Botanising on asphalt -– weeds, memory and an empty patch on the street corner

bindweed fence

“railroad yard in San Jose 
I wandered desolate
in front of a tank factory
and sat on a bench
near the switchman’s shack.

A flower lay on the hay on
the asphalt highway
–the dread hay flower
I thought–It had a
brittle black stem and
corolla of yellowish dirty
spikes like Jesus’ inchlong
crown, and a soiled
dry center cotton tuft
like a used shaving brush
that’s been lying under
the garage for a year.

Yellow, yellow flower, and
flower of industry,
tough spiky ugly flower,
flower nonetheless,
with the form of the great yellow
Rose in your brain!
This is the flower of the World.”

Allen Ginsberg (1954) In Back of the Real

I came across this poem whilst idly flicking through a slim collection of beat poets at my father’s new house a few weeks ago. I know little about poetry, and much less about botany. It was the reference to ‘tank’, ‘factory’ and ‘asphalt’ that got my attention. I know more about those things.

But Ginsberg’s point about the resilience of the weed he encountered at that run-down site has reverberated as I’ve sat this week reading Richard Mabey’s 1973 classic, The Unofficial Countryside. Mabey urged us to see what would now be called ‘brownfield’ sites. But he was urging us to see them. Not to necessarily see them as anything in particular, whether as heritage or as regeneration opportunity. Instead the call was to notice them for their own sake, and to marvel at the resilience of nature at such places.

Writing in the 2010 foreword to the reissue of his classic, Mabey explains that his book was written at a time when bombsites and inner-urban dereliction were still a common sight. That these brown fields have largely been erased from their locations and local memory, is the theme of this essay.

The postwar era carried a reconstruction and modernisation ethos with it, but the cities and towns could not be remade overnight, that process took many decades. And during the interim such sites remained as unused derelict land, co-opted as playgrounds, informal storage, advertising hordings and the empire of weeds.

In the 40 years since Mabey’s book was first written we have seen the rise of in-filling and regeneration. The drumming of derelict sites into new commercial or civic purpose, a hallmark of a general return to the once-abandoned urban centres. Gentrification, and successive boom and bust property cycles erased most of the sites that Mabey wandered for his book. As he pithily puts it:

“…the last scrubby bombsites have been buried under National Car Parks…spontaneous greenspace has become demonised as worthless brownfield, and an anaemic tidiness creeps across all the last fragments of free land.” (2010:15)

As Mabey strode these now lost lands, he read them as rich in flora and fauna. His was both a scientific reading and a poetic one. He would spot, name and draw rich emotional sustenance from what he found there.

I admire that evident stimulation, but I’ve never really felt it myself. It’s the tanks, the factories and the asphalt that does it for me. And it’s not that I was never given the opportunity to partake of this rich reading. No circumstances prevented me from jumping aboard, it just never quite worked out. I recall my father buying me a pile of nature-in-towns books in the late 1970s, the boom years of the urban ecology movement largely set in train by Mabey’s book. I remember one in particular – it had a picture of a storks nest on top of a continental looking domestic roof. It just didn’t stir anything in me. I liked the idea of the gear that went along with this hobby – the camouflage, the binoculars, the hides. But the ‘spotting’ bit left me cold.

When I started pulling my thoughts together for this piece, I thought it was going to be an agnostic acknowledgment of the rich way that naturalists read derelict sites. Thus far it has been. But in thinking back to the era in which I was given those books, I’ve been reminded that I used to sit at my father’s old house in Exeter and look across at a tangled mass of creeper like foliage, with massive white flowers wrapped around a fenced off empty portion of the street corner opposite no 18.


I never knew what those white flowers were called, and never felt the urge to find out. All I knew was that they made a nice popping sound when you squeezed their buds and that the entire site was coated in this Triffid-like mass. In some sense I knew that this space was aberrant to the order of the streets and buildings around it, but that was as far as I got. But today I have pushed the boat out, I now know the name of that weed-mass, Bindweed (sometimes called – even more evocatively – hedgebell or bearbind) and I now have confirmed to me, my gut feeling that this was probably one of the ‘last scrubby bombsites’ that Mabey had opportunity to chronicle just before they were swept back into ‘productive’ use.

