The Beelitz Sessions - Ulli Richter and Christoph Knoch


City and ruin in culture and psyche

Ruinophilia, Ruinenlust and the ruin gaze

Ruinophilia is embedded in the modern psyche. More than 300 years after the discovery of the ancient Roman cities buried by Mount Vesuvius' cataclysmic eruption in the year 79, the ruin, complete with imagery and symbolism both grandiose and apocalyptic, is assured of its place in western culture.

Ruins are “signifiers of civilization and barbarism, creativity and destruction… [and to] be seduced by the beauty of ruins is an experience as inescapable as it is old”. To feel, at least in a virtual sense, the resonance of these words written by two ruin scholars in their preliminaries to the book Ruins of Modernity, one need go no further than the first video attached to the Encyclopaedia Britannica's online entry on Pompeii. In this short sequence the seductiveness of classical ruins, with a dreamy quality that reveals the timeless reality of empires long since fallen and the ruination that will inevitably befall all civilisations, is communicated to the viewer.1

From the middle decades of the eighteenth century when increasingly systematic excavation of Herculaneum and Pompeii gave birth not only to the science of archaeology, but to a melancholic longing for antiquity and a fashionable taste for picturesque atrophy, the ruin was celebrated, mourned and in a multitude of ways lionised in European arts, literature and society. It was at this juncture in history that the Rococo gave way to the classical revival, and then ascendent Romanticism added yet more layers of aesthetics to the ruins of an ever-expanding range of eras and styles.2

In the latter half of the eighteenth century the Germans invented words to name and describe the complex psychogenic processes set in train, as well as the emotions experienced, when encountering ruins. Ruinenlust, Ruinensehnsucht and Ruinenempfindsamkeit are such words. These compound nouns are more expressive of the elusive, almost ethereal feelings evoked by the contemplation of ruins than their crude English counterparts. Ruinenlust is