Make, Use, Abandon, Repeat – re-mixing Real Estate and Archaeology

I was invited to give a guest lecture at University College London yesterday, in the hallowed halls of the Institute of Archaeology.

Here are my slides. They remix elements from some other recent talks I’ve given, but weave in a preoccupation with the circularity of time (Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence) or at least the circularity of certain temporal processes as they occur in the built environment.

To make things fun along the way there are also various encounters with Tom Cruise, Ouoboros the self-consuming serpent, The Simpsons and some mildly confessional stuff from me about wearing three hats, self-defining as a (dark) real estate researcher and trying to work out the relationship between recursivity in individual biography, and that played out – Ouoboros-like – in the fates and fortunes of the built environment.

All together now, ‘Eat, Sleep, Rave, Repeat.’

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Drilling into the void: a miner’s life, a small box and some papers

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“History is the record of […] self-production; it is the activity of a historical being

recovering the past into the present which anticipates the future.”

Peter Preuss (1980), Foreword to Friedrich Nietzsche’s 

On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, Hackett: Cambridge

The afternoon entails some effort, contorting between small galleries and the small piles of remaining valuable matter strewn there. Eyes and knowing hands reach into these spaces to inspect the stuff arrayed there. An instinctive evaluation is made, and then the search moves on. Or otherwise something catches the eye and more active thought amplifies this assay. A crouch or stoop is made towards something. Thoughts start connecting, an object is foregrounded and given attention. It provokes a desire to make it fit – with previous encounters with similar things, with families of things and with ideas that attach to such things.

The thing here, is a small lidless cardboard box containing a handful of small yellowing pieces of paper, portrait photographs and a couple of old Christmas cards. The box is positioned prominently, atop a low coffee table, accompanied by other items offered up here for sale, in this antiques market staged in an old warehouse. Many of these items look like they have come straight from the house clearance van. It is hard to see who would want to buy much of this stuff, it is not garish enough to be retro or ironically kitsch. It is just stuff that people lived their everyday lives with during the last century, and for reasons best known to them – whether fondness, poverty or inertia – carried with them through to the last days of their lives, and the visit a few days later of that battered white van that comes to take our stuff away, after the black hearse has already taken our bodies.

The banality of this battered box and its random seeming paper stuffing intrigued me – but only in a very low key way. I delved tentatively, looking first at the greetings cards and the photos. They were connected. The cards contained photos of a young boy, giving a time sequence, 10, 13, 15?: it was hard to tell. The clothes remained constant – an inter-war short back and sides and dishevelled shirt and jumper – only the facial features hinted at a passage of time, as the boy’s face elongated and became more taut across the years. Next I opened up one of the folded slips of paper: a school report. Some good marks, one endorsed ‘top marks in the class’, but with the summation beneath urging this pupil to work faster.

By this stage I had realised I was drilling into someone’s life, as presented by this collection of life-defining paper-based moments. But I was still feeling only mildly intrigued, this was still an idle rummage. I carried on. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for – or, indeed whether I was actually in pursuit of anything (although inevitably a base urge to resolve this stuff to a narrative or other framing was in play).

The next papers I unfurled revealed this boy to have become a miner at a colliery in West Yorkshire, working there in the 1960s and 1970s. The paperwork was a variety of certificates and working permits issued by the National Coal Board to this man, charting his progression through a variety of qualified roles within the mine. These slips of paper were pre-printed, with gaps filled in by the authoritative fountain pen strokes of a manager, the application of that ink to that paper having magical effects – our box-man became a certified shot firer upon the completion of that form on 23 January 1976, he had also become a special person when handed his morphia licence sometime thereafter, along with its attendant pocket-sized laminated instruction sheet and their vital instruction for navigating that fine line (underground, in the dark and after something terrible had happened there) of life-saving and life-taking.

It seemed, then – that I was peering into someone’s ‘important things’ box. I grew up with the convention that you have a place somewhere in your home where you keep all of your important items, and those items are your ‘papers’. Perhaps you have such a box too, hidden somewhere – secreted in the modern day equivalent of a Priest’s glory hole or a Saxon cache somewhere in the fabric of your house. Or maybe it sits in plain view, a long emptied cereal packet, now the repository of your very identity and being. Our entry into a digital age has perhaps reduced the centrality of such still-in-use time capsules, but we still need our ‘papers’ to remind us who we are, were we’ve come from and to tell others who we are too.

Much may remain of the memory of this miner elsewhere – indeed, I don’t even know that he is dead. But the occurrence of his important things box in an antiques market suggests that has possessions no longer have their owner to cherish and protect them.

Staring into the box at what this person had selected for safekeeping there, and at the oft-folded creases of these treasured documents, emphasised for me this link between building a life, becoming through – and with – ‘important’ stuff and in particular the role of ‘papers’ as a way of regulating both memory and capacity.

