‘I dream of wires’ or, how I never became a telephone engineer


         I am the final silence

                                The last electrician alive

                                                And they called me the sparkle

                                                                I was the best, I worked them all

                                                                                                New ways, new ways

                                                                                                                I dream of wires … the old days

                                                                                                                Gary Numan (1980) I Dream Of Wires

New ways, new ways

The mist hanging low in the valley was a familiar sight. But it was the dampness of the air that struck me that morning as we stepped out of the car. The air hung around us, poking tendrils into any building open to its reach. We’d travelled up from the coast, along the valley’s ample, empty dual carriageway and its ridgeline dense with bracken and monolithic spruce plantations. The Japanese were coming…

Gwent – a county now without an official name – typified that post-industrial landscape I’d worked amidst in South Wales in the 1990s. The roads, the low grey ‘business park’ sheds parachuted in by the Welsh Development Agency as the vanguard of hoped for inward investment, like signal flares scattered across this troubled landscape.

I’d first been in this valley in 1992, to visit the Ebbw Vale garden festival. A former steel works site, temporarily tweaked to ornamental gardens in celebration of resurgence yet to come. It had taken two early morning bus rides on that occasion to be standing, in the soon to be familiar mist. And on yet another occasion, this time in the dark, another bus ride – this time a chartered one, taking the creative class out from Cardiff (the imperial enclave) for the evening. The destination then: another abandoned Ebbw Vale steel works but this time a night of experimental theatre, celebrating (or mourning) the death of hot metal in this valley, and a memory of a man – Prometheus – hanging from a gantry crane as it sped overhead during Brith Gof’s performance. Then yet another  day in this valley, civic dignitaries assembled for a visit to the valley’s hazardous waste incinerator, huddled amidst a sea of still amply stocked superscale scrap yards. That plant, a strangely low key assembly for all the local notoriety. Like a few tubes welded together and a big chimney, but all outdoors amidst that mist.

But the destination for my mid 1990s early morning mist enveloped car journey back up this valley road was a nondescript factory unit. Standing at the door of the vast industrial shed, all I could see were conveyor belts and stacks of stock, lines receding into the dark distance. Then, as I walked those lines, women sat, their arms moving in uniform motion – an epitome of the valley’s new working class. But observed up close their actions ran backwards. They were de-manufacturing, taking old telephones apart and throwing the salvaged components into coloured bins. These were disassembly lines. And the stock?:  the nation’s heap of discarded telephones, principally the Series 700 (introduced in 1959) and the Trimphone (released 1966). In 1984 the privatisation of Post Office Telephones had opened the flood gates to an influx of new models, an international direct-to-user explosion of choice.  This heap of phones was testament to the old days – the days of limited model choice, and patient waiting in line. The plant was slowly working through the heap. Once it was gone, they would be gone too.

As I wandered the plant, amidst hundreds of thousands of waiting dead phones, there was no sudden stir in unison, no throwing out of one last resistant death-ring cacophony.

A lineman for the county

                I am a lineman for the county and I drive the main road

                                                Searchin’ in the sun for another overload

                                                                I hear you singin’ in the wire, I can hear you through the whine

                                                                                                And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

                                                                                                                Jimmy Webb (1968) Wichita Lineman

In the early 1980s, as a young teenager, I’d wanted to be a telephone engineer. I’d written off to the GPO and received a manila envelope (possibly my first) in reply. Inside was a collection of leaflets telling me about the training programme for line engineers – and featuring photographs of the General Post Office Engineering Department Central Training school at Yarnfield near Stone, Staffs.  I saw happy mustachioed young men in flares and open necked shirts playing pool, eating and happily learning about multicoloured wires amidst the campus’ 1960s style wood and metal institutional architecture. The flares put me off a bit, but at the time it looked like a possible career that would set me up with a job for life.

And there was something romantic in it too. That problem solving, service restoring ethic, the mission and tasking, the promise of camaderie, of accumulated skill, of machine/human entanglement. But it was the prospect of a van, copious tools, an open road and a fakir like opportunity to escape the world by clambering up telegraph poles that did it for me the most.   On my way to school my heart would skip a beat as I saw convoys of vans setting off each day from their depot, with cable reels in tow, mounted ladders- a medley of big, small and irregular vehicles each with their own purpose, like a break-out from a toyshop. A Tonka rebellion.

Actually the convoy wasn’t telephonic. The vehicles belonged to the South West Electricity Board, their livery a municipal grey and green giving the whole despatch a vague military hew.  But that daily parade served as a nice proxy.

Somehow the idea faded though. Books took over. I never got a yellow van.  The privatisation of British Telecom in 1984 took something from the romance of being a telephone engineer. It no longer seemed like a public service, an institution, a job for life. Thereafter phones, and phone services were just commodities. My mind turned to other things.

Many of my school friends followed the lure of the van, but into the military rather than BT. Thus in the 1990s whilst I played my small – ambivalent – part in the deindustrialisation of South Wales my friends variously soaked up tank churned mud in Catterick, cheap beer in Rhineland pubs, gamma rays in the bowels of Nuclear Submarines or deadly bullets in ‘small wars’.

Hey baby, I’m your telephone man

But there was another thing that put me off. Being a telephone engineer was a fantasy of escape, of independence and yet it posed (to an innocent 13 year old boy’s mind) the scary prospect of oppressive human encounters within warm homes. I was genuinely fearful of what my customers might demand of me as ‘extras’. Remember, this was the early 1980s, Benny Hill and Robin Askwith (the Confessions of a Window Cleaner etc films) still fed the then still dominant image of the predatory desires of bored housewives and those calling upon them. It all sounded too complex, all this human stuff. There was even a song in testimony to what I feared…

                “I got it in the bedroom, and I got it in the hall

                                And I got it in the bathroom, and he hung it on the wall

                                                I got it with a buzz, and I got it with a ring

                                                                And when he told me what my number was I got a ding-a-ling”

                                                                                                                Meri Wilson (1977) Telephone Man





Image source

GPO Telephone pole man – http://www.dennishanna.com/street%20scene.jpg

Entangled bodies: urban exploration, matter and meaning making


Entanglement as a term aims to allow a materialism but

embedded within the social, the historical, the contingent.”

Hodder (2012: 96)

What does it mean to be embodied? That seems to be the contested territory standing between Garrett & Hawkins (2013) and Mott & Roberts (2013a & b) in their recent Antipode exchange. Garrett & Hawkins table a body/environment ‘entanglement’ (Hodder 2012) as the object of a new era of research into urban exploration. Mott & Roberts (2013b) counter that the main thrust of their critique of existing scholarship remains unaddressed: namely where is the appreciation of embodied difference amongst those who do – and those who don’t do – urban exploration?

