On Ruins as a minus, Neoclassicism and the Uncanny
Published in: MODELL UNE RUINE, Halle (Salle): Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 2019.
In modernism, art and architecture changed fundamentally. At the beginning of the 20th century, the postulates of modernist architecture were quite diverse, as they were established within different groups, among which the Bauhaus school and the architect Le Corbusier played a prominent role. Even if those postulates were quite different at the beginning, a unifying common ground could be found in the imposing break with the traditional, classical architecture that was brought by modernist architecture. This break meant a radical rapture with the vocabulary of classical architecture, with its roots traditionally stemming from the ancient world of Roman architecture. If classical architecture applied the “columns of five” standards, it seems that modern architecture organised modern vocabulary around three new conceptual cores, namely technology, abstraction and transparency.
This paper will look into the spring of those radical changes brought by modernist architecture, which could be traced back to the dawn of the Enlightenment period of the 18th century, in order to delineate the seemingly impossible bond of modernist architecture with classical architecture and, even more importantly, with ruins. Here, I would like to answer the following simple question: Is there an unifying common ground between the abstract forms of modernist architecture, usually presented as a white cube, and the ruins, as we could find in Paestum or at the Acropolis? This paper will trace the possible encounter of modernist architecture with ruins, analysing two moments: one is the influence of ruins during the era of Neoclassicism, the other is the impact of ruins on some modernist architects.
Ruin and the minus
Before we venture on this historical and theoretical journey, let us firstly outline the borders of the meaning of the term “ruins”, or more precisely, ruin. The Slovene philosopher Mladen Dolar suggested a definition of a ruin as a curtailed object, where a ruin is also a manifold entity:
“The ruin is an object which is a rest of an object. It’s by definition a partial object, part of an object, a damaged object. […] A ruin is obviously an architectural object, we speak of ruins when referring to buildings, architectural sites, edifices of one kind or another, other uses of the word are metaphorical (can we ever draw a line, though?). […] If architecture, in one of its essential traits, is also closely connected to an exhibition of power – quite apart from its functionality and its aesthetic value there is a display of power that imbues it, power over nature, glory of gods and deities, power of the monarch or the ruler, power of the state, power of capital – then ruin testifies about the vagaries and vicissitudes of power. The ruin also says: there was a power that erected this, but it met with decline and downfall. A ruin is the testimony of the minus inscribed in every power – kings, states, money, they all exhibit their power by building things destined to be ruined. Ruins are memorial sites, they embody memory. Ruin is a curtailed object in which the minus is counteracted by a plus, by the addition of memory.”
In this definition, a ruin is an architectural object, however a very specific one, defined by its missing parts. The ruin is also a distinctive witness of time and former social relations. It is the testimony of the glory of previous events and at the same time the witness of the collapse of those social systems. It is a remainder, imbedded in the present time, that everything will be finished one day, that each power is meant to find its closure. I am going to paraphrase Dolar’s vast definition of a ruin and summarise its meaning as a curtailed, condensed object, where the minus is always present. The entry point to understanding a ruin as a minus will be inscribed in the forthcoming analysis of neoclassical and modernist architecture.
Ruins reshaping Architecture in Neoclassicism
Our first historical stop is the Enlightenment period of the 18th century, because it would seem that it was precisely this period which moulded the fundamental elements of modernity and modern architecture. The Enlightenment period was a specific formative period in architecture, when the essential requirements of architecture were being re-defined. During this time, the style of architecture was emerging as Neoclassicism, and the essence of architecture was thoroughly reconsidered.