This is particularly true of the highly regulated underground spaces of a coal mine. The Mines & Quarries Act 1954 very-much embodies a mid-20th century world of military-like ranks and chains of command, (very) specific demarcation of roles and competencies. It created (or represented – the distinction is actually a difficult one to draw) a world of tasking and verification that was based upon the carrying and presenting of slips of paper.

The other documents in the box where also mining related – memos and works specifications for the refitting of obscure sounding machinery, their lists of serial numbers and their precise plotting of works-to-be-done upon them. Why were these kept? Perhaps our miner saw these projects as the defining heights of his working life; or perhaps these were the jobs where it all went wrong, and he lived in fear that some blame would eventually beat its path to his door and he would then need this paperwork to fend it off. Or perhaps these where his favourite machines, the ones he felt attached to, perhaps they comprised his ‘home territory’ underground. This stuffed box did not say. Perhaps the reasons were all these and more, or none. All that is certain is that these papers were in that box.

In this box we seem to find what mattered to this miner – we also see that his job was essentially about knowing how to interface, how to fit into the mine as a system, which parts of it he could visit, which materials he could have a relationship with and in what circumstances and for what purposes.

Encountering this box has a resonance for me because in a number of recent projects I’ve been looking at how meaning and material relations are constituted in the seemingly empty and/or abandoned spaces of mineral workings. As part of this I’ve previously written on climber/landowner attitudes to an empty slate quarry in North Wales for Popular Anthropology here, about community appropriation of an excavated Sheffield hillside (Screehere) and last week I gave a reading of my Beer Quarry cave piece (see an early version here) to colleagues at a SHU event, as a dry run for presenting it at a conference on Empty Spaces at the Institute of Historical Research (UCL), in London on 10 April 2015 (details here). The abstract for my contribution to that event is:

‘History in the void: narrating past, place and materiality in an abandoned quarry’

Luke Bennett, Sheffield Hallam University

This paper will explore the ways in which meaning is brought to a quarried void in southern England. Prior to its closure in the 1920s the site had been a source of fine building stone for over 2,000 years, that rock quarried in turn by Romans, Anglo Saxons, Normans and subsequent generations. The site is now a small scale tourist attraction, with enthusiastic local guides taking visitors below ground and into the emptiness of the evacuated strata. According to a guide’s deft narration of the pasts of this site this place is rich with history and yet it is also a place at which there is nothing to see. This is a tour of a void, the only meaning here is that cast into this emptiness by the interpreters of this place. This presentation will examine the narrative and performative practices by which a sense of the labour and lives once lived here are summoned, and also how a sense of the materiality of this place is necessarily also framed and presented. In doing so the analysis will consider – after Raphael Samuel (1977), Laurajane Smith (2006) and Tim Strangleman (2013) – the motivations of post-industrial homage at sites of former (hard) labour, and the sense in which historical-materialist and neo-materialist (and post human) accounts of the physicality of our world and our relationship to it collide in such places. The presentation will outline the processual understandings of mineral working, its flows and absences found in the recent work of Bruno Latour (2005), Tim Edensor (2013) and Tim Ingold (2010) in social theory, cultural geography and anthropology respectively, and in the accounts of human-matter entanglement advanced by Ian Hodder (2012) and Bjornar Olsen (2013) in archaeology.

Image source: http://www.suttonbeauty.org.uk/suttonhistory/clockfacecolliery/index_files/miners_certificate.jpg

(N.B. this image is from a google search and unrelated to the box contents examined above – but is indicative of the kind of thing that was in the box)

RGS-IBG 2015 – CFP – ‘Producing Law, Making Space, Mobilising Subjects’

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After very successful sessions in 2013 and 2014, and due to other commitments, Antonia Layard and I are taking a break from running a legal geography session at this year’s RGS-IBG annual conference. But if you’d like to carry on the legal geography conversation at RGS-IBG 2015, you might like to consider supporting the following session call by Alex Jeffrey and colleagues copied below.

Meanwhile our jointly edited ‘Law and Geography’ special issue of the International Journal of Law in the Built Environment will be published in April 2015 and we’re currently finalising our ‘Spatial Detectives’ synoptic paper for Geography Compass.

Luke & Antonia


“RGS-IBG Annual International Conference, Exeter, 2-4 September 2015

Producing Law, Making Space, Mobilising Subjects

Convenors: Romola Sanyal (London School of Economics), Fiona McConnell (University of Oxford), Alex Jeffrey (University of Cambridge)

Sponsored by the Political Geography Research Group

This session will chart explore emerging perspectives in the relationships between law and space. Energised by work within critical legal studies (Fitzpatrick, 2001; Valverde, 2003), political anthropology (Latour, 2010) and legal geography (Braverman, et al. 2014), the session will provide the space to explore conceptual and methodological meeting points within these diverse fields of social science, while remaining attentive to the possible political implications of law’s spatiality.

