Arrested Decay

Ruins form every time technologies requiring vast architecture go obsolete, or civilizations abandon remotest edges of settlements or deplete land beyond habitability or give up on streets devastated by war or natural disaster. The sheared and eroding walls used to be considered stockpiles of building materials: much of ancient Rome, after all, was assembled from chopped-up fragments of ancient Greece. Not until the Renaissance did artists and poets start pointing out the poignant thrills of leaving ruins intact and in view.

As the French historian Michel Makarius points out in Ruins (Flammarion, 2005), a survey of changing attitudes towards decayed architecture, fifteenth-century humanists discovered “the picturesqueness of ruins, which affords a species of delectation that neither nature left to its own devices nor human ingenuity can arouse in isolation: coming across a heap of once proud dross, where ivy and bramble vie with crumbling stone, in which a tree, a hill, and the sky beyond peek through holes in a dilapidated wall, we sense a surreptitious whiff of the genius loci.” The twenty-first century has given rise to a new and especially evocative species of ruin: one that has been permanently frozen in mid-disappearance. High-tech mortar and waterproofing potions now enable field crews to prop up walls bereft of plaster or roofs, and preservation dogma encourages such delicate interventions rather than costly, Disney-esque replications of lost monuments. Tourists are flocking to the snaggletooth, heart-stirring result: a moment in history’s march, writ large, in limbo. Some of these ruins have found their way into WMF’s working portfolio before the needed preservation work has been carried out; each presents its own set of challenges. We asked five caretakers of stabilized ruins worldwide to describe why and how they maintain their landmarks, as well as how they keep visitors from taking home temptingly loose parts as souvenirs.

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