Ruins have always had a romantic fascination - except for the people buried under them in war and disaster.
Edward Gibbon confessed that the contemplation of ruins inspired his life's work on the "Decline and fall of the Roman Empire." I doubt the rest of us would be as intrigued as antiquity had time not shattered and buried so many of its secrets.
The sweet titillation of decay cause Europe's 18th-century nobility to build artificial ruins in its private parks. Dallying admidst broken columns and archs seems to have given the noble-folks a sense of being triumphantly alive.
Today, again, an architect-artist uses artificial ruins to relieve the tedium of an affluent society and to mock its architecture. James Wise and his associates - a group that names itself SITE, Inc. - have re-introduced the architecture of the absurd of 18th-century English country estate to 20th-century American suburban shopping centers.
THe first one was built seven years ago in Richmond. Sydney Lewis, the president of Best mail-order products, was bored with the plain brick box on the edge of an asphalt desert that serves as a Best products showroom. He commissioned Wise to see what could be done to make the building looke more interesting, to use it as an advertisement, as it were.
Glueing a billboard with lots of neon onto the building, would only have stuck it more firmly to the anonymity of suburbia. Instead Wise drew on the polemic expressions of Modern art - Dada, Pop and Surrealism - and used them to run bad architecture into anti-architecture.
Wise, I should point out, does not like the term. He prefers to call SITE's architectural designs "de-architecture," which I would gladly oblige if I could understand the term. His explanation is that "de-architectute is a general way of defining an attitude or means for changing standard reactions to the urban context by using inherent circumstances to alter and/or invert the original intentions of a particular situation."
At any rate, waht Wise-SITE did, was to peel off the corners of the building. That makes us look again in disbelief. It makes us laugh. It exposes the sham of brick veneer. It makes us marvel at the craftsmanship of the bricklayers. And it makes a lot of people drive from far away ot enjoy the joke - any buy Best products.
The next Best showroom Wise designed in Houston is an artificial ruin of a modern building, much like some of the "follies" in 18th-century parks were artificial ruins of Roman buildings. The top of the rectangular building looks as though the roof has colapsed and the facade is beginning to cave in. In fact, a cascade of brick seems to be pouring down, luckily arrested by an entrace portice. The heat, new white color of the building heightens the irony of a modern ruin.
The Houston Best can be seen from a much-traveled freeway and, although it was built three years ago, still causes a sensation. It has been put on the city's official sightseeing tours.
At Sacramento, Calif., only the lower left corner of Best's plain brick box is cracked. Every weekday at 9 a.m. , when the store opens, that whole 14-foot-high cracked corner slides away from the building to let people inside. At night the ragged brick corner slides back and seals the building again. (The corner moves on tracks, pulled by an electric motor.)
People keep coming to watch this wonder of architectural satire and, according to a poor documentary film on what Wise calls "the notch project," keep saying "wow."
At still another SITE, on Hamden Plaza, Conn., a row of automobiles appears to have sunk into the ground.
Again, Wise gives us the sweet titilation of decay. He preaches a witty, but nevertheless poignant architectural sermon on the frailty of our civilizaiton. He mocks what we hold dear.
Indeed, a mother, when she heard about this project, donated the Karman Ghia of her deceased son to be half buried in concrete, covered with macadam as a suitable memorial.
The most amusing aspect of Wise's architecture of the absurd is that he is using it for advertising. In the end, his witty irony may be more expressive of our time than the humorless glass towers downtown.
In a sense Wise's "de-architecture" is a parody of modern civilization. But isn't suburbia?
(Wise will lecute on his work on Thursday, Jan. 26, at 8 p.m. at the Hirshhorn Museum auditorium.)