The Good Ruin
Things go, or so you let them. In the neighborhood where I grew up, in the years in which I was growing up, there was just one road sloping up a hill. At first, there were no houses on this hill, then one, two, several—all standing in wait. Many of the houses on the hill filled up, one by one, year by year: turgor pressure, water balloons, a green hose thickening in the lawn.
High on the hill, the quarterback of my high school’s team would get on the bus at its penultimate stop, not looking at me or anyone really, and we would all go to school that way, us kids from the Ridge, and over the years we did only the usual damage to each other, the usual names and phrases, and the quarterback went on to Ole Miss on a football scholarship, and received a DUI, and dropped out, and in the summer came north again to his house on the hill with the stone lions outside, and all my friends told me about this even though we had never spoken to the quarterback, and I remember thinking how funny it is to talk about your old neighborhood always in the past tense when life goes on there, balls flying and people talking, and I remember how one night, skidding like a loose puck on the highway, the quarterback died, and we could tell the story that way forever.
There are houses before there are homes and stories and unread mail. There is not always a home before there is a ruin.
Where I’m from, developers lay the roads first and draw the lots later. Each neighborhood starts out as an asphalt sigil, a brand upon the land, black and dense and full of fumes. Lining this network are invisible buds, plots of weedy earth that, if cared for properly, might sprout a house with windows looking out onto the world.
In my youth, I spent many weekends walking those buds—construction sites that were not yet houses or homes. I would cut through back yards and the invisible electricity of dog fences to arrive at the hill’s crown, where there were usually fresh remains to exhume: uninhabited frames of blond wood, sheeted in Tyvek house-wrap, with glassless windows and screen-less porches, gravel driveways, skeletal walls you could walk through, stairs without balustrades, Jacuzzis shining white in the saw dust mire of an almost bathroom, living rooms that soared like the insides of some cathedral. And why not treat it that way, like a temple, or a pulpit? A quiet, gathering mass?
People say they feel solemn, even contemplative in such places. Even if it exists without history or context, a ruin inclines us towards a feeling of reverence, or maybe melodrama. For years, I found so much to think about in those structures caught in between nothingness and somethingness. Who might live here when it was finished and sold? Which rooms would be their favorites? How would they decorate the hallways, the foyer, the patio out back? What kinds of pain would they inflict upon each other? What kinds of love? When I was thirteen, friends of my family began building what many agreed was our neighborhood’s largest house, a four-story affair with a theater ensconced in the basement and a balcony hanging like a sty from its face. Other neighbors moved out. School zones shifted. I buried two pet mice in cigar boxes in the woods behind my home.
Can the start of a thing not also be its ruin? Or must it all work chronologically: A Life → its departure → relics and remainders? Would it make a difference if I told you many of the houses under construction were never sold, that a mortgage bubble would burst, vanishing all pending offers, and that some of the sites are still there, still just gravel and wood, abandoned before they were found? Would it be fair to say that a ruin communicates through time, that its language is both past and future? The good ruin is an artifact as well as an omen; it is a house held up in the hills against the Tennessee sky, gathering water in its foundations, growing weeds from wood, dreams from leaf litter. Children pass through its empty belly, stare out from the ribcage and wonder.
We all left—for college, for the military, for sports, and cities, and show business. My parents live in a bigger house on a bigger hill now, and sometimes, when I happen to be “home,” I will go with an old friend to visit my old house. All the trees are gone, he says to me. And I look, squinting at my old backyard, trying to see if he’s right.
After the quarterback died, I read an interview with one of his friends in our local newspaper. The friend regrets not savoring his time with the quarterback more, echoing the sense of missed opportunities many of us feel in the wake of someone’s departure: “I don’t know where that fine line is where you have meaningful conversation and you’re not just catching up with people… I don’t know if you can develop a formula for that. I don’t know how you do that correctly every time.”
Who among us really has that formula? Who among us can get it right every time? It’s why I live on the other side of the country now, in a state with few hills of tree and shade. It’s why even the houses that were homes to me feel like ruins now and again, isolated on their mental isthmuses. I grew up, or mimed all the actions and hormone shifts that phrase implies. I left my home, my house. I touched the walls, smelled my fingers, lay on the carpet bare watching the fan that last summer day as orange wasps plied the crabapples and grass grew an easy inch in the yard.
