Characerology of ruins

/Bálint Zoltán Kelemen, 2011/

Changing society - Changing historic preservation

Our desire for both permanence and change is a need born with us. Mentioning them at the same time might sound ambivalent according to logic but not according to the rules of life. Life is unbearable without permanence and tranquility; the lack of possibility of change and development would mean suffering the pains of death while alive.’1 /Asztrik Várszegi/

As I see it, in Hungary, the standard practice and means of historic preservation created in the 1950s and 1960s2 still have an influence today. Preservation of listed ruins during the period was based on the principle of preserving monuments unaltered and the parallel idea of uniformity in form and material which, with a desire to express historic grandeur, forced listed ruins to a position where they were subject to a didactic-explanatory role as their future frozen in the past. Social changes during the 1990s turned the practice of preservation of listed ruins, from the 1960s to the 1980s, upside down. There was a new desire to see more and more of the past, not just ruins littering the ground. After the first uncertain preservation attempts of the reconstruction period, a completely new view started developing which, instead of emphasizing the documentary presentation of the results of archeological excavations, focuses on the original monument as a whole allowing conspicuous renovation or even reconstruction when necessary.3 Restoration, reconstruction, and even the most essential ‘conservation itself are interventions. One must be aware of the fact that the intervention and its effects will be visible on the monument’4 bringing inevitable changes. My aim is to present the principles of a methodology in ruin analysis and examination5 that approaches ruins as ‘changing’ monuments.


The origins of characterology

Vitruvius already wrote about the character of buildings. When writing about the types of private homes in different climates, he also described the characteristics of different types of people: ‘the races that are bred in the north are of vast height, and have fair complexions, straight red hair, grey eyes, and a great deal of blood…’6 While there are further publications dealing with the character examination of buildings, though not presented here, I have not found any special publications on the characterology of ruins. Of the references available on the characterology of buildings I think it is important to mention Gyula J. Hajnóczi’s essay Vallum és Intervallum – Az építészeti tér analitikus elmélete (this can be the starting point for analysing the spatial character of ruins), and the essays Budapest Karaktertérkép, Metodika,7 and Budapest Karaktertérkép, Értékkataszter8 by Ferenc Cságoly and others. This is an antecedent to the characterology of ruins from several aspects (approach, methodology), therefore I will give a short summary of the two volumes handling them as one unit. Metodika serves as theoretical grounds and methodological preparation, Értékkataszter is a planning ‘aid’ complemented with practical experience. They are both based on the principle of regarding the town as a living system built from dead material. Examination consists of three steps:

l. division, preparing a character map9. Dividing the town according to the results of analytical (examining dead character), analogical (examining the ‘living’ character) and chronological examinations. Areas identical from all the three aspects make up homogeneous units, the results can be visualised on the character map.

ll. examining parts of areas, value cadastre10. Individual and detailed examination of homogeneous areas from the aspect of characterology. Steps: presentation (general data, information), examination (from general to details), conclusion, proposition.

lll. Summarising results, character plan11. As a result of examining the intensity of character, character centres and areas with a lack of character appear. For their individual management a character plan can be prepared based on the summary of results.

The scope for applying character examination12 is in defining building zones; determining the identity of towns; serving as a basis for development concepts; preparing zone plans; ranking areas from the aspect of value, sustainability or development; planning aid; basic material for preparing brochures.

The system of characterology used as a basis here is of a bottom-up analysis based on experience, it is a means of planning, its final results are not influenced by specific objectives or interests.13 Its synthesising approach makes connexions obvious, different examinations can be contrasted easily. Towns and buildings are studied as living entities which have different stages in their lives: birth, growth, maturity, old age and death (ruin)14. Paradoxically, most opportunities are contained in the final stage of death, accumulating tensions which reach a critical point and encountering the right material interests and needs can point toward the revitalisation of the subject.



The concept of character is defined in detail by Budapest Karakterterv, Metodika15: character is a feature made up from physical and psycho-intellectual elements, the characteristics of living entities as well as the physical properties of lifeless entities, abstract psycho-intellectual and specific physical features blend together. The characteristics of living entities are subject to analogical research, physical properties of lifeless entities to analytical research. Character changes in time, it develops over time. A particular building has different characters in winter or summer, to different viewers – varying environmental effects and conditions shape its character in different ways. Character contains everything that can be characteristic of a living entity or a building.

A key word in the definition is change, the effect of differing aspects and conditions place their observed subject as a unit into context. Based on everything mentioned above I think this definition is applicable to a ruin characterology that aims to examine more comprehensive connexions in terms of ‘changes’


What is a ruin?

