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and of the important role of (positive or negative) place attachment in determining the speed at which a site is withdrawn from vacancy, or how it is maintained purposively in that state.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.

The ghosts we summon from the battlefield: reflections and event recording for SHU SPG’s Haunts #3 event

To the uninitiated, the landscape is flat and unremarkable, punctured only by the bulk of the Lion’s Mound amid miles of grassland and the occasional thicket of trees or a charming barn conversion. To others it is the final stop on an eerie pilgrimage of devastation and loss.”

Rebecca L. Hearne (2020) ‘The Weight of the Past’

Rebecca was due to be one of our presenters at yesterday’s online Sheffield Hallam University Space & Place Group event, ‘Haunts #3: The Haunted Battlefield’. Sadly, she wasn’t able to be with us, but I read extracts from her paper at the start of our event, and these set us up nicely for our collective ruminations around how battlegrounds have haunted qualities.

Rebecca’s paper gave a vivid account of her experience of conducting an archaeological dig at the Waterloo battleground, in the vicinity of the Lion’s Mound, a monumental landform commissioned by King William I of the Netherlands to commemorate the dead of the 1815 battle there. I read the following passage, which reminded us of the materiality and mortality not just of battlegrounds per se, but of this mound as a particular place, and of this mound as a testimony to the disruption of particular lives:

“The Lion’s Mound is powerful, its impact on visitors visceral. Standing atop the monumental pedestal, it is difficult to visualise the thousands of tons of soil collected to form the mound beneath one’s feet. This soil, drawn from the battlefields, contains bone fragments, lost teeth with historical fillings, clay pipe bowls blackened from anxious chain-smoking, and tatters of cloth punctured by bayonet blades, sometimes decayed and sometimes stained with young men’s blood. Musket balls, unfired but flattened on one side, preserve the moment when a young man jammed his ramrod too hard down the barrel of his gun while loading it in panic, causing it to misfire, injuring or — most likely — killing him. Shreds of family photographs, letters, memorandum books, tokens and talismans imbued with meaning and significance and intended to ensure a safe passage home were instead swallowed by thousands of tonnes of blood-soaked soil. As one project participant mused, standing atop the monument on that searing July day, ‘You just feel that… that weight. All the weight of the past is here.’”

Rebecca’s fellow excavators were 21st century military veterans with PTSD, who found the act of digging and being at anothers’ battleground a powerful and helpful way of working through their own trauma.

Thinking back on the five presented papers that then followed, it has struck me that all of them – each in different ways – were concerned with the summoned nature of ghosts at battlefields. The presentations (which are all available to watch in the session recording below) each showed how, just as ‘place’ is ‘space’ infused with meaning projected onto it, so each battleground’s sense of haunting is at least in part (created or sustained) by present generations’ orientations towards these sites.

Thus, in the event’s keynote presentation, conflict archaeologist and post-conflict heritage specialist Gilly Carr from the University of Cambridge looked at how in the Channel Islands the material remains of the Atlantic Wall defences (Nazi bunker complexes) have been appropriated by successive generations of post-war islanders, sometimes playfully, sometimes as ‘heritage’, sometimes as emblems of islander spirit. And within that, the islanders openly share stories of encounters with the ghosts of these places. Gilly contrasted this with the awkwardness that arises within most academic circles when talk turns to ghosts. Gilly was keen to portray this local attachment to these bunkers and their ghosts as a potent mix of tangible and intangible heritage. Just as there has been growing attentiveness to the need to identify and preserve cultural practices and ideas in indigenous cultures, so can the logics of this be brought closer to home. The significance of these bunkers is – at least in part – because of the importance attached to them by the visiting, re-appropriation and story-telling projected upon them as part of the islanders’ local culture. Perhaps, by extension, these ghosts (or at least the practices enacted by the living in relation to them) should be protected as intangible heritage.

Later in the session, David Cotterrell (SHU – fine art), showed how his experiences as a war artist in Afghanistan in the early 2000s had been driven by a self-confrontation, when – as a pacifist – he was offered the chance to document a warzone. He felt the need to challenge himself, and to see this other (or alter-) reality for himself. His experiences showed him the complexities of ‘seeing’ war, that in 21st century warfare the view is often distant, totalising (as epitomised in the remote view of the drone pilot). This influenced David’s 2012 installation work, The Monsters of Id, which works across three different visual domains and degrees of proximity to other people (whether enemies, bystanders or otherwise others). The following video shows the three installation pieces comprising that work. As David explains in his contribution to Haunts #3, the presence of inhabitants in the artworks is directly influenced by the presence of spectators. Thus, no one looking results in no-one appearing in the artwork. The flip-side of this is that if spectators lingered in the gallery they would be visited by curious others – people visiting them from within the artwork. This uncanny device activated two important complexities. First, the notion that we summon that which we fear – we call it forth – and perhaps it only exists because we summon it. Secondly, the notion of various degrees of distance of spectatorship, and in particular the detachment that military views of desert-like landscapes engender, with targets as anonymous – ghost like – others glimpsed only vaguely or in aggregate.

Another presenter, Andrew Robinson (SHU – photography) looked at the history of battlefield photography as pioneered at Gettysburg during the American Civil War. With a near-forensic close attention to detail, Andrew showed how iconic photographs showing the aftermath of that battle were somewhat composed, through rearrangement of the placing of corpses. Andrew showed how a style of war photography had been forged there – by commercial photographers who were taking pictures for sale to the general public, and seemingly meeting a ‘need’ (prurient or otherwise) for the viewer to feel that they had (virtually) been there / seen the reality of conflict. Andrew then showed how as the battlefield morphed in successive generations into a totem of heritage and national identity, the site itself having become a visually choreographed object.

David Clarke (SHU – Journalism) presented an equally thorough investigation of the origins of the ‘Angels of Mons’ legend, showing how what came to be a widespread belief in spectral intercession in an early First World War battle had been triggered by fiction that then slid into assumed fact, embedding itself in enduring folk memory. The assumption of fact was a product of its time and context: a heady mix of patriotism, pre-existing national myths and spiritualism. Such myths take hold where there is a widespread desire for such things to be true. Once again, we summon the ghosts.

Rob Hindle (Sheffield based poet), shared this concern with the power of myth, and blended in his concern with the alter-reality of war and also his family history or ancestors caught up in the carnage of the Western Front. Rob read from his published collection The Grail Roads (Longbarrow Press, 2018), an evocative mix of his poetry and extracts from his interpretative essay “Iron Harvest: An archaeology of sources”. The following quote – describing Rob’s search with his father for the location at which his great-grandfather fell in 1917 – neatly returns us to the theme of ‘summoning’ (Rob is searching for a ghost) and adds a sense of the chilling ambivalence of place:

“His body wasn’t found. The buzzing pylon and surrounding scrub don’t feel like markers: we’ve just run out of track. We stand freezing for a few seconds, my dad and me; then go back to the car.

The villages are ancient and they aren’t; Aerial photographs from 1981 show nothing but dark weals; yet here are hedgerows, huge trees, honey-stoned cottages and walls. Graves cluster along the lanes, the same stone cut into trim slabs and lined up, almost touching. Everything is small and close: 100 graves in a garden plot; six villages in a ten-minute drive. A dozen fields run down to the Ancre. I look at the maps from 1914, 1916, 1971. The villages disappeared but the red lines were more or less the same. The men came up that road, year after year, and were killed. When it was finished people came back, rebuilt their houses, planted trees, ploughed the land again.” (p.137)

Image Source: Belgique_Butte_du_Lion_dit_de_Waterloo_cropped.jpg (2646×1577) (wikimedia.org)

Haunts #3: The Haunted Battleground – free SHU Space & Place Group Zoom conference, 7-9.30pm Thursday, 25 February 2021

“The Memorial Forest … looks quite strange; those are scars from bombardments that occurred on this site during the battle for Vimy Ridge in 1917 as well as failed military manoeuvres before and after the Canadians took the ridge in April of that year. When they began work on the site in 1922, it took them two and a half years to remove the majority of the dangerous unexploded bombs, shells, and undiscovered bodies, but even today visitors are not permitted to walk beneath the trees because it was impossible to remove everything.”