Here on the other side of the country, I clip toe nails and grade papers. My apartment sits near the intersection of two busy streets. On the many nights when I can’t sleep, it’s nice to hear the cars passing on Broadway, the undergraduates rippling down Euclid. Every hour or so, the Union Pacific makes a run for it, dopplering past my position.
From my living room, I can see a pool that will soon be filled in to make a broad patio for barbeques and birthdays. My building manager drained the pool at the beginning of summer, but then the monsoon season came and never really left, filling the pool with a murky cess, contents unknown. The water has the look of tar to me some mornings, and makes me think of things extinct and yet not vanished.
Last Friday, I asked my friend to take me to a set of domes in the desert north of here. She drove us in her grandmother’s old Chevy, the two of us speeding one hour north on I-10 with the windows down. When we turned off at Casa Grande, we could see the domes already: four structures in all, covered in graffiti (some of it neo-Nazi) and large, irregularly shaped scars where the buildings’ outer shells had fallen away to reveal a layer of orange insulating foam. Three of the buildings were shaped like segmented caterpillars, the fourth like a UFO fused to the ground. My friend and I arrived as the sun was starting to set, and spent about an hour wandering around the premises, stamping our feet to hear the echoes. We found mutilated computer parts, sprigs of wildflower, the flyblown carcass of a bird inside a truck tire, and shards of rock that would look nice set in our graduate student apartments (think cow skulls on the tops of fridges, folds of coral on the bookshelves). Walking through each dome, I took pictures, trying to capture the light which spasmed across curved ceilings and uneven floors. When the golden hour hit, I stood in the fourth and most magnificent dome and asked my friend in her sundress to pose.
Urban studies folks on the internet like to talk about ruin porn, an artistic tradition—if you want to call it that—in which ruined places such as the Casa Grande Domes are photographed and aestheticized into a kind of hipster gestalt. Ruin porn’s favored medium is the digital image, often with an additional gloss of editing to make the graffiti poppier, the shadows gloomier, the daylight through a shattered door frame more haunted-looking. There are as many types of ruin porn as there are ruins, from the pastoral (dilapidated barns, rusting plows, fields lying fallow) to the urban (empty streets, wasted apartments, humbled billboards), and suburban (“sprawl porn”—the type I practiced, camera-less, in my youth). Not all ruin photographs should be defined as ruin porn, but almost all of them are sentimental in some way. They are high-contrast and rich in tones of gray and ocher. And yet they rarely reveal more than what they depict. As John Patrick Leary writes in an essay on ruin porn and Detroit: “So much ruin photography and ruin film aestheticizes poverty without inquiring of its origins, dramatizes spaces but never seeks out the people that inhabit and transform them, and romanticizes isolated acts of resistance without acknowledging the massive political and social forces aligned against the real transformation, and not just stubborn survival, of the city.”
In other words, ruin pornographers have a shallow depth-of-field. They are concerned with capturing the look of a gone space before it is more gone, similar, perhaps, to their interest in preserving—with their musical taste, their choice of footwear—any other retro style that is attractively passé. Few ruin pornographers work with future archaeologists or historians in mind. In their images, the emphasis is on neither form nor content but emotionality and self-expression. For ruin pornographers (and I would include myself sometimes in this category), ruins can be oddly tender. We use them as backdrops for artsy photos and as destinations for the drives we take with lovers we will probably leave. In turn, the photos we bring home from the ruin are used to communicate something about ourselves: our pessimism for social progress, perhaps, or our attachment to things we believe others have forgotten. What is being fetishized in our photographs is not a physicality—an architecture or an interior decorating scheme—but a system of feeling. The ruin pornographer’s true subject is not the ruin itself but homesickness, loss, elegiacs.
Why do we circle back to these places then? A few well-lit shots would suffice. Why do we place ourselves, repeatedly, in locations, actual rooms, that were known and later vacated by people we will never meet? Is it misplaced nostalgia, the yearning for a life we never lived but somehow feel has passed us by? Or is it something less cloying than that?
