Beyond the broken building – dereliction, progress and ruinphobia

“The scars left behind by industrial development of the past, the abandoned waste heaps, disused excavations and derelict installations and buildings no longer needed by industry, are an affront to our concept of an acceptable environment in the 1970s”

Peter Walker, Secretary of State for the Environment, 1971 – quoted in Wallwork (1974) Derelict Land – origins and prospects of a land-use problem, David & Charles: Newton Abbot, p. 13.

 

Derelict Land Art: Five Sisters 1976 by John Latham 1921- 2006

 John Latham (1976) Derelict Land Art: Five Sisters, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/latham-derelict-land-art-five-sisters-t02071

Big Ruins and dereliction

There’s always this danger when writing two pieces in parallel: that they will converge. Over recent days I’ve been working on my papers for the Big Ruin conference (Manchester, Wednesday next week) and the Land Art/Abandoned Quarries conference at Yorkshire Sculpture Paper the following day. Whether through collision, or otherwise, I find myself thinking a lot about derelict land in relation to both papers, in each case as a conscious opposition to the currently dominant focus upon the discrete buildings and structures in ‘ruin studies’. To foreground blank, indeterminate wasteland feels both dissident, and necessary.

Dereliction was seen as a major policy issue in the 1960s, and essentially as one of un- or under productivity. Notions of landscape aesthetics (eradicating the unsightly, the eyesore) played a part in the call to arms, and safety and environmental drivers came increasingly to the fore with (respectively) the Aberfan tragedy of 1966, and the rise of ecological sensibilities – but predominantly dereliction was something to be tackled because it was a ‘waste’ of land, expressing a deeply held view (that still has powerful sway today) that neither land nor labour should be left idle.

 

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My presentation for the ‘Big Ruins’ conference is streamed here. The gist of my talk is a desire to acknowledge recent calls (from critical, urban and economic geographers) to widen the context in which ruins are studied, and in particular to look at the political economy of ruination – the process by which ruins are made.

But in my presentation I will also argue that the aim should not be to throw the baby out with the bathwater, for the more aesthetically (and matter/affect) based approaches that have dominated ruinology in recent years, have an important role to play in helping us to understand how orientations towards ruins, ruination and dereliction ‘matter’. And I mean ‘matter’ here (in the double-play advanced by Karen Barad) both in the sense that ‘it is important’, but also in the – theoretically more complex – sense that orientations towards matter (i.e. stuff) affect how that stuff exists, occurs, survives, is reacted to, is able to influence us etc. To understand ruination we need to understand why it is objectionable to many, attractive to some and how those orientations affect the matter of the ruin and its stability as a loosening assemblage of wood, stone, metal, cement, brick, fabric etc under the dissipating action of time, human and ‘natural’ processes.

Thus, in my Big Ruins talk my desire is to emphasise the multiple gazes through which ruination is framed – and how those gazes (particularly those that are broadly anti-ruin) affect the occurrence, subsistence and fates of ruins and the dereliction of which they form a part. As a consequence, my talk will deal only briefly with ruinphilia and will instead concentrate on the ruinphobic gazes that frame ruins as a contagion, a waste of space and/or a waste of matter. Inevitably these are (in contrast to the ‘high’ arts roots of ruinphilia) earthy, pragmatic gazes of policy, law, taxation, economic development and their attendant discourses of efficiency, progress, modernisation and monetary value. But understanding these gazes and their effects is crucial to an understanding of contemporary ruination and – I contend – these gazes have received scant attention within ruin studies (where the aesthetic and Romantic ruinphiliac gaze has been privileged almost to the point of excluding all other ways of looking upon broken buildings). In my presentation I also point to the irony that ruinphobia both strives to eradicate ruin and yet at times actually amplifies it.

Land Art and dereliction

Towards the end of his recent documentary series on Brutalism, Jonathan Meades issued a rallying call for the nascent Brutalist revival, in doing so harking back nostalgically to a Modernist era in which – in his view – human will aspired, unapologetically to stamp its identity and presence upon the planet, raising gigantic forms towards heaven either in challenge to the gods, or in declaration that the gods are no more. In doing so Meades contrasted Brutalism’s aggressive confidence with a present day eco-modesty, through which, he asserted, humankind has lost sight of his specialness and its faith in progress.