Dinham Rd map

As my thoughts drifted back towards bombs and airraids, and despite half hearted efforts to resist this drift (I’m supposed to be having a break from such musings) my search led me through old maps of Dinham Road. The terrace was complete up to the 1930s map edition. But by the 1950s house numbers 1, 2 and 3 were missing, a white-space void now were formerly there were houses (this road didn’t follow the odd/even convention for numbering for some reason). This remained the case until the 1990s when new, low rise brick dwellings appeared to reclaim the numbers 1, 2 and 3. Here’s what the street corner looks like now. The Victorian terrace ended abruptly at number 4, shown as the black (tar?) painted gable wall.

dinhamroad photo

Through the marvel of internet wandering my enquiry soon found that nos. 1, 2 and 3 Dinham Road disappeared in flames on the night of 4th May 1942. A large firebomb targeted at a nearby timber store triggered a conflagration recalled by one local resident, James Bell who had passed by that street corner that night in his effort to escape Exeter’s Blitz (a revenge attack for the RAF targeting the historic German town of Lubeck):

 “My brother and I, with much protests from mother, went with Dad – it was 4 am – to the end of Haldon Road, down under the Ironbridge at Lower North Street. There was a fire, on the corner of Dinham Road with rubble in the road, The fire was from Dinham Road corner to as far as the bridge started. It was caused some said by an oil bomb” (Bell 2005).

As counterpoint, Bell also treats us to the staccato of the Chief Fire Officers Report 4th May 1942 and its depiction of the raid as an abstract assemblage of fire, pipes, water and timber:

“0410 Timber Stores, Dinham Road, serious fire, tank No. 162 (cap. 15,000 gallons) adjacent to fire ground. Supplies supplemented from ‘Header’ on pipe-line No. 1. Relay of two lines 21/2″ via Engine Bridge, North Street junction of Bartholomew Street. Shortage of pumps was severely taxing pipe-lines”.

And all of this was new to me. I’d sat and stared at those weeds for many long hours. There were swifts that used to gather in massed ranks above this greenery, swooping and chirping in their very distinctive manner. As I think about it I tumble back to circa 1979, I’m sitting by the window and the weeds and the swifts are still there darting through the warm summer air.

That clump of vegetation had seemed eternal. It was there when I first visited this road, and was there when I stopped going there. And yet, it was a passing phase. There was a before and an after, neither of which has a place or role for these weeds.

But for me, looking back, the irony is that I remember this site and its column of empty sky only because of its weeds and the spiralling swifts. Seemingly, despite my best efforts to deny this at a cerebral level, these natural features left a powerful effect on my remembrance of this place. The Calystegia sepium lived up to its name: Bindweed.



Bell, J (2005) ‘The Exeter Blitz’ at

Mabey, R. (2010) The Unofficial Countryside, Little Toller: Wimborne Minster.

Poem source:

Photo sources: Bell (2005); Digimap;;

‘Of cabbages and kings’ – on summoning things with lists



“The time has come,” the Walrus said,

“to talk of many things:

Of shoes — and ships –and sealing-wax–

Of cabbages and kings

And why the sea is boiling hot

And whether pigs have wings”

Lewis Carroll (1872) Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There


New Year seems like a good time to take stock, and in the process to think about lists and their interaction with things.

Lists sorted Santa’s recent mission, and three dimensional things arrived, wrapped and wanted in the correct hands. Each object became the centre of attention at its presenting and unveiling. Lists accomplished this bringing of objects to an audience. Lists also worked to assemble ingredients and create meals, also to plan and execute feasible journeys.

Then there were the New Year’s lists; written in the mind or on paper. The quiet reckoning of the events of the preceding year, and groping towards ideas for action (and forebearance) in the forthcoming one. Lists are powerful tools. They create order, they name, frame and coordinate objects and ideas. They are herders, thing-shepherds.

