2013-05-23

Ruination

The thing about architecture is that it is mostly immobile. There are a few moving parts (like doors and windows) but buildings are designed to just sit there and their change over time is usually discouraged through a program of maintenance. That’s not to say that when this attempt to halt entropy – the slow collapse of buildings into their constituent parts – fails over time, the results are not charming. But by the time the rain starts to get in and there are structural failures, the building in question is effectively on its way to being subsumed by the surrounding landscape – absorbed by the vegetal world in ways that begin to deny its status as architecture. Ruins, it could be argued, are part of the natural world. Architecture is only architecture when it stands apart from both nature and the natural processes of decay.

Given that they are currently incapable of self-regeneration, buildings are characterized by a finite life span: they are created, maintained and then, if that maintenance is not rigorously upheld, they decay and die. Their death, in urban environments, is effected through a dismembering and recycling or, in rural situations perhaps, through a change of state in which they become a kind of artificial reef upon which all kinds of creatures find a home and in which plants, fungus and mold colonize.

Mostly, these days, we see buildings that a few years ago seemed quite serviceable and well-maintained suddenly (it seems) change in status and become redundant – boarded up, surrounded by chain link fencing and awaiting demolition as soon as the permits come through. Still, in rural situations like Ojai, a building’s redundancy sometime plays out more elegantly - peeling paint and broken windows slowly giving way to signs of structural collapse and ultimately a reabsorption of the building’s organic and inorganic materials into the earth’s mantle. This latter attenuated denouement, given the economics of real estate, is now regrettably rare. Sometimes, just when you think that process is underway, a rescue operation is mounted and the patient is miraculously revived, re-roofed, stabilized and returned to active service. I have been involved in such rescue attempts both for clients and on my own behalf.

There is, of course, no greener building than the one that is already built. Whatever intrinsic inefficiencies may exist within it, the mere fact of extending the period of amortization of the embedded energy in an existing structure guarantees its viridic bona fides. In the last thirty odd years I have had the good fortune to live in two ancient buildings in Los Angeles. Given that city’s short life, ancient can be credibly applied to anything built before, say, 1920. The murdered out mule barn in Echo Park dated back to the first decade of the twentieth century (Black Magic) while, when it came time to decamp to the west-side, the single-wall beach cottage in Santa Monica Canyon, built just before the First World War, served our family for almost two decades.

Professionally, my architectural career has touched on landmark modernist buildings such as the H.H. Harris Birtcher residence in Mount Washington (famously photographed by Man Ray, 1942), as well as several Spanish colonial revival, Greek revival, Craftsman and Italianate buildings from the boom years of the mid-nineteen twenties. In all these cases, the life of the building was extended well into the twentieth-first century with every prospect of the building’s useful life-span stretching to over a hundred years. Now, in a new house in Ojai, we are about to be confronted with our first five-year maintenance cycle.

Given the building’s location in the chaparral its life span is conditional on both such periodic maintenance and its ability to withstand the natural hazards that exist at the wildland urban interface. We have just witnessed 30,000 acres of coastal scrub going up in smoke between the 101 and the PCH south of Point Mugu where, for about eight miles, the land has been blackened clear to the edge of the ocean (The Camarillo Springs Fire, 2013). Our house has been designed to withstand such fast moving moderate intensity fires and we are reassured by our ability to close off all the buildings openings with the wide steel fire-doors which are an integral part of the design.

Situated on a bluff created between a sloped front lawn and a steeply raked bowl at the back, the house exists in a canyon and is vulnerable to the hazards of such landforms which channel fire, water, mud, rain and wind. After the second dry winter in a row, memories of rain and flood have receded – it has been eight years since the vast flooding of the Sisar and Santa Paula creeks on our side of the great divide (aka the Summit) where water sheds to the Santa Clara River and thence, across the Oxnard plain to the ocean (Wild and Free). Local creeks and rivers are now mostly dry and Bear creek, which threads through our property on its western edge, has fallen quiet, although a thin silver thread still winds along under overhanging cottonwoods, sycamores and willows. The seasonal stream to the east of the house, which poses a more adjacent threat, has been bone dry for twenty four months.

