AESTHETISIZED RUINS, notes from the AAG lecture

We live in an age of accelerated symbolic and material ruination, and we have for a long while.There is nothing unequivocally new about the contemporary infatuation with ruin:  ruin as spectacle, ruin as neo-objectivist document, ruin as restorative meme, and ruin as aesthetic infatuation.

For centuries the collective imaginary has enthusiastically engaged with the visual and architectural tropes of vestigial structures, with objects of venerable decay.  Coping mechanisms for the traumas of war, natural disaster, economic shrinkage; ruminations on mortality; speculative propositions on the curative value of natural ecologies, often contradictory and politically provocative, images of ruination have emerged as persistent allegorical stand-ins for cultural and architectural crisis.

In the past decade, ruination has been magnified, augmented, and abstracted. The media, visual arts, popular culture and markets have all eagerly sponsored this phenomenon to the oscillating pleasure of an alternatingly lamenting and fetishistic audience. But what about architecture? How has architecture responded to the representational frustration of its formal prominence, continuity, monumentality? What has architecture learned from its material breakdown, from its climactic obsolescence, from its perceived insolvencies?  And finally, how has architecture gained legitimacy from a projective feedback loop based on the visual negation of its formal authority?

For a small cadre of architects and landscape architects working with architectural remnants and fragmented vestiges, the aestheticization and scenographic abstraction of ruins have provided unprecedented opportunity for a transformative reconceptualization of civic architecture and space. Through a mimetic process of symbolic appropriation a new architectural typology has emerged, one which relishes in the self-reflexive inscription of the architectural object’s intrinsic flaws.

To understand how this evolving strategy is defined and deployed, we’ll examine a series of contemporary projects, defined by disciplinary similarities, each situated in France.  Some are cobbled together from architectural remnants; some are constructed on virgin sites. What binds them is the treatment of decay not as a material deserving of restoration or tidying up, but as a symbolic, programmatic, and operational paradigm. In the context of these projects, the ruin as imaginative fragment and performative site provides a scenario in which human occupation, emergent program, and tactical appropriation supplant the standardized logics of overtly officialized civic architecture.

Why France? With a perceived plethora of industrial, economically pummeled detritus available in the United States, or more widely in any western democratic country, why mitigate the exploration by narrowing the research to fit within a particular national boundary?  The logic is both quantifiable and speculative. Most simply, no country devotes more national funds to cultural programming and infrastructure than France. As a direct consequence, in the past decade, France has invested significant resources into radical and projective planning methods to engageneglected sites on a national scale.

The result has led to a range of experimental projects extracted from the operational terms of ruination – flexible, temporal, and partial in organization – that move beyond the institutional and residential reuse of derelict architecture that we have grown familiar with domestically.

The second reason to investigate the instrumental aesthetization of ruin within the bounds of French cultural infrastructure is trickier, more intangible. It requires the consideration of a French idiom that escapes direct English translation, but points to a nuanced and generative understanding of decay. The term is Friche. Wasteland is its most direct and reductive English counterpart.  Or, neglected terrain.

In the absence of a French word for wilderness, in the absence of the very concept of wilderness as an opposition to the disciplining character of the built environment, friche speaks not only of ruin, but ruin qualified by an anticipated social and botanical resurgence.

Friche infers that architecture or landscape without unremitting maintenance will invariably and voraciously be reclaimed by the natural elements as well as by opportune users, which is to suggest that both the natural and the constructed realms are in a state of continuous management, transformation, and becoming. Friche therefore, is an idea as much as an ideology, that since the mid-80’s has been embraced by French architects, landscapes architects, artists and thinkers as a method for coopting the productive and adaptable semantic charges of ruin in service of architectural reinvention.

Like a Gilles Clement landscape, an architecture of friche speculates that the built environment can be set into motion, cultivating emergent behaviors over an indeterminate span of time. It points to the architectural, social and urban opportunities that are latent in neglected, abandoned, marginalized sites, if they are engaged with imagination, vision and the pursuit of common social good. It is with this appreciation of the opportunistic qualities of friche as an idiom – transcending a mere description of melancholy or nostalgia – that a set of experimental French practices work with material ruin and deploy the visual and organizational codes of decay as an urban and architectural strategy.

