In Praise of Roadside Ruins

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WHATEVER is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. . . .

When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are, delightful, as we every day experience.

Edmund Burke (1729–1797), On the Sublime and Beautiful

Although traditions of the sublime tend to exalt the ruins of monuments, there is also cause to praise the ruins of common buildings. One type of these is the abandoned prewar wood-frame farmer’s house. These houses dot the highways of the rural landscape, usually sitting adjacent to cropland or pasture land.


THE taste for . . . . picturesque decay cannot thrive without a sense of progress for which it fulfils the role of brooding, sometimes gleeful, unconscious. . . .

“Ruin lust: our love affair with decaying buildings” Brian Dillon, The Guardian



RUINS embody “the triumph of time over strength, a melancholy but not unpleasant thought.”

Lord Kames, Elements of Criticism (1762)


TARKOVSKY had a particular fondness for ruins, especially the color and texture of old walls, and would point out choice specimens to her on their walks around Moscow; the results of the researches can be seen in all the films . . . . the ruins perform a narrative function, are visually fascinating in their own right . . . strike sympathetic chords in our own subconscious . . .

The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue By Vida T. Johnson






The house depicted in the above photos is located near Beauregard, Alabama. It was likely a sharecropper’s house. The faux-brick asphalt siding cladding the walls was one of the materials used to renovate these houses during the Great Depression by the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service (ACES).

© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2014


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