Mott & Roberts’ approach is broadly concerned with the social: how can this practice be culturally situated? How can it be understood in terms of identity politics? Who is dominating this practice, and whose voices and presence is absent? In what senses (and for whom) can urban exploration be said to be liberatory? For them embodiment is a question of human identity, hinged around physical and social difference. And there’s is a call for mobilisation of a greater sense of critique of urban exploration as a predominantly white, male, young, over-educated and professional class pastime.

Meanwhile Garrett & Hawkins (whilst seemingly acknowledging the ‘masculinist’ nature of at least some urban exploration culture), avow (via considering the work of a female artist – Miru Kim – working in an urban exploration type terrain) urban exploration as a new way of reading and researching body/environment relations by looking at the embodiment of the human participant within the built environment structures that they explore.

Each then, figures embodiment differently. For Mott and Roberts bodies are carriers of human identity and difference: vectors of identity bio-politics. Meanwhile Garrett & Hawkins focus upon the experience and meshing of flesh in the world. Given their different theoretical starting points it is not surprising that agreement is not reached in their exchange.

Each ‘side’ do however appear to be helpfully raising questions under-explored in scholarship to date on this topic. Yes (aligning with Garrett & Hawkins), it would be too easy ‘just’ to examine urban exploration as a gendered practice, a frat-ish rite of passage. There is more to be said about what it is like to pit oneself against the hazardous-to-human arrangements of high, deep and otherwise inhospitable terrain in the built environment, and Garrett is prodigiously advancing this project. However the ‘what it’s like to be there?’ dimension must not become the sole focus, for there is much more that needs investigating (and critiquing) alongside developing deeper understanding of edgework and of the human/matter meld: in particular, the politics, ethics and impacts of urban exploration, and this brings me to a wider issue.

It takes more than urban explorers for urban exploration to exist. To date the focus has been upon the explorers, and often the treatment has been reverential in tone: the explorer as somehow pushing boundaries and thereby contributing in some – never quite articulated way – towards socio-spatial justice. But is exploration done ‘on behalf’ of anyone other than the explorers? What is achieved, and at what cost? The ‘downside’ is never probed, nor the limits of desirable infiltration ever fathomed. Just because it is possible to climb the latest skyscraper in London, is it right to do so? Who is affected by urban exploration and what are their rights? So far, the voices of non-participants (those who choose not to be urban explorers), of property owners and infrastructure managers, of security and rescue services, and of other types of incursionist – have all been absent.

Urban exploration may take place in buildings that are (or seem to be) empty, but they are not places that have become meaningless, and most are not actually abandoned. Many others (non explorers) have desires, and anxieties about, and relationships with these places – and the matter to be encountered within them –   the night watchmen, the site operators, the insurers, the regulatory authorities all need to be heard if we are to understand ‘urban exploration’, for it is not just a pastime that exists in isolation from the world – it is precisely its embodied (in the sense of being-in-the world and amidst matter and other people) aspect that raises these questions. Recreational trespass has consequences, it is an interaction not just with matter, but also with other human bodies and socio-technical systems. There is a human/matter ecology within the targeted buildings and infrastructure.

And urban exploration is a part of that ecology – but it is not the only actant that mobilises it. Those who perceive urban exploration as ‘done to them’ rarely draw neat distinctions between the motivations (and/or backgrounds) of the incursionists whom they encounter the traces of after a weekend of ‘infiltration’ in their premises. The modus operandi of urban explorers – viewed from the perspective of the site owner – is little different from that of the squatter, the arsonist or the metal thief or other scavenger. To understand urban exploration we would need to understand not just how individually or collectively urban explorers define themselves, but also how others (non urban explorers) make sense of recreational trespass and react to it. Intersubjectivity is not just played out between urban explorers, it also happens between others about urban exploration. There is discourse, there is representation, there is power, there is law: all in play around this issue. And all of that swirl of discursive stuff is intimately entwined with bodies and the hazards (and/or purposiveness) of matter.

To interview site owners about urban exploration – as I have done on occasion over recent years – is to encounter bewildered adults struggling to find a way to make sense of recreational trespass, of its implications for them and of rules of thumb by which they may distinguish one type of incursion from another. These bodies matter too: these are human beings facing anxieties as a consequence of site incursion, perhaps occasionally seeing fatalities and having to ‘pick up the pieces’ (in all senses). They also ‘matter’ in the sense used by Karen Barad (2007) : these bodies are just as involved as the explorers in sense making and prediction about human/matter interaction brought about through urban exploration: classically in the realm of risk assessments, and their narration of possible human/matter fateful contact. And, yes – to agree with Mott and Roberts here – owners and other reactors to urban exploration will frame their response decisions around bodily difference. Plainly, in the post 9/11 western world Moslem urban explorers are likely to be treated with greater suspicion or alarm than WASP ones – our bodies carry identity, and are interpreted by others on account of those manifest (and socially foregrounded) features of difference. Thus it is clearly (socially) more dangerous for some to do urban exploration than others.

Let me be clear, the above is not intended as an attack upon urban exploration. As my previous contributions to recent work in this area have hopefully shown, I have considerable respect for the investigatory endeavours of the urban explorers whom I have come across. I have also suggested to site owners in a variety of projects (for the British Mountaineering Council and other pro-access organisations) that site owners need to become more relaxed about adventurous recreational use of their properties.

But, if the talk is now of opening up new avenues of study in this area, I would like to endorse Garrett & Hawkins’ call for greater attention to human/matter relations, and also Moss & Roberts’ call for greater social critique. But, I would suggest that achieving both might actually require a much broader view of the field of study to emerge, one in which:

First, urban exploration is truly engaged with as a ‘spectrum’ (as per Craggs et al, 2013), putting the athletic boundary-pushing dimension into place alongside more ‘down to earth’ – and more inclusive – variants (and whether psychogeography, architectural enthusiasm or urban ‘sightseeing’) in which difference matters less; and

Secondly, one in which exploratory urban engagements of whatever hue are understood as a complex entanglement of many materialities, policies, peoples, priorities and politics, a mesh in which the urban explorer becomes but one actant amongst many.


Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. London: Duke University.

Craggs, R., Geoghegan, H. & Neate, H. (2013). ‘Architectural enthusiasm: visiting buildings with the Twentieth Century Society’. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 31: 879-896.