The Enlightenment’s main slogan “Sapere aude! – Dare to know!” reflects the core of this cultural process, which seized the whole of Europe and was intended for an autonomous, free subject of the new era. The Enlightenment of the 18th century was not only the period of the philosophical affirmation of Immanuel Kant, it was not only the culmination of all those ideas at the social level with the French Revolution; it was also an ambitious and multifaceted cultural process that extended beyond simple and one-conceptual foundations, identified as liberation, progress, reason, freedom. This was an ambiguous process for at least two reasons, wrote Michel Foucault and Jurgen Habermas. On one hand, it involved the whole of mankind and its inherent tendency to develop, but on the other, with its “Mehr Licht!”, it advocated a subjective maxim that imposed on the individual the duty to use his own reason, instead of leaning on a higher postulate or an external authority. In this new society, where instead of the sacred, the authority, the absolute, or if you want – God/King, the unlimited rule of reason entered the victorious march of science; the subject just had to dare to use reason. In this time, the old customs and myths failed, the previous constellation of the subject broke, and the new period began as open and indefinite. The Enlightenment is the first period in history that would name itself, and thus legitimizes itself. Reason, and within it abstraction as its main tool, brought into the world an all-encompassing rationalization, which should make the world understandable, so that it would no longer be a source of anxiety. Science as the embodiment of this rationalization got a complete primacy over the truth. From this time on, freedom (with all the restrictions imposed by Kant), dominates the bourgeois society.
In the Enlightenment, space and place changed radically. The previous unity provided by the Absolute, which had its correlate in the homogeneous and lasting practice of classical architecture that lasted for centuries, decayed into several tensions and cracks that transformed not just the concept of space and place, but architecture as well. During this period, the distinction between the public and the private altered, as well as the difference between the outside and the inside. With the dominance of the bourgeois society, the first obvious break occurred between the public and the private in space and society. The space of the Enlightenment is characterized by sharp differences between order and chaos, between regularity and irregularity. After the long supremacy of classical architecture, the crisis of architectural form is opened up: those cracks are going to leave its traces all the way to modernity.
The influential Italian architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri wrote precisely on the topic of the cracks and contradictions that happened in architecture during this time. His work focuses extensively on the Enlightenment, because he found this period fundamental to understand architectural ideology and even more, he underlined the Enlightenment as a formative, constitutive period for modernity and especially for modern architecture. Tafuri wrote:
“It is significant that systematic research of the Enlightenment architecture has been able to identify, on a purely ideological level, a great many of the contradictions that in diverse forms accompany the curse of contemporary art.“
For Tafuri, the Enlightenment is a constitutive epoch of modernism in architecture: in this period, it is possible to trace its main postulates, as the main elements and contradictions of this type of architecture were formed then. All those postulates, elements and contradictions later came to the forefront in the first half of the 20th century.
What shaped the contradictions and cracks of architecture during the Enlightenment period , aside the excessive and imposing breaks within society, that would transform it into a society of reason and bourgeois rule from then on? One of the decisive events that shaped the discourse and knowledge of architecture of that period was the encounter with ruins. It might be argued that the ruin as a curtailed, condensed object, where the minus is always present, stepped into this discourse with two encounters and showed architecture its own missing, decisive part. The first of those two encounters was the discovery of ruins of Greek and Roman architecture, which produced a forceful “Greek Revival” in architecture, while the other is an imaginative ruin, the notorious “primitive hut”, proposed by the abbé Marc-Antoine Laugier. Both of these encounters gave 18th century architecture a distinctive minus that triggered a search for a new style, which would develop and later be known as Neoclassicism. Both of those ruins, the one physically on the ground and the imaginative one, the primitive hut, changed the understanding of architecture and its form.
What are the sources of the “Greek revival”? The curios movement was the first to acknowledged ruinophilia. This happened during the Enlightenment, a time, when a vast expansion of archaeology occurred. Namely, the 18th century presented one of the first extensive appearances of ruinophilia with the discovery of the ruins of former Greek and Roman civilizations. It was with those ruins that Greek architecture stepped into the limelight of architectural knowledge for the first time, as it had been hidden and was inaccessible to European scholars for centuries due to different historical and political reasons. The ruins of Greek architecture stepped intensely into the discourse and knowledge of the architecture of the time, which was concerned mainly with the standardization of classical architecture and the theme of taste.
