the accumulation of ruin-space



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800px-Cole_Thomas_Interior_of_the_Colosseum_Rome_1832

I think a great deal about Ruin Space: 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. The rub is that this is a very strange state to think about, and there is not a dualistic relationship between “ruined” and “useful,” or whatever the previous functional state might be called. Tim Maly phrases this wonderfully using the Coliseum in Rome as an example:

In my mind, there are two images of the Coliseum. The first is of the contemporary ruin. The second is of gladiators, lions, and Christians. But the last gladiatorial fights happened in 435 and the modern ruin wasn’t fully excavated until the 1930s.

That’s 1,500 years of neglect and adaptive re-use that aren’t part of the cultural picture of the building. Here are some things that happened: A church was built into the side; it was fortified and possibly used as a castle; a religious order lived in the northern third from the 1350s to the 1800s (what was happening in the other two thirds?); they considered turning it into a wool factory; they used it briefly for bullfights.

In that post, Tim articulates all the difficulty of dealing with structures when they are in the long, middle period. But regardless of when or how they officially enter the state of “ruin,” there is a point at which a structure could be considered to unequivocally be a ruin. The Coliseum is most definitely a ruin. It may be other things, but it is certainly a ruin. The UNESCO status of “World Heritage Site,” for example, has the effect of preserving a site’s ruined status “as ruins”: the protections of this status among the signatory nations limits repairs, further archaeological investigation, and of course, demolition. The site is no longer a building in collapse, but a ruin in further collapse. The ruining of the ruin must be forestalled, but the repair of the original building is out of the question.

This act of “ruin administration,” of bureaucratic control of a place insofar as it is “ruins,” is an odd sort of enforced curatorial temporality. It begins with the fence, the delimitation of a territory other than the property rights, an extent of the agedness that is culturally interesting. Then there is the interpretative sign, that interprets the ruins as ruins, and explains how they are ruins, defining them as such.

I saw this recently, on a stretch of the old Route 66, east of Amboy, in California. Route 66 was one of the first national highways in the United States, established in 1926, running from Chicago to Los Angeles. A staple of long road trips, car culture, and the economics of the road-side business, it has since been outdated as a useful road by the Interstate Highway System, and was officially removed from the list of national highways in 1985, though many states adopted the number and the same roadway under the number 66. It wasn’t until 1990 that the Route 66 Association of California designated parts of the route that had not been overtaken by other roads as “Historic Route 66,” establishing the road as a not just a functional road, but a “historic road.”

The path of roads in the Western United States make or break towns, much as the railroad once did. When the first national highways were laid out, significant lobbying swayed the official courses of the roads, because they brought travelers, who brought money. When the freeways replaced the old national highways, they took these travelers and their money with them, leaving ghost towns. Old, callused capillary beds of the national auto-logical systems closed up and hardened, as the gas stations, motels, and restaurants that served the ecosystem of individualized transportation ossified, helped by the desert wind and sun. This ruin-porn became its own attraction, leading travelers to veer off the streamlined freeway to travel the pitted and grooved “historic road,” and to gawk and pose for photos next to decaying strip motels and roadside tourist attractions, the overly loud metaphors of a changing society.

And then, at some point, these became “ruins.” Not simply when the buildings and signs were falling down, but when they were sufficiently decayed as to be part of a continuum of ruins. East of Amboy, where we recently stopped, there is an interpretative sign, denoting the location of what used to be a Route 66 rest area, complete with bathrooms, picnic tables, and parking. None of that is currently there except for the sign. There is only a gravel turnout, the concrete foundations of where the picnic tables had been, and the interpretative sign, that was almost impossible to see because of the growing Mojave Desert scrub brush, where it not for the larger sign along the roadway that alerted us to its presence. This former rest area is not a UNESCO World Heritage Site (yet?) but it is officially denoted ruin area, administered by the Historic Route 66 Association or others, no different than an old mine or native site on National Park land.

There are other ruins that are no longer present, hidden under new construction, purposefully not curated as ruins, and willfully forgotten so more building can proceed—those are stories for another time. But the question for these ruin-spaces is, how long will the exist? We seem to have an attraction to ruins—we want them and seek them out, though never with the same functional desire with which we seek out current structures. What will we do in the future as these ruin-spaces pile up, unable to be destroyed because of their enforced temporality as preserved agedness? The earth is becoming a solid mass of scar tissue, as the tracks of human endeavour scour crosshatching into its surface.

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Adam Rothstein

Adam is an insurgent archivist and researcher, who writes about media, technology, and politics wherever he can get a signal. He is on Twitter as @interdome





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