TO BUILD FOR THE FUTURE
What was once built to demonstrate the grandeur and strength of Sweden, instead ended up as a grand fiasco. The ship Vasa, intended to be the mightiest warship in the world, sank on its maiden voyage 1628 after just a few minutes. More than 300 years later the national fiasco has become a national treasure and one of Sweden’s most popular tourist attractions. Vasa turned out to be more valuable to Sweden as a wreck than a warship and thus reveals another meaning of the phrase ”to build for the future”.
HOW LONG SHOULD THINGS LAST?
Historical remains require a certain degree of decline to evoke the proper sense of authenticity and awe. But not too much, there is a difference between mere rubble and ruins. Ruins have a strange activating effect that rubble usually lacks; they are still distinct enough to contain traces of their own past even to an untrained eye. They function as story-triggers and mythmakers, and there is something for both the historian and the escapist to get carried away about. Ruins do not even need to be very old to be effective as long as they bare witness of a story that wishes to be told.
A certain kind of decline is also considered beautiful. Take for example Kyrkö mosse in Sweden where about a hundred car wrecks from the period 1930 to 1970 is peacefully rusting away. Approximately 5 000-15 000 visitors travel there every year to see the scrap yard. This has aroused the attention of the County Administrative Board, responsible for the protection of regional heritage. They now whish to protect the junk from deteriorating further by keeping it in a state of adequate decline.
But what do we want to save for future generations? Old castles are generally considered more attractive than industrial junk, since castles bare witness of a more romantic and glorious past that we prefer to identify with.
Adolf Hitler is said to have complained about the lack of great monuments in Germany. He compared his situation to Mussolini’s, who could refer to the remains of the Roman Empire as symbolizing the heroic spirit of Rome. Thus, in 1934 the architect Albert Speer proposed "A Theory of Ruin Value" on which Hitler's dreams could be based. Speer decided to use materials and principles in buildings that would result in great ruins after hundreds or thousands of years of decay. Concrete and steel girders were banned.
Nevertheless, it is concrete and steel girders we have come to associate with Hitler’s Germany. A few years ago a Dutch businessman planned to use old Nazi bunkers as an amusement park, as if cotton candy and funny mirrors would be the perfect match in his imagined Bunker Wunderland.
Someone once said that a mad man is a man with no memory, no history. History is identity, on a personal as well as national level. The Japanese archaeologist Shinichi Fujimura was legendary as he single-handedly pushed back the origins of Japan by 700 000 years. He unearthed hundreds of stone artefacts throughout the years and was called ”God’s hand”. In 2000 a video recording revealed that he was hiding fabricated artefacts for him and his colleagues to discover later. The nation was chocked. It was a crime against the nation ”that could never be forgiven”, as an outraged colleague phrased it.
Fabricated remains do not have to be frauds, though. Much in the manner of European 19th century romanticism, ruins are still being built. The Swedish artist Jan Håfström was commissioned to activate a park in the Stockholm region and chose to build a small grass covered ruin. It was not only fit for sunbathing, but also intrigued the locals and visitors. What kind of park was this and what was its history? The odd appearance of the small stone structure became a catalyst for the interest and imagination of people using the park.
FRAGMENTED POINTS OF VIEW
The fragment is usually more evocative than the complete image since we are forced to engage ourselves in tracing the missing pieces. But the pattern that emerges of course differs quite a lot, depending on who the viewer is. When Gagarin travelled to the ruins of the Peenemünde rocket base, he was deeply touched. His journey to the stars had begun there, with Nazi rocket science. But it was also a place where tens of thousands of slave workers had been forced to work under horrible conditions.
VITALIZING BY VANDALIZING
In 2001 the Taliban regime in Afghanistan blew up two large Buddha statues in their effort to reshape the country into their vision of a strict Muslim nation. The world was outraged. Koffi Anan pleaded, Muslim scholars from all over the world condemned it as an act of barbarism and an Afghan veteran revealed that he had not cried during 20 years of war, but that the sight of the ruined Buddhas brought tears to his eyes. All of a sudden the whole world realized that Afghanistan was not only a place battered by one war after another, but a country with a unique cultural heritage.
When the USA some years later prepared to attack Iraq, they in a similar way brought a piece of art to international public attention by removing it. Before holding a speech and press conference at the UN Security Council, it was demanded that the reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s mural ”Guernica” should be covered. This of course made the media focus on the original purpose of Pablo Picasso’s antiwar image. It was obvious why Guernica wasn’t a suitable backdrop for Colin Powell advocating a war on Iraq.
Another more harmless kind of vandalism has turned into a local Christmas tradition in Gävle, Sweden. It started already in 1966 with the building of a 10-meter high goat, made out of straw. It was burnt down the very same night. It has been built and burnt down every year since then, except on seven occasions. Betting on the survival of the goat started in England in 1988 and has become increasingly popular. The police have apprehended only one man during all these years, an American who claimed that he participated in what he believed to be the local customs. The burning of the goat has created a lot of media attention for Gävle. Last Christmas, after the goat had been burnt down by two men dressed up like Santa and a gingerbread man, a local politician admitted that the illegal act had brought some gratifying side effects with it.
WHAT A WASTE?
Mistakes make the world go around. We fail most of the time in our intentions and we don’t always know beforehand what we need. We have to try things out first.
When a new Town Hall was going to be built in a Dutch town, the inhabitants were invited to take part in the election process. A proposal by an Italian architect won and the Town Hall was built. But when the building was finally finished, it turned out to be difficult to appreciate. The citizens once again voted and the Town Hall was demolished they had the courage to try and they had the courage to change their mind.
In Las Vegas on the other hand, buildings are being ruined all the time. Implosions are as common as neon and also considered a popular entertainment. The void in the cityscape is quickly filled again with yet another casino or hotel.
But there are voids that can’t be compensated. How does one visualize a loss? Numerous proposals were sent in for a German national memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. It has been a much-debated topic for many years. The artist Horst Hoheisel proposed an extremely radical solution, by refusing to abide to the unwritten law of memorial-building. He proposed that the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin would be blown up, ground to dust, spread out over the memorial area and covered with granite plates. The proposal very precisely points out what is considered possible and not. It can also be read as a warning: Do not fill the void with grand but lame gestures, keep it open. A loss is as tangible as physical matter.