New uses for old fuel bunkers #28: searching for treasure in the gloom

Inevitably in a recent talk I mentioned my bunkers thing. A member of the audience looked at me attentively, cocked his head to one side and said: ‘so, I bet you could study the after-lives of coal bunkers next then?’

We held each others gaze for a few seconds. Was he mocking me or genuinely suggesting a new angle? I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and launched into a short discussion of the things I’d found upon venturing for the first time into the coal bunker of each house I’ve lived in. The room then filled with reminiscence of the days in which coal was fuel and houses had cellars or above ground huts into which coal would be poured by a superhuman strongman dressed in a dirty tweed suit (a weird distortion of Santa Claus: a Father Coal, of sorts).

“Bunker n. and v. 1 a large container or compartment for storing fuel”

I grew up with coal bunkers. The military usage came later. Indeed the industrial bunker precedes its military cousin. Working from the ‘bunk’ root the OED tells me of the word’s Scandinavian and nautical roots. A bunk is a place to store or stow (or sleep). A container shaped for bulk storage, particularly upon a ship, is a bunker. To google ‘bunker’ is to travel in three directions: towards golf, into the world of bulk cargo shipment or into military chambers.

The photo above is from the Tate Modern, taken within the (very dark) ‘Tanks’ a recently opened gallery space created within what used to be this power station building’s three oil tanks. If the tanks ever had metal that has gone. What remains is an irregular asymetric grey concrete void space. And its very dark in there, at one point almost pitch black, and only the strip-route of thick pile carpet guides your way.

It’s an interesting space, and odd to see people walking around inside the cast of former tanks. The space reminds me of The Deep, the angular ‘underwater’ aquarium in Hull. In Hull the fish are in vast tanks with humans descending their course via gantries and viewing stages. In the Tate’s Tanks the human visitors take on the role of the fishes (and the oil), flowing through the ghost-tanks with wandering curiosity, searching out the sparce content in the gloom.

‘Until at last the swollen gasometer came into view’: thoughts on the anti-aesthetics of industrial estates

“Yeah, yeah, industrial estate
Yeah, yeah, industrial estate
Yeah, yeah, industrial estate”

Ever since I first heard it late one night on a TV documentary sometime in the 1990s the early Fall song ‘Industrial Estate’ (1979) has captivated me. It bubbles up in my mind from time to time, reminding me that one day I need to figure out the anti-aesthetics of the industrial estate. Why, are these places so, ‘non’. Why, to most, are they zones bereft of any value at all? Why did my father wince every time someone mentioned manufacturing or industry?

In the monotony of this song I thought I’d heard a lone-voice call for the valorisation of spaces of light engineering and logistics, a call to acknowledge the everyday mundane reality of these places. In a way I had – but I think my southern ears had also read-in something extra, something not to the fore in late 1970s Manchester. An early nostalgic ruin porn perhaps, something captured – for post-industrial posterity – in the irony of @VenusInGortex’s   recent tweet-haiku:

“We penetrated deeper into the industrial estate,

its graffiti pregnant with mystery,

until at last the swollen gasometer came into view… “

Lucifer over Lancashire

According to Reynolds (2005) Industrial Estate “immortalized the pollution-belching Trafford Park” (174), pointing to the song’s line “The crap in the air will fuck up your face”. No, perhaps this wasn’t a whilstful psychogeographical ode to the beauty of the banal after all. This was actually an angry realism. Geo-reportage, in keeping with the post-punk angst, a song in fragments about going to work in this work-world:

“Well you started here to earn your pay
Clean neck and ears on your first day
Well we tap one another as you walk in the gate
And we’d build a canteen but we haven’t got much space”

This was remembered place of work and worthlessness. Smith had worked as a clerk at nearby Salford Docks (the early Fall song ‘Container Drivers’ capturing that lifeworld perfectly). This was part of a mid twentieth century working-day reality. By Smith’s teens “Dark satanic mills” of the Victorian mill towns of Lancashire had been augmented by the engineering and logistics sheds of the vast Trafford Park industrial estate, which had grown and grown from the late nineteenth century onwards.