The plan for maintaining our sanctuary in the chaparral thus involves surviving natural calamities and preserving the steel and stucco envelope of the wood-free structure against the predations of time, wind, weather and opportunistic plant and animal life.

Strange echoes of this protocol reverberated in my mind as I visited the 13th century Tintern Abbey in south east Wales recently. While the church stood steadfast for about 250 years amidst periodic Welsh uprisings, Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1536 began its fairly rapid transition towards celebrity ruin – a style in which it is currently maintained. The processes of decay are now largely halted and the remains preserved for the edification and titillation of tourists. The abbey has been stripped of the clamorous vines which, entwined amidst the sacred lithic pile, so entranced the early Romantics and later Victorian visitors, and it now rises out of a closely mown green sward, its structure left to silhouette nakedly against the dense hard wood forest of the escarpment that rises a little way behind it or, depending on the angle of the viewer’s neck, the sky above.

Tintern Abbey now endures as a petrified relic. Wordsworth celebrated the surrounding landscape in his Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey without actually mentioning the church ruin. Absent too, is any reference of the pall of smoke that habitually hung about the Wye, from about 1700 on, when intense industrialization came to the valley which, in turn, rang with the sounds of foundries and mills drawing power from his ‘sylvan Wye’ and its tributaries. Similarly neglected, in his evocation of the ’ the deep and gloomy wood', was the ring of the woodman’s axe, for the local industries, which were at the very forefront of the Industrial revolution, were massive consumers of timber. Blinded by his romanticism, the poet blundered over the landscape unaware of the terrifying forces of environmental degradation all around him. Ginsberg, in his remembrance Wales Visitation, briefly cuts to the chase (amidst much chemically induced obtuseness) when he takes note of ‘clouds passing through skeleton arches of Tintern Abbey’.

The valley is now quiet, save for the rumble of traffic along its narrow roads, and the occasional jolly whoop from Oxford students down for the day. The broader landscape is largely restored while the ruin itself, the economic locus of the town, is celebrated for its apparently artful deconstruction rendered by ancient politics, and the elements.

There is an example of more recent ruination in central Europe, where the historical and natural forces at work are similarly capable of being, to some extent, untangled. In Vienna, the economic boom fueled by a potent monarchial combination in the nineteenth century is evidenced by endless streets of baroque apartment buildings restored in dazzling, as new, condition. Radiating out in avenues from the center of the city towards the Ringstrasse their construction was originally enabled by the total destruction of the old medieval quarter, save for the great cathedral which still manages to dominate the skyline - despite the best efforts of generations of Hapsburgs who vied with one another in the creation of elaborately confected palaces. The dual monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which existed between 1867 and 1918, established itself as one of the great European powers – behind just Russia in size and second only to the USA, Germany and the U.K in machine-building, industrial might. Its wealth created two great cities: Vienna and Budapest.

In the Hungarian capital, the explosion of speculative four and five story tenements rendered in florid Renaissance styles built during the last quarter of the nineteenth century is still evident on many of the major boulevards in the City center, but their condition varies widely from the recently renovated to those that remain as the crumbling hulks that they became during the forty years of Soviet misrule (1949 – 1989). When the elaborately molded plaster work that originally mimicked the carved stone, cornices, corbels and statuary of their sixteenth and seventeenth century French and Italian models falls away their hasty brick construction is exhibited in lesions across their facades - sores wrought by weather and neglect.

Begrimed in over a century of industrial and domestic coal-fire soot, crumbling at their exaggerated rusticated bases, many with boarded up widows and heavily lichened mansard roofs, these are text-book examples of ruination. As such they have a romantic appeal that suggests a gravitas entirely missing in the restored models which once again reveal their original, fin de siècle, venal, facile, fashion-backward facades.

In Ojai, we stand on-guard against such romantic ruination and are sedulously planning our five year maintenance protocol, naively determined to keep our building forever young……

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