What’s behind the fence? – exploring dead land and empty buildings at the RGS-IBG 2021 Annual Conference (online session, Weds 1st Sept 2021)

“They came from everywhere… I fixed the fence, over and over I fixed the fence, but they kept on coming.”

A lone, vulnerable security guard, 2017

As part of next week’s Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) annual international conference (which this year is running online: details here) I’m convening a double-session next Wednesday morning (1st September), comprising eight presentations, each considering the quiet and only-noticed-if-you-look human ecology of seemingly empty sites.

Contemporary cultural geographies of wastelands and ruin-sites tend to celebrate vacant spaces as a break from the ordering impulses of everyday normativities (Edensor 2005; DeSilvey & Edensor 2012). Keen to chronicle the ways in which wider human and more-than-human agencies are enabled in such sites, only incidental attention is ever given in these works to the continuation of a quiet custodianship of these sites by those who own, or who otherwise consider themselves responsible for them. Yet in a fleeting glimpse of a passing security guard patrol, coming across a patched perimeter fence or in the flickering of lighting served by a still-active electrical power supply, seemingly abandoned sites reveal themselves to be not quite as abandoned as they at first seemed.

This conference session will open-up an attentiveness to the subtle, ongoing ordering and management of such sites, and whether by their owners or by opportunistic appropriators. Taking a life-cycle approach, presenters will explore the stories and structures that have caused abandonment at both remote sites and those within the heart of otherwise active and occupied urban centres. They will tease out the logics of opportunistic appropriators (urban explorers, rough sleepers, ravers, artists, scrappers and scavengers), their notions of territoriality and of their own emergent normative codings devised for the shared use of abandoned places. The role of professional cultures and logics of urban set-aside and vacant site management will also be explored. In each case these readings of the motives, modes and meanings of vacancy will be attentive to the wider ecologies in which these sites and their actors are imbricated and of the important role of (positive or negative) place attachment in determining the speed at which a site is withdrawn from vacancy, or how it is maintained purposively in that state.

Here are the abstracts for our international array of presenters:

Session 1Experiencing and managing dead places (9.00 – 10.40 AM BST)

Ruins of (Post)Soviet Arctic: perceiving, coping with and commemorating abandoned sites

Maria GUNKO Institute of Geography, Russian Academy of Sciences / National Research University Higher School of Economics (Moscow, Russia) [presenting]

Alla BOLOTOVA Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki (Helsinki, Finland); Elena BATUNOVA Politecnico di Milano (Milano, Italy) [non-presenting]

The Arctic is passing through different economic and political development stages which result in changing economic and social settings, as well as shifts in the cityscape dynamics (Sellheim et al., 2019). During state socialism in Russia, large-scale development of northern territories was due to the need for natural resources extraction with the establishment of control over a vast sparsely populated area (Josephson, 2014). The collapse of the system has led to a reduction of state support for industries, science and military activities causing a structural crisis in many Arctic cities outside oil and gas provinces. Abandoned and dilapidated buildings, industrial ruins, idle infrastructures, and marginalized spaces here remain “monuments” to the Soviet period indicating the changing trends. At the same time, these cities remain home to people with community bonds, sharing values, and place attachment (Bolotova, 2018). The aims of the current research are two-fold. First, we explore the perception of and strategies to cope with abandonment in the Russian Arctic. Second, we look at the examples of abandoned sites commemoration by their former residents. The empirical evidence for the study is drawn from Vorkuta – a conglomerate of urban settlements in the Komi republic. At its peak, it comprised 16 settlements built around 13 coal mines, currently less than a half of these settlements are still habitable having severely shrunk in size. The data were obtained from a comprehensive analysis of various sources, such as planning documents, archival materials, expert and in-depth interviews (in person and via Skype), as well as non-participant observations carried out in January 2019.

What’s the use? Rethinking urban vacancy amidst Dublin’s housing crisis

Kathleen STOKES & Cian O’CALLAGHAN, Trinity College Dublin (Ireland)

The results of the 2016 census found 183,312 vacant homes in Ireland, a figure that included around 30,000 vacant homes across the four Dublin local authorities. While the Central Statistics Office indicated that this figure was a static rather than long-term measure, the ensuing political storm equated vacant properties with empty homes that could be used to solve Dublin’s burgeoning homelessness crisis. Amidst Dublin’s housing and homeless crisis, calls for affordable housing and fairer property markets have paralleled growing attention in urban housing and land vacancy. A spate of policy measures targeting vacancy have testified to the increased visibility of the ‘problem’ of urban vacancy in the post-crisis period. However, policy objectives construct vacancy within a simple dichotomy between space either ‘in use’ or ‘not in use’, therefore reproducing normative understandings that fail to acknowledge that such sites are always active, in property market formation and subject to ongoing ordering and management. As a riposte to these conceptualisations, this paper puts policy objectives and key measurements of urban vacancy in Dublin into dialogue with the critical literature on vacancy in urban and cultural geography (Ferreri & Vasudevan, 2019; Kitchin et al., 2014). We reflect on the limitations of normative understandings of urban vacant space in revealing the role of vacancy in capitalist cities and suggest that more critical assessments can unearth a multitude of urban processes pertaining to the ordering and management of such sites. This paper draws upon ongoing research in Dublin, which investigates underlying factors contributing to urban vacancy and questions how urban vacancy is identified, categorised and measured.

Empty buildings in the re-making: The case of the Hochhausscheiben A-E in Halle-Neustadt, Germany

Hendrikje ALPERMANN, Université de Lausanne (Switzerland)

Four of the five high-rise slabs Hochhausscheiben A-E in the centre of Halle-Neustadt are empty. And this for over 20 years. Between 2003 and 2016, the shrinking city of Halle reduced vacancy in Halle-Neustadt by half through demolition, enabled through the national program Stadtumbau Ost (Stadt Halle (Saale) 2017). In contrast to many other buildings in Halle-Neustadt in the beginning of the 2000s, the high-rise slabs were not chosen for demolition, but for endurance. But how can their endurance be ensured in the context of a shrinking city? While the buildings have been increasingly dilapidated since they have been abandoned in the late 1990s, a number of practices and relationships have prevented them from being demolished or renovated and contributed to their continuous life between life and death. Against what has been written on ruins in recent academic literature, the high-rises do not stand for a site of disruption (Buchli, 2013; DeSilvey; Endensor, 2012) or “the end of the world” (Pohl, 2020), but rather for a series of promised of renovations and postponed renovations. This turn towards practices and endurance allows us to reflect on techno-political modes of organizing urban change and emptiness. It will lead us to ask how agency and responsibility are distributed and enacted.

In Praise of Shutters: Hidden activity within Neepsend, Sheffield

Charlene Cross, Sheffield Hallam University (UK)

This presentation takes inspiration from the 1933 Japanese aesthetic essay ‘In Praise of Shadows’ by Junichiro Tanizaki, who made a case for accepting transience, flaws, patina, and shadows within in the built environment. ‘In Praise of Shutters’ draws attention to the shutters and fences of several ’empty’ buildings in Neepsend, Sheffield, to challenge the preconception that these are inert spaces. The images presented form part of a land use study that initially focused upon inert urban spaces, such as wastelands or seemingly empty buildings. However, as the study has progressed, no truly inert spaces have been found to date. Using narratology and a series of photographs taken in Neepsend between July 2020 and the present day, these images of physical boundaries entice curiosity within the onlooker. If the building is not derelict, what’s behind the fence? Walking past a warehouse, the shutters are up and metal work is underway. People heading to the food court across the road, which is made of shipping containers, pause to peep in. The next day, the shutters are down. To those not in the know, will they view the patina of the signage as an aesthetic remnant of the long forgotten past, rather than a marker that provides testament to their long established presence in the area?

Session 2 – Empty sites, re-use, utopia and other potentiality (11.00 – 12.40PM BST)

Rethinking Utopia: The Search for ‘Topias’ in the Paris Catacombs

Kevin BINGHAM, Sheffield Hallam University (UK)

Although the idea once had great influence, utopias have proven themselves to be unattainable. Therefore, rather than viewing utopia as an actual destination this paper will argue that belief in the existence of special places of perfection has been replaced by a faith in leisure. As it will be argued, it is the activity of ‘urbex’ that can turn ruins, abandoned places and vacant sites into something similar, albeit temporarily. With this is mind, the paper continues by drawing on the work of Peter Sloterdijk and Tony Blackshaw to accentuate the point that the good life is about inventing oneself through a process of self-creation that has been referred to as anthropotechnics. To unpack this standpoint, the paper examines how a group of urban explorers – people who explore man-made spaces that are generally inaccessible to the wider public – find various substitutes for utopia in the subterranean space of the Paris catacombs. As it is argued, forms of leisure such as ‘urbex’ emerge as ‘primary spheres’ of anthropotechnics that instigate the formation of intertwining and interpenetrating ‘topias’ which have been referred to here as ‘reterotopia’, ‘heterotopia’ and ‘scotopia’. Viewed independently of one another, these ‘topias’ refer to the way urban explorers’ experiment with space nostalgically, compensatorily and in a way that incites the five basic senses. As the paper reveals, each ‘topia’ plays an important part in allowing people to discover performativity, locate a sense of collective consciousness, feel intense pleasures and pains, and, above all, experience the euphoria of freedom.

