Rendering Decay: The Ruins of Detroit

Rendering Decay: The Ruins of Detroit

Urban ruin fascinates explorers and artists alike. Dilapidated buildings invite us to peer back through time as we imagine their former state of living use, back before they inevitably succumbed to entropy. Detroit provides perhaps one of the most magnificent environments to cultivate our preoccupation with decay. Its landscape is rife with urban ruins, buildings that bustled with activity in the early 20th century and then collapsed under their own success. Photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre have been documenting the ghost structures of Detroit for five years now. Their work is haunting, beautiful, and a stark reminder of the folly of American optimism. 

 

While most cities hide abandoned buildings among their blocks, Detroit is unique in that ruin makes up a significant portion of its downtown. An enormous center of industrial production, Detroit attracted all sorts of activity in the early 20th century during the rise of the automobile. Grand, beautiful buildings were built to accommodate business growth and population influx. The skyscrapers stood as testaments to the reality of the American dream. Toward the middle of the century, automobile accessibility created suburbia. Industrial metropolises were no longer pinnacles of American wealth. The upper classes left the cities to live in the suburbs, and Detroit was drained of its population. Once bustling buildings lay empty and skeletal. Towering husks consumed the skyline.

 

Marchand and Meffre have taken great care to capture the beauty inherent in decay. Warm light plays off flaking plaster. A ruined window frames a shot of the living street outside. Detroit is no ghost town, after all--just a city that lives around permanent ghosts. The photographers do not fail to notice the still-beautiful architecture of these ghosts, either. The buildings rot from the inside, but their exteriors and surviving flourishes hint at their former splendor. My favorite shots are of the early century theaters, built when theater space demanded a huge and grandiose presence. Now in the age of the multiplex, these theaters look more like caves. Light trickles in from holes in the ceiling to illuminate a space drained of its former color. The photographs of abandoned elementary schools and churches also strike peculiarly sad notes with their rows of empty wooden seats. I was struck too by the image of a classroom clock melted and warped like a Dali watch; a symbol of time disfigured by time.

 

Detroit's story is a good one, an illustration of the perfect collapse of colossal ambition. These photographs do it more than justice. The contrast between the carefully articulated, man-made lines and the crumbling organic decay beautifully captures the eternal struggle between humanity and chaos. We spend our whole lives trying to order the world around us, trying to fit it into straight lines and right angles. As soon as we leave it alone, it begins to stray from our intentions all on its own. We work to tame chaos, but it's necessarily futile work; chaos returns to undo even the most careful of plans.