Architecture Program


Date of this Version

Spring 2011


Published in 2A ARCHITECTURE & ART 17 (Spring 2011), pp. 60-65. Copyright 2011 Rumiko Handa.


During my recent trip to England, at a dinner at a friend's house, I met a violinmaker based in London. 1 mentioned that I had assigned my students to design a workshop and small performance space for a well-known American violinmaker, who at that time had a workshop in a small town in Nebraska, not far from where 1 teach. The London violinmaker told me he was organizing people to work on a museum dedicated to violin making. After telling us how he eventually will have a place to display and even to let visitors listen to some rare and old instruments, he turned to me and said, "Of course, the building is going to be astoundingly beautiful." There is certainly nothing wrong with an astoundingly beautiful building. However, this narrow focus on aesthetics, while having helped the profession gain elite status, has alienated the general public from architecture: Consider how small a portion of the world's built environment is being designed by architects. While it is frustrating that a cultivated person like this violinmaker failed to envision the museum building beyond as a beautiful container, architects have a moral responsibility to demonstrate the potential of architecture's physical and spatial attributes to contribute to the cultural and spiritual dimensions of human life. Because ruins are a case in which architecture directly engages visitors in profound experiences, I want to know what attributes and mechanisms, if any, are at work. Taking nineteenth-century Romanticism as the origin of the contemporary appreciation of ruins, I have examined selected works by two literary authors, William Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott.

For Paul Ricoeur, distanciation is "positive and productive," and an essential condition, not an obstacle, of interpretation. Distancing turns the interpretation from the act of obtaining original meaning hidden behind the text to the search of "the world of the text" in front, which "I [the interpreter] could inhabit and wherein I could project one of my ownmost possibilities." As such, the text is self-reflective of the interpreter. Architectural ruins promote "positive and productive" distanciation in at least three ways. First, like any other built objects, architectural ruins have autonomy from their original meaning. Second, the state of destruction and the growing vegetation signal to the viewer the distance of time without requiring any historical knowledge. Third, the fragmented remains of ornamentations and structural elements further emphasize the distance by giving a glimpse of their once-complete state, as in Scott's historical novel, Kenilworth: A Romance (1821).

Included in

Architecture Commons