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]

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