Contemporary Ruins

Every generation uncovers a new significance in the ruins of their predecessors. The remnants of antiquity first found value in the Renaissance and ruins have been used by artists and makers to support and further contemporary ideologies ever since. But what about the ruins of today? With apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic imagery prevalent throughout pop-culture and the media we ask – have ruins suffered a dilution of poignancy?

Evacuated after the explosion of reactor four at Chernobyl 2km away, Pripyat has remained uninhabited and untouched since April 1986. Still resonating with the lives of its former inhabitants, visitors are moved by the echo of familiar routine. With both preservation and building on the site prevented by the high levels of radiation that were spread out across the region it is exactly the ‘untouched-ness’ of the city that attracts tourists. There are hundreds of Flickr photostreams dedicated to the textures of the flaking paint; the cobweb covered teddy bears lying helplessly on the nursery floor and to the dried-blood hue of the rust, appearing like lichen on post boxes and street signage. The allure of Pripyat today is its dust and debris.

For fifteenth century artists and scholars the first epigraphic studies of fragmented inscriptions carved onto ancient Greek and Roman stones offered a tantalising glimpse back in time. The Renaissance preoccupation with the teachings of the Classical world sparked a widespread reverence for the ruins of old. Increased secularisation of Western Europe and a new integration with Latin civilisation offered practitioners of all fields free reign to explore pre-Christian culture and called in a new age of modernity.

Konrad von Grünenberg, Description of travel from Konstanz to Jerusalem, 1467
Konrad von Grünenberg, Description of travel from Konstanz to Jerusalem, 1467
Giovanni Battista Piranesi, The Arch of Trajan at Benevento, 18th century.
Giovanni Battista Piranesi, The Arch of Trajan at Benevento, 18th century.

But Pripyat is not made from stone. And yet ‘Urbexers’ (Urban Explorers) from all over the world endure an odyssey to reach its perimeters. Venerating deserted urban shells, the Urbexers measure and document in great detail, uploading their findings to forums to compare and discuss. Instead of a wild, untouched, natural landscape they seek a world where humans have left their trace. This is why Pripyat is such a rarity – a true, post-catastrophe wasteland where they can indulge the desire to experience an ‘authentic’ post-human existence. Rather than offering a glimpse into the recent past Pripyat presents us with a wide-open stare into a possible future, a dystopian Shangri-la.

What would be the outcome if Pripyat was tidied up? If Government Officials got together and initiated a conservation program, or the construction of a monument? Would it still have appeared as the cover story of the March 2012 issue of ICON magazine? Would the ‘Young And Radioactive’ souvenir mugs on the online shop continue to sell? It would certainly cease to appear as the backdrop for brave protagonists to defend the earth from radioactive zombies in video games such as S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Call of Pripyat, developed by Ukrainian GSC Game World for Microsoft Windows, and would probably never have appeared in the opening scenes of Hollywood mega-blockbuster Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon.

Go to the website of Pripyat, created by former residents, and it features a curious poll that invites visitors to the site to take part. ‘Should the city of Pripyat be saved?’ we are asked, and we may register our answer in one of four options: ‘Yes, and leave everything as is’, ‘Yes, and turn it into a memorial complex’, ‘No, bare it to the ground’ or finally, ‘I don’t care.’ Within the question and proposed answers lies a concentrated paradigm of the ways current thought on ruins may manifest. When we consider how the ruin served pre-catastrophe, how it found its demise and how it could be ‘used’ by future generations, there forms a spectrum of destruction where sites fall into or out of the integer of ‘iconic ruination.’ The most successful make it to Hollywood.

Palace of culture in Pripyat. Photo: Paweł 'pbm' Szubert
Palace of culture in Pripyat. Photo: Paweł ‘pbm’ Szubert
Palace of culture in Pripyat. Photo: Paweł 'pbm' Szubert
Palace of culture in Pripyat. Photo: Paweł ‘pbm’ Szubert

Ruin imagery has been imprinted onto our collective psyche for thousands of years – we have always been captivated by the fables of the Great Flood, of Babel, of Sodom and Gomorrah and the tales of Troy, Carthage and Rome. And artists have always been there to use the allegorical predisposition of ruins to turn man’s attention towards its own strengths and infirmities. From masters Bosch and Piranesi to movies Logan’s Run, Stalker and 2012 we are accustomed to seeing our civilisation in tatters. But why then – if we so directly experience tragedy, catastrophe and war – do we subject ourselves to fictional imagery of destruction and ruination as entertainment? Johannes von Moltke, Professor of Screen Arts and Cultures at the University of Michigan, spoke to us about this phenomenon and explains that “as with science fiction as a genre, apocalyptic narratives are always as much about the present as they are about any imagined future scenarios.” He argues that successful entertainment always brings together “affirmative elements with utopian designs,” therefore post-apocalyptic films should also be considered in terms “of the implicit hopes for a different social order born from these apocalyptic scenarios.”

So are the ruins that appear in these modern day CGI fables really an expression of our questioning of the human condition, or are they reducing ‘the real thing’ to mere scenery? Professor Johannes von Moltke thinks not: “There’s no ‘firewall’ between the historical events in Pripyat and their return as video game, but I don’t think that representation has the power to overwrite the political realities… On the contrary, I should think that the proliferation of ruin images might also prompt new modes of reflection.”

Scene from the Zone, GSC Game World
Scene from the Zone, GSC Game World

Paramount to these new modes of reflection are the ways in which we deal with tragedy and the methods employed by contemporary architects and designers to account for and conceptualise that tragedy in physical form. In the world of gaming Pripyat will stay at the same point of ‘arrested decay’ as long as S.T.A.L.K.E.R has players; but in the real world, if left un-maintained, it will continue to creep into more and more advanced stages of atrophy. A defiant counter-action to the ‘Yes, but leave it as is’ trope is the Trade Center One Masterplan in New York. Although retaining its pre-9/11 footprint, the new build will serve not only as a memorial but will reclaim its previous function as a living, working environment. And yet even amidst this act of positivity we find limitations – forever in the shadow of its past, concerns about the possibility of a future attack has capped the number of floors the developers were hoping to build.

Removed from their original context contemporary ruins like Pripyat enable us to fetishise decay, projecting it outward as an ambassador of the world’s ills. A warning against the desire for accelerated progress and a reminder of the assured cyclical entropy we all face. Conversely, they also represent our inherent hope in humanity and push us to challenge the perimeters set up by earlier generations. But perhaps most importantly – ruins, in whatever guise they appear, serve as spatial realisations of loss – the physicality of history itself. It is that loss, that moment in history that always remains.

Originally published in TiP.


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