… The wisemen tell me that the garden gods
Twined good and evil on an eastern tree; …

Dylan Thomas, Incarnate devil


What a profound difference. The one between, on the one hand, an intact folly that would like to look like a ruin – a vain construction leading one into a volatile meditation on the transience of everything and thus of one’s own live. And a folly, though a living part of an English garden, yet fallen into ruin thanks to the negligence of its owner. Anyway, the French have called their folly a fabrique, perhaps best translated as a handyman’s project.

In the Park of Ermenonville, in which our Nature Lunatic Rousseau passed his last days in quiet, you will find a beautiful example of an intended ruin: The Temple of Philosophy. Unfinished intentionally, so as to indicate the per se incompleteness of all knowledge. This uncompleted Greek temple represents modern philosophy.

On each of its six standing columns, one finds the name of a famous philosopher plus a term that characterizes him: Newton (lucem) , Descartes (nil in rebus inane) , Voltaire (ridiculum) , Rousseau (naturam) , William Penn (humanitatem) , Montesquieu (justitiam). Perhaps one may wonder at the maker’s Latin.



It has not been ‘finished’ so to say. The idea, then, is that we who follow these Greats may once finish it with the pillars on the ground, yet without a name. However one might also imagine that the columns lying around have fallen from what once was a finished little building and will never be put back again – the more somber perspective. Anyway, this folly was for those who built it the symbol of an ever-evolving knowledge, never finished. Enlightenment.

There are even follies that were built in mint condition in the first place – as a splendid, yet ‘finished’ ruin. One famous example is the unfinished pillar in the French Désert de Retz, also an English Garden par excellence.



This drawing, probably dating from 1782, shows rather well what it meant. It is a giant, grotesque pseudo-ruin of the base of a pillar which, when extrapolated, must have measured hundreds of meters high. Built as a ruin, it served as a residence for its owner. This pillar base was intended ‘to confront the visitor with the bizarre’. And so it does, however even more so with the boundless megalomania – the idea of a humanity that builds its Towers of Babel into high heaven and is doomed to fail.

However, such a neatly designed and carefully executed pseudo-ruin may turn into a… ruin. This becomes clear in a photo taken at the beginning of the 20th century.



Thus the ruined ruin-house looked at a certain moment – broken windows, stones fallen out, blistering stucco. So, in fact, it was possible to restore a dilapidated ruin as a ruin: a paradox realized, including the restoration to perfection of the original ‘cracks’ that were designed into it. ‘A ruin in ruins’, then, is not necessarily a pleonasm.



This is the column as I saw it somewhere in the ‘80s of the last century

Also an entire landscape, once featuring fine French and English gardens, may me destroyed.


Behold a once delicious Arcadia – the area of the former Wijkermeer in the Dutch province Noord-Holland, in the 17th to late 19th century with its banks, its country houses and gardens, embedded as so many precious stones in their dune bowls and surrounded by lover.

In the new ‘landscape’ created – after the lake was filled up, now showing ugly buildings and a coarse network of roads – the few remaining country houses and gardens are orphaned. The whole area has become one ruin. You cannot, like in the case of a paralyzed body, wonder if perhaps its ‘character’ is still intact. Driving through this disaster area one knows: This is ruined and it is smashed completely and forever.

The great Architect and Nazi Speer invented for his crazy chef the infamous Law of Ruins. In Adolf’s Thousand Year Reich an architecture had to appear, which in its the future state was already designed to a certain kind of ‘ruin’. Instead of the ordinary destruction of neighborhoods and even whole cities – something in which Speer and Hitler also were good and which they practiced with their Blitzkrieg elsewhere – rather meticulously the megalomaniac fascist designed a vision of Germany’s ruinous future.

With Speers hold over Time he designed his Nazi projects in such a way, that in a thousand years the ruins of the Reich would look at their ruinous best. Aesthetical and political utilitarianism! Not like the accidental ruins of Rome and Athens – dilapidated forms of broken marble; no, artful compositions of rusting steel and broken concrete. The lovers of ruins may think of the industrial wrecks in former East Germany or in eastern Belgium, which nowadays get aesthetic attention – these, however, were merely the result of an accidental capitalism.

More recent cinematography seems to have learned from this. In the dark room of the cinema the illusion of ruins went one step further. In Ridley Scott’s 1983 film Blade Runner we see architectural parks in which highlights of ruined modern architecture form the backdrop of destruction and annihilation. As under the Nazi regime, they suggest catastrophic destruction as a phase in liberation. Could this filmmaker have been inspired, not merely by Speer’s architecture, but also by Maoism? To make one radical clean sweep, then ‘let a thousand flowers bloom…’

Does it make sense to erect in the middle of what once was the Wijkermeer – as a folly, that is – a huge, real size version of the column belonging to the base in Désert de Retz? A warning signal for this postmodern world which is exploding itself.

Could it be that God created his world according to Speers Law of Ruins? Could he – like a Tinguely – have assembled the universe as a self-destructive machine, containing as a time bomb the creature he kneaded in His image…?

Sierksma February ’16


Author: rjsiersk

Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats. The reader, interested in my writings on aesthetics, literature, and sociology, may want to open Academia.edu, where various pieces are published.

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