Ruins of the Future – An Extract

An extended version of this post appears in Aesthetic Fatigue: Modernity and the Language of Waste, ed. John Scanlan & J. F. M. Clark (Cambridge Scholars, 2013) pp. 141-162.

If waste is taken to denote change, a coming to be by having been, then the anticipation of ruins mark out the present as the condition of the future. One of the narratological effects of imagining the present in a ruined condition is the strong emphasis that this places on ruins’ relation to the present and the dynamic vigour of ending. As a form of waste, the ruin is both an end and a continuity, both the end to use and the muted remainder of that activity. Whilst future ruins frequently suggest the termination of some time, people or structure, there is a lingering or remaining sense of time, a time that is particular to the condition of being ‘leftover’. This waste-time, which marks the termination of use and its cindering persistence, means that projected ruins represent a disrupted continuation of present events. Projecting ruins discloses the duration and shape of time and dramatises a conflict between material permanence and material transience. This conflict between continuity and cessation makes the ruin an end that remains, an end that is imperfect, unreliable. The ruin marks that sense of termination that has not quite come to its end. I call this temporal unreliability a narratological effect because imagining the ruins of the future gives a means to envision a story that both locates a possible landscape and relates that landscape to present surroundings. This is not only done in order to imagine what the future might look like but, as we shall see throughout this chapter, provides an opportunity to re-examine the present. As Ricoeur writes, “In reading the ending in the beginning and the beginning in the ending, we also learn to read time itself backwards, as the recapitulation of the initial conditions of a course of action in its terminal consequences.”  (1984: 67 – 68). In fiction, film and the painterly arts, the anticipation of a ruinous end is frequently a narratological means by which to return to and make sense of the present; by ‘traveling to the future’ we might make and give meaning to the present.

Still from The Planet of the Apes dir. Franklin J. Schaffner (1968)

When in The Planet of the Apes (1968) Charlton Heston’s character confronts the toppled remnant of The Statue of Liberty, he exclaims, “Oh my God! I’m back. I’m home.”  In the comparative exercise of managing the disrupted continuity of the future ruin, between imaginary times and familiar places, we encounter not only a future in itself but also a future in which the present has been abandoned, cut off, terminated or forsaken. This is the broken continuity, the interrupted endurance that the future ruin offers. The consummation that a ruin might represent does not necessarily become imminent to the present, but ruins are felt to become immanent in present events, thus, we come to see the ruinous potential of things that have not yet been discarded and identify the long held association between ruins and vanitas. It is precisely this uncanny distance, achieved through a sense of arriving at and travelling to the estranged familiar, that gives the future ruin the power to relay the present and the future as an object that persists by passing away.

Confronting the future in ruins is by no means a formulaic exercise. The interpretative gaps that energise the exigency of this form of waste are motivated by the irresolvable questions they raise. Particularly in their painterly and cinematic manifestations, the ruins of the future frequently leave out how or when or for what reason these structures have reached their terminal condition. For instance, in the paintings of Hubert Robert and Joseph Gandy we are given no explicit explanation for why the structures they depict have fallen into ruin; their visual impact plays upon the disjuncture felt between the building existent and the future ruin represented. Robert’s Design for the Grand Gallery in the Louvre and his An Imaginary View of the Ruins of the Grand Gallery in Ruins (see images below), manipulate a dual vision of the future: one image presents a new and ideal view of a Republican art institution, the other represents a more ruinous and terminal condition of this institution. As such, the work has often been read as an ambiguous commentary on France’s new and emerging attitude to the public control of artworks and, by implication, condemns the futility of the Revolution.  For Daniel Brewer, Robert seems to dramatise “the inevitable transience of precisely the institution whose current function is to preserve the artwork from physical [deterioration].” (2008: 192). Furthermore, viewing the images together – as they were at the 1796 salon – emphasises the transition between architectural shelter and exposure, museum and ruin. But the nature of this transition, the causal events by which one moves from one condition to another, is a transition rich in absence and enigma. Time has been accelerated in An Imaginary View, leaving the Louvre at both the end of time and at a place where time seems to have resumed. The inclusion of the Apollo Belvedere, seen in the foreground, is just one indication of the intervening years and the exigent potential of imagining ruins. The statue came to the Louvre with Napoleon a year after Robert pre-emptively included it in this painting.  In this small detail we see how Robert does not simply give an image of his present as ruin, but a particular, albeit elliptical, history by which the future ruin is contextualised. The presence of the Apollo Belvedere is one indication of this causal absence, which the ruins of the future envelop.