“The dead are tugging at our backs”: exploring migrant life among the headstones of an abandoned cemetery in Tangier

Maria HAGAN, University of Cambridge (UK)

Renewed and intensified criminalisation of sub-Saharan Africans in the northern Moroccan borderlands since 2018 has made their spaces of shelter precarious and their access to accommodation, particularly in cities of the north, a perpetual struggle. Those seeking passage to Europe increasingly resort to life in concealed, abandoned urban spaces. This paper explores the socio-material ecologies of an abandoned Muslim graveyard in Tangier overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar and serving as a primary space of life for a group of young Cameroonian men. Drawing on 5 months of ethnographic fieldwork with the community in 2019 & 2020, this paper discusses how, concealed and lawless, this abandoned and decaying urban space operated as a rare negotiated space of presence and sociability for the community. Detailing practices of shelter construction between the headstones, the routine destruction of that shelter by authorities, and processes of camp reconstruction and renegotiation attempted by the graveyard’s inhabitants, the paper proposes an analysis of the liveliness of a deathscape in a context of urban hostility against the migrant body. It traces how the appropriation of this undesirable territory affected the men’s self-perception and influenced their space-claiming practices elsewhere; namely the establishment of a cemetery camp in another Moroccan city.

Fortifying the empty ruin: the nightwatchman, the artists, the trespassers and their antagonisms

Luke BENNETT Sheffield Hallam University (UK) [presenting];
Hayden LORIMER, Edward HOLLIS and Ruth OLDEN of University of Edinburgh (UK) [non-presenting]

The cabin is for use by the nightwatchman,
…who is employed by the security firm,
…that is contracted by the small arts company,
…to protect the now fortified ruin of the former seminary,
…which it hopes to take off the hands of the church,
…who desperately want shot of the whole damned place themselves,
…because of recreational trespass and the liabilities arising,
if only a viable model for transferring ownership can ever be found.

This is the premise for an illustrated piece of performed storytelling, and the predicament that it explores. The modern architectural ruin at its centre is a place of competing claims, and complex social dynamics created by the securitization of property. Lately, it has operated antagonistically, existing as an aggressive milieu. The presentation delves into the ruin’s complex relational ecology, introducing its protagonists, affects, spaces, encounters and events. Ultimately, its chief concern is with the architecture of lives as much as it is the lives of architecture. In particular, the presentation will focus upon how the precarious minimum-wage lifeworld of the nightwatchman, and his embodied relationship to this abandoned site, is both more elaborate and more sculpted by the active concerns of others who rarely appear in person on-site, than we might readily assume. The presentation reports on part of the collaborators’ 2017-2019 Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland funded study of attempts to manage and reactivate the modernist ruins of St Peter’s Seminary, Kilmahew, a few miles west of Glasgow. Bennett will present drawing upon Olden’s fieldwork, Lorimer and Hollis’ writings upon the site and Bennett’s reflections on the pressure of anxieties about vacant site ownership.

The elephant in the room?: a facilitated discussion about absent owners

Carolyn GIBBESON, Sheffield Hallam University (UK)

To what extent does scholarship on vacancy include an exploration of the motives and meaning-making of owners and their professional agents? Where mentioned do site owners only ever appear as cyphers for capital, striped of any attentiveness to their emotional labour? Does attempting to give analytical space or voice to owners and their motivations for vacancy risk loss of a Critical and/or progressive edge? This contribution will facilitate a discussion of these questions, by reflecting on the Session’s nine papers. It will open with a short presentation in which I will draw on my former experiences of working in the real estate sector as a property manager responsible for a variety of property types including vacant sites, and on my more recent doctoral research into the awkward interaction of developers’ and heritage professionals’ differing world-views and practice-logics. Through this I will consider how different groups of people within the built environment and academic sectors view each other to ask why owners are usually ignored despite their control over a site. I will then invite discussion on whether (and if so, how) a greater attentiveness to owner perspectives could augment studies of vacancy, and also tease out the particular difficulties that lie ahead for anyone trying to research owners’ creation and/or toleration of vacancy, whether as profit-maximising landbanking or for more prosaic reasons.

Image credit: Author’s photograph, St Peter’s Seminary, Kilmahew, Cardross, Scotland, Oct 2017.

Quiet bubbling: observing the silent co-existence of co-workers on building sites

“The ways in which bodies move through, inhabit and occupy space on a construction site (and elsewhere) rely on both conscious and deliberate acts and on an array of taken-for-granted, unintentional modes of being.”

Dawn Lyon (2013) ‘The labour of refurbishment: the building and body in space and time’ in Pink, Tutt & Dainty (eds) Ethnographic Research in the Construction Industry. Abingdon: Routledge, p35.

This photograph is a rarity. Other than a certain quirkiness (the doubling, of the doubled-over faceless pose) there is nothing of aesthetic value about this image, but it has got me hooked because it depicts a type of working that is actually very hard to find in visual depictions of building sites. Try it: a Google of ‘construction site’ finds either:

– a site devoid of people;

– a site populated by a group of workers or visitors who are all clearly engaged in a collective task; or

– a site view in which only one, task-absorbed, worker is visible

What captivates me about this picture is that it almost depicts a reality that hardly ever appears in published construction site photographs, but yet which is likely to be the glimpsed experience of any passer-by as they encounter their local building site. The under-acknowledged reality is that of the co-existence of multiple-but-separate activities.

Now, I say ‘almost’ above because these two workers seem to both be working on setting out the reinforcement shell for a concrete slab that is about to be poured. In that sense they have a common purpose – they are both acting upon the same task. Ultimately, it could be argued that all co-workers on a construction site are engaged in the same overarching task (the making of the building) even if one is doing brickwork, one is tiling, and another is laying cables. But as that sentence suggests, at the sub-project level each of those three workers is working on a separate task, one that has its own rhythms, reasons and ways of doing.

Wandering through a live building site (particularly after the structural work has been done) is to walk through a hive of individual projects, and to step awkwardly in and out of individual territorial bubbles of temporarily claimed space. Here, each worker has set themselves up in their part of the partly-formed place, in order to then set to work.  And in doing so they have formed their own little sphere of activity – a micro-territory of which they have possession, and they signal that territorial claim in subtle but clear ways, via the spreading out of tools, the playing of music or the laying out of signage. This way of taking a temporary claim to space is picked up ‘on the job’. At college there was no ‘how to claim space’ lecture aimed at cultivating proficiency in individual bubble-making. Yes, there would have been some sessions on how a contractor’s organisation acting as a multi-person organism might ‘take possession’ of a site, and in infrastructure (for instance rail transport) there are complex rules of taking possession of tracks, pipes or cables, but nothing at the level of the individual.

In such situations – where safety risks are otherwise high – the rules of temporary space-possession are made explicit. Thus, to enter the railway line or to descend the mineshaft a unique physical token must be presented. Failure to offer-up that token means that possession of that space cannot be claimed, because possession of the token ‘proves’ an entitlement to enter and the space’s presently unoccupied status. Meanwhile permission to enter confined spaces or to carry out hazardous operations in a particular area may be governed by a paper-trail, the ‘permit-to-work’: no permit, no entry and no work. But in the vast majority of circumstances there is no token, there is no permit, there is no negotiation. Instead, by convention and subtle cues, individual task-bubbles form and fade, and the individuals within them quietly work out how to co-exist alongside others.

This silent space-possession activity is also evident (in everyday experience, but not in photographs) in domestic environments. Think about the last time you “had the builders in” – what did they do to mark out your territory as temporarily theirs? How did they subdivide your space down into an array of individual bubbles of occupancy? And how they negotiate the interaction between these individual bubbles with you, and with their workmates?

I had the experience of co-habiting with a plasterer and his ‘mate’ in my own home last week: and it got me thinking about the above, because the way that the mate set up for his ceiling pulling-down task was so different to that of the plasterer who came a few days later. Where one focussed on simply taking space and keeping to himself (thereby emphasising the separation of his work bubble from the rest of the house), the other was far more deliberative and verbal, frequently asking permission and informing me of his intentions in order to check and define the way that his and my bubbles would interact during his residency. In the end it was the over-elaboration of these normally silent territorial co-habitational rituals that brought the whole thing into focus, making me think of the verbal and visual silence that usually cloaks the proximity of separate co-habitation.

Image source: commercialconcretedenver.com

People in Property 2021: reflections on our series of four online panels exploring architecture’s shadow identity as real estate

“The market, technology, taste and fashion play their part in the making of obsolescence. They do so through architecture’s shadow identity as real estate.”

Cairns, S. & Jacobs, J.M. (2017) Buildings Must Die: A Perverse View of Architecture. MIT Press, p.103

I don’t usually post about my teaching role. In the daytime I’m course leader for Sheffield Hallam University’s BSc Real Estate course. This draws on my practical / professional side and that isn’t really what this blog is for. But, partly because it’s consumed the best part of the last six weeks setting this up, and partly because it serves no-one well to perpetuate rigid distinctions between an unequivocally virtuous urbanism and a irredeemably dastardly real estate sector I’m offering up this reflection of our series of events.