Lauren Markewicz (2012) ‘The Statues of Vimy: at the Ridge and in the Museum’ https://historyboots.wordpress.com/2012/11/15/vimy-ridge-research/

Having recently examined the links between folklore, practices and the hauntings of place (Haunts #1) and the haunted atmospheres of domestic dwelling (Haunts #2) Sheffield Hallam University’s Space & Place Group’s 2020-21 season of haunting themed events is now turning, for Haunts #3, to consider the ways in which battlegrounds have a variety of lingering effects that persist long after the shooting stops.

For our free evening session on Thursday, 25 February 2021 (7-9.30pm) archaeologists and creative writers and artists will consider the many ways in which the battle lingers, both immured in place, and seared into the psyche of both those who were there, and those who were not.

In keeping with the playful spirt of SHU SPG’s Haunts series, this proudly interdisciplinary event will be respectful but also informal, looking to tease out new insights and ways of seeing place through its hauntings. And the hauntings to be encountered in this search for the ghosts of war and their territories, will range widely: across real ghosts, patriotic phantoms, restless trauma, literary memory and that sense (readily enabled by ever advancing technology) of the ‘other’ as a dehumanised, figurative shadow.

Our programme

19.00 -19.05

Luke Bennett, Associate Professor, Department of the Natural & Built Environment, Sheffield Hallam University

Welcome & Introduction

19.05-19.45

Gilly Carr, Senior Lecturer and Academic Director in Archaeology, University of Cambridge [Keynote speaker]

Archaeology, Heritage and the Ghosts of War

Archaeologists aren’t allowed to write about ghosts. And yet a number of those working in my field are aware of stories of hauntings associated with the places and spaces where we work. Some of us have even experienced first-hand that which disturbs the local residents. How can those of us who are not anthropologists write academically about concepts of haunting and spectrality when the ghosts we want to write about are not metaphorical? How can we be sure that it’s not the sites that we visit cause or trigger in our minds the visions of the ghosts in the first place? In this session I will be discussing the ghosts of occupation from the Channel Islands, the only part of the British Isles to be occupied by German forces during WWII. I will explore the inextricable link between ghosts and German bunkers – the location of sightings for members of the second and third generations of Islanders.

19.45 – 20.05

David Clarke, Reader, Department of Journalism, Sheffield Hallam University

The Angels of Mons: summoning divine support onto the WW1 battlefield.

2014 marked the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and the birth of the most enduring legend of that conflict, The Angels of Mons. The ferocity of the battle and fear of early defeat encouraged an atmosphere on the Home Front that was receptive to the supernatural. From this cauldron of hope, faith and fear emerged an inspiring story of warrior angels that appeared to save British troops from the German onslaught in Belgium. The legend became part of the folk memory of the war and encouraged those who believed the Allies had divine support on the battlefield. This short presentation will be based on my book The Angel of Mons (2004).

20.05 – 20.15 comfort break

20.15 – 20.35

Andrew Robinson, Senior Lecturer, Sheffield Institute of Arts, Sheffield Hallam University

Photography, fake news and the restless ghosts of the Gettysburg battlefield.

The interplay of battlefield, landscape, memory and fictionalised narratives are central to the study of battlefield photography from the early years of the medium and are key to understanding one of the most iconic and contested images of the American Civil war, ‘The Den of a Rebel Sharpshooter’ a photograph from the Gettysburg battlefield captured two days after the fighting and published by Alexander Gardner. The accepted narrative, that this image was staged and constructed by the photographers who carried the dead soldier from another location, originates in a 1961 article in the Civil War Times and was popularised by William A. Frassanito in his 1975 book ‘Gettysburg: A Journey in Time’ since when it has been accepted as fact. This talk will explore the contested nature of this image which has haunted the memory of both photographer and soldier for more than 60 years.

20.35 – 21.00

Rob Hindle, Sheffield-based Poet

The Iron Harvest: unsettling grave goods and trauma in the killing fields of Western Europe

Poetry, according to Seamus Heaney, is an act of digging, or of dropping the bucket down. When you take the spade to, or wind the pail down through, the deep-contested strata of France and Flanders, you inevitably find horrors. Whether deep and ancient or poking from the surface, these remnants bear the same scars. Shell shock, PTSD, trauma. In my collection The Grail Roads, Malory’s ‘felyship’ of questers traverse the waste lands of the Western Front where past and present traumas leak through the trenches, ghosts of men sent to fight in wars not of their making are haunted by their dead, and survival is configured as incomplete, unhealed, a sort of failure or alienation.

21.00 – 21.20

David Cotterrell, Director of the Culture & Creativity Research Institute, Sheffield Hallam University

The Monsters of the Id: How can the creative arts summon the spectre of war – and why should we seek to do so?

As an installation artist working across media and technologies, I aim in my work to explore the social and political tendencies of a world at once shared and divided. I particularly seek to achieve this through intersection: whether via fleeting encounter or heavily orchestrated event. For this presentation I will talk about my depictions of haunted battlegrounds, specifically my work inspired by exploring the carpet-bombed and land-mined landscape of the Panjshir Valley in Afghanistan. My work Observer Effect – part of my 2012 exhibition Monsters of the Id – summoned impressions of moving digital inhabitants onto representations of this blank seeming landscape, forcing encounters between gallery viewers and these resident, spectral others. I will talk about my motivations within this, and draw in examples from my other works inspired by my encounters with conflict zones past and present: ranging from the battleground at Waterloo to my current work with the Imperial War museum on a project focussing on the decade of history that has followed the Nato Intervention in Libya.

21.20 – 21.30 Closing discussion

Chaired by Luke Bennett

How to attend

The event is free to attend, but to join us you will need to register at Eventbrite here.

You will then be sent the Zoom link 24 hours before the start of the event.

This event will be recorded and uploaded alongside Haunts #1 and Haunts #2 here.

The final event in the Haunts series will be Haunts #4: Atmospheres of Social Haunting, in late Spring 2021. Details will be announced at https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com.

For further details of SHU’s Space & Place Group or this event please email Luke Bennett: l.e.bennett@shu.ac.ukImage credit: Lauren Markewicz (2012) The Memorial Forest, Vimy Ridge, France (used with permission). https://historyboots.wordpress.com/2012/11/15/vimy-ridge-research/

Gazing from ruined pavements: A postcard from Berlin

Potsdam

“Broken fragments of stone become evocative ruins when someone gazes upon them and imbues them with significance; otherwise they linger on as worthless rubble to be swept away or ignored.”

(Michael Meng (2011) Shattered Spaces: Encountering Jewish Ruins in Postwar Germany and Poland. London: Harvard University Press, p.10)

I’ve just finished reading Meng’s book. It examines the ways in which abandoned and ruined Jewish public places (principally synagogues and cemeteries) fared across various eras of neglect, erasure, re-purposing and (in some cases) rediscovery and restoration between 1945 and 2010, in Germany and Poland, under both communism and capitalism. Meng features the arresting image (above) of a crowd of passers-by photographed halted from their travels on the pavement and gazing at the ruins of Potsdam synagogue, in the daylight that followed Kristallnacht (the ‘night of broken glass’: 9-10 November 1938) and its orgy of coordinated ruin-making inflicted on Jewish buildings by the Nazis. Chillingly his sparse commentary draw us into the image, he suggests that we can’t discern from the image what the spectators were thinking, or even why they had stopped to look. This made me scour the picture – searching through the crowd, staring at the back of their heads – hoping to find a face that would meet my gaze and give me some clue. But the image – as Meng rightly notes – gives us no closure, and (as his book provides) requires a detailed meditation on context and an assaying of the ebbs and flows of two rival structures of feeling and acting: “redemptive antisemitism” and “redemptive cosmopolitanism” in each of Germany and Poland in the postwar years.