Hubert Robert, Design for the Grand Gallery in the Louvre (1796)
Hubert Robert, An Imaginary View of the Grand Gallery in Ruins (1796)

The English parallel to Robert’s work might be found in another double vision of future ruins. Joseph Gandy’s A Vision of Sir John Soane’s Design for the Rotunda of the Bank of England as a Ruin (1798) and Soane’s Bank of England as a Ruin (1830), constitute attempts to imagine ruin in construction, ruin which marks the conception and completion of Soane’s bank. In his painting of 1798 Gandy was commissioned by Soane to project the building into a future state of ruin. Gandy draws directly from the picturesque style of Robert to give the material foundation of the bank a corresponding ruin. The painting’s companion piece, which Brian Lukacher has described as a “Piranesian ruinscape” (2006: 162), was commissioned by Soane when the building of the bank was nearing its completion in 1830.

Joseph Gandy, A Vision of Sir John Soane’s Design for the Rotunda of the Bank of England as a Ruin (1789)
Joseph Gandy, Soane’s Bank of England as a Ruin (1830)

Just as Robert’s images of the Louvre were viewed together to emphasise their chronological yet antagonistic pairing – in which ruin is conceived as the beginning and the end of a creative process – so Gandy’s paintings of the Bank of England were displayed together at the Royal Academy in 1832.  The genesis of Soane’s bank, its design, construction, and eventual use, was surrounded by images of its dissolution; the imagination of its present was permeated by the state of ruin it would fall into. Again, the idea of the ruin is used to fashion the future and narrate the trajectory of built environments. But, to renovate a formulation exercised earlier in this thesis, whilst these images of future ruin invite us to consider the idea of ‘waste’, the events of waste and the particular sequence of events whereby the useful is transformed into the non-useful is a transition frequently left to our imaginations. In the paintings by Joseph Gandy, for instance, a subtle exchange occurs between image and viewer, where the temporal absence implied by the image is shaped by the perspective on and texture of the ruin represented. The abundant vegetation contained in A Vision and the rustic scene occurring within the sanctuary of the rotunda, means that we are led to assume that this future ruin has come about slowly or without catastrophe, left to collapse gently like the ruins of antiquity. In Soane’s Bank of England as a Ruin, on the other hand, with its elevated perspective, the bare and uninhabitable interior, and the confrontational figure in the lower right hand corner, suggests fire, earthquake or holocaust, in short a cataclysmic event that has brought the bank to ruin. In this respect, ruins of the future provide a means to visualise consequences before knowing precisely what their cause might be. They are images of the future that stand prior to our reconstructive acts of narration, yet their ruins shape and inform our interpretative responses. Robert’s and Gandy’s future ruins provide us with objects within incomplete narratives, narratives with absent middles. Whilst suggesting a material continuity between the contemporary and the futural, the future ruin can also appear as cast off from any neat or continuous reconstruction of events.

So far we have considered the narratological effects of the future ruins, but these compensatory acts of narration implicitly search for ends, to the temporal terminus that ruins promise and frustrate. Michel Serres argued that historical thought searches for an impossible zero point in time, “That point inaccessible– it is a point of accumulation; another point always interpolates itself, iteratively, in front of it” (1991: 29). This is because, for Serres, historical thought “seems linear, as if progressional, as if it followed the current of time” (1991: 42). Although Serres is describing the activity of working backwards through time, towards the zero point of an origin, we might take this characterisation of historicism and consider how the future ruin confirms the accumulative, progressional nature of future thinking; that is, the way in which ruins help us to think towards an end. In a way not dissimilar to the ever-receding vanishing point of Robert’s paintings, Serres describes the impossible and ever-receding point of the origin; just as we might think that, finally, we have determined the source we find another, a time yet more remote that frustrates our neat conclusions.  In their capacity to stand as a consummation and continuity of the present, future ruins form part of a visual repertoire of an incomplete or provisional end. This is, as we have noted in previous chapters, a key condition of waste-time. It must suggest both an end and the contingency of that end, a form of material and temporal punctuation; the already-and-not-yet of waste. This makes the ruin, particularly the future ruin, a very odd object for historical contemplation. Historiography, argues Serres, takes for granted a transition from the indeterminate to determinate, “indetermination precedes the determinate” (1991: 45).  That is to say that the historian’s explicatory task is to transform the indeterminate into the knowable, the scripted and the sequential. What, then, is the historical quality of the future ruin? The ruin of the future neither fulfils this trajectory from indeterminacy to determinacy, nor flatly contradicts this progression. As Robert’s works demonstrate, there is an implicit relation between the Louvre represented as a functioning space for the public display of objects, and its consequent condition as a ruin. In one sense the ruin is always that which comes afterwards, it is always the ruin of something. Ruins, then, are the outcome of a linear, progressional transition from use to waste; future ruins are an outcome of the present. On the other hand, they are frequently the outcome of events that we do not witness, the cast offs from a time that is yet to occur. In this respect, the fragile terminus of the future ruin is laid bare; the indeterminate does not necessarily precede the determinate when the future ruin frustrates the continuity of thought between the determinate present and indeterminate future.

