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When I was a child visiting relatives in Greece, there was a bus I always particularly wanted to catch into the centre of Athens, even though others went in exactly the same direction. The reason was that it sported the best destination ever on its front, stamped in solemn and portentous letters: AKADIMIA, or the Academy. I imagined, back then, that this was the way to Plato’s Academy, and that the bus journey would end amid the silver olive trees that constituted the original groves of academe, and the odd resonant piece of weather-beaten marble by the side of the road.

I was mistaken. The vehicle trudged into the centre of a city that had long ago forsaken olive trees for traffic lights, and it turned out that Plato’s school was actually in the opposite direction. I expressed my disillusionment, but was sharply reprimanded. I had succumbed to a common ailment, said my friends: archaeolatreia, or love of the ancient. Only this was not a healthy love, but an excessive one, a romanticisation of the past that ultimately stopped one from living in the present. We indulge in the perceived glories of ancient times at our peril, I was warned. They weigh heavily, and rarely help us move forward with any sense of purpose.

At Tate Britain’s smart new exhibition Ruin Lust, archaeolatreia is given free rein. Indeed it encounters a sister term which gives the show its title: the German Ruinenlust, adopted in the 1950s by the author Rose Macaulay to describe the obsessive regard for the architectural debris of the past, finding in the fallen columns and crumbling façades of past civilisations a sense of hubris and cosmic pessimism that remains fashionable to this day.

The exhibition’s co-curator, Brian Dillon, rightly explains that the reverence for the ruin disguises a multitude of intellectual impulses: “a reminder of the universal reality of collapse and rot . . . the symbol of a certain melancholic or maundering state of mind . . . a memorial to the fallen of an ancient or recent war . . . a desolate playground in whose cracked and weed-infested precincts we have space and time to imagine a future”.

The taste for ruins, he says, is a modern one, catching fire during the Enlightenment, a time that found the idea of physical decay both uncomfortable and inspiring at the same time. He quotes the German poet Friedrich Schlegel: “Many works of the ancients have become fragments. Many works of the moderns are fragments at the time of their origin.” Things that last forever turn into kitsch: how much more satisfying for the imagination to witness the effects of destruction, and from there build anew.

But the cult of the ruin reached extraordinary lengths some years later, when Sir John Soane, not long after designing his architectural masterpiece, the Bank of England, in the early 19th century, himself commissioned from the artist Joseph Gandy a bird’s-eye painting which depicted the bank as a future wreck.

There was no stopping the morbid fascination with decay now: landscape designers built ruin-lust follies in gardens, so confident of the resilience of the British empire that they felt safe enough to make visual jokes about its collapse and the effects on the “ruined” city of London. It was at once playful and arrogant. Soane even had the effrontery to write a narrative, Crude Hints towards an History of my House, in which he imagined a future archaeologist inspecting the fragments of his home, wondering if they were the remains of a monastery, a Roman temple, a magician’s lair or the house of a persecuted artist.

This was the fantastical phase of ruin lust, powered by aesthetic fascination – all that creeping vegetation and startling chiaroscuro – and indulged by a narcissistic society. But we live with the legacy of the weapons of mass destruction that tore their way through the 20th century, and the joke is largely lost on us. Thanks to mortars, mines and all the rest, a neighbourhood row can turn into the most spectacular of conflagrations. We are never far from ruins, geographically or psychically.

That has not tempered the desire of artists to engage with the theme, but it has changed their approach. Jane and Louise Wilson’s photographs of concrete bunkers from the Nazis’ Atlantic Wall are anti-Romantic, but conceptually fascinating: brutalist relics from the most brutal of political regimes.

During Britain’s punk movement, artists celebrated, if that is the right word, the ruin as a banal fact of everyday life rather than as a fall from a more elegant age. In the Tate exhibition, Jon Savage’s photographs of “Uninhabited London” are an indictment of contemporary life: the ruin as failed economic policy. And Rachel Whiteread’s “Demolished” series of pictures shows the demolition of Hackney housing estates, beautiful like all explosions, explosive in their condemnation of modern housing conditions.

In a time which concerns itself with forthcoming environmental catastrophe, there is no danger of archaeolatreia monopolising the attentions of critics and artists. Forget the past; today’s ruinous visions are of the future. The fallen cities of tomorrow have little romance about them. Dystopia is a charmless place. The greatest appeal of classical ruins was to know that we emerged from them unscathed, and moved on to bigger and better things. It wasn’t lust for ruins; it was lust for life.

peter.aspden@ft.com, @peteraspden

‘Ruin Lust’, Tate Britain, London, to May 18, tate.org.uk

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