Scientific- architectural, archeological, historical - document and source16, an indispensable monument of the past but also an ever-changing living memory17, either saving it or abandoning it causes further changes18. Encyclopedias, law codes provide several definitions of the ruin, such as the remains of a building decayed long ago; collapsed building’s parts; parts of something remained after dilapidation or change; something that has survived in a state of dilapidation caused by time19; a building which cannot be used in its original function.20 I make an attempt to interpret the concept of ruin through modelling its birth and transformation (construction, dilapidation, preservation, conversion):

-‘natural’ ruins are the remains of buildings, they were created from decaying buildings, the process can be described as transformation of a building into a ruin. Being a ruin is a stage in the building’s life, at a crossroads, either leading to complete dilapidation or transformation. Without any intervention it proceeds towards ultimate material annihilation.

- Another type of ruins, false ruins are created from the ruins of buildings rearranged as a new composition. (false ruins in The English Park, Tata, Hungary).

- The remains of dilapidated buildings are used for the explanatory illustration of the idea of conserving and preserving ruins as ruins. Such ruins stay at their original location. If ‘natural’ ruins are the products of dilapidation, the ruins that are created by ‘artificial’ interventions should be regarded as artificial ruins.

- Artificial intervention can be so extensive that the ruin (or parts of it) cannot be considered as a ‘ruin’ any longer, but it turns into a building (extension of a building under listed status or reconstruction) or part of a building (protective structures)

If my starting point is the unit of a building and ruin with a potential to mutate into each other, the question might arise that at what point a building should be viewed as a ruin in the process of dilapidation and, on the other hand, at what point a ruin subject to ‘artificial’ intervention can be defined as a building. This particular point is called the ‘point of no return’ (in Hungarian: visszatérési határpont). It defines the moment when the essential character of the monument changes in the process of transformation: it cannot be seen any more as a ruin because it has turned into a building, or it cannot be regarded as a building, as it is a ruin. The term is meant to define the act of transformation. During the life of a monument there can be several points of no return: a building can develop into a ruin and a building again several times – but by then it is not the same building or ruin any more but ‘another’ one!

It is crucial to decide whether a monument is a building or a ruin (whether it has reached the point of no return or not in the process of dilapidation), since completely different means of intervention should be applied to it in each case: before the point of no return it can be restoration-reconstruction (the conditions before dilapidation are reversible), while after the point of no return conservation or the extension of a building under listed status (with a protective structure or to convert into a completely different building) should be applied to. Finally, one needs to take into consideration the possible effects of the chosen intervention – and whether the point of no return should be crossed or not. Not every intervention turns a ruin into a building but one can recognise that something has irreversibly changed: material, space, architectural bulk, function, etc. The point of no return should be examined not only in relation to ruins or buildings but also in relation to particular ‘building elements’.


Ruin characters

I find it necessary to introduce two concepts regarding the characterology of ruins. They are meant to make a distinction between the characteristics of “natural” ruins created by dilapidation and false ruins resulting from artificial constructive intervention. The primary or dilapidated character developing from the dilapidation-transformation of old characteristics highly depends on the type of dilapidation (demolition or natural dilapidation, etc.) and environmental conditions. Excavations still point to the direction of ‘dilapidation’ instead of construction, any character created by excavation should be defined as a dilapidation character. Preservation-utilisation makes alterations in the character of the ruin: new characteristics may be born which the ruin or the original building did not have. Secondary or built characters are the results of interventions of artificial and constructional nature that are mainly dependent on to the architectural style and the particular principles in historic preservation.

Another classification of ruin characters is based on Budapest Karakterterv Metodika that sets a distinction between material characteristics (dead/non-living features) and immaterial characteristics (living character) which, though being non-material, have the potential to shape physical features. Regarding the subject of my research, the ruin as a constantly changing living monument, I believe that dilapidation and built characters should be studied both in material and immaterial terms. This provides the basic structure of my methodology. I examine dilapidation and built characters embodied in the following material factors:

-Texture and surface of building element. Its dilapidation character is mainly determined by the nature of the building material, meanwhile the built character appearing on the building material highly depends on the directives laid down by different charts and principles, besides material features.

-Structure. Dilapidation is a process opposite to building: after the dilapidation of the roof, slab and walls, only the foundations remain. Dilapidation character, just like built character, depends on the design and solidity properties of the original structures.

-Form. Form stemming from dilapidation characters varies from the angular and fragmentary silhouette reflecting the original building to the transitions of the ruin appearing as a gently sloping hill. Artificial intervention can make these ‘romantic’ forms disappear easily. -Space. The dilapidation character is an opening and differentiating space. Preservation, protection or embedding the ruin into a protective structure make the building character of the space develop towards enclosure.

- Architectural Bulk. The bulk of the building disappears, as the dilapidation of space defining surfaces open up the space, remaining parts of walls can be perceived as new and detached architectural bulk. The built character is the bulk of protective structures, old-new building mass created by reconstruction and extension.