Garrett, B. & Hawkins, H. (2013) ‘And now for something completely different…Thinking through explorer subject-bodies: a response to Mott and Roberts’ Antipode November 2013: via http://antipodefoundation.org/2013/11/18/critical-dialogue-urban-exploration-subject-bodies-and-the-politics-of-difference/

Hodder, I. (2012) Entangled: an archaeology of the relationships between humans and things. London: Wiley.

Mott, C. & Roberts, C. (2013a). ‘Not everyone has (the) balls: Urban exploration and the persistence of masculinist geography.’ Antipode doi: 10.1111/anti.12033: via http://antipodefoundation.org/2013/11/18/critical-dialogue-urban-exploration-subject-bodies-and-the-politics-of-difference/

Mott, C. & Roberts, C. (2013b). ‘Difference really does matter: a reply to Garrett and Hawkins’ Antipode November 2013: via http://antipodefoundation.org/2013/11/18/critical-dialogue-urban-exploration-subject-bodies-and-the-politics-of-difference/

Image credit:

Naked City Spleen by Miru Kim at http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/naked-city-spleen-by-miru-kim-1 (where there are more images from her Naked City sequence and her video presentation about her project).

On staring at stuff in a weird way: ethnographic surrealism and psychogeography as connectors to everyday matter

“To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,

We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens,
And to-day we have naming of parts.”

Henry Reed, excerpt from Naming of Parts (1942, p.92)


Recently I’ve been working on a paper with two colleagues from SHU’s Institute of Education. It concerns our exploratory workshop (my part previously reported here) and draws out the similarities in our preoccupations with, and methods for, producing our accounts of a portion of campus space that day. Each of us – in slightly differing ways – exhibited in our accounts a contemporary fascination with the instability (and playfulness of) the experience of place, and also foreground the constitutive role of mundane matter in the reciprocal formation of that sense of being-in-space.

In my piece, the tactic of foregrounding the background – the infrastructural spandrels at this place – was wilfully transgressive and playful – reading Žižek’s minor passage as major. But it was also indicative of the ontological turn, a neo-materialism that seeks to return to their rightful place centre stage in social theory and research “the missing masses” (Latour, 1992) – matter itself, the stuff of the world that enables human social life and yet so often is omitted from it. My account was not written in a technical register – it was intentionally not a building survey report – something functional and/or scientific. No, I chose a register equally alien to practical science as it was to mainstream social theory and research, in its attempt to speak the non (or post) human, consistent with Ian Bogost’s (2012: 34) exhortation that we should write “the speculative fictions” of objects’ “unit-operations”, and do so by foregrounding the background, by fetishising matter and ascribing agency and quasi subjecthood to it. My wilful turn away from the human, and foregrounding of the campus as machine used the dynamic, enthusiastic register of nature writing, and in doing so offered an oddly exuberant depiction of “moments of bold leap, where cabling flew through the air from gully to gully, and strange gathering points at which multiple lines congregated”. Such stylistics would be normal for writing about flora or fauna, but is alien to the depiction of wiring. Cabling is not meant to be the subject of rapt adjectival attention.

But this warping of language and gaze was not a product of reverie. What was “found”, and what was reported was wilfully selected, theoretically informed and shaped by an anticipation of performance (the presentation) and audience (in the workshop, on my blog and for our article). The cables did not present themselves in a moment of revelation. Theory made this wierding possible and permissible, as it was for John Paul Sartre upon his first acquaintance with phenomenology in the early 1930s, an encounter that enabled him to announce with youthful glee:

“nothing appeared to me more important that the promotion of street lamps to the dignity of a philosophical object…truth drags through the streets, in the factories and, apart from ancient Greece, philosophers are eunuchs who never open their doors to it.” (quoted in Kearney, 1994: 3)

This iconoclasm – this return to things (to echo Husserl) – has recently reasserted itself. Sartre’s iconoclasm is returning. In a new, 21st century its talk is of how to find methodological:

“means by which to activate the implicit thing knowledge we already possess, as well as means to become more sensitive to the inherent qualities of things themselves” (Olsen, 2010: 18)

Yet very little has actually been said about precisely how to study and foreground the submerged contribution of material things to places and processes. For now, it is humans writing the “speculative fictions” of things – using language creatively to unmask the non-linguistic – that appears the best strategy despite it seeming a contradiction in terms. Graham Harman shows the unmasking power of creative descriptive writing in his advocacy of a “weird realism”:

“…philosophy’s sole mission is weird realism. Philosophy must be realist because its mandate is to unlock the structure of the world itself; it must be weird because reality is weird.” (2008: 334, emphasis in original)

For Harman – like Bogost – creative writing is a means by which the mundane can be foregrounded by (for example) the Kafkaesque “en-wierding” techniques of horror writers like H.P. Lovecraft. To figure an assembly of overhead cables as having spider-like qualities is to destabilise the normal, directing attention to it. Harman shows this technique to deft effect in a sinister description of a (perfectly normal) local hotel, The Nile Luxor Hilton. Harman destabilises the normal via a surfeit of attentive description and inference of agency, thus:

“Though the outer walls seem to meet at solid right angles, the hue of the concrete departs from accustomed values in a manner suggestive of frailty or buckling.” (Harman, 2008: 355)

In the juxtaposition of imagery and allusion, the given of the mundane material world is destablised and through this destabilisation foregrounded. In a similar vein Highmore argues for a revival of a spirit of “surrealist ethnography” (2002: 82) in which anthropology’s “will to order” is seriously undermined, and the messiness of daily life respected, finding “society as a totality of fragments” (emphasis in original), a phrase reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s self-described method of social analysis: “rag picking”, a position Highmore describes as being “at the crossroads of magic and positivism” (82). But it is the surrealists who Highmore figures as the epitome of background foregrounding:

“Surrealism is about an effort, an energy, to find the marvellous in the everyday, to recognise the everyday as a dynamic montage of elements, to make it strange so that its strangeness can be recognized. The classic Surrealist can be seen as Sherlock Holmes-like: faced with the deadly boredom of the everyday, the Surrealist takes to the street, working to find and create the marvellousness of the everyday.” (56)

In our article (assuming my co-authors are happy with the draft I’ve just sent them) we will argue that our accounts are characteristic of an emergent “psychogeographical” sensibility, an approach that can both embrace the materiality of the external world as a co-creator of perceived reality, and yet still retain a still powerful constructivist sentiment that aligns experience of (or at least accounting for the experience of) the world in language, affect and subjective experience. This is indeed the realm of a speculative, or “weird realism” (Harman, 2008).

