Maybe It’s Okay

Almost anything taken to an extreme is bad. If we say every building is worthy of preservation, then we condemn the centers of our cities to obsolescence as all development is forced elsewhere; if we say nothing is, then we lose the physical presence of our past. This is not a particularly deep thought, but it’s what came to mind as I browsed the virtual Museum of Collapsed Buildings. There’s a wide range of pictures there, ranging from actual collapsed and collapsing buildings, to ancient ruins, to architects’ visions, to active demolition. There’s nothing distasteful there, but in some ways it feels like ruin porn.

For example, in the “actual collapsed and collapsing buildings” link above, we’re looking at what’s left of a house in a decaying neighborhood in Camden, New Jersey, a poor city that has seen better days. In other words, we’re looking at the remnants of people’s home, in the remnants of their neighborhood, in the remnants of their city. It’s hard to avoid the accusation of voyeurism or slumming.

I need to make it clear that I’m not saying there’s something wrong with the Museum site. Several of my posts here are obviously open to the ruin porn accusation. I’m saying that there may be something wrong with how we look at abandoned and decaying buildings. Buildings are inanimate objects and cannot have their feelings hurt or be disrespected. But historic preservation is based on the idea that those objects are cultural focal points and therefore can represent a great deal to people in terms of memories, emotions, and a sense of their society. That doesn’t mean that abandoned buildings should be treated as shrines – I’ve been in a lot of buildings that were abandoned and near the point of demolition, and they are generally unpleasant and often dangerous – but maybe we need to work harder to strike a balance between aesthetic and technical analysis on the one hand, and the cultural values being lost on the other.

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