Betjeman over Berkshire

Lowry could paint these places, Smith would later write elliptically of their last days, and poets would at times venture to depict them with alienated anti-wonder:

 “Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!

Come, bombs and blow to smithereens
Those air -conditioned, bright canteens,
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans,
Tinned minds, tinned breath…”

So wrote John Betjeman in his 1937 anti-eulogy to Slough and its industrial estate (the largest in Europe). Betjeman’s association of bombs and industrial estate was a surprisingly fitting one for the one thing that connects many industrial estates (and certainly the first wave of sites like Slough, Park Royal and others on the London periphery) is their link to either munitions manufacture and/or marshalling materiel for onward shipment to the Western Front in the First World War. By 1918 the Government had built 240 munitions related factories, many of which drifted into industrial estate type use after that war (just as RAF airfields did in turn after 1945). By 1918 the Slough site was home to 17,000 army surplus vehicles and 1.8 million sq ft of covered workshops. The site had been acquired (as a farm) by the government in order to amass vehicles there for a proposed motor-borne assault in the Western Front in 1919. In 1920 a group of investors bought up that stock, and the land on which they sat, first selling the vehicles and then mobilising the land as an estate for industry and its sheds.

Such places were ripe for development as monocultural light industrial zones, Ebenexer Howard’s advocacy of zoning based urban planning finding traction in the ensuing decades (aided by the rise of the motorised distribution of goods and workers). In the 1930s a second wave of government initiated industrial estates were developed, such as Treforest in South Wales, to address the decline of primary industry there.

During the Second World War large swathes of manufacturing capacity across the country, and its attendant real estate were requisition (or contracted into) the war effort. This was occasionally laid bare for me when I was working as a lawyer, somewhere buried in the ownership paperwork for a site would be a wartime lease revealing the factory’s temporary secondment as a Spitfire factory, or paperwork revealing (the once top secret) fuel and other supply pipelines laid to keep the nation’s vital industrial fluids flowing.

Enchanting the estate

In their book Twentieth Century Industrial Archaeology(2000) Stratton & Trinder seek to raise the banner for the importance of industrial estates in the story of the last 100 years, to foreground the engineering works, the canning factory, the munitions shed and the rise of logistics. Fittingly they set out to challenge:

“the conventional wisdom in deploring certain aspects of the twentieth century – the monotony of work in car factories or the horrors of living in towerblocks…”

As their method they advocate writing:

“…from the first hand experience of sites and landscapes…taking a sceptical, irreverent and sometimes counter-intuitive attitude to received views of twentieth-century artefacts and places.”(2)

It may feel odd to do so, rubbing as it does against modern sensibilities, but industrial estates deserve their fair share of attention – and given some attention they will coyly reveal more colour than their drab forms and colours might at a first glance promise.

References

Reynolds, S. (2005) Rip it up and start again – post-punk 1978-1984, Faber & Faber: London

Stratton, B. & Trinder, B. (2000) Twentieth century industrial archaeology, E&FN Spon: London

Wikipedia “Slough Trading Estate”

a.k.a New Uses for Old Bunkers #27: what did the industrial estate do in the war?

Into the Void – A Field Trip

A great field report from @fifepsy on meaning making in an abandoned quarry (Prestonhill)

From Hill to Sea

It is often the shortest journey, undertaken with least expectation, that offers up an excess of possibility beyond what we expect to see.

It’s always worth exploring the other side of the barbed wire fence.

Never keep to the path.

(Extracts from FPC Field Guide).

Time constrained by commitments later on in the day and yet compelled by the need to go for a walk, we settle on a local part of the Fife Coastal Path.  The very short stretch between Inverkeithing and Dalgety Bay is a narrow tarmacadam / cinder ribbon of a mile, or so, that meanders around the coastline.  Whilst  offering fine views of the Forth Rail Bridge and over to Edinburgh and Arthur’s Seat it is unlikely to trouble any tourist brochure. Indeed, the walking guide for the Fife Coastal Path devotes one short paragraph to it. There is a clear implication that this is a…

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Confessions of a wandering mind – the slideshow

Here are the slides for my presentation today to Leeds Psychogeography Group (thanks Tina Richardson / @concretepost for inviting me). There’s an essay that I need to finish writing that develops the outline presented here. I will add it when done.

