I seem to be slowly constructing a disconnected series about Ruin-Space. Ruin-space is the capacity for a site, a structure, or an object to be “ruined,” such that it can be said to be wholly apart from the state of its original design and creation. I’ve written how ruins are officiated, and how the images of ruin interact with the systems that actually created the ruins. In this post, I want to talk about a particular way that new construction goes on within ruins.
Building goes on within ruins all the time, despite the former structure that has fallen down. And often, building occurs because of that ruined structure. Ruin-space provides opportunity that new land doesn’t always provide. There could be social significance to the space, like when old, ruined religious buildings are converted into a worship space for a new religion. It could simply be a utilization of the often cited first three laws of real estate: location, location, and location—like when old defensive castles on top of hills are converted into luxury mansions. Or, there might be beneficial remains of the building, useful foundations or walls. Note the recent case of a destroyed Mayan pyramid used as road fill, in which the ruins were more valuable as raw material. We might mourn the loss of these ruins, but the recycling of buildings and their sites has surely been going on nearly as long as architecture itself.
And we certainly celebrate the more magnificent instances of construction within ruins. Take the high-rise favelas, in which squatters occupy unfinished buildings and begin to “finish” the construction in a sense, by installing plumbing and electricity running over the unconcealed surfaces of the structure like roots through an aquaduct. There is something very poetic about the natural motion of people to inhabit an area when the real estate combines have failed. But even something so simple as graffiti could be considered an intentional modification of space, and be beautiful. The ruin-space creates a canvas, by the removal of other contravening design authority. The ruin is an opportunity, not an eyesore. What the new inhabitants chose to do with this opportunity has its own valuation systems, but it is the ruin-space, insofar as it is now ruin-space, that creates this possibility.
This brings us back to the symbolic value of ruin-space. The indicators of ruin-porn, like an eroticized version of the much touted but heavily criticized Broken Windows Theory, attract new builders. Whether the indicators encourage the new denizens to view the ruin-space as a canvas, a lot of building materials, a foundation, or simply as a venue for romanticism, ruin-space can advertise itself like any piece of land, attracting those with the resources necessary to take possession.
But while Broken Windows Theory would read any sign of ruinous possession as “vandalism,” the collected casual fingerprints of criminals and malcontents, the real signs of on-going construction in ruin-space are far more complex. Ruin-space construction may be a demolition, but bulldozing would certainly be nothing new to the canons of architecture. Building out a ruin looks like many things. It can look like street art. It can look like poverty. It can look like sacrilege against “world heritage.” It can look like necessity. And it can look like sustainability.
Even if the symbols of ruin-space construction are not immediately categorized as social breakdown via “vandalization” (the historic Vandals might actually have perpetuated more of Roman culture than they destroyed), there is something that always seems to be “outsider” about it. Favelas visible infrastructure is not architecture, in the way that the Pompidou Center is architecture. Street art might be in the galleries at a high price, but it is still something of the street. And outsider art itself, despite criticisms of the term, continues to perpetuate a spatial metaphor of apartness, despite its location in the very midst of things.
The Watts Towers, built by Simon Rodea in the middle of South Central Los Angeles, are perhaps the symbol of this sort of outsider art, right in the center of everything. Rodea was a mason and construction worker, who built his towers from scavenged building materials and other urban detritus around his own house, incorporating the leavings of who knows how many architectural sites in this city of sprawl into a single, expanding complex. Even though the site is now officiated ruin-space as a Registered Historical Place, the legacy of “outsideness” remains.
Or consider Salvation Mountain, the work of Leonard Knight. Build on the edge of Slab City in Southern California, it is a monument to construction in the desert. The adobe made from mortar, hay, the desert itself, and copious amounts of paint, soaks into the terrain, dries, cracks, and is coated over again. It is an interesting juxtaposition to Slab City, an unregulated community of residents who camp without any utilities on the poured concrete foundations that were once part of a Marine base. These particular ruins of obsoleted military infrastructure, which are not uncommon to the western United States, are uniquely home to the brightly colored, always-under-repair Salvation Mountain. But the entire area is “outside” rejected and spurned by the more resolutely legal and sanctioned town of Niland, despite the flow of tourists that Salvation Mountain draws.
These transitory constructions are both undergoing maintenance in the effort of preservation instigated by ulterior organizations and money. This makes them officiated ruin-spaces in their own rights. Their defenders are not as high in stature as UNESCO, but similarly recognize an importance to these structures as they are, and so steps are taken to keep them that way. This differs from the period of their construction when they were unofficiated ruin-spaces. Their on-going maintenance by Rodea and Knight against the environment and gravity was part of their construction, not their preservation.
This period of ruin-space construction, an unsanctioned rejection of decay and erosion by the two inhabitants of each ruin-space, stands in contrast to other more “mainstream” works of environmental and structural art in the Western United States. Consider Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, where the erosion of which might be part of the art work—although the artist had not been willing to clarify that point. This was a work built on land rented for the purpose, and then allowed to decay by its tenants (art foundations, not the artist himself). The art had a date of construction, a title, a venue, and an owner. It may be large scale, and it may be architecture. But the inhabited modification of ruin-space construction is not present in the space, either at that time, or now, lingering in the space, decaying in the hands of those who would preserve it on that basis. It isn’t strictly that Simon Rodea and Leonard Knight both lived at their sites for many years (whereas Spiral Jetty was built in a single month) that makes the difference. But it gets to that difference.
But perhaps this is the central difference. Ruin-space construction is about people inhabiting space because of the ruin, and despite the ruin. It is resolutely inside its own space, even though it may be considered to be “outside” legitimate creative zones.
Even in a ruin-space converted into art, the emphasis is always on the space itself and what it has harbored. We may know of and celebrate Simon Rodea and Leonard Knight, but we know of them because of their work. Salvation Mountain and Watts Towers are not so much art as they are places. It is these places have come to be considered as having cultural merit. What is appreciable about these two structures is not that they were intended to be art, but that they have proceeded in and out of ruin-space throughout the course of their sites’ usage and occupancy, because of what the occupants chose to do there. It might be that what is “outside” about the art of Rodea and Knight is not so much the artists, but the work itself. Their work does not exist in a collection or in a lease. Spiral Jetty, while just as exposed to the elements as Salvation Mountain and the Watts Towers, was created firmly within a tradition of artwork, not within a tradition of inhabiting space. Art does not become a ruin-space–it simply gets old. Art is the manipulation of symbol. Regardless of what symbols ruin-space might be saddled with by its proponents or detractors, its visitors or inhabitants, it will always be space.