Meng’s analysis shows how, since the 1980s, Jewish ruins in Germany and Poland have become valorised – via the ascendancy of redemptive cosmopolitanism – in particular through their role in international commemoration and heritage pilgrimages. This seems self-evident, from our contemporary vantage point. But Meng’s book shows that there is nothing eternal or inevitable about this attachment of significance to these places, and his is a meticulous analysis of the unpredictable end-of-life-cycle of any ruin, and of the vital importance of understanding how the materialities (and costs) of dereliction intersect with the rise and fall (and dereliction) of the bodies of ideas that give meaning (and whether for good or ill) to any place. But Meng is also attentive to local contingencies for the sites that he chronicles, the story of each ruin cannot be contained within that building alone. The fate of a place may be collateral damage (or collateral salvation) related to some other local issue or project. To be effective then, the explanatory lens has to be able to move in (towards local prosaics) and out (to be able to situate the site’s fate as at least to some extent within wider sociopolitical trends).

Meng’s book was my holiday reading for a recent short family holiday sightseeing in Berlin. I’d been there once before, 10 years ago, and had done the whole ‘Berlin – city of traces’ thing then, absorbing myself with dark heritage guidebooks and trying to cram in as many glimpses of “the ghosts of Berlin” (Ladd 1997) as I could. This second time around I was happy to navigate the city via family consensus. I was politely but firmly told that this holiday wouldn’t be about ‘Dad’s dark ruins thing’.

The impression I came away with from this re-visit was that Berlin’s traces are neater and tidier now – presented as part of international heritage tourist circuits. The dark stuff is there, but it is increasingly ‘just’ part of those circuits. This impression may simply be a product of the different circumstances of my re-encounter with Berlin, and I’m not suggesting that Berlin in 2010 was somehow purer, more authentic or less touristic. Any experience of any place (and whether ruined, ‘dark’ or otherwise) is at least in part an outcome of what you go looking for. And I’m not going to be po-faced and suggest that somehow my exploring of Berlin in either 2010 or 2019 was itself anything other than a form of tourism. In short, each time I went to Berlin with certain expectations and each time found ways to ‘join the dots’ so as to meet those expectations.

There was one exception however to this ‘I went – I saw – I came home having seen what I expected’ intentionality. And it happened on the day where my teenage daughter had control of our itinerary. She decided that we would go to Berlin Zoo, and so we did.

Climbing out of the metro stations we were a little disorientated. We could see various signs to the zoo, but they seemed contradictory. We shuffled along in a direction that we thought might work, and soon came upon a bulky security barrier, painted in black and yellow, and with the (English) words “Truck Stop” repeated in very insistent, prominent letters. This street architecture seemed overly keen to announce itself and rather awkwardly positioned, laid down in an already cluttered street scene – pavements, market stalls, infrastructure. Then we saw some votive candles on the steps rising from this pavement and on closer inspection could see memorial photographs and a few flowers laid out besides them. Getting even closer (having weaved across the pavement’s heavy traffic of passers by to get nearer) we saw names engraved into the otherwise normal pavement steps. Collectively it started to dawn on us (but not in a tranquil, contemplative way – because our senses also had to remain focused on the perils of stopping within this pavement’s flow of incessant movement): this place was the scene of the 19 December 2016 Christmas Market terrorist attack, in which 12 of the pedestrians who had been using this pavement were murdered by being run down by a truck. Trying to take this in as the world incessantly and very mundanely carried on its flows around us felt unsettling. As I tried to process the newly-acquainted significance of this place fragments of the scene: the steps, the market stall to my left, the pavement beneath my feet, and the recently encountered Truck Stop barrier, all coalesced into a sense of place – that this otherwise unremarkable portion of pavement was a distinct location and that it was more important than any other stretch of the pavement further along this busy road. And yet, as I fought to stabilise this image  of a distinct, important place, it struggled to stay separated from the urban realm and flows of which it was part. Bodies buffeted me as I slowed to survey the scene, elements appeared at the periphery of any provisional framing of this scene – extending it further along the pavement and beyond the steps into the nearby church, the plaza beyond and the bulk of the market stalls. 

That this site was not separated from its surroundings felt strange (given the way that memorial sites usually are separated: e.g. presented as calm, contemplative oases in a nearby park). But it also gave it an unusual affective charge – this place and its unexpectedness had pricked me, and in circumstances where I had not been looking to be pricked. As we walked away I turned to look back at the ‘site’ (and to try and get a synoptic grasp of it). It was then that I noticed a very subtle form of memorialisation that had been installed to ‘frame’ this place. Running down the steps and across the heavily trafficked pavement was a narrow golden slither or rivulet. It was impossible to see the slither in its entirety because of the flow of passersby. It also proved impossible to photograph – for unlike a conventional sculpture it was but a flat mark across busy ground. It looked like a rivulet of golden blood and seemed in its context life affirming rather than mawkish.

Related image

Subsequently I’ve read that this memorial is actually meant to signify a crack – positioning this within the distinctly German post-war tradition of ‘mahnmal’ (warning monuments): for the crack here symbolises the attack (and thus the momentary breach in Berlin’s self-image of redemptive cosmopolitanism, and acting as a call for alertness and vigilance to guard against the risk of such cracks in the tolerant, democratic polity).

The creation of this artwork, by designers Merz Merz, actually involved first the chiselling out of a 17 metre long, narrow crack across the steps and pavement and then the elimination of that void with the golden infill. In that sense the re-joining of the pavement – via the elimination of the damage inflicted upon it – was intended as a redemptive gesture, a gesture augmented by involving the bereaved in the smelting of the gold.

But without knowing this process and backstory I reacted to this as a rivulet. Either way the enmeshment of this site and its subtle monument within the throng of daily life stopped me in my tracks. I had to stop, look from the pavement and make some sense of these broken-and-mended fragments of stone and what they could or should stand for.

 

Image credits: Postdam Synagogue, Potsdam Museum via http://www.grahamfoundation.org/grantees/3950-shattered-spaces-encountering-jewish-ruins-in-postwar-germany-and-poland ; Merz Merz (2017) Der Goldener Riss https://www.rbb24.de/politik/beitrag/2018/07/terror-breitscheidplatz-entschaedigung-antraege-gedaechtniskirche-berlin.html; Making Der Goldener Riss https://www.bento.de/today/berlin-so-sieht-das-mahnmal-fuer-die-terroropfer-vom-breitscheidplatz-aus-a-00000000-0003-0001-0000-000001951349

 

Awkwardly exploring fear, fascination and ambivalence in the ruin of Hitler’s Bunker

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“Fixating on the historical locale feels naïve, even juvenile; the prime epistemological illusion of ‘heritage’, after all, is to substitute place for process, thus to manufacture ersatz ‘experience’.”

Patrick Finney (2007) ‘Finding the Führer Bunker’ Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory & Practice, 11(2) 287-291

As Finney notes in his short essay (which is an apology for him having momentarily drifted off into thinking about Hitler’s bunker when he meant to be doing other, proper academic work), showing an interest the specifics of iconic Nazi places may not be a good career move. Instead it may lead to you being bracketed with a motley collection of conspiracy theorists and fanatics. Writing about Cold War bunkers is just about passable now as an academic endeavour, but turning the spotlight onto a previous era’s concrete caverns is more risky.