We are particularly interested in encouraging work that examines the spatial nature of legal practice and the legal nature of spatial practice, the import of materiality and evidence, the significance of embodiment and questions of gender, the circulation of legal knowledge globally, and the enrollment of purportedly non-legal actors within legal processes.

While we are keen to encourage a wide range of theoretical and methodological reflections on these issues, we are keen to focus in particular on the following themes:

1) Production of law: materiality, everyday life, origins, archives

2) Transmission of law: evidence, performance, legitimacy, legal mobilities

3) Violence of law: exclusions, erasures, silences, bracketing

4) Rights of law: mobilisations, insurgencies, legal shadows

Please send abstracts of no more than 250 words to all three panel organizers: Romola Sanyal: r.sanyal@lse.ac.uk, Alex Jeffrey: asj38@cam.ac.uk, and Fiona McConnell: fiona.mcconnell@ouce.ox.ac.uk, by Tuesday 10th February 2015.

Please be sure to include your name, institution or affiliation and email address in the email.


Dr. Alex Jeffrey
Email: asj38@cam.ac.uk
Web:http://www.geog.cam.ac.uk/people/jeffrey/

Image credit: http://www.e-architect.co.uk/england/exeter-university-forum-project

Collapsing the sky / closing the building: some thoughts on the unbecoming of places

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Yesterday afternoon, at 4pm, at the moment that Matthew Flintham was searching in Newcastle for ways to materialise the UK’s militarised airspaces, thousands suddenly found themselves stuck to the ground, as the virtual-but-real commercial transit spaces normally mapped out across the sky by the UK’s National Air Traffic Service’s mainframe disappeared. A glitch caused these air lanes to temporarily vanish – and for a moment the sky ceased to be a humanised place, it became undefined and uninhabitable: it collapsed as a place.

An hour or so earlier I’d also been speaking at the University of Newcastle’s Cultural Significance of Place symposium– giving an account of Marc Augé’s ‘non-places’ thesis. On one level it’s easy to dismiss his ideas: with an ‘of course non-places don’t exist, wherever we inhabit we bring meaning to, a place we are in can’t be meaningless’ assault. But rather than go for the obvious, I highlighted some of the nuances of Augé’s arguments, and tried to show their usefulness.

Fittingly (for yesterday’s conjunction of events) Augé writes at length about airports as the epitome of (nearly) non-places, framing them as places of pure transit, the arrangement of such hubs simply being to facilitate the passage of persons between other – meaningful – places (the place that they want to leave; the place that they want to go).

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For Augé a non-place is an ideal-type, and extremity unlikely to be encountered in pure form. It marks out a spectrum: non-place at one end and the mostly richly connected-to space at the other.  The extent of a place’s existence can thus be measured (somehow) by reference to the amount of engagement/meaning given to it by the user/dweller, and (for Augé) specifically in how ‘based’ (i.e. grounded) in that localised site the dweller actually is. Augé’s argument is essentially one aimed at his fellow anthropologists and their fondness for equating place with community attachment to a group-defining locality (something he styles ‘anthropological place’). He argues that with the rise of globalising forces and technologies, modern life (which he styles supermodernity) entails weaker and more individualised engagements with place, thus we pass through rather than dwell in places.  The static and certain communities and localities that we used to be quintessentially based in, now have a less powerful, less directive role in our identities.  He concedes that such ‘weak’ places are not like the stable bounded worlds of the ‘primitive’ communities that his colleagues might ordinarily focus their studies upon. But he urges them to also study the anthropology of supermodernity – and precisely in order to understand how increasingly individualised meaning making still manages to construct stabilised ‘singularities’ (and thereby maintain at least some localised semblance of place and notions of what to do there).

If we accept the impossibility of a pure non-place, we are left with the challenge of understanding weak, or individualised (and/or commodified) places, and to grapple with the conditions under which they come into being, subsist and die. This links back to Matthew’s work on visualising military airspaces – for they ‘come and go’ during the course of the day, and few are in existence 24/7. They are also ‘creations’ (places) known only to their makers (the military and NATS) and users (pilots). By they are vitally important to these people, even though they are near non-places to passengers who are transiting through them. Likewise (if we return to the ground), at airports the passengers have a very weak place attachment to the airport – it is simply a means to an ends – but what about the staff who work there? A cleaner, for example, will have a very intimate and meaningful task-driven attachment to the washrooms and their surfaces that they must regularly inspect and traverse with their mop and sponges.

Even in supermodernity places are still made meaningful by people in symbolic and physical interaction with portions of the world – sometimes those meanings are strong, aggregated notions that excite and direct action. Sometimes the meaning is individualised, improvised and/or a product of personal biography or events. And the meaningfulness of places changes moment by moment. If Augé is proposing a place/non-place spectrum, and we view this as a dial then in the places of supermodernity the needle is constantly moving – and each of us has our own dial. We cannot speak about any place being a non-place per se, for all times and all people.