-Built and natural environment. Environmental elements make up an essential part of listed ruins, any change in them can be regarded as a dilapidation character (a plant growing out of the wall of an unattended house) or a built character (reconstruction from plants).

I examine dilapidation and built characteristics in relation to the following immaterial characters:

-Social and cultural environment. A ruin is differently judged in earlier ages and today, in a dictatorship or in democracy or in different countries. The social and cultural environment has a great influence on ruins, it can be ‘destructive’ or ‘constructive’.

-Economic environment can substantially determine the limits of maintenance and the characteristics of a ruin: a ruin has different appearance when it is possible to subsidise its preservation.

-Function. A building (and ruin) without function is doomed to dilapidation. The loss of function can be one of the main reasons why buildings turn into ruins, further lack of function leads to total material annihilation. Function – if there is one- has a great influence on the future character of the ruin.

-The owner. A ruin looks differently if its owner is willing to maintain it, or just regards it as a burden.

-Legal-ideological environment. Legal regulations on historic monuments directly proscribe the built characteristics of listed ruins. Obscurity about ownership enhances the dangers of dilapidation of the monument.


Examination of ruin characters

Classification according to material and immaterial, built and dilapidation characters discussed so far provide standardised criteria based on which examination can be carried out on all three temporal levels – the original building in the past, the present ruin and its future (plans). Examination is based on the individual identification of each character (independent examination), which can be the basis for complex, even multi-target and multi-aim (subjectivity) comparisons (referential examinations). The basic unit of examination is a particular monument. By researching a particular area’s ruins from homogenous aspects ‘homogenous’ monuments that need to be handled according to the same principles21 can be determined. Focusing on the ‘details’ of a particular ruin homogenous units can be explored: parts built from the same material at the same time, elements of the same type, material decaying at the same rate, similar spaces, etc., can contribute to the historic research of the monument or the classification of ruins with new pieces of information.



Ruins are complex units made up by several characters, regarding their condition, they are in constant change. The aim of my presentation on the characterology of ruins – and my thesis on this topic as well - was to set the first ‘version’ of an examination and assessment system which is meant to set a dynamic approach that takes transformation into consideration in the scope of preserving value carried by listed ruins. The suggested system provides a definite structure to display the diversity of factors determining ruins which extends and not restricts the possibilities in managing ruins while exploring the causes of changes and variations. It can serve as the starting point for major decision making: leaving the monument unaltered, or deciding on the types and ways of intervention (conservation, protection, reconstruction, extension of a building under listed status or enjoying protected status, etc.) and the first step in organising maintenance and regulation, plans or development concepts.


1 Várszegi, Asztrik In Várszegi 2001 p. 78

2 See: Horler 1964

3 For an overview on the period see: Arnóth 2004, Császár 1990, Császár 1999, Fejérdy 1999, Fejérdy 2007, Gerő 1970, Horler 1964, Horler 1972, Mezős 2001, Zádor 1999

4 Gerő, László In Gerő 1970 pp. 24-26

5 The topic was presented in detail in my thesis entitled Introduction to the Characterology of Ruins written for the Department for History of Architecture and Monuments, Budapest University of Technology and Economy,specialisation in heritage conservation engineering, consultant: Dr. Tamás Fejérd, June 2010)

6 Vitruvius 2009 p.133; source of English translation: 8/8/2011

7 Cságoly - Csuportné - etc.: Budapest Karakterterv Metodika. Építész Stúdió 11. Kft. 1992

8 Cságoly - Csuportné - etc.: Budapest Karaktertérkép, Értékkataszter. Építész Stúdió Kft. 1992

9 In detail: Cságoly 1 1992 pp 37-73, Cságoly 2 1992 pp. 6-56

10 In detail: Cságoly 1 1992 pp 37-74, Cságoly 2 1992 pp. 57-82

11 In detail: Cságoly 1 1992 pp 78-80

12 In detail: Cságoly 1 1992 pp 81-84

13 Cságoly 2. 1992 p. 3

14 Cságoly 1. 1992 p. 77

15 Cságoly 1. 1992 pp. 3-7

16 See: Marosi 2008

17 See: Sedlmayr 2000 p. 6

18 See: Gerő 1970 p. 24

19 Magyar értelmező kéziszótár. edited by.: Juhász József-Szőke István-etc. Bp., Akadémia kiadó, 1975

20Act on Museums and Historical Monuments: Act 13 of 1949 of the Hungarian People’s Republic 18 § (3) (A Népköztársaság Elnöki Tanácsának 1949. évi törvényerejű rendelete a múzeumokról és műemlékekről 18. § (3))

21 Based on Budapest Karakterterv, Metodika



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