LHAN2 - Debris


Debris - 2009_...

Sujet : Le débris

Auteur : David Gissen

Consider the term debris. It originated in France in the eighteenth century and signified a type of broken, scattered substance once part of a standing building or structure. Its etymology differed from the earlier words moellon or décombres – ‘rubble’ –which referred to the type of stones left over from ruins, extracted from quarries or used in paving roads. Within early modern French architectural writing, authors used the term debris to describe the dispersed and often atomized remains of structures leveled by cataclysmic events – typically by war or natural disasters. Rubble, in contrast, suggested something potentially salvageable and local (in terms of its proximity to the building of which it was once a part). The emergence of debris, as a word, coincides with two important architectural developments: in the eighteenth century we see the increased use of gunpowder in European warfare (alongside research into its effects on architectural targets), and also a corresponding growth in the archaeological documentation of the surrounding fragments from destroyed ancient structures.

This latter form of research differed from Renaissance investigations of Roman ruins by taking in the totality of bits that once composed the buildings of antiquity. An analysis of debris, in this sense, is different from the examination of architectural fragments from ruined sites, which generally referred to the study of former building elements as distinct from their surrounding remains. Additionally, the investigation of an architectural fragment could still be referred back to some specifically physical referent – a column, an architrave, perhaps even an entire structure. Debris, on the other hand, refers more to a collection of unrecognizable matter; debris is about taking in the total spatial transformation wrought by violence and disaster; and debris speaks of the ways former structures transform the nature of their surroundings.

Julien David Le Roy (1724–1803) and Gabriel- Pierre-Martin Dumont (1720–1791) were two of the earliest architectural theorists to discuss debris and provide it with a specifically architectural visual character. Le Roy, in particular, travelled to the Ottoman-controlled regions of Greece, where knowledge of classical structures was limited to the writings of Vitruvius and to surveys of the surviving temples of Paestum, and his resulting drawings provided the subsequent groundwork for two movements in architecture – neo-classicism(and the adoration of more simple Greek architectural typologies) and the style that would eventually become known as the picturesque (emphasising the slow creep of nature on decaying buildings).His contribution to both has been well documented by architectural historians like Robin Middleton and Dora Wiebenson, but the reception of Le Roy’s work obscures other significant ideas resonating through his images of Greek ruins that relate (and ultimately complicate) these earlier interpretive themes.

Although many of the structures examined by Le Roy were in a ruinous state as a result of the ravages of time and the encroachments of nature, his most important image (of the Parthenon) represented a singular and man-made cataclysmic event. What LeRoy was examining in the ruins of the Parthenon in Athens was not a well-aged, slowly decaying building but rather the victim of an 80-year attack beginning in 1677 by Francesco Moresoni and his Venetian forces. He wrote, for example, of the explosion that ripped the building apart, and his image of the Parthenon blown open along one side, with building fragments scattered across the hillside, provided architectural theory with an evocative emblem of debris. In this image we see the human destruction of an important ancient artefact and the resulting transformation of that artefact’s surroundings – an act of violence and territorial effect that typifies the earliest images of debris. This is far more than a dialectic between an ideal type and the onrushes of time. Rather, coursing through Le Roy’s image is the notion that in one flash of a moment – ‘type’ and ‘nature’ become atomised.

The idea of destruction implicit in Le Roy’s studies of debris becomes much more explicit 100 years later in the work of another French architectural theorist and inspector of ruins – Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc. In his examinations of key French monuments, this architect, theorist and preservationist explored the remains of numerous buildings throughout France, and whereas Le Roy provides us with an emotive and atmospheric concept of debris, Viollet-le-Duc imagines debris as the consequence of the rational and destructive engineering apparatuses that punctuate a history of warfare. For instance, in his book, Annals of a Fortress (1872), he explores the numerous sieges that befell a hypothetical French stronghold, and consistently uses the term débris as away to capture the physical residue of this violence – notably through the effects of the boson or battering rams which attacked the foundations of strong hold walls in much the same way as modern artillery. Like Le Roy’s images, in Viollet-le-Duc’s drawings the ground becomes a site filled with shards, stones and other material remnants. But unlike Le Roy, absent here is any sense of the picturesque. Instead, through Viollet le- Duc, debris is located purely as an index of destructive forces and violence, so where we might identify the image of debris within Le Roy as a mixture of ancient and modern worlds, type and nature, within Viollet-le-Duc’s imagery debris is simply that remaking of a former building’s surroundings through warfare – an image of debris, significantly, that continues to this day.

Where Le Roy and Viollet-le-Duc developed some of architecture’s earliest images of debris, something we might term an architectural theory of debris did not emerge until 80 years later, in the mid-twentieth century and the aftermath of massive warfare at a global scale. While earlier wars unleashed incredible destructive forces, it was during the Second World War for the first time that enormous cities in Europe and Asia were flattened, transformed into accumulations of rubble. Architects reacted to the debris-laden cities that emerged out of twentieth-century warfare in a number of ways: for the European ciam group the ruined state of the continent’s great metropolitan centres presented an opportunity for re-imagining cities as blank slates obliterated of their pre-modern histories. Some architectural thinkers, such as Ludwig Hilberseimer, even wanted to abandon cities altogether, concerned as he was with the increasingly catastrophic nature of modern warfare, particularly the effects of nuclear fallout. But for another group of postwar architectural thinkers, the ruined sites of European and Asian cities were opportunities for reflection on the residue of destruction itself – the massive accumulations of debris – that these cities had become.

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