In the meantime, here’s what I promised for the talk in my promo blurb:

“Wandering the streets what do you see? Can the worlds of art and everyday professional aesthetics be combined? Why does it feel transgressive to even try?”

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New uses for old bunkers #26: the lure of the abandoned bomb store

During breakfast yesterday my ears pricked up when I heard the headlines declared for Radio 4 Today programme’s 8am news report. A new instalment of English Heritage’s ‘buildings at risk list’ was out: interesting, but not enough to stop me munching my cornflakes. No, it was the BBC’s choice to illustrate that list by reference to the remains of Theford Cold War A-bomb store (at the former ‘RAF Barnham’ – now a run down industrial estate) that stopped me in my tracks. Why had they chosen that as their teaser? I waited with baited breath to find out. Was this going to be a ‘those mindless bureaucrats have gone and designated something stupid and valueless as a heritage asset?’ story-line or instead the ‘the heritage we are in danger of losing is of a wider range than you might think, we are at the brink of forgetting the Cold War’ angle.

Actually, it proved to be neither. The substantive news item was brief, and illustrated its theme via a derelict rollercoaster rather than the A-bomb place (but the tone was more in the ‘we need to save recent heritage too’ discourse, than the silly bureaucrats one).

Having now looked briefly into it I find an array of local and national press reports of the publication of the list yesterday and they each foreground the A-bomb store and the roller coaster. It looks like a clear case of ‘story placement’, I haven’t tracked it down yet but I think I could easily reconstruct English Heritage’s originating press release from the quotes, themes and pictures recurrent in the published reports.

So, why the focus on these twentieth century ruins? Well, it looks like an attempt to map the breadth of our built environment heritage, and the speed at which it can be lost. An attempt at something contemporary and of wider appeal than stock images of stories of castles and stately homes, a stab at something less stuffy, middle England and middle class (a sensitivity acknowledged in some of the press reports). And there’s also proximity to the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis later this month – the nation’s bunker museums are currently getting good media coverage as a way of portraying the nervous horror of the Cold War era, as an emotive adjunct to newsreel footage of politicians, newspaper headlines, and naval blockades.

The physical – the ‘concrete’ in both senses – can remind us or connect us with something felt and lived that such newsreels cannot. And these Cold War places (for some) have a chilling power to provoke a strange cherishing affection. Let me explain.

When I was a jobbing environmental lawyer, I spent most of my time playing a small role in the deindustrialisation of South Wales and South Yorkshire. At least, that’s what I thought and noticed at the time. I realised that the steel works, the coal mines, the textile factories and the chemical plants were closing, everyone did. What I didn’t spot so readily was that the Cold War military sites were closing then too. But, when I think back on it I was involved in a fair bit of that as well. It is only after the event and looking back that I can join the dots of those specific events and realise that there was a profound demilitarisation process at work in the 1990s and early 2000s.

And what I recall most from those now-remembered decommissioning projects is how these sites would occasionally strangely captivate some of professionals working on them. Two instances spring to mind:

First, I remember a land agent. As a long serving staff member of a government agency he’d dealt with a very diverse portfolio of properties in his career. But when he was assigned a ‘specialist’ former munitions site to look after he developed a very evangelical attachment to that place, fondly sharing with me archival worker induction films from the 1940s and battling within his organisation to get recognition of the heritage value of the crumbling drab block-houses that made up this site (whilst my professional focus was directed more to the soil contamination and buried ordnance still resting beneath them).

Secondly, I remember a conversation with a former colleague. He had a very fond attachment to the recently closed local USAF airbase and its nuclear bomber silos. He spoke earnestly to me about how he would resign rather than act for any developer who might wish to turn this particular place into anything other than a Cold War museum. He was deadly serious. This would be a career-staking  cause if necessary. He wanted those odd structures to live on as a way of ensuring that the Cold War era  was remembered through that place as a physical monument to that time and the former life and importance of that place. I felt that in the passion of his words and attachment to that place and former time he was displaying something equivalent to a previous generation’s attachment to the steam railway as an embodiment of a formative childhood world now lost.