These thoughts were helpfully set in train by Emma Fraser’s talk in Sheffield earlier in the week. Emma gave a talk on ‘Salvaging the urban obsolete’ as part of UCLAN’s In Certain Places programme, talking of her ongoing work at the University of Manchester upon ruination and people’s engagement with ruins. Emma posited that a ruin is never static, and that to watch a ruin is to watch a process of physical and social dissembling – thus that is an observable process of place unbecoming, as both matter and meaning irresistibly decay.

Emma’s talk paved the way for artist Victoria Lucas’ film After (2013), the result of her residence in the Castle Market complex, Sheffield’s ultra-Modernist 1960s markets, now facing demolition. As Emma observed, the moment that ruination starts is rarely witnessed by an analyst. Victoria’s short film (below) thus helpfully (and evocatively) captures the early to mid-stages of the unbecoming of the markets as a place-for-many. But it never becomes a non-place, because it remains populated by security guards – and for a time by Victoria – with both bringing a sense of place and activity to their ongoing engagements with it. But we do witness part of the material and social process by which ‘closure’ of the market triggers a collapse of this place into ruinspace.

Victoria Lucas (2013) After

And finally, back to Newcastle. Alistair Bonnett is speaking, reading extracts from his book Off The Map. He draws forth two types of non-places, which at first glance don’t appear to have any connection. First the intentional non-places of rendition and other ‘black-ops’, the places that the state does not want you to notice. These – says Alistair – are ‘redacted’ places. There is an art to hiding such facilities ‘in plain sight’, and a lot of effort is expended in achieving it. Matthew Flintham’s presentation was also addressing this – the ubiquity of inaccessible (to bodies and/or comprehension) militarised landscapes. Then Alistair points to banal, non-functional rump-spaces, that have ‘non-place’ character because they have no clear purpose, such as undercrofts beneath motorway flyovers. But these get colonised by psychogeographers or rough sleepers, so even these don’t fit the non-places ideal type.

There is some tension in applying the ‘non-places’ label to both the ultra-top secret and the ultra-banal. But I was aiming for a middle point in including bunkers in my own talk – the bunkers I’m concerned with are ubiquitous bunker-ruins. They are no longer secret or access-restricted. I don’t deny that secret and dark places still exist in operational mode, but it is the ‘what happens after’ question that intrigues me. Abandoned bunkers – and I’m thinking here of the national array of 1,500 Royal Observer Corps fallout monitoring posts, are often of the ‘hidden in plain sight’ type, but now that hiddenness is not maintained by anyone. So, they are just ‘in plain sight’ and available for those who wish, to project their meaning onto them. They are not non-places, they never were. They have always been meaningful to some people (although ‘who’ these people are has changed over time). And this meaningfulness is not entirely individualised – it is developed, shared and sustained through ‘communities of practice’ (Wenger, 1998) and their ways of doing, knowing and seeing a bunker.

If we can get past the popular view that Augé’s book consigns certain types of places to a negative or meaningless ‘non-place’ status, we can find that actually it helpfully advocates the worth of studying how types of places fade in and out of notice, and – by extension – what representational and/or pragmatic logics are at play at any particular moment of a localised built structure’s material life, as it moves along its journey of unbecoming.

Photo credit

STANTA battleground airspace in East Anglia – photo and 3D model by Matthew Flintham

Links

Marc Augé (1995) Non-Places: an introduction to [an anthropology of] supermodernity, Verso: London (Trans. John Howe) [NB: for the 2009 second edition of the English translation the words ‘an anthropology of’ is dropped from the subtitle, obscuring the original audience that Augé was directing his argument to]

University of Newcastle’s Cultural Significance of Place Interdisciplinary Research Group: https://csopnu.wordpress.com/past-events/

University of Central Lancashire’s In Certain Places programme: http://incertainplaces.org/after-castle-market-salvaging-the-urban-obsolete/

Matthew Flintham: http://parallel-landscapes.blogspot.co.uk/

Emma Fraser: http://statiscape.wordpress.com

Victoria Lucas: http://victorialucas.co.uk/

A review of Alistair Bonnett’s off The Map book: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/apr/17/off-the-map-alastair-bonnett-revieB

Etienne Wenger (1998) Communities of Practice – learning, meaning and identity, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

‘Approaching the bunker’ – an early glimpse of the book project

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The email arrived during the summer, catching me slightly off guard. A writer for the journal Improbable Research wanted to check a few details with me for a piece he was preparing for their website on my ‘bunkers and gender’ paper published last year. From a quick glance I couldn’t tell whether Improbable Research was ironic in its plaudits for the research that it featured. Their motto: “Research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK”, left me none the wiser. Who wants to be the butt of ‘You got funding for that?!?’ type jibes (and no – I didn’t get finding for it anyway). I still can’t make my mind up on whether I won the academic equivalent of a Golden Raspberry Award, but here’s the article:

http://www.improbable.com/2014/10/24/bunkerology/

I spent 2013 trying to avoid bunkers, but 2014 has sucked me back in good and proper. It seems that the bunker doesn’t let you go once it has your attention.

