“Nostalgia can be a utopia in reverse. Temporality and spatiality are necessarily linked in nostalgic desire. The architectural ruin is an example of the indissoluble combination of spatial and temporal desires that trigger nostalgia. In the body of the ruin the past is both present in its residues and yet no longer accessible, making the ruin an especially powerful trigger for nostalgia”
Nostalgia for Ruins – Andreas Huyssen
Prologue / The Path to Nostalgia
A ruinous complex greets curious onlookers at a distance only to be barred by a crumbling rusty signage that poorly attempts to deny those who dared an entry. The alluring emptiness of the site, littered with important pieces of locomotive history, worthy of any Museum of Transportation, remains eerily frozen in time. The atmosphere of its sudden abandonment and absence of life has allowed the site to become an anti-museum. The station, ironically and completely disjointed from the daily activities of modern life, sits at a crossroad of time and space.
The steadily increasing chugging sound of progress was nowhere to be heard, but we were greeted by its slumber as the trees softly creaked by the summer breeze. The light, softly illuminated by the crevices of the branches and the absence of the roof, unveiled the majesty of the early 20th century technological grandeur, but a sadness arose which lingered throughout the walk. To view the death of technology in all of its former might and the thought of its redundancy evoked not just a sense of pity and fear for mankind, but a great deal of overwhelming nostalgia that only lead to more questioning. How could such a site of early modernity, allow the visitor’s sense to long for an unreachable time and space, be greater than that of an archaeological splendor today? A force within the urban fabric, decay, and dilapidation must have unleashed the often frowned upon feeling of nostalgia. Without a moment’s notice, the grounds of the lost world began to tremble and thump. Did we trespass its sacred grounds? Have we awoken the unknown entity of technology which have given life to these machines once upon a time? Unfortunately, the trains will have to remain idle, but we were greeted with a sight that ignited even a greater sense of nostalgia, and de ja vu.
The Philosophy / Nostalgic for Ruins
The scene of the shepherd that passed by with the stampeding flock of sheep amidst the majesty of the ruins is a familiar sight often represented throughout the histories of the arts, particularly by the Capriccio Style, popularized by Robert Hubert and Giovani Piranesi. The Capriccio style is a mixture of real and imaginary worlds fantastically fused by architectural forms with a strong dose of historical anarchism. The reason for its conception in regards to such a style is best described by Nina Dubin, author of Futures and Ruins: Eighteenth Century Paris and the Art of Hubert Robert, as a society heading towards a total estrangement of the past. Robert’s interest and possible nostalgia for ruins may have sparked due to Paris’ societal and urban movement towards a Capitalist philosophy due to its demolition projects prior to the late 18th century. The path towards the forgetfulness of the past is a phenomenon that continues to persist today.
In the age of market driven urbanism and turbo-capitalism, nostalgia is often viewed as a disease to modern society. According to Nostalgia For Ruins by Andreas Huyssen, the “predominantly negative coding of nostalgia” is that it “undermines linear notions of progress, whether they are framed dialectically as philosophy of history, or sociology and economically as modernization.” In addition, Huyssen states that nostalgia walks a difficult line “between the sentimental lament over a loss and the critical reclaiming of a past for the purposes of constructing alternative futures.” Anti-nostalgia for ruins critics often associate the notion with power and domination which may have seem to be the case with Adolf Hitler’s chief architect, Albert Speer, who concieved the Ruin Value Theory. Speer’s intention in his architectural endeavours was to design buildings by avoiding modern construction materials as much as possible in order to produce aesthetically pleasing and symbolically powerful imagery once fallen to ruin like its Classical counterparts. Therefore, nostalgia as a form of reasoning is often met with scorn and disdain, a prime suspect as a regressive factor that impedes progress.
Despite seen as a negativity to others, Giovanni Piranesi, the Italian artist of the 18th century who created notable etched works of Rome, may have “lessons for us as we reflect the earlier loss of modernity” (Huyssen). Piranesi’s etched works of ruins created during the age of enlightenment offer the viewers a glimpse of an alternative modernity which often stands as a testament to the naïve hope for mankind’s progress. The outlandish, un-sanitized and unkempt landscapes adorned by the ruins that one expects to promote a nightmarish atmosphere ironically creates that of a picturesque tone. Could one be nostalgic for ruins of modernity simply because it promises an alternative future that seems to nowhere to be found in the present? Could nostalgia be the key to reclaiming the past for the purpose of constructing an alternative future as Huyssen suggested? If his statements hold any merits, where is nostalgia in our contemporary world today?