The idea for the sessions – unsurprisingly – springs from our forced embrace of video-conferencing. That which was written off as a very poor substitute for the ‘in the flesh’ benefits of face to face meeting and conferencing has become the new normal over the last 12 months, and its has certain benefits too. Pulling together a total of 30 former SHU Real Estate students (and other industry contacts) from around the world would have been near-impossible if attempted the ‘old way’. But through Zoom it became very do-able and felt like an opportunity not to be missed. Also, we were very conscious that normally our students would be getting out on field trips and meeting professionals and touring their sites. But that’s not been possible this year.

So, we thought we’d use our networks, and this new techo-reality and bring that world to our students. When I thought up the events, my focus was probably on how the panellists could tell our students about the projects they were working on and give them a virtual sense of the physicality of their sites. But something made me opt for a series title of ‘People in Property’ (it may simply have been the alliteration that hooked me). But actually – looking back on the events – it is the way in which the sessions gave access to these real estate professionals as people that has been the project’s best value.

The exigencies of ‘broadcasting’ from your spare bedroom and trying to make intelligible to an unseen viewer what has driven your career, forced an openness and honesty that makes each of the encounters surprisingly intimate.

Many of the panellists described real estate as being ‘about people’ – and by extension about communication, interaction and trying to anticipate how people are going to want to associate (at home, work in their leisure) in the post-covid future. None of the panellists chose to speak about buildings per se, instead they invariably spoke about processes involving the interaction of people. Clearly interaction isn’t always harmonious, all projects engender conflict, compromise and a degree of competition. But all of that acts out in an arena of people, and is shaped by our collective notions of progress, value, community and lifestyle. And the panellists were (perhaps surprisingly) very open about consensus-building, as key to moving their careers, projects and communities forwards.

There are many rich career insights for our real estate students in these videos, but perhaps there is something of wider relevance too. I think there is a sense of real estate professionals as people – people in property – people who are acting in and upon the physical world, and who individually and collectively have a variety of hopes, dreams, fears, motivations, practices and logics. Yet, it is much more conventional to write of such things for architects. These videos give a glimpse of the human face of architecture’s shadow identity: real estate.

Coming out of confinement: reflections on the SHU SPG online session on dwelling in the time of COVID-19.


“In our local woods the Hipsters have taken over from the Gangsters”

(A comment raised by Geraint Owen during this session.)

Sheffield Hallam University’s Space and Place Group held its 2020 conference online yesterday – focussing upon the theme of the COVID-19 lockdown and how it has affected our sense of dwelling. A video recording of the full two hour session is available here (the password is: 4J=15J7n), and is now also embedded below:

Details of the event, including abstracts for the five presentations are set out in my previous blog. But here I offer up some reflections on key themes that struck me from each presentation (both as raised by the presenter and which emerged in each follow on Q&A). This isn’t an exhausted list, more of a teaser to see what treats await in the recording.

I chaired the session, and arranged the presentations in a sequence of scales – we started within the intimate spaces of the confined domestic dwelling, then travelled out into the experiences of a neighbourhood, onward into the indoor/outdoor relationship of individuals and social groups to the ‘great outdoors’ and rounded off considering the techno-social architectures that have underlain (and been mutated by) our recent confinement.

So, those thoughts…

>>Einräumen<< Making room within rooms: Thinking-at home/Furnishing-the-universe, Hester Reeve, Art & Design, SHU

Hester’s visual essay emphasised the intimate stillness and silence of everyday objects around her home. I was struck by how each item often contained (or otherwise bounded) another. Everything within the home was nested, and also indicative of unspoken domestic rituals. These rituals are at the very heart of our dwelling. And being stuck in our homes, our relationships with these things around us and these sedimented ways of doing are our both our comfort and our confinement (and each item a potential trigger to comfort or discomfort dependent upon setting, arrangement and context). Drawing from Heidegger’s Hester’s concern is with ‘things at hand’ – the way in which our bodies extend into and connect with these everyday tools. We arrange and order them to our needs, but they also feed back into us. The COVID-19 confinement has made us more explicitly attuned to all sorts of mundane artefacts and their heightened significance as means of hygiene, self-presentation, symbolic reminders of others to whom connection has been temporarily lost.

The Fitties: Plotland in Lockdown Harriet Tarlo, Department of Humanities, SHU & Judith Tucker, Art & Design, University of Leeds

Harriet and Judith presented an atmospheric depiction of life on the Fitties plotland, weaving in the voices and images of local residents as they have striven to adjust themselves to the lockdown, and also to find ways to (try to) keep at a safe distance those drawn as visitors to their coastal landscape. The presentation was filled with feelings that showed richness through their lack of singularity: ‘My life is really small now. Small and quiet’. ‘I don’t have the energy I did’. ‘The sky is bluer’. ‘Police put tape over the gate’. ‘irresponsible people’. ‘Go away’. ‘They miss their family’. ‘we need a shop’ ‘we’re more vulnerable because we’re remote’. This account showed the complexity of finding that balance between good humour and frustration in such circumstances. Judith’s paintings and Harriet’s poetry were evocatively woven into this account, showing how the arts and humanities can ‘do’ social research, capturing a mood and conveying it to an audience. Harriet and Judith were keen to point out that the residents are not wistful – they are embedded in their own hopes and fears for the future. As they were prior to the lockdown. But lockdown brings on as many hopes for a future (and possible new ways of dwelling there) as it does a craving for pre-confinement modes of dwelling there. Getting back to normal is complex, dynamic, as much about possible futures as about the past.

Accidental insights into confinement – stories of nature in the city from people with mental health difficulties. Jo Birch, Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Sheffield.

With Jo’s presentation we continued to move across from an arts perspective into the social science. Jo showed how creativity-based research informed her role within a study of how a wide variety of people actually do (or don’t) engage with the ‘outdoors’ and what they need and/or take from those encounters. Through specifically focussing on the experiences of people with mental health difficulties, Jo was able to show the diversity of that need and use, and she pointed out that the dominant discourse of “nature is good for you”, can itself cause difficulties for some people: wind may worry, open space may seem mundane and oppressively shapeless and limitless. Studying engagements with nature by people with mental illness perhaps makes the extremities of reaction clearer to see, but this is only a question of degree. We all have individual needs, and likely complex attunements to the various places that make up our worlds. A questioner echoed this by flagging that they new of people who feel guilty about not enjoying being out in the sunshine (or don’t enjoy being out at all). Dominant views judge these people’s preferences to be self-limiting or damaged in some way. If someone finds their solace within the comfort of their home, why should this be seen as less valuable than “hugging a tree”? Jo emphasised the active – take what you need – aspect to engagements with place. People imagine themselves into space, they augment and play with it, in order to made it helpful for them. Social science-based research doesn’t always know how to acknowledge this subjectivity. Jo productively applied her pre-COVID19 research to the circumstances of the lockdown, showing how the outside perhaps became even more a feature of desire or aversion due to the effects of nature-distancing caused by the constraints of lockdown.

Joy Unconfined? The (un)social life of urban green spaces, Julian Dobson, Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Sheffield.

Julian’s presentation picked up where Jo’s ended – taking us pictorially into Sheffield’s empty parks and rural fringe spaces during lockdown, finding there improvised totems of territoriality and anxiety, such as a sign on a farm gate: “This is our home. Go away”. Julian pointed to the parallel between Lefebvre’s articulation of a “right to the city” and the newly raised political contestation of urban parks and countryside fields. The terms of lockdown made strong assumptions about what recreational use should be like during lockdown – focussing upon a purposeful ‘keep fit by moving’ agenda. Meanwhile lingering became malingering. To stop moving was to break the rule. To sunbathe or to enter playgrounds was forbidden. Julian also took us into the immediate present: the last fortnight has seen the sudden (partial) relaxation of lockdown. The Government (in England at least) is trying to encourage us to leave our homes. To sit or lie in parks is now allowed. And to travel further afield for recreation is permissible. But whilst non-essential shops and commercial leisure venues remain closed, parks and city-fringe fields are the only place now ‘open’ for (any kind of) leisure. And (as was revealed in discussion) different groups regard the newly arrived appearance of other users with suspicion. Do these (new) people know how to acceptably use these spaces, are they only here because the Mall is shut? Such debate is laden with assumptions by one tribe about another. There is a battle, to find a new normal (a new balance) in these suddenly occupiable spaces. What does spatial justice (equity of access and use) actually look like, who should define it, and for what purposes?

