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Ruin | Material


Most often the aged surfaces are authentic; however, sometimes they are artificially produced. Materials such as brick, stone, plaster, wood, and concrete usually appear worn and gritty. In some examples, the decaying and deteriorating surfaces seem to consume the entire interior. Designers heighten the effect by contrasting the aged surfaces of the building with slick, contemporary pieces of furniture.


The majority of examples within the Ruin category come from adaptive re-use projects. In adaptive re-use projects, designers assign a new function to an historic building. In one of the more provocative examples, Plazma Studio converts a Soviet-era bomb shelter into a dance club. In another example, a former power station is converted into a restaurant. Most often the conversions occur in old factories or warehouses because these building types provide the greatest flexibility due to their generous floor plans, high ceilings, and large windows. Moreover, these structures rely on sturdy means of construction and often have thick masonry walls and large timber posts and beams, durable materials that also reveal their age attractively. The weathered materials along with any historic detailing make these interiors unique.

Attitudes concerning the value of old buildings have changed significantly, most notably in America within the last fifty years. Stewart Brand, author of How Buildings Learn observes, “It used to be that old buildings were universally understood to be less valuable than new. Now it is almost universally understood that old buildings are more valuable than new.”1 The work of historic preservationists has greatly contributed to this ideological reversal.

Brand credits the writings of French archeologist A.N. Didron and English romantics John Ruskin and William Morris for establishing the underlying philosophies of the current preservation movement. Didron’s ideas expressed in Bulletin Archeologique (1839) continue to serve as a maxim for modern preservationists. Didron writes, “It is better to preserve than to repair, better to repair than to restore, better to restore than to reconstruct.”2 Ruskin builds on these ideas in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1848). In this text, Ruskin cautions against the dangers of falsifying history through restoration. According to Ruskin restoration, “means the most total destruction which a building can suffer: a destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered: a destruction accompanied with false description of the thing destroyed.”3 In 1877, Morris attempts to put these theories into practice by founding the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, thus initiating England’s preservation movement.

Despite the recommendations from Ruskin and Morris to preserve rather than restore historic structures, this method does not become common practice until the 20th century. Brand terms the opposing methods of restoration versus preservation as “scrape” versus “anti-scrape.” Brand writes, "In the intensely public debate it was Victorian “scrape” versus Ruskin’s and Morris’s “anti-scrape” – tear off the plaster to expose ancient stones (even if they were plastered originally) versus Leave the Building Be, including the original plaster and everything that was added later to keep the building working. “Scrape” won the 19th century, “anti-scrape” the 20th."4

In the United States most preservationists continue to adhere to the “anti-scrape” method as outlined in The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. This document first published in 1976 has undergone subsequent revisions. It continues to set the rehabilitation standards that building owners and designers must follow in order to receive government incentives such as tax credits.

The U.S. government established the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1949 but the government became even more invested in this cause in 1966 with the National Historic Preservation Act. Prior to 1966, advocacy groups increasingly pressured the government after failed attempts to prevent the demolition of historic structures such as New York’s Penn Station destroyed in 1964.

Urban renewal projects leveled not only individual buildings but entire neighborhoods. This could have easily become the fate for New York City’s district south of Houston Street, referred to as SoHo. Now an economic powerhouse, SoHo teetered on the edge of complete collapse in the 1960s. The manufacturing and light industry that had sustained the area since the end of the Civil War had moved outside the city to larger factories that could better accommodate modern manufacturing processes.5 The neighborhood’s distinctive cast iron buildings mostly abandoned became a venue for criminal activity.

Landlords desperate to recover their losses soon found themselves renting to an entirely different client. Artists who could no longer afford the high rents uptown began to migrate into SoHo. The neighborhood’s industrial buildings provided an ideal environment in which for artists to conduct their work. The artistic community that settled in SoHo not only revitalized the neighborhood, but successfully lobbied for less stringent zoning ordinances so that residential and commercial activities could coexist in the same building.

The general public became increasingly interested in loft conversion, especially when the film industry began using these raw, edgy environments as the residences for bohemian characters. For example, films such as "An Unmarried Woman" (1978), "Desperately Seeking Susan" (1985), and "Fatal Attraction" (1987) reveal the unique, even thrilling experiences associated with loft living. The rough, worn surfaces of these unconventional living environments appeal to the public because they appear less confining. Whereas the pristine, sterile surfaces of new construction may inhibit adaptation, aged interiors actually encourage occupants to transform the space to meet their specific needs. This applies not only to lofts but to structures such as farmhouses, barns, and warehouses. Brand explains, "What these buildings have in common is that they are shabby and spacious. Any change is likely to be an improvement. They are discarded buildings, fairly free of concern from landlord or authorities: ‘Do what you want. The place can’t get much worse anyway. It’s just too much trouble to tear down.’"6 This “do what you want” attitude suited 1960s artists who often worked on very large canvases and applied paint using experimental techniques. Today this accommodating environment has mass appeal for both residential and commercial activities.

Even more appealing than a Ruin’s adaptability is the complex story embedded within its walls. Brand recognizes that even the most humble historic structures possess a unique spirit. Brand writes, "They are not distinguished-looking. What such buildings have instead is an offhand, haphazard-seeming mastery, and layers upon layers of soul. They embody all the meanings of the word ‘mature’ – experienced, complex, subtle, wise, savvy, idiosyncratic, partly hidden, resilient, and set in their ways. Time has taught them, and they teach us."7

The story of any historic building resides within the material layers of the interior. Similar to how an archeologist uses stratification to date unearthed artifacts, preservationists can date the individual material layers within a building to uncover information about its identity at a particular point in time.