Psychogeography’s relationship to academic research is ambiguous, its promise to date unfulfilled. The term was formulated by Guy Debord in 1955 in the following terms:

Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals. The adjective psychogeographical, retaining a rather pleasing vagueness, can this be applied to the findings arrived by this type of investigation, to their influence on human feelings, and even more generally to any situation or conduct that seems to reflect the same spirit of discovery.” (emphasis in original, Debord, 1955: 5).

In the hands of the Situationists, psychogeography became conflated with 1960s revolutionary playfulness and adherence to any search for “precise laws and specific effects” quickly disappeared from view, but nonetheless – even if in the end he didn’t pursue it himself – Debord conceptually mapped out territory for potential study: that intersection between human affective experience of place, and the materiality of the environment within which (and about which) such encounters occur. Debord also conceptualised the (Surrealist inspired) dérive as a “scientific” methodology – the aimless stroll intended to experience and/or transgress the habitual routes of travel and experience mapped out by the “the ambiance of the street…the path of least resistance which is automatically followed…” (Debord, 1955: 16).

As Coverley (2006) has since argued, contemporary psychogeography (as it is “practised” in the UK at least) is primarily a literary pastime, accessing an English mystic tradition stretching back to William Blake and Thomas De Quincy as much the conceptualising of Debord and the Situationist International. But none the less, the empirical programme framed by Debord in 1955 remains open to engagement within the academy, in addition to its vibrant literary life beyond it. One direction to take the ensuing enquiry is environmental psychology, deploying quantitative (and often perceptual experiment based) approaches to investigation of the environment/person nexus (for example Prestopnik & Roskos-Ewoldsen’s (2000) quantitative study of campus wayfinding strategies). The other direction is to embrace the interpretive, and journey into the marginal territory that lies somewhere between autoethnographic investigation and the creative “literary travel writing” of the contemporary Anglophone literary psychogeography (for example Sinclair, 1997; Sebald, 2002; Papadimitriou, 2013).

Research in this mode cannot offer up “precise laws” (or even generalisable) “specific effects”, but it can present rich, post-positivist reflexive description of the story stacking processes by which instances of place are encountered, and the terms (and sense) of that encounter negotiated between the creative agency of humans and the resistances and affordances of matter.

The paper that I’m working on will argue that a broadly psychogeographical research methodology entails an open, reflexive (and often playful) engagement with language, memory and the physicality of the built environment. It requires an embrace of multiplicity, indeterminacy and contingency, an attentiveness to the agency of matter (and data), and to the flux of temporalities, spatialities and normative orders apparent when one sets out to actively make meaning within seemingly “given” (pre-ordained) mundane, functional places that would normally be passed through and/or used without particular regard.

A connecting thread across my and my collaborators’ research work is a belief that all encounters with place are provisional, coalescing as tentative assemblages of matter and meaning as a function of overlapping strategies, subjectivities and materialities that incline towards conventional (and dominant) registers of experience, but which are never entirely contained by them. The “slip” is irrepressible, and psychogeographic techniques of the drift (dérive) and/or reappropriation (détournement) can be applied as a celebration of these aberrant flows, and whether as a challenge to hegemonic structures of power (as the Situationists intended) or as a “diffractive methodology” to simply bring to the foreground the messy multitude of the experience of place – the swirl of affects, ideas, conventions, artefacts, spatial arrangements and power inherent in the daily experience of learning environments.

We are conscious that our figuration of psychogeography as a playful experiential research methodology side-steps both psychogeography’s radical political aims and its originally conceptualised role as revolutionary reconnaissance. In a recent paper Shukaitis and Figiel, (2013) have reasserted psychogeography’s radical political purpose, and criticised its contemporary denaturing. But psychogeography is – as Bonnett (2009) notes – an increasingly broad church.

The concern of our paper is to consider meaning making and “mattering” (Barad 2007) in one nondescript corner of a University campus. It might well be said that our analysis omits matters of policy, funding and wider political economy. We do not deny the importance of such considerations, but do not consider that the choice is “either/or”. There are many scholars engaged with the structural dimensions of higher education policy and its impact upon campus management. We simply seek to reinsert notions of tactical agency, and affective, embodied experience into consideration of how being upon a University campus is constituted. Critical research into higher education place making tends to lapse into totalising models of “top-down” determinism, and consequently position individuals as dupes of structural imposition. In such readings, the fact that a University can make its physical landscape by arranging matter and symbols is equated with an equally efficacious ability to condition its students (see, for example, the “new model worker” thesis expressed by Hancock and Spicer, 2011). But we (after de Certeau 1984) see the “appellation” (in the sense used by Louis Althusser – that ideology “calls” to its subjects) as less effective, more messy and believe that a psychogeographically inclined investigation of the flux of such human/system encounters can reveal (and potentially) amplify this multivalence. An emergent example of a hybrid political/weird psychogeographic analysis of campus management can be found in Tina Richardson’s (2011) Deleuzo-guattarian variant of psychogeography which explicates the “forgotten” portions of the University of Leeds’ campus, a position somewhat closer than ours to what Bonnett has styled “magico-Marxism” (2009: 45).

Our concern then, is to understand how psychogeography might work as a methodology to explore matter/meaning relations, and we find much suited to our purpose in Shukaitis and Figiel’s depiction of the dérive as:

“a way [of] getting lost, of opening up how one is affected by the world, [that] brings to the fore all the richness (and horror) of the everyday that is typically not paid attention to.” (2013: 3)

This aspiration – in and of itself – has methodological merit, and some precedent as an axiom of both social research and creative enquiry. In his explication of theories of everyday life, Ben Highmore (2002) points to James Clifford’s 1981 essay, “On Ethnographic Surrealism”, which explored the 1920s and early 1930s links between the avant garde and the emergence of French enthnology. Clifford (1988: 121) saw modern ethnology as driven by a need to (in the oft quoted phrase) “mak[e] the familiar strange” (a particularly important dictum for research conducted within the researcher’s own cultural reality). But his invocation was more dramatic than those words portray, in embracing the destabilising principles of surrealism, Clifford advocated an ethnographic surrealist practice which “attacks the familiar, provoking the eruption of otherness – the unexpected” (146). He situated “surrealist ethnography” as revelling in difference and semantic indeterminacy (in healthy contrast to the taxonomic – naming and ordering) impulse of a “scientific” ethnology. Clifford’s ensuing methodological prescription co-opted the surrealist practice of collage, assemblage forming in which “the cuts and sutures of the research process are left visible; there is no smoothing over or blending of the work’s raw data into homogenous representation” (1988: 147).

