decay themes in art and the popular psyche; the extent of material destruction and human trauma claim the lion's share of accounts for this decline, and Macaulay expresses this in her Pleasure of Ruins.16 Although the urban ruinscapes of the second world war featured especially strongly as a realist element in films produced in the years immediately following the war's end, enthusiasm for such themes in other mediums had waned. It would be another two decades before urban decay and ruins, now specifically those of modernity – the ruins of our own time – would begin to occupy artists. The renaissance of these themes in a more focussed and complex treatment by artists certainly since the 1990s is, according to the Irish academic, curator and ruin scholar, Brian Dillon, directly traceable to the essay–withphotographs by Robert Smithson, “The monuments of Passaic”, published in the influential magazine Artforum in 1967.17 To write this sardonic essay Smithson revisited the place of his birth, Passaic in New Jersey, and “toured” its sprawling suburban–industrial wasteland; posing the rhetorical question, “Has Passaic replaced Rome as the Eternal City?”, the American artist– writer presented the forsaken infrastructure of industrial culture as “monuments”.18 Although presaged in Smithson's previous work, “The monuments of Passaic” is, undoubtedly, a clearly identifiable touchstone in the development of not only a postindustrial ruin-consciousness, but also of a
postmodern, urban-centric melancholy and alienation.
In “pinpointing” the origins of our contemporary ruin–consciousness to Smithson's 1967 essay, Dillon also writes of “the renascent interest in ruins” and “the current craze for modern ruins”; he is not alone, as other ruin scholars and architectural commentators have made clear with statements such as “the contemporary love affair with ruins”, “the ruin tourism of our time”, and “the recent ruin–mania”.19 And here the notion of fashion or, rather, cycles of fashion, raises its head. Ruinenlust, although subject to ebb and flow, has always been in vogue from the earliest stirrings of post–mediaeval western modernity, reaching a crescendo during the Enlightenment; there is little doubt that, today, following the work of artists, writers and photographers of the last two to three decades, a manicured form of Ruinenlust is on the cusp of broad popularity. Cleansed and prettified, the art and images of cityscape minutiae, urban decay and modernity's ruins are becoming fit for bourgeois living–room walls via galleries that have little interest in art beyond marketable novelty value, and locations of genuine urban ruin are tastefully fitted out and repurposed as luxury accommodation, or are becoming destinations for party–holidays. While the urban environments in which we live in reality fall victim to the neoliberal economic interpretation of
“regeneration”, are gift–wrapped by developers and the property industry and presented as lifestyle dreams, urban ruin is equally carefully packaged in an increasing variety of formats and offered for popular consumption.
Inevitably, the commercialisation of Ruinenlust ignores the pressing lessons that urban decline, decay and ruins have to teach us. Our internal struggles of identity and belonging – to some extent, at least – and our struggles to salvage collective cultural memory in the form of historical structures are reflected externally in the politics of the environment. In this late phase of western capitalism and its incumbent economic stagnation – the corruption and decay of the Anglo–Saxon financial system in particular – the politics and economics of deindustrialised western societies and the destruction of the urban environment and its social fabric are issues in urgent need of attention. Moving beyond fashion is essential if we are to reclaim our “ruins of modernity”, our “monuments”, and to do so in full consciousness of what is at stake. Far from a sentimental or nostalgic return to an architecture or to the industrial culture or social structures of the past, what is at stake is a knowledge, an appreciation, a critical appraisal of, the past and the incorporation into our contemporary culture of heritage that is worth salvaging, along with an excising from society of that which deserves to be condemned to the past.
Ruinenlust, subject to ebb and flow, has always been in vogue
Urbanophilia and the modern city
During the Romantic period a fashion raged for tranquil ruins in pastoral or even desert settings, inspiring works of art and literature both great and minor. Contemporary ruinophilia, however, discernible since Smithson's work of the mid 1960s, is closely related to urbanophilia. Because cities are the ultimate example of Simmel's balance between the upward striving of the human soul expressed in architecture and the downward–pulling force of nature, cities are the precursors of ruins writ large. Cities, the manifestations and symbols of civilisation and concentrated human enterprise, eventually decline.
Today, unlike before the First World War – the defining event of the twentieth century in terms of warfare on both an industrial and geographical scale without precedent – it is not the urban decay of antiquity, not the ruins of the likes of Pompeii or Corinth or mediaeval abbey complexes that concern the integrity of twenty–first–century western culture, but that of the twentieth. While today we have the megalopolis, some, such as Shanghai, captured in breathtaking sweeps of the camera lens by Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, are symbols of civilisations on the ascendent