the Forgotten Ideal

My friend John lent me a book last week, Hudson Valley Ruins by Thomas Rinaldi and Robert Yasinac. It took me several days to get beyond the academic publisher production values to finally see the beauty that this book is. Encyclopedic research — breadth and detail of truly heroic proportions — is spun into sensitive and occasionally haunting narrative.

The forgotten ideal referred to above is, the authors say, the 18th and 19th century conception of the Picturesque which had all but gone out of favor in the 20th. Ruins and relics that had once been valued, even cherished, were seen as blight or
nuisances at best.

The Picturesque**, as I personally interpret it, is a cousin to aspects of Romanticism**. The Romanticism of the Keats/Shelley/Byron is a melancholy of majesty-- a meditation upon Antiquity. The temporal aspect is a transportive state of mind. Washington Irving noted, "I longed to wander over scenes of renowned achievement...to meditate on the falling tower...to escape, in short, from the commonplace realities of the present." (As quoted in Hudson Valley Ruins)
Proponents of the Picturesque rhapsodized the beauty, the "sublimity," of the interaction of the forces of man and nature. Americans of the 19th century were especially proud of the country's vast landscape-- which, to them, embodied the potential and the freedom of the "young and vigorous" nation. The effects of wear of were prized for their evocation of the fleeting passage of Time. Ultimately, though, the eccentricities of the Picturesque seemed to become too easily subsumed by Victorian sentimentality and the "charm" of a passing scene:

... That beauty of ruins that is so rare with us in America— the nameless charm that.... always surrounds an old decaying structure that has played its part in the world, and seems resting and looking on dreamily, only an observer now, not an actor. –William Cullen Bryant, from Picturesque America (1874), as excerpted in Hudson Valley Ruins
In the 19th century, Rinaldi and Yasinac say, the Hudson Valley was lauded as the Rhine of the New World. And as the inspirational beauty of the valley became dotted with the moldering remains of Revolutionary-era forts and Dutch colonial manors-- all the better. The "modern" ruins of the recent industrial past hold a fascination too. Rinaldi and Yasinac discuss cement factories, mills, railway remnants, valve companies, pill manufacturers and ice works. They reveal a particular aspiration, I think, when they fleetingly touch on the appeal of industrial and utilitarian structures for artists like Charles Sheeler (see the authors' very Sheeleresque image above) and Bernd and Hilla Becher. The authors detail with equal enthusiasm a Wharton family residence, the Anaconda Wire and Cable Co. (a notorious former polluter*) and an old Dutch barn. I just love the masses of information in this book, told with a Humanist sensitivity.
A quote about Ruskin particularly struck me:

Ruskin promoted the idea that the process of aging and weathering was what perfected good architecture. That age was a building's "greatest glory." He wrote of "the mere sublimity of the rents, or fractures, or stains, or vegetation which assimilate the architecture with the work of Nature... (emphasis is mine)
I talked about this last year in my post about inexhaustibility and wabi-sabi. I'd found a comment by British designer Russell Davies, One of the things I hate about the design of most things ... is they're all designed to be new.” Obvious, but somehow I hadn't quite thought about it that way. And that pinpoints the problem I have with much of the really bad iterations of Modernism, and, (shiver) "Fedders" architecture– they won't make good ruins.

* "I seen all kinds of oil and sulfuric acid, copper filings; my gosh, they were coming out of that company like it was going out of style. I've seen lubro oil and I've seen #2 oil. All over Anaconda, off the dock, you could see this stuff coming out....This was entering the river on a daily basis, you know." First hand commentary about the Anaconda Company from PBS/NOW documentary, The Hudson: America's First River
**update/note: I'm amending my definition of Romanticism and Picturesque. A large component of Romanticism is about man and nature— as is the Picturesque. I think I'd emphasize the distinction between the two with a sense of action and turmoil (Romanticism) and its aftermath (Picturesque).  ----

Images, from top: The Course of Empire: Desolation, Thomas Cole, 1836; Alsen's Portland Cement Works, Smith's Landing; Oliver Bronson House, Hudson, NY. From Hudson Valley Ruins

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