In order to qualify the emergent genre, we might call these projects civic friche, as they paradoxically couple the institutional with the abandoned. But to give them a name at all it to create a category that defines a set of disciplinary commonalities that outs an operating method, well outside the normative procedures of restoration or repurposing.

The lessons of civic friche, or the treatment of ruination as substance, as strategy, as texture, as projection, and as a scenographic abstraction are multiple. If conceived as the negation of the form and limits which history and society set out for an architectural object, if as Bernanrd Tchumi contended that the most architectural thing about a building is the state of decay that it is in, then engagement with ruin allows for the consideration of spatial techniques outside contemporary preoccupations with style, completion, polish, and productivity. In place of architecture’s characteristic aspirations, engagement with ruin concedes to the partial, fragmented, unfinished, and transformative.

In the opening of Construire Autrement, Michel Onfray suggests contemporary architecture suffers from an unsatisfying case of prêt-a-porter, where the voguish quickly reaches the status of démodé.  In contrast, the architecture of incidentally aestheticized stylessness extends the spatial lifespan of buildings by working with the layering of the defunct and, and the awkward. For Onfray , ruin, amputated from contemporary formal procedures, liberated from the anxieties of technical élan, is ripe territory for socio-spatial exploration and invention.

But ruin as architectural material is not an innocent find. Ruin requires work. Staging. Engineering. In Patrick Bouchain’s transformation of the former LU biscuit factory into the Lieu Unique, a multi-programmed cultural center in Nantes, terrific efforts are exerted to suspend the building in a state of perpetual ruination.

A protective roofing system is installed to treat the architectural requirements of a water-tight envelope, allowing the interior surfaces to appear ossified in a visual rendition of choreographed decline. Here surfaces are performed, operated on, allied with the chimerical authenticity of neglected urban space. But to suggest that this intervention plainly sides with the logic of conservation is to neglect the project’s free play with the vestiges of the existing structures. New insertions are made – unambiguously, ruthlessless . The mediations are superimposed, and exposed, obstinately rendering the original structure less precious, less auratic.

The concept of aestheticized stylessness, or perhaps more emphatically, ‘aestheticized efficiency’, is evidenced more dogmatically in the scheme for the Palais de Tokyo, a contemporary art museum and cultural center situated in Paris’s 16th arrondissement.  Operating on the semi-demolished Musée National d’Art Modern in Paris, the architects, Lacaton & Vassal, under the pretext of budgetary restriction, opted for a restrained, economical scheme. The established project narrative depicts an intervention limited to the stabilization of the demolished building in order to ensure visitor safety, bringing the scene of codified disorder back up to code.  The resultant texture, symbolically transgressive, undone, evocative of a realm of production, accentuates the provisional quality of the museum as an unfinished site, as work-in-progress.

At first glance the Palais de Tokyo and the Lieu Unique appear to espouse similar visual technique. But with a bit closer scrutiny, they are radically divergent. While the Palais de Tokyo treats ruin as a material palette or surface signifier of heterotopic frisson, the Lieu Unique adapts ruination as a self-reflexive organizational tactic. The Palais de Tokyo still functions categorically in synchronicity with established institutional logics. There is a gallery space. Visitors purchase tickets, are monitored by a security service. Entry is through a single monumental access point.  The restaurant keeps a waiting list. The bookstore is smart. And so on.

In contrast, the Lieu Unique moves beyond ruin as representation of institutional slumming, to adaptation of ruin as a simulated, organizational, spatial logic. Multiple entries are cut into the surface of the building in order to undermine the regulatory centralized entry of institutional buildings. These entries are never shut. And even when commercial or institutional programs are closed, public access to the building remains open. Economic materials divorced from any relationship to the original site, in this case oil barrels from West Africa, are used to stage an augmented reading of decomposition, rendering explicit the staged quality of the ruin. Commercial, administrative, and temporary programming is inserted into the building with little regard for hierarchical specifics or separations. The circulatory core traverses both the commercial and administrative programming with little regard for codes of proper behavior.

So beyond the rhetorical and surficial staging of architecture as process in perpetual liaison with imminent or stayed ruination, civic friche projects, enact or imitate tactics directly derived from the spatial logics of ruination. That is to say, the category is not concerned with the application of representational ruin to an institutional surface, but with the adaptation of distinct organizational potentials that ruin affords in the restructuring of institutional logics.