So it’s been with some awkwardness that I’ve worked up a study of the post 1945 afterlife of the subterranean site of Hitler’s last days, and the resulting article has now been published in the Polish Geography journal Geographia Polonica as part of their special issue on ruination, demolition and urban  regeneration. The article is free to download here: http://www.geographiapolonica.pl/article/item/11707.html

The aim of this short blog is to add visuals to the story, and the argument, that my article sets out in its text by displaying my slides for a presentation of my paper at the ‘Thrill of the Dark:  Heritages of Fear, Fascination and Fantasy’ conference being held at the University of Birmingham at the end of the month (details here: https://thethrillofthedark.com/).

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Here’s my abstract for the conference presentation:

“Within days of Adolf Hitler’s suicide in his subterranean command bunker deep beneath the Reich Chancellery, the Führerbunker came to be framed as an object of dark fascination and illicit access. First Red Army looters, then Allied investigators, and a few months later Winston Churchill all came to pick over the remains of this place. Then in 1947 Hugh Trevor Roper, propelled this cold, dank underground bunker into a symbol of thwarted meglomania, the stage for a Götterdämmerung, in his account of his search for Hitler’s missing corpse. Through such framing the site has sustained a lure for Anglo-American war veterans and tourists ever since. Yet to Germans (East and West) this site was a place of political contamination, the tomb of a potential contagion that had to be kept contained (by successive demolition action and cycles of banalisation and profanation). Almost forgotten, the site was ‘rediscovered’ in the early 1990s scrubland of the Berlin Wall’s death strip, and amidst the subsequent redevelopment of that now prime real estate a questioning of the site’s meaning, and of its potentialities, started to emerge: oscillating between calls for the primal darkness of this subterranean lair to be constructively co-opted into holocaust memorialisation and (more recently) in an increasing co-option of the site as part of heritage tours. Cultural representations of this place have become increasingly decontextualised and denatured, transformed by the generational passing of time into a more free-floating, titillating glimpse of a darkness that once was. Through this case study this paper will interpret this semantic decay, showing that ascribed darkness, fear and moral-coding for a site are not eternal givens but rather that they ebb and flow over time, and that studies of attachment to dark places need to be able to account for this, by becoming more processual.”

My Geographia Polonica article uses this chronological account of the slow-death of the Führerbunker as a way of thinking through what ruination really entails – considering the interweaving of material and semantic decay, and intentional and incidental attrition in that place’s slow, faltering fade. As shown above, my presentation also follows this trajectory, and its concern to identify the stages of that faltering fade, but it additionally touches on this bunker’s iconic on-going reverberation, showing how material obliteration of such an undesirable, dark place does not ensure its elimination from culture. Accordingly, towards the end of the presentation I chart how this place increasingly becomes a disembodied signifier – a metonym for evil and failing ‘last days’ governance. In doing this I’m connecting back to the first paper I ever wrote about bunkers:  Bennett, L. (2011) ‘The Bunker: Metaphor, Materiality and Management’, Culture and Organization, 17(2) 155-173. [free copy here].

So, by the end of the presentation I’m thinking about ruination in a non-material way and with a concern for how a (dark) symbol fades: what are its processes of semantic ruination and stubborn persistence?  In the final flurry of images I present the last days of the Führerbunker as now a free-floating meme that is not dependent for its survival upon the clarity of the spatio-material co-ordinates or physical condition of its site of origination. And this roving meme (this virtualised Führerbunker) has increasingly looser, multivalent rules of use (testimony to its normative ruination). It is now freely appropriated for a wide variety of irreverent re-purposing. These appropriations retain the essential ‘last days of governance’ abject motif, but appropriate it for new satirical projects of varying degrees of importance or seriousness. In doing so these appropriations reinforce the generality of the ‘bunker mentality’ metaphor, but also weaken the specificity of a real Hitler having inhabited a real Berlin bunker during a real total war that lead to millions of real deaths. And there’s nothing better to encapsulate this than the Downfall parodies:

 

 

References: for these please see my Geographia Polonica article.

Picture credit: https://www.express.co.uk/travel/articles/633088/hitler-grave-resting-spot-berlin-germany

 

Comfortable // Uncomfortable Places: details of the SHU Space & Place Group’s theme and programme of events for 2019

anja-uhren_what-is-home (4MB)

“The villa thus combined in a single unit of material production the general traits of Roman society (an order grounded in juridical principles), refined, albeit not very creative – aesthetic taste, and a search for the comforts of life.”

Henri Lefebvre (1991) The Production of Space, p. 252.

All cultures have their cults. A quick Amazon search for recently published books on “home” finds a plethora of user guides to life improvement through home rearrangement: Shearer & Teplin’s The Home Edit: Conquering the Clutter with Style, Walton’s This is Home: The Art of Simple Living, Rapinchuk’s Clean Mama’s Guide to a Healthy Home: The Simple, Room-by-Room Plan for a Natural Home and Blomquist’s Home is Where the Heart Is: How to Create a Home You Love, to mention but four works published over the last year. The message is clear: greater contentment, greater achievement and self-actualisation are there for the grasping through an explicit design and practice of dwelling. We may sneer at the programmatic optimism of such guides, but to at least some degree we all do it – we take active steps to dwell comfortably – we all arrange the place we live and work in, in order to (hopefully) achieve desirable effects and to eliminate, or hold at bay those things that might otherwise leave us feeling disorientated, and alienated from our surroundings. Matters of comfort and discomfort have profound effects upon our built and natural environments, upon our society and our economy (the UK ‘home improvement’ market is said to be worth £12 billion p.a.).

With these thoughts in mind, the SHU Space & Place Group’s programme of events this year will be enquiring into the comforts and discomforts of place.

The SHU SPG group promotes dialogue and collaboration across the full range of disciplines interested in matters of space and place, both within Sheffield Hallam University, and beyond. We have been active since 2012, each year running informal events which playfully explore relevant themes. Previous years have seen us focus on ‘the politics of space’, ‘infrastructure’, ‘soundscapes’, ‘seaside towns’ and ‘spaces of learning and doing’.

The SHU Space & Place Group will be running three events this semester, as warm ups for our Annual Away-Day in early July.

Details of our events are given below. Each event is free-standing (and free to attend) but each will explore an aspect of the year’s theme, through different angles and formats. The first two events are intentionally small, in order to maximise participant engagement, the third is a little larger and the fourth (our Annual Away Day) will feature a mix of sessions which – based on previous years – will attract around 60 delegates.

Booking for Events 1 and 2 is via email to me (l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk) due to the need to keep an eye on participant numbers. An Eventbrite booking sites will be set up for Events 3 and 4 in due course. The links will be added here when available, as will further details of the Annual Away Day programme as it evolves over the course of the three warm-up events.

