Architecture Program


Date of this Version



The International Association for the Study of Traditional Environments, TRADITIONAL DWELLINGS AND SETTLEMENTS WORKING PAPER SERIES, Volume 205, 2008. Pages 1-19


Copyright 2008 IASTE


Each year all over the world, from Acropolis to Jerusalem, from Angkor Wat to Machu Picchu, tourists flock around ruins. They are fascinated by the lives of the people who are long gone, displaced for political, cultural, or unknown reasons. Ruins entice the visitors' imaginations because of the physical and metaphysical incompleteness - missing roofs, decayed stones, or lost way of living, which once kept the buildings alive. While some ruins of historical significance are set for preservation by lawful designations, some buildings are turned into hotels and other tourist facilities.1 New buildings are also constructed mimicking the form but with newly available materials and technology. These constructions often have little to do with the original purpose or meaning, arguably corrupting the significance of the building they refer to. Studies of various cases with their specific sets of issues will address the questions concerning the appropriation of the lost past. No longer reflecting the ways of life and construction, traditions in many parts of the world are showing the signs of the lost past. Examinations of why and how ruins are given new life will therefore contribute to the discussions on the epistemology of tradition.

This paper will examine the fascination toward architectural ruins as it appeared in Britain during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, drawing from selected literary authors, including William Wordsworth (1770-1850), George Gordon Byron (1788-1824), Walter Scott (1771-1832), Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), and Henry James (1843-1916). The nature of literary imagination and that of architectural ruins that prompted such imagination will be examined, in order to articulate the type of values that motivated the authors. Theirs was a new type of fascination. In the middle of the eighteenth century, the people had come to distance themselves from the aesthetic, political or religious implications of the original construction or the cause of destruction, especially when the buildings had been broken and defunct for some time. They began to admire the ruins for their age value, in Alois Reigl's terms, clear in their decayed stones and growing vines. They were drawn to engage their imaginations on the past glory of men who went before them and the fragility of human existence in comparison to the powers of time and nature. What is the most important in relation to the contemporary discussions on the epistemology of tradition is, I will argue, not the fact that the ruins held the viewer's admiration despite its insufficiencies and inconsequential additives but the fact that the ruins motivated imaginative contemplations because of these qualities.