Except – of course – that there will always be blending, an at least partial sense making (and committant ordering) of unfamiliar or de-familiarised reality. There will be re-constitution by the observer, in dynamic exchange with the multitude of things in the world beyond. Our concern should therefore be to explicate (after Karen Barad) how matter is made to matter by human interlocutors, and how matter has its own abilities to impose significance upon the social world.


Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. London: Duke University Press.

Bogost, I. (2012). Alien Phenomenology or what it’s like to be a thing. London: University of Minnesota Press.

Bonnett, A. (2009). The dilemmas of radical nostalgia in British Psychogeography. Theory, Culture and Society, 26(1), 45-70.

Coverley, M. (2006). Psychogeography. Harpenden: Pocket Essentials.

de Certeau, M. (1984). The practice of everyday life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Clifford, J. (1988). The predicament of culture. London: Harvard University Press.

Debord, G. (1955). Introduction to a critique of urban geography, Les Levres Nues, 6, Retrieved from  http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/2.

Hancock, P. and Spicer, A. (2011). Academic architecture and the constitution of the new model worker. Culture and Organization, 17(2), 91-105.

Harman, G. (2008). On the horror of Phenomenology: Lovecraft and Husserl. In R. Mackay (ed) COLLAPSE IV. Falmouth: Urbanomic.

Highmore, B. (2002). Everyday life and cultural theory. London: Routledge.

Kearney, R. (1994). Modern movements in European philosophy. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Latour, B. (1992). Where are the missing masses? The sociology of a few mundane artifacts. In W. E. Bijker & J. Law (Eds.) Shaping technology/building society: Studies in sociotechnical change (pp. 225–258). Harvard: MIT Press.

Olsen, B. (2010). In defense of things – Archaeology and the ontology of objects, Plymouth: Alta Mira Press.

Papadimitriou, N. (2013). Scarp. London: Sceptre.

Prestopnik, J. and Roskos-Ewoldsen, B. (2000). The relations among wayfinding strategy use, sense of direction, sex, familiarity, and wayfinding ability. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 20, 177-191.

Reed, H. (1942). Naming of Parts. New Statesman and Nation. 24, no. 598, 92.

Richardson, T. (2009) A Schizocartography of a Redbrick University. Spaces and Flows: an International Journal of Urban and ExtraUrban Studies, 1(1), 119-128.

Shukaitis, S. and Figiel, J. (2013). Metropolitan strategies, psychogeographic investigations. Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1532708613503781.

Sebald, W.G. (2002). The Rings of Saturn, London: Vintage.

Sinclair, I. (1997). Lights out for the Territory, London: Granta.

Žižek, S. (2009). Architectural parallax – spandrels and other phenomena of class struggle. Retrieved from http://www.lacan.com/essays/?page_id=218

Scree is here

scree end

Later this month I will be receiving some of the limited edition print run of Scree, my collaboration with landscape photographer Katja Hock. These will be rubber bound artefacts, the significance of the scuffed matt industrial covers being explained here. But in advance of this, and because we’d like to share our work beyond the confines of those who might normally want a ‘coffee table’ art book, here’s a link to a free pdf copy of the main part of our publication:

Bennett & Hock (2013) Scree

Scree was kindly commissioned by Amanda Crawley Jackson (Occursus) via the University of Sheffield’s Arts Enterprise Fund, and is published as part of the ‘TRACT’ series of collaborations between text and other media.

The unspoken question that haunts Scree is ‘what happens if we dwell on wasteland?’. Here ‘dwell’ can be taken in a number of directions: ponder, linger, inhabit, exist. Here’s the opening text to Scree to set the scene…

Starting out

The Wadsley Bridge to Neepsend escarpment runs along the northern edge of the upper Don valley. To the geologist this ridgeline is made up of coal measures and shales overlain by sandstone. To the local residents of north western Sheffield it is comprised of scrub, dereliction, pylons and a landfill tip. To the local historian it is an area rich in industrial and urban history.  To my kitchen refuse it is a final resting place.

To me it is all of these things, and more. In the pages that follow, Katja I and I set out to traverse this ridgeline and to depict in words and images what we find there. We can’t claim that what we find are essences – for the truth of this place is infinitely multifaceted – but what I do hope that we’ve brought closer to surface is the richness of materiality and meaning that can be found even on this steep scrubby hillside.

What is a hill?

The topography under examination here is a hybrid: pre-human geological processes sculpted this landform, but human activity added to it (and took away from it). This place may seem a grubby backwater now, but it was not always thus. The hill came to be a dynamic human-geologic assemblage, particularly in the heyday of the industrial era. Successive attempts were made to colonise this area and turn it to a variety of productive purposes. These have all left their marks. They have shaped this place, and they in turn have been shaped by it.

In a modest way we seek to give a sense of the hillside’s agency. It is not a passive, dumb brute. It has the ability to shape how humans and other creatures engage with it, and yet it is not a singular thing. It is a collection of materials, each resting on the other. The hill is a set of layers, craters and fill plus a surface crust of living and dead things that – in the main – are just passing through.

The capacity of this landform to absorb, flex and channel human activity is what has struck us most. These, like many of the city’s other hills, are rich outcrops, worked for hundreds of years for their stone, earth, water, timber, iron and game. Over recorded time these hills have been gouged by mine workings, slashed by deforestation, riven by roadways and confected by settlement. Yet each successive engagement has brought a process of human-hillside accommodation. Schemes adapted to fit geology; local topology yielded to enable temporary slithers of human incursion.

A note on style

The style of writing and reflection that follows is broadly in step with contemporary psychogeography, specifically a variant defined by Nick Papadimitriou as ‘deep topography’. In this form attention to everything is important – but in a way that avoids the crowding in of dominant (or expert) accounts of the place, as Papadimitriou puts it:

“But while knowledge of structure or nomenclature can foreground discreet aspects of a place, it can also occlude. Sensory properties of locations encountered while visiting or passed through – a particular moist wind that flaps about the face like a flannel, a singular quality of light remembered but seldom encountered – are screened out all too easily if the primary purpose is on the type of cornicing found on a building passed or the names of the building companies that transmitted field parcels into batches of housing back in the 1930s”

This approach celebrates the subjective affective response to the hillside and its human-material form. But it also (as Papadimitriou does in his work) weaves in this place’s equivalent of cornicing and the names of building companies. All are part of this hillside. Thus the end result is wantonly promiscuous, a mix of both cornicing-detail and impressionistic revere: a hybrid approach that revels, as Mike Parker has put it:

“in the connections made, the eye for the rusty and rotting, the sometimes haughty disregard for over-hyped landmarks, the comprehensive sweep that fuses politics, history and topography through observation and trenchant supposition.”

