Flattening Time: The Ruined Temple and Oberrealta Chapel

The plans of the Ruined Temple and Oberrealta Chapel were drawn nearly two hundred years apart, and yet both speak to the Ruskian timelessness of the ruin. The temple and chapel are representative of their respective ages, with the former alluding to Romanticism’s longing for a pastoral past free from Industrialism’s grime, whereas the chapel speaks to post-post-modernism’s re-rejection of late-stage capitalism’s clutter. And yet, despite Romanticism’s proclivity toward ornamentation, and minimalism’s rejection thereof, the two drawings are strikingly similar in their material simplicity and formal place-/timelessness. 

The 19th century plan of the Ruined Temple is unique from similar drawings of that era in that it exhibits the effects of time in its poché. Like contemporary construction drawings, the full-height walls are rendered as black, whereas the ruined walls, below the standard 4-foot cut line, recede into thin lines and a tan wash. We can immediately read the plan as three-dimensional, understanding which walls and columns have survived the ravages of centuries, and which have crumbled. Interestingly, though, the artist still renders the fenestration in both lateral walls as trapezoidal cuts, as though the windows were floating above the rubble and crumbled stones. 

Christian Kerez’s Oberrealta Chapel employs a similar trapezoidal technique for depicting the cut of the fenestration. Here, though, there is no dimensionality, and the hierarchy of the centuries is blurred as the new concrete walls are rendered in the same line weight as the original foundation stones. The distinction between ruin and new construction is non-existent; it is two-dimensional, and the effects of time are deliberately ignored. It is as though the architect anticipates the eventual crumbling of the new walls and their merging with the floor. That inevitably, time reads all architectures as ruin. 

The form of both constructions likewise speaks to the flattening effects of time. Despite the two centuries separating the two, both are similar in their form and placelessness. Both drawings are of rectangles rendered on the empty field of the page, rudimentary Euclidean forms that speak to the endurance of humanity’s basic design principles across the centuries. The only differences are the Ruined Temple’s frontal columns and its outlined plinth, which is but another rectangle that perhaps can be read as an attempt at rootedness. While we do not know the location of the Ruined Temple, we do know that the Oberrealta Chapel is located in the mountains of Switzerland and is intended as a temporary retreat for hikers, its window framing an alpine view. Yet, nothing in the drawing indicates this — there is no north arrow, no topographic contours. It, like the temple, could be anywhere, constructed at any moment in human civilization, and the only indication of either’s physicality is in the scales located beneath both drawings. Both are placeless, existing solely on the empty field of the page, and as a result, both are timeless.

The ruin is the fabrication of time. Paradoxically, architecture in ruin is timeless. Perhaps this is why Kerez chose to render the original and new elements of the chapel in the same line weight: to lend legitimacy to the chapel as a sacred place. For, as John Ruskin argued in The Seven Lamps of Architecture, architecture attains its legitimacy through time:

“Its glory is in its Age, and in that deep sense of voicefulness, of still watching, of mysterious sympathy, may, even of approval or condemnation, which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing waves of humanity. It is in their lasting witness against men, in their quiet contrast with the transitional character of all things, in the strength which, through the lapse of seasons and times, and the decline and birth of dynasties, and the changing of the face of the earth, and of the limits of the sea, maintains its sculptural shapeliness for a time inseparable, connects forgotten and following ages … it is in that golden stain of time, that we look for the real light, and color, and preciousness of architecture.”

 John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 2 ed. (New York City: Dover Publications, 1880 and 1985), 187.

The same can be said of the 19th century follies constructed on country estates throughout Europe that were intended to legitimize the wealth and status of a failing aristocracy reminiscent of happier days. Indeed, the Ruined Temple could just as well be a plan for such a folly that would enshrine a noble family in the timeless symbology of Roman ruins. By fabricating a past, the folly ensured an enduring present. Ruins thus freeze time by extending the past into the forever present, just as the foundation stones visually extend their antiquity into the modern concrete walls of the Oberrealta Chapel via the technique of a singular line weight.

Both drawings are attempts to master the effects of time, to fabricate the ruin. The Ruined Temple does so by highlighting time in the contrast of the walls’ poché, while the Oberrealta Chapel achieves this by the opposite method of conflating the new and old into one line weight. Thus, while the Ruined Temple is a literal depiction of a ruin (or a plan for the construction of a ruin as folly), the Oberrealta Chapel constructs itself as an already-ruin, for, despite its singular line weight, it is not the straight lines of the walls that dominate, but the uneven pattern of the foundation stones that jump forward. The new recedes into the old, and the old emerges as new. The effects of time are inverted by the singular line weight, which stands in place of time, and acts as time, as that which “connects forgotten and following ages.” A new construction is literally in ruins. 

***

A final question of fenestration: The windows look onto empty fields. In the case of the Ruined Temple, the windows are aligned with elevation views of the temple, as though they are mirrors of themselves. And we know that the chapel frames a view of the Swiss mountains. Yet, in reality, in the respective reality of the drawings — where in the case of the temple the literal view of the window would not be its own elevation, and for the chapel where there is literally no hint of situation —, the fenestration frames only the empty field. Furthermore, the chapel’s accompanying elevation similarly employs a single line-weight, only rather than a temporal flattening, a spatial flattening is effected, as the fenestration of the rear wall is rendered at the same depth as the cut. A body could not inhabit such a flat space: it is a field; it is a screen. Thus, can we take the digitally rendered drawing of the chapel to indeed be a sacred place for the Internet Age, where we stare endlessly into the vast and spatially/temporally-flattened field of the smartphone, inhabiting bodiless space, seeing only impossible reflections of ourselves, our photo reels like the ruins of follies, with our geo-tagged locations disseminated everywhere, rendered immediately placeless and eternal the moment we photograph a scene as ubiquitous as the Swiss Alps? 

Image Captions:

Unknown Italian, Ruined Temple, c. 1810, black ink with coloured washes on laid paper, 287 x 428 mm, DMC 1896. 

Christian Kerez, plan and elevation at 1:50, Oberrealta Chapel, Grisons, Switzerland, 1992, Divisare. 

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