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Architecture is a sensor: its aesthetics are produced by the sensorial capacity of matter itself.1 It physically registers environmental changes over time, yet the causes for its mutations are not always immediately clear. From unpredictable weathering caused by ecological interactions to complete abandonment following political collapse, the environmental perversion of architecture is commonly understood as failure. This failure gives way to the critical investigation of architecture and its environment.

Architectural practice is tasked with the organization of spatial adjacencies (e.g. inside/outside, sick/healthy, natural/cultural), and it is just as capable of complicating such divisions as securing them.2 The Anthropocene thesis, which rejects the separation between nature and culture, provides an operative basis for the work required toward future-compliant architectural practices.

Utilizing content from two recently published photo books, I will demonstrate the possibility of architecture and environment as an integrated whole, which blurs modern notions of failure. Architectural failure does not simply reveal design flaws; it produces potential for new architectural strategies in the context of a constantly changing environment.

Palimpsest

The photos in Palimpsest document several excursions carried out at abandoned sites in and around Berlin over the course of 2012-2013. What originally drew me to these various ruined landscapes was a feeling of existence beyond human time.

Spreepark (former Kulturpark Plänterwald). Plänterwald, Berlin.

As described by Brian Dillon, the ruin embodies a set of temporal and historical paradoxes. It is at once a remnant of and portal into the past as well as an immediate reference point casting us forward in time, predicting a future where our present is reduced to ruins.3

In this sense, the ruin can be both a subject of contemporary art and an archaeological product of human settlement. As a narratively constructed subject it is anachronistic; it belongs to a different period of time, to a previous socioeconomic era. As geophysical substance it is diachronous; it transgresses time, recording the past and future of humanity simultaneously onto the stratigraphic surface of the present.4

The ruin is therefore not a static object; it is a process.

Palimpsest is a term derived from the Ancient Greek palímpsestos, meaning “scratched or scraped again”. The term was later used by the Romans to describe wax-coated tablets that could be smoothed and reused. When applied to architecture, the common metaphor signifies the various processes that constitute the built environment. The photo book takes it one step further, proposing that a personified Nature plays an active (and final) role in the palimpsest of human artifice.

In his foreword, Manuel Wischnewski describes the portrayed abandoned sites as ‘nascent places’, indicating that such sites of decay are actually living, transforming places that continue to exist even outside the scope of society. In redirecting our attention to these fascinating places, we recognize their paradoxical triumph: “For it is only through their disappearance that they come into being”.5

Likewise, the division between human artifice and the natural environment disappears in the photographic process: black and white images make both culture and nature inextricable from the palimpsest.

Prora. Rügen, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania

Material Senescence

The photos in Material Senescence examine the liminal space between inside and outside, taking the urban fabric of Berlin as an example. Modern architecture aspires to separate the inside and outside hermetically, which leads to accelerated states of disrepair compared to older architectural traditions.

In my research, I sought out unplanned instances of weathering in buildings, which failed to meet built-in design criteria of perpetual maintenance and thus fell into decay. According to Mohsen Mostafavi and David Leatherbarrow, weathering, defined as the gradual destruction of buildings by nature in time, can be utilized as a passive design strategy to express the aging of architecture.6 Yet the acceptance of a static environment for architecture is unproductive.

David Gissen goes further by proposing a theory of subnature, a form of artificial nature, which supports the reality that architecture and its environment are produced simultaneously, and that both affect each other.7 Through the failure of modern paradigms arises a new vision of beauty based not on perfection, but on timed performance and inevitable decay.

In diverse building envelope ecologies, senescence is expressed by media of disrepair, such as rainfall, sunlight, wind and corrosion. According to Mark Minkjan’s foreword, the photographs investigate the interplay between architecture and nature, “…leaving room for the observer to contemplate on the representations, expectations, systemics and temporality of the built environment”.8

In contrast to contemporary architectural media, where most designs appear unceasingly new, these photos place architecture in an environment under pressure from socioeconomic processes and ecological forces.

Instability

Architectural failure gives way to critical reflection in regard to the social, economic and environmental forces of its downfall. In so doing, observable failure creates new ways of acting progressively in the production of architecture. The subversive presence of ruined and decaying buildings in cities has long provided individuals with historical context, yet the increasing tendency toward post-industrial urban sanitization makes their documentation evermore powerful.

As observed by Miloš Kosec in his essay “The Bartlebian Act,” contemporary fascination with ruins can go in two different directions: it can develop into a modern form of Ruinenlust, or it can try to understand the reasons behind the newly revived fascination.9 The latter position contains the potential for developing new tools to sufficiently confront the unstable environmental conditions of the Anthropocene and furthermore to contemplate their provenance.


All photographs courtesy Benjamin Busch.

  1. Weizman, Eyal. “Introduction: Forensis.” In Forensis: the architecture of public truth. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2014. 9-32.

  2. Turpin, Etienne. “Who Does the Earth Think It Is, Now?” In Architecture in the Anthropocene: Encounters among Design, Deep Time, Science and Philosophy. Open Humanities Press, 2013. 3-10.

  3. Dillon, Brian. “Introduction: A Short History of Decay.” In Ruins. London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2011. 10-19.

  4. The terms “anachronistic” and “diachronous” were originally compared at a public exchange in Berlin. Edgeworth, Matt, and Chus Martínez. “Archaeology and Aesthetics.” Exchange, The Anthropocene Project. A Report from Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, October 18, 2014.

  5. Wischnewski, Manuel. “Nascent Places.” In Palimpsest, 8-9. Berlin: Benjamin Busch, 2014.

  6. Mostafavi, Mohsen, and David Leatherbarrow. On Weathering: The Life of Buildings in Time. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993.

  7. Gissen, David. Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009.

  8. Minkjan, Mark. “Transience: the Nature of Architecture” In Material Senescence, 8-9. Berlin: Benjamin Busch, 2014.

  9. Kosec, Miloš. “The Bartlebian Act.” In HORIZONTE – Zeitschrift für Architekturdiskurs No. 9 - RUINE (2014): 101-111.