I suspect that Meades, like John Latham, would celebrate the monolithic forms of the Five Sisters (shale tips – or locally ‘bings’ shown in the image above) in West Lothian. Yet Meades’ Brutalism is but one version of Modernism. Working back in time, to the height of Modernism we find John Barr (a journalist) castigating Iain Nairn (an architectural critic) as typifying a certain type of metropolitan aesthete thus:

“It is some academic opinion makers, usually living far from the nearest spoil heap, who defend dereliction on aesthetic grounds. To them, and, one suspects, to them alone, reclamation is seen as an enemy of the wonderous heaps and holes and tears-in-the-hillsides which shout proudly MAN WAS HERE!”

John Barr (1969) Derelict Land, Penguin: Harmondsworth, p.25

I find myself with both Meades’ and Barr’s words ringing in my head as I prepare for my contribution to the Land Art in quarries conference at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The wind has turned recently against Ruin Lust. The counter-forces are amassing, the label of ‘Ruin Porn’ now ever-present,waiting to pounce on those who linger too long in gazing at broken buildings. Doubtless a genealogy of  ruinphilia would find similar castigation at any earlier formative era (remember here that ‘nostalgia’ was originally conceived as an illness). But, for me, this week it has been appropriately moderating, to know that the battle between old and new, bombastic and modest, use and pause is nothing new.

My slides for the Land Art talk are streamed here:

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Latham’s work upon the Five Sisters was the result of a placement within the Scottish Development Agency organised by the Artist Placement Group (who had the mission of opening commerce and public administration to new ways of seeing the aspects of the world that they managed), the aim being to find new ways to see the vast bings as something other than “eyesores of spent energy” (Richardson 2012), and that according to Derek Lyddon, Chief Planner of the Scottish Development Agency at the time of Latham’s residency:

“The object of APG placements may be described as ‘organisation and imagination’; to place an artist in an organisation in the hope that his creative intelligence or imagination can spark off ideas, possibilities and actions that have not previously been perceived or considered feasible; in other words to show the feasibility of initiating what has not occurred to others to initiate. Hence the product is not an art work, but a report by the artist on new ways of looking at the chosen work areas and on the action that might result.” (quoted in Richardson 2012)

In part as a result of Latham’s work, and partly in the light of a post-industrial turn towards the preservation of industrial ‘heritage’, at least some of the bings have now been listed as ancient monuments (though hardly ancient in origin, the tipping that formed them ended in the early 1920s) and thus now have protection against demolition or reworking (the oil bearing shale having value to recyclers).

Latham’s creative visioning helped the civil servants to see this dereliction – these man made mountains – as positive features of the contemporary landscape. However, Latham’s own design for their artistic augmentation – the Meadesean sounding “Handbook of Reason”, a 24 metre cruciform beacon tower to be erected atop one of the bings, was rejected on cost grounds. If built, that bunker-like structure (shown in design mock-ups below) would certainly have signalled to the surrounding land, (perhaps to the delight of Meades and the consternation of Barr): “MAN WAS HERE”.

 

Documents as Part of APG Feasibility Study – Scottish Office 1976

 

Further details of Latham’s project are detailed in Craig Richardson (2012) ‘Waste to Monument: John Latham’s Niddrie Woman’  Tate Papers Issue 17, from which the above image is taken.

 

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About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/prosaic/ LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett. EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

One Response to Beyond the broken building – dereliction, progress and ruinphobia

  1. Jack Luke says:

    Hey there,

    I’ve been doing some reading on this blog in preparation for starting my next project and was amused to see you’ve covered the Bings, the subject of my previous project, in this post.

    You can see the project in the link bellow and it’s currently on show at Gallery Ten in Edinburgh till the sixth of October.

    I’m really enjoying your writing,

    Jack

    jackluke.co.uk/post/87103616979/the-bings

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