Converted Architecture & The Intelligent Ruin

Back to the ruin talk!

My main question here is: “why are we so obsessed with ruins?”

At this moment in time we’re not only in the middle of financial and political crises, but also struggling with ecological problems. The modern man is worried about the climate and sick of all the prodigality and accumulation which are destroying earth. The ruin reminds us of the limits of a building because it shows us that a building is actually already crumbling down from the moment the building process starts. One day, all of those houses and buildings will be dilapidated and our world will be too damn full. This way the ruin also inspires us to use nature’s materials in a more sustainable way. The ecological interest results in a new way of reflecting on ruins. Naomi Stead states the following in her article The Value of Ruins: Allegories of Destruction in Benjamin and Speer:

“the ruin is not simply the remnant left over when monumentality has withered away, and […] ruination does not necessarily entail a loss, but rather a shift in the meaning and monumentality of architecture” (53).

So ruins can change our vision on architecture, but also the meaning of architecture. Ruins thus encourage us to recycle existing buildings. In the architectural world this conversion or re-using (herbestemming in dutch) of a building has become really trendy. These converted architecture projects give a new function to an already existing building whereby the existing building adapts itself to the new one, but keeps its own identity.

There are, on the other hand, architects who choose to build “intelligent ruins”. Architect Bob van Reeth explained that the most important insight of the last century is that buildings and cities are hurting the environment and that we should do something about this fact. Cultural sustainability is thé designing task for the years to come. A sustainable building is a building that is designed for unpredictable events. A building should be designed to change. Van Reeth calls the changeability of an intelligent ruin a positive characteristic because the purpose of the building changes while the building’s form is changing. When we have the desire to build something we should reflect on what could happen to it once it has deteriorated. We should think ahead and come up with a well-thought out plan!

This way of thinking about architecture isn’t all new. In the late 18th, begin 19th century painters started representing existing, intact buildings in their future state of ruin. Architects followed in this way of representing and started to represent their to-be-build constructions in their ruin-state. John Soane, the architect of the Bank of England, for example, had his sketcher, Joseph Michael Gandy, draw his new plan of the bank in the form of a ruin. The Bank of England, as you can see on the drawing, is still very impressive in its ruined state. Because of their impressiveness, ruins often have a magnetic power on human beings.

The ruins of the Tuileries Palace in Paris, for example, attracted many visitors when the remnants of the burnt out palace were to be visited between 1871 and 1883 as some sort of monument. British tourists hurried to Paris to experience the grace and terrifying power of the ruins. If I had lived in those days, I’d probably have been one of those annoying tourists. I would have been in awe for sure!

Next time I’ll talk about Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, who introduced the term ruin value! Exciting!

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