But lists can also be deployed to invoke strange disordering effects – something that has recently come to the fore in the ‘neo-materialism’ of Object Oriented Ontology and in Actor Network Theory. Lists can connect us to the untameable plenitude of things; of their complexity, their messiness and their beyond-human scale and purpose. For the material turn:

“…allows for the return of concrete objects to philosophy, after their long exile decreed by those who were too clever to talk about paper, donkeys and marbles, and thereafter allowed themselves to speak only of the aloof and alienated cognito-linguistic structures that make all such objects possible.” (Harman, 2009a: 91)

Graham Harman and his fellow travellers seek to assert the reality of objects, unshackling their existence from the conditionality of human perception. But, Harman’s is a wierd realism, a speculative one that sees human perception of any objects qualities as partial. A speculation is entailed, essences are unattainable. Objects are encountered incompletely and pragmatically. But they exist without our regard. If a tree falls in an empty forest it probably makes a sound, but no-one can know what the sound of a lonely tree’s fall is.

For Aristotle, human interrogation of objects was a search for essences, definitive primary qualities by which each object could be known and classified. Linnaeus followed in this vein with his systematic taxonomy of flora and fauna – genus and species. This was the Enlightenment and its encyclopaedic project. Everything under the sun (and the sun and stars too) must have their labels, and places, within a system of cosmic order. For Kant this drive was reductive, an attempt to ‘cleave the air’. But it remains a powerful force. Order, categorisation, control as the raison d’être of the modern list.

Michel Foucault examined this drive to order in his The Order of Things (2002) presenting in it his analysis of the evolution of the human sciences and its conceptual framing and discursive control of objects. Foucault’s study begins with an examination of Borges’ oft-quoted fictional “certain Chinese encyclopaedia” in which animals are divided into a wholly alien taxonomy: including “those belonging to the emperor”; those that “have just broken a pitcher” and “those that look like flies from a long way off”. Foucault marvels at the strangeness of this categorisation, notes the arbitrariness of any cleaving of reality, but also the object framing power of such taxonomic activities.

Foucault uses Borges’ imaginary list as a springboard to considering the genesis of the Enlightenment’s urge to classify. He views Borges’ alien taxonomy as an exercise in fantastical thinking, something wholly other to the prevailing logics of Enlightenment science. But in passing acknowledges the revelatory power of juxtaposition in Borges’ list:

“We are all familiar with the disconcerting effect of the proximity of extremes, or , quite simply, with the sudden vicinity of things that have no relation to each other; the mere act of enumeration that heaps them all together has a power of enchantment all of its own.” (2002: 18)

Foucault illustrates his point with the Comte de Lautréamont’s proto-surrealist similie describing a young man “as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.” Foucault takes the similie as absurdist, and thereby an example of how impossible  juxtapositions open up imaginary combinations that can only exist in imaginary – linguistic – space, for they are not real, they are non-physical creations of language and abstract thought.

In contrast Harman, Bruno Latour and Ian Bogost have all extolled the enchanting power of lists to summon the alien strangeness of reality itself to fleeting human view. Such juxtapositions are ritually invoked not to create heterotopias, but rather to shine attentive light onto aspects of the vastness of reality that usually get little if any attention. They do so as part of a critique of human-centred conventional approaches to investigation of the physical world.

For Latour, for example, the social sciences have evolved a very narrowly drawn notion of the world, a narrowness which must be challenged:

“there is a very small list of inhabitants. I mean for them there are no objects, no animals (or very little), so it’s only the humans. But they are naked humans, often even just heads, sometimes with a body but not with clothes on or without internal organs.” (Halsall, 2012: 966)

Reading some Harman recently, and Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology: or what it’s like to be a thing (2012) over Christmas, I’ve been struck by how often these theorists toss heterogeneous lists of stuff to their audience. Bogost is aware of this trope, and that some may dismiss the practice as a ‘poetics’ of objects but invokes Harman in defence of this practice as:

“the best stylistic antidote to [the] grim deadlock [of mainstream philosophy] is a repeated sorcerer’s chant of the multitude of things that resist any unified empire.” (Harman 2009b:  102)

Such litanies are intended to set up aberrant conjunctions precisely for the purpose of emphasising the alien-ness of objects to us, and also to each other – that most of the things in the universe have no obvious relationship to most other things.