But, as far as I can tell, he never had to resign. Through a concentrated programme in the 1990s English Heritage surveyed and then attached protective designations (‘listing’) upon many twentieth century military and defensive buildings and structures. Some new uses have been found within the protected structures of some (e.g. server farms with the hardened nuclear silos at Greenham Common, built to shelter cruise missiles in the 1980s) most remain out of (re)use. As the English Heritage briefing to the press has noted, most ‘at risk’ heritage buildings have little prospect of redevelopment to new uses, and there is resignation to a strategy of preservation against further regeneration. Sympathetic re-use (ideally with addition of a heritage centre) is the goal, but for many such places the best that is realistically being hoped for is a condition of preserved ruination, rather than dilapidation, deterioration and eventual disappearance. But it’s a fine line, for ‘preserved’ ruination costs money too.

Sources

Details of the RAF Barnham site (and the Thetford a-bomb store) are available at: http://www.bunkertours.co.uk/barnham.htm (from which the above photograph has been taken)

Details of: English Heritage – Buildings at Risk

And for a more general (and traditional) overview of the 6,000 buildings at risk see this report in the Daily Mail

Aural history – time travel, double glazing and the lost sounds of the Seventies

“…how do we listen to sounds never before noticed, sounds long vanished or sounds that are not sounds, exactly, but more like the fluctuations of light, weather and the peculiar feeling that can arise when there is a strong sense of place?” (Toop, 2007: 112)

This blog-essay is about everyday soundscapes, what causes them, how they can be charted and why and how they disappear.

The drop forge in the valley

 “I remember lying in bed at night and listening to the drop forges drifting across the valleys.” (PoS 2012)

So recalls Martyn Ware, a founding member of the first incarnation of Sheffield’s electro-pop pioneers The Human League. Ware accounts for the percussive influence of Sheffield’s then remaining heavy industry upon their early dystopian music, a musical transcription of the pounding of the city’s foundries’ drop forges which is particularly to the fore in their early song ‘Almost Medieval’ (1979). To this stentorian beat Phil Oakey narrates the tale of an unsettling journey back in time to the pre-modern era, thus:

 “step off the tarmac, there’s no stagecoach speed limit

 Behind the office swings the man on the gibbet…”

The point is made clear at the outset, for the League the past was grimmer (and grimier) than we might like to think, and everything was different there. In this early version of the world all the modern certainties are gone, and everything is degenerated. It is also sensorially different – it is a world of alien sights, smells and sounds. This is a “small world, dimly viewed through cataracts.”

I too caught a brief aural glimpse of Sheffield’s dull industrial thud when I first arrived here a decade ago. Early, on still summer mornings, already half awoken by vicious sunlight streaming through thin curtains, I would be fully roused by the kicking into life of the last remaining drop forge down in the valley. In response I bought blackout curtains and secondary double glazing. But still this behemoth found its way to me, the sheer force of this power press’s vibration through the neighbourhood’s ground and onward into the fabric of my home and the soft tissues of my head. After a couple of summers of annoyance the forge closed and eventually its structures were demolished. The site now sits empty and weed ridden, a scrub-gap between the local KFC and B&Q.

Listening again to ‘Almost Medieval’ a few weeks ago got me thinking about the soundscapes of my own past, and of their unattainability. The Human League portrayed their imagined trip back in time as considerably less than pleasurable. But it is the alien quality of the experience (rather than its repulsion) that intrigues me the most. In response to the song I recall a soundscape experienced from my childhood bedroom. A sound finding its way into that room via the windows. A particular set of sounds – cars ascending a gentle rise, driving up the valley in which my suburban home was situated. A particular car and engine tone, a particular interaction of rubber on tarmac, a particular reverberation of that sound within the funnel of the valley. This was all delivered into my bedroom until we got secondary double glazing (and a few years later proper double glazing – the old ‘crittall’ metal single glazed frames having finally been removed). On the arrival of these enhanced interfaces, those sounds faded from the sensory experience of being in that room. Only on summer days with the windows open would that outdoor soundscape tentatively venture inside again.

