Leila Alexandra Dawney (University of Exeter)


From 13:30
to 15:00
From 13:30
to 15:00

Course description
This course focuses on ruins in contemporary culture and scholarship, exploring themes such as materiality, aesthetics, memory and environmental destruction. Interdisciplinary in character, the course draws on literature from anthropology, cultural geography, history, social theory and the environmental humanities to rethink our approaches to the decaying objects and buildings of the past. The course will have a particular focus on the city and surroundings of Venice.
The course will begin by exploring the ruin as aesthetic object. Since the eighteenth century, the ruin has emerged as a defining trope of modernity, associated with Romanticism, melancholy and lament. We chart the rise of this interest in ruins, looking at the emergence of “ruinenlust” in 18th century Germany, ruins in the picturesque landscapes celebrated by Gilpin, and the Classical ruin as object of tourist gaze in the European Grand Tour. More recently, ruins have become important locales for exploring post-conflict concerns such as trauma, memory and war. Industrial ruins, too, have become popular aesthetic objects that generate nostalgia for the optimism and hubris of the industrial age. These themes, and more besides, will be explored through literature, poetry, painting and photography, as we consider the visual trope of the ruin and the ways of seeing that it engenders.
Students will then move on to explore contemporary and critical approaches to ruins and ruination. The second section of the course, Progress and Decay focuses on ruins in the work of Frankfurt scholar Walter Benjamin and other critical thinkers. In this section, students will be introduced to the concept of ruination as part of a modernist project of creation and destruction. We will consider a broad range of case studies that illustrate this creative destruction and the imaginaries accompanying them, including Chinese ghost cities, Ghost estates in Ireland, former Soviet nuclear spaces and postindustrial ruins.
The third part of the course, Postcolonial Ruins focuses scholarship and case studies that call into question the Western-centric ruin-gaze. In this section, we explore non-Western and indigenous approaches to the material past, anthropological accounts of colonial and neo-colonial destruction, the role of the ruin in the presentation of colonial heritage and the cultural politics of racialised ruination. This will involve studying a range of cultural and academic texts and case studies including postindustrial Detroit, the former rubber city Fordlandia in Brazil, and the Quintero-Puchuncavi “sacrifice zone” in Chile.
Finally, we turn to recent scholarship in the environmental humanities and beyond, which refigures ruination as political potential. The final part of the course, Living in the ruins asks us to consider how to rethink spaces ruined or damaged by global relations of colonialism, capitalism, extraction and exploitation as sites for inhabitation rather than spectatorship. In this final section, we begin to think about the implications of living on a ruined earth.

Learning outcomes
Students will understand the political, aesthetic and cultural debates regarding ruins and ruination. They will have knowledge of a series of global case studies, and be able to draw on a range of contemporary and historical thinkers to discuss how ideas of material decay, memory and nostalgia interact in the representation of ruined spaces. Finally, students will be able to apply these frameworks to thinking about contemporary environmental problems.

Teaching methods.
This course will be taught through a combination of lectures, class discussion, field visits and small group exercises. Students will be asked to identify and discuss examples from film, literature and art in short presentations. We will go on a field trip in Venice to discuss the ideas, fantasies and cultural significance of the “Grand Tour”, as well as how it might be rethought today in the light of postcolonial critique.

Students will sit an examination where they will answer two essay questions related to the content of the course (100%). Engagement will be assessed formatively throughout the course, including through a mid-term one-to-one feedback and tutor support session.

Week by week – indicative structure
1 Orientation Week
2 Ruins as Aesthetic Objects – History
3 Venice and the Grand Tour – exploring the ruin gaze FIELD TRIP – THE GRAND TOUR
4 Progress and Decay
5 Nostalgia, Destruction, Contemporary Aesthetics
6 Ghost Cities and Ghost Estates
9 Postcolonial Ruins
10 Anthropocene Ruins
11 Living Among the Ruins
12 Case Study Presentations and Feedback
13 Venice in Ruins and Field Trip - FIELD TRIP TO MOSE
14 Exam Preparation



Indicative reading list

Romanticism, ruinenlust, Picturesque, Grand tour, Nazi architect, Memory nostalgia,
Adams, J. and Steinmetz, G., 2010. Ruins of Modernity. Duke University Press.
Dillon, B. (2014). Ruin Lust. London: Tate Gallery Publishing.
Macaulay, R., Beny, R., & Smith, C. B. (1967). Pleasure of ruins. London: Thames and Hudson.
Schnapp, A., 2018. What Is a Ruin? The Western Definition. KNOW: A Journal on the Formation of Knowledge, 2(1), pp.155-173.