I get the point here – but find that whenever confronted with one of these lists I’m titillated but almost immediately find myself trying to stitch the objects together (sheltering from the rain in the operating theatre with my recently purchased sewing machine as I do so). These lists operate – despite their authors’ intentions – as some form of random plot generator. The randomness soon fades from view as the meaning-making drive kicks in. This process makes me think of the human perceptual tendency to perceive face-shapes in dim light, or to find patterns in fields of dots. We are wired to make sense of what we are confronted with. The surrealists, fuelled by Freud’s ‘discovery’ of the unconscious, understood this. Their juxtapositions were intended to act upon human sense-making in this way (as does the ‘subliminal’ end of the advertising spectrum which owes much to the symbolic preoccupation of the early 20th century avant garde).

Yet conveniently, Harman and co leave me space for this. They accept that humans cannot escape from their anthropomorphic and/or pragmatic orientation towards things in the world. For these theorists, reality exists independent of perception, but can only be glimpsed in fragments through perception. Thus what excites me by their thinking is their call to turn attention to the full range of ‘things’ in the world, and also the space left open for consideration of the perceptive and representational practices by which human actors seek to speculate about the objects with which they are interacting, and to select and glimpse aspects that appear relevant to their needs.

Bogost, despite his book’s subtitle, doesn’t actually tell us what it’s like to be a thing. That can’t be done. What his book (and those of Harman and Latour etc) does is inspire us to be aware of things (both physical and ideational) and how we humans try to shepherd them, but never quite fully manage to fully know, or fully dominate them.

And so, refreshed, I head back into exploring the world of bricks, bunkers, quarries, church roofs, café toilets, flammable sofas, road signs and wandering.

Ah, a list. All makes sense to me…

Here’s a list of some references

Bogost, I. (2011) Alien Phenomenology , or What It’s Like to Be a Thing, University of Minnesota Press:  Minneapolis.

Foucault, M. (2002) The Order of Things, Routledge: London

Halsall, F. (2012) ‘An aesthetics of proof: a conversation between Bruno Latour and Francis Halsall on art and inquiry’ Environment & Planning D: Society and Space, 30(6) 963 – 970

Harman, G. (2009a) Towards Speculative Realism, Zero Books: Winchester

Harman, G. (2009b) Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics, Melbourne

Picture credit: Salvador Dali (1941) Sewing Machine With Umbrella via

Craterology & Legal Geography – searching for law and other meaning in quarries and elsewhere


I’ve spent a lot of time writing about bunkers and bunker-hunters in recent years, so it is with a tongue pressed firmly in my cheek that I declare 2013 as my year of writing about quarries. It’s not that I don’t mean it (I do) – but I’m fully aware of the need to be seen not to be taking this all too seriously. And yet, I’m not just looking at those who playfully enchant these places, I’m also studying those who own them, and do their best to manage them. So, some of the time I need to be very serious. I’m writing for two different communities, about one place type with me in the middle trying to make sense of both sides, and shuttle alien perspectives back and forth across the mid-line.

So, hello craterology

But, having caused some friction (and hopefully some insight) with ‘bunkerology’, this is probably the one and only time that you will see me talk of my projects under the label ‘craterology’. But, essentially that’s what I’m up to: investigating how people go about making sense and order within areas of hollowed out stone.

Alongside some more user-aesthetics based investigations of these spaces, this year will be about writing up my study of the British Mountaineering Council’s quarry managing (and climbing encouraging) practices, and seeking out further angles from which to think through my research question ‘how do people interact with these places?’, and in doing so also address the sub-question ‘and how do these people make sense of both the rock and each other?’

To kick off, I will soon be posting up another blog post that will link to a short article by me for on climbers’ reactions to a graffiti incident in a former North Wales slate quarry. And more will follow in due course on culture clashes and normative orders in abandoned quarries.

But it’s actually the ‘other’ side of my work that I want to flag today. The BMC invited me to spend time with them learning about how they manage their quarry/climb sites, so that I could see owners who are not averse to climbing from a liability point of view, and how they achieve that equilibrium. My study will consider how they do that, and also examine why most other owners of these places are less relaxed and instead see the idea of recreational access to these places as a major risk issue. All sorts of issues, and ways of reading place and risk, tumble out of this.