This summer’s day-long session on Cold War Bunkers at the Royal Geographical Society Conference is now spawning an edited collection – I’m currently pulling together the proposal for a publisher who’s keen. The working title is: “Approaching the bunker: bodies, materialities and meaning-making in Cold War ruins

The idea is to focus on what these bunkers mean to us (or others) now – in their early 21st century state of abandonment. The collection will thus look at a range of engagements with these relics and the purposes and methods behind those attempts at knowing and/or (re)valorising them. As such this project is a continuation of my “multivalence” thesis – that there are a number of stable ways of performing bunkerology, and that there are identifiable practices and motivations out there: ‘logics’ if you like (thus producing ‘bunkerologies’). Some of the contributions will seek to interpret bunker-hunters motivations, but others will showcases the authors’ own engagements with these structures, in doing so reflexively questioning their own motives, methods and representational conventions. The collection will also look at ‘official’ attempts to condition views of and/or practices within these places, and there will also be a look at the materiality of the bunker itself – and its resistances and affordances as they act upon the mind and body of the enquiring subject.

I’ve got 18 contributions, from across the academic spectrum: from artist to archaeologist, architect to anthropologist, geographer to a germ warfare specialist. And the greatest thing is the gender split: exactly 50:50 as things currently stand. Now at one level this causes me some problems – because I’ve previously concluded that the bunker’s call is louder for males than females. But I didn’t contend that there was an essentialist reason as to why bunkerology was gendered, I’d pointed out that I’d come across some women involved in bunkerology, and that the gendering was at best situational (and in many cases occupational). My contributors are all academics, heritage professionals and/or artists so perhaps no surprise there that the gender gap might be far less evident.

John Schofield and others have pioneered the co-opting of artists into Cold War related material culture studies (and in particular contemporary archaeology), but my collection will take this into the social sciences, and specifically geography where it is less common. The plan is to set up provocative juxtapositions between contributions, rather than to group them into clusters of methodological or disciplinary affiliation. Instead I will group the contributions into thematic pairings. So, for example, I have a paper from Martin Dodge (geographer) looking at the difficulties faced in piecing together the history and physical extent of  Manchester’s ‘Guardian’ Underground Telephone Exchange from  archival sources. I’m pairing this with artist Stephen Felmingham’s essay on his attempts to interrogate ROC Posts through in-situ drawing using his peripheral vision. It struck me that each of these ‘researchers’ is trying to find ways to penetrate beyond physical or mental blockages raised in the name of ‘secrecy’ for such installations, so it will be interesting to have such divergent (and yet in some ways similarly challenged) methodologies sitting side by side.

Here’s short video in which Stephen talks about his project:

 

Photo credit:

Air shaft/surface structure for Manchester’s underground telephone exchange: http://mancbible.fullist.co.uk/2014/10/manchesters-darkest-secret/

 

 

Further beyond the broken building: on the sudden decline of some old ruins

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“These seemingly sleepy, old-fashioned things, defaced houses, closed-down factories, the debris of shipwrecked histories [which] still today raise up the ruins of an unknown, strange city.” 

Michel de Certeau (1998) The Practice of Everyday Life, Vol 2: p.133

I’ve used this quote a number of times now on this blog, it’s a great way of pointing to how ruins and associated ‘left-behind-pieces’ can trip you up – in the built environment, life or otherwise.

I will be using the quote again this Friday as I take a group of Paul Dobraszyczyk’s students on a tour of Sheffield’s ruins, as part of their ‘Ruin Lust’ module. But what’s really struck me in preparing this itinerary is how my adopted city’s once seemingly stable and dependable ruins are suddenly and rapidly disappearing. Empty hulks I’ve wandered past year after year with my own students, orienting them to the city that they are going to be learning about as surveyors, are on the move. My ‘old familiars’ are now either lying demolished, sitting freshly shrouded in scaffolding or re-clad and  repurposed to some funky ‘meanwhile’ use or other.

Now, for many this is ‘progress’, and the erasure of ruins is another index of development, on a par with (for the Futurists) factory smoke as a sign of modernisation or (for surveyors) tower cranes as a pointer to the state of a city’s property market. On Sheffield’s low-level skyline I still see few tower cranes, and only a little smoke, but this fading away of once dependable ruins is a sure sign of something afoot, and it certainly offers up a provocation: that of the ruin of ruins, of their vulnerability to erasure at any time other than the depth of an economic slump.

Ruinphobia and erasure lust

I’ve been trying to work out how I feel about this ‘loss’. Ambivalent is the best word I can find.

I miss the familiarity (and informality) of ‘my’ ruins, but I also see the dangers of fetishising broken-ness, emptiness and uselessness. I guess it’s a bit like a meal – you need some ruins in the urban matrix as hot chillies to challenge the bland functional wholesomeness of the majority of the cityscape, but just as a plate full of chillies would not be a nourishing meal, a city full of ruins would be too much.

