“It is neither nature not art – traditionally, ruins have not only collapsed, the have been overrun by a nature they no longer exclude. It is neither past nor present: it is a past that has never been present, a presence that is not of the present it inhabits. A ruin is a distempering of times, that puts time out of joint. Ruins are persistence, insistence, survival. The word suggests more than a continuance of existence. Sur-vive names a kind of ‘over-living’ – living on, living beyond one’s time – and thus is also a kind of anomaly or scandal. A ruin has always gone beyond or retreated from the death and decay to which it bears witness. Ruins in fact hold death at bay: having undergone a first, pseudo-death, the process of decay seems now to have been arrested in them. Ruins are a kind of annealing of the mutability to which they testify. There is nothing but mortality in ruins, but it is too late for them to die, they are too old, too ruinous. …”
Steven Connor on ruins
Arata Isozaki was fourteen years old when WWII ended. With post atomic bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki razed to the ground and large portions of every other city in the country destroyed by fire bombing, he was devastatingly aware of the impermanence of architecture and instant destructibility of cities. Throughout his career as an artist, theorist and architect, ruination would become his unlikely leitmotif.
Working under Japan’s great modernist architect Kenzo Tange in the 1950s, Isozaki declined an invitation to be part of Metabolism, the futurist architecture group that formed in 1960. Though he would share ideas and collaborate with the Metabolists throughout the ‘60s, Isozaki maintained a clearly stated conceptual distance from them. He was opposed to what he saw as their simplistically linear model of time and progress, feeling the need to propose more complex models of temporality. Recalling his hesitation in the face of the Metabolists’ optimism and his desire to inject some doubt into it, he said recently in a recent interview with Rem Koolhaas (in the new book Project Japan) that it seemed “they had no skepticism towards their utopia; they represented only a form of progressivism.” For him, truly ‘metabolic’ architecture would accept its inevitable auto-destruction in the cyclical flow of time.
Isozaki was on the advisory committee for the major Metabolism retrospective currently showing at Mori Museum in Tokyo. In the first room of the exhibition is a recreation of Isozaki’s photomontage Re-Ruined Hiroshima (above), where images of crumbling Metabolist megastructures are superimposed onto the blasted landscape of postwar Hiroshima, intended as a reminder that even the most magnificent techno-futurist cities will one day be ruins. It was part of an installation Isozaki set up at the 1968 Milan Triennale, where twelve curved panels with Shomei Tomatsu’s panoramic images of devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were accompanied by the work of musique concrète composer Toshi Ichiyanagi. (As part of the ’68 movements, hundreds of students occupied the venue and prevented the public from ever seeing it – burgeoning political radical that he was, Isozaki remained sympathetic.)
As the opening quote from Steven Connor suggests, all ruins are in a sense already superimpositions of the past onto the present, and Isozaki was not the first to build on this temporal paradox by ruining the future. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Hubert Robert’s picturesque paintings of the Louvre ravaged by time were followed Joseph Gandy’s marvellous picture forcing the brand new Bank of England into ruin – a curious commission from the building’s architect Sir John Soane.
In his article A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic (published in Artforum in 1967), Robert Smithson (who liked to quote Vladimir Nabokov’s statement that “the future is but the obsolete in reverse”) recounts walking around his suburban hometown in New England finding ruins in reverse: “This is the opposite of the ‘romantic ruin’ because the buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built.” For a more recent example of artists picturing the future retrospectively ruining architecture, earlier this year the Danish collective SUPERFLEX’s film Modern Times Forever depicted Stora Enso, the iconic Alvar Aalto building in Helsinki, slowly degrading over 240 hours. The film was projected for ten consecutive days and nights on a screen next to the actual (indifferent and enduring) building.
For Isozaki, having been faced with such drastic material destruction as a teenager, a building’s ruin was always already contained within it, haunting us from the future. This might bare some superficial resemblance to Albert Speer’s Ruinenwerttheorie or ‘theory of ruin value’, whereby the First Architect of the Third Reich persuaded Hitler that new buildings be designed to decay into graceful forms resembling classical ruins. But Isozaki’s visualisation of the ruins that were to come wasn’t an attempt to colonise the future, it was aimed at disrupting the projected teleology of his contemporaries. Rather than a propagandist pre-emption and absorption of decay as part of a monumental building’s design, his ruination indexed his cynicism about the linear futurist utopia that Metabolism was incapable of.
Read my article ‘Metabolising Past Futurism’ for Frieze Magazine #145 here.
Below is an installation shot from the disastrous exhibition Isozaki held at the 1996 Venice Architecture Biennale – more on that here.