Vibrant voids: how some places ignore you, and others trip you up

Felimngham - Leominster

“The bunker is not a trace or shadow as it is present and also part of the foundation of an office building, and it does not haunt the landscape since, as a shelter, it was never meant to be seen in the first place” (Bartolini, 2015: 204)

Writing of a Mussolini era bunker beneath the streets of Rome, Nadia Bartolini incisively ponders the nature of such concealed places and of the awkwardness of attempting to subject them to the light of day. As she puts it, “the concrete bunker if visible, would meld with its concrete surroundings” (203). The subterranean bunker then exists as background, it is unexcavatable, it is its own container and “there is no need to disentangle and excavate it from the earth to archive it elsewhere” (200). In short, it is only a fortified hollowing out, it is an absence of ground within it, yet defined by the mass of earth around it. Whether as bunkers, cellars, crypts, tombs or chambers these subterranean places are defined only by their capacity to shelter bodies and/or valued objects. Without such contents, these voids are simply empty spaces edged with concrete.

Bartolini’s article seeks to take issue with (or at least to refine) Jane Bennett’s (2010) Vibrant Matter thesis, by which analysists are encouraged to pay more attention to materiality per se, in order to appreciate the intrinsic qualities of matter, and of their effects in the world separate from human cultural projections upon them. Bennett’s book sets out to illustrate the vibrancy of matter (and of the eco-political implications of this) via a series of case studies on the vitality of stem cells, foodstuffs and electrical power networks. But Bartolini questions the vibrancy of concrete and of the Rome bunker formed from it, and through examining the less-than-expected potency of an art show staged within the Rome bunker, argues that Bennett’s vibrancy thesis does not adequately account for the static existence of this ‘dumb brute’ matter. She concludes that without curation (an interpretive provisioning of the space of the art show) “the bunker is only a mass of concrete, a structure whose inherent materiality does not do anything in its fixed, solid state” (197).

And yet, there is one thing that the Rome bunker does. It endures. It is obstinate. It refuses to eliminate itself. It perpetuates its contained subterranean void. It endures without us. It is a chamber that sits and subsists, a repository for stale air, steady temperature and stillness (and home to a few spiders). And it remains true to the original design intent – to “immobilize time and space” (197), but now for its own sake, rather than for any purpose of human security.

But this is the destiny of any underground chamber – to lay there partly- or wholly un-known, perhaps existing in a dimension too small for human presence, to be perceived only remotely through the enquiring eye of an industrial endoscope, a bright light momentarily illuminating an otherwise constant darkness, like the torch flash of a deep sea diver, momentarily glimpsing another world in the enveloping darkness of the deep.

Both Paul Virilio and Gaston Bachelard have pointed to the atavistic, phenomenological qualities of such confined spaces and their reverberation through culture and psyche. These places take us closer to the underworld, and for Bachelard, the basement is the scene of our subconscious, a place perhaps to visit occasionally to in order to reconnect with our deeper drives, but it is not a place for us to dwell within.

Bartolini’s point is not to deny concrete its ability to influence the world, or to extend its reach into our world, but rather to argue that further delineation of how particular types of matter acquire a vibrancy. Her argument is that, in the heritage sector, we cannot entirely reject the role for cultural projection. If Mussolini’s bunker is dark, it is because someone left the lights off.

At one level Bartolini’s call is for a (re)acknowledgment of the important role of cultural projection within the framing of bland, function-formed places like these. She is challenging a suggestion that all matter is equally vibrant, and pointing out in that in the mundane built environment there is work to do – our work to do – to ascribe meaning to this space and its material composition. As she puts it: “a concrete container located underground is not equivalent to identifying the structure as ‘Mussolini’s bunker’” (207) – more is required (from us) for that to occur. This chamber doesn’t know itself as that human / heritage place (obviously it doesn’t know itself as anything, but indulge me a little here). All this place is, is a meshwork of elements held together by an interlocking set of forces that co-produce the stasis of that place. The ceiling can’t surrender to gravity because its downward fall is thwarted by the walls. If this place knows anything it is how to continue being in its current form.

So, this is what I took from Nadia’s article. But it was then odd to find myself in conversation with her at this week’s Historic Towns Forum conference. We ended up talking about dark real estate and the agency of material place formations (my phrase not hers). In our discussion Nadia argued in favour of some places having an intrinsic (i.e. an “it’s in the walls”) ability to haunt and provoke visitors. She illustrated her argument by pointing to the unsettling feelings triggered by standing within an industrial pottery kiln, the darkness, lack of edges and lines, the strange smells and the uneven floor. “But what if you worked everyday in that environment?” I asked, “it wouldn’t feel a strange place then would it?” And then I tried to push home an argument that any such strange affecto-material feelings are a product of our unfamiliarity, or of our cultural inference rather than of the place-matter itself.

But then I stopped. I’d suddenly remembered the strong feelings that morning as I’d walked into the meeting room that served as the venue for this conference. A London law practice’s building, all there was elegant clean magnolia walls, black marble topped dark lustrous cherry veneer cabinets and corporate chrome legged chairs, all bathed in beams of extra bright recessed halogen lights. Stepping into that chamber I’d been primed, and it only took the chink of a tea cup nestling back into its saucer, to tumble me back into an older, once familiar place-world.

So my conclusion was that it’s both: yes, it is us who make the meaning for the spaces we enter, but we are not always in control of that meaning-making. We can be provoked into doing so by the triggers and traps that rooms set for us. And yes, sometimes those triggers are engineered there to produce intended effects by curators or interior designers, but sometimes the effects are serendipitous: the chance meeting of a meaning brought with you, a thing lurking there that has no sense of you and a resultant feeling produced by that encounter.



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

Image – Stephen Felmingham (2009) Leominster 6/31


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Photo credit:

Air shaft/surface structure for Manchester’s underground telephone exchange:



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


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

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

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

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

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

Ruinphobia and erasure lust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are ruins anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The Friends of Sheffield Castle (2013-14) Website:

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

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

Reed, J. (2014) ‘Council “committed” to Sheffield Council plan despite lottery funding setback’, The Yorkshire Post, 25 October.

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