Inside the Collection


Painting of Roman ruins by Barzotti
Painting by B. Barzotti. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

I love ruins, and I’m not alone in this taste. A fair swag of the world’s most visited tourist sites are ruins: the Forum, the Great Wall, the Pyramids and so on – it’s an impressive list.

A ruin is not a building damaged by storm, flood or earthquake. A ruin is a building abandoned to decay and neglect, sometimes before it was completed. In the West the passion for ruins reached a peak during the 1700s and 1800s, when the ruins of classical antiquity sparked a tourist craze and a belief that history was cyclical, a chronicle of the rise and fall of civilisations and empires. Architects produced elevations of their new buildings as the picturesque ruins of the future; others designed fake ruins, creating a false history for their clients.

Ruins demonstrate the potential transience and folly of every project or industry. The newer the building the more poignant is this fate. Hence modern ruins have a particular allure.

The disused Paddington Reservoir has been converted into a submerged public park, a project which has won its architects several awards and created a space which is both relaxing and ruined. However such projects are rare in Sydney, where buildings are seldom given a chance of becoming ruined. Recently I acquired an artwork from the Skygarden shopping centre; built at Pitt Street Mall in 1989, Skygarden survived less than twenty years before being demolished for the new Westfield Centre.

Modern ruins are more plentiful elsewhere. As well as its historic ruins, Italy also does an excellent line in modern ruins. A recent study documented more than 360 public buildings left uncompleted in Italy. The greatest concentration of these ruins was found in Giarra, a town of 27,000 people in Sicily. Giarra’s ruins include a polo stadium with seating for 20,000 spectators, a motorway bridge which ends in mid-air, an abandoned municipal swimming pool and a crumbling open-air theatre. With the townscape dominated by ruined structures, Giarra initiated a Festival of the Incomplete, inviting artists, film-makers and performers to interpret and celebrate its ruins.

Another hotspot for ruins is the USA. While Italy’s modern ruins are primarily products of political failure, deindustrialisation is the force in the US. Several cities have suffered dramatic losses of industry and population, leaving behind not only disused factories but department stores, churches, office towers, hotels, schools and other major buildings. The most spectacular example is Detroit, former capital of the US car industry, now increasingly famous for abandoned public buildings including its former railway terminal, Michigan Central, as imposing as New York’s Grand Central. About one third of Detroit’s city area is now ruined and abandoned.

Detroit’s cityscape of deindustrialisation has produced a small boom in photography and documentary making, as well as special-interest tourism.

International movements of industry and expertise are not new, but are certainly more common and fast than ever before. Detroit is far from unique. In its heyday Cadillac or Mercury cars were the most sought-after consumer products in the US. Today’s equivalents would probably be the products of Apple, designed in California but manufactured in decidedly less glamorous circumstances in China.

The moment when Detroit was truly doomed was not when it became cheaper to build cars elsewhere. More crucial was the moment when better quality design and production was also happening elsewhere. It might seem as preposterous as the Japanese and Korean car industries once did, but the odds are that Detroit’s fate will one day be that of Silicon Valley.

Empty roofless older power station before it became the Powerhouse Museum
Old power station site pre Museum. Collection Powerhouse Museum

The future of every civilization lies in ruins. The Powerhouse was a ruin for twenty years. Are you prepared to bet that it will never return to that state?

4 responses to “Ruined

  • I have a facination with industrial ruins and architecture. I am not aware of any available register for such ruins or re-used buildings like the Powerhouse or the raiway workshops in Redfern. A few that come to mind are the bottle kilns in Portland, blast furnace in Lithgow, oil shale plant, Cockatoo island, tin smelter in Hunter hill, etc. Could be an interesting list. Indeed, could be the subject of book like the many locomotive books.

  • Hello Hette,

    I think there are a lot more recycled industrial buildings around these days than derelict ones. The AIA now offers awards for recycled buildings among its annual awards. I think the popularity of recycling has to do with similarity of the ‘ruins’ aesthetic to deconstruction and statement-making in contemporary architecture. For whatever reason, arts companies have a particular liking for recycled buildings.

    Most Australian ruins are in rural places, like the shale oil works at Newnes, although there are some urban exceptions. The decaying streetscapes of central Newcastle and Hunter Street persist despite a lot of effort to find uses for the buildings and quite a bit of recycling and new development.

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