In the most recent examples of Ruin, designers go to great lengths to present the evolution of the building even if that means sealing badly deteriorating surfaces that have clearly been neglected for many years. For example, the Couvent des Recollets in Paris, constructed in 1604, has recently become home to Maison de l’Architecture, an architectural cultural center. The building originally functioned as a convent but later served as a “military barrack, textile factory, hospice for incurable diseases, military hospital, university teaching hospital, and school of architecture.”8 Abandoned since 1990, the building became home to a group of artists who filled the walls with expressive markings. A fire in 1992 displaced the artists and prompted authorities to board up the building, which has remained unoccupied until recently.

The architects commissioned for this project, Karine Chartier and Thomas Corbasson, worked carefully making interventions only where they were completely necessary. For example rather than repair cracking and peeling walls, they preserve the decay with a protective varnish. This single decision has quite a powerful effect on the interior. The highly textured surfaces of the walls seem to overwhelm the space, loudly proclaiming the building’s rich history; a rich history that according to Corbasson is still unfolding.

“The Maison de l’Architecture is still a work in progress,” says Corbasson, as he stops to pull a stray bent nail out of one of the café’s tall beams. “We’ve removed 500 nails, maybe 1000,” he laughs. “Just like the history that can be read on the building’s timeworn walls, it will probably never be finished.”9

Ruin proves to be a vigorous interpretation of historic interiors.10

end notes

  1. 1) Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn (London: Penguin Books, 1994), 109.
  2. 2) Brand, How Buildings Learn, 94.
  3. 3) Brand, How Buildings Learn, 94.
  4. 4) Brand, How Buildings Learn, 94.
  5. 5) Willkie Farr & Gallagher, Special Space: A Guide to Artists’ Housing and Loft Living (New York: Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, 1981), 14.
  6. 6) Brand, How Buildings Learn, 24.
  7. 7) Brand, How Buildings Learn, 49.
  8. 8) Judy Fayard, “Aged to Perfection,” Interior Design (May 2005): 264.
  9. 9) Fayard, "Aged to Perfection," 268.
  10. 10) Evidence for the archetypical use and the chronological sequence of Ruin as a material  was developed from the following sources: 1970 Maison Robert Restaurant [1973] Leslie Larson, Interior Design; Boston, MA in Anonymous, "Maison Robert Restaurant," Interior Design 44, no. 4 (Apr. 1973): 133; PhotoCrd: Randolph Langenbach; 1980 Robert A.M. Stern Office [1987] Robert A.M. Stern; New York City in Herbert L. Smith, Jr., "Postmodern Paradox," Architectural Record 175, no. 7  (June 1987): 105; PhotoCrd: Anonymous; 1990 BAM Majestic Theatre [1992] Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer (HHPA); New York City in Anonymous, "Hall of Fame: Hugh Hardy, Malcolm Holzman, Norman Pfeiffer," Interior Design 63, no. 16 (Dec. 1992): S21; PhotoCrd: Durston Saylor; Pucci International [1994] Cozzi Design Group; New York City in Rus Mayer, "CDG," Interior Design 65, no. 4 (Mar. 1994): 131; PhotoCrd: Antoine Bootz; Chelsea Market [1997] Jeff Vandeberg, Architect; New York City in Abby Bussel, "Super Market, Interior Design 68, no. 11 (Sep. 1997): 211; PhotoCrd: James Shanks; 2000 Eisner Communications Office [2000]; Renovation, Bagby Furniture Co. Building [1992]; Chris Bank, Walter Trujillo, Gensler-Washington D.C.; Baltimore, MD in Monica Geran, "Industrial Devolution," Interior Design 71, no. 6 (May 2000): 278; PhotoCrd: Paul Warchol; MASS MOCA [2000] Bruner/Cott + Associates; North Adams, MA in Victoria Newhouse, "Analysis," Architectural Record 188, no. 6 (June 2000): 114; PhotoCrd: Nicholas Whitman; Wapping Arts Center [2001]; Adaptive Use, Wapping Hydraulic Power Station [1890]; Joshua Wright, Architect, Shed 54; London, England in Suzanne Trocme, "Power Play," Interior Design 72, no. 12 (Oct. 2001): 249; PhotoCrd: Anonymous; Southern California Institute of Architecture [2002]; Adaptive Use, Freight Depot [no date]; Gary Paige Studio/GPS; Los Angeles, CA in Joseph Giovannini, "Southern California Institute of Architecture," Architectural Record 191, no. 7  (July 2003): 140; PhotoCrd: Tom Bonner; Rubin Chapelle Boutique [2003] Selldorf Architects; New York City in Jen Renzi, "The Raw and the Cooked," Interior Design 74, no. 4 (Apr. 2003): 200; PhotoCrd: Eric Laignel; Maison de l'Architecture [2005]; Renovation, Meatpacking Plant [no date]; Leander Grayson, Chartier-Corbasson Architects; Paris, France in Judy Fayard, "Aged to Perfection," Interior Design 76, no. 7 (May 2005): 262; PhotoCrd: Eric Laignel.

bibliographic citations

1) The Interior Archetypes Research and Teaching Project, Cornell University, (accessed month & date, year).

2) O'Brien, Elizabeth. “Material Archetypes: Contemporary Interior Design and Theory Study.” M.A. Thesis, Cornell University, 2006, 77-85.