Striding around Liverpool last year with a surveying colleague and a group of my students, our guide urged us to see whole streets as tired and in need of an abrupt and unapologetic change. Whilst the vitriol was directed at shabby 1960’s office blocks, the register was reminiscent of the aggressive agents of Post-War change who saw the slum clearance bulldozing of dilapidated terraced housing as a proud step towards a bright new future. Gesturing towards these under-occupied office blocks, my colleague declared their current uses unsustainable, the building types outmoded and these flat streets going downhill fast. Yes, there were enclaves of heritage buildings that could be kept for posterity, but much of the real estate assembled in this quarter was dismissed as simply a waste of space.

My colleague’s eloquent reaction typified the ‘ruinphobia’ that (much more so than ruin lust, or ‘ruinphilia’) drives the lives and fates of most of the built environment. In the spring I spoke at Paul’s conference at the University of Manchester on ‘Big Ruins’ and offered up there some early thoughts on the pervasive influence of ruinphobia.

I’m now gathering my thoughts for a paper that my SHU colleague Jill Dickinson and I are presenting at the University of Sheffield Town & Regional Planning Department’s interdisciplinary symposium on ‘Transience and Permanence in Urban Development’ in January 2015. Our concern is how ruinphobia is expressed through law and policy, and how that in turn influences the fates and forms of urban land use and reuse. Our paper is entitled “Forcing the empties back to work?: ruinphobia and the bluntness of law and policy” and we will also seek to show how certain assumptions about utility and urban temporalities are embedded within the range of legal and policy measures that drive the war against emptiness, disuse and degeneration. Here’s our abstract:

Since at least the mid Nineteenth century (but having important antecedents far back in feudalism’s concern for the proper utilisation of land – the law of waste) many pages of the statute book have been dedicated to the creation of measures to encourage or force property back into productive use, or at least occupancy. This paper will critically examine the ‘challenge’ of the city’s empty, unproductive and/or dilapidated places:

First, by questioning the unstated assumption that emptiness and dis-use are problematic. This requires an analysis of the latent ruinphobia that lies at the heart of the policy agenda and finds its expression in the policy’s links to the social sciences (e.g. Wilson & Kelling’s ‘broken window theory’ of crime caused by urban dereliction), in community governance measures such as the Clean Neighbourhood & Environment Act 2005, and the embers of slum clearance (Housing Market Renewal). This fear of emptiness (and its related Protestant ethic of full utilisation) is palpable (and unquestioned) in The Portas Review, in the 2007 abolition of empty premises rate relief, in the ‘bedroom tax’, in the proliferation of charity shop and other ‘meanwhile’ occupancies.

Secondly, by exploring the bluntness of ‘temporality’ within the planning law and policy system and its implications for use-forcing. Here ‘temporality’ is used in two senses – both as an awareness of the passage of time, and more specifically in acknowledgement that law attaches to familiar-sized moments – phases of use. Our contention is that for all its talk of planning (which implies a command of the future) planning law and policy has only limited effective reach across time (for it cannot force development to occur, merely channel the development aspirations of other stakeholders) and that it also rests upon a specific time horizon – that of the ‘medium term’. Consents are granted without time limit (but implicitly anchored to the 20 years or so likely life of a building) or are restricted to a handful of years. The planning system is not set up to act or think in terms months – its notion of temporary being confined to 28 days (a nod back to pre-industrial fairs, hunting seasons and the like).

I’m also starting to think through how different people see ruins differently, and at different times and a variety of scales. In part this is prompted by an invitation from the Institute of Archaeology at University College London, to speak there in March 2015 as part of a series of guest lectures on multidisciplinary perspectives on ‘the contemporary’ and heritage. I’ve proposed as my title “Make, use, abandon, repeat: thoughts on entropy and the temporalities of real estate”: and I’m thinking that I’ll try to offer up there some insight into how the real estate industry’s particular sense of past, present and future affects its engagements with the built environment. The ‘contemporary’ is a function of notions of both the past and the future acting upon (and or creating) as sense of ‘the present’. I’ll try to go further and show how rival temporalities are at work in forming, sustaining and/or changing the built environment. I’ll illustrate my talk with reference to some sites and surplus-to-current-use property types (likely a mix of ruined bunkers, quarries and cotton mills).

What are ruins anyway?

Paul’s students are art historians (hence the focus on ruin lust). The humanities has dominated academic ruin-talk in recent years, but potentially the tide is now turning (towards balance and collaboration I’d hope, rather than a ditching of the ruin-positivity brought in from the arts). As I flagged in my ‘Ruin of Ruins’ talk at Paul’s conference, political economists are entering the fray and arguing that a focus on the aesthetics of contemporary ruins has stifled analysis of the causes and consequent processes of ruination. The decontextualisation of ruinous objects, and/or insufficient attention to their ‘site stories’ is a fair criticism, but ‘affective’ ruin-scholarship has increasingly acknowledged the dynamic – and processual – nature of the material forces (many of them elemental) by which buildings and their component materials are degraded.