In the first half of the 18th century, scholars began to study in detail Roman excavations in Herculaneum and Pompeii as well as ruins of Greek architecture in southern Italy (Paestum), in Sicily and Greece. Numerous visits and measurements of those ruins were made at that time. Those studies gave rise to astonishment and surprise, as measurements and sketches were compared to existing manuals, which were based primarily on Roman architecture. Those detailed studies opened unknown horizons in the understanding of classical architecture, as the ruins showed the assembly of the classical column orders could be made differently. Initially, two Englishmen, James Stuart and Nicolas Revett, set out on a difficult journey to Athens in 1751, where they measured Greek buildings in detail. Their book of detailed measurements was published in 1762. The Frenchman Le Roy prepared an outline of Greek temples in 1758. Numerous other scholars wrote on the subject as well. The German art historian and one of the founders of modern archaeology, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, initially found inconsistency between the proportions, listed by Vitruvius, and the ruins of the temples in Paestum and Agrigento during his journeys of 1757. Winckelmann wrote two articles on the subject, one being Remarks on the Architecture of the Old Temples at Agrigento in Sicily, where he analysed in detail the columns and proportions of Greek temples, in order to conclude that Greek architecture had until then received “superficial treatment” and that more studies should be carried out on the topic.
With those books, firstly in England and later throughout Europe and the United States, a resilient “Greek Revival” happened in architectural discourse and practice and lasted for approximately 30 years. The “Greek Revival” became known as an architectural movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and is commonly referred to as being one of the last phases in the development of neoclassical architecture. In each country it touched, the style was looked on as the expression of local nationalism and civic virtue. Instead of the previous five columns, now with the new discoveries, architects could choose between eight, as there were three Greek additions to the doctrinal five of the classical Roman architecture. At the time, The Greek columns, especially the Doric and Ionic one, were perceived as more primary, more rudimentary, more intimate, more “original” then the Roman ones.
Although this phase of Neoclassicism is sometimes described by contemporary architectural historians as a “dead end” of architecture, it is possible to trace its impact to forthcoming architecture. The designs of Thomas Hope had influenced a number of decorative styles known variously as Neoclassical, Empire, Russian Empire, and Regency architecture in Britain. In Germany, the architecture of the “Greek Revival” is predominantly found in Berlin and Munich. In both cities, Doric was the court style rather than a popular movement, and was patronised by Frederick William II and Ludwig I as the expression of their desires to turn Berlin into the capital of Germany. The earliest Greek building was the Brandenburg Gate (1788–91) by Carl Gotthard Langhans, who modelled it on the basis of the Propylaea of the Acropolis. Friedrich Gilly’s unexecuted design for a temple raised above the Leipziger Platz caught the tenor of high idealism that the Germans sought in Greek architecture and had an enormous influence on Karl Friedrich Schinkel and Leo von Klenze. Schinkel was in a position to stamp his mark on Berlin after the French occupation ended in 1813; his work on what is now the Altes Museum, Schauspielhaus, and the Neue Wache transformed the city, in distinctive cases, as in the influential design of the Altes Museum, in a Grek Doric style. Similarly, in Munich, von Klenze’s Glyptothek and Walhalla were the fulfilment of Gilly’s vision of an orderly German world.
Possible image 1: Altes Museum, Karl Friedrich Schinkel
It could be noted that the discovered ruins turned architecture to a re-questioning of its beginning and of its purpose, as it opened undiscovered horizons of the vocabulary of classical architecture. It also brought into discourse and into the space/place in the changing era of the Enlightenment the crack of past unity, past homogeneity that was present in the Greek civilization, where the Absolute dominated the scene completely. The ruins were not just a memorial site of past events, they were also a monument of the governance of past social structures, which depicted architecture with a homogeny use of columns. But it seems that although ruins at the end of the Enlightenment were seen as monuments of a previous era, this image of the Absolute was still very close to the majority, which could be imbedded much more easily into their own discourse. The “Greek Revival” shaped the image of many European cities, and through some of its main actors, like Indigo Jones and Karl Friedrich Schinkel, also influenced a variety of modernist architects, among which we could name Mies Van Der Rohe’s adoration for Schinkel. But should certainly be underlined, is the lack, the missing parts that those ruins opened to the predominant architectural discourse of the time. It seems that it was exactly those ruins in Paestum and the Acropolis that for the first time presented a powerful backside of the official architectural discourse, which could be read as a distinctive minus, which had until then been inscribed in the vocabulary of classical architecture and needed to be presented in a new form.
