Abandoned, decaying buildings are philosophically interesting, both in their aesthetics and in their ontology. I am going to write a few words about both aspects here, although by no means in an exhaustive way.
The aesthetical aspect of such places is brought to us by an increasing number of photographers who explore such places in what has come to be known as “Urban Exploration” or “Urbex”. The above photograph of a former power station, taken from Wikimedia Commons, is a good example of this movement (o at least of its sub-genre of exploring abandoned buildings).
Elsewhere, I have argued that the experience of beauty is an effect of a mix of order and disorder. Beauty, I have proposed, is an experience of sucessfully discovering order or patterns. If something is too orderly, it becomes boring, If there is too much disorder, it becomes confusing. Between these extremes are structures in which order and disorder are mixed in such a way that discovering structures remains possible for an extended time and looking at it, we are again and again rewarded with discovering forms. The result is an ongoing experience of beauty and fascination.
When objects decay, they start from a state of relative order (and often boredom) and then go through stages of increasing disorder. At some point, they move through a “beauty zone” where there is an optimum of order and disorder. We can often still identify what things have been, so patterns and shapes can be identified, but things have become different enough from what they once had been to require some mental work before we are rewarded with recognition, resulting in the aesthetic effect of “Verfremdung“. After that stage follows a stage of “abstract expressionism” where we will no longer be able to recognize objects but where rich and complex patterns and textures will develop.
Besides these aesthetic aspects, decaying objects are also ontologically interesting. They can teach us a lesson about what objects are and what they are not. There are objects that “are” buildings, floors, tubes, machines etc. We can use them in a certain way and as long as they function according to these concepts we can pretend as if that is what they just are. But they are always more than that. We have a concept of the thing and this concept is implemented in some concrete physical system. However, the real system allways has more properties than the conceptual description accounts for. The engineers have a theory of how the system is supposed to work. We can take this description or “blueprint” as a theory of the system, but it is incomplete as a description of the real system it is describing. There are processes going on in that system that are not covered by the “blueprint theory” and along these processes, the object can move out of the scope of that theory. If that happens, it is “broken”. The physical system is not broken, just the object implemented by it. For the physical system, these processes of decay and wear and tear are just normal processes just like the processes described by the the blueprint theory are normal processes. From the point of view of the system, there is no difference between these processes. The difference exists only in our conceptualization. It is not the real system that breakes down but just our as-if-construction about it.
When the system is abandoned, i.e. when people stop to nudge it back into the part of its state space described by the blueprint, the system will develop properties not described by the blueprint. The blueprint-theory is incomplete and the underlying system has many properties not covered by that theory, properties I have called the “residuum” in another article. These residual properties that where hardly visible when the structure was still functioning according to the blueprint now start to creep in. The paint is scaling off the walls and the first blobs of rust appear. Then the residual properties and processes take over. That is what we can see in the picture above. We see that the system that was there was not only a power station. It had a lot more properties and possibilities of development than the blueprint theory described. These properties where pushed back into its micro structure or covered by paint or behind casings but now they bounce back, as rust and oxidation, as scaling paint and mineral blooming, as sprouting spores of wood-digesting fungi and bacteria, as invading plants and animals, as gravitation. The once protective layer of the building opens up and heat and cold, wind and rain start influencing its inside, exposing many once hidden possibilities of interaction.
As long as it functioned as a power station, we could say that it “was” one. But maybe it would be more appropriate to say that it was just “an implementation” of the power-station theory, that it “emulated” a power station. The use of the word “is” instead of “emulates” is convenient here and I am not suggesting to stop using it in everyday language, but it is claiming too much. In this way of talking we say the building “is” a power station and then that the power station is “broken” (if it can be nudged back into “being” one) or it is “destroyed” (when it no longer can). This way of speaking is convenient but in a way, the power station, i.e. the object described by the blueprint, is a fiction. We pretend that the real system is like that and ignore the residuum.
The real object, however, does not care about us and our theory that it was supposed to be a power station. It is what it is. It is going its own way.
(The picture is from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Demolition_of_the_ECVB_power_plant.jpg.)