‘By their own weight and worthlessness’ – stones, ruination and what comes after

“Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called repairer of broken walls, restorer of streets with dwellings” Isaiah 58:12

Of holes, wholes and parts

During the 1630s, Inigo Jones, by royal commission, surveyed Stonehenge and concluded that the ancient stones had remained in situ for millennia only on account of their “weight and worthlessness” (Webb & Jones 1655, via Chippindale 2004: 46). This blog-essay ruminates upon the life cycle of stone as a building material – the way in which it has both a tendency to circulate through a succession of buildings, and also an inertia that can shape and restrict future constructions and/or uses of places.

I’ve spent the last week variously in the company of heritage regulators, development surveyors and psychogeographers, so what follows draws across those divergent perspectives on ruination, reclamation and regeneration.

The perishing holes – Edward Gibbon’s ruinology

Writing in the 1780s, Edward Gibbon closed his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire with a rumination on ruination. With all the confidence of the Enlightenment, he sought to model the process by which the temples and other great classical buildings of the Roman era fell into dilapidation and then ruin.

Surveying the broken stonescape of Rome’s Capitoline Hill, Gibbon presented his “four causes of destruction” of the Roman capital as –

(1) the injuries of time and nature

(2) the hostile attacks of the barbarians and the Christians

(3) the use and abuse of materials; and

(4) the domestic quarrels of the Romans.

In doing so he interwove the human and the elemental, the epic and the mundane, the long duree and the episodic, for the Hill and its structures fell apart both quickly and slowly, both through human agency and without it, both purposefully and incidentally.

Gibbon pointed to the age-old practice of re-using stone and other salvagable building materials, and in doing so gave us a passage that can fruitfully contribute to understanding the dynamics of twenty-first century architectural theft, in particular the pillage of metallic and stone elements:

“The value of any object that supplies the wants or pleasures of mankind is compounded of its substance and its form, of the materials and the manufacture. Its price must depend on the number of persons by whom it may be acquired and used; on the extent of the market; and consequently on the ease or difficulty of remote exportation, according to the nature of the commodity, its local situation, and the temporary circumstances of the world” (1960: 894)

In short, at various times and for a variety of reasons the stonework abandoned on the Capitoline Hill became subjected to varying degrees of attention and plunder. This ebb and flow, this noticing and ignoring of the ruins, played out over a thousand year span. If there was sufficient value in the endeavour the sites were subjected to what we would now call ‘urban mining’, but if marginal the site would be left alone. Ruins follow their own natural history, eroded by natural processes throughout, but for significant portions of their lives  left alone by humans, ignored as wastes.

Notably Gibbon ascribes a lesser role to Goths and Vandals in the ruination than conventional wisdom dictates. The barbarians’ plunder was confined to the “luxuries of immediate consumption”(894) and the precious metal artefacts that could fit upon their conquering wagons as they departed the fallen imperial city. The buildings, stripped of their finery, were left largely intact. It was the residents of Rome themselves, in the centuries that followed who ground marble down to fire in lime kilns to make cement, and they who repurposed the classical columns and blockwork for the construction of fortified towers to protect themselves over the following quarrelsome half a millennia. As Gibbon notes, fortresses call to be attacked and much of the ruination – and the consequent rubble of Rome – was  inflicted upon these subsequent constructions by local battering ram and vengeful public decree of demolition issued by politically ascendant clans against their enemies.

But still, despite these machinations, much of the classical stone remained in situ, presenting as eternal fragments of once resolute temples and villas. For, stone can be physically hard to remove. Whilst drystone walls or paving stones are readily open to pillage, most stone sits within (indeed it comprises) a building’s structural mass. The slow attack of nature and the contingencies of local events can come to the aid of the illicit deconstructer, but some structures are beyond incrimental attack. The sturdiest walls sit there, reasonably intact and offering no concession to the entropy otherwise afflicting built things. These monoliths will sit there indefinitely, inert but resolute.

The persistence of wholes – the Frankfurt Kulturbunker

Here is the Kulturbunker, an arts centre in the dockland area of Frankfurt. What fascinates me about this structure is the fact that it is a new building built on top of an existing older one: for the grey first three floors are an above-ground Second World War air raid shelter, a structure assessed to be too expensive to demolish. Defensive structures, by their nature, are built to withstand the wrecking ball. So, regeneration and re-purposing of this building saw ruination avoided via a co-option of the existing form, its use as a ‘starting point’, a foundation for the modern building placed upon it.

After half a century of semi-abandonment, the sturdy bunker had had problems with its flat roof and water ingress was starting the process of natural destruction of its habitability. But the rain would not destroy the sturdy walls. This building might in time have lost its roof and become a place incompatible with dwelling, but the concrete, stone and brick would have endured as the resolute indoor-outdoor elevations of a sturdy block-house.

In this sense the building would have lived on – as a ruin – but it would have become uninhabitable. It would persist as block rather than block-house. The place would have passed beyond human use, perhaps to then become seen as an offensive ‘eyesore’ due to its resolute corruption of the dwelling related purposeful rules that tell us what a building is. So, instead funds were found to re-purpose this building. A vertical extension (a suite of studios for resident and visiting artists) solved the roof problem and augment the existing cultural use of this place as music practice and performance, the remote location and thick walls serving to arrest youthful sound.

The fate of the Frankfurt bunker has got me thinking about the marginality of demolition as a response to the abandoned, and ruin-bound buildings. Demolition costs money. As my development colleagues are always eager to remind me, if the scheme cannot be made to show a profit overall it won’t happen, or at least the lofty ambitions of the designer will brought down to achievable size by a thousand pragmatic cuts and adjustments to ‘reality’. And this is as true of demolition schemes as construction projects.