One such opportunity is the deployment of partial and phased intervention in answer to the particular scalar anatomy of neglected sites. Rather than envisioning architecture as fully occupied by dedicated program, friche projects pirating from existing sites of ruination absorb the notion of gradual, fluctuating transformation through the measured fragmentation of site. LIN Architect’s conversion of a former Nazi submarine base in Saint Nazaire, for example, epitomizes the idea of partial reactivation. Working with a monolith close to a quarter mile long, 400 feet wide, virtually indestructible underneath a 23-foot thick hulking shell of concrete, the architects were charged with designing a nexus for experimental music and culture.

The methods deployed read as strategically humble: the building is structurally stabilized, a street-like linear circulation route is inserted to connect the bays, cuts are made in the exterior shell to allow for urban porosity, one floating dock is transforming into flexible performance space, and additional public programming is inserted into the structure of a single bay. Finally, a sphere, in a gesture of sardonic goodwill, is recuperated from a German airport tower and designated the ‘think tank’.  Placed on the roof, it functions as marker for the intervention within.  More than three quarters of the site is left untouched: inhabitable, accessible, flexible, and unprogrammed. No placards erase or underscore the building’s former uses, and no indication is given as to how the building should be occupied. There is no operating guide. In time, program might be added, adjusted as needed, the strategy is intended to shrink or grows.

A similar plan is implemented in Saint Etienne’s Cite du Design, an industrial design school and exhibition center structured on the remnants of former arms manufacturing complex.  A quarter of the site is arranged to hold classrooms and studio space, a new building is inserted to interphase with the public, but a majority of the site is left undone, in a found state of decay.The unaffected zone of ruination accepts spill over from the programmed area, where students are encouraged to treat the space as free – open to experimentation, events, large scale installation.

What ruin intimates, in opposition to polished architectural space, and in defiance of conventional order, is the luxurious possibility of programmatic ambiguity, of temporary occupation and spatial appropriation. Friche sites like the Belle de Mai, an office park and performing arts center in Marseille, invite tenants and visitors, to procure unprogrammed space, to secure then vacate portions of the site at will. Reenacting arbitrated renditions of squatting and spatial high jacking, the strategy makes generous allowances for transformation and unpredicted used. In the case of the Frigos, an office building in the center of a business district in the 13th arrondissement, the appropriation of all shared surfaces signals an ever-changing reconfiguration of collective signage.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, civic friche projects actively engage emergent programs on the sites of ruination. That is, rather than imposing new programs that are unapologetically extraneous to a given condition, friche projects rely heavily on civic initiative, interim uses, and public participation.

For the heartiness, stamina, and sustainability of a site, existing or ‘found’ programs are intermingled with new uses. In the case of Le Channel in Calais, a former slaughterhouse turned performing arts center and pyrotechnics institute, the architect Patrick Bouchain worked in close collaboration with artists and residents involved with the site, prior to bringing in new institutional program. At the Lieu Unique, uses inherited from its industrial squat interlude – a day care center, hammam, artists’ residence – are fully integrated with new institutional programming: theater, restaurant, bookstore, gallery, gift shop, etc.

Not all contemporary French projects working with architectural salvage and civic programming defy the formal and symbolic logics of restorative practice. Many recent architectural interventions analyzed over the course of my research defer to the mandates and standards of constructed history, whitewashing the remnants of decay to the point of amnesia, reinstating the authoritative manifestations of the architectural object. As a self-conscious recreation of architectural decay, civic friche is at the periphery,  a methodological anomaly to the structure of contemporary practice. Working at the margin, civic friche participated in a contemporary collective desire to resuscitate, appropriate and reinvent, conservation, and reimagine and the treatment of contested spaces. As discourse, adaptive reuse critiques Modernism’s grand-scale mega-visions along with their progressive, rational and monumental ideals.  Finding individual, fragmented or partial solutions for sites that were envisioned as mono-functional, offers a wry alternative in a field weary of overarching ideological gestures.  Finally, the appropriation of these sites supports architecture’s free play with the vestiges of existing structures, rendering the originals less precious, less auratic. And while engagement with architectural detritus requires a level of humility, the payoff is the potential for plurality, fragmentation, and cheeky subversion.

– Anya Sirota

notes from the Association of American Geographers Conference, New York City, 2012

Ruinations: Violence, Snafus, Porn, panel chaired by Angela Last