“The panoramic photographs taken after the 1906 earthquake show that the old city is gone, replaced by jagged, smoldering spire and piles of ruins. The photographs made a century later demonstrate that the ruins are likewise gone, erased more definitively than the earthquake erased the nineteenth-century city. Ruins represent the physical decay of what preceded them, but their removal erases meaning and memory. Ruins are monuments, but while intentional monuments articulate desire for permanence, even immortality, ruins memorialize the fleeting nature of all things and the limited powers of humankind. ‘Decay can be halted, but only briefly, and then it resumes. It is the negative image of history,’ wrote landscape historian JB Jackson. It is the negative image of history and a necessary aspect of it. To erase decay or consciousness of decay, decline, entropy, and ruin is to erase the understanding of the unfolding relation between all things, of darkness to light, of age to youth, of fall to rise. Rise and fall go together; they presume each other.
In another sense, everything is the ruin of what came before. A table is the ruin of a tree, as is the paper you hold in your hands; a carved figure is the ruin of the block from which it emerged, a block whose removal scarred the mountainside from which it was hacked; and anything made of metal requires earth upheaval and ore extraction on a scale of extraordinary disproportion to the resultant product. To imagine the metamorphoses that are life on earth at its grandest scale is to imagine both creation and destruction, and to imagine them together is to see their kinship in the common ground of change, abrupt and gradual, beautiful and disastrous, to see the generative richness of ruins and the ruinous nature of all change. ‘The child is the father to the man,’ declared Wordsworth, but the man is also the ruin of the child, as much as the butterfly is the ruin of the caterpillar. Corpses feed flowers; flowers eat corpses. San Francisco has been ruined again and again, only most spectacularly in 1906, and those ruins have been erased and forgotten and repeated and erased again.
A city – any city, every city – is the eradication, even the ruin, of the landscape from which it rose. In its fall, that original landscape sometimes triumphs. One day, I looked up and saw to the south the undomesticated crest of Bernal Heights, with its coyote and wild blackberries, and to the west the ridgeline of Twin Peaks and with a shudder perceived, still present as a phantom, the steep natural landscape that underlay the city, the flesh beneath the clothes, the landscape that that reappeared amid the miles of ruins and that someday will reassert itself again… A place like San Francisco could be imagined not as one city stretching out since 1846 but dozens of cities laid over each other’s ruins.
To make this city, much of a windswept, fog-shrouded expanse of sand dunes and chaparral-covered hillsides was smoothed over, dunes removed, hilltops flattened, bays and marshes filled in, streams forced underground, endemic species driven into extinction. Even the view of the resultant simplified topography was obscured by buildings everywhere.
Cities are always maintained, for natural processes of decay produce ruins as surely as violence and fire, flood and earthquake do; and only maintenance and replacement postpone the inevitable ruin – the entropy of the built and the return of the organic.
That nothing lasts forever is perhaps our favorite thing to forget. And forgetting is the ruin of memory, its collapse, decay, shattering, and eventually fading away into nothingness.”
- Rebecca Solnit, “The Ruins of Memory,” After the Ruins: 1906 and 2006