Has not that ruin, say he, a good effect?
A Dialogue on Stowe, 1746
War-time ruins have always exerted an inexplicable fascination on the observer – a puzzling and not infrequently morbid sentiment that has been targeted as a serious object of academic enquiry since at least the aftermath of World War II. Besides provoking an undeniable and undeniably problematic aesthetic pleasure – one should only think of Albert Speer’s theory of Ruin Value (Ruinenwerttheorie), by which he persuaded Hitler that they should only employ materials that would make “good ruins” in the event of collapse during their architectural plans for the Third Reich – ruined monuments and buildings have also been exploited as a political tool. They have been constantly overwritten, either literally or figuratively, by the activities of bulldozers and cranes, bricklayers and architects, as well as journalists and photographers commissioned to record the revival of a city.
The purpose of the following article is, broadly speaking, to explore concepts of ruination and transformation, drawing from the war damage collection in the Courtauld Institute of Art. Known informally as the Ministry of Works bequest, it comprises several hundred photographs taken by soldiers, historians and architects across Europe towards the end of World War II. The collection is part of the Conway Library, which takes its name from writer, traveller and mountaineer Martin Conway. The first Director General of the Imperial Museum of London and Professor of Art at Liverpool and Cambridge, one of Conway’s chief interests was photography as a record of buildings that might suffer war damage. The Ministry of Works images continue precisely that tradition: taken by allied troops chiefly from the US, Britain and Poland, they record in often shocking detail the destruction of cityscapes as collateral or deliberate acts of annihilation.
What these pictures capture, as we shall clearly see, is the pars destruens. They crystallize a single moment, and that moment is desolation, devastation, destruction. But this is not the whole narrative. As much as the images speak for themselves, they also leave much unsaid. There is a hidden story behind these photographs, a story of human efforts and contributions to the process of preservation, rebuilding and revival, which successive generations have perpetrated in written documents and oral narratives. At a time when cultural heritage is still dangerously under threat in many corners of the globe, it is all the more imperative to continue to fill in the gaps. This article encourages us to do just that. We desperately need a pars construens; that part will be equally explored here, by taking advantage of the invaluable potential of ruined infrastructures to present themselves as a challenge to be either replaced or restored – as they were, in fact. The unfinished nature of ruins, by definition, creates a sense of superseding that invites the observer to inscribe them into a narrative of progress. For every part we see in the Ministry of Works photographs, there is a part that we do not see, which acts as a catalyst of imagination, an engine of speculation. A ruin bears the trace of unscripted possibilities. In so doing, it generates questions on the process of reconstruction and its dilemmas: whether to reconstruct or to preserve; how much to reconstruct; whether to construct anew rather than to rebuild.
The Pleasure of Ruins, and Beyond
In 1953, English writer Rose Macaulay, a civil servant in the War Office, published a ground-breaking and controversial study on ruination, the first of its kind, entitled Pleasure of Ruins. Her approach, as her introduction and the title of the book itself point out, is that of a pleasurist (some would rather say of a voyeur…). Often criticized for being excessively self-indulgent, Macaulay offers complacent incursions into “that eternal ruin-appetite which consumes the febrile and fantastic human mind”. She argues that “The human race is, and always has been, ruin-minded. The literature of all ages has found beauty in the dark and violent forces, physical and spiritual, of which ruin is one symbol”. Starting with the ancient world, her account ends with a two-page coda, “On the new ruins”, foregrounding the conjecture that the devastation evident across post-war London and other parts of Britain will one day be looked on with admiration, just like we now admire the ruins of antiquity.
On a very superficial level, Macaulay must be right. There is an undeniable aesthetic component to decaying buildings and crumbling monuments: they provide a treasure trove of encounters with the eerie and the unexpected. As we first approach the Ministry of Works photographs without context, we might gaze in awe, for a moment, at the oddly unique shapes that missing bricks and huge cracks conferred onto the architecture captured in a snapshot (figs. 1 and 2).
There is an element of honesty to these photographs, which equates them to the apocalyptic stories and dystopian novels that many of us also adore. Even if they represent the worst possible scenario, such narratives still feel real to us as we know too well that human beings are capable of committing the worst crimes. The devastation of WWII, so harshly and honestly depicted in the images, is probably the closest to apocalypse we have ever drawn (figs. 3 and 4).
In addition to that, stories predicting the future speak to an innate desire to have control over our fate; we seem to appreciate ruins because, in a similar way, they trigger our imagination. They encourage us to think of elsewhere, a phenomenon that works in two directions. One the one hand, to perceive a ruin is to recognize that it has once been otherwise, and thus to travel back in time; on the other hand, the ruins captured in the photographs increase awareness of the present and future condition of our society. As photographer Yves Marchand, co-author of Ruins of Detroit, puts it, “To us, the ruin allows you to see the past, as well as your present condition, and what you’re going to be – you can see all those three at the same time”.
