In the countryside outside Paris is the landscape garden of Ermenonville, within which is the Temple of Philosophy. At a glance the temple appears to be a ruin, an example of the eighteenth century cult of ruins, the predilection for picturesque moments of decay. The temple is not, however, in ruin, but in a state of incompletion. It bears the inscription (in Latin), “Be this temple unfinished like the science [philosophy] whose name it bears”. This allegory of the imperfection of human understanding is further represented by symbolic manoeuvre of having six whole pillars of the temple standing, each of which bears the name of a philosopher (Newton, Descartes, Voltaire, Montesquieu, William Penn and Rousseau), and a further column lying in the grass, engraved with a question: “Who will complete it?” A further three uninscribed columns lie on the ground, emphasising that this is, in fact, a building site.
In Passaic, New Jersey, 1967, a highway was under construction, a process requiring some demolition, as Route 21 had to slice its way through the centre of the city. Staring at the processes of demolition and construction Robert Smithson imagined the whole as a kind of "unitary chaos", not the tumbling ruins of a picturesque scene, but “ruins in reverse". This uncertain and poised condition, a confounding of the temporal, comes about because “the buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built." ('The Monuments of Passaic', ArtForum December 1967)
In the City of London the IRA bombings of 1992 caused massive damage, curtains flapped from the facades of skyscrapers, glass and paper rained down onto the streets below for days. Scenes fused into my memory, from the years of working in London. Scenes revived by Patrick Keiller's film London, where the static shots linger at several points of the devastation, and the narrator is perplexed by the spectacle, since the piles of rubble look as much like materials yet to be utilised, and he muses that it is difficult to distinguish the bombing sites from the building sites which had been so numerous just a few years before.
2009, just near the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia a large building site is simultaneously a site of demolition and construction. Piles of rubble, building materials, salvaged stone from historic walls, reinforcing steel seemingly sprouting from walls ... a sense of the cyclical, the riddle of the fragmentary, ruins in reverse ...