The other influx of ruins in the architectural discourse and practice came from France, where the debate on architecture was vivid throughout the 17th and 18th century. I am not going to venture in all those discourses, which were mainly driven by the French Academia and their opponents, but would like to stop only at abbés Jean-Louis de Cordemoy and Marc Antoine Laugier; the latter was denominated by the English architectural historian John Summerson as the first modern architectural philosopher. They questioned the very essence of architecture at the systematic level, as they were inquiring the omnipotence of column orders, the proportions, and other elements of classical architecture. Architecture had at the time, as it was already mentioned, the difficult task of exiting the classical architecture and presenting a fresh expressive language that would fit into the new social system, the free subject and the advancement of bourgeois rulers and their values. Those modifications of architectural expression first happened in theory and only later in practice. Cordemoy displayed a critical analysis of column orders in 1706. In order to protect them against distortion (as the ones that took place during Baroque and Rococo), he praised the complete abolishment of ornaments on the columns, or what is more easily summed up by the term “architecture of relief“. That type of architecture included pilasters, half-staves and various compositions, where the elements of a building didn’t have a constructional purpose. On the contrary, they were used for purely ornamental, aesthetic reasons. As Cordemoy’s main concern was geometric purity and the elimination of any unnecessary ornaments in architecture, he is known to be the first opponent of ornamentalism in architecture; something that would later on become extremely popular in modernist architecture.
If Cordemoy’s ideas were far too far-reaching for his time, his pupil, the abbe Laugier, made a revolutionary move fifty years later. Laugier’s texts cut the discourse of architecture on two levels: first by questioning the authority of column orders, and second by offering an alternative based on a rationalization, on an imaginative ruin, and predicting with it functionalism. Laugier namely visualized for the first time the source of architecture. He proposed the shape of a “primitive hut”, where four tree trunks support the rustic stylized roof. By doing so, he wanted to approach “natural” architecture, which had derived from a simplified image of the Gothic structure. He thought that there is no need to deal with columns, nor with the arches or other forms of formal classical articulation that would in any way prove the necessary use of columns. By doing so, for the first time in history, the French abbé offered a functional, rational prototype for the use of columns in architecture, which was diametrically opposed to the then establish doctrine of classical architecture. Moreover, as a thinker and not as an architect, he went so far as to suggest the withdrawal of all walls.
Possible image 2: Laugier, The Primitive Hut
The style of Neoclassicism, which was an explicit realization of the ideas of the Enlightenment with the emphasis on the rationalization of the authentic and the primary use of column orders, relied theoretically on Cordemoy and Laugier and ruins. Thus, it does not come as a surprise that John Summerson defines Neoclassicism with the intense impact of ruins (and archaeology) on the whole architectural movement and combines it with reason. I will use a paraphrase of his definition in an equation that goes: Neoclassicism = Reason + Archaeology. These two elements separate this style from the Baroque, and set guidelines for its broad domination in the 19th century. But before it moved to the streets of the European cities of the 19th century, Neoclassicism was primarily the main style of the revolutionary period. After the revolution, neoclassical buildings gave shelter to the newly established institutions of bourgeois society, as the style was primarily used to house different administrative buildings. As such, the new architectural style responded to the newly established states in the form of a republic. Neoclassicism also played a significant role in shaping the bourgeois imperial style. In architectural theory, there is a general consensus that one of the largest Neoclassical emblems ever built was the Parisian Pantheon. This rational layout, representing the columns in a most authentic way, was designed by Jacques-Germain Soufflot as a church and was transformed after the French Revolution into a tomb of the revolutionary movement and the scholars of the Enlightenment, with Voltaire and Rousseau buried there. The façade of this building is cleared of every application of “architecture in relief” and if the building would not have been built up laterally due to static problems, the columns would melt even more strongly: with this, the “sense of loss of gravity” (the term is used by Summerson) was still so much more explicit.
It is certainly required to acknowledge also the strong impact of designs that were made during Neoclassicism by the French revolutionary architects, who anticipated in many ways modernist architecture with its purity and rationality, but were never built at the time. Such noticeable plans were made by Etienne-Louis Boullée with his famous cenotaph for Isaac Newton and by Claude-Nicholas Ledoux with numerous designs, among which the most prominent is the plan for the ideal city of Chaux. However, these revolutionary images of possible rational, abstract buildings with clean, pure geometrics could not be realized in the era, for they lacked the technological support needed to build these kinds of constructions.
