Proximate Ruins and the Building 500 Project

by Timothy Webmoor

How are Ruins?

No doubt ruins are the stuff of the archaeological; abandoned, forgotten buildings and objects left to decay. And of course discovered, recovered and gazed at; traces connecting us, now with then, that. This also is conventionally the stuff of the archaeological. The (neo)romantic impulse to stand amongst what was lost to (volitional) memory. To connect up settings and things of another time with here and now; to be where we never were.

Yet how are ruins? How does stuff going about its own way be a ruin? I suggest it is more than semantics. The moment we walk into ruins temporality, clock time is blunted and thing ‘time’, the smell, stillness, disorder, and visible decay – already there, patiently persisting – catches us off guard like an ocean wave and washes over us. We might speak of tidal time. Sometimes we are swept amongst oceanic relics: from the minutiae of golden lichen on south facing concrete walls to surrounding mining structures and contaminated landscapes. On other occasions it is a passing encounter: perhaps moving through a single, saddle-notched cabin in the woods. The materials themselves largely determine the encounter. It is limn: a transitive threshold encounter when ruins, as such, come into being. How are ruins? Ruins are in this orthogonal ‘moment’: chronometrically it does not connect past with present or future. This comes later through archaeological documentation, research and conservancy. Instead, the ruin-condition links the other way, embracing things, buildings, plants, us, and life-fellows. It is more material conduit than temporal connection.

Proximate Ruins

In the Spring of 2003, several archaeologists from Stanford University entered a nearby building in the Silicon Valley that after 100 years of fairly continuous use had been abandoned by its former tenants and was slated for ‘demolition’ (Figure 1-2). Inside, the two-story, open plan felt particularly hollow with wall partitions, pieces of large mechanical equipment and most ‘softening’ decorations removed (Figures 3-17). It was as you might expect from an abandoned locale, reduced to what was unwanted, broken, insignificant or simply overlooked. The fascination consists in abducting the use-value calculus in operation during the final departures. And as our voices reverberated off the exposed, chipped brick walls we performed our own perambulating mathematical tally of sorts, dividing what remains from what must have been to suggest what once was – now removed. This was especially true in the east wing of the building, where the open 300 square feet offered very little visibly except what was suggestively absent. An automotive smell of metal soaked in oil; ruddy stains of rust mixed with grease clinging to spots where once large instruments had been bolted to the concrete floor; tell-tale indicators of the building’s former relations with mechanical engineers (Figures 9-10). There was more that brought to the senses a loud and busy fabricating lab for engineers testing prototypes: a conspicuously yellow compressed air tank left in the southeast corner (Figure 11), stacked lubricating oil cans, high capacity electrical conduit and panel, decade’s worth of fine metal shavings swept from the feet of machinery into the drain running North-South through the floor (Figures 16-17).

Passing through a single doorway in the northwest led up a ramp and into a narrow space cramped with hastily constructed offices, now hosting crumbling drywall and fallen tiled roofing once suspended from the ceiling. Moving around these offices into the West wing presented a very different material encounter. Inert circuit boards aligned in sheet metal cabinets, anonymous pieces of plastica, water control valves, temporary framing for partitions, finished concrete floors along with floor platforms; all materially presenced a more controlled and intimate atmosphere of electrical engineering experimentation.

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Prior to ruin refit – mixed-media video 

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Figures 1-17

The archaeological team had several weeks to document the building before a process of ruin refurbishment began. By the Autumn of 2005, the temporary ruin was opened as the current Stanford Archaeology Center. Originally constructed in 1902, the Terman Engineering Laboratory was built to be a teaching lab for electrical and mechanical engineers, equipped with both classrooms and large, open air labs with ample room for equipment manufacture and testing. A search in the university’s Maps and Records Department and University Archives revealed the life cycle of this building – designated 02-500 on the university’s campus grid. Until unspecified ‘alterations’ in 1962, the building was continuously utilized. It operated, we might say, as a structural ready-to-hand, caring for the engineers and research activities throughout the academic year. After 1962, according to the archives, the building’s life began to undergo accelerated modifications:

  • 1977 ‘women’s restroom remodeling’
  • 1979 ‘internal combustion engine lab’ added
  • 1982 ‘computer room remodeling’
  • 1986 ‘compressor installation’
  • 1988 ‘machine shop remodeling’
  • 1989 ‘laser lab partition’
  • 1995 ‘south wing seismic strengthening’
  • 1996 ‘seismic rehabilitation and renovation’
  • 2002 addition of ‘wind tunnel offices’

Just a sample of events in the life cycle of Building 500, these are fairly typical of modifications to academic buildings as use and needs change – and for seismic retrofits of buildings near the San Andrés fault. The extensive documents labeled ‘seismic retrofit and rehabilitation’ from 2003, just prior to the archaeologists’ encounter, indicate something more extensive and unique. After 103 years there was a pause, a deep breath and exhale for the building prior to the frenetic activity of ruin reincarnation. One hundred and 15 documents, each consisting of floor plans and explanatory detail, as referenced on the ‘index of drawings’ (Figure 18), present the academic abandonment, disuse, dereliction, then partial demolition, division, reconstruction and transformation of Building 500 over the subsequent two and a half years (Figures 19-27).