The main limit of Macaulay’s approach is that it is unidirectional. She makes the example of traveller Mr Thomas Coryat, who arrived on the Trojan shore opposite Tenedos in 1612. After seeing extensive ruins, the remains of a goodly fortress, marble pillars and sepulchres, he spent his afternoon guessing: one of the sepulchres must have belonged to King Priam; the fragments of the great buttressed wall on his left were first built by Ilium when he enlarged the city, and then rebuilt by Priam. I suggest we need to go further than that. We cannot simply self-indulge in the pleasure of fantasizing about what was once there, driven by mere antiquarian frenzy; when looking at these photographs, we must think of what is now there, just like the soldiers and civilians in situ must have imagined what was going to be there once restoration was completed. “Exploring abandoned buildings isn’t about revelling in their collapse at all,” argues Dylan Thuras, author of the foreword to Dan Barasch’s Ruin and Redemption in Architecture. Upon recalling an adolescence spent in the thrall of deserted flour mills in Minneapolis, now partially restored structures, he evaluates such imperfect architecture as occupying “a shadowy liminal space between self-destruction and the possibility of rebirth”.
We can infer from the visual examples below how this whole process of imagination, moving in limbo between destruction and rebirth, might have worked for the observers of the time, looking grimly at the ruined buildings around them, and works equally well for us today as we examine such buildings in the photographs. In images 5 and 6, René Levavasseur – the architect charged by the French government with the preservation of historical monuments in the Department of La Manche – is caught scrutinizing the damage of two churches in Normandy.
In fig. 5, he lists damage to the beautifully sculpted bell of the Church of St Jacques of Montebourg, before making plans for repair of the tower – an unfortunate victim of the fighting for the beachheads nearby. Confronted by ruins without being intimidated by them, his serious and attentive gaze makes us think that he was already anticipating in his head the steps and strategies through which the reconstruction of the tower might be carried out, leading us to wonder in turn whether and how this actually took place at all. Here, imagination gives way to historical documentation: archives of Le Monuments Historiques inform us that reconstruction works were undertaken in 1949, after a deeper and more resistant foundation for the church had been secured. The square floor of the bell tower was completed in February 1950, followed by the stone spire in August of the same year. Finally, in October 1952, the building was returned to worship. In fig. 6, similarly, Levavasseur is shown holding a gargoyle “knocked loose from the tower of the cathedral at Carentan before American forces drove the Nazis from the area”. There is both intimacy and remoteness in this picture. The architect holds the gargoyle firmly with both hands, as if a father with his child, but also keeps it at a distance, in order to better scrutinize it. Again, his expression suggests he has full awareness of the exact spot the piece will occupy after reconstruction. This photograph gives out very strong ritual vibes. Levavasseur almost looks like a priest holding a newborn during some religious service, laden with symbolic meanings. A new life is brought into the community and exhibited triumphantly before the eyes of its participants. A new life, by the same metaphorical token, is also given to the cathedral: the gargoyle will be inset back into the tower.
Ruins and Bodies
I found it a funny coincidence that so many of the buildings hit by the blow of war were cathedrals, churches, places of worship. In these images, the desolation of conflict blends with a vacuous, sinister spirituality, almost verging on mysticism. Ruins shelter the spectres of the past while standing for an uncontrolled present. And such is a present in which very little faith remains. “There is Auschwitz, therefore there can be no God”, Primo Levi famously asserted. Just as God has abandoned men, men seem to have abandoned God. In the images below, the crucifix, the only element left intact among ruins in a deserted land, becomes an almost surreal symbol of such a legacy. In fig. 7, a crucifix still hangs from the rafters of a severely ruined church in Erkelenz, Germany, damaged by artillery fire in February 1945; in fig. 8, a battered cross survives, bending, in a battle-scarred roadside shrine in Dahnen, where no trace of human presence can be found. The Church, no longer the living and breathing body of those assembled in worship, is reduced to a speechless mound of matter. Yet at the same time the very integrity of the cross, a leftover functioning as an ironic symbol of defiance in the midst of so much destruction, must have represented a glimmer of hope for many a passerby. Perhaps it is true, as Professor Charles Lock has written, that one of the secrets of ruins is that “inasmuch as they retain a trace of spirit, of motion, they speak to us of something other than perdition”.
That must be as true for monuments as it is for bodies. In fact, the architecture and people in the photographs seem to share similar histories. Buildings are as maimed as the invisible corpses of soldiers and civilians who fought around and for them. Indeed, a fallen stone or one still standing might be analogous to the human body, Lock has suggested: “the upright stone reminds us of a person standing, liturgically; that which is cast down was once, like a corpse, a spirit’s dwelling”. The collection offers some glaring testimony of the tense, uneasy co-existence of ruins and civilians, whose complex relationship would only be fully healed with the passage of time, by means of concrete urban intervention and re-planning. Fig. 9 shows a man cycling undisturbed through the streets of Palermo, in spite of the bleak view of crumbing Palazzo Trabucco marked in the background by cracks resembling the bites of giant jaws. Life goes on amidst wreckage: not giving up your daily business was as powerful a form of resistance as concrete military manoeuvres, sometimes. The same sort of disquieting blending is manifest in fig. 10, depicting the interior of the Cathedral in Messina – which underwent a controversial and not fully transparent plan of reconstruction from June 1943 to August 1947. The photograph captures a man standing still, as if striking a pose amidst debris of wood. In so doing, he almost becomes part of the triptych behind him, the Altar of the Pietà.