COVID-19 Lockdown: a perfect storm of Geo-datafication, Joan Ramon Rodriguez-Amat, Media Arts and Communication, SHU

As our final presenter Mon took us to the outer reaches of our journey across the scales of confinement. His perspective was a global one – presenting us with the fundamental question of how our underlying architecture of dwelling has been affected by COVID-19. Mon showed us how much of modern life is now underpinned by the internet. We simply could not have the confinement that we are currently in without this digital transformation. However, he was keen to point out the fallacies of our viewing the digital revolution as either without social consequence, or as a harmless dematerialisation. The internet depends upon energy- and metals- hungry infrastructure. Every Zoom meeting that we attend is enabled by physical systems, just as everything we order for home delivery is dependent upon citizens who (unlike the privileged e-workers sequestered in their homes) have to remain physically active within the ‘real’ economy and its logistical spaces. Our move online therefore has a footprint (both now and for the future). Our way of working may well have changed through our experience of confinement – and if it has then more cables, more server farms, more rare earth metals will need to be laid, made or mined. He pointed out how we have not even started to ask the kind of questions that – in his view – we really need to. Who will own the COVID-19 tracking data? To what purposes will it be put by governments and/or corporations? What have we been using the internet mostly for during confinement (watching lots more porn it seems according to data that Mon showed us). Mon’s presentation and its maps of data flows and digital infrastructure presented an interesting counterpoint to the incessant COVID-19 maps and graphics presented on news shows on a daily basis. During confinement both the virus and data have been circulating and evolving. Both have affected our ways of dwelling. But perhaps the changes in our digital lives will have the longest running effects.
Picture credit: conference screen grab by @laylagdesign

And with thanks to Charlene Cross for note taking during the session

The Greater Confinement: Survival Cells, the Survival City and how COVID-19 evolves protective sequestration

“Although cities and city dwellers are vulnerable to assaults on their biotope, however crude or sophisticated, they are resilient and not easily wiped from the map. The defensive reflex that has beset the Western world, including Europe, in recent years merits some critical scrutiny. Historically, it is by no means a unique phenomenon. We may view the current syndrome in the light of the earliest attempts at national risk management, namely the defensive measures taken against air raids and when we do so, a striking continuity emerges.”
Koos Bosma (2012) Shelter City, p. 7.

fal out
The Cellar

Do you remember the rain? In February this year, at the height of this winter’s heavy downpours, I stood in a dark, dank cellar ankle deep in water. An emergency pump had cleared most of the floodwater accumulated there. But as we started to pack up, the water level slowly started to rise again. Then I saw it, bubbling, over at the base of one of the subterranean walls: a small steady trickle.

We gave up and called in a damp specialist. And he diagnosed the Second World War as the likely reason for this insistent water ingress. The cellar, he explained, would have been the best place in the house to hide from falling bombs. But it would also have been an especially deadly place: a tomb in the event of a bomb’s direct hit. So, as a precaution against entombment, residents commonly knocked an escape passage through into their neighbour’s cellar.

After the war, when the desire for territorial integrity of the home reasserted itself, such passages were quickly filled in. But the rough rubble fill material would have left voids, and this was how the water was finding its preferential pathway into the cellar.

Survival Cell

In the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown this prosaic encounter with past sheltering and its womb/tomb duality got me thinking about how across history we see home confinement (or ‘protective sequestration’ as it is styled in contemporary public health discourse) operating as a base unit of action: as what Silvia Berger Ziauddin has styled a bio-political “survival cell”. In her 2017 article on the Swiss authorities’ (not entirely successful) attempt to foster a culture of sheltering from nuclear attack within each household, she shows how even in a country where the apparatus of the state (and all associated building ordinances) were geared towards ensuring that every new house or apartment was built with a fall out shelter, attempts to ensure preparedness and respectful maintenance of these facilities increasingly faltered as time went on (and no attack came). These purpose-built shelter-rooms instead became absorbed into the ‘peacetime’ household practices and/or subverted for illicit uses. Thus, neither physically creating these special rooms, nor attempts to impose respectful and prepared norms for them seemed to have worked.

But, Berger Ziauddin’s work is helpful in identifying this attempt by the Swiss authorities to fix the home, and the family unit, as the scale, or unit of action. What the policy did above all was to repurpose the home as potential shelter. We see something similar in Shapiro & Bird-David’s 2017 study of Israeli mamad rooms (domestic bomb shelters), and in studies of US Cold War shelter policy and culture (of which there are quite a few, including Rose (2001)).

We also find it in UK guidance on nuclear sheltering – think of Protect and Survive (written 1976; published 1980) and its focus on adapting suitable spaces within the home, to make an inner refuge from dismantled doors, sandbags and suchlike.


Then jump back in time to the 1950s.

The Hydrogen Bomb (1957), HMSO

Or the 1940s – in each era their air raid guidance is emphasising the shelter-taking potential of the home, and of the importance of withdrawal into its protective depths.

Survival City

But this image of the enclosed, self-contained survival cell is a myth. First because a survival cell cannot ever be fully self-contained and secondly because there is nothing necessarily benign about its enclosure. Its comforts are also not equally available to all.
A survival cell exists (can only exist) within a system of relations stretching across time and space. Take current COVID-19 isolation: the ability to withdraw depends (for most) upon others’ continuing to make and deliver power, water, sewerage, food. Those who shelter are dependent upon others who do not, and the infrastructural systems that sustain (and collectivise) individual life. Here we start to glimpse survival cells as necessarily interconnected (just as my cellar was with my neighbours) and forming a network, and it is the network that is truly the author of survival. Thus we witness what Bosma (2012) has (also in the context of Second World War air raid sheltering) termed “Shelter City” – sheltering as a collaborative urban infrastructural project, in which the city (acting as a defensive organism) is the real base unit of survival.

As I encountered in my cellar. A shelter without an assured means of escape is a tomb. Just as a home can be made a place of protection, so can it be made a place of confinement: the walls of a home just as easily be made into a prison. In short, a shelter cannot shelter unless it connects to life-sustaining networks that extend beyond its walls.

Protective Sequestration.

As an organism, the city seeks to perpetuate human life in general (i.e. society). Its survival instinct can see the home become a containment vessel. But the oddity of the COVID-19 situation is that it is both the healthy and the sick who are sequestered at home. Looking back at previous outbreaks, it has more often tended to be the infected who have found themselves in confinement in their homes. Thus, as Newman (2012) shows, the Plague Orders deployed in the 16th and 17th centuries in the UK saw the forced quarantine of infected households by ‘shutting up’ whole families for a period of 40 days. The rules provided for provision of a live-in nurse and food (for the poor) – and a guard outside to make sure that the confinement was enforced. No one could leave the ‘shut-up’ houses (for any reason) until the infection there had run its course.

As Moote and Moote (2004) show, following the Great Plague (which centred around London in 1665), the practice of forced whole-family house confinement started to fade, and the idea of taking the sick into purpose-built places of isolation and treatment gathered relative force. Such places had existed at a rudimentary level since the Middle Ages. During the Crusades, isolation camps for pilgrims infected by leprosy had been created in Mediterranean islands. In Italy this provision had progressed to ornate Lazarettos (proto-isolation hospitals). But in England this sophistication had not been attained, instead ad hoc, and small-scale pesthouses were sometimes established on a local basis in the face of infectious outbreaks. Pesthouses were often little more than shacks at the edge of a settlement, either left to fall into dereliction following an outbreak or systematically erased from the urban scene.

In the 19th century more institutionalised and long-standing forms of confinement of the infectious were arranged by municipal authorities: first workhouses then isolation hospitals (for diseases like typhoid, tuberculosis and scarlet fever). Mooney (2015) notes that by 1914, in the wake of the construction boom sparked by the Isolation Hospitals Act 1893 (which permitted local Boards of Health to raise funding), 755 isolation hospitals had been constructed in England, usually in remote locations, providing 32,000 beds. This trend towards evacuation of the sick, and the mad, the poor and the deviant from the places and spaces of everyday society to purpose-built places of separation, has been termed by Foucault “the great confinement”. Foucault locates the coding of those exclusionary practices as originating in (ultimately) the Old Testament’s banishment of lepers, to live “outside the camp” (Leviticus 13:46).

The Greater Confinement

To return to the home as the declared unit of survival in this present crisis feels both strange and familiar.

Berger Ziauddin’s analysis shows that the roots of the Swiss authorities’ failure to successfully colonise and condition a portion of the Swiss home as a place of ritual transition to an apocalyptic counter-reality ultimately failed because that feared state of play never happened. It was ritualistically practiced for, but with time passing it came to be taken less seriously and its grip on the domestic rituals faded. The integral bunker-in-the-basement simply became assimilated into everyday domesticity as a spare room. But the sudden COVID-19 confinement around the world, works in the opposite direction. It appropriates standard domestic space and renders it the focal point of a fight for survival. And the novelty of this bad dream is that it has actually happened, and that it came upon us with relatively little prehension or ritualised practice drills. The place-appropriating spell of “Stay Home. Saves Lives. Protect the NHS” was cast (almost) overnight.


To a UK audience the bunker/stay at home parallels might seem a little far-fetched – because we lack more recent cultural cues by which to analyse confinement at home. (Fortunately) we have no culture of “house arrest” or curfew, nor do we have a discourse of emergency management which has sought to frame hiding at home as a claimed imperative of “homeland security”. In contrast, in the US, civil contingencies planning – in the wake of school shootings and terrorist attacks – has come to prominently define two forms of shelter-taking: the “lock down” and “shelter in place”. A lock down defines a situation in which in the face of a local violent aggressor a place is sealed so that that danger cannot spread. Faced with that possibility school children faced with a prospect of being locked inside their school, are trained how to hide within a normally familiar and nurturing environment which may one day turn hostile. Meanwhile, “shelter in place” usually describes a response to an environmental danger (a tornado or a chemical spill). Here the aim is to adapt the building in which you find yourself into a protective shell within which to escape from the outside world and its marauding threats (by, for example, sealing windows to keep poisoned air out).


