The NYTimes published an incredible article about Michigan Central Station, a Beaux Arts train station that hasn’t been in use for the past twenty years. It now sits abandoned, a 20th century ruin. Its walls are covered in grafitti, the fixtures have been stripped and plundered. The images are haunting and beautiful, and the article tells the story of a building that is a symbol of its city’s decline and depression. Read it, look at the pictures. Incredible.
Ok, so urban ruins. People have been interested in them for centuries. Piranesi taught us to see ruins as tools to help us design a grander future. The Romantics saw ruins as manifestations of the picturesque, as the ultimate expression of the patina of history. When we allow buildings to go to ruin, we allow ourselves to contemplate the insignificance of human time, the power of nature to overcome any feat of human ingenuity or creativity. But how do we allow buildings to go to ruin and not allow our economies to do so alongside them? Do ruins only signify a defunct society, spoils of the march of time, or can ruins be incorporated into a vital, contemporary city?
Personally, I love broken down old brick buildings. It’s why I moved to Boston from California, and if I’m honest with myself it’s why I want to work with cities. There’s something about them, it’s probably the Romantic in me. And as you know, I think that old, scarred buildings are instructive and important parts of the contemporary city. However, I also know how crippled a city can be by its ruins, its archeological history. A friend of mine once said that he “felt sorry for Rome for having so much history.” I didn’t understand it at the time, since I think a city that has so much history is so fantastic. But now that I consider the realities of urban planning, it is hard to avoid the fact that if your city is built on top of a sacred past, you are deeply stymied in your attempts to create a distinct future. Not to mention the fact that you retain a constant reminder of the days of prosperity in a country that is falling farther and farther behind in the global economy. Italy has the Colosseum, and fewer home computers than most other developing countries.
As you’ve probably realized by now, I’m more fond of rhetorical questions and think-pieces than actually proposing solutions or having opinions. But here goes. My opinion of Michigan Central Station? Let it stand. Let it stand, and leave some of the graffiti. Cover it with glass, make it an asset. Create a photo installation of all of these incredible shots that photographers have been taking, blow them up and make them large wall components. Make a sound installation in the stairwells of the wind whistling through the vacant building during a winter storm. Don’t turn it into a shopping mall. Or, do turn it into a shopping mall but leave some columns from the Station strewn across the ground…it doesn’t get more Roman than that. Maybe Detroit will start making Vespas.
*While I’m at it, I want to let you know about a gorgeous photo blog, Nathan Kensinger Photography. The blogger posts photos of “the abandoned and industrial edges of New York City”, and he also does a lot of research about history and development on the sites he shoots. It’s incredible. Also check out the Feral House prints at 20×200, and After Nature, an incredible exhibit at the New Museum that I can’t stop thinking about even though it was 2 years ago — if you ever get a chance to check out Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness, do it. *