Teufelsberg and the Exigency of Ruin

The second episode of this BBC series is on the architectural history of Berlin. Matt Frei (writer and presenter of the show) is a news presenter more commonly seen on the US version of BBC News. Although he said he was interested in the architecture, it was the social history that seemed to be his principal interest. But Frei’s political preferences did not detract from what was a very interesting programme; his discussion of Albert Speer and the use and reuse of public space fascinated me, particularly when Frei visited the derelict listening station atop the Teufelsberg (‘Devil’s Mountain’).

Derelict NSA Listening Station, Teufelsberg, Berlin

I thought it a great shame that Frei didn’t elaborate the idea of ruin a little further (nothing said about German Romanticism, for instance); that he could talk so passionately about Speer and not mention Speer’s ‘ruin theory of value’ seemed a surprising omission. Wikipedia tells me that the Teufelsberg was not only built with the rubble of bombed-out Berlin, but this rubble was used to cover a Speer-designed Nazi military-technical college that proved impervious to demolition. Speer’s buildings were built to last 1000 years, but when this lifespan was deemed too long by allied forces they covered some of these buildings with rubble. If you’ll forgive the theoretical imposition, the details of this story don’t seem nearly so interesting as the relationship raised about how ruin, time and narrative techniques are made to respond to one another…

Ruin has a peculiar sense of temporality, one that registers both the termination and the survival of matter.  The ruin’s demand for narrative projection and manipulation, what Walter Benjamin calls the “irresistible decay” (2002: 178)  of ruin, emerges in how its fragments seem to have both withstood time and fallen prey to time’s relentless wearing and wasting. It seems to me that some of the beguiling charm of a ruin arises through our attempts to attend to this untimeliness, to the time of things that have persisted beyond their end.  This is one of the central paradoxes that permeates many accounts of Romantic ruin: ruins figure both transience and durability, both the entropic dissolution of all material things and the survival of remainders that seem to outlive this dissolution.

So a ruin announces a time that no longer occurs, a time when the building functioned according to human design.  The castle no longer defends, the house no longer gives shelter, the sports arena no longer provides a space for gaming or competition, but these purposes and functions remain bound up in the identity of what is left behind. Even in my earliest memories of visiting ruins, I remember the immediate task was always to transform toppled stones into spaces of combat, romance, or horror: to give a function to objects that no longer functioned, to give time to a thing that had fallen out of time.  With the purposive time of human action and activity at an end, ruins, simply by being labelled a ‘ruin,’ suggest this cinder of a former time, an absent time made present by collapse and decay.

Our impulse to respond to and supplement the lack in the ruin corresponds to that well-worn belief that we all experience ruins subjectively.  As Christopher Woodward has argued, it is precisely because each ruin is materially and temporally incomplete that “each spectator is forced to supply the missing pieces from his or her own imagination” (2001: 15).  Since our perception of a ruin is formed in productive confrontation to these material and temporal absences, we attempt to piece the ruin back together by narrative interpretation.  In this way, ruins are always a ruin of something else, they seem to demand a backstory, a ‘life’ that explains the architectural ‘afterlife’ that we encounter.  Indeed, there’s something about the ruin that seems to demand these sorts of narratives; a projection of was, what wasn’t, or what yet might be.  I’d like to suggest that this kind of ‘hermeneutic exigency’ is an attempt to stabilise and manage the peculiarly abundant, chaotic, and convolved time of ruin.

[For those with a large appetite for Nazi ruins:  www.thirdreichruins.com]

Désert de Retz

The ruins at Désert de Retz were built on the eve of the Revolution, between 1774 and 1789 by François Racine de Monville.  They present a rich and playful, temporally complex example of the Romantic obsession with ruins, close to Schlegel’s famous observation, “the works of the ancients have become fragments; the works of the moderns are fragments at their inception” (quoted in Levinson, 1986: 10). With over 17 follies packed within just 35 acres of landscaped garden, Monville juxtaposed the ruins of a gothic church with an Egyptian pyramid, a decaying Greek temple, and a series of rustic altars.  Although Diana Ketcham might call the Désert an “architecture of fantasy” (1994: 1), it is a fantasy rooted in the figures and forms of architectural history and rehearses in stone what Panini and Piranesi achieved in paint and acid.

The Broken Column, Désert de Retz
The Broken Column, Désert de Retz

At the centre of the garden lies what is known as ‘The Broken Column’ an enormous Doric column 55 feet high and 50 feet wide.  Inside, a spiral staircase connects 5 floors and approximately 20 rooms making Monville’s column a ruin that functions, a ruin in which to dwell.  The formal, antiquarian response to the column might be to follow the proportions of the Doric order, imaginatively reconstructing the 400-foot temple that the column suggests was once existent.  Nevertheless, the column demonstrates a demand for time, however gargantuan, fictional or fantastic; it demands time and a narrative explanation of its presence.

Cross-section view of the Broken Column

“Let us bring to our gardens the changing sets of the opera,” writes Louis de Carmontelle, contemporary of Monville and originator of the term ‘pay d’illusions’, “let us see there, in reality, what the most able painters could offer as decoration, all times and all places” (quoted in Bandiera, 1989: 83).   As an attempt to synthesize all times and all places, Monville’s pays d’illusions generates and discloses the narrative frames we impose upon objects of ruin.  The ruins are allegorical in Walter Benjamin’s sense, generating their allegorical content through, what Benjamin called, “the highly significant fragment, the remnant” (2003: 178).  The allegorical provocation rendered by Monville’s follies goes some distance in foregrounding their narraratological, semantic productivity.  It is the untimely nature of the ruin, an “untimeliness […] evident in how past, present, and future conspire to converge,”  that gives the ruin its allegorical force (Trigg, 2007: 131). The Broken Column and the follies that surround it stages a performance of this convergence; not only does the Column suggest a time of use and a past that could never have existed, but it wilfully confuses our attempts to divide the time of architecture according to notions of waste and want. Monville’s Column demonstrates the fundamental noncoincidence between the ruin’s outer appearance, the fragmentary distance between past, present, and future, and our narrative attempts to reconcile this noncoincidence.  The ruin demands an impossible narrative, an impossible reconciliation between these dispersed and converging times, disrupting our sense of the contemporary and the security of the ‘now.’  The Désert becomes spectral in Derrida’s sense, prompting the “disjointure in the very presence of the present, this sort of non-contemporaneity of present time with itself (1994: 25). If we make sense of ruins by imposing the temporal frames, the time of use and waste, for example, then Désert de Retz frames those frames and brings their plastic imposition to our attention.

Breton among the Ruins
Andre Breton's Surrealist Group, among the Ruins at Désert de Retz

So the time of ruin is a time that generates narrative.  We might explain some of the Romantic obsession with ruin by pointing towards ruin’s temporal malleability and intractability, its capacity to symbolise both the transience and endurance of material things.  The narrative multiplicity of ruins is a response to and translation of objects that seem, by their very nature, to lie in fragments.  We have seen how ruin-narratives do not simply resolve the rents and fissures of the ruin, but, by displaying their narratological tricks and tensions, these narratives can simultaneously display the fragile terms by which we compose and decompose meaning.  Indeed, the fabrication and projection of ruin puts the distinction between waste and want under particular scrutiny, disclosing how the time of architecture depends on whether buildings coincide with the projective time of human activity.  Whilst the ruin makes and narrates the passing of time, the making of ruins reveals how materiality is always matter both in and of our time.

[A longer version of this text was presented in June to the Romantic Realignments series, Oxford]