EVENT 1: a discussion workshop on “The afteruses of ‘Uncomfortable Heritage’ places”12-1.30pm on Friday 8 March (City Campus, Norfolk 503) [please note change of time]

This discussion will focus upon Pendlebury et al’s recent paper on the reuse of ‘uncomfortable’ heritage places (Pendlebury, Wang & Law (2018) ‘Re-using ‘uncomfortable heritage’: the case of the 1933 building, Shanghai’, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 24(3) 211-229). The discussion will be led by Carolyn Gibbeson, Luke Bennett and Simon Kincaid (all of SHU, Natural & Built Environment) who will each briefly explaining how their own research work touches on aspects of managing (or erasing) ‘difficult’, ‘dark’ or ‘uncomfortable’ buildings and places. This will then lead into a wider, open group discussion of Pendlebury et al’s paper in relation to themes such as:

i) Is re-use imperative for Uncomfortable Heritage? Can/should it be left to die? Is an imperative to utility maximisation and/or profitable reuse wrong?

ii) Is there a gap between studies of conservation (and its materialities) and heritage (and its focus on meaning making)? How better could this gap be closed?

iii) Do we see the ‘buildings of control and reform’ category as helpful in explaining why certain types of building are particularly hard to re-purpose?

iv) Isn’t academic writing about the (former) lives of buildings as much an example of narrative engineering and a selective memorialisation and forgetting as that of the redeveloper/marketer?

v) How helpful do we find Luna’s (2013) classification of reuse types as autonomous, symbiotic or parasitic?

vi) Is heritage preserved and/or revealed in the materiality, architectonic and experiential qualities of being within a re-purposed building? How important are those qualities and the atmosphere that they create, and is it always benign / something that adds value, authenticity etc?

Delegates will need to have read Pendlebury et al’s paper before the event and to have registered for the event (by emailing l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk).

EVENT 2: a discussion workshop on “Getting comfortable with Lefebvre’s spatial triad”2-4pm on Wednesday 10 April (City Campus, Harmer 2401)

This workshop will be led by Yvonne Rinkart (SHU, Natural & Built Environment), and it will offer up an opportunity to explore Henri Lefebvre’s notoriously Delphic but ubiquitous ‘spatial triad’, The session will be based around a close reading of extracts from Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space (pages 33 and 38 to 43 of Donald Nicholson-Smith’s translation published by Blackwell in 1991) combined with an opportunity to ‘learn by doing’ by interrogating ‘concepts in space’ within the setting of the City Centre campus’ atrium. This active investigation of theory and research practice is in keeping with the SHU SPG’s interdisciplinary assay of the Southbourne Building in 2013. Big times lie ahead for the atrium space (it is soon to be closed for a 16 month refit). This makes it a great venue to think about the past, present and future weave of designed intentions, everyday uses and rhythms to be found in this busy University space.

Delegates will need to have the Lefebvre’s extracts before the event and to have registered for the event (by emailing l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk). Delegates will also find it helpful to have considered the aspirations of the SHU Estates Masterplan for the refit [here] alongside the following critical article on the link between University design, comfort and productivity: Hancock & Spicer (2011) ‘Academic Architecture and the Constitution of the New Model Worker’, Culture and Organization, 17 (2) 91-106.

EVENT 3: a seminar on “Feeling comfortably at home: Four investigations”, 2-4pm on Wednesday 15 May 2019 (Collegiate campus, HC 0.16)

This event, which will be led by Jenni Brooks (SHU, Sociology), will draw together a cross section of researchers and creators who have as their core concern the design, use and enjoyment of comfortable dwelling, both in domestic and other settings. Giving 15 minute presentations, each speaker will range across questions such as: Where is home? What does it mean to dwell comfortably? How can different groups’ (and individuals’) needs for comfortable dwelling spaces differ? To what extent can design that pursues homeliness be divisive or discriminatory? Speakers will include:

  • Jenni Brooks presenting on how people with dementia articulate their sense of home and community in their blogging activities;
  • Jonathan Took (SHU, Natural & Built Environment) on the inclusive design of school environments to better address the needs of autistic learners:
  • Joanne Lee (SHU, Institute of Arts) on the strange correspondence of the Danish hygge home-aesthetic and UK notions of cleanliness and anti-immigration sentiment; and
  • Anja Uhren (freelance illustrator, anjauhren.com) talking about the inspiration for, and her execution of, her graphic works Home: Forgotten Places Remembered and What Is Home?.

There will then be an open discussion of ‘comfort’ across all sense of ‘dwelling’. All welcome. Further details on venue and how to book will be provided nearer the time.

EVENT 4: the SHU Space & Place Annual Awayday 2019 “Comfortable and Uncomfortable Places”: 9am-5pm Wednesday, 10th July 2019 (Sheffield, venue tbc)

The Awayday will pull together (and/or extend) strands emerging from Events 1 to 3 within its more expansive and playful format. Therefore the content for this event is likely to emerge over the months ahead, and we’re happy to receive any expressions of interest from colleagues (within or beyond SHU) who would like to do something to contribute to exploring the comfort // discomfort of place at our event in July. We already have a keynote presentation by Amanda Crawley Jackson (French Studies, University of Sheffield) who will speak on discomfort from the perspective of plasticity, post-traumatic landscapes & difficult urban memory, drawing upon Lefebvre and Georges Didi-Huberman to do so.  If you would like to offer any suggested contribution please email any ideas to me, at: l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk.

Booking and venue details will be confirmed by an announcement here in due course.

Image credit: Page from Anja Uhren’s What is Home?: (https://anjauhren.myportfolio.com/what-is-home-) – reproduced with permission.

 

[NB: This page will be updated from time to time: last revised on 25 March 2019 to add venue for Event 3 and change date of Event 4]

After darkness (a Halloween special): How undead places find their after-lives within architecture’s shadow identity.

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“The temporality of architectural obsolescence is quite varied. It can happen incrementally, detail by detail: a room whose assigned use is forgotten, a window whose insulating capacities no longer meet new standards, or an ornamental schema whose time has passed. But it can also happen suddenly and emphatically, as when a purpose-built building is left abandoned when intended occupants never materialize, or move on soon after they arrive. The market, technology, taste and fashion all play their part in the making of obsolescence. They do so through architecture’s shadow identity as real estate.”

Stephen Cairns & Jane M. Jacobs (2014) Buildings Must Die: A perverse view of architecture. The MIT Press: Cambridge MA & London.

During daylight hours I teach – and help manage – undergraduate and postgraduate real estate degrees at Sheffield Hallam, a vocationally focused university. I came here straight from legal practice as an environmental lawyer, brought in to teach the legal side of property management practice. But something happened shortly after I arrived. Stranger shoots started to grow, and step by step I ended up writing much more about bunkers, modern ruins and weird materialities than I did about real estate law.

But – in my head at least – it’s never been a contradiction, or an abandonment of the ‘day job’. Fundamentally my research is all about understanding the life-cycle of place formations, and looking to the wilder extremes of place and life-or-death purpose in order to bring processes of place making, operating and abandonment all the more into sharp relief. Such investigation finds nuances and complexity where others might assume simplicity: and whether their distain is of the “building managers are only interested in profit” or “urban explorers are childish” variety. Extreme places are good to study to tease out these logics of being and doing, because they tend to be better documented and their existential tensions and motives tend to be more explicit.

Everywhere is somewhere, and most places have affinity to other places of their type. Indeed, extreme places often reveal an underlying commonality when given a lingering look and my research has often found that there’s a prosaic dimension that lies at the heart of even the most unique-seeming place formations.

Teasing out the logics that see the pragmatics of real estate management intersecting with the rich desire-worlds and/or anxiety-worlds of those who strive to enter them (with or without permission) also remains a fascination for me, for whilst very different in their logics, the vivid – and fantasy based – worlds of the anxious building manager and the desiring visitor only really exist because of (and in symbiosis with) the other.

My interest is in particular how tension between the real and the imagined plays out across the full life cycle of any place – from its inception to its obliteration, but in particular in its final stage: the way place dies. This is probably borne partly of some sublimated gothic taste laid down in my youth, but it also has a more abstract and necessary root, for as Cairns & Jacobs note elsewhere in Buildings Must Die, built environment practitioners and academics alike are obsessed with beginnings of buildings and pay scant attention to their endings. Understanding the material and cultural factors that play out across and between an array of actors (some human, some not; some corporeal, some existing only in the realm of the symbolic) is both an act of pure and applied inquiry.

