Everything has to be demolished first. Anyone visiting Marjan Teeuwen’s Destroyed House in Amsterdam North on Wieringerwaardstraat was soon struck by contradictory feelings. On the outside, the house looked like a typical 1970s housing block: bare, simple, anonymous.

It did not reveal its true nature until you went inside: first through a narrow corridor with low, stacked-up walls of debris, exuding an atmosphere of decay and demolition rather than that of a new work of art. But then, on the first floor, you suddenly found yourself in a different world. This was not Amsterdam North, no council housing, but something completely different, new, though not new in appearance. Here, in the destroyed house, both the chaos of fresh destruction and the freshness of new creation ruled: everywhere chunks of debris stood and lay, planks and seemingly superfluous pieces of waste material that had subsequently been arranged according to carefully thought-out principles. To the left stood high, white pillars, constructed from former lagging and other sheet material, suggesting long corridors and hidden spaces in a sci-fi-like way. The rear walls, by contrast, consisted of stacks of old planks, doorposts, debris and pieces of brick that had not been laid or joined, which made them resemble medieval constructions that could be breached or removed at any moment. In the meanwhile, several of the thick, heavy concrete floor plates had been tilted in such a way that you couldn’t possibly walk on them: abstract sculptures spanning several floors.

It was this very combination of opposites that made the house so overwhelming – it was just too unfamiliar, too uncomfortable, too uncontrollable. Was this creation or destruction? An homage to the past or an ode to the future? I could not help but think of the idea of ‘the sublime’, on which I published a book a couple of years ago. The sublime is the idea that some forces are so grand, so overwhelming, that you as a human being are deeply impressed by them, but at the same time so strong, so dumbfounding, that they make you uncomfortable, scared, giving you the feeling that you can no longer control them. The sublime is impressive, beautiful, overwhelming, but unmistakably bigger than yourself as well. Uncontrollable in its contradiction.

After my first tour of the house Marjan Teeuwen and I got into a conversation. We sat before the entrance of the building; a few yards away were huge heaps of half-pulverized construction material and behind the gate stood the recently built low-rise houses, reflecting the new housing ideology of the 1990s. The cups of tea on the table were slightly dusty – it was a strange idea that these dull, ordinary apartments should contain such a sublime secret in their interior. Teeuwen and I talked about the many hours of work she put into the project, about creation and destruction, about Romanticism (the art movement, that is) and then suddenly Albert Speer came up, the ‘star architect’ of the Third Reich – it turned out we shared a ‘sublime’ interest in his so-called ‘concept of ruin value’. Speer’s ideas as an architect were emphatically rooted in Romanticism and just as seemingly contradictory as the sublime – but this only made him all the more fascinating as a human being. Speer may have been one of the bigwigs of the Third Reich, but he prided himself never to have engaged in the ordinary handiwork of murder and violence; he felt himself far superior to that. This did not stop Speer from reflecting on destruction, which was especially evident in his theory of ruin value (Ruinenwert). This theory, which was received with great enthusiasm by the Fuehrer, was based on the idea that architecture was history’s most important witness. All cultures from the past had vanished (nearly) completely, Speer argued: the people, the streets, nearly all art, but buildings survived relatively often – especially the architecture from the Greek and Roman cultures constituted important monuments to their greatness. Speer and Hitler aspired to the same ‘timelessness’: in a similar way, the buildings of Speer and his colleagues had to bear witness to the power of the Third Reich even after many centuries, even (or maybe especially) as ruins. Glorious ruins were what Speer wanted, and for this reason he took into account how his buildings would go to ruin as early as the design stage. Materials such as steel and iron were to be avoided (as these were not ‘classical’ and produced ugly ruins). This way, the so-called ‘ruin value’ was allowed for in every new design by Speer – the future had to shine through, so to speak. With this, Speer created an intriguing paradox: the eventual decline was already ‘built into’ a new building, with the very aim of giving it a bigger chance to endure the ravages of time. To Speer, the ultimate proof of his power lay in his control of decay – and in this contradiction his ambition was suspiciously similar to the sublime.

What was intriguing about Marjan Teeuwen’s Destroyed House was that it, too, seemed a perfect example of controlled decay, completely in line with the theory of ruin value. You take a number of old dwellings, run-down, empty, ripe for demolition, and you do not let them decay any further, but transform them into a constructed ruin, in which all is controlled, but decay and transience remain visible. Or was there more to it? The strange thing was that while wandering through Teeuwen’s construction I had unmistakably sensed sublime feelings in myself, however ponderous that may sound. Yet it was true: Destroyed House in Amsterdam North made you uncomfortable as a spectator, alert, as if the notion of decay and that of construction and creation clashed so emphatically that you yourself were crushed between the two. Why was it that here, in Amsterdam North, I suddenly experienced this so strongly? Why had this (almost) never happened to me before?