Tafuri and numerous architectural historians and theoreticians initiated the spring of modernist architecture in the era of the Enlightenment. I would like to paraphrase Tafuri’s key points which state that the disruptive role of 18th and 19th century architecture stems from the fact that the architecture of the time did not yet have the availability of such production techniques that would enable it to finally fulfil the conditions of the bourgeois ideology. These conditions arose only after the final formation of modernist architecture at the beginning of the 20th century, which is also characterized by a precisely modified constellation of technological possibilities. Due to this lack of technical support during the Enlightenment, according to Tafuri, some architects found themselves in an “imaginary” world. Tafuri stressed that the Enlightenment also brought an important change in architecture, namely that it was increasingly transforming into a technique of organization of different materials and techniques. Therefore, these experimental models had, among other things, brought a new set, a new design method, where huge volumes and geometric purity are present and where architectural primitivism is evident (as using the simplest principles). Thus, this experimental work, made by Boullée and Ledoux, for Tafuri established a new ideological role for architecture, which could be realized only at the time of modernist architecture.
The Paradigms of Modernist Architecture and the Uncanny
Modernist architecture transformed the language of classical architecture that had already begun to spring during the Enlightenment and was emphasising the abstract idea, transparency and technology, which could be summarised as the three formal paradigms of the architecture of the first half of the 20th century.
Technological innovations of the time didn’t only stimulate industrial development, but also changed the organization, design and conception of space. At the spatial level, the influence of industrialization can be traced on three levels: (1) the enlargement and the new organization of cities, which resulted in the emergence of urbanism as a new systematic knowledge in architecture; (2) the emergence of a new type of industrial buildings, which fascinated some pioneers of modernism (Corbusier, Gropius, Behrens) and brought to the forefront new industrial aesthetics; (3) the standardization and preparation of semi-finished products in industry brought to architecture the construction of prefabricated materials and the unification of space. The standardization of architecture definitely turned the practice forcefully into the world of technology, industry and infinite repetitions, with industrialization and technology having a radically reorganizational effect on architecture.
Architecture became part of the story of “innovation”, “progress” and similar ideological constructs of modernity by using new building materials (steel, iron, concrete, glass) that provided a new method of construction with large, open glass surfaces. Transparency turned out to be a new vital element of architecture. It was the result of new construction materials, which were started to be produced in large industrial plants. However, transparency is not simply the result of new building materials. In many respects, it was the mirror of society and social situation of the times. Transparency could be considered as the result of a form of typical openness, which, among other things, triggered the erosion of architectural boundaries, an separation between the outside and inside.
The fostering of technology and industrialization, transparency and new construction materials, lead to the third paradigm of modernist architecture – abstraction. Architecture could now combine technology with such a degree of abstraction, that for the first time in its history, it could realize all that was imagined. It is certainly not a coincidence that part of this imagination is purely abstraction: with modernist architecture, in many places, first emphasized is geometry, cleansed of all ornaments. This cleansed geometry (white cubes, sharp lines, flat roofs) is the language of an international style, which shows the peak of abstract thinking. Abstraction is therefore not only an abstraction on a formal level, but rather a clear statement of rationalism that does not have local or regional specifications.
What I would like to underline here is the negative, backside of modernist architecture, which has been discussed by many since appearance of this technology, transparency and abstraction within the former art of building. It concerns the imposed inability to settle in modernist architecture, a concept that was discussed by contemporary philosophers and theoreticians, among which were Georg Simmel, Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin. Adorno wrote about the coldness of its abstraction, which prevents dwelling as such in this architecture:
“The predicament of private life today is shown by its arena. Dwelling, in the proper case, is now impossible. […] The functional modern habitations designed from a tabula rasa, are living-cases manufactured by experts for philistines, or factory sites that have strayed into the consumption sphere, devoid of all relation to the occupant: in them even the nostalgia for independent existence, defunct in any case, is sent packing.”