Style and substance

What follows adheres to that pattern, but if this style of landscape enquiry is to be anything other than competent word plays and an antiquarian’s eye for quirky detail, it must add some character and some insight – something that rises above the mechanical formulae by which such mix-and-match accounts can be assembled. For my part I would hope that what we present here goes that extra step in attempting to give a voice to the ‘stuff’ and ‘processes’ of the hillside by foregrounding matter – the brute ‘stuff’ of this hill – and consequential human encounters with this materiality.

In the final section I step back from my own direct experience of this place, and try to show the rich interaction with the ‘stuff’ of this hillside by people who have lived, worked or visited there and contributed their memories and enthusiasm to on-line community forums like Sheffield Forum. There is an unexpected richness in the way in which former denizens write of their experiences on (and with) the hillside.  They did not just visit or live there, they stood, dug, searched out, picked up, played upon and made and/or threw away things there. And in doing so they projected meaning and significance onto this matter, and onto the hillside.

The word ‘matter’ conjures both senses of what I’m pursuing here. How is matter made to matter? If we approach the hillside from this question we find a rich symbiotic relationship: the hill, its matter, its (only ever partial) colonisation for industry and dwelling and the daily interaction with human bodies entailed in all of that. This was evocatively struck home for me in one recollection I came across:

         the stories of local tramps

                                                                         gravitating to

                                                                                                                        the  Neepsend   brick    works

                                                                                                                        at night, to sleep in the warm

                                                                                                                        shadow  of the massive kilns.

From the pavement at Pimlico: metropolitan streets and what lies beneath



“They are the real Dasein.

Streets, buildings, airports, boats, tents, fireplaces, quartz quarries…

they are in place and they manifest themselves to us as familiar

…they appear where we expect them to be

…[they] are all within reach.”

Olsen (2010)

So, I’m preparing for a trip to Pimlico; to speak at a summit about public safety in abandoned quarries and a colleague quips, “that’s ironic, ‘cos there are no quarries in London”. He has a point, but it sets a deeper thought running.

Last time I went to Pimlico, I was there to visit Tate Britain. The treasures inside were all very well, but I was equally transfixed by the vast white elevation of building’s exterior – that Portland stone and its shrapnel marks, a testimony to a nearby instance of the Blitz: the smoothness of that surface ruptured by pock marks, revealing the granularity of the exposed quartz grains within, glistening in the low summer sun that day.

Perhaps it’s trite to say that a city is made of stuff – yet, as Bjornar Olsen reminds us so evocatively in his book In Defense of Things – archaeology and the ontology of objects (2010):

“societies and cultures…are put together … [with] real building materials – …concrete and steel, rebar and pillars [are crucially] involved in their construction…we should pay far more attention to the material components that constitute the very condition of possibility for those features we associate with social order, structural durability, and power.”

So, as distraction from packing for my trip – and as a modest contribution towards Bruno Latour’s exhortation that we must “search for the missing masses” and challenge the “oblivion of things” (Olsen) in social theory and research informed by it, I started to sew together some thoughts about the fate of stone within Pimlico, and specifically its pavements.

As Raphael Samuels shows, urban growth in the nineteenth century sucked ever greater quantities of quarried stone into the burgeoning towns and cities. That material speaks to us today in the form of statement buildings (in London that could be the grandeur of ‘mercantile’ and/or ‘imperial’ hew). As a stunning illustration of the metropolitan appetite for stone, and also of the wide geographical ‘net’ thrown by that demand, Samuels exhibits the “promiscuous variety of stone” comprising the frontage of the new (in 1878) Oxford Street premises of silk mercers Marshall and Snelgrove:

“The facade…is carried out in yellow malms and Corsham Down stone [Wiltshire], all the cornices, string-courses, and weatherings being Portland Stone [Dorset]. The lower portion is divided into bays of pilasters of Portland stone, below which are Sharp [Westmorland] granite pillars on grey Aberdeen moulded bases, the Shap and Portland being finished at their bases with ornamental bronze bands.” (both 1977: 14)

But whilst building stone may – by these component names (Portland; Corsham; Aberdeen Granite) – be vaguely  familiar to us, they give a misleading impression. For the bulk of stone summoned into city was actually consumed in its highways and pavements as sub-base, setts, kerbs and gutters.

As a case study in the fate of its road stone, Samuels shows how Aberdeenshire’s first paving contract with the City of London was made in 1766 and by the 1830s London was already a major outlet for the district’s quarries. Yet of the 36,352 tons of stone sent down to London in 1831 only 143 tons was for use as building stone: 3,137 tons were for pavements and kerbs, and 33,072 tons for ‘carriage way’, these stones (setts) being supplied in six size grades.

Key London thoroughfares were prominently laid with Aberdeen setts in the 1840s, including London Bridge, Cheapside and Moorgate, before the harder Mountsorrel stone (from Leicestershire) first trialled at Euston in 1843 came progressively to dominate as the carriage way road stone of choice for the increasingly trafficked inner city (before, in time, Mountsorrel was itself eclipsed (or at least overlain) by the less elegant but more repairable tarmacadam method, and its voracious and indiscriminate appetite for crushed stone for its oil- meets-rock matrix).

And so the city grew and grew. It also adapted. The roads and pavements accommodating to sewer laying, distribution networks for electricity, gas, telecoms, the arrival of tram tracks, the removal of tram tracks, the expansion of networks, the renewal of networks, fibre optics and  broadband, traffic control technology. With each iteration the roads and pavements were cut into and patched up  – space ebbing and flowing, made in the conduits beneath: a proliferation of colours, angles, agencies and layers of churned and re-compacted subsoil, stone, metal, power, water, waste: the life blood and bile of the city.

Picture throbbing capillaries pulsing liquid, heat and information instant by instant beneath the busy street and its Aberdeen granite jigsaw.

Then – on 25 April 2013 – at the corner of Pimlico Road, outside an antiques shop, brooding and miscontent beneath the pavement – a power cable explodes, a flash forcing up pavers and ungirded power into the day: unchained energy violently seeking out earth through sky, and escaping from the thrall of 1,867 denied users.


This strange incident then proliferates (a meme spreading through the networks, coursing through the city’s ventricles), a multitude of iterations of this video and a new found anxious regard for the safety of pavements and all that normally silent stuff that lies beneath. And subsequent reports tell us that such eruptions are not as uncommon as we might expect: 8 in 2011, 29 in 2012 and 12 in the first 6 months of 2013 according to the Health & Safety Executive (LBC).