But in the context of the COVID-19 confinement language has evolved: “shelter in place” has now been adopted by the US media as a convenient short-hand by which to describe protective sequestration of the healthy. New York New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, has criticised this migration of language, arguing that “words matter” (Opam 2020) and that talk of shelter-in-place unhelpfully evokes images of active shooters and nuclear war. In contrast he chose to style New York City’s confinement measures using the infrastructural metaphor of “closing the valve”, emphasising (in effect) that protective confinement is a survival city measure, a contribution to a collective (and connected) response, rather than declaration of a everyone-for-themselves atomised foregrounding of individualised domestic survival cells.

Conclusion: The Greater Confinement

The contemporary crisis – the greater confinement – in which we find ourselves appears by turns to both to isolate us and to emphasise to us the social interconnections upon which any individual act of withdrawal actually depends. The greater confinement is only possible in a society that embodies surplus, and which is sufficiently automated and telecommunicated to enable the work of social coordination to be exercisable from within the confines of (remotely connected) survival cells. In most prior societies majority protective sequestration would have been logistically impossible. But the greater confinement still depends upon a fraction of the population being prepared (or forced by circumstances) to provide material circulation of goods and essential services between the sheltering majority.

The greater confinement also – if we scratch the surface – reveals timeless inequalities that lie within any era of sheltering. We are not (as the slogan would have it) “in this together”, if by that we mean “in this equally”. To have control over whether and where you are sequestered depends upon your resources and social connections. And it was ever thus: Newman (2012) shows how being Shut Up in a plague year was more likely a fate of the poor and the ‘middling’ classes, because the rich could afford to flee to the country (or to relocate to another of their houses). Meanwhile, Mooney flags how, 250 years later, the poor were more likely to be removed to an Isolation Hospital because their homes were viewed as too small and overcrowded to enable safe home-confinement of the infectious sick, the rich and well-connected had other options.

Over the weeks, months, years ahead we will search for ways to understand “what just happened” and what it has revealed to us as individual survivors and as social beings. My invoking parallels (and discontinuities) with bunker studies, and that form of urban sheltering,  is but one way to start to think through the new domestic uncanny.



Berger Ziauddin, Silvia (2016) ‘(De)Territorializing the home: the nuclear bomb shelter as a malleable site of passage.’ Environment & Planning D: Society and Space, 35(4) 674-693.

Bosma, Koos (2012) Shelter City: Protecting citizens against air raids. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Moote, A. Lloyd & Moote, Dorothy C. (2004) The Great Plague: the story of London’s most deadly year. London: The John Hopkins University Press.

Mooney, Graham (2015) Intrusive Investigations: Public health, domestic space and infectious disease surveillance in England 1840-1914. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester University Press.

Newman, Kira L. S. (2012) ‘Shutt Up: Bubonic Plague and Quarantine in Early Modern England’, Journal of Social History, 45(3) 809-834.

Opam, Kwame (2020) ‘It’s not ‘Shelter in Place’: what the New Coronavirus Restrictions Mean’, The New York Times, 24 March. https://www.nytimes.com/article/what-is-shelter-in-place-coronavirus.html

Rose, Kenneth (2001) One Nation Underground: The fallout shelter in American culture. New York: New York University Press.

Shapiro, Matan & Bord-David, Nurit (2017) ‘Routinergency: Domestic securitization in contemporary Israel’, Environment & Planning D: Society & Space, 35(4) 637-655.

HMSO; https://www.horton-park.co.uk/; http://www.shutterstock.com; https://www.bl.uk/learning/images/uk/plague/large8122.html

Is the past always another country? Reflections on the 1832 Cholera outbreak in the light of COVID-19


“Much, however, may be done, even in these difficult circumstances, by following the same principles of prudence, and by avoiding all unnecessary communication with the public out of doors; all articles of food, or other necessaries required by the family, should be placed in front of the house, after the person delivering them shall have retired.”

Paragraph 8 of the Privy Council announcement of the Board of Health’s rules and regulations made for the purpose of preventing the introduction and spreading of Cholera Morbus, 20 October 1831 (as reported in the London Gazette, 21 October 1831 p.2160)

We’re all presently socially-distanced, yet at the same time strangely brought together through a shared sense of adversity. Social media feeds are proliferating with suggestions of what to do to distract cooped-up children and adults. We’re all craving things to do and to think about which will give us reprise from the fundamentally uncertain situation that we all now find ourselves in.

Like everyone, I need sanity breaks away from thinking about Coronavirus. But also, I need something to chew on. Maybe its schadenfreude but I find I can take some strange, re-grounding and perspective-giving, comfort from reading about other pandemics and how society has been challenged by them. Perhaps it is their greater scale that comforts me, but maybe it’s also the fact that I’m reading about the past – and that therefore I’m reading about something once feared to be an existential threat to society, which was eventually overcome.

I’ve been reading into the circumstances of the UK’s 1831-32 Cholera outbreak and thinking about how individual citizens made sense of what was coming towards them, why it was happening and what to do about it. This journey is taking me to history books and also contemporary documents, particularly local newspapers, memoirs and government circulars through which I’m witnessing the birth of UK public health legislation.

Some of the ways of seeing the world that I’m encountering in these materials seem strange to modern sensibilities – with much talk of the power of prayer, the curative powers of brandy, the importance of keeping feet dry and loins warmly bound. There are also copious tracts on the dangers of immoderate eating, for example (the seemingly unhealthy, from our point of view) advice for all to abstain from:

“…fruit of all kinds, though ripe and even cooked, and whether dried or preserved. The most wholesome articles of vegetable diet are, well baked, but not new bread, rice, oatmeal and good potatoes. Pickles should be avoided…the diet should be solid rather than fluid: and those who have the means of choosing, should live principally on animal food…great moderation both in food and drink is absolutely essential to safety during the whole duration of the epidemic period.” (General Board of Health, 5 October 1848 Notification regarding the Nuisances Removal & Diseases Prevention Act 1848, as published in the London Gazette, 6 October 1848, p.3616)

But on the other hand much is bizarrely familiar. The state’s reaction to the spread of the Cholera virus westward across Europe was tentative. Naval quarantine measures were employed first, and then once the first cases appeared in Sunderland in the Autumn of 1831 the Government started to take steps to put in place a national requirement for Local Boards of Health to be established, and for the attendant surveillance and confinement of suspected and confirmed cases. The political establishment’s prevailing laissez faire attitude was somewhat suspended, with (temporary) introduction of free medical care for Cholera patients, funding for infection-related cleansing and plenty of nudge-like, semi-mandatory urgings that the public should in their own, and also in wider society’s best interest, become more immoderate in their social interaction.

Much of the base framework of UK medico-legal public health governance was forged in the exigencies of the 1831-32 outbreak. Whilst these were temporary measures (and lapsed once the outbreak ended) they set a precedent for a series of public health controls which were revived (temporarily) for future cholera outbreaks during the Victorian era, and which then became embedded as permanent (though rarely used) features of the statute book. For example, the statutory nuisances provisions nowadays to be found in the Environmental Protection Act 1990, and their now prosaic-seeming concern with tackling (for examples) “accumulations and deposits” thought to be “prejudicial to health or a nuisance” first appeared in the emergency powers enacted in the Cholera Prevention Act 1832, and had thereafter been revived temporarily in a series of Nuisance Removal Acts (in the 1840s) before they were rendered permanent via a series of Public Health Acts stretching through into the 1960s. After this, the whole field became rebranded as “Environmental Health”, and was thereafter subsumed within “Environmental Protection”.

Anyway, this (rather arid and technical) example of the continued legacy of the 1831-32 outbreak is but one lingering effect. I’m interested in how – more broadly – an outbreak nearly 200 years ago acts across time to shape how we think about and manage urban living today, and whether in ‘normal’ and in ‘exceptional’ times. Many (particularly in the 1960s and 1970s) have written this story from the point of view of sanitary reform (principally the rise of urban sewerage), using it as an exemplar of Modernist/Welfarist social progress. But this story, re-examined from the vantage of our less confident times, would make for an interesting re-telling – unpacking issues of urban memory, everyday and exceptional imaginaries, human-material relations and of the perception, communication and management of risk and uncertainty.

