The Power of Ruins


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“Will it make a beautiful ruin?” That was the question Basil Spence asked about the nuclear power station he was designing in Trawsfynydd, Wales. This was back in the 1960s, but it was forward looking. Spence, an architect (he designed the famous Coventry Cathedral in England), was aware of one simple fact: Nuclear power plants are functional for a relatively short period of time before they are put out of commission and replaced by newer, safer designs and technology. The abandoned plant is filled with radioactivity that makes it unusable for anything for a long time. A cathedral is designed with the idea that it should stand, and function, for a very long time — perhaps beyond time. A nuclear power plant is designed with the knowledge that it must become a ruin, and rather quickly. It is born to die, and then to sit as a corpse, a testimony to the strange and unsettling function it once had.


The human comfort level with nuclear energy has, arguably, increased in the last few decades. But radiation will always be scary. Perhaps our fear is in inverse proportion to our ability to feel or understand the effects of radiation with any immediacy. It is the silence of radiation that is troubling, the invisibility. It is disturbing to think that you could have received a lethal dose of radiation and never know until it is too late, until the body has been corrupted from the inside out. The fear in Japan right now, as the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant continues, is one driven by not-knowing, by the impossibility of knowing exactly what is going on. This ignorance mingles with the realization that silent powers are reshaping the landscape. A nuclear ruin is being born.

This has happened to us before. Chernobyl is a strangely beautiful place now, 25 years after its nuclear disaster. It is a horrible beauty. Pripyat, the town that housed the workers for the nuclear reactor, has a lyrical quality. It was abandoned quickly and with the haste that makes for uncanny scenes of seeming occupation with no one there. Nature has crept back into the empty spaces. Discarded objects of daily life take on the quality of archeological artifacts. Dolls dropped and left at the local kindergarten look as if they have been there for a thousand years, or were just dropped yesterday. That is exactly what is compelling about all true ruins. They are present and absent at the same time. And yet, the era that gave the ruins context and meaning has faded away. Ruins give a fleeting sense of tangibility to what is lost forever: the time that is utterly irretrievable.

Amongst ruins, there is a mood. Wordsworth captured an aspect of that mood in his poem “Tintern Abbey”:

And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

What is it that we understand about life, about the world, when we see it through our ruins? It isn’t simply the fleetingness and mortality of all things. It isn’t just the inevitable decay that pulls down all, no matter how great. It isn’t mere nostalgia. The 18th- and 19th- century Romantics did, of course, hit all of these notes in their fascination with ruins. But these feelings of lament do not capture the positive aspect of ruins, the way that ruins seem to add beauty to the world. It is a melancholy beauty, no doubt, but the pleasure that can be derived from that melancholy beauty is undeniable. Maybe the beauty of ruins cannot be analyzed any further. These mysterious places out of time, within time, are able to hold their mystery. That very fact is wonderful enough. Why, then, wouldn’t ruins express themselves in beauty? It seems they always have. The ancient Greeks were troubled and fascinated by the ruins of the Mycenaean civilization that had left its ruins to them. As long as we have had civilization, we have mused upon its ruins.

It is appropriate to the nuclear age that radiation unintentionally gave us a way to create instant ruins. The German Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schlegel already made the point 200 years ago that “[m]any works of the ancients have become fragments. Many works of the moderns are fragments at the time of their origin.” Radiation has the power to grab portions of the world and make them give off the same aura it normally takes generations to create. We are watching something like that happen right now. A “zone of alienation” — as the Soviets dubbed the area around Chernobyl — is being created in Japan around Fukushima as we speak. A portion of the planet is being cordoned off and removed from the space-time continuum the rest of us inhabit. In a few months it will be a ruin, too, as old as the oldest places we know, lonely and uncanny in its suspended state, preserved as a living relic to the present we are still making. • 22 March 2011