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Figures 18-27

A minimalist CAD drawing (Figure 19) and the detailed ‘refurbishment plan’ (Figure 20) present the major morphological modifications: the suturing of the East wall to separate the new center from the remaining engineering offices of the Terman Building; the construction of a second story within the formerly open-air East and West wings. As with more conventional archaeological sites, traces of the building’s former life remain: a new door fitted in the northeast corner (Figure 21); the filled passageways in the east wall (Figure 22) and in the northeast corner of the entrance hall (Figure 23); cuts in the Santa Teresa ‘golden’ sandstone and interior brick reveal profiles (Figure 24) that texture the building sectional drawings (Figure 25-26). Reiterative photos of the aerial images of abandonment (Figures 4-8) no longer afford overviews, but are cramped within the newly built second story (Figure 27).

After the archaeologists, equipment, students, and staff begin to inhabit Building 500 in 2005, the documents at the university’s Maps and Records manifest the transformation of the building’s life. The valency of entries marks new activities, while the tempo of maintaining the refitted building resumes (e.g. ‘DNA lab ventilation modifications’ in 2005, ‘DNA clean work room – ancient DNA Lab’ in 2006). The ‘pause’ of ruination was over.

After ruin refit: The Metamedia Lab (zoom in-out | pan around) – QuickTime VR (not supported on iPad/Tablets)

A Modern Ruin-Condition

Was Building 500 a ruin? It is difficult not to think about archaeological ruins across a linear temporality. Ruins tend to be determined based upon what lingers, what endures, from another, different time. Even more, ruins are typically wished for in remote, hard to access locations – another space. That way there is less ‘spoiling’ of ruins before archaeologists are swept up in the ruin ‘moment’. More than what has been termed ‘ruin porn’, we desire ruin wilderness. Consider, for example, how we are similarly disappointed whether we ‘discover’ a ruin covered with fresh graffiti or hike into a nature preserve only to contend with crowds.

Great recent work in archaeology of the contemporary past has challenged these absolute distinctions, realms reified by clock-time and space-time systematics. The present has become more than just the counter-definition to clarify what isn’t the stuff of the archaeological. To be sure, such space-time systematics and the moniker of ‘old things’ are critical to the archaeological project and its developed methodologies. Yet even if we consider ruins within the register of temporality, if we consider the life-cycle of Building 500 for instance, there is an apparent variance of care with time that suggests cyclicality rather than linearity – Time less an arrow than Mandala or Ouroboros. All the myriad documents in the university’s archives and the great effort involved with demolishing and transforming the building speak of degrees of care, a shifting of the ratios of human and object caring. Caring for objects, buildings, features and landscapes, of keeping machinery and constellations of things in working order requires much effort and diligence – on the part of humans and nonhumans. In this instance, the archival documents highlight the care of the former engineers, maintenance staff, and janitors, as well as the Architectural Resource Group, Devcon General Contractor, Rutherford and Chakene Structural Engineers, Affiliated Engineers, Inc., and current staff and faculty. The archaeologists’ mixed-media begin to offer up a nonhuman story, however; the ruin-moment when quietened materials guide the encounter. So the pause of ruination may be thought of as a temporal period – from 2003 until 2005, for example. It may also be considered as a shift of the ratios of care – from human-centered to the abandonment and ‘dereliction’ of object-centered. When we don’t care, when those humans showcased in building, maintaining, refitting Building 500 depart, relations holding amongst objects, parts, and features shift, infrastructures breakdown, landscapes transform, things take on different modes of being. Materials themselves form their own ‘deviant’ relations: oil soaking metal filings, paint chips leaving the facing brick and resting on the concrete floor, drywall breaking its mold to spread across diverse surfaces, dirt obscuring glass of windows; any of the many object-object alignments routinely channeled by human caring. When archaeologists enter such a setting, it is the materially-driven encounter discussed above. It is how Building 500 is a ruin. Care less than temporality is the measure of ruins.

Thinking of ruins in terms of tidal ‘time’, through material connectivity and composition and less framed by conventional archaeological space-time systematics, suggests several implications. Firstly, ruins are perishable. We might consider how modern ruins may be dissimilar to such obdurate materiality that lasts. Pasts that don’t persist. Just like the transformation of ruins into documents for transport – photographs, maps, finds drawings – ruins undergo perpetual upgrades, refits and remodels. We feng shui the past to suit contemporary aesthetes. Ruins as connective events in the ongoing flux of humans, life-fellows and materials, rather than as retrograde or enduring ‘endings’, means that ruins pop-up, percolate and evanesce everywhere, all the time. Secondly, ruins are proximate. Contrary to our desire for ruin wilderness, ruination is closer than it appears, close to home, even next door to our archaeology departments.


Thanks to the other project members, Ashish Chadha, Bjørnar Olsen and Chris Witmore. Video clips by Webmoor and Witmore. QuickTime VR provided by Michael Shanks. Floor plans and building sections courtesy of Stanford University’s Maps and Records. Thanks to Suman Chaube at the Maps and Records Department for assisting me in the archives. The argument and all remaining imagery are my own.

Mein umfeld ist geprgt von meinen kindern, katzen und freunden

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