in the poché of the ornate wall? Plato writes that beautiful things are difficult. I would add that beautiful things are a bitch. After the utterly inhumane effort to build Hadrian’s fantasy, the present remains are mere material residue. They are the defaced leftovers of centuries of pillaging and exposure to weather. Many people find the sight of an architectural ruin, overgrown with vegetation, appealing, or even humbling. They find comfort in the pathetic fallacy that nature tries to manage our ego expressed in wood and stone. There is no message; the only truth is that, where there is now an imprint of rubble, there once was something beautiful.