The utility of property is axiomatic to both professional real estate practice and to its study in academia. Real estate is a system of practices aimed at maximising utility and understanding the creation and transfer of value imputed to material places and structures as a quantification of that utility. Thus you’d think that studying the problematic of how things fall out of a chain of gainful use would be a core area of research. But it hasn’t been. Instead most research scholarship in the real estate field is fixated on examining how development schemes (at a variety of scales of analysis) come into being. This field’s research is often econometric in method (and profit-seeking in ideology). In seeking to study the end of life portion of the property use cycle I take a different methodological stance, one informed by my own research training in interpretive socio-cultural analysis. Due to this being a rather alien style for built environment scholarship, I have had the good fortune to find outlets for my work in cultural geography. Thank you geographers for letting me shelter in your (very) broad church.

And it is cultural geographers and contemporary archaeologists whose work I have found most helpful. Tim Edensor’s (2011) work on the mutability of St Ann’s Church in Manchester as it passes through time, and Caitlin DeSilvey’s writings on palliative curation have given important insights into the processual (and inevitable and universal) character of building deaths. Rodney Harrison’s writings in critical heritage studies on the force of contemporary urges to unquestioningly preserve ever more of the remnants of the past – and the ensuing crisis of accumulation that it creates – has helped me realise the importance of heritage effects in causing some sites (for good or for ill) to become stuck in an undead state, trapped by the heritage valourisation’s infinity. To be saved is to be kept alive, in a weak, low-utility state in perpetuity. The work of heritage scholars looking at the slow-death fate of notorious, “Difficult Heritage” (MacDonald 2009) sites has also helped me to consider how the death-stage of a place can troubled and prolonged, and scholars of “Dark Tourism” (Lennon & Folely 2000) have showed me how the emotional attachment of some to the remnants of such (former) places of malign purpose affect the ability of the site to be reborn as something new. Meanwhile Mélanie Van der Hoorn’s (2009) work on the apparent indispensability of certain eyesore buildings has opened up an important insight into the symbolic necessity of waste, of disorder and distaste in order to balance both the built environment and the moral universe that is imprinted upon it as symbols of heritage and culture.

In questioning why certain abandoned or undesired places haven’t been erased and replaced in the ordinary course of urban churn I am not seeking to valorise change for its own sake – mine is not an anti-heritage standpoint per se. But, working within real estate’s concern with utility it is a concern to understand how and why underused sites (wasteland, modern ruins and so forth) come into being and survive despite the logics of repurposing that swiftly re-orientate most other sites.

I’m appreciative of the latitude given to me by my multi-disciplinary department that allows me to plough these strange furrows. I work in long arcs that don’t readily display their directionality. But I usually know where I’m trying to reach and why I’m taking the winding and obscure route to get there. After years of obstinately doing what felt right (but also rather out-on-a-limb) I’m delighted that a small team of likeminded colleagues is now coming together at SHU, each of us peering into the darkness of extreme and/or terminal places in order to tease out a better understanding of the latter stages of the life cycle of place-formations, and the logics by which their change to new uses, and/or new meanings comes about. In particular by colleagues Dr Carolyn Gibbeson, whose research looks at the afterlives of former mental asylums (link) and Simon Kincaid (link) who studies how fires present the limit-conditions for the continuation of historic buildings, and how systems of material things and people assemble in order to try to keep conflagration at bay. Where others of a terminal persuasion have gathered around their provocative sub-disciplinary banners of “dark tourism” and “difficult heritage”, we have started to gather threads for an “awkward real estate” battle flag (and maybe in time we’ll pluck up the rebellious courage and go the whole way: declaring for “dark real estate”).

With this thought in mind I’m delighted to announce that Carolyn and I have proposed related papers for the Thrill of the Dark: Heritages of Fear, Fascination and Fantasy Conference at the University of Birmingham, 25-27 April 2019 (Call For Papers details here) – with both of us taking that conference’s premise of investigating the fascination of some with dark places to its limit – its own terminal condition. For each of us is exploring through case studies of two different place-formations (mental asylums and bunkers) how such darkly encoded places, over time and awkwardly, transit to becoming less dark and prospects for new uses and new meanings. Here are our abstracts:

Something slowly emerging out of the dark: how former mental asylums journey towards new uses are affected by their dark heritage

Carolyn Gibbeson, Department of the Natural & Built Environment, SHU

Mental asylums are often depicted as dark, feared places. Since their mass closure in the 1990s, these imposing now abandoned and decaying sites have commonly been presented in the media as nightmarish places of torment and scandal. Yet slowly the negative perceptions (their “darkness”) appears to have receded. But, asylums have always been on a journey – with their meanings being reinterpreted over time: once considered as places of sanctuary and cure, asylums then passed on to being signifiers of confinement, disorder and care failings. But now, in abandonment they are increasingly valued for their heritage value and are being turned into luxury residential properties (Franklin, 2002). And yet some still chose to frame these places as dark: staging there macabre photo-shoots and other atmospheric engagements. The asylum seemingly can be both resolutely dark and becoming-lighter at the same time. This paper will explore the semantic and material changes in historic former asylums sites that have influenced the evolution and co-existence of these multiple frames of reference for these structures. In doing so, it will examine how we make these places meaningful by asking who the “we” in this question refers to. It will suggest that different people see former asylums as dark in different ways; that this is a subjective response and varies over time. In short, we must study why, and by whom such places are framed as dark – rather than simply taking that as a given quality. To explore this “multivalence” (Bennett 2013) I will examine three former asylum sites, their different pathways of after-use and redevelopments, showing how different stakeholders have viewed, valued and negotiated these spaces differently, how this framing has changed over time and how it has affected the individual after-use path of each of the three sites.

How and when does darkness fade? Exploring fear, fascination and ambivalence with Hitler’s Bunker

Luke Bennett, Department of the Natural & Built Environment, SHU

Within days of Adolf Hitler’s suicide in his subterranean command bunker deep beneath the Reich Chancellery, the Führerbunker came to be framed as an object of dark fascination and illicit access. First Red Army looters, then Allied investigators, and a few months later Winston Churchill all came to pick over the remains of this place. Then in 1947 Hugh Trevor Roper, propelled this cold, dank underground bunker into a symbol of thwarted meglomania, the stage for a Götterdämmerung, in his account of his search for Hitler’s missing corpse. Through such framing the site has sustained a lure for Anglo-American war veterans and tourists ever since. Yet to Germans (East and West) this site was a place of political contamination, the tomb of a potential contagion that had to be kept contained (by successive demolition action and cycles of banalisation and profanation). Almost forgotten, the site was ‘rediscovered’ in the early 1990s scrubland of the Berlin Wall’s death strip, and amidst the subsequent redevelopment of that now prime real estate a questioning of the site’s meaning, and of its potentialities, started to emerge: oscillating between calls for the primal darkness of this subterranean lair to be constructively co-opted into holocaust memorialisation and (more recently) in an increasing co-option of the site as part of heritage tours. Cultural representations of this place have become increasingly decontextualised and denatured, transformed by the generational passing of time into a more free-floating, titillating glimpse of a darkness that once was. Through this case study this paper will interpret this semantic decay, showing that ascribed darkness, fear and moral-coding for a site are not eternal givens but rather that they ebb and flow over time, and that studies of attachment to dark places need to be able to account for this, by becoming more processual.

References

DeSilvey, Caitlin (2017) Curated decay: Heritage beyond saving. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis & London.

