In the context of modernity, the last praises of the ruin were sung by Georg Simmel, paraphrasing the Kantian aesthetic: ruins have to be perceived as a human footprint that nonetheless seems like a product of nature. This was a sequel to an idealism that was set on finding points in common and overlaps of culture and nature—or, in other words, of freedom and necessity—when reconciliatory humanism still seemed feasible: the work of humankind set within a kind of natural law that turned progress into a force of nature. According to this logic, ruins were not a fiasco of man the maker, appearing instead as the consummation of his natural destiny: the incorporation of any product of making into world time. In fact, Simmel’s posture merely represented the death throes of the Romantic tradition that was soon to come to a definitive halt.
Modernity, with its anti-genealogical momentum (Sloterdijk), had no great enthusiasm for ruins. Advocacy of the new in its most radicalised forms despised the ruinous for its proximity to nostalgic or retrospective impulses. No past was sufficiently interesting, nor, consequently, were its possible remains. The only exception was Albert Speer’s totalitarian delirium: a Berlin built in anticipation of its ruinous destiny, so that the shadow of the Third Reich would be cast over History, like the remains of the Roman Empire today. Beyond this demented and peripheral end, the tabula rasa promoted by modernity—Haussmann in Paris, Le Corbusier in Barcelona—had no room for the ruin, and there was, consequently, no need to conserve a hermeneutics that would guarantee a meaning or function for vestiges. There was no need for an interpretation of the ruin, simply because there were no ruins.
Despite the absence of a code for the interpretation of rubble, ruins reappear everywhere today. Vast expanses of ruins dot our landscape. Whether due to devastation wrought by natural or technological accidents, to destruction programmed by military agendas or, primarily, to interventions promoted by the space agenda of capital, ruins multiply and pile up everywhere. Given these circumstances, it is no wonder that there is also a multiplication of attempts to rehabilitate codes that can interpret their worrying reappearance. However, it no longer seems possible to pick up the idealist narrative that continued to fascinate Simmel. Today’s ruins do not respond to the natural passage of time that sets the works of humankind within the evolution of nature. On the contrary, today’s ruins are programmed, an episode in a plan that is outlined in advance, and, as such, call for a totally new hermeneutics. Naturally, the new readers of ruins are very diverse; they do not necessarily share interests and, as might be expected, can even ignore each other. First things first.
1. Ruins that derive from natural or technological catastrophes and their destructive force, whether in New Orleans, on the coast of the Indian Ocean, in Chernobyl or in Fukushima, obviously, although they can be predicted, are not seen as something planned in the ordinary sense; they do, however, operate very effectively within the ideological narrative that promotes a perpetual present and aspires to counterprogram any alternative to the hegemonic model. The equation is quite simple: catastrophe, which it used to be possible to keep at a distance, now breaks into the global imaginary in the form of “breaking news” that affects everyone, interrupting normality and manifesting the vulnerability of a system that we aspire to preserve. The accident is exhibited, along with the dangers that lie in wait for the precarious present, and all efforts must be concentrated on containing the threats and conserving what we know without modifying its status. The ruin as stalker thereby comes to form part of the narrative of the end that is so beloved of the dominant ideological programme, with structural fragility refusing to attempt any alternative to the chosen model. Rubble, we are told, could be the fate of everything if we do not all undertake to make the established present sustainable and long-term.
2. Mike Davis’s term spatial fix is used to describe the rule according to which the predatory nature of capital exploits the territory to launder benefits and accelerate capital gains, only to abandon it to its fate until next time. In this way, neoliberalism plans its atrophies, accumulating ruins at the heart of a systemic chaos that now seems irreversible. According to this logic, damaged spaces and residual areas multiply by means of at least two parallel dynamics: abandoned urban sites proliferate, while constant demolitions take place.
Areas abandoned by the productive system generate a kind of disputed ruin, a space of vestiges run through by the conflict between its occasional availability for informal needs and the pressure of capital to re-inject a new productive vocation. Industrial ruins and different formats of wasteland are repopulated and utilised by unexpected users who, sooner rather than later, are expelled as soon as the place is rehabilitated with fresh aspirations associated with the watchwords of the enterprising creative city. In any case, the effectiveness with which these spaces enjoy their condition of “temporarily autonomous areas” has prompted the construction of a particular poetics of the ruin as power, as a territory of potential for uses and experiences beyond the productive convention. This is a particular kind of development of Robert Smithson’s ruins in reverse: the ruin has ceased to be a testimony of the past and is now the strange dawn of something yet to come. Viewed from this perspective, the urgency of a hermeneutics of the ruin acquires a powerful potential, aware of its lightness but packed with such opportunity that contemporary culture explores it almost obsessively and even manneristically.
Meanwhile, the debris resulting from widespread demolition has optimised its economic profitability in two ways: generating new space for speculation and turning destruction into television viewing. It is a logic of war that promotes destruction to guarantee the benefits of reconstruction, with the added benefit of live broadcasting. There is no great distance between the Dresden bombings described by W. G. Sebald, the relentless, suspicious fires that devastated Detroit in the seventies and eighties, the US programme to reconstruct Iraq, the destruction of Palestinian settlements by the Israeli army, and the spectacular demolitions currently being carried out in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Buffalo, Shanghai and Beijing. The ever faster rate at which this type of ruin is integrated into the commodity value cycle has left no space to develop another kind of interpretation. In a nutshell: the ruin as capital gain.
3. Filippo Poli was asked to document the architecture of the pavilions of the 2015 Milan World Expo. The event in question tabled two optimistic ideas: “Feeding the Planet” and promoting sustainability. The first heading was the theme on which countries were asked to make their contributions; sustainability was the immediate horizon in which the Bureau International des Expositions invited participants to plan the reuse of the buildings hastily erected around Milan’s Decumanus. In the autumn of the same year, when the Expo closed, only a few pavilions (Brazil, USA, Monaco, Uruguay) were guaranteed a new use; most of the constructions, with no regard for the event’s slogans, were destined for the (un)foreseen condition of abandonment. When Filippo Poli then returned to the site, the scene he came across was more photographic than before. The reason is very simple. The hermeneutic tools described are now in use. Threat, conflict, power and capital gain form the bases of a possible semantics to analyse an architectural grammar abandoned to its fate. The remains of the pavilions are no longer fragments that recall their recent splendour; they are isolated details, debris unable to return to the whole of which it formed part. The ruin of the site, as splendid as the Romantic ruin was, now presents a more lacerating if mundane narrative: the structural cataclysm that underlies capital.