I find pieces of ruin porn difficult to place in geography. There are usually no people in these images, and much of the bric-a-brac people leave behind looks similar in photos. Part of ruin porn’s appeal to me might be its apparent lack of tribalism, the way the photographs introduce viewers to a kind of all-space. Who hasn’t seen something ruined? Who hasn’t watched a post-apocalyptic or historical film in which all becomes rubble? For me, ruins are about nostalgia, but they are also about this feeling of access, and of play. A ruin functions as architectural litter. It is publicly shared. To get into such a place, you often just lift the barbed wire and sidle on in.
When I was still a teenager in Tennessee, I went on a hike with my friends to the North Carolinian border. It was spring break of our senior year, and all of us were waiting anxiously on college decisions, trying to see the future in the form of institutional names in our email inboxes. On the slope of a low mountain, we found a house, or really just the husk of a house, lines of stone and grout sketched in the April air, and among the trees was the sound of cicadas humming, and below that the sleek tuning of leaves, and below that our voices, braided into the humid hollow of the ruin, which had only three sides and no roof and which was split down its middle by a little brook which came gushing in from the east-facing wall.
You can stand in someone’s former residence, someone’s former life, only so long. Our teenage bodies constellated that space. Our eyes probed at every stone and root but always returned to the emptiness of the west side, where no wall stood, just a great gap through which vision might issue.
Before we left, my friends and I lined up like pigeons on the wall of the house with no roof to look into that gap. It’s so nice here, one of my friends said, and I wasn’t sure what “here” she meant. Here in the ruin, or here in the Appalachian South? We sat looking into the west, into the valley where most of us had come into the world, and I want to say I was not the only one who at that moment felt like I was missing a place before I had even left it, as if I knew, or could recognize from a past life, the look of this departure.
So often, I think, I confuse home for ruin and ruin for home.
After college, I left another set of rooms that felt like a home. I went to China, where I traveled for a year. It was 2014, and the Chinese building boom was ongoing. City skylines were clogged with cranes, traffic snarled in roadwork. Every second and third-tier city seemed to be building a new train station, or airport, or both. Even in older, more established cities, new houses and apartment blocks were going up in every direction, the country building itself upwards in infrastructure and self-esteem.
The absurd pace of recent Chinese urbanization—what Daniel Brooks has described as “time-lapse urbanism”—has coincided with a zeitgeist for Chinese ruin pornography. Western media outlets churn out a steady stream of articles and photo-essays lamenting city blocks and villages which were bulldozed to make way for development. On the other hand, the newly sprouted cities are described as “sterile” or “lifeless”—ghost cities before they were even inhabited. Looking at Kai Caemmerer’s photographs of the new Chinese city in “Unborn Cities,” one sees moody, sulfuric clouds above empty apartment complexes, Blade Runner-esque dystopias emptied of people, glass leviathans crawling across a dusty field. While the ruin pornography of America might be viewed partially as a broadside against late-stage capitalism, commuter culture, and the decay of an urban middle-class, the ruin pornography of China shifts the critique to top-down planning, unsustainable growth, and grandiose, Potemkin aesthetics. Both types, however, are shaped by a notion of social hubris: Who were we to think that we could live like this?
On a good day in China, I would stumble upon an empty apartment city in Xinjiang or the soggy leftovers of a farmhouse in Guizhou. There were weathered tombs in Ningxia to inspect, and crumbling transport depots in Sichuan to consider. There were so many ruins with stories I could only guess at (post office → restaurant → nothing?), and rooms with rotted-out ceilings adjoining rooms where lao baixing still ate and slept.
One ruin I remember quite distinctly was a multi-room apartment just east of Xi’an’s Muslim quarter where I went on a last date of sorts. Exploring an abandoned building with a temporary lover is like visiting a museum where all the art says something about your mismatched natures. My lover and I looked at floppy discs with no readers, torn newsprint with no headlines, left-footed shoes with no rights. In the apartment’s honeycomb of rooms (all the doors and furniture had been removed), we conducted a tiptoeing dance. He would exit a room and I would enter. He would stand at a broken window and I would wait a few paces back. A ruin is all surface, is all open rafters, or tattered curtains, or lichen blooming on stone. There is, literally, no integrity to the ruin as a space. It does not hold you there, nor does it make it easy for you to stay. It presents you with signs, and all these signs feel portentous of a coming end. Look at that, my lover said, and I looked across the room. Lying in a nest of rags was a blue-eyed, blonde haired doll, her limp body covered in a fine, light-bearing dust. As last dates go, this one was amicable, an end both parties felt resigned to. After I had taken enough photos, we left the apartment and went down a smoky alley full of meat peddlers. When I stopped to buy an egg, my soon-to-be-ex-lover turned in the crowd and gave me a distant, questioning look, a look I gave back to him later, twice wrapped in the sheets, a look that said this has been great, but yeah, I’m ready, let’s call it.