In this eruption – like Heidegger’s thumb-striking hammer – the normally ‘in place’ nature of pavement assemblages is destabilised, for [to return to the opening quote from Olsen and to invert it by way of closing]:

“… they [normally] are in place and they manifest themselves to us as familiar

…they [normally] appear where we expect them to be

…[they] are all [normally] within reach.

[But not always entirely

under our



BBC (2013) ‘Pimlico pavement explodes, narrowly missing passerby’ BBC News London www.bbc.co.uk/news

ITV (2013) ‘Pavement Power Explosion’ www.itv.com/news/London

LBC (2013) ‘New Threat to Londoners: Exploding Pavements’ www.lbc.co.uk, LBC 97.3FM.

Olsen, B. (2010) In Defense of Things – archaeology and the ontology of objects, Alta Mira Press: Plymouth.

Samuels, A, (1977) ‘Mineral Workers’ in Raphael Samuels  (ed.) Miners, Quarrymen and Saltworkers, London: Routledge & Kogan Paul Ltd

Image sources:

Video of explosion – filmed by local resident Charlie Brook and uploaded to Youtube.

Hole in the pavement: www.itv.com

Lashed to the world: exploring building services with Slavoj Žižek


“Inside and Outside never cover the entire space: there is always an excess of a third space which gets lost in the division into Outside and Inside. In human dwellings, there is an intermediate space which is disavowed: we all know it exists, but we do not really accept its existence – it remains ignored and (mostly) unsayable. The main content of this invisible space is excrement (canalization), but also the complex network of electricity, digital links, etc. – all this is contained in narrow spaces between walls or floors.” (Žižek 2009)

So writes Slavoj Žižek in a rather rambling rumination ranging across class struggle and post modern architecture. But it is in a few corners of this piece that he touches on something that I find worth exploring here: his passing ruminations on the ‘invisible’ zones and elements of everyday buildings. This is a preoccupation that has been hovering in my posts this year as – amongst others – I’ve pondered the narrow spaces between walls and corridors to café restrooms. In these I’ve come close to echoing Žižek’s desire for:

“a house composed only of secondary spaces and places of passage – stairs, corridors, toilets, store-rooms, kitchen – with no living room or bedroom.”

But, in this essay I want to chase infrastructural conduits around one of my University’s campuses and think about how their necessary invisibilities lash to the world their more prominent cousin features. For, without these silent ‘services’, we would be lost.

I came to the Žižek essay very recently courtesy of Amanda Crawley Jackson, and it’s helped me to pull together the following reflections on an explore that took place a few months before I encountered Žižek’s thoughts on interstitial space and the spandrel.

A spandrel is an area, form or thing created by the occurrence of something else. Byproducts and wastes are an example – think plastic sprues from which model kit pieces are harvested and you have the idea. The word is architectural in origin: a spandrel is the portion of masonry sitting at the top of a column, the edges of which are the arch. The arch is seen, intended – it is foregrounded – but the attendant spandrel is ‘invisible’. It is ‘background’ to the arch and its profile. But the arch would not exist without its dull hinterland of stonework.

Chasing flows and conduits on campus
We were sitting in a room, gathered here at the end of term to discuss the variety of ways in which our teaching and research practices interrogate space and place. I’d travelled to my University’s ‘other’ campus for this session. Day in, day out I’m based in a dense, high-rise cluster of modern(ist) buildings in the centre of the city. But today I was sitting in an older building, with the ambience of a cottage hospital, set amidst the rolling green lawns, trees and winding paths of my University’s suburban campus.

We set aside an hour to each go out and investigate this space, and to bring back that which interested us and which reflected our methodologies. Sitting listening to my colleague wind up the morning session, I still hadn’t decided what I’d focus on. Looking beyond him, towards the doorway, its signage, automatic closure armature, its safety glass and the pipes and wiring conduits that also leaving our room near this point, an idea started to build, round about the time that he uttered the words “Foucault was attentive to the materiality of power.”

Stepping out into the courtyard I started photographing the fire-escapes, struck by their (physically and functionally) ‘bolted-on’ nature. I thought I might focus upon the way in which anxieties about fire safety have mapped out on-top of this pre-existing configuration of buildings and uses, but then I started to notice – smaller but ubiquitous – the sinews of black cabling held fast to the sides of these pre-electric buildings and the fistula by which these black lines wormed their way into, and out of, these buildings. Then I saw spider-like partners, clinging to the sides of these walls. Erratic, bifurcating vertical runs of pipes clinging to these stone surfaces.

I set out to follow these strange emergent connectors – tendrils binding detached buildings to each other as an assembly of indeterminant purpose. Tracing these features around the nooks and crannies of this raggedy estate found moments of bold leap, where cabling flew through the air from gully to gully, and strange gathering points at which multiple lines congregated, perhaps awaiting their turn to go inside in conformity to some unobservable rules of physics, a bottle neck or electron marshalling yard.

I also followed the cables as they burst through from the outside, switching from their black form to interior-white. I traced their paths via strange junction boxes, their dives into internal walls and most satisfying (for me – and I’d like to think for them too) their moment of eventual congress with a device requiring their power or data.

I’m told that many of the cables playing through the sky at this campus are – in fact – now redundant, with most data relayed around the estate via microwave transmitters. Perhaps it all lingers on simply because there’s nothing to be gained in taking them all down.

On being connected
Reflecting on the fascination that this web-like interconnection of buildings via these black cables summoned to mind got me thinking about a number of pictures in which supposedly separate items are connected into a group or family via web-like connections. I thought of doodling, that drive (maybe not everyone has it) to totalise individual doodles, by joining them together into an array across the page, or the techno-human assemblages of psychiatric patients, or corporate organograms.

The image here is scanned from the cover to a 1981 LP by SPK (the Australian industrial noise band, sometimes more fulsomely monikered Sozialistisches Patienten Kollektiv) the painting – which I’ve been unable to trace by any 21st century type and click methods – is attributed to a “R. Gie”, a patient at Rosegg Sanitorium in Switzerland in 1916 and entitled “Circulation of Effluvia with Central Machine and Metric Tableau”.

Gie (1916)
This patient’s depiction of all elements being wired together has both a disturbing, horror effect (think the body farm pods from The Matrix for example) and yet also a logic if you stop to think about it. As for Žižek and for Gie, we can’t escape the fact of our effluent related interconnections with mechanical systems and the senses of others. We also are enmeshed in a web of electro-mechanical power, as Jane Bennett (2010) – no relation – has shown in her analysis of “thing-power” (the agency of assemblages), with specific reference to electricity systems and their volatile assemblage of “humans and their (social, legal, linguisitic) constructions [and][…] some very active and powerful nonhumans: electrons, trees, wind, fire, electromagnetic fields.” (24)

Foucault certainly took a broader view of power than convention had dictated – seeing it as a force (fluid like) circulating in situations to enable or retard action, things to appear or positions to be framed and sustained. But perhaps he could have gone even further, to make the link between ‘social’ power and electrical / gas / water power. The full panoply of circulating, and life sustaining forces, and of the culturally ‘invisible’ spandrel empire that provides the infrastructure for this mechanical circulation and servicing of power.