Aside the impossibility to dwell in modern times, Adorno was also highlighting the importance of the alienation and estrangement of modern Man. Alienation, estrangement, homelessness, anxiety – all these are topics largely discussed in connection with modernity. Some also proposed an umbrella term that would cover these negative concepts, a specific kind of anxiety, known as the uncanny or in German das Unheimliche. The uncanny could be seen as a specific “bourgeois kind of fear”, appearing from the context of the late 18th and 19th century and developing its full presence during the era of modernity in the 20th century. It is important to stress, that the uncanny is an anxiety, a domesticated terror, characteristic for modernity, which works as a negative, elusive feeling that could also be interpreted as the backside or the lack of the minus of the presence that is missing. In modernity, the missing, absent elements are the sublime, the Absolute, the sacred, which surfaced after the full dominance of the paradigms of the Enlightenment. The uncanny has also been proposed in recent years as a specific contextualization of modernist architecture, among others by Anthony Vidler. Vidler, stressing the importance of the term also used by Sigmund Freud and Martin Heidegger as one of the key terms in interpreting modernity, wrote on the topic:
“As a frame of reference that confronts the desire for a home and the struggle for domestic security with its apparent opposite, intellectual and actual homelessness, at the same time as revealing the fundamental complicity between the two, das Unheimliche captures the difficult conditions of the theoretical practice of architecture in modern times.”
The impossibility to fully grasp the negativity of das Unheimiche remains one of its main characteristics. Das Unheimliche is also a point where two extremely different thinkers of the 20th century had come together, namely Martin Heidegger and Sigmund Freud. Freud and Heidegger attempted to define das Unheimliche despite its evasiveness and point out its specific unhomely and terrifying quality, the mysterious that is present in space, which provokes anxiety precisely because it originates from the homely and familiar.
In his essay Das Unheimliche, Freud was most interested in this particular sort of terrifying. By observing it from a wider perspective, we can see that Freud closely associated das Unheimliche with anxiety and the process of suppression. He almost entirely bypassed discussing the spatial level of das Unheimliche. It seems that to him homeliness and unhomeliness have an inherent spatial connotation per se. Following Freud´s explanation of the search for the means of escaping various terrifying situations, particularly those that are associated with space (he gives an example of getting lost in Genova and how horrible it is to be lost in the fog etc.), das Unheimliche reveals itself as an existing negativity, a remainder that cannot be broken down to the postulates of science nor can it be mastered. Within the hermeneutic thought of Heidegger, das Unheimliche occupies a different position. In his writing, the concepts of understanding home, homeliness, unhomeliness, anxiety, fear and homelessness lie close to what das Unheimliche is. Unhomeliness is a basic feature of human existence, wrote Heidegger. His definition of das Unheimliche is nearly identical to that of Freud: unheimlich is the unhomely within the homely.
The works of Heidegger and Freud converge in a point that recapitulates a viewpoint from which the entire anxious feeling of the 20th century can be considered. As the unhomely, terrifying, strange and intimidating, which – according to both – derive from the most homely and safe, these create a previously unseen point of intertwinement between their understanding of being/dwelling. Thus, a new platform appears that represents the grounds for the consideration of modernist architecture and its range in terms of contemporary dwelling. Immanent to this homeliness is the unhomely. Or, as condensed in the words of Lacan: each home of the modern age is inevitably built with this unhomeliness, each Heim is constituted with the Unheim.
If we narrow das Unheimliche down to a specific spatial level, it can also be found in the unified, bright, clean and hygienic space of simple lines, which was, along with its abstraction and technique, invaded by the dark side of the Enlightenment project, i.e. the terrifying, unfamiliar, the hidden which has come to light. It emerges between the familiar and unfamiliar, public and private, hidden and revealed. Arising from a specific, modern wager on the familiar and unfamiliar, where the terrifying becomes the most haunting precisely at the point when the biggest secrets are handed over to the Other, this ocular, as such, enables a different perspective on the stakes of modernist architecture. It seems that this emptiness and absence could be seen as the condensed core around which modernist architecture is organised and, at the same time, to show that it represents a very useful mental ocular through which its heterogeneity can be observed and reduced to a common denominator, which presents the core of this architecture from another perspective. It seems that the paradigms of this architecture, which was discussed here as technology, transparency and abstraction, brought in the core of architecture the main postulates of the Enlightenment, in order to foster even more the inability to dwell, to live in these buildings. Although modernist architecture was suggesting those changes in order to open its buildings to light and a new, modern lifestyle, it seems that by doing so it in fact increased the uneasiness, the anxious feeling within those buildings. When the decorative, the traditional, the styles of the classical architecture were removed from dwellings of modern Man, an uncanny feeling might step into those modern homes and buildings, as there was nothing more to grasp within them except the science-driven claims of the Enlightenment.