The Adaptive Reuse Dilemma / Issues with Current Trends
Global cities and metropolises are experiencing gentrification at an unprecedented rate and inevitably, dilapidated industrial zones are metamorphosing into the chic and hipster cafés that seems to be taking the younger demographic crowd by storm. From the reproduced rustic barber shops to the retrofitted cultural centers, corporate firms who blatantly advertise themselves as paragons of national imaging continually strive to implement or rejuvenate the “authentic”. Could it be that those who feel oppressed by the technologically mundanely repetitiveness of modern life be captivated by the cozily shabbiness of the rustic and outback look? But what categorizes a space, or built heritage, as authentic? The famous cathedral of power, the Tate Modern, that lies opposite to St.Paul’s cathedral across the Thames, is a museum of modern art that was transformed from a decommissioned power plant. Despite its impressive Art Deco architectural qualities and its debatable brutal undertones, authenticity in the age of the contemporary world has now transformed into a form of “muséal” preservation and restoration. The sanitization of the old has inevitably lead to the increase of nostalgia.
Therefore, the world’s notion and longing for ruins which continues to haunt society to this day has retained the same concept for almost 300 years. Arguably, this due to the age of capitalism, market driven urbanism and the material culture because authenticity does not have a place in an era where commodities are constantly thrown out and recycled. The chance for structures to become ruins have diminished as the new are made to look rustic and charming and the old is constantly revived for commercially driven purposes. The general public’s perception to distinguished age have become increasingly difficult as structures continue to experience constant renewal in an era of cultural preservation. Furthermore, buildings of the contemporary world do not produce ruins, but rubble due to the lack of the application of natural materials. “Concrete, Steel, and glass aren’t subject to erosion and decay the way stone is. Modernist architecture refuses the return of culture to nature” (Huyssen). The sense of decay and erosion along with its nostalgic alluring charm as its calls for its own return to nature is no longer to be found in the modern era. When ruins are sanitized and stripped of its roots, moss, and dirt, nostalgia will grow.
The Death of Nostalgia / Lessons for the Future
The notion of an authentic ruin is rapidly transforming into a historical phenomenon as society further plunges itself into an era of restoration and questionable authentic remakes. While ruins have always held the power to allows its viewers to envision the potential paths of alternative futures and of roads not taken, mankind must try to forge a path that deters itself from the deepening commodification of culture. Ideologues lead by corporate neoliberalism who are responsible for the numerous constructions of cathedrals of consumerism, a.k.a shopping malls, are creating the foundations of a nostalgia free future. The erasure of nostalgia in the capitalist society might pose as a detrimental factor to the psyche of a nation and to its people.
Nostalgia, despite its mainstream negative connotations, is a pillar in the house of freedom of speech. Without nostalgia, mankind cannot lament over its loss as a society and envision alternative futures that were once promised in the distant past. Structures romantically adorned by the uncontrollable forces of natures humbles the mind to envision an era with alternative forms of public culture and organizations that may hold an answer for today’s problems. In an age where the environment is monotonously and systematically replaced, society becomes less prone to question and reflect. Ruins, “in its decay, articulates that dialectical constellation of nature and history that posits the changeability and contingency of both nature and history instead of opposing blind mythological nature to history as enlightened ontological agency” (Huyssen) In addition, the nostalgia for ruins is not the seduction over its destruction but a call for reflection and answers. Whether it is the works of Piranesi’s prisons or Antonio St’Elia’s retro futuristic skyscrapers of WW1, both hold far more authenticity and nostalgia than most built heritage and archaeological sites that underwent a form of sanitization.
Whether empirical evidence is given to suggest or refute an individual’s need to reflect among ruins, the seductive but melancholic nature of dilapidated ruins still captivate the minds of people regardless of their place of origin. By what means can nostalgia be measured of those who prefer to sit amongst the ruins of St.Dunstan in the East, pocketed within the heard of London? Could it be the palimpsest of decay on its walls and the lack of surveillance that allows the visitor to reflect amongst their ancestral history and nature? In the rapidly globalizing nation of the U.A.E with its impressive urban and architectural accolades, why do its nationals continue to venture through the abandoned sea side town of Jazirat Al Hamra to celebrate its local festivities? Even though these nations host an abundant of amenities, whether in the department of housing or cultural centers, the power of nostalgia for ruins is a human phenomenon that may be extinct unless a proper debate and reform takes place.
Huyssen, Andreas. 2006. Nostalgia for Ruins. Grey Room (23) 6-21
Chan, Danny. 2005. Nostalgia and the Idea of an Urban Ruin. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Dubin, Nina. 2013. Future and Ruins: Eighteenth Century Paris and the Art of Hubert Robert. Los Angeles. Getty Publications
A Blogged Visit about the Reyek International Station, Bekaa Valley in Lebanon
Nostalgia For Ruins by Andreas Huyssen
Nostalgia and the Idea of an Urban Ruin