For now, lets close with the spookily apposite words of Robert Morris, writing in the introduction to his incisive 1976 book, Cholera 1832: The Social Response to an Epidemic (New York: Holmes & Meier). In reading the following, what strikes me is that pretty much everything that he is saying about the importance of understanding the lifeworld of those facing that outbreak, applies equally to our current situation. Morris starts by commenting upon studies of public reaction to natural disasters carried out in the 1950s and 60s (as part of planning for nuclear war):

“Panic was rare [in those studies] but the response these communities made to the shock or threat of disruption often revealed more of their working and values than a study of a normal situation could have done. The processes which normally allocated resources and maintained stability were seen reacting rapidly to a new situation. Individuals and groups revealed much about their scale of values because they had to make rapid choices between social claims which in normal times would never have come into conflict. Most studies revealed the prime claim which family had over work, friends and entertainment. Cholera was a creeping disaster so reaction was a little more studied and circumspect than reactions to a sudden impact disaster, but the manner in which it demanded attention and comment gave cholera the ability to reveal values, patterns of thought, patterns of social relationships and ways of allocating resources in the same way as a more sudden crisis.” (1976: 18)

He then continues:

“The reactions of groups and individuals were influences by their available resources and experience as well as by their values and expectations. Each situation tended to find the population divided into two groups, those with power and resources and those without. Those with power expected to take action against cholera. Those without were the likely victims. Each had a choice of action, quarantine, cleansing, medical provision, prayer or just doing nothing on the other. Values emerged in choices between life and property, between work and safety, between charitable action and governmental agencies. The resources of each group included material wealth, the value of their labour in the market, their social authority and prestige, their administrative and scientific skills and their technical ability. All these choices were influenced by the expectations which each group had of others, wage-earners of the medical profession, or of the local authority, and the administrator’s expectations of reactions to the circular he was drafting. These expectations were all based on past experience of the physical as well as social world”. (1976: 18-19)

Morris ends by pointing out that in 1832 Cholera acted as a lens, revealing to him the “morbid pathology” of British society as it stood in the early nineteenth century. Likewise, COVID-19 holds up a lens to contemporary British society. We need to be mindful of what our outbreak reveals about our lifeworld, and of how our actions and expectations in response to it will all similarly flow from our “past experience of the physical as well as social world”.

Image credit: New York City Sanatory Committee poster, 1849 https://www.nyhistory.org/exhibitions/plague-gotham-cholera-19th-century-new-york


What’s behind the fence? Exploring dead land and empty buildings – 10 paper session proposal submitted to RGS-IBG 2020 conference

See the source image

I’m delighted to announce that I’ve today submitted a proposal to the RGS for a 10 paper session investigating vacancy at the RGS-IBG Annual Conference, 1 – 4 Sept in London.

Under the title What’s behind the fence? Exploring dead land and empty buildings the session will seek to move beyond contemporary cultural geographies of wastelands and ruin-sites which tend to celebrate vacant spaces as a break from the ordering impulses of everyday normativities (Edensor 2005; DeSilvey & Edensor 2012). Keen to chronicle the ways in which wider human and more-than-human agencies are enabled in such sites, only incidental attention is ever given in these works to the continuation of a quiet custodianship of these sites by those who own, or who otherwise consider themselves responsible for them. Yet in a fleeting glimpse of a passing security guard patrol, coming across a patched perimeter fence or in the flickering of lighting served by a still-active electrical power supply, seemingly abandoned sites reveal themselves to be not quite as abandoned as they at first seemed. This conference session will open-up an attentiveness to the subtle, ongoing ordering and management of such sites, and whether by their owners or by opportunistic appropriators.

Taking a life-cycle approach, presenters will explore the stories and structures that have caused abandonment at both remote sites and those within the heart of otherwise active and occupied urban centres. They will tease out the logics of opportunistic appropriators (urban explorers, rough sleepers, ravers, artists, scrappers and scavengers), their notions of territoriality and of their own emergent normative codings devised for the shared use of abandoned places. The role of professional cultures and logics of urban set-aside and vacant site management will also be explored. In each case these readings of the motives, modes and meanings of vacancy will be attentive to the wider ecologies in which these sites and their actors are imbricated and of the important role of (positive or negative) place attachment in determining the speed at which a site is withdrawn from vacancy, or how it is maintained purposively in that state.

If accepted into the event programme the session will feature contributions by scholars from Switzerland, France, Russia, Ireland and the UK that will range across the following:

Investigating the lives of dead places

  •  Polphail: Scotland’s ghost village left abandoned in the wake of structural changes in the North Sea oil industry
  •  Vorkuta: 16 Arctic settlements built around now-defunct coal mines
  •  Dublin’s ghost estates and their ambiguous place in Dublin’s housing crisis
  •  Halle-Neustadt’s stubbornly enduring highrises, in a city that is trying to shrink

Methods of investigating vacancy

  •  How far can heritage archives shed light on prosaic phases of inactivity?
  •  Do we pay sufficient attention to what owners and developers think and do around vacancy?

Who are the occupants of empty places?

  •  Squatters, pop-ups and the interplay of DIY and institutionalised usage of wasteland sites in Paris and Glasgow
  •  Urban explorers motivations in accessing the Paris catacombs
  •  Inhabitation of a muslim graveyard in Tangier by Cameroonian migrants
  •  Tensions between guards, recreational trespassers, artists and institutional owners in the management of a Scottish modernist ruin.

I’ll post full abstracts here once the session has been adopted by the RGS.

Picture credit: St Peter’s Seminary, Cardross (near Glasgow) https://sites.eca.ed.ac.uk/fabricformedconcrete/workshops/surface-texture-and-light/st-peters-seminary-cardross/


CFP for RGS-IBG 2020: What’s behind the fence? Exploring the secret lives of ambivalent owners, dead land and empty buildings

Greenham Green Gate May 2018


RGS-IBG 2020 Annual International Conference, London 1 to 4 Sept 2020

Proposed Conference Session:

What’s behind the fence?: Exploring the secret lives of ambivalent owners, dead land and empty buildings

Contemporary cultural geographies of wastelands and ruin-sites tend to celebrate these vacant spaces as a break from the ordering impulses of everday normativities (Edensor 2005; DeSilvey & Edensor 2012). Keen to chronicle the ways in which wider human and more-than-human agencies are enabled in such sites, only incidental attention is ever given in these works to the continuation of a quiet custodianship of these sites by those who own, or who otherwise consider themselves responsible for them. Yet in a fleeting glimpse of a passing security guard patrol, coming across a patched perimeter fence or in the flickering of lighting served by a still-active electrical power supply, seemingly abandoned sites reveal themselves to be not quite as abandoned as they at first seemed.

For our conference session we seek to open-up an attentiveness to the subtle, ongoing ordering and management of such sites, and whether by their owners or by opportunistic appropriators. Reflecting ruin studies’ inherent multidisciplinarity we invite contributions whether theoretical, empirical or performative from across the social sciences, humanities and the arts that speak to this sense of abandonment being a purposive, active project – sometimes expressing an intentional “curated decay” (DeSilvey 2017) but more often revealing more conventional notions of a low-maintenance preservation of some, presently latent, utility or value for the future. We envisage that these contributions, and whether critical or managerial, could range across diverse aspects of the cultures and practices of vacancy, including:

  • Investigating the professional cultures and logics of urban set-aside and vacant site management
  • Comparative international perspectives to reveal the similarities and differences between attitudes to, and management of, vacancy
  • Measuring the effect of strength of place attachment by neighbours and former site occupants upon the extent of stigma and blight that a vacant site engenders
  • Ethnographic investigation of opportunistic appropriators (and whether urban explorers, rough sleepers, ravers, scrappers and scavengers), their notions of territoriality and of their own emergent normative codings devised for the shared use of abandoned places
  • Detailing the “naturecultures” (Haraway 2003) of weeds, overgrowth and the more-than-human ecologies of untended sites
  • Regulatory perception of dead land and empty buildings as “riskscapes” (Müller-Mahn and Everts 2013) by police, fire and rescue service, local authorities, insurers
  • Assessing the market for site fortification, in terms of the evolution of technologies and practices of territorialisation and bordering for abandoned sites
  • Exploring the legal dimensions of “property guardianship” and other emergent forms of vacant site defence and fortification
  • Appropriating the aesthetic affordances of fences, hoardings and other bordering strategies, and affecting how abandoned sites are separated from the explicitly occupied and active world around them.

Please send suggested abstracts for suggested 15 minute conference session contributions to Luke Bennett, Reader in Space, Place & Law at Sheffield Hallam University at l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk by Monday, 10 February 2020.


Image credit: Green Gate, former GAMA facility, Greenham Common, May 2018. Photograph by Phil Kokoszka.

Living beyond the limits of survival: five articles on ongoing cultural production in abandoned bunkers

Image result for polish bunker ants

“the wood-ant ‘colony’ described here – although superficially looking like a functioning colony with workers teeming on the surface of the mound – is rather an example of survival of a large amount of workers trapped within a hostile environment in total darkness, with constantly low temperatures and no ample supply of food. The continued survival of the ‘colony’ through the years is dependent on new workers falling in through the ventilation pipe [of this abandoned Cold War bunker]. The supplement of workers more than compensates for the mortality rate of workers such that through the years the bunker workforce has grown to the level of big, mature natural colonies.”

Czechowski W., Rutkowski T., Stephan W., Vepsäläinen K., (2016) ‘Living beyond the limits of survival: wood ants trapped in a gigantic pitfall’. Journal of Hymenoptera Research, 51, 227-239 at 237.