But amidst this tussle the irony I live with is that I’ve done very similar circuit walks with my real estate students. The same buildings, but with a change of gazes, resulting in very different readings for those structures. The temporalities are different too. The trainee surveyors look forwards to what the dilapidated building could become. I suspect Paul’s students will tend to look backwards, to what remains of what once was. In other words, development site vs evocative ruin. And my students know that an untended building will quickly fall into ruin.

In Sheffield – partly given the shrinking ruin-base, and also the tendency for our buildings to be small and low to the ground – both types of spectator need to be broad minded in order to actually spot empty or underused buildings. Both communities are stuck in the ‘traditional’ mindset – namely that ruins will be broken castles or cathedral-like industrial monoliths, that they will be empty keeps and abandoned dark satanic mills. More likely here in Sheffield however, ruins will be hollow 1960s offices, empty municipal buildings and/or surplus retail units. And these places only coyly betray their ruinous nature. The rot sets in subtly at first, the signs of early stage abandonment visible only to the expert eye. Rotting window frames, bird nests clogging drains, grime gathering on now uncleaned windows. This is how ruins start, as Tim Edensor helpfully explained at Paul’s conference for the benefit of ruin-scholars (it’s something my students and surveying colleagues knew all along) ruination is a process that takes over when the work of care necessary to keep it at bay is stopped. Thus a building enters its ruin phase as soon as care is withdrawn (or substantially reduced).

Thus perhaps to find Sheffield’s ruins I need to adjust my expectations. I need to look for the subtle ruins and I need to look for them in the empty units of shopping parades, above street level in the vacant floors sullenly stacked upon still thriving ground level shops. I need to look for them in the heart of the city, not in its industrial periphery.

And when I look for them that way I find a fair few, and many of them are Listed Buildings – kept ‘alive’ but gravely ill by the iron lung of heritage protection. But for what purpose? Perhaps my colleague was right, “erase it all”. Perhaps, as Rodney Harrison (2013) puts it we are suffering from “a ‘crisis’ of the accumulation of the past” (580), that we have become too obsessed with “not forgetting” (581), perhaps we just need to let some of this stuff go lest we otherwise suffer an overload of different pickled pasts piling up round us, “constantly surfacing and intervening in our present” (581). Perhaps we need to remember to forget, and to periodically remind ourselves to check whether a protected building or monument is still meaningful for us or can now be released from its suspended animation. It is certainly notable that the only ruins that I can think of as not presently disappearing in Sheffield are those that are listed.

So, these then are the “New Ruins” of Sheffield. I am not the first to identify them – Owen Hatherley  devotes much of his 2010 ‘guide book’ to this city’s prominent relics of the modernist era and its aspirations. Notable too is Hatherley’s singling out of the city’s indoor market, built atop of the rubble ruins of Sheffield’s 13th century castle (demolished in 1647 by order of parliament at the end of the English Civil War). It seems that talk is afoot of resurrecting the medieval ruins of the castle at the expense of the abandoned modernist ruins of the indoor market that currently sits on top of that rubble. Great (future) socio-economic potential is ascribed by the proponents to the desired airing of the castle’s modest remains. It is asserted – with the familiar bombast of urban regeneration ‘vision’ – that reconnecting this city with its foundational ruins, will enhance both the city and the 21st century Sheffielder’s sense of the city and their identity:

“Sheffield Castle could form a further jewel in the crown of Sheffield’s City Centre public realm. It could provide a catalyst for attracting significant public investment that will help in the regeneration of what is currently a run-down area of the City Centre. It also provides a new and powerful image for the City and one that will attract visitors as well as provide a place of immense interest and enjoyment for residents of the City and surrounding area. With a carefully directed programme of excavation, conservation and selected reconstruction the remains of Sheffield Castle could bring significant economic, social and educational benefits to the City. It provides the chance to take the City on a journey of discovery that it is hoped will excite, enthuse and engage an entire generation of Sheffielders and visitors to the City.” (Waddington, 2009: 3)

So, perhaps after all there is still some ruin lust left in Sheffield’s policy circles (Reed 2014), and ruinphobia does not always win the day.

 

References

The Friends of Sheffield Castle (2013-14) Website: http://www.friendsofsheffieldcastle.org.uk/

Harrison, R. (2013) ‘Forgetting to remember, remembering to forget: late modern heritage practices, sustainability and the ‘crisis’ of accumulation of the past’, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 19 (6): 579-595.

Hatherley, O. (2010) A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, Verso: London.

Reed, J. (2014) ‘Council “committed” to Sheffield Council plan despite lottery funding setback’, The Yorkshire Post, 25 October. http://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/main-topics/general-news/council-committed-to-sheffield-castle-plan-despite-lottery-funding-setback-1-6910832

Waddington, C. (2009) Discovering Sheffield Castle – A prospectus for excavating and presenting Sheffield’s lost castle, ARS Ltd Report 2009/1, Archaeological Research Services Ltd: Sheffield.