As such, it seems that with the technological, transparent and abstract cores of modernistic architecture derived also a distinctive minus, present in this inability to reside within this architecture, which shows itself with its possibly uncanny character. It might be argued, though, that das Unheimliche as this negativity inhabits modernity and is existent as a minus. A minus that is characteristically spatial and is present in an abandoned parking lot, in a decaying modernist apartment block housing project, and on the other hand, also on the location of a ruin (during modern times). How then, in this conclusive part, could we understand the relationship between a ruin and modern architecture?
There are scarce direct mentions of the impact of ruins from the classical period on modernist architects. Among them, one of the most renowned is the encounter of Le Corbusier with ruins. When Le Corbusier was climbing the Acropolis for three weeks in 1911 to find the source of the standardization in the Parthenon, he also found a ghost, or something, which would haunt him for the rest of his life, because modernist architecture didn’t achieve such an important standardization that was present on the site of this ruin. Le Corbusier was haunted by the Parthenon for years to come. Decades after his visit to the site, he wrote the following:
“The Greeks at the Acropolis set up temples which are animated by a single thought, drawing around them the desolate landscape and gathering it into the composition. Thus, on every point of the horizon, the thought is single. It is on this account that there are no other architectural works on this scale of grandeur.”
What is crucial in Le Corbusier´s analysis of the Parthenon is the imprint that it left in his opus. Le Corbusier´s encounter with the Acropolis has been called extraordinary and transcendental by some, while most authors consider it to be (at least) a breaking point that would profoundly influence his architecture. The classical architectural elements that Le Corbusier recognized in the Acropolis, such as the application of the mathematical ideal, the power of an architectural archetype and canon, mutual relations of masses, remained present in his later works. This ruin specifically – he visited many during his “journey to the east” – made a forceful impact on his search for a standard for modernist architecture. He would strive to make a standardization of this architecture in the years to come; one of them being the manifesto about the five points of architecture.
The imprint of ruins of different sources on other prominent architects of the modernist movement is not widely represented in literature on the modernist movement. Aside the influential impression of neoclassicism on modernist architecture I discussed in the previous chapter, there are only scattered examples of studies of the relationship between modernist architects and ruins sites. As it is a well-known fact that Mies Van Der Rohe and Walter Gropius admired Karl Friedrich Schinkel it might be possible to trace a long line of influences of the “Greek revival” to the former Bauhaus Masters, but it seems that these influences were mainly mediated within a vast historical connotation. Other relationships of this kind are usually difficult to trace. Maybe one could try to understand this lack as a specific symptom. Namely, this lack of the connection between other modernist architects with ruins might just be a manifested expression of the break with the traditional, classical architecture this movement was advocating for.
Ruins, in the case of Le Corbusier, but also on a general level, display a distinctive minus, because they open up previous forms of prior rule and former times. Looking at ruins from a modern perspective, it always opens the image of the Absolute and “homogeneity”, which reigned before the Enlightenment. We might say then that ruins, in a way, open up moments of the uncanny, which is also always a presentation of the missing Absolute, of the sacred, the backside of the missing sublime. And although ruins made such a decisive impact on neoclassicism, which inflected greatly modernist architecture, when its presence was mediated as an embodiment in the new forthcoming style, ruins were included in modernist architecture on a more distant level. Ruins, explicitly in the time of modernity, was already a memorial site, an embodied memory of the past, a witness of the destruction of the homogeneity of the Absolute, which was not at all present in modernity. Ruins in modernity were a potent representation of the gap between past and present; they were already personified as a minus that could no longer be seized.
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