Legal geography

And the origin for all this focus on meaning making? Well, I’m an environmental lawyer by training, but in recent years I’ve been publishing mostly in cultural geography journals. So, any opportunity to square the circle and write about all the angles that interest (or distract) me in one unified place is the holy grail. That’s essentially what this blog site is about: me sitting up on the fence, looking at both sides and trying to squeeze views, information, juxtapositions in both directions through the mesh.

So, today was especially satisfying, for with Antonia Layard (University of Birmingham) we’ve issued a call for papers on law and geography for the 2013 Royal Geographical Society conference. Our aim is to get the ball rolling towards establishing the legal geography hybrid as a worthy branch of both law and of geography scholarship, by building a conversation with all interested parties on how law and spatiality/matter co-act to construct place and space. And this is not a domain incursion – law trying to colonise a corner of a rival discipline. No, it’s more humble than that. It’s based on a realisation that spatiality and physical matter need more attention in legal scholarship, and that geographical sensibilities probably help to point us in the right direction.

As Antonia (who is Professor of Law & Geography, the first such appellation that I’m aware of in the UK) puts it, what seems to connect those projects that qualify for a putative legal geography is a concern to investigate law’s spatiality ‘from the ground up’: the studies we are thinking of start with the experience of visiting and/or being at a site. The analysis that then follows is grounded in the physical reality of that site, as it refracts through the discursive layers of site practice, local understanding, and thereafter appreciation of the wider context, and imposition of more formal legal frameworks onto places of that type, and people of the type who manage or visit them.

And that neatly brings me back to quarries – start at site level, understand the local normative order and the actors through whom it manifests, think about the interplay with the physical and the wider discursive context and formalities. Then pull it all together.

So, here’s the CFP if anyone’s interested in joining in the conversation:

Call for Papers and Contributions – Legal Geography

Submission Deadline for papers – Friday 8th February 2013 (other contributions can 
come later, please see below).

Organisers – Antonia Layard (Birmingham) and Luke Bennett (Sheffield Hallam)

Legal geography is an emerging discipline, located both within geography and law and 
society studies. At its core, it draws on legal and geographical techniques and 
concepts to understand ‘the role and impact that space and place have on the 
differential and discursive construction of law and how legal norms and practices 
construct space and places’ (Blomley 1993, 63).

While legal geography has been an emerging discipline for some time particularly in 
North America, it is not yet a clearly defined site of research in the UK or (with 
some notable exceptions) internationally. With the 2013 RGS Conference theme of ‘new 
geographical frontiers’ this seems as good a time as any to try to develop, 
collaboratively, how legal geography (or geographical law) might be understood and 
undertaken in the UK and beyond. 

We make two proposals for sessions. The first is for a Roundtable on Legal Geography 
and we would be very interested in hearing from anyone with a paper that engages 
explicitly with legal geography as a discipline, mapping the subject in some sense, 
investigating the subjects, techniques and approaches that legal geography uses.

We also hope to organise a world café session, which would be entirely participatory 
aiming (perhaps) at creating some initial networks, contacts, collaborations (for 
grant or scholarly purposes), bibliographies or ideas for further research.

Please do get in touch if legal geography holds any interest at all! 

Antonia Layard
Professor of Law & Geography 
Birmingham Law School


The heap-monster and the anthill – some thoughts on the indeterminacy of buildings

Monster-house-poster via

One of my favourite CGI animation films is Monster House, a rather underrated 2006 offering from Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg. It riffs on Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher in aligning the atmosphere (and activities) of a dilapidated house with the bitter decrepitude of its lone human occupant, the splendidly named Horace Nebbercracker . The film loses something in its final third where the haunted mystery of this place gives way to the house stepping forth, out of the shadows and in monstrous form, tottering on two improvised legs, in pursuit of the children who dared to venture inside it. But in moving from haunted suggestion to Transformers-like actuality, the rampaging house-monster does give me a great image to start the rumination that follows on the identity and agency of assemblages of construction materials.

