What is it about Ruins? Part I

One of the ideas raised in BBC Four’s Heritage! series was the idea of romanticism versus academia in the appreciation of historic buildings. Since beginning my work with ruins, I have often asked myself why I am attracted to this particular niche of built heritage, and have now been considering where my interest lies between the romantic and academic.

These diverse standpoints were embodied from the 1950s onwards by two figures I’ve certainly heard of before, but can’t claim to know a great deal about. After watching this programme I’m quite compelled to learn more.

 Sir John Betjeman   Nikolaus Pevsner

In the romantics corner was John Betjeman, a poet and writer who also used his work in broadcasting to channel his love of old buildings with considerable charisma. His approach was quite different to that of Nikolaus Pevsner, the history of art scholar responsible for the accomplished 46-volume The Buildings of England series of architectural guides. These two men were both among the founding members of The Victorian Society in 1958, but despite their shared admiration of 19th Century architecture they were, in many ways, at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Thinking of my own attraction to ruins, the lure they exert over me is compelling, yet strangely difficult to translate into words. When I think back to my first encounter with a derelict mansion, I just remember being enthralled by it. Until that point, grand houses for me had represented wealth, power, and above all endurance. Now here was a building which challenged those perceptions, embodying the exact opposite, and I was captivated by it. Although I have become accustomed to these places over the years, they can still provoke that feeling in me. It is a sensation which I have come to identify, quite simply, as complete fascination.

Romanticism

It seems that the idea of romanticism can sometimes inspire derision today, but to me it simply means an approach with spirit and feeling. I consider exploring ruins to be primarily a spiritual endeavour, and it is this emotional connection which undoubtedly sparked my interest. But what then of the academic approach? In the course of writing this post I have found this question increasingly difficult to answer.

I definitely respond more to a place’s atmosphere than its architectural credence, and it is true that I’m not terribly discerning when it comes to historic buildings. Rather than subscribing exclusively to a particular period or style I can see merit in all, and my own tastes are sometimes in direct conflict with what I read from the architecturally learned. One of my very favourite Victorian mansions earns the label ‘dull’ from a certain scholar, and at one time any large eccentric 19th Century pile would have been met with disdain from the majority of architectural historians.

However, while I feel certain my initial attraction to ruins is born of romantic notions, I have come to suspect that there is more of a place for academia in what I do than perhaps I first realised. Why else would I seek out books containing reference to the places I have explored and include this research in my monthly write-ups?

Academia

I have often thumbed the pages of The Buildings of Scotland, the spin-off to Pevsner’s English series, and have only the greatest admiration for these meticulous works. I can’t help but feel that the dedication required to compile them must have been born from a passion similar to my own, if only expressed in a different manner. Visiting ruins does instil a certain thirst for knowledge in me, yet part of that innate fascination I feel towards them is that I know I will never discover all of their secrets, and I love that enduring sense of mystery. My understanding of them is undoubtedly advanced in the academic practice of reading, but does it actually heighten my love of these buildings? I find this hard to determine.

“Place is a portal to history more powerful than any textbook”, wrote Ben Macintyre in an article for The Times a couple of years ago, a statement with which I can totally identify.While my fascination with ruins stems from romantic roots, maybe learning about their history is a welcome side-line which has furthered and developed my interest into something more.

This has been a bit of an exercise in thinking aloud, and as such I hope my reflections are not too incoherent. I’ve probably posed more questions than I’ve answered, but then perhaps such a natural empathy need not be overly rationalized or defined.

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