 


 

CFP for Brook & Dodge’s proposed July 2015 conference session on Cold War Urbanism (plus my submitted abstract)

Heaton_Park_BT_Tower,_distance_view

Richard Brook and Martin Dodge presented their work on the Guardian Exchange complex at the Cold War Bunkers RGS session last week, and I’m delighted to circulate their call for papers for their proposed Cold War Urbanism session at the International Conference of Historical Geographers 2015, London, 5-10 July 2015. NB: the deadline for submissions (to them, not me) is soon: 12 September 2014.

CfP: Cold war urbanism: Histories of strategic plans, secure structures and technocratic politics in post-war Britain and beyond

Convenors: Richard Brook (Manchester School of Architecture) and Martin Dodge (University of Manchester)

In this session we wish to explore how the threat of nuclear war in the 1950s and ‘60s affected planning at a range of geographic scales. National and international telecommunications networks were built during this time as a direct response to global political conditions. The rise of atomic power and computational technologies required new facilities that were often dispersed and situated variously for secrecy and locally available expertise/experience. The zoning of land and organisation of facilities and the planning of towns is not conventionally viewed as informed by processes of the ‘warfare state’ (Edgerton, 2005), but we want to ask; What were the patterns of the built environment, economic structures and aesthetics / cultures of Cold War urbanism in Britain? As Boyd and Linehan (2013) state in the introduction to their recent book Ordnance: War + Architecture & Space, we need to be alert to ‘escalation in the intersections between the fabric of the landscape and the technologies of war and the extrusion and mutation of war from the battlefield into everyday life’. We seek papers drawing on a range of different evidential bases, archival research, personal histories and lived experiences and theoretical ideas to understand the spatiality of technological development, primarily focused upon city scales and architectural resultants.

The following is non-exhaustive list of possible themes:

+ spaces of production, testing, storage of novel military†weapons systems associated with cold war including aircraft and bombers, missiles and submarines, radar system and satellites

+ sites associated with atomic weapons and the distinct design challenges of keeping these safe and secure

+ civil nuclear power research and networks of production, with their links to militarism

+ research and manufacturing facilities for advanced digital computing technologies, programming, and data centres

+ academic research facilities associated with military funding and cold war doctrines

+ civic spaces in cities with shelters and spaces of civilian refuge

+ developments of national telecommunications and need for hardened facilities, underground bunkers and remote radio networks

+ bunkers for the strategic communications, military C&C and continuation of government in the event of war

+ architectural design, materials science and electronics deployed to counter atomic age threats

+ aesthetics of cold war urbanism, forms of visual representation of atomic power and nuclear weapons, the cultural meanings attached to new militarised landscapes and computerisation of society

+ development of transportation infrastructure, logistics and routing to take account of cold war

+ overall shaping of cities, housing renewal and suburbanisation to try to achieve population decentralisation that would reduce the risk of annihilation of citizenry in a single blast

 __________________________________________________________________________

Please send a title and brief abstract (of no more than 200 words) to either of the convenors by 12 September 2014. Also, please detail if you have any special audio-visual requirements or mobility requirements.

 # Richard Brook,†R.Brook@mmu.ac.uk, Manchester School of Architecture

 # Martin Dodge,†M.Dodge@manchester.ac.uk, Department of Geography, University of Manchester

__________________________________________________________________________

Further details on the ICHG Conference, including registration fees, are available at:

 http://www.ichg2015.org

———————————————————————————————————————————————————-

And here’s the abstract I’ve submitted:

Forming an everyday Cold War network – the constitutive role of law, surveying and asset management in the birth, life and death of ROC Posts

Luke Bennett & Sarah Cardwell, Department of the Natural & Built Environment, Sheffield Hallam University, UK

Born in the wartime exigencies of countering Zeppelin and Gotha Bomber raids towards the end of the First World War, the Royal Observer Corps and its distributed network of observation posts grew to become an iconic part of 1939-45 homeland security across the UK. Then, during the Cold War, the ROC’s network of people and land-sites was re-purposed for the observation of atomic bomb blasts and radioactive fallout clouds. This paper will examine the constitutive role of (mundane, vanilla flavour) property law in the creation and management of the ROC’s national network of 1,500 Cold War monitoring posts. For the Cold War, this network of small underground posts, spread across fields and hilltops, was mostly held in existence via leases, and the simple surrender of these leases in 1991 (transferring these posts back to ambivalent rural landowners following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the consequent disbanding of the ROC) ‘privatised’, multiplied and diversified the actors engaged in the abandonment, decommissioning and or alternative use-making for these now de-networked structures.

 

Photo credit (photo added by Luke): 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heaton_Park_BT_Tower#mediaviewer/File:Heaton_Park_BT_Tower,_distance_view.jpg

 

 

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