What’s it like to be a building?

Recently I’ve been burrowing into theorists who argue – in one way or another – for a return to matter in social theory, a material turn in which things should be given their due along people and discourse. Due to this, earlier this week I took a colleague to task for a research proposal in which she claimed allegiance to actor network theory. For whilst she noted ANT’s commitment to a principle of symmetry (i.e that the non-human, physical realm should get equal billing in any analytical account), she considered that to give such matter equal billing in her study of the fate of a particular type of ruined building could appear ‘forced’. I questioned what that meant, and why an attentiveness to the existence of the bricks, the wood, the steel and the other elements and their shaping contribution to the life and fate of buildings would be forced, if forced meant ‘artificial’. Buildings are made of matter. Matter interacts with other matter. Buildings decay through human neglect because these material processes are free to take over. The fate of a building is precisely a rich interplay of human and other actors.

But to the extent that ‘forced’, means that we – as humans – struggle to give ‘authentic’ depiction of the world as viewed from the perspective of a stone, a brick or a slate roof tile then I accept the point, but only up to a point.

I recently read Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, or What it’s Like to Be a Thing (2012). It’s a great book, but its title is rather naughty, for Bogost readily admits inside that we humans can never know what it’s like to be a thing, and that instead all we can do is attempt  to write:

“the speculative fictions of their processes, of their unit operations. Our job is to get our hands dirty with grease, juice, gunpowder and gypsum. Our job is to go where everyone has gone before, but where few have bothered to linger”

Certainly any attempt to write about those processes within the humanities / social sciences is awkward due to its novelty – but to regard such endeavours as necessarily ‘forced’ is to reject a key tenet of ANT as I understand it, namely that the presence and role of non-human objects needs to be admitted back into analysis of the networks of interactions through which reality is made.

I also questioned my colleague’s framing of ‘the buildings’ as the only physical element to be accorded a place in the story. Yes, the building as-a-whole is an important physical part of the story, but so are the sub-elements and their interactions. In classic ANT terms, a building is an assemblage, a temporary stable network of elements. It holds together whilst the human stakeholders, the material elements and the surrounding environment permit it.

So, in this essay I want to consider what happens when we ascribe agency to buildings, or instead try to see them as the sum of their parts.

The heap-monster – the rampant whole

In Monster House we are presented with the anomaly of a rampaging house, a fixity rendered strangely mobile and chaotically shedding clapperboards and other domestic elements as it stumbles to life, rising on its newly found haunches and launching into the chase. This heap-monster is portrayed as purposeful, as alive in a way that is alien to our experience of the built environment.

In the real world – rather than that of Hollywood – a brick doesn’t know that it’s part of a house, and has no sentience.

Yet to us humans we look at an intentional construction of brick, wood, slate and steel and we see a house (or a home if we happen to have a reason to associate emotionally with it). We perceive it at a particular default scale (unless we are a roofer, public health inspector or double glazing salesman in which case we focus on a particular sub-part). We see it as a whole, as a building, rather than as a set of component parts.

But what of the summation of broken buildings, to what extent do we still see ‘house’ in the demolition pile or the tornado’s wake? To what extent do we give identity to heaps? Can the amorphous still have identity?

Ordinarily, we struggle to see form or stable identity in such chaotic piles of matter, particularly if the rubble pile is not our own home. But, in extremis we can. Take for instance the following description of the remains of the World Trade Centre and the way in which the twisted mound of debris came to be framed as a thing, as an ominous foe:

“And then of course, there was the pile, always the pile. It had been the focus of ferocious energy during the collapse, and now again was the focus during the unbuilding. The pile was an extreme in itself. It was not just the ruins of seven big buildings but a terrain of tangled steel on an unimaginable scale, with mountainous slopes breathing smoke and flame, roamed by diesel dinosaurs and filled with the human dead. The pile heaved and groaned and constantly changed, and was capable at any moment of killing again. People did not merely work to clear it out but went there day and night to fling themselves against it. The pile was the enemy, the objective, the obsession, the hard-won ground.” (Langewiesche, 2003: 72)

For me, whether the pile self-identifies as a pile is not the point. Objects have properties that shape how they interact with other things (think of smooth vs rough surfaces and the different that makes when two objects pass each other). Objects do cause effects on other objects. But we shouldn’t confuse this ability to cause effects, with intentionality. We’re in the world, it’s made of physical stuff, and we should acknowledge that – but actually what I’m most interested in how we as humans orientate to these physical things and their ‘natural’ processes and properties. How we give them house room (or not), why we do this and how those framings affect the outcome of our relationships with these places and things.

