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  • Designing for decay

    Posted by Anand Pandian on October 12, 2023 at 10:58 am

    Hi all, I’ve started working on a new book project about decay, in economic and natural terms, and also as a foundation for alternative philosophies and cultures of wellbeing. Design has an important place in this book project as I’ve been sketching and imagining it, and I’m interested, in particular, in design practices that pursue a reconciliation with the reality and even the necessity of decay. Contemporary experiments with earthen architecture as an alternative to concrete, for example, structures that must be shored up and maintained through ongoing labor. Or ventures in biodegradable packaging that balance the need for effective containment with the need for decomposition. Or any other way of building into things or places or structures an acknowledgment of the larger life-cycle of growth and decay, life and death. I know there are all kinds of really interesting experiments out there, I’ve been following a number of them myself. But what comes to mind for you? Are there projects or works or writings out there that you know about, maybe even your own? Happy to pursue any leads you might suggest, whether studio projects or existing work or relevant writings, thanks!

    Jonas Johnson replied 5 months, 1 week ago 3 Members · 2 Replies
  • 2 Replies
  • Noah

    December 13, 2023 at 1:02 pm

    So excited to hear about your new project. I have been thinking a lot about decay recently too–although less about ways to build sustainably and about modern ruins. As countries shift from industrial to postindustrial economies the American Rust Belt is being globalized. With more natural disasters, increased urban war, and the possible worldwide population decline by 2100–the rate of ruin production seems unlikely to slow. The next two century may create more ruins than at any other point in human history (which says a lot considering how many ruins were created in WWII). This raises numerous ontological, technical, and ethical questions about what to do about the explosion of ruins throughout the globe.

    On the ontological side, there is the question of what makes a ruin a ruin.

    -One way of approaching this question is by asking, for whom is it a ruin? What is a ruin to a human being is the perfect home for a fox or a bird. While ruins are often presented as ecological blights (and many are)–this is not the case for all ruins. Ecologies are more plastic and adaptable than many give them credit for. Ruins quickly become heavily integrated into ecosystems, some even becoming akin to terrestrial coral reefs. Often it is human inhabited landscapes, rather than ruins, that cause more damage to ecological communities.

    -Another way of approaching this question is to ask, when does a building become a ruin? When it is abandoned? When nature colonizes? When the roof caves in? The most persuasive answer would seem to be when it ceases to be maintained. But even this answer needs nuance. Many ancient Greek ruins receive more maintenance and care than vacant lots in Baltimore–yet they are both “ruins.”

    On the ethical side there is the question of what ruins–if any–are worth preserving? Which ruins should be demolished? And how do we decide?

    -Which ruins should and shouldn’t be preserved has always been contested. As we move further into the twenty-first century we will have to start thinking about what modern ruins are worth preserving and what criteria to use to make such decisions. How do we balance cultural memory with future development? Whose cultural memory gets to be preserved? When does cultural memory trump environmental considerations?

    -The ethics of these questions are made all the more complicated by the legacies of colonialism and capitalism. Many modern ruins are built upon native land. Does preserving colonial buildings perpetuate literal architectures of oppression? Does preserving colonial ruins continue the erasure of indigenous memory?

    -This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ethical consideration of modern ruins.

    Finally, on the technical side, there is the question of what we should do with the ruins we decide to keep?

    -Should they be left to nature to decay or should they be carefully preserved? Should they be turned into parks, museums, and ruin gardens, or left alone? There are many interesting design experiments with modern ruins, some of the most famous being Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord in Germany and New York City’s High Line.

    • Jonas Johnson

      December 17, 2023 at 3:22 pm

      I think there’s an interesting aesthetic sensibility to the “ruin” and “decay” that’s also worth exploring; I’m thinking here of all of the things that we design to “look” ruined, from the jump; a sort of nod to a baroque artistic sensibility that reifies a “time before the fall” with its attendant conservative appeal. As a southerner I think about this in relation to “Lost Cause” imagery and monuments that litter the south, and the genre of the “southern Gothic”—which subverts this mythic vision of the past, instead drawing attention to the festering moral depravity that persists in the present; the images of ruined plantations and landscapes overtaken by kudzu metaphorically summoning the rotten bones of society shaped by slaveholding. (Faulker’s A Rose For Emily might be a particularly compelling reference re: southern gothic lit/ the motif of decay).

      A the same time, interesting to think about how the “weathered” look signals, very much speaking to our own bourgeois sensibilities, something like authenticity. We want to go to a cafe that feels “lived in”—rather than the sanitized corporate spaces of a Starbucks or a Waffle House.

      As an aside, @N_Kulick —Don’t miss our matinee next week! One of the films we’re gonna watch together deals explicitly with themes of decay. Would love to chat with you there!

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