Beautiful Decay: Objects falling into history

Paint forced out by the inflation of tarnished metal beneath in paper-thin scrapings like filmy slices of whittled wood. Chunky number buttons with finger indentations on telephones that crunch in with a satisfying click. Orange and dusk-red rusts on old bicycle frames that harbour a beautiful variety of lichen in an array of sanguine tones. Windowless stone buildings with determined blades of grass growing forcibly through the gaps in the cold cobbled floor.

There is something resoundingly beautiful about the ruins of our recent past. The history and stories trapped inside objects that have fallen into ruin in the last hundred years seem to tweak a sense of something like nostalgia or memory, but different and less definable. Certainly in design and photography in recent times decay and ruin have become vogue. The online exhibition of work by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s photographs of Detroit’s post-auto industry ruins (see image below) features some of the most astounding photographic work online. The memory in the buildings documented and the organic nature of the decay gives an unworldy and even post-apocalyptic feel to a city which is still operating and inhabited.

The word decay comes from the Anglo-French decair, meaning “to fall” or “decline”. The idea of things falling into ruin, tumbling off a position of usefulness, decadence or stature is the idea that applies to the fading modern history that is beautiful and marked as a point of inquisition or interest.

Yves Merchand & Romain Meffre – “Bagley-Clifford Office of the National Bank of Detroit”, from the “Ruins of Detroit” series.

Decline, falling, or the harshness of the word “decay” can bring a lot of weight with it. Decayed teeth are not an attractive thought, and decay in a new home is something to be wary of and to be resolved quickly. But within the idea of objectivity, decay could mean a transformation from function to form.

Old tram and train-lines that have been decommissioned, houses that have fallen into disrepair due to neglect, or rusted objects washed up on sea-shores or too awkward to move in rural areas all have small stories to tell. Disused industrial and business facilities hold a weight of something that was, that we understand to have been, but that lacks it’s essential function now. Each individual object has its own unique beauty, and the way in which two objects decay is never identical, as natural forces cause different effects in different environments.

The effect of the natural on the man-made is a poignant issue in observing the beauty in decayed objects. Nature vs man is an often quoted concept within environmentalism, but seems something of a moot point when regarding humanity as a part of nature. So it is instead something more of an observation on the natural effects declining the functionality of an object, creating natural artwork from it, thus forcing form over function. We understand most man-made objects to be functional , and it is in redefining this functionality that we come to re-observe objects that have entered the “beautiful decay” phase. Demolished houses as formerly functional can become “accidental art”, as shown in the photography of Jos Antonio Milln, and even art as a functional aesthetic object can be found to decay into reverence, as seen in Jan Kempenaers’ “The End of History” photography project.

Above is a detail photograph of a World War II B-17 Bomber that crash landed on Tievebaun mountain, Co. Leitrim, Ireland in 1943. The remains of the plane are a sight to behold in their boggy and desolate surrounds, and there is certainly a story behind the ruins. But the decayed object itself retains a beauty and mystery specific to its juxtaposed aesthetic in the otherwise grassy surrounds.

The idea of a faded history is one that highlights something in our memories. Ruins have always sybolised some level of fascination – from Stonehenge or the Collusseum in Rome, to the 7 ancient wonders of the world, there has always been a link formed between the fascination with old human-built objects and structures with respect to the new. The idea of monumentalism is one that resounds within the human psyche and can be the catalyst for deeper thinking not just on history past, but on future plans and events.

It may be as simple as decay as an aesthetic observation of time itself. Time is such an elusive object, virtually impossible to document. But through decay, time can be trapped, observed and catalogued in a way that we can visibly define it. Memory as a relational term, specific to the relationship between an individual and an object can hark back to the mentions of non-places that were made on this blog in a previous post dealing with how historic or hereditary memory can directly influence our views on places.

I had a conversation with a fellow artist a few months ago about the beauty of old telephones. He maintained that there was something more special about phones with heavy buttons and inner-working bells that rang persistently when a call came in. His central argument to support his love for this old-fashioned mechanism was the idea of understanding the structure – he could grasp the idea of how a phone work, how phone-lines operated, how simple it was to punch in some buttons and connect a call without any ostentatious extras like you find on modern mobile phones. He felt more of a connection with the object that he could understand than with the silicon mysteries of the contemporary equivalent.

I argued that the same will be said in fifty years time about the IPhone – when technology surges forward and develops a new design or concept, what looks chic now will seem outmoded. And in a future of unpredictable technological advance, an IPhone will probably one day seem like a primitive device, with the same beauty, accessibility and simplicity of design that old telephones have for us today.

So time will tell whether beautiful decay will fall upon our contemporary creature comforts. But time is equivocal, and we can’t know the answers to these things until time falls upon us. So for now I’ll happily fall in love with the beauty of a recent faded past.

All photography is my own and subject to copyright unless stated, please credit any reproductions to this blog or contact ( for more information.

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