Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Well-designed, well-built obsolescence.


Rendering showing the proposed design and placement of a old ruins installation that I was commissioned to build on a property not that long ago.



Part of the allure of ruins is their rustic beauty. Many seekers of such an aesthetic enjoy being around old looking garden structures because they are usually made of a very attractive material - stone. 

Stone ages well. It looks good when its old. Things that are made of other materials decay and deteriorate and rarely look as attractive. 

People don't like too much dilapidation.  Most types of deterioration are not beautiful or all that inviting.  Let's face it broken plastic, wet cardboard, warped plywood, rotting beams are not as attractive as stone. It has a dignity in decay.  It has a noble decline. Even for those who are not sure they like the look old things, stone is a perfect medium to explore and not get too depressed . For this reason stone buildings made to look unfinished or partly fallen seem attractive because their obsolescence is planned.  There is a sense that we are still in control.

It is curious how reluctant many masons, even dry stone wallers, are to produce something that looks less than new and perfect. They don't want to give up any control. It is as though they are not at peace with the 'inevitable', They are not reconciled to the fact that even stone buildings deteriate. Stone is not immortal and stonework contrary to popular opinion isn't going to be around forever.

A stone waller who is able to make a structure genuinely look like a ruins is not so insecure. He is not afraid to explore the effects of time. When asked to build a dry laid ruin he can dedicate his attention and skill to celebrating the limitations that time imposes (and will impose) on every stone he places. There is a satisfaction that comes with building something that looks like it has come to terms with the inevitability of time.


History lingers in stone buildings, even ones that are not that old. This is partly because the stones are so old already. They have history.

Combine this quality of stone with a vision for what would look appropriate on a property and a mason who knows what he's doing and you can create a very believable, very attractive tribute to the ephemeral. There will be this subtle dynamic of contrasts - the durability of stone purposely arranged in a state of impermanence.

The craft of aging something, be it distressing a piece of wooden furniture, painting objects to look old, or making any number of antique artifacts, is not as easy as it looks.The same is true for making stonework look old. A proper ruins is not something you construct by building it badly.

Rev William Gilpin in his essays on the 'picturesque' wrote in 1794  that " There is great art, and difficulty also in executing a building of this kind. It is not every man, who can build a house, that can execute a ruin. To give the stone its mouldering appearance — to make the widening chink run naturally through all the joints—to mutilate the ornaments — to peel the facing from the internal structure — to shew how correspondent parts have once united; tho now the chasm runs wide between them — and to scatter heaps of ruin around with negligence and ease; are great efforts of art; much too delicate for the hand of a common workman; and what we very rarely see performed."

To accidentally come across a well built stone ruin is a magical experience, no matter how old it is. To be given the opportunity, and to have the ability to make such a relic, is a special privilege. Those of us who work with stone have the responsibility to do it right. If it looks too new or too perfect it will defeat the purpose. If it is built with too little care, in terms of it merely ending up looking 'bombproof' or not showing any hint of impermanence, people will wish it had never be put there to spoil the view.

1 comment:

  1. I think you really hit the stone square when you said "A proper ruins is not something you construct by building it badly." the same goes for rustic construction, people associate poor craftsmanship with a cottage feel, its frustrating for a mason or waller i'm sure. - Fike

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