As previewed in last month’s blog post, all of the contributions to my guest-edited special issue of the Journal of War and Culture Studies are now available on the journal’s website [here]. The five papers (plus my extended editorial essay, portions of which were presented in last month’s blog post, and further extracts below) are all concerned with the after-life of Cold War bunkers, and particularly with the ways in which these obstinate places refuse to disappear, either from the space that they inhabit or from the cultural milieu that they still haunt. Like an automatic beacon faithfully continuing to transmit long after the ship has been abandoned, or in the survival instinct of a colony of ‘lost’ ants, the modes and means of abandoned bunkers endurance (and of life and meaning-making playing out within them) is subjected to analysis by the contributing – multidisciplinary – authors, with each interpreting this endurance as a form of ongoing cultural production.

Still alive: ongoing cultural production in the abandoned bunker

The Journal of War and Culture Studies’ aims include promoting exploration of the relationship between war and culture during conflict and in its aftermath, and examining the cultural production and circulation of both symbols and artefacts of conflict. Bunkers are very potent and enduring symbols and artefacts of conflict, which are deeply embedded in contemporary culture (Bennett 2011). To draw out this embeddedness, this special issue takes a very broad view of the bunker’s cultural production. As Raymond Williams (1983, 87-93) notes ‘culture’ is not a settled term. The contributors to this issue tend towards using the term in its anthropological sense – with cultural production thus here being regarded as the processes by which social groups produce shared meaning about abandoned bunkers, and whether that arises within small groups of enthusiastic bunker preservationists or across wider society via popular culture. Therefore, the narrow, elitist, sense of ‘culture’ promoted by Matthew Arnold (1960) as the production only of the fine arts is elided.

Additionally, the expression ‘cultural production’ is used here in a way intended to emphasise that that the generation, modification and circulation of cultural symbols and artefacts is always ongoing. Meanings evolve – therefore the cultural production of the bunker is not a one off, originating event. The meanings and uses of these places evolve over time, and in response to a variety of broadly societal trends (e.g. how bunkers are portrayed in popular fiction) and in how individual actors actively engage in a process of appropriation within the bunker, each projecting and inferring upon the bunker in accordance with the needs of their own purposes and practices. Thus Sean Kinnear portrays the variety of actors, motives, and resulting re-use schemes, brought about recently in four Scottish bunker sites. Meanwhile Phil Kokoszka and I investigate the medley of stakeholders and their entangled cultural logics at play in the stilted after-life of the former cruise missile bunkers at Greenham Common. Furthermore, the articles by Louise K. Wilson, and Becky Alexis-Martin, Michael Mulvihill and Kathrine Sandys, show how the phenomenological qualities of the abandoned bunkers appeal to them as artists, as largely ‘blank canvas’ sites which they can appropriate (albeit often only temporarily) and are used in their production of site-specific installation and performance works. Notably, Wilson – as an artist working mainly in the medium of sound – shows how the bunker can be valorised for its acoustic, as well as its visual, atmospherics. Matthew Flintham (also an artist) appropriates an even more unusual cultural feature of the abandoned bunker: its mould. In doing so he productively pushes the notion of cultural production to its extreme – for mould is a culture which replicates itself, taking hold within the bunker’s stale air. As Williams (1983, 87) notes, one of the earliest meanings of ‘culture’ is “the tending of natural growth”. Flintham’s then is a view of the more-than-human enculturing of the bunker – if the mould culture can be said to be self-tending of its own growth. Alternatively, a human cultivator or sorts can be identified in Flintham’s own semantic cultivation, his human valorisation of the mould’s bunker colonising expansion drives by subjecting it to meaning making, by rendering it aesthetic.

Survival cell: the bunker’s battle against entropy

Flintham seeks to show, through his attentiveness to these cultures of mould, that bunkers are ultimately ironic spaces. For within the heart of their hermetic isolation, decay and degeneration (as instances of the entropy – the drive towards loss or energy – that afflicts the eventual dissolution of all things), derelict bunkers are found to be generative, living places. Thus they are ironic because they are both hostile and habitable. Engineered originally as survival cells for humans, these places are now abandoned and inhospitable to their intended denizens. They have been rendered toxic to humans through the proliferation of these moulds and other entropic processes of decay. And yet, the mould, and those wider processes of change, are themselves a form of dynamic change – and if viewed in a wide frame of reference – signs of survival and endurance. In short, the bunker endures and has an existence (and cultures of sorts) even when fully abandoned. Flintham links his ruminations on the resilience of mould to the Cold War-era theorising of cybernetics, the science of distributed systems and self-organisation. Cold War theorising (and the art and fiction that Flintham identifies as influenced by this anxious milieu) was influenced by existential questions of how – and where – to best face-down the accelerated entropy to be witnessed in the face of a nuclear blast. And the best answer to that question was usually ‘the bunker’. Conceived as a sealed survival space intended to facilitate the autonomous survival of Cold War human bodies and other culture-preserving vessels of information, Flintham’s Cold War bunker is largely bereft of human life and apocalyptic scheming. But conflict and survival are both still enacted there, for the bunker is now host to daily battles of territorial expansion and defence waged between extremophiles deep inside this now hostile-to-human terrain.

Meanwhile, approaching decay and degeneration from a more avowedly human (and heritage preservation) standpoint Kinnear makes an impassioned plea for greater attentiveness to Scotland’s Cold War-era bunkers, presenting that call within the context of a narrative of loss (through sites falling victim to both material decay and unsympathetic redevelopment). He argues that increased attentiveness to the architectural significance of these places could spur their greater protection. However, Kokoszka and I show that setting out to save an iconic site may require more than protective heritage and land-use planning designations. We show how the interplay of drives for demilitarisation, heritage preservation and sustainable economic re-use have led to the Greenham Common cruise missile site being stuck in limbo (neither fully alive nor fully dead) since the site was sold off by the Ministry of Defence in 2003. Thus regulatory intervention may have slowed GAMA’s entropy but by no means has it been halted or reversed.

Still transmitting: the bunker’s ongoing resonance

Paul Virilio collaborator Sylvère Lotringer, writing in support of Virilio’s claim that the Atlantic Wall bunkers had a strong mnemonic resonance for him,  has recalled drawing up close to an abandoned Nazi bunker as a child, placing his ear upon its concrete flank and listening to hear the “roar of war still trapped inside” (Virilio & Lotringer 2003, 10). This depiction both acknowledges the distinctive acoustics of cavernous bunker-spaces, as the sound of waves echoes within them, and also their affective, mnemonic quality, whereby they trigger his memories of the war. It seems unlikely that Lotringer means us to take his statement literally (i.e. that the bunker itself somehow holds memories of the war independent of its human interlocutors), and Nadia Bartolini (2015) has recently argued persuasively against suggestions that bunkers themselves have a historical and/or militaristic essence which they store and transmit independent of the projections and inferences of particular visitors.

But certainly, the acoustic properties of bunker-spaces are affective, and can be utilised by artists and musicians in their work. Wilson shows how the distinctive acoustic signatures of sites like the domed Teufelsberg listening station in Berlin have been preserved digitally, such that the very distinctive reverb of that structure can be used as an ambient sound-shaping technique in the production of wholly unrelated sound recordings. Thus, an acoustic mapping of a bunker and its echo characteristics may outlast the site itself, its virtual form preserving and transmitting an aspect (but only an aspect) of the bunker’s being. Commenting upon the possibility of virtual preservation and/or recreation of long-lost bunkers Kinnear suggests that virtual recreations inevitably lose a quality that only the bunker itself can deliver – the affective charge of being there as a fully embodied visitor, picking up the musty smells and sense of confinement that Flintham also depicts in his explorations into the Torås mountain-bunker complex.

But to acknowledge these affective charges is not the same as believing that these places are haunted by their histories. Alexis-Martin, Mulvihill and Sandys note the affective charge of abandoned bunkers but conclude that the contemporary cultural interest in abandoned bunkers more rooted in their ‘blank space’ affordances – their semantic openness – than it is in any firmly determining past essence. They argue that abandoned bunker sites do not throw an obstinate military essence at any visitor. Indeed, Mulvihill finds that even when operational military sites may not seem very distinctive at all. Furthermore, Alexis-Martin reports that despite working daily within a former local government Cold War bunker, it was many months before she came to realise that the basement offices in which she was working had started life as a facility designed for nuclear war.

Alexis-Martin, Mulvihill and Sandys show how such places are increasingly sites of free-form play and projection rather than clear communion with an immovably encoded past. Kinnear would take issue with the desirability of such free-play and in his article argues for the importance of preserving (or sympathetically adapting) these structures as a way of retaining both their mnemonic connection to the Cold War past and to their distinctive atmospheres and taxonomic forms. For Kinnear taking the bunker former into the future requires a delicate balance to be struck between preserving the embodied mnemonic traces of the past and finding ways to bring about an enduring preservation via new-found uses. Kinnear believes that there is a resonance from these places – but it could be easily missed if not carefully sought out and protected. Meanwhile, Kokoszka and I find an ambivalence at the heart of attempts to find an enduring heritage status for the GAMA site at Greenham Common. On paper the site has a very strong claim to internationally significant heritage status, but we find heritage significance to be but one shaping influence in the battle for its after-life. The past, per se, is seemingly not an ultimate dead-hand controlling influence over even this iconic bunker site.

