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Ruins

As cities go, Detroit is pretty much the ultimate American example of what can go wrong. From its height during the heyday of the auto industry, the Motor City fell hard, strangled by freeways, unbalanced by “white flight”, and battered by the decline of US automakers. Attempts at jump-starting the ailing downtown were mostly miserable failures, in particular the fortress-like Renaissance Center.

It took until the 1990s to see any serious signs of recovery, including major investment in renovation and new construction. Today, downtown Detroit is still full of abandoned buildings - shacks and mansions, skyscrapers and factories. (Visit DetroitYES and Forgotten Detroit for a photo tour of some of the most remarkable of these. And perhaps most poignant of all, see the photos from Sweet Juniper of the Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, still full of rotting books and educational materials - “a warehouse full of abandoned hope.”)

Naturally, all this has made the city a magnet for urban explorers in search of “lost” places to discover, and others drawn by the peculiar romance of urban decay. Writing in Metropolis magazine, Camilo José Vergara put forth a fanciful but entirely serious notion:

Cloud Gardens Parkette

“I propose that as a tonic for our imagination, as a call for renewal, as a place within our national memory, a dozen city blocks of pre-Depression skyscrapers be stabilized and left standing as ruins: an American Acropolis. We could transform the nearly 100 troubled buildings into a grand national historic park of play and wonder, an urban Monument Valley.”

Not surprisingly, preservationists and downtown boosters were aghast. “If you allow nature to win back man-made objects you are being anti-urban,” one argued. “It’s an insult to America, to what America stands for,” another told the New York Times.

Personally, I love the idea (though I can understand why Detroiters, ever-sensitive about their city’s reputation, would be especially touchy about it). Ruins serve as a sort of memento mori on a grand scale, reminding us of our mortality. They’re not tidy or comfortable. They nudge us toward thinking about time and life, on a scale that’s bigger than our own lives.

And when ruins become overrun by the wild again, they can also be reminders of the endless abundance of nature, that power of rebirth I wrote about a while back. And, as Vergara argues, “Such buildings need to be preserved as symbols of the aspirations they represented when built.”

Gardiner Expressway pillar during demolition (City of Toronto Archives)Thinking along the same lines, artist John McKinnon headed a project here in Toronto to preserve the concrete pillars from the eastern leg of the Gardiner Expressway. The kilometer-long elevated spur, a vestige of a plan to extend the expressway all the way through Scarborough, was torn down in 2001, but the pillars remain as a peculiar tribute to the spirit of “Big Daddy” Gardiner’s Toronto (I’m sure he would have been livid). Stripped of the dangling bits of rusted rebar, tidied up and refinished (how very Toronto), the pillars are slowly being overgrown with ivy.

Another “deliberate ruin” here in town is the Cloud Garden Parkette near Bay and Adelaide (pictured above). Architects Baird and Sampson, together with artist Margaret Priest, took inspiration from Giovanni Piranesi, whose etchings of Roman ruins had captured the imagination of 18th-century Europe. They set out to design and construct a Modernist ruin, with beams and rough bits of wall peeking through here and there. It’s a bit contrived, but the park itself is delightful, somehow creating all kinds of intimate, contemplative spaces all packed onto a relatively tiny lot - dense without feeling crowded. All that and a greenhouse with a little rainforest conservatory too. But I digress.

The Bay-Adelaide Centre, circa 2002The parkette was built as a concession by the developers of the Bay-Adelaide Centre. However, before the office tower was completed, the 1980s office-building boom in Toronto staggered to a halt, and for years a vast concrete stump loomed over the Cloud Garden - a real ruin next to a fake one. (The story is told in more detail in Robert Fulford’s book Accidental City.)

Now, at last, a tower is being built on the site. It fills in a significant gap, but I’ll miss the Bay-Adelaide Stump. Okay, as a memento, it was more a reminder of financial folly than of impending doom, but it was like our own tiny, tidy version of Vergara’s historic ruins park.

Even ruins aren’t forever.

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