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The Quality of Ruins

Adler, Gerald (2007) The Quality of Ruins. In: 'Quality' Conference, July 2007, University of Cardiff. (Unpublished) (KAR id:11007)


The Quality of Ruins: The Ruins of Modernism

What justifies the tag ‘quality’ in architecture? Despite numerous attempts to define architectural quality it remains an elusive aspect of design which can only sensibly be perceived in hindsight, in relation to already existing paradigms.

The idea of the ruin throughout architectural history acts as a powerful lodestone as to the nature of quality in design. What a particular culture chooses to value as a ‘ruin’, from amongst the plethora of historical remains of artefacts, structures and landscapes, tells us more about its contemporary concerns than about any absolute historic value we might wish to attribute to remnants from the past.

Look at an institution at one remove from the strictly architectural. The National Trust has, through the course of the twentieth century, constantly revised its idea of what constitutes the national heritage, of which ruins are worth conserving, moving from ‘vernacular’ dwellings in the countryside, to country seats, to Cornish tin-mining engine houses, to housing for the working class.

In the outgoing decades of the twentieth century much of deconstructivist architecture took heroic designs of earlier periods of the century, particularly Russian Constructivism, and re-presented them as if in a ruined state. The contortions of Zaha Hadid’s structures, the red (rust?) industrial archaeology of Bernard Tschumi’s La Villette, re-enact the appropriation of the ruin in much the same way as John Soane (with Joseph Gandy’s help) did in the early nineteenth century.

Le Corbusier in the late 1920s developed an aesthetic that merged the certainties of stereotomic form with the architecture of the timber ruin (as Adolf Max Vogt has shown in his book Le Corbusier, the noble savage), while some ten years later in Germany Albert Speer developed his theory of ruin-value (Ruinenwert) with frightening consequences for the development of European culture. In both cases it was the idea of the ruin which cast light on the elusive quality of architecture striven for by both architects, producing a reversal of Auguste Perret’s dictum: ‘Architecture is what makes beautiful ruins.’ (L’architecture c’est ce qui fait les belles ruines.’)

In this paper I look in particular at the work of the architect Hans Döllgast in the rebuilding of the war-damaged Alte Pinakothek art gallery in Munich in the 1950s. The result is a work which bears testimony to the accretions – and degradations - of time, resulting in a building with a degree of historical layering akin to the architecture of the more widely-known Carlo Scarpa in the Veneto. I end the paper with an excursus on the theme of nature and art, and tentatively suggest how the ruin metaphor and organic design may happily coexist.

Item Type: Conference or workshop item (Paper)
Subjects: N Visual Arts > NA Architecture
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > Kent School of Architecture and Planning
Depositing User: Gerald Adler
Date Deposited: 01 Oct 2008 10:33 UTC
Last Modified: 16 Nov 2021 09:49 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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