Collins, J., 1997. Grand tour: The lure of Italy in the Eighteenth Century.
Redford, B., 1996. Venice & the grand tour. Yale University Press.
Sweet, Rosemary (2012). Cities and the Grand Tour Cambridge University Press – chapter on Venice

Benjamin, W. (1999). The Arcades Project (H. E. a. K. McLaughlin, Trans.). London: Belknap Press.
Berman, M. (1983). All that is solid melts into air: The experience of modernity: Verso.

Contemporary ruin aesthetics, abandonment, industrial ruins
Boym, S., 2017. The off-modern (Vol. 11). Bloomsbury Publishing USA.
Buck-Morss, S., 1991. The dialectics of seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. mit Press.
Huyssen, A., 2006. Nostalgia for ruins. grey room, (23), pp.6-21.
Simmel, G., 1958. Two essays. The Hudson Review, 11(3), pp.371-385. A lecture explaining this essay

Kitchin, R., O'Callaghan, C., & Gleeson, J. (2014). The New Ruins of Ireland? Unfinished Estates in the Post‐Celtic Tiger Era. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 38(3), 1069-1080.
O'Callaghan, C., Boyle, M., & Kitchin, R. (2014). Post-politics, crisis, and Ireland's ‘ghost estates’. Political Geography, 42, 121-133.
Sorace, C., & Hurst, W. (2016). China’s phantom urbanisation and the pathology of ghost cities. Journal of Contemporary Asia, 46(2), 304-322.
Woodworth, M. D., & Wallace, J. L. (2017). Seeing ghosts: Parsing China’s “ghost city” controversy. Urban Geography, 38(8), 1270-1281.

Fraser, E. (2018). Unbecoming place: urban imaginaries in transition in Detroit. Cultural Geographies, 25(3), 441–458.
Mah, A. 2012. Industrial ruination, community, and place: landscapes and legacies of urban decline, Toronto, University of Toronto Press.
Millington, N. (2013). Post‐industrial imaginaries: Nature, representation and ruin in Detroit, Michigan. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 37(1), 279-296.
Strangleman, T. (2013). “Smokestack Nostalgia,”“Ruin Porn” or Working-Class Obituary: The Role and Meaning of Deindustrial Representation International Labor and Working-Class History, 84, 23-37.
Feltrin, L., 2022. Situating class in workplace and community environmentalism: Working-class environmentalism and deindustrialisation in Porto Marghera, Venice. The Sociological Review, 70(6), pp.1141-1162.
Field trip – deindustrial Venice

the ruin in the presentation of colonial heritage and the cultural politics of racialised ruination. This will involve studying a range of cultural and academic texts and case studies including postindustrial Detroit, the former rubber city Fordlandia in Brazil, and the Quintero-Puchuncavi “sacrifice zone” in Chile.
Gordillo, G. R. (2014). Rubble: The afterlife of destruction. Durham: Duke University Press.
Shringarpure, B., 2019. The Postcolony as a Cold War Ruin: Toward a New Historiography. Research in African Literatures, 50(3), pp.157-165.
Stoler, A. L. (2013). Imperial debris: on ruins and ruination. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bennett, M.M., 2020. Ruins of the Anthropocene: the aesthetics of arctic climate change. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 111(3), pp.921-931.
Nicolas T. Bergmann & Robert M. Briwa (2021) Re-envisioning the Toxic Sublime: National Park Wilderness Landscapes at the Anthropocene, Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 111:3, 889-899
Wakefield, Stephanie 2018. Infrastructures of liberal life: From modernity and progress to resilience and ruins. Geography Compass, e12377.

Dawney, L. (2020) Decommissioned places: Ruins, endurance and care at the end of the first nuclear age. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 45, 33-49.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt 2015. The mushroom at the end of the world: on the possibility of life in capitalist ruins, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press.
Tsing, A.L., Bubandt, N., Gan, E. and Swanson, H.A. eds., 2017. Arts of living on a damaged planet: Ghosts and monsters of the Anthropocene. U of Minnesota Press.

Ryynänen, M., 2019. From Haunted Ruin to Touristified City: An Aesthetic History of Venice. In Philosophical Perspectives on Ruins, Monuments, and Memorials (pp. 157-165). Routledge.


Last updated: July 3, 2023


Isola di San Servolo
30133 Venice,

phone: +39 041 2719511
fax:+39 041 2719510

VAT: 02928970272