The future ruin, then, is an incomplete end achieved by an incomplete transition between now and then. It might fill us with a “sense of ending”, to borrow a famous phrase from Frank Kermode, but it is not quite the end itself. The politically, theologically and philosophically rich gesture of projecting ruins, of prophesying the demise of a building, as well as the people and activities associated with it, depends upon an end that can be experienced, a sense of dénouement that is not absolutely terminal. This is not the apocalypse as such, but an end to be seen, to be retold and represented – it is a telling end. The didactic, moralising potential of the future ruin depends upon its evidential nature.  Kermode writes that, “We project ourselves–a small, humble elect, perhaps–past the End, so as to see the structure whole, a thing we cannot do from our spot of time in the middle” (1967: 8).  Whilst projecting ends might give us a sense of the whole and a position before this time, projecting oneself past the end proves that this is no end at all, but just one step further from the ever-receding zero of the end. Moreover, the future ruin frequently plays upon the fact that ‘the whole’ is not immediately apparent, meaning that the end it is held to represent becomes even more provisional. This is, in part, a consequence of the ‘empty middle’ mentioned earlier, which is the narrative structure of end-orientated things in which an emptiness stands between the now and the then. Kermode links peripeteia, the unexpected and penultimate twist in the plot that motivates a narrative’s finale, to this sense of ending. If peripeteia, by definition, is something we do not expect, then by assimilating the unexpected Kermode argues that we are “enacting that readjustment of expectations which is so notable a feature of naive apocalyptic.”  Imagined ruins, in contrast, do not show us the end of the world or an apocalypse as such, but the end of a temporally co-dependent relation between humans and their architecture. Looking upon images of ruin we might experience a readjustment of expectations – feelings of shock or surprise – and we might even assume the peripeteia whereby structures of use fall into objects of waste, but the relationship between ruinous futures and our narrative responses must traverse the mid-time between the use of the present and waste of the future. The periods of time that ruins seem to call to an end allow us to read ends and beginnings into time; the future ruin, then, performs an important periodising function and represents an ally and an antagonist in our attempts to bring the future to order.

Although these truncated narrative structures might not be the sole domain of the future ruin, the divergence felt between the projective times of use and the slack times of waste exaggerates the terminus that ruins are so frequently held to represent. The comparative relationship between human and architectural time means that the futural dissolution of architecture, far in advance of our own dissolution, confirms the relative endurance associated with buildings and the temporal distance their ruination creates. Indeed, the future ruin depends upon our expectation that the usefulness of a building should outlast the demands of an individual user, intensifying the disparity we feel between the time of buildings and the duration of human life, as well as increasing a building’s propensity to stand for collective use. The sense of the end that the future ruin generates plays upon the way in which buildings are felt to outlast these multiple relationships with individual users, reflecting an accumulation of uses and users.


Full references on request: willviney[at]

More Kinsella

A major element of waste
    needed in the living process,
with an element of excess
    in the constituent materials;
distinguishing basic features
    performing no apparent function,
and playing no discernable part
    in countering any negative forces,
but which are nonetheless clearly essential
    for fulfillment of the process,
and which, if removed, would establish
    an emptiness under the heart.
Accepting the waste and the excess,
    and a fundamental inadequacy
in the structure as a whole
    and in each individual part,
there is still an ongoing dynamic
    in the parts as they succeed each other,
and in the assembling record,
    that registers as positive.
Thomas Kinsella, Marginal Economy (Dublin: Peppercanister, 2006) 32.

The Heidelbergh Project

I recently stumbled across the The Heidelbergh Project, an artwork of reclamation that transforms spaces and objects of waste in a Detroit suburb. Taking four derelict houses and burying it in layers of scavenged materials—tires, hubcaps, broken toys, battered dolls, rusty signs, busted appliances, and automobile parts—all brightened with stripes, polka dots, and splashes of paint. It’s interesting to note how the people in this promotional video  speak of the ‘magic’, ‘fantasy’ and ‘incomprehensibility’ of the work. The creator of the project, Tyree Guyton, speaks of resurrecting the city.

Whilst I realise this project has much to do with the urban economics of Detroit –  and the hope that the Heidelbergh Project might reverse the city’s decline – I’m left wondering what it is about using and manipulating waste that allows this intervention to have its ‘magic’. If I was an ethnographer I’d like to survey the varying responses to The Heidelbergh Project and Nek Chand’s infamous Rock Garden. I think that a comparative study like this would reveal some interesting responses to the instrumentalisation of waste in art. I wonder if notions of transformation, transubstantiation and redemption would be common to both.