• Monday , 16 December 2019

Self-Specified Definition of a (Building) Ruin

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A ruin is a physical accumulation of material in the form of a building/complex/site, or a part thereof, that was once assembled in (presumably) a purposeful way and is now decaying, or has grown backwards towards the ground. It creates a situation, a setting. It both tells a story and waits for its next chapter to be written. A building ruin can assume many forms and it appears as varieties that are repetitious or specific. This speaks of temples, old cities, earthworks, castles, churches and so on, found and dissected for study. To clarify: buildings that grow backwards do not get any younger. A building in its youth is generally just that, a building; as it gets old and decomposes, it becomes a ruin.

Butrint in southern Albania is one such ruin complex, composed as it is of low walls interlocking with the ground. For the purpose of this definition, Butrint will be described only in its present state, and not as it has been or could be. Some places are about walls and Butrint is one such complex: with the finer details of its ex-buildings blurred somewhat, the walls there are now deposits of stone, formed like melted candles. Without really understanding anything of the history of the place, the arrangement of walls at Butrint can be appreciated for their spatial quality. It is primarily this characteristic that makes a place valuable in its ruinous condition. Whether it decays further or is restored or reconstructed to a degree is not really of significance – only the present moment of the ruin merits examination for this particular attribute.

This definition will not assume what the purpose of any ruin was before it became such. It is enough to speculate that a building or site or complex in its ruinous state is not today used for the purpose for which it was originally intended. Likewise, it will not claim that a ruin is an empty or unoccupied building. However, a characteristic of the ruin is that it is now, in some way, a building without a purpose. From that, it can be proposed that any building construct­ed today without a brief is a type of ruin – though it will, as a new construction, no doubt lack some of the other essential signs of a ruin. So this definition suggests two categories of ruin: the old ruin and the new ruin. The old ruin has disintegrated into this state, while the new ruin has been built into this state, or is rather an unfinished building that will never be maintained. This does not imply that a ruin is a forgotten place, or that it is uncared for. Ruin is also a condition, a term that can be applied to a thing to describe the manner in which its elements are disintegrating. In line with this understanding, the remains at Butrint constitute an old ruin and not a new ruin. Walls at Butrint have broken down. The top edges of whihc have become serrated; a thick jagged line of stone. The division between wall and ground is not so clear due to the remnant stepping formation. Layers of time, of material and of landscape have been dissolved at this place.

A ruin is made of walls but not of roofs. These low limbs of the ruin are generally made of stone, brick or some other such hard material and look like they have been de-built; tak­en down piece after piece by some force of humankind or nature. They sprawl close to the ground with grass growing tall beside and little plants in the cracks where there is no mortar. They create an impression of space and present the suggestion of rooms or enclosures. This lends the spaces of a ruin that particular quality that cannot be experienced in a building with a roof. A ruin may be perceived as an extruded plan, but it is more likely to be a plan that was pressed back towards the ground from its once full height. Columns may also be present as spatial elements in a ruin. It is not a case of one or the other, wall or column. A combination of these elements makes a compelling ruin. Columns often stand taller than walls in a ruin. Or they may be fallen and broken. Old, large columns are sometimes built in layers as walls are built in layers. A ruin is beautiful; a ruin is ugly.

Leading from that description: a ruin is not a monument. It does not have to be of the greatest significance. It does not need to be the wealthiest in terms of artefacts found there. It is enough that it should have a discernable presence and be able to hold its surroundings in a distinct manner. A new ruin is closer to being a monument than is an old ruin.

A ruin is a skeleton. Its physical layers have disintegrated over time – or were never there to begin with. In an old ruin, this frame is the permanent part of a building/complex/site that exists still, even when the softer, more temporal materials have dissolved. In a new ruin, the lighter finishes were never added. Seeing any ruin is like seeing a black and white version of the building-before-it-was-a-ruin. Any light, excess material or paint has peeled off and buildings that were once seen in colour are now seen in greyscale or sepia. When studied closely, it is possible to see the ruin in faded colour again, or at least to reimagine its colours; but generally, the surplus falls away over time and is forgotten. It is a beautiful, delicately thin patina of age that is left on the surface; richer than expected, as the coat of each stone is composed of minute details. A ruin is simply bare bones left exposed to the elements. At Butrint, the remaining stone formations and their markings constitute the bones.

Other layers remain with the bones; layers that cannot be seen. A ruin is not a thing in isolation. It is part of a landscape and is integrated into the social, political, cultural and historical attributes of its particular terrain. These flavours remain part of the ruin: presuppositions about its function and form are informed by these considerations – whether they have arisen from documented material or have been fabricated through assumption.

Ruins are about layers and below is a photograph that tells a story of layers at Butrint: layers of human interaction with land. Layers aside, this photo captures what, to my mind, exemplifies a ruin. The photograph is taken from the acropolis at Butrint. The description starts from the bottom of the photo and works towards the top:

The first layer is a green scrub: natural, untended – leaves and branches.

The second layer contains grey walls and green grass, steps and paths. Human influence is tangible. Brick and stone are piled in small layers. There are walls at right angles, walls without roofs, walls enclosing grass.

The next layer is trees: an area of light and dark and green texture.

Beyond that is the body of water known as the Vivari Channel.

Beyond that again is the Vrina Plain, a flat expanse of fields with a fortress near and a town afar.

Enclosed by mountains to the south.

Above them, the sky.

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Nature often reclaims the ruin. It consumes walls and conceals fallen stones. A ruin always has some relation to humankind and nature, sometimes a cyclical one. Humans build and abandon their creations to nature, which deconstructs them. The building becomes a ruin. It is not destroyed but only altered gently over time. Trees change the spatial character of the ruin. Leaves colour while and rain reshapes it.

A ruin is affected by the study of archaeology. It must sometimes be extracted from the earth before it is recognisable. It reappears, skeletal, from the layers of dirt which have cloaked it. It does not have its original ground surface intact when it emerges, unless this has been found well below the surface – sometimes a stone road or sometimes a path, woven from branches. A new ground surface is often created for the old ruin and this can change the experience of it, designating a new datum level at which the ruin operates and is experienced.

A ruin is all of this. A ruin is what is left of a building after external forces act on it.

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