The Time Capsule Effect: Pristine Abandonment and the Ideal Ruin
Sometime in the late-1960s the proprietors of a modest shoe store closed its doors, leaving the stock neatly stacked along its walls. It remained there apparently untouched until a year ago, when a descendant opened the doors to find a mountain of shoe boxes and footwear and a typical small business seemingly as it had been left the day it was shuttered. Shoe collectors’ hearts leapt at the prospect of the magical specter of “old store stock” in its original packaging transformed to the status of “vintage.” The implied riches of the assemblage on ebay have captured much of the popular curiosity with the little store, but the more fascinating story is the “time capsule” effect of the assemblage and similar “pristine” abandonment spaces, not simply the allure of a pair of vintage wingtips.
Ruins are material and aesthetic vehicles for the imagination, sometimes simply for a “lost time” and in other hands as moral statements about the collapse of cities, industry, or communities. The undisturbed shoe store is an example of perhaps the most compelling of all abandoned sites: the “time capsule” left as it “really was” in an un-staged moment arresting the flow of a distant material life. The archetype for the time capsule site is Pripyat, the nuclear city rapidly abandoned in April, 1986 after the Chernobyl disaster. Tours now venture to Pripyat to walk amidst the detritus of everyday life and the specter of disaster apparently arrested in time.
“Time capsule” sites magnify the evocative human absences of ruin spaces, summoning hints of everyday life, specific personalities, or lost historical moments. Sites like the sealed shoe store are perhaps the “ideal” ruin because they evoke human presences: where people sat to try on shoes, the counter at which they paid, the modest painted store sign on the window, and similar things that appear dropped in place and left in the wake of a breathing person.
A similar site was created in 1942, when the granddaughter of Madame Marthe de Florian fled her apartment in the 9th arrondissement on Paris’ Right Bank, an area neighboring the Palais Garnier and Boulevard Haussmann. After fleeing Paris de Florian’s granddaughter dutifully paid the rent until her death at 91 nearly 70 years later, but she never returned to the opulent flat. Marthe de Florian had stocked it with a rich host of belle époque domestic material goods: luxurious furnishings, curiosities like a stuffed ostrich, and an 1898 Giovanni Boldini painting of de Florian, as well as love notes he and a host of suitors including Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau sent to her. Much of the discussion of the long-undisturbed flat has revolved around the Boldini painting (which sold for $3 million), but the flat was already a bit of a stylistic anomaly at the outset of World War II, and the life of de Florian and her descendants is certainly far from a snapshot of everyday Parisian life. The fascination of the flat has less to do with wealth or style, though, and is instead most compelling for its construction as an arrested moment into which we can now step.
Of course, a truly “pristine” abandoned space is quite rare (compare this Tube tunnel decorated with 1959 movie posters in London’s Notting Hill station, a 1932 British home, a New York City tram stop,or 500 Chevrolets placed in storage a half-century ago in Nebraska). Beyond being a rare confluence of abandonment and preservation, the “time capsule” site is a somewhat ambiguous notion of ruins. Ruination is an active process to which all materiality—even a “time capsule” site—is subject, and in fact the patina of dust covering the Paris apartment and the shoe store provide the spaces some of their symbolic power. We aspire to arrest that natural decay process in our homes and communal spaces—every living room is lapsing into ruin every moment—, and the decline of some ruin artifacts (e.g., the Parthenon) is resisted quite assertively. Most ruin sites are declining through normal ecological deterioration, and they secure much of their fascinating aesthetic attraction and sense of authenticity from that decline. That reality is accepted by most urban exploration, which revolves around an ethic of leaving all ruin spaces undisturbed by subsequent visitors and left subject to the patina-inducing rhythms of nature.
The notion of “disturbance” and a “pristine” space is somewhat ambiguous, since human interventions are one predictable dimension of decline just as rain and humidity, but it resists “staging” ruins. In that sense, the shoe store ostensibly left untouched nearly a half century is an un-orchestrated material space unlocking a particular moment and place. The moment and place in the case of the shoe store is oddly prosaic—a late 1960’s shoe store typical of many postwar retail spaces, most of which have been largely buried in the memory of everyday life. The shoe store potentially resurrects memories of such places that would be otherwise completely misplaced, an effect magnified by the shoes: the most commonplace of material things, shoes are extensions of our bodies, their historical distance underscored by dust and the patina of past styles. It may be these most commonplace spaces and prosaic material things that are counter-intuitively the most fascinating “time capsules” because they connect our own unseen everyday worlds to those that have been lost in memory.
Giovanni Boldini Marthe de Florian painting image from wikipedia
Marthe de Florian apartment bureau and stuffed ostrich images from messnessychic