I am, like many ruin pornographers, interested mostly in the temporary ruin, the ruin that will not be set aside by local authorities for chisel and brush work, that will not be re-inhabited in latter days by tour guides and families on vacation. I pine for the ruin that will eventually leave no trace, which will be reconstituted without ceremony into its built / natural environment.
It is this ruin without written record that bears the most emotional weight for me, not the ruins whose stories are so well-known and staid that they may as well be set-pieces, parts of ruin canon. In the unknown ruin exists the potential for speculation dissociated from knowledge, dalliance without comprehension. I like the ruin that I can know for a moment and then unknow, that feels like an extension of the senses and so is visceral: this lighting, this texture, this old and yet fecund smell.
In a way, the ruin can be a body, the body a ruin. The pornography of both humans and buildings seeks to reduce this corpus to a feeling, a color, a set of repetitive postures and lightings. I enter a new ruin and enact the same predictable photographic situations. I zoom in on a child’s belongings scattered across the bedroom floor, make art or porn of the broken panes in the windows, the lonely boot prints in the dust. In my reproductions of the ruin, I invest its surfaces with feelings of foiled desire or loss, and enjoy myself greatly in this process.
I must confess that I am not terribly interested in the ethical debates that rage in certain corners about ruin porn. On the spectrum of objectifying and fetishizing trends in visual culture, ruin porn seems relatively benign to me, and yet that does not mean that this type of peeping doesn’t warrant pushback or self-critique. What is gained, communally, in the aestheticization of ruins? What is lost or evaded?
When I visited the village of Little Likeng in Jiangxi Province, a woman in her eighties sat on her stoop and screamed at me to stop what I was doing. She was concerned, it seemed, about a crumbling white wall I had lined up in my frame, and though I couldn’t quite understand the local dialect, the gist of her words was clear: No pictures! No pictures! No pictures!
I believe I was a little ticked by the stridency of this local woman’s denial, how she had seen through my imagined invisibility and read me as the enemy. Like many travelers, I often operate with the idea that I am different from the moneyed riff-raff passing through a place, that I possess a higher order of appreciation, a respectability to my voyeurism that should shine through in my politeness, and—in China at least—my grasp of the local language. I like to think that I am one of the good apples, unaffiliated with the boorish incomes on holiday, and so the woman’s yells reminded me that I was not so different from that amorphous rest: the honeymooning Chinese couples and boozy backpackers and sundry Germans with guidebooks. I was not from that place, and therefore brought with me evidence of Little Likeng’s “discovery” by tourism and the ensuing reconfiguration of the local economy around that precious but nonrenewable resource of “looking old.”
This tourism of the old and ruined can be an incredibly awkward business. Like all of the tourists who come to Little Likeng, I had bought a ticket at the village’s gate. I had passed through the turnstiles, walked the quaint dirt path and paused for effect on a wobbly boardwalk over the lily pad strewn pond. It was difficult for me to divine a clear line between the village as “attraction” and the village as a home to various individuals, people whose mundane lives had been spruced up as an attractive experience for paying customers like myself. Walking somewhat guiltily through Little Likeng’s streets, I couldn’t help but think that if the appeal of a place is how different it seems from the globalized, deracinated everywhere, then maybe I should not be looking at all. Maybe I should let such places be, or at least keep my camera at home.
In China, the fates of places like Little Likeng seem already set. Walking into town, I saw above me a white viaduct several dozen feet above the tallest local building. I was told by a shop keep that it was a newly constructed arm of China’s high-speed rail system, and that trains were already bringing crowds 200+ kilometers an hour from Hangzhou and Nanjing to nearby Wuyuan. The question of access, in other words, was already a moot point, or rather a line scrawled onto the sky, visible from every corner of the village.