Meanwhile, Wilson shows us a second type of resonance – a cultural reverberation. She describes how anxiety about the heightened risk of nuclear war in the early 1980s insinuated itself into popular culture (and popular music in particular), often using bunkers as a motif. This conflation of nuclear anxiety, bunker-talk and new wave synth-pop has in the last decade seen a wry, nostalgic revival; a cultural production that merges a new-found attentiveness to the once-unattainable shelters with the lo-fi musical stylings of the early 1980s, by pop-ironicists such as Luke Haines. These ironic pop-cultural appropriations of the Cold War bunker are perhaps the most playful appropriations of all.


Luke Haines interviewed in 2015 about his British Nuclear Bunkers LP.


Image credit

Wojciech Czechowski (2016) photograph of the ant-trap bunker: an abandoned ammunition bunker (part of the ‘Special Object 3003 Templewo’ Soviet nuclear weapons complex, western Poland) via https://metro.co.uk/2019/11/05/cannibal-ants-escape-soviet-nuclear-weapons-bunker-11044125/


Arnold, M. 1960. Culture and anarchy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bartolini, N. 2015. ‘the politics of vibrant matter. Consistency, containment and the concrete of Mussolini’s bunker’. Journal of Material Culture, 20(2): 191-210.

Bennett, L. 2011. ‘The Bunker: metaphor, materiality and management’. Culture and Organization. 17(2): 155-173.

Virilio, P. and Lotringer, S. 2003.Crepuscular dawn. New York: Semiotext(e). Trans. Mike Taormina.

Williams, R. 1983. Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society. London: Fontana Press.

The bunker is dead, long live the bunker: announcing my forthcoming guest-edited special issue of the Journal of War and Culture Studies


Fig 4 - Cambridge RWR

“I try to escape, but the bunker keeps pulling me back in.”

Luke Bennett, 2012, 2015, 2017, 2019…


Following in the footsteps of Paul Virilio’s (1994) investigations of the ruins of the Nazi Atlantic Wall fortifications, but by changing the focal point to the ruins of the Cold War, the bunker studies presented in my forthcoming bunker-themed guest-edited special issue of the Journal of War and Culture Studies broadly echo Virilio’s method: combining accounts of embodied exploration with attentive archival work, and their concern is to achieve both a phenomenological account of the nature of these now-abandoned places, and a taxonomic assessment of the trends that shape the original, present and future lives of life of these structures. Bradley L. Garrett and Ian Klinke and (2019) have recently laid down a challenge to the hegemony of Virilio’s methods and concerns in bunker studies. They point out that the dominant scholarly approach tends to depict the bunker as both a symbol of, and an artefact of the past – rather than of the present and future. They point out that the bunker (as an emplacement of military power) is still very much alive. They also persuasively argue that Virilio’s framing tends to figure bunkers as places of shelter (with its inhabitants as victims) rather than as places of relative safety from which perpetrators plan the extermination of whole cities.

Garrett’s and Klinke’s critique is well made, and points to new areas of scholarship which need to be explored within bunker studies. However, it is not the case that the Virilio-type approach is exhausted. There is still plenty of work still to be done to understand the end-of-life stage of bunkers and of the cultural effects of their affective and symbolic resonance in abandonment. Accordingly, this special issue’s five articles each seek to build upon the broadly Virilio-type studies presented in my 2017 edited collection In the ruins of the Cold War bunker: materiality, affect and meaning making. That collection presented a multidisciplinary investigation of contemporary bunker re-engagements from around the world by 13 contributors, touching in particular on artistic and heritage based-appropriations of these now-abandoned Cold War spaces. As befitting the Journal of War and Culture Studies’ concern with the points at which war and culture meet (and the forms of cultural production related to that intersection), the new articles assembled in the special issue develop an even wider and more provocative set of lenses with which to detect the multiple forms and intensities within which post-military forms of use and meaning making come to be projected onto the blank walls of bunker spaces (including – variously – appropriations by mould, sound, commercial storage, heritage and fine art). Through this they reveal the processes by which (and rate at which) originating war-related uses and meanings fade from these places, thereby enabling the bunker’s after-life.

How bunkers live-on

Over the last decade the after-life of bunkers has become a subject of study across a number of disciplines: from archaeology to real estate, from cultural geography to fine art (see, for example, the array of disciplines represented in Bennett 2017). Accordingly, the contributors to this special issue represent a broad spread of disciplinary perspectives, and survey a wide range of bunker interactions.

Matthew Flintham is an artist and an academic whose work focuses on representations of military landscapes. In his article ‘Vile Incubator: a pathology of the Cold War bunker’, he investigates the after-life of the Torås bunker complex in Norway, reflecting on both the embodied act of bunker exploration and the ongoing non-human cultural production that he finds in this supposedly dead, lifeless abandoned place.

Louise K. Wilson is also an artist and an academic, and her work has investigated iconic Cold War military sites like the former testing range at Orford ness in Suffolk, through site-based installations and audio art. In her contribution entitled ‘Sounds from the bunker: aural culture and the remainder of the Cold War’, Wilson considers the appropriation of Cold War bunkers’ distinctive acoustic atmospheres and of 1980s bunker-themed pop songs in contemporary music production.

In their collaborative article ‘“Mine are the dead spaces”: a discussion of bunker work’s atmospheres, limits and routines’, Becky Alexis-Martin, a cultural geographer whose work specialises in nuclear geographies, leads a discussion with artists Kathrine Sandys and Michael Mulvihill, using the surroundings of the Churchill War Rooms, a Second World War bunker deep beneath Whitehall in London, as a prompt for considering the valence of the bunker to artists and its other denizens. Sandys is an artist and academic who, like Wilson, has worked with the distinctive audio-visual properties of empty bunkers. Mulvihill is an artist who has recently completed a practice-based PhD based around a residency at RAF Fylingdales.

As an architect, Sean Kinnear’s article ‘Reopening the bunker: an architectural investigation of the post-war fate of four Scottish nuclear bunkers’, presents an assessment of the underappreciated architectural significance of Scottish Cold War bunkers, outlining their distinctive architectonic qualities and profiling in his four case study sites, four different approaches to preservation and after-use of these structures. Kinnear calls for greater heritage protection to accorded to these sites in Scotland.

In the special issue’s final article, ‘Profaning GAMA:  exploring the entanglement of demilitarisation, heritage and real estate in the ruins of Greenham Common’s cruise missile complex’, I consider with my former student Philip Kokoszka (who contributed fieldwork as part of his 2018 MSc dissertation) the strangely mundane, indeterminate fate of GAMA, the once-iconic cruise missile bunker complex built at RAF Greenham Common in the early 1980s. We do so from the perspective of real estate and land-use planning, and seek to show how an appreciation of the entanglement of a number of contemporary cultural drivers (demilitarisation, ruination, heritage preservation and re-utilisation) can help to account for the site’s unexpected ‘failure’ to become a formal monument to its Cold War past. In conclusion, reflecting upon this out-turn, we attempt to suggest – using the work of Giorgio Agamben on ‘profanation’ – that this failure of the site to achieve a singular new meaning may in itself be fitting.

How bunkers die

The autumn of 2019 saw much attention focused upon the iconography of the ‘Berlin Wall’, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of its fall. Considerable efforts were expended to destroy the wall in the early 1990s – achieving its near-total erasure in a matter of months. This was a campaign of physical demilitarisation that assured the ending of German partition would be irreversible. In contrast my special issue considers the endurance of a more diffuse, harder to destroy, and less prominent set of Cold War material culture: the bunker. As with the Wall, these structures are iconic, mnemonic even. The articles contribute to the ongoing development of bunker studies by showing that these obstinate structures are not just materially durable (for they manage to retain some of their original war-related purpose embodied within their strange, brutal forms) but also fluid, in that they are caught up in an ongoing cultural production which over time enables a loosening of war-related meanings, a loosening that can bring both new utility, and also episodes of playful irony. This loosening contributes to the attrition of the bunker’s original form as both war-related materiel and as a potent symbol of war. Ultimately, this loosening is found to be the product of a quiet, long-term semantic decay, a subtle, slow-burn form of cultural demilitarisation which strikes quite a contrast to the speedy, systematic physical erasure of the Cold War’s more evident and destroyable military structures, like the Wall.

Note: the JWC special issue will be published in January 2020. The articles will appear online at the Journal’s website (https://www.tandfonline.com/toc/ywac20/current) in advance of formal publication, and three of those articles have been uploaded there so far.



Bennett, L. (ed.) 2017. In the ruins of the Cold War bunker: affect, materiality and meaning making. London: Rowman & Littlefield International.

Garrett, B.L and Klinke, I. 2019. ‘Opening the bunker: function, materiality, temporality’. Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space, 37(6): 1063-1081.

Virilio, P. 1994. Bunker Archeology, New York: Princeton Architectural Press (Translated by George Collins).


Image Credit:

Sean L. Kinnear (2018). Cambridge Regional War Room now incorporated into a residential estate development.