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.
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.
“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.
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]