Introduction to the exhibition

  Special Collections Exhibitions
  Unpacking Ruins: architecture from antiquity
  Wood - Palmyra & Baalbek
  Palaces & Baths
  Stuart - Athens v1-4
  Vitruvius & Fréart
  Palladio & Fréart
  Scamozzi & Serlio
  Palladio & Schenk
  Maggi & Ficoroni
  Major - Paestum
  Adam brothers
  Cameron & Russia
  Rome: decline & fall
  The New Zealander
  Meditation & the pleasure of ruins
  Towards a new architecture
  List of items

To unpack - to undo or open, to bring something out of storage.

Ruins, the weathered fragments speak of loss. They tell of the buildings that once were, of the people who made them, and of the cultures from which they arose. They tell of destruction, abandonment and decay. When viewing the larger volumes displayed in this exhibition one cannot help but feel a profound sense of absence. One may be filled with a longing for the past, or could be drawn to reflect upon the inevitably of the future. However, absence and loss are not the intended focus of the exhibition. Rather it is to chronicle how people have attempted to make sense of the ruins, how they have represented them, and how they have used them to understand the times in which they lived.

These volumes, selected from the Special Collections at the University of Otago Library reveal how ruins and fragments of antiquity have been variously cited over the last five hundred years. The 16th century edition of Vitruvius is evidence of the Renaissance search for an authentic voice from antiquity. Works from the century following present theoretical arguments and the search for architectural perfection, with surviving buildings, ruins and texts being compared and debated. Similar analysis has continued long after these works appeared. It is also apt to compare them with the text by Le Corbusier who returned to his youthful perceptions in Greece, Turkey and Italy for inspiration, example and origin.

Travel guides reveal how existing remains became part of the visual vocabulary of the 17th and 18th centuries. Authoritative accounts by British architect-travelers of ruins in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East were published as large folios between 1750 and 1850. The works of Wood and Dawkins in the Levant, of Stuart and Revett in Athens, of Adam in Dalmatia and of Cameron in Italy, follow the scientific archaeological approach of the Frenchman Desgodets. However these journeys were romantic and at times, fanciful, explorations as well. In the published volumes, travelers presented the surviving fragments and reconstituted them into reinvented larger works. In doing so, they changed the Western understanding of architecture and its day-to-day practice.

In considering the fall of empires in the late 18th century, it was inevitable that the survey of ruins would prompt reflection on the future of the West. In 1774 Horace Walpole wrote to Horace Mann,

"The next Augustan age will dawn on the other side of the Atlantic. There will perhaps be a Thucylides at Boston, a Xenophon at New York, and in time a Virgil at Mexico, and a Newton at Peru. At last some curious traveller from Lima, will visit England, and give a description of the ruins of St Paul's, like editions of Baalbec and Palmyra."

It is not surprising that sixty years later, at a time when the colonisation of New Zealand was actively debated in the Houses of Parliament, Macaulay would speculate upon a future New Zealander surveying the ruins of London. Doré's romantic image of the Mäori, draped in Renaissance gown and sketching, recalls illustrations of Wood and Stuart in the East, and it confirms the city in the line of great imperial centres. However the figure seated on the ruins of London Bridge may have seemed oddly chilling to the Victorian viewers.

The cutaway view of the Bank of England drawn by Joseph Gandy (in the vitrine outside the gallery) may have prompted a similar response. It presents the completed structure opened, clean, and viewed from the eye of God. The sunlit ruin appears timeless.

As well as being an emblem of transience, ruins signal persistence over time. It is this sense of permanence, or at least of a very slow decay, that perhaps provokes a continuing fascination and a pleasure that some recent writers have found in the them.

This exhibition has been curated by Robin Skinner of the School of Architecture, Victoria University Wellington. He was assisted by Elizabeth Tinker, Catherine Robertson and Sarah Jones of the Reference Department of the University of Otago Library.


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