An abandoned factory stands on a vast, scorched piece of land in the middle of Plagwitz. Its elongated, brick body is stretched out like a snake struggling to digest a hefty prey. The hollow windows, ebony scales exposing its insides. The head is a medieval gothic-style tower with horns of steeple. The structure is enveloped in graffiti.
Plagwitz has been subject to its share of experimentation throughout its history. Its modernist aspirations date back to the visionary agenda of the city’s major entrepreneur, Karl Heine, to transform the suburb into Germany’s industrial powerhouse. Leipzig reached its prime in the early twentieth century when, heartened by the city’s burgeoning publishing culture and the local trade fair, its residents harbored futuristic visions of the metropolis. The sentiment was bolstered by yet another partially realized plan to modernize the terrain with high-rise office buildings in the 1920s. After the Second World War, the GDR leadership conserved the industrial fervor of Plagwitz, but without much maintenance and basic health regulations the suburb had become unlivable by the time the wall fell. In the late 1990s, low housing prices and a crude kind of charm is what attracted Leipzig’s creative souls to the area, who came brimming with a sense of boundless possibilities and anarchic freedom. Thirty years later, Plagwitz is the most rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in the city and home to students, artists, and leftist activists. Empty warehouses are turned into art workshops and exhibition spaces, factories revamped into vegan restaurants, craft coffee shops, and music venues. Transformations aside, the aesthetics remain untouched. The omnipresent aura of decay is accentuated with political slogans and edgy street art. The carefully maintained exterior stands in sharp contrast to the trendy Scandinavian and industrial interior decor.
Plagwitz is where I live now. Like many others before me, I delight in its desolate sublime. In the back of my mind, I also find it all ironic. I grew up in post-civil war Georgia, the desolate was the air we breathed for many years. Post-Soviet decay, all the more dramatic with its Brutalist overtones, continues to be an everyday reality for many Georgians. I spent much of my life running away from the economic and cultural disfigurement. But the visual trends of Western counterculture caught up quickly in my transnational sojourns and before I knew it, I had become a convert. I woke up to the realization when a few years ago, I eagerly joined a friend visiting Tbilisi on a tour of abandoned Socialist architecture, genuinely reveling in the simple geometric lines of ashy buildings.
The carefully curated aesthetic of decay slapped against the background of industrial ruins is a common sight in hip urban spaces of many Western countries. “Urban explorers” often go out of their way to track down the unblemished decay of disintegrating infrastructure in lands close and far, driven by their longing for primordial authenticity encased in the idea of rubble. Once found, these sights are memorialized in Instagram posts, or better yet, kept alive in photo galleries where visual traces of natural disintegration rouse nostalgia for the purity of an unnamed past. The trend, not so lovingly dubbed “ruin porn” by cynics, has received its share of criticism in scholarly circles and popular media. The young have been accused of being ignorant of the implications of their aesthetic preferences and of glorifying misery from the comfort of their “blissful” lives.
In his book Rubble, Gaston R. Gordillo writes that “the ruin” is “a conceptual invention of modernity and of its efforts to present itself as a break from the past.” Preservation of ruins in the form of “heritage” is the most recognizable form of relishing modernity by re-inventing times gone by. So strong is the artistic element in the act of “heritagization,” however, that Quetzil Castañeda baptized ruins as “the copy of an original that never existed.”
Could creative reproduction of history that accompanies curated preservation initiatives also be read as a form of entitlement? In her monograph on the wonders of wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit establishes a connection between elite sensibilities and admiration of ruins:
The growing taste for ruins, mountains, torrents, for situations provoking fear and melancholy, and for artwork about all these things suggests that life had become so placidly pleasant for England’s privileged that they could bring back as entertainment the terrors people had once strived so hard to banish.
Written about the nineteenth century British landscape tradition that turned erosion into a spectacle for the upper classes, the sentiment behind this passage holds up today. The vast literature dedicated to ruins speaks to the unwavering human interest in the residue of time. The ruins in the French and German romantic tradition were somber, manipulated to evoke mythical images, exoticized faraway lands and classical aesthetics. The twenty-first century heritage movement is geared towards the preservation of natural sights and architectural buildings carefully selected to petrify one version of many possible histories. The passion for post-industrial and post-Socialist rubble is a countermovement of sorts that has kept pace with the more standardized, state-curated initiatives of heritagization. Gaston R. Gordillo’s distinction between “ruin” and “rubble” can serve as the interpretative framework. The “ruins” of formal heritagization are tidy and polished. The “rubble” of the countermovement, although equally touched up, is meant to look coarse, excessive, even sinister. Yet ultimately, both represent acts of glorification, one of history that was, the other of history that could be. It is hard to ignore the fact that in an era so averse to cultural appropriation, adulation of disintegrating infrastructure is indeed evocative of hijacking poverty and social disintegration.
When I was mulling over this piece, I shared my thoughts about the artistic romanticization of rubble with my partner. He was quick to jab at the weakest spot in my train of thought: “that argument does not hold in my case, I grew up in a ramshackle room, far away from that privilege, yet I still seem to enjoy the aesthetic.” “So did I…” I concurred dreamily , “I think the pull is something else entirely in our case.” If we reach that point in life where we are relatively empowered – socially, financially, politically, mentally – to make choices about our reality, we expand our self-assembly to our physical surroundings. The clothes we wear, books we read, music we listen to, people we associate with, neighborhoods we live in, these are the building blocks of what we “truly” are in our mental blueprint. While both my partner and I take intellectual and political fads with more than the usual grain of salt, admittedly, we are both suckers for the philosophy of disheveled beauty for the larger, albeit romantic, vision of the world that it stands for. There is an anti-capitalist ideology behind the aesthetics of decay that I have always enjoyed – eco-friendly living, conscious consumption, equal and proper pay, community service, cultural and racial inclusiveness.
That is not the whole story though. Contemplation of the rubble rejected by the classical ruinophiles need not be saturated with romanticism. It can be an opportunity for intellectual engagement, a chance to critique the hubris of modernity, its insistence on perpetual progress. That said, these ruminations should originate from a deep awareness that the aesthetics of decay vivaciously celebrated in the zones occupied by artists and activists are just tamed shadows of the socio-economically disadvantaged urban areas where decay is certainty not a choice.
The faux-decay of Berlin, Leipzig, New York, Paris, or Budapest, is a badge of cultural pessimism, the mourning of democratic politics along with all its promises, and the hope to be availed of the determinism of modernity. As by-products of fractured economic initiatives, ruins are, in the words of Andreas Schönle, “the site of a critique of the ideology of progress.” They symbolize the desire to escape the clean and efficient order of the modern city. Celebration of ruins, turning them into the canvas for social injustices, could be, if coupled with careful deliberation and insight, an act of subversion, a tongue in cheek on the part of the left to the lacquered visual aspirations of the modern world.
“Get your Rosaries off my Ovaries,” reads a sign in a shabby storefront I pass on my afternoon walk.
Dawdy, Shannon. 2010. “Clockpunk Anthropology and the Ruins of Modernity.” Current Anthropology 51.6: 761–93.
Gordillo, Gastón R. 2014. Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction. Duke University Press.
Schönle, Andreas. 2006. “Ruins and History: Observations on Russian Approaches to Destruction and Decay.” Slavic Review 65(4): 649-669.
Trigg, Dylan. 2006. The Aesthetics of Decay: Nothingness, Nostalgia, and the Absence of Reason. New York, Washington: Peter Lang.