by Paul Dannels
Architect Paul Dannels reflects on our collective fascination with urban ruins. There’s a lot of appeal to the pathos of lost grandeur and forgotten histories—but from the point of view of an architect, the thrills can feel a little cheap. As an architect who advises structural engineers, Dannels looks at buildings as living beings who deserve some order of the dignity a documentary photographer should give to human subjects. Issue 76’s color insert features the work of Gene Meadows, a Detroit-area photographer whose images, in contrast to the trends described here, convey the beauty and dignity of the city.
There’s a dentist’s office captured in photographs that, along with a number of companion images, got quite a bit of circulation in print and on the internet a few years back. The narrow, confined operating room, nested high in an office tower, is depicted with the usual furnishings of a dental practice: a patient chair, a wall-mounted X-ray camera on an extended scissor arm, a few surgical lights, and an instrument table with a rinse sink. It’s equipment with mid-twentieth-century styling that must have looked sleek and bold not so many years ago, but in the photos the stuff is all cocked and strewn across the room and covered deep in fallen chips of mustard-yellow paint, plaster dust, and shards of broken glass. Abandoned, it looks ancient and eerily left over from another time. The image is part of a fad of sorts, a recently reinvigorated fascination with recording and exhibiting the state of empty urban buildings, structures sometimes provocatively labeled by those who collect and disseminate the images as “ruins.”
Recently published monographs, magazine articles, museum exhibitions, documentaries, blogs, and other websites recirculate the images. And let’s be honest: many are stunning. Grand ballrooms where dancers once twirled and courted are now shown reduced to lonely, haunted caverns. Vast, once productive industrial halls are depicted as empty cathedrals of rust, grudgingly lit by daylight that filters through smeared and grimy glass. Graffiti-embellished classrooms cluttered with toppled desks and waterlogged books display a ramshackle chaos fit for a schoolboy’s most anarchic daydreams. These intoxicating images of lost eras evoke strong emotions: awe and wonder, longing and regret, maybe anger. Untangling those feelings isn’t always easy.
Observers of this trend line up on two sides. Some feel that such attention is sensational, exploitive, and unnecessarily negative. Others defend the photos on aesthetic or social grounds, seeing them as a fitting indictment that draws attention to the need for preservation efforts and to the problems of threatened neighborhoods. The images are meant to raise questions, say their proponents.
I confess to finding these defenses less than persuasive. The images are too powerful to be benign. The aesthetic longing to gaze is too close to the less wholesome impulse to gawk. And from a social perspective, the call to indict seems dangerously close to the impulse to sneer. I find myself wanting to defend our cities from the indignity. It may be that my line of work predisposes me against moralizing, a predisposition that focuses my attention on settled matters, not the questions and speculations that are the breeding ground of art, and also faith.
I consider myself fortunate to spend good parts of my professional life working in abandoned historic buildings, poking into the darkness with a flashlight and sifting through debris-strewn floors in boots caked with damp plaster dust. When I first enter a building it’s not usually the weighty concerns of urban planning, preservation, and public policy that strike me with greatest force. Most often I’m first won over by a simple fairy-tale conviction confirmed: that behind any rusted door might reside a world of wonder, distinct from our own and displaced in time. Hidden within the gray unused city buildings that we shuffle past on foot or race by in our cars lie grand labyrinths of space, shape, and color, lovingly crafted by the imaginations of the past: enchanted places hidden from view, but close enough to touch if only we have the key that fits the door. For a moment, wonder is enough.
Once inside, though, there’s work to be done. Upon first entering an unfamiliar building, I’m assembling a mental inventory of its components and sorting them into two categories, structural and nonstructural, then attempting to reconstruct the intentions of the original builders: how did they intend for this building to endure the forces of wind and snow and daily use? A careful survey and documentation will follow, then numerical analysis. Where and how do outside forces impact the building? And what paths do these forces take through the structure as they work their way down to the foundation? Are the individual building elements and materials still fit for the task of keeping the building safe and useable? And what can be done to correct deficiencies where they’re found? Finally, recommendations in the form of drawings and specification will be prepared for preserving or restoring the building’s structural integrity.
I won’t be alone. Many others will do their bit to appraise the suitability of the structure for a new life. Architects, investors, estimators, historians, planners, code officials, all are watching the building, though passersby may not know it. Skilled observers of all sorts recognize elements of value buried behind the rubble. The value may be economic, social, or cultural, but the watchful eyes of both commercial and civic interests are rarely unaware of opportunities in the shifting cityscape of potential. Only through careful analysis and planning can that potential be quantified in such a way that interested parties will be ready to commit resources to giving a building new life. Someone will need to survey and evaluate the mechanical elements: blowers, boilers, water towers, elevator sheaves, ventilation shafts, and electrical cabinets, while others document the architectural elements and plan for their restoration: wood windows, plaster castings, stone carvings, terra cotta tiles, iron gratings, terrazzo floors, and brass rails. It may seem that a building has been forgotten, but more likely it’s being repeatedly evaluated just outside of the public view.