The anthill – the sum of all parts

The narrator, gazing upon The House of Usher before him attempts not only to read the mood of the ancestral seat, but also to find a stable correspondence between the totality and the component parts of the building, for:

“No portion of the masonry had fallen; and there appeared to be no wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual stones. In this there was much that reminded me of the specious totality of old wood-work which has rotted for some years in a long neglected vault, with no disturbance from the breath of the external air. Beyond this indication of extensive decay, however, the fabric gave little token of instability. [Yet] perhaps the eye of a scrutinising observer might have discovered a barely perceptible fissure…”  (Poe, 2003: 93)

In this passage Poe not only gives us a rare incursion of building surveying into gothic fiction, but he also asks us to consider a building as an assemblage of parts, hinting at the impermanence of the relationships between those parts, and also of the relationships with the surrounding world and its forces (gravity, erosion, corrosion and subsidence). Poe reminds us that the integrity of any building is finite – and by the end of the narrator’s fateful visit the once ‘barely perceptible fissure’ has finally brought the house of Usher to its fall.

In this image, a building is an unnatural assemblage, waiting to fall apart. It is the sum of its parts, and dependent for its existence and identity upon the integrity of those parts. And those parts interact with each other, act upon each other. Sometimes this aids the overall structure (think of the strength-through-compression features of a stone arch assembly), yet in other circumstances (like Poe’s crack) the interaction is the seed of eventual catastrophic failure.

And here we can jump domains. Leaving literature behind we can follow the point into the prosaic world of construction law, and how the courts grapple with the ontology of buildings and the prospective damage of Poe’s ‘imperceptible fissure’. For, perhaps surprisingly, the courts in their very down to earth adjudication of disputes about building defects are having to decide the appropriate scale with which to frame the built environment and its elements, for (for convoluted reasons I won’t delved into here) compensation may only be payable, outside the realm of contractual relationships, in situations where a latent defect has caused damage to property other than itself. And here the question becomes both very practical and very esoteric – if I have a defect in the construction of a door lintel that threatens the future stability of the upper floors of the house, should the law regard the whole building as the ‘thing itself’ or just the door lintel?

Thus, the courts have to decide what they are looking at – is this a meta-assembly of component systems (door systems, wall systems, window systems) or is it indivisibly a single thing, a building? English speaking courts around the world have grappled with this conundrum for the last 25 years. In North America they have started to view buildings as an amalgam of multiple zones and systems, thus accepting the notion that systems/zones of a building can cause damage to other zones/systems. But to date in the English courts this ‘complex structure theory’ has not taken hold.

To English judges at least, a house is a building, not an assemblage of bricks, wood and metal.


Bogost, I. (2012) Alien Phenomenology , or What It’s Like to Be a Thing, University of Minnesota Press:  Minneapolis.

Langewiesche, W. (2003) American Ground – unbuilding the World Trade Center, Scribiner: London.

Poe, E.A. (2003) The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings, Penguin: London.

