Naipaul‘s Enigma of Arrival left me thinking about ruins. Whether its a dilapidated house, a dead tree, or a burnt down motorcar on the side of the highway, ruins make me uneasy. Like a dried out human skull, ruins remind me of the death and decay that nothing in this world can escape. Ruins scream out to me the old latin phrase: Memento Mori! Remember you must die!
But then ruins can simply be sad. In Benin City, my family lived in one of the Federal Housing Estates. About two miles north of our house, there stood a curious building. An ambitious architectural project. A state secretariat of some kind. It was massive. It had to have been the architectural fantasy of some military governor, who was no longer in office. Like many of the abandoned projects that litter the city, this building stood as a witness to the ruin to which military dictatorship brought the world over which they ruled and perhaps the ruin that the military would become in the following years when Nigeria became a democracy.
Anytime I walked the small bush path that brushed past the corrugated zinc fence of the building, I felt sad. The thing is that the building was no where near completion. My guess is that the visionary governor left office and no one cared to continue with what seemed like a private dream of grandeur.
A curious spectacle, these open houses, with their floorboards suspended over the abyss…their staircases leading nowhere now, their cellars open to the sky, their bizarre collapsed interiors and battered ruins. (94, Walter Benjamin: The Arcades Project)
A building decaying before completion. This was a strange kind of afterlife. It’s like dying before one was even born. Passing by that building left me queazy. Walls blackened by sun-scorched algae. Broken-down cranes. Heaps and heaps of rotting plywood. Rusted zinc fence. The eerie silence broken by scurrying lizards or a falling window frame. I found the building in its ruined state when we moved to that neighborhood in the early 90s. And when we left many years later, it had still not been saved from its deepening decay. I remember I could not help thinking that that building had always to have been a ruin. There could not have been a moment in which it was anything else.
But then there are funny ruins like the 80s. A decade of catastrophes in music, fashion, film. A ten-year pile up of wreckage upon wreckage.