Opinion

RENÉE LOTH

Still standing

What our fascination with abandoned spaces says about us

A lawn chair sits as nature takes over the indoor pool area of Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel in 2012 in Liberty, N.Y. The hotel closed in 1986.

John Moore/Getty Images

A lawn chair sits as nature takes over the indoor pool area of Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel in 2012 in Liberty, N.Y. The hotel closed in 1986.

On a visit to Budapest earlier this year, a group of us went to a “ruin pub,” a pop-up bar in an abandoned building in a possibly sketchy neighborhood. The evening was perfectly safe — if you don’t count the wretched herbal liquor we gagged on — but the crowded bar, with its bombed-out courtyard and exposed wiring, had a definite cool factor. Unscripted and vaguely transgressive, it was a good example of “ruin porn,” the chic fascination with buildings in decay.

From crumbling public theaters and bankrupt amusement parks to vacant “feral houses” overtaken by weeds, ruins are the current eye candy for photographers and designers – and the public who buy their coffee table books or post on Pinterest. I admit to a certain frisson of delight myself in these haunting images. Some of the crumbling edifices are strangely beautiful, with ghostly layers of past lives visible through the collapsing walls. Others speak to the folly, or hubris, of man’s best-laid plans, such as the disused, graffiti-splattered facilities at former Olympic sites, from Athens to Sarajevo.

Advertisement

The ruins are a chronicle of society’s shifting priorities, as railroad stations and grain terminals fall into disuse. One book published this year showcases verdant ferns and moss overrunning the decomposing tennis courts at Grossinger’s, the Catskill Mountains resort that was once the height of vacation luxury but couldn’t compete once air travel became affordable.

In the United States, Detroit is the epicenter of ruin porn, much to the frustration of redevelopers and boosters who are trying to bring the bankrupt city back. The photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, who have exhibited their “Ruins of Detroit” series internationally, see in the fallen beams and peeling paint a kind of American Acropolis, “remnants of the passing of a great empire.” People working hard to redeem Detroit find the gawking exploitative, like rubbernecking after a gruesome accident. Ironically, though, the edgy urban ruins also attract tourists and artists, some of whom resettle and gentrify the neighborhoods, bringing in economic development but obscuring the legacy of disinvestment and racism that led to their collapse in the first place. A similar phenomenon can be seen in parts of post-Katrina New Orleans. What we save, and what we choose to remember, is a complicated social and economic dance.

Get This Week in Opinion in your inbox:
Globe Opinion's must-reads, delivered to you every Sunday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Architects and preservationists ache a little at the ravaged structures, but they can understand why they are so compelling. “There is something definitive and authentic about these places,” said Daniel Bluestone, director of Boston University’s Preservation Studies program. Ruins capture the imprint of history, often better than refurbished buildings that have been neatly preserved. “You can literally see the play of time on those surfaces.”

In an age dominated by the sleek interfaces of electronic devices and texture-less skyscrapers of glass and steel, a crumbling old building speaks to some need, or at least nostalgia, for the tactile and organic. Gazing at the ivy growing through the window, we are reminded that nature eventually will reclaim the built environment; that all things turn into dust. “These ruins present us with images and reflections on our own vulnerability and mortality,” said Bluestone. “They reflect a landscape or world spinning beyond our control.” Somehow, that is reassuring.

But wouldn’t it be better if the value of these old buildings, with their ornate interiors and warm, human-scale materials, could be recognized while the structures can still be salvaged? The photographers Marchand and Meffre have another series, this one showing abandoned theaters that have been adapted into discount retail stores, gyms, supermarkets, and churches. The uses seem incongruous, even comic. But the buildings are still standing.

Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.
Loading comments...
Real journalists. Real journalism. Subscribe to The Boston Globe today.