The longer I thought about this, the more I realized that it was the very uniqueness of the experience that may have been the reason why Teeuwen’s installation had made me (and nearly every visitor, for that matter) uncomfortable. Taking one step back: the sublime is a typical product of Romanticism, which in turn was an immediate reaction to the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, which dominated thinking in the eighteenth century in particular, revolved around the idea that man could have complete control of the world. This wasn’t such a strange idea at the time: new sciences and technologies emerged, and one invention after another was made, making man less and less dependent on God and the Church – so why would man not be able to create his own reality? Romanticism had different ideas about this: from the end of the eighteenth century onward an increasing number of people (especially artists) realized that it wasn’t all that simple for man to control life. There would always be forces that were stronger: nature, time and last but not least the human mind itself ensured that complete control would remain out of reach – romantic man emphatically makes the most of his conditions and his limitations. At the same time, romantic artists realized all too well that it was in the very pursuit of control that true human nature was best made visible. Consequently, in many of the best early romantic paintings, especially those by Caspar David Friedrich and J.M.W. Turner, we see the confrontation between man and nature being pushed up to great heights: storms, high seas, fires, you name it. The ruin fitted within this concept too: on the one hand it was the ideal symbol of man’s ability to erect things, on the other it was a representation of the fact that this power was not everlasting – and that this didn’t have to be such a bad thing.

Ruins, especially the ones on the canvases of romantic painters, are so attractive to people because they represent the perfect middle course between culture and nature. Nature shows itself by slowly overtaking the building and ‘returning it to dust’. Culture slips inevitably from your hands. You can fantasize about it, gape at the image, the light. Oh well, time slips by, and so do we.

But: it is paintings we are talking about here.

A real ruin is quite a different story. I don’t know what your experiences are, but in practice ruins, or at least ruins that pass for real ruins, are rarely pleasant places for contemplation, let alone that they evoke sublime experiences. Ruins are cold, draughty and damp, their walls covered in mildew, any attempt at idyllic daydreaming dashed by empty Cola light bottles and used condoms that force themselves on your attention – but for some reason you rarely see those in (early) romantic works of art. Maybe ruins only become exciting when stylized, dominated by artistic form, however paradoxical this may sound. Yet it is this very paradox that makes Teeuwen’s Destroyed House so intriguing. The key is in the choices she has made: throughout the project, she has constantly and meticulously balanced on the sharp edge between construction and destruction and, equally important, between (raw) reality and stylization. Whichever way you look at it: Destroyed House in Amsterdam North is stylized, but not prettified; controlled, but not harmless. The structures Teeuwen installed in the house may be large, heavy and mighty (and maybe even dangerous); but they are also unstable, vulnerable and temporary. Everyone wandering through the house realized that one step in the wrong direction could be mortally dangerous, but this danger was experienced in an Amsterdam apartment from the 1970s. And then there was this strange tension between uiqueness and ordinariness. Each visitor of the house became confused because they had never experienced anything like it, and this confusion was only reinforced by the fact that these were so evidently no anonymous self-created piles of stone. This was Amsterdam North. This was everyday life. Just look: bathroom tiles, loose wires. Real, ordinary people lived here, not so long ago.

And now this.

It is precisely this gesture, this radical transformation of a perfectly ordinary housing block into a controlled ruin that makes the comparison of Teeuwen’s project to Speer so uncomfortable. It is precisely by suddenly presenting decay, destruction in such ordinary surroundings that Teeuwen shows that the transition from construction to demolition, from creation to destruction is not non-committal – decay is not reserved to a vague, post-thousand-year future, as Speer hoped. Teeuwen confronts her spectators with a sublimely controlled form of destruction in their everyday lives – which is something quite different from a romantic ruin in a well-controlled painting or in the concept of a strange fascist architect. This is now, this is here, but what will it do then and there?

It is because of this that it was the perfect choice to situate this destroyed house in a painful, almost desolate ordinary apartment complex rather than on a dramatic, romantic location. Through the undistinguished, somewhat awkward entrance you now entered a dark cave in our society, filled with feelings of discomfort and unease so easily overlooked. Now they overwhelmed you with full force, precisely because Teeuwen did not accentuate or imitate the decay, but gave a new, almost positive twist to it. Remarkably enough this made the whole neither depressing nor oppressive. For at any moment there was also the comfort of creation, of the new order Teeuwen had erected upon the old one, showing that the power of good art lies in the control of such huge contrasts. In art it is possible. Art offers that way out.

As stated before: everything has to be demolished first. But destruction also offers the opportunity of creating something new. Good art is never the end. It simply transforms the existing world into something else – something not necessarily less valuable.

By Hans den Hartog Jager

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