Picture source:

On curating strange encounters at Furnace Park

Luke Bennett (Sheffield Hallam University) and Amanda Crawley Jackson (University of Sheffield) are currently preparing an academic paper on the Furnace Park project. We hope to give it its first outing at the Royal Geographical Society annual conference in August 2013. Here’s the abstract as a taster of some of what’s to come…
On curating strange encounters in multidisciplinary space: a case study on opening up a plot to multiple reading

In the long retreat from essentialism, prevailing orthodoxy has it that the experience of place is multivalent, partial, subjective and/or pragmatic (e.g. Creswell 2004; Harman 2009, Delaney 2010). In this paper we will explore what this means in concrete terms by examining our involvement in the valorisation and art-led repurposing of a small plot of derelict land in the heart of Sheffield’s industrial quarter. At the core of our project has been a conscious desire to reveal and then linger over the multiple ways in which stakeholders associated with this project have each brought their own ‘ways of seeing’ (Berger 1972) – their aesthetics in the widest sense of that term – to bear in making sense of the site for their purposes. Through this the project has seen a small abandoned scrubland site suddenly heavily traipsed by police, surveyors, writers, engineers, artists, scavengers, architects, police, film makers, ecologists, poets, lawyers, children, groundworks contractors and ambivalent bystanders. We will show how these visitors are strangers to each other, and this place, and yet through their proximity in time spent on site, their involvement in the project and the similarities and divergences of their sense making strategies, their paths, thoughts and actions start to interweave to create a rich, vibrant set of place-forming narratives for a supposedly ‘non-place’ (Augé 1995). In bringing these ways of reading out of their disciplinary silos, by creating a context in which their discursive grip of the situation was rendered slightly askew – we summoned intriguing patterns, commonalities and charming juxtapositional effects (Highmore 2002), a loose project specific community-assemblage of the type theorised by Jean-Luc Nancy and Jacques Rancière, that energised this forgotten site with new life, colour and purpose.

Blank slate or gallery?: art in the quarry

Jack Murray - large

“Slate quarrying is not a matter of mere manual labour but an art which years of patient practice will hardly acquire…a slate splitter is like a poet…and contends with the poet on an equal footing at the National Eisteddfod where slate splitting, music and poetry are stock subjects of rivalry.”

So wrote the Pall Mall Gazette, in 1885 in acknowledgment of the skill and craft of the slate worker, and it’s place within the culture of North Wales. Wrenching the lumps of slate from the hillside rock mass was one thing, but doing so in a way that produced workable slate was something else. As one Ffestiniog rockman put the artistry of applying explosives to rock faces in 1893: “to bore a hole is one thing, but to know where to put it is quite a different matter” (quoted in Jones, 1977: 121).

The quarryman’s artistry comprised an intimate acquaintance with the qualities of the rock – an ability to read it, and through reading it to know how best to engage with it. This human/rock  interaction was acted out upon the hewn terraces of this vast quarry, spaces known as ‘galleries’ by those who formerly worked there.  But should these desolate spaces now become galleries for the display of art brought to this place? And what art is fit for a carved mountainside?

The picture above was taken in October 2012. It is a photograph of Jack Murray, a rising star of the street art scene,  laying down a preliminary glyph at the former Dinorwig slate quarry at Llanberis in North Wales as a prelude to returning and executing a much larger work. But that larger piece is now unlikely to go ahead, for Murray’s plan caught the attention of the climbing fraternity, and he was told in no uncertain terms to leave the quarry’s rock faces alone.

I examine this culture clash in a short article published today on the website. The article focuses on the themes emerging from the reaction to Murray’s plan, and what the on-line debates show us about the territorial, ethical and aesthetic sensibilities of climbers. You can read it here:

Another recurrent theme in the opposition to Murray’s plan was that it was out of keeping with the area – that art per se was fine within quarryscapes, but that it needed to reflect the character of the place, to fit with it and ideally enhance it. Murray’s ‘urban’ offering was seen as an unmerited (and unsympathetic) addition to this landscape. To be acceptable here, art would need to work with the grain, to acknowledge the qualities of the rock and the working lives lived here. In echo of the slate worker’s hands, and of the climbers’ fingers, it would need to be art underscoring each of their engagements with (and ability to read) the “posts, crychs, bends, sparry veins, faults, joints and hardened rock” (Davies 1880).


Davies, D.C. (1880)  A Treatise on Slate and Slate Quarrying, London.

Jones, M. (1977) ‘Y chwarelwyr: the slate quarrymen of North Wales’ in Samuel, R. (ed.) Miners, Quarrymen and Saltworkers, Routledge & Kegan Paul: London

The photo above is reproduced by permission of Jack Murray.