[Paul Collins is founder and editor of The Collins Library, a project dedicated to the reprinting of unusual, out-of-print literary works. The most recent title, To Ruhleben — And Back, follows the adventures of Geoffrey Pyke, who, as a teenager in 1914, convinced a London newspaper editor to let him travel to Germany as a war correspondent. Captured by German troops, Pyke was imprisoned at Ruhleben, a German internment camp, from which he eventually escaped, making his way home to write this travelogue at the age of twenty.]
[Paul Collins is currently on tour in support of his memoir, Sixpence House, which recounts his time spent living in the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye, known as the “Town of Books.”]
The street smells like it is paved with kidney stones. About half the buildings are boarded up, and the few stores left open have hand-lettered signs. One block of flats has sunken front garden plots, or what had once been garden plots, now stuffed several feet deep with fast food wrappers. Old brickpile factories stare vacantly, and in the distance the empty skeleton of a gasworks looms over the Thames.
I step gingerly down to the canal’s towpath. A group of men are fishing and drinking imported Budweisers from a cooler.
“Afternoon,” one greets me cheerily with a tip of his beer.
I look at the scummy water.
“What are you fishing for?”
“Dinner,” another says.
I walk on; a few ducks paddle peacefully around the plastic bags floating in the water; ivy crawls around the grimy old brick walls facing the canal, sprouting out of crumbling holes that once held valves and overflow pipes. It all feels slightly sad, like those long stretches of dead-mill brickshells encrusting the Amtrak line in Virginia, the overgrown ruins of old factories so plaintive that it just makes you want to move to Athens, GA, and start a band.
I sometimes wonder whether century-old ruins look so beautiful to us because they were meant to ruin in a beautiful way. There is, in San Francisco, a beautiful spot not far off the Golden Gate Bridge, the Palace of Fine Arts. It is an echoing rotunda and a set of classical columns projecting up before a calming pond; it seems so at odds with the wooden California architecture all around it that the effect is startling, like Kirk and his landing party stumbling upon a Roman temple on an alien planet surface.
But it was no accidental ruin. Their architect, Bernard Maybeck, built them out of a burlap and plaster mixture as part of a huge building complex for the 1915 Panama–Pacific International Exposition. It was designed to look like a ruin in every sense: the columns are hollow, and Maybeck wanted vines to grow inside and around, and water to flow like tears from the faces of maidens depicted beneath the dome. The tendrils of the plants and the wear of the water would destroy the complex, and San Franciscans could watch the structure self-destruct before their eyes. Maybeck was talked out of these details, but it hardly mattered: the Palace unraveled through neglect anyway, and by World War II the ruined columns towered over an Army parking lot full of Jeeps.
Drywall and veneered particleboard do not exactly put you in the presence of the sublime; most modern building materials will not age gracefully, and were never meant to. They are only meant to be new. Perhaps the brick walls of London weren’t built with much more foresight for their aesthetic future than any structure today — yet, by their very nature, they succeed perfectly as ruins.