The impossibility of reclaiming soundscapes

So, I started wondering whether – if I went back to that house now and opened the window – would I hear that soundscape again?

I don’t think I would, and here’s why, a combination of reasons:

1)      As we age our hearing capabilities change. The range of our hearing recedes. Only the truly young can hear into the high pitch spectrum. So, if I went back now there are acoustic fractions of the soundscape that I simply could not register anymore, no matter how much I might want to.

2)      Cars have changed. So have their engines and the petrol inside them. Lead free fuel burns differently, engines are more powerful and the gentle rise is now achieved in lower gear than that prevalent in my childhood.

3)      There are more cars. There would be more traffic noise. A more complex set of sounds than the lone small car that I nostalgically imagine drifting past my window.

4)      The arrangement of gardens has changed. Many of the front garden trees have been removed to create car ports. Those that remain are bigger. Back gardens are now more paved, and the pigeon lofts at the top of many of them when I was young have decayed into nothing. All of these factors would result in a different echo profile for the car-sounds within that valley.

5)      Extension of the surrounding suburbs has reduced the proximity of that street to the countryside, resulting in fewer birds and their song (and less variety of those birds that are still there).

So, those sounds, and the environment that combined to produce and propagate them, have gone. Travelling in space to the place where those sounds once were will not achieve rediscovery of that soundscape, even if the double glazing is removed, or the window flung open. These then were the sounds of the Seventies, a product of a moment in time and its physical (and human) parts.

Sound and the Seventies

I recall also that there was a portion of that childhood soundscape that came only at night: Concorde’s sonic boom as its shot overhead Atlantic-ward. Unlike the gentle rumble of suburban traffic noise, the arrival of the sonic boom with the launch of Concorde’s supersonic trans Atlantic service from 1976 proved to be a very public, and hotly debated, development in the national soundscape, and noise pollution came to be THE pre-eminent environmental issue for much of that decade, before declining subsequently to its more recent ‘cinderella’ status.

During the late 1960s a number of developments co-incided to raise noise’s profile. Concorde and the ‘threat’ of supersonic aviation was one. The ‘great’ motorway building phase was another. In turn these developments led to new laws focussed on control of construction site noise, occupational noise exposure and principles of compensation for land blighted by these new noise-bearing transportation schemes. Meanwhile technical standards and controls started to appear by which the permitted noise emissions of vehicles and other machines came under control. Noise – for a while – was a very hot political topic.

I have a copy of a 1971 book, The Assaults on our Senses by John Barr. Evidently Mr Barr had already made something of a career out of chronicling the way that the modern world was dragging everything to hell, his previous work having been titled Derelict Britain. Barr’s 1971 book attempted a sensory engagement with environmental problems as they were then framed in public consciousness. First, he presented sight and squalor offending that dominant sense. Then he moved on to hearing, and the offence of noise. In doing so he drew a distinction between ‘noise on the ground’ and ‘noise in the air’. In his discourse upon aviation noise Barr was very much ‘of his time’, with anxieties about the imminent introduction of Concorde’s transatlantic flights, the feared impact of its sonic booms upon dairy herds and human mental health to the fore. Evocative campaign groups, long since gone, are name-checked in his book: the British Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise (founded 1966), the Anti-Concorde Project (1967) and the UK Federation Against Aircraft Nuisance (1968).

But for Barr:

“Not even the thunderclaps of super-sonic airliners in the 70s will displace ground-level noise as the most continuously irritating, physically and psychologically damaging, ingredient of Britain’s urban climate” (71)

Barr draws a bleak picture of a world drowning in sound, of industrialists rubbing their hands with joy at the productive clamour of their workshops, and of a cacophony of cars. But amidst this assault on noise, Barr momentarily falters, acknowledging the habituation of most to the everyday sounds of life, and chillingly depicts the horror of pure silence, the sensory deprivation of a sound-proofed chamber in which a subject is left alone with only his heart beat, breathing and the movement of his eyelids as acoustic companion. Even Barr concedes that sometimes, some sound may be better than none at all.