Edensor, Tim (2011) ‘Entangled agencies, material networks and repair in a building assemblage: the mutable stone of St Ann’s church, Manchester’. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 35(2): 238-252.

Harrison, Rodney (2012) Heritage: Critical approaches. Routledge: London.

Lennon, John & Foley, Malcom (2000) Dark heritage: The attraction of death and disaster. Cengage: London.

MacDonald, Sharon (2008) Difficult heritage: Negotiating the Nazi past in Nuremberg and beyond. Routledge: London.

Van der Hoorn, Mélanie (2009) Indispensible eyesores: An anthropology of undesired buildings. Berghahn Books: New York & Oxford.

Image source: Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, Buffalo, NY: https://backpackerverse.com/10-most-haunted-insane-asylums-in-america/

The undwellable clarity of ruins: on hanging out with rubble again in 2018.

Image result for skara brae

“…the original style of life at Skara Brae [w]as hopelessly cluttered and filthy. Now it is a place scoured clean and viewed from above and all at once, which thus becomes more abstract and model-like than spaces we can actually enter.”

Robert Harbison (2015) Ruins and Fragments: Tales of Loss and Rediscovery. Reaktion: London.

One day I’ll fully get my head around Harbison’s book. His aphoristic, fragmented writing style is by turns insightful and thwarted. But his point is that fragments and ruins exist all around us – in texts as much as in buildings. We are creatures doomed to walk the Earth sticking pieces together to see what works, and what doesn’t. Not that the World is a puzzle waiting to be solved though, more like a giant instruction-less Lego set. A play of (near) infinite possibilities.

But in bringing forth some combinations, we inevitably deny others. Creating meaning, over-writes other possibilities. Harbison’s beef with Skara Brae seems to be that it’s semantic excavation is too neat – the erasure of the traces of other possibilities is too complete, and he goes on to point out that in the act of dissection the resulting place become uninhabitable. It becomes a specimen, stripped of any direct link to the authenticity of a messy, lived life. This I think is a sobering provocation for any researcher – that we must strive to be careful not to strip our quarry bare in the totalising glare of our analysis. Instead we must try to leave some life in the object of our study, even if that means that our interpretation seems somehow thwarted, denied a synoptic closure. That’s easier said than done though.

I have Harbison’s warning echoing in my mind as I set out on my next batch of conference presentations and related research projects. Once again I seem to have stumbled back into some pretty dark, ruinous labyrinths. The challenge will be to treat these awkward places and subjects necessarily with some respect and sensitivity, but also to find some way to say something new and non-local about them. I need to simultaneously lift the roof off and leave it on.

Here’s what I’ve signed up for:

March 2018: “Law in Ruins: searching for law in empty spaces”. Keynote presentation for the Institute of Australian Geographers – Legal Geography Study Group (at University of Canberra).

Here I’ll be presenting on the role and methods of the ‘spatial detective’, as a follow up my 2015 article with Antonia Layard of that name. Specifically, I’ll be looking at how law is implicated in the formation and replication of new types of places, how that place-forming function is shaped at local level by the perceptions (and feelings) of site managers, how law and materiality intersect and what happens when a place starts to die – how does law face the prospect of its own ruination?

April 2018: “Grubbing out the Führerbunker: Ruination, demolition and Berlin’s difficult subterranean heritage”. This abstract has been accepted for the ‘Difficult Heritage’ conference being held in York in April:

For a few short months in 1987, the ruined remains of Hitler’s Berlin bunker complex were quietly excavated by construction workers grubbing out its subsurface structures and in-filling its voids to enable the erection of a new East German apartment block and its associated grounds. Successive earlier attempts at erasure of this infamous site, had achieved only partial success, for mass concrete is difficult destroy, and even more-so when it lies underground. To this day portions of the complex remain inaccessible but extant beneath Berlin. This article will explore the implications of the slow, faltering physical erasure of this structure by drawing together conceptual insights from across the diverse fields of urban history and hauntology (Ladd 1997), the management/demolition of ‘difficult heritage’ (Macdonald 2010, Sniekers & Reijnders 2011), the political geographies of subterranea (Wiezman 2007, Bridge 2013, Elden 2013, Graham 2016) and studies of the material and symbolic fate of bunkers (Beck 2011, Bennett 2011, Klinke 2015, Bennett 2017). In particular, the analysis will use and develop scholarship on modern ruins in order to consider the slower-than-might-have-been-expected death of the bunker via Bartolini’s (2013, 2015) investigation of the differential rates of semantic and material decomposition of Fascist subterranean ruins in Rome and Moshenka’s (2010) work on the eruptive potentiality of the sudden resurfacing of buried (both literally and metaphorically) wartime artefacts and structures.

August 2018: “What really haunts the modern ruin?”  This abstract forms part of the 15 strong international array of contributions assembled for the proposed session entitled ‘Utility After Abandonment? The New Ruin as Cultural Asset and Public Space’ which Hayden Lorimer, Ed Hollis, Ruth Olden and I are hoping to run at the RGS-IBG conference in Cardiff this summer. There’ll be more details on this session here soon, but in the meantime here’s my abstract:

Tim Edensor (2005, 2011) has celebrated the ruin as a place of open possibilities enabled by the decay of its normativities. Meanwhile, acknowledging the ongoing role of the ruin manager, Caitlin DeSilvey has mapped out “palliative curation” as a light-touch approach to ruin-care in which the productive capacities of dilapidation are enabled. In our current study of the management and repurposing of the Modernist ruins of the St Peter’s Seminary near Glasgow, we have investigated the complex ways in which care and associated normativities are iteratively composed and applied to a ruin. Our study suggests that the pragmatic instantiations of a ruin’s care reflect complex, shifting and negotiable apprehensions by owners, managers and security staff forged in the intersection of a site’s pasts, presents and futures, and of the knowledge, risks and opportunities that this journey through time may bring. Here, the dynamic nature of the circumstances and trajectory of any ruin generate a succession of local and provisional assumptions and resulting temporary interventions, which channel engagements with the ruin and how care (and ordering) of it is materially and symbolically expressed. This presentation will explore this through an interpretation of three instances of such ‘haunting’ at St Peter’s: (1) forecasting danger by reference to elsewhere: in liability and risk assessments for organised encounters with the ruin, (2) listening to the site: reflexively adjusting attitudes towards managing recreational trespass as ruination progresses and (3) making do: the improvisational care applied to the ruin by its lone security guard, drawn from his own Lifeworld.

August 2018: “On hearing the roar of war still trapped inside: the reverberation of wartime trauma, and of the bunker, in Paul Virilio’s analysis of Pure War and Hyperterrorism.” Abstract accepted for a proposed RGS-IBG 2018 conference session entitled ‘Changing landscapes / Changing the landscapes of terror and threat: materialities, bodies, ambiances, elements’. Here’s the abstract:

“Occasionally I would put my ear against the bunker’s hardened shell to catch the roar of war still trapped inside” writes Sylvère Lotringer (Virilio & Lotringer, 2002) echoing Paul Virilio’s own captivation by these relics of the Total War of his childhood. Virilio’s account of his own first-encounter with the ruins of a Nazi bunker (Virilio, 1994), is a profoundly intimate and tactile phenomenological exploration of a terror-object. His experience provoked a heady mix of fear and fascination: fear in its recall of the deadly terror he had witnessed as a boy in wartime Nantes; fascination in the affordances presented by the affective materiality of these alien structures; and both fear and fascination in his sensing of the hostility of local residents to his untimely interest in these shunned structures of an enemy occupation. This presentation will look at how Virilio’s subsequent theorising of the evolution of war and terror has been haunted by his wartime formative experiences. These (and ‘the bunker’) resonate throughout his aphoristic writings on the Pure War condition of the Cold War, the subsequent transition to ‘hyperterrorism’, and “the emergency return of the ‘walled city’ and of the bunkerization that is blighting cities everywhere” (Virilio, 2005). A longitudinal, biographical approach will enable a critical examination of the apparent equivalence given by Virilio to the hot terror of the Nazi occupation, the cold terror of the nuclear standoff and the chaotic terror of contemporary hyperterrorism, each with their own logics for the “administration of fear” (Virilio, 2012).