On the other hand, several pictures from the collection keep for themselves some crucial hidden truths, and it is down to us to uncover these through historical research. It is not so widely known, for example, that the urgency of starting reconstruction works at Montecassino – where the famous Abbey had been reduced to little more than a sandcastle by the bombing of May 1944 – was dictated by a humanitarian motive other than a merely moral, or for that matter artistic, one (fig. 11). The bodies of dozens of civilian victims who had not been able to leave the monastery before the bombing lay buried under the debris. Their discovery and burial would only have been possible with the removal of the rubble. When people can finally stand up and pull themselves back together, then it is also the right time for monuments to rise again from the ashes. Succisa virescit are the words that can be read on the coat of arms of the Abbey – literally meaning “cut, it grows back”. And indeed for the fifth time in its history, despite the difficulties caused by the post-war period and its widespread destruction, the Abbey of Montecassino was brought back to the light. The restoration aimed to reproduce the original structure and was carried out from 1948 to 1956, under the direction of engineer Giuseppe Breccia Fratadocchi. Two hundred and fifty workers took part in the project, working side by side with the monks embodying the mantra of their master Benedict buried there: ora et labora. The statues of the benefactors – popes, kings and princes – which had originally occupied the Chiostro dei Benefattori (Cloister of the Benefactors) were placed under a canopy. In a rather curious turn of events, the statues now looked at these other humble benefactors working with zeal, having no treasures or privileges to bestow but their hands. All the church coverings, marbles, mosaics and sculptures were also restored.
We can contrast this extraordinary story of successful cooperation and resilience with a less fortunate one, again from Italy, which can nevertheless function as a memento to the importance of implementing strategies for the preservation of cultural heritage in times of conflict. The Church of Santa Maria in Passione on the hill of Castello, Genova, was severely damaged by two aerial bombardments; the first, on 22 October 1942, caused the roof to catch fire, but the most destructive was a second attack on 4 September 1944, which almost razed the top of the hill of Castello to the ground. The bombardments almost completely destroyed the frescoes and caused serious damage to the outer walls, some of which had to be demolished (fig. 12). The monastic complex remained in ruins for decades. Then, in the 1970s, a project devised by the Municipality of Genoa and supervised by architect Ignazio Gardella gave the go-ahead for the restoration of the area with the construction of the new headquarters of the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Genoa on the site of the former convent of San Silvestro, the Niccolò Paganini Foundation and the headquarters of the Permanent Urban Observatory, created to promote initiatives for the rehabilitation and enhancement of the historic centre. Starting in the 1990s, another project (“Progetto Civis Sistema”) envisaged more conservation and restoration work. However, this was interrupted in 1997 and the site was completely abandoned. Everything was enclosed with barbed wire. It was only in 2012 that a group of students decided to break the fences and clean up the area. Since then, Santa Maria in Passione lives almost exclusively thanks to the support of citizens through donations and voluntary work.
So, to reprise the question from which this article started: do ruins have a good effect after all? The answer is yes, I would say. But it should be remembered that for every good effect there is always a price to pay. In tracing a history of destruction and reconstruction through painstaking human efforts, I have tried to raise awareness of how essential the preservation of cultural heritage is for the wealth of communities. Several collaborative strategies have been implemented for this purpose both before and during World War II, as we have seen. Examples feature the Service des Monuments Historiques in France, of which the abovementioned Levavasseur was a member, founded in 1830 and charged with several “passive defense” and reconstruction measures as early as 1935; or the Roberts Commission in the US, leading to the establishment of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the allied armies (the “Monuments Men”) with the aim of both protecting works of art and buildings from deliberate destruction and of returning them, so far as possible, to their owners or the appropriate local authorities. Similarly, after the conflict, international organizations acknowledged the urgency to create conventions to protect sites and artifacts in conflict zones. UNESCO, among others, was established in 1945. However, as several speakers at the Courtauld talk Post-conflict: Art History and Cultural Heritage in Dialogue on 15 June 2021 illustrated, UNESCO and world heritage have been criticized for many failures in recent years, including that of deterring the destruction of heritage during times of war. There is need for greater cooperation between different groups – professionals in the field and governmental authorities in primis, but also scholars, local organizations, and no less the general public. As the example of Santa Maria in Passione demonstrates, ordinary citizens are often in a unique position to help when the threat of destruction, deterioration or looting looms over them. The very significance of the Ministry of Works collection, which has never before seen in its entirety as a consequence of being spread across hundreds of boxes, is now being understood thanks to a major digitisation project at the Courtauld, part-funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and supported entirely by volunteers. If ruins, as it has often been suggested, are essentially “democratic” – their appeal is for everyone, from children visiting a site for the first time to experienced archaeologists – then their protection and revival becomes, by the same token, a universal responsibility.
Wolfson Postgraduate Scholar in the Humanities, Oxford
Courtauld Connects Digitisation – Oxford Micro-Internship Participant