But like Barr, most of the debate (and legislation) about noise, as originally and influentially framed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, still focuses resolutely on noise as ‘pollution’, noise as something undesirably and that threats to the tranquillity of silence. This approach remains evident in the urban noise mapping required by EU derived ambient noise mapping laws – the map as a register of zones requiring action (‘acoustical planning’) to reduce ambient noise and thereby improve human qualities of life.

Silence, and the individualisation of soundscapes was often what these laws and policies espoused. And here I think of Richard Sennett, who portrayed evidence of a widespread retreat from the public realm in his The Fall of Public Man (2003). Whilst he used the notion of individuals retreating into their homes and shutting out the ‘public’ world outside metaphorically, as symptomatic of a wider retreat from living with a public realm, we can actually take this image literally. There was a physical retreat, an attempt to block out the world beyond the private realm of the home: this was the rise of double glazing in the 1970s.

Yes the double glazing craze was partly driven by energy efficiency (the 1973 energy crises certainly focussed the minds of homeowners on their spiralling fuel costs), and a vague sense of being ‘modern’ via home improvement – but there was also much made of the new technology’s ability to muffle the home against the noise of the outside world too. It is no coincidence that the raft of compulsory purchase laws made in the early 1970s, and their calibration of compensation principles for homeowners afflicted in the wake of new motorway schemes and airport expansion often offered up double (sometimes triple) glazing as their recompense: the victim fortified indoors in the face of an unstoppable march of concrete laying outdoors.

Thus, modernism’s project aspired to a technocratic control over soundscapes, ambient sound as an unwanted by-product of unstoppable progress, an externality, something to be channelled, muffled, designed out by the technocrats, the planners and the lawyers.

Charting soundscapes

Yet in recent years due to a congruence of technology and aesthetic sensibilities, some ambient soundscapes have come to be seen as a resource to cherish, a facet of place to characterise and/or an engine of regeneration (the vibrant consumerist ‘buzz’ of the plaza anyone?). Alongside the established ranks of the motorway scheme’s acoustic engineer and the ‘noise policing’ of Environmental Health Officers  we now see poets, ‘sound-artists’ and other enthusiasts attempting to valorise ambient soundscapes. Notable projects have included The London Sound Survey , the British Library’s UK Soundmap project and the Positive Soundscapes Project. These initiatives (and many others) create a strange mesh of acoustic science and aesthetic poetics.

There is a conservationist sensibility to the fore here – born of a realisation that soundscapes can be lost for ever. And this sentiment can come to the surface now, because technology enables us to have a realistic stab at capturing soundscapes in a meaningful way. Smartphone apps, social media and digital recorders enable collaborative archival ‘capture’ of samples of soundscapes for posterity, with linking of those samples to maps via geo-coding enabling an interactive place-sound (and time) based interrogation of the aural archive.

Perhaps when they are grown up, my kids will be able to salve their adult nostalgic yearning for the lost soundscapes of their youth by logging into one of these archives and re-living the sound-moment courtesy of a passing enthusiast’s carefully executed and geo-logged sampling of the local sound-world outside their bedroom windows earlier today.

 

Barr, J. (1971) The Assaults on our Senses, Sphere: London.

PoS (Port of Sheffield) (2012) The Port of Sheffield Digital Trail at http://www.theportofsheffield.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/PoS_Booklet_final.pdf

Human League (1979) ‘Almost Medieval’, Reproduction, Virgin: London (Song). Available as a rather odd mash-up of various 21st century ‘knights and castles’ films, 1979 performance footage of the Human League performing the song and shots of office life and buildings:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKTngFdEueQ

Sennett, R. (2003) The Fall of Public Man, Penguin: London.

Toop, D. (2007) ‘To move with sound’ in: Carlyle, A. Autumn Leaves: sound and the environment in artistic practise, Paris: Double Entendre (reference via Taing, Z. (n.d.) ‘Sonorous City – London Soundscape Project’ at: www.zaitang.com/…/ZaiTang_KandKleeElecAcouEssay.pdf)

Picture credit:

Interior View of the Old Duff-Norton Plant (Allegheny Drop Forge), 1925 Otto Kuhler (1894-1976) via http://www.bornoffire.org/exhibition/getart_gallery.cfm?ID=32