Also, development rarely takes place on a tabla rasa, invariably there will be existing neighbouring features, remains of on-site structures, foundations and services which will steer how the new scheme will finally unfurl. The Kulturbunker is an extreme example – the survival of the former building and construction of a new one on top of it – but this effect is echoed more subtly on a daily basis in many redevelopment schemes via the required preservation of historic facades to mask a newly constructed generic modern core, the adjustment of a new building’s envelope to incorporate some long standing right of way or valued line of sight and/or the respecting of the vernacular in the design of the new. Just as science and language build on the shoulders of giants, so are new buildings built in the echo of what came before. This is the inertia of stone.

The valorisation of parts

In his 1630s survey of Stonehenge Inigo Jones was searching for evidence of Roman geometry within the stone circle, signs of classical design that could help to fuel what would become the neoclassical revival.

Jones proposed a plan for the restoration of the circle (above), a plan defeated by cost and the technological challenge, for moving the megaliths would have been at the very limits of seventeenth century man- and horse-power. And in subsequent eras, the stones increasingly came to be cherished as ruin, as an assemblage of disordered parts, rather than a neat ordered whole.

The love of ruins sees a foregrounding of the materiality of parts – broken or otherwise. Decay and deterioration encourages this attention at the level of parts. Through the deterioration, distortion and corruption of form caused by the building’s decay and the consequent revelation of a building’s structural elements, things are laid bare that would ordinarily not be seen, and familiar elements present in new ways. As the building falls apart Romantic ruin aesthetics finds in it a place of fascination and treasures of various kinds are revealed to some.

Here we are in the realm of valorisation – the attributing of a worth, cultural, commercial or material, to otherwise mundane or ruined parts of buildings. At the Kulturbunker one of the resident artists, Lisa Niederreiter, has valorised ‘Bunkerstücke  (‘bunker-pieces’) she has found at her new studio. In addition to presenting found objects such as a water trough from the wartime era, she has also created works to foreground the materiality of the building: a dress coated in bunkerdust and latex casts (shown below) of architectural elements.

But this aesthetic valorisation of building parts has a darker cousin. The architectural thief also reads a building as parts, but as incidents of exchange- rather than aesthetic value. Unlike the ruin aesthete the plundering thief has no interest in the building as whole. To him a building is purely an assemblage of parts, generic materials, commodities ripe for the plucking. And that plucking will be unleashed without regard for the consequential damage to the whole. The removal of any of those elements may hasten ruination and the ending of habitation: stealing roof lead will allow water ingress, ultimately a vertical flood.

This week I have been in the company of heritage crime specialists. The talk has been of the architectural crime waves, the theft of an embodied value currently vested in metal, stone and other constructional elements (and whether in ruins or buildings still in gainful use). I have heard of the regional patterns of this resource crime – that whilst metal theft is to the fore in the (former) industrial north of England, in areas such as the Cotswolds it is actually stone that is the most plundered building material. But the stone that is targeted is that which is accessible and reduceable to a portable, human scale. For just as the most splendid architectural elements were stripped by the Goths, Vandals and later imperial artefact hunters (think of the ‘Elgin Marbles’ for example), the architectural thief focuses on the items that are most valuable AND carryable. Here we are back in the timeless realm of pillage – that interplay of moveable things, perceived value and human-scale accessibility.

And in each case a building and/or its component parts is being read as rich in value.


Chippindale, C. (2004) Stonehenge Complete Thames & Hudson: London.

Gibbon, E. (1960) The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (abridged by D.M. Low) Chatto & Windus: London.

Webb, J. & Jones, I. (1655) The Most Notable Antiquity of Great Britain, Vulgarly Called Stone-Heng, on Salisbury Plain, Restored, London.

Image sources:

Painting: Roman Ruins with the Arch of Titus. Giovanni Paolo Panini, 1730s via http://www.laputanlogic.com/articles/2006/05/09-1659-1311.html

Kulturbunker: http://www.index-architekten.de/bunkeraufstockung.0.html?&L=1

Stonehenge, restored: Webb & Jones (1655) via http://www.ancientskies.info/proposal/

Bunkerstücke: http://www.inm.de/ (INM-Institut für Neue Medien)

Pavement theft: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-south-east-wales-19276631

This essay is a.k.a New Uses for Old Bunkers #25: the building on the shoulders of a giant.


About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/prosaic/ LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett. EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

6 Responses to ‘By their own weight and worthlessness’ – stones, ruination and what comes after

  1. dianajhale says:

    Subjects close to my heart from my past life as an architectural historian (and associate of many archaeologists)! Excellent examples on worrying issues for ruin lovers, but as the saying goes there is nothing new under the sun. That Kulturbunker is amazing.

  2. ‘Wondrous is the stone-wall, wrecked by fate; the city-buildings crumble, the works of the giants decay. Roofs have caved in, towers collapsed. Barred gates are broken, hoar frost clings to mortar, houses are gaping, tottering and fallen, undermined by age…This wall, grey with lichen and red of hue, outlives kingdom after kingdom, withstands tempests; its tall gates succumbed. The city still moulders, gashed by storms…’ The Ruin, Anonymous Anglo-Saxon elegy, 8th century; but could have been talking about Rome or Detroit or WW2 defences or relict infrastructure of 18th century agriculture.

  3. Great post Luke. Reminded me of being told the story on an Orkney visit of how ‘The Stone of Odin’ was appropriated by a 19th Century farmer for use as building lintels. Some info about it here: http://www.maeshowe.co.uk/maeshowe/standing.html I’m sure that is not a unique incident.

  4. Pingback: Gazing up, looking down: following cathedral stone back to its source | lukebennett13

  5. Pingback: Gazing up, looking down: following cathedral stone back to its source | lukebennett13

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