After my scolding by the old, white wall, I walked to one of the village’s many abandoned houses. Out in the house’s main room, someone had applied a collage of newsprint and old photos to the walls, and left two clothes hangers hung askew. I saw a color still from an early 90s television show called Yi Cun Zhichang, or “The Village Head,” as well as a few photographs of people who probably used to live in the house. In one of the ground floor rooms, my cell phone light illuminated a black-and-white photograph, blown up to poster size, of a nubile young woman, as well as a large map of China. What furniture was left in the house included a dining table and a dresser. Looking directly above the dresser, I stared into the eyes of Mao’s famous portrait.
Standing before the smirking Chairman, in a house otherwise gutted, its contents in disarray, I had the suspicion that I had stepped into a time capsule artfully left behind for visitors to ponder. Look how it all changes, the paper collage on the wall seemed to say. Watch how a family lives and then leaves, producing, years later, these brief simulacra, these vicarious memories, these scenes without actors. I wondered how long a family or families had lived here. I wondered if they had known the old woman by the white wall when she was not so old, if they had stayed, as she had, to watch the white line of progress draw itself above the village, to witness the tourists riding in on tandem bikes, the jeweled fish gone scarce in the streams, the art students from the cities making sketches of fruit on all the bridges. I wondered about loss, and the weird, masturbatory thrill we get from looking at its leftovers.
“Hello?” The voice startled me. I turned to find a handsome young Chinese man in a very pink oxford shirt.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“I’m just looking around,” I told him, somewhat sheepishly, like I had been caught in a not-just figuratively pornographic act. The man only smiled and gestured for me to carry on with my photo-taking. He wore a tool belt, and as he walked about sinking nails into the walls, he told me that the house was one of the village’s oldest, that its walls were essentially rotting, and that he, the new owner, was racing the termites and the clock to get it renovated.
“Renovated into what?” I asked.
“I’m turning it into a hotel,” the man replied. “Next time you come to Likeng, you must stay here!”
As I travel, I keep finding these broken structures, some peripheral, some at the very center of things. Everywhere, apartments and malls and synagogues are being torn down, entire districts leveled as countries recycle their built environments. Everything is passing, it seems. You feel you should pass with it for a time.
It is not lost on me that most of the ruins I gravitate to qualify as broken homes, that the ruin I appear most drawn to is a domestic one, and thus a metaphor for the family as ruin.
Yet I come from a home that remains nuclear: my parents carpooling each day to their jobs at a lab where America used to refine its uranium; my sister reading anime and chatting online; my brother and I scattered to different cities but easily recallable each holiday season. I come from a home that has strained against its foundations but never broken, that has been middle class and now upper-middle class, that has kept its walls and its privacies intact.
In the end, my affinity for ruins, for broken homes, is not really about me, or not just about me. It is the leavings of other people that lead me to these ruins, people I can assume had something here, and then lost it. The ruin fills not with sorrow or desperation or anything so maudlin, but with lack, with lacuna, with a call to be answered. Maybe you start as a pornographer and try slowly to become an archaeologist. Maybe you worship the surface but try, warily, to steer your mind deeper into the cess, which is an archive of sorts.
Just as images of the body can be either pornographic or erotic, so too can images of ruins. Barthes writes that the distinction here is between heaviness and lightness; while the pornographic image presents a heavy desire, fixing the lust object to the page as something static, unmoving and unmoved, the erotic image initiates a lighter want or need. The viewer is invited, with the erotic image of a ruin, to flit outside the frame into a “subtle beyond.” His attention is not so much grabbed as it is met, and thus engaged, he comes to think of the atmospheres surrounding that ruin, to imagine for it histories and also possibilities—a way backwards or forwards into loss. This loss is not tied to any specific person or thing we know. And yet we care about it, this anonymous, useless feeling. It’s why we turn off the highway when we see an empty ranch in the distance, why we always look for the windows which are broken, and the barn doors that hang discombobulated. It’s why even as I live on this side of the country, I think of all the houses standing empty on a hill. We come to know each ruin as an iteration of something real, a projection of that most intimate ruin, the home we left first, whose lines we trace over every subsequent room we inhabit and then depart, ad infinitum and still one more.
Thomas Dai is working on his doctorate in American Studies at Brown. His writing and photography have appeared or are forthcoming in Guernica, The Offing, Southwest Review, The Rumpus, and Southern Review.