Entropic Chic and Proximate Ruins

by Timothy Webmoor

In the Spring of 2003, several archaeologists from Stanford University entered a nearby building in the Silicon Valley. After 100 years of fairly continuous use the building had been abandoned by its former tenants and was slated for ‘demolition’. Inside, the two-story, open plan felt particularly hollow with wall partitions, pieces of large mechanical equipment and most softening decorations removed. It was as you might expect from an abandoned setting, reduced to what was unwanted, broken, insignificant or simply overlooked.

The building and its remnants offered much interesting potential for a systematic study of abandonment, with the estimable goal of analogically linking past and present, the encountered ruin and former activities. If such an emphasis upon correlations does not orient the approach of this post, there is all the same a fascination consisting in abducting the use-value calculus in operation during final departures – what to take; what to leave. 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 1,200 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 large instruments had once been bolted to the concrete floor; tell-tale indicators of the building’s former relations with mechanical engineers. 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, stacked lubricating oil cans, high capacity electrical conduit and panel, decades’ worth of fine metal shavings swept from the feet of machinery into the drain running north-south through the concrete floor.

Passing through a single doorway in the northwest led up a ramp and into a completely dark, 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 wall partitions and ceilings, finished concrete floors along with floor platforms; all materially presenced a more controlled and intimate atmosphere of electrical engineering experimentation.

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Several archaeologists were involved in the documentation of the building, using an array of standard methods: photography, sampling, artifact collection and also video. While the work went on over the course of several days, with members of the team coming and going, after a particularly productive afternoon the team felt that enough documentation had been conducted. We exited the building and walked back to the Stanford Archaeology Center 100 meters away and had a coffee.

Was the building a ruin? I began to wonder about the project and the documentation of Building 500 – as designated on Stanford University maps and soon to be refurbished and opened as the new home to the archaeology center. Sure it had been abandoned, but it seemed too convenient, too close, surrounded by immaculately maintained campus buildings. More than that, the tropes of ruin wilderness influence the growing attraction and valuation of certain types of ruins. Such ruins tend to satisfy three knotted and (neo)Romantic impulses: a longing for individual freedom and liberation from the supposed sameness imposed by modernist production and organizing schemes; the dialectical swing away from an aesthetics of simplicity and order toward complexity and mess; the desire for witnessing objects-among-themselves undisturbed by human intervention. Ruin wilderness, offering counter-hegemonic intellectual, aesthetic and sensory offerings, is the flipside to idealized conceptions of pristine nature. Entropy has become chic.

The material encounter with Building 500, nevertheless, kept prompting the question of whether the modern ruin-condition, commercial and state led development emphasizing mass production of disposable objects and architectural spaces, along with the rapid turn-over and increasing victimization of things, might not in fact be closer than it appears. Even encountered on wealthy, international university campuses near coffee shops. Perhaps the processes of modern ruination, if not persisting ruins themselves, are precisely in those densely populated, proximate and convenient locations in the heart of modernity.

While many modern ruins share pasts in industrialization and projects of modernization, most are much more humble and inconspicuous. Rather than conserved and preserved with the onset of more contemporary development, they are destroyed, bulldozed or, less often, relocated. They are disappearing. These many modern ruins mark the interim between abandonment and redevelopment, as heavy industries – coal and gas factories – give way to ‘soft industries’ – office space, warehouses, high-tech companies. Most modern ruins are neither so isolated as to be preserved in nature, nor monumental and significant to be conserved as nature-like – both tropes of ruin wilderness. They are classically archaeological: temporary, perishable, destroyed and transformed sites. Akin to operations in salvage archaeology, these many mundane ruins of modernity must be caught in flux between abandonment and redevelopment.

The archaeological team had several weeks to document Building 500 before the process of ruin refurbishment began. 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’, present the academic abandonment, disuse, dereliction, then partial demolition, division, reconstruction and transformation of Building 500 over the subsequent two and a half years. By the Autumn of 2005 the Terman Engineering Laboratory, originally constructed in 1902, was opened as the current Stanford Archaeology Center. After the archaeologists, equipment, students, and staff begin to inhabit Building 500, 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 fleeting flux of Building 500’s ruination was over. On the scale of a single building, there had been performed the transition from ‘hard’ industry (manufacturing) to ‘soft’ industry (academic archaeology) – a transition so typical of contemporary development.

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

Building 500 as a temporary ruin does not fit well within the tropes of ruin wilderness. It has little entropic chic. Nonetheless, this process of abandonment, dereliction, then accelerated re-use, refurbishment and re-incorporation into contemporary spatial and economic regimes is more typical of ruination in developed and developing economies than we expect. If not chic, these many disappeared places and things must be nonetheless cared for by archaeologists of the contemporary. If such sites slip through archaeological sieves of attention, then we might ask how the discipline of things, charged with the care for things, may need to re-approach ruins. Aware of the appeal of entropic chic and the tropes of ruin wilderness, we might suspend conventional criteria of space-time systematics as fundamental to what modern ruins are. Centering our obligation, our loyalty to things, reconfigures a concern with ruins.


Thanks to the other project members, Ashish Chadha, Bjørnar Olsen and Chris Witmore, and to Suman Chaube at the Maps and Records Department for assisting me in the archives.

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