Image credit:

https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/skara-brae/

 

Preview and discount code for my ‘In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker’ edited collection which is being published on 30/6/17.

In the Ruins - final cover

Provocative and informative yet personal and thoughtful, this diverse collection of essays offers a much needed exploration of that defining cultural space of the 20th century – the bunker. Bennett and his collaborators approach the ruins of the Cold War not just as historical curiosities but as the starting point for a myriad of transdisciplinary journeys and adventures.”

Ian Klinke, Associate Professor in Human Geography at the University of Oxford and the author of the forthcoming monograph Cryptic Concrete: A subterranean journey to Cold War Germany.

I’m pleased to present below a copy of the publisher’s flyer for my book, and delighted at the reviews featured there (and above).

I’m told the book (hardback and ebook formats) will be available to buy from 30 June 2017, and using the code below on the publisher’s website you’ll be able to get 30% off either format. Please note that all author and editorial royalties are being donated to www.msf.org.uk (Medecins Sans Frontieres).

In the meantime my introductory chapter is available to view for free here:

https://www.rowmaninternational.com/book/in_the_ruins_of_the_cold_war_bunker/3-156-afdcfe7a-b585-4303-82a2-23ee9b64e05d#

and here:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ruins-Cold-War-Bunker-Materiality-ebook/dp/B072SSPTXS/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1498233592&sr=8-1&keywords=ruins+of+the+cold+war+bunker

Further details of launch events will follow soon.

In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker flyer-page-001

In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker flyer-page-002

The Future of the Bunker // The Bunker of the Future: three sessions proposed for RGS 2017

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UPDATE: these proposed sessions have now been adopted by the RGS and will form part of the RGS-IBG 2017 London conference. The bunker sessions described below will be running on Friday 1st September 2017. All of the speaker’s abstracts are now uploaded and available here:

https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2017/05/21/programme-now-announced-for-1st-sept-2017-bunker-fest-at-the-rgs-ibg-london-conference/

The rationale for the sessions is set out below and in an earlier post here: 

https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2016/12/09/the-future-of-the-bunker-the-bunker-of-the-future-call-for-papers-royal-geographical-association-annual-conference-london-29-august-1-september-2017/

I’ve today submitted the formal proposal for a three session bunker strand at this summer’s Royal Geographical Society annual conference (29 August – 1 September 2017, London). Once fully approved and adopted by the RGS I will publish all of the abstracts here. But in the meantime here’s the proposal summary and contribution titles:

Proposal summary

The last two decades have seen increasing public interest in, and engagements with, the abandoned remains of Second World War and Cold War era military and civil defence bunkers. Academics have been busy analysing the motives and forms of this engagement (Bennett 2011; Maus 2017) and also charting the origins and affective-material impacts of those 20th century waves of bunker-building mania (Bartolini 2015; Klinke 2015; Berger Ziauddin 2016). Such engagements and studies have tended to figure the bunker as a now-deactivated form – as a form of contemporary ruin – and as a phenomenon of the (albeit recent) past. This set of sessions seeks to supplement this scholarship by examining the bunkers’ futurity: through considering the bunker as an immanent contemporary and still-yet-to-come form of place. This concern to examine the bunkers’ futurity will be examined in two different, but complementary, ways: first by exploring the ways in which the 20th century’s bunkers are being reinterpreted and/or repurposed for the 21st century and secondly, by analysing what contemporary bunker-building looks like, and here exploring the anxieties and desires that drive it. As John Armitage (2015) has recently argued, Paul Virilio (1994) did not see bunkers as having a singular, fixed meaning or purpose and he instead saw early signs of their semantic evolution and repurposing. The assembled presentations will each consider this evolution, but will also acknowledge that the cultural foregrounding of denatured, “funky bunkers” (Strömberg 2013) is problematic both as regards how it presents (or erases) the bunker-form’s dark history or its ongoing contemporary replication. This unease will be debated in the final session, in which contributors to the recent edited collection In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: Materiality, Affect and Meaning Making (Rowman & Littlefield International, Luke Bennett ed. 2017) will be interrogated by John Beck.

Session overview

Session 1: The Future of the Bunker: finding new uses and new meanings for the 20th century’s abandoned bunkers

1. Xenia Vytuleva, Columbia University (architectural historian) – Rethinking the Atlantic Wall: art, death and minerology.

2. Drew Mulholland, University of Glasgow (composer) – Listening to the concrete: re-composing the Atlantic Wall and Scotland’s Nuclear Bunker

3. Michael Mulvihill, University of Newcastle (artist) – The BMEW radomes: reimagining RAF Fylingdales as as military contemporary art complex

4. Kevin Booth, English Heritage (Senior Curator, North) – Re-stocking the bunker: curating creative re-uses at York Nuclear Bunker

5. Rowena Willard-Wright, English Heritage (Senior Curator, South East) – De-bunking the bunker: managing myth and misinformation in the bunkers beneath Dover Castle

Session 2: The Bunker of the Future: how we materialise our contemporary anxieties and desires in the new bunker-building of the 21st century 

6. Luke Bennett, Sheffield Hallam University (built environment) – What do we want from our bunkers? ruins, reinvention, anxiety and power.

7. Emma Fraser, University of Manchester (sociology) – Bunker play: Possibility space and survival in the Fallout series

8. Michael Adams & Carrie Wilkinson, University of Wollongong (geography) – Bugging out and bunkering down: on the sheltering tactics of survivalists and preppers in the 21st century

9. Theo Kindynis, University of Roehampton (criminology) – Subterranean sanctuaries? secret underground spaces today.

10. Session 1 and 2 Q&A and discussion.

Session 3: In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: a panel discussion

John Beck, University of Westminster (english) in conversation with Luke Bennett, Sheffield Hallam University (built environment), Kevin Booth, English Heritage (curator) & Kathrine Sandys, Rose Bruford College (scenographer) about their contributions to the edited collection, In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: materiality, affect and meaning making (to be published July 2017, Rowman & Littlefield International).

Writing in 2011 Beck declared that the bunker was incapable of cultural recuperation, and that to attempt to do so might put us in thrall to the bunker and cause us to lose sight of its dark exceptionality. Beck also argued that bunkers engender an ambivalence which makes it very difficult to ascribe any stable meaning to them. In the Ruins is an attempt to explore Bennett’s differing interpretation that it is the bunker’s ability to foster multiple parallel, but internally coherent, forms of representation (i.e. multivalence) rather than its ambivalence that calls to be investigated. Accordingly the book explores the myriad ways, practices and logics by which these concrete structures are engaged by a wide spectrum of academics and others and given stable-seeming meanings. This ‘in conference with’ session will enable Beck to engage directly with Bennett about the book’s approach, and to debate with its authors whether the book avoids being in thrall to the bunker: and whether through its focus on multivalence (Bennett), artistic appropriation (Sandys) or heritage curation (Booth).

The panel discussion will be chaired by Nadia Bartolini, University of Exeter (geography).

 

Picture credit: WWII bunker at Cape May Point State Park, New Jersey USA from: http://www.futurenostalgia.org/index.php?showimage=218, some details here: http://www.artificialowl.net/2008/10/abandoned-cape-may-giant-concrete-ww2.html