To spend a lunchtime chasing conduits and cables on campus is to follow Alice down the rabbit hole and find there not a cartoon otherworld, but rather the arteries and tendrels of the vast web of interstitial spaces that anchor us – and our buildings – to the world.


Bennett, J. (2010) Vibrant matter – a political ecology of things, Duke University Press: London.
Žižek, S. (2009) ‘Architectural Parallax – Spandrels and Other Phenomena of Class Struggle’ at http://www.lacan.com/essays/?page_id=218

Four views of a grey wall: remembering, forgetting, making & embracing concrete

moore st

“Perhaps ours

is the first generation for whom

material                                              and                                        meaning

are completely and effortlessly


Caroline Bos (1995: 22)



On standing, he coughed and approached the podium. Looking apologetically out into the eager audience the final speaker offered up a nervous mea culpa:

“I’ve spent most of my life not thinking about concrete”

In ordinary company there would be nothing strange in the content of that truth (although it would be odd to bother to state it). But this was not an ordinary gathering. This was Nottingham University’s recent symposium on the Meanings of Concrete.

And yet, the strange thing was that many of the preceding speakers had, in one way or another, more implicitly echoed something similar. If concrete is returning to the aesthetic stage it is doing so awkwardly, tentatively and conditionally. No strident Neo-Brutalists here.

The event was themed around Adrian Forty’s recent book, Concrete and Culture (2012) and Prof Forty was there and contributed a short synopsis of his thinking on the semantics of concrete. For Forty the big point about concrete is its indeterminacy. Applying a linguistic-structuralist tinged analysis, Forty concluded that this ubiquitous material is restless, it has no stable classification and therefore provokes ambiguous (some might say conflicted) cultural responses.

In furtherance of this point he aptly quoted Peter Schjeldahl’s wonderfully vivid depiction of the slippery meanings of this:

“liquid rock – concrete is born under a sign of paradox and does not care…concrete is most careless, promiscuous stuff until committed, when it becomes fantastically adamant.”(1993: 28)

This is a material of indeterminant state and strength, at points almost living and at others resolutely dead, fixed and brutally immovable.

Forty’s key thesis is that we simplify to depict concrete as a messianic proposition – a wonder material – in the early 20th century and the antithesis of this one hundred years later. To equate concrete with Modernism ascribes too much stability to concrete’s status and image at any point in time. As Forty pointed out, Modernism was about transparency, and steel was so much better suited to fitting that brief.

It is concrete’s mutability (and mouldability) that is both its virtue and its vice. It is a shape changer , but the properties that give it that amorphous quality deny it a stable place in culture, and Forty concludes that this unstable, unclassifiable otherness explains much of the popular antipathy to it. If architecture is haunted by John Ruskin’s invocation that good design would reveal the truth of materials – their honesty to their properties and form – then concrete violates this aesthetic framework, because it is a shape-shifter, as Schjeldahl puts it:

“Promiscuous, doing what anyone wants if the person is strong enough to hold it, concrete is the slut, the gigolo, of materials.” (1993)

The thread connecting many of the speakers at this event was the idea of concrete as anaesthetic (in the sense of invisible, not noticeable). Barnabas Calder, charted this through the career of Denys Lasdun (of National Theatre / South Bank fame). Calder reported how Lasdun’s work in the 1950s had not advocated whole elevation use of exposed concrete, and that it was only at the height of Brutalism in the 1970s that concrete had emerged foregrounded as a surface, prior to that modernists of Lasden’s ilk were advocating construction in concrete as a means to an end – as a way of opening up the built forms, rather than advocating a pro-concrete material aesthetic per se. Primarily reinforced concrete posed new (fairly cheap and certainly strong) structural (i.e. load bearing) possibilities. Traditional constraints on size and openness of buildings could be surmounted with concrete.

As Modernism evolved, and as an ancillary, the aesthetic value of concrete (and its colour pallet) emerged as it came to be regarded as a background tone that would not crowd out the human or natural elements in the local environmental frame. In short, using concrete was a way of transcending matter through use of a ubiquitous, register-less material .

There were some echoes of this in a later talk by Rob Hayes of architects Curuso St John, a practice with something of a niche in the rediscovery of concrete architecture. Yet Hayes illustrated how concrete emerged into his case study projects as solutions or fine tuning to designs that primarily featured other construction materials. Here concrete was finding use as novel surface finishes, twists and details – not as a signal of a Neo-Brutalism. For Hayes, the use of concrete within these projects helped to stop the building being about the building – focussing instead upon letting the building just ‘be’ (i.e. exist for its purpose). Hayes’ illustrations, alongside Fiona Samuel’s presentation on Le Corbusier’s churches, both went some way to refute the accusation oft made against concrete that it is unsuitable as a visible construction material because it is incapable of carrying detailing, Hayes showing concrete’s suitability to mosaic and other imprints, and both speakers showing this material’s ability to curve, and portray complex organic textures and shapes.


The plan was laid, this grey matter should not be seen. At dusk the change would begin.

The event’s compere, Steve Parnell  opened the day with reflection on the obliteration of concrete icons in Sheffield, remarking how ‘The City of Steel’ was at its height more a ‘City of Concrete’ and how the turn away from Modernism since the early 1980s has seen the erasure of prominent concrete landmarks, either by outright demolition or by a process of masking – a surfeit of cladding over Brutalist concrete surfaces. Thus the iconic grey forms of the Tinsley cooling towers, once standing proud astride the elevated sections of the M1 have been pulled down, to be replaced by a human form statue: The Man of Steel. Thus this city defines itself through the metallic form rather than the cementatious.

Meanwhile the Park Hill Flats – a vast concrete ridgeline now Listed against demolition, are in their regeneration to be saved from concrete oblivion by the insertion of metal cladding and a stainless steel  corkscrew staircase.

And a monolithic Moore Street electricity substation in the centre of the city is softened (at night at least) via bathing in multicoloured spotlights.

It seems concrete grey is only appropriate for aesthetes – the mould poured artist studio bloc of Persistence Works being the only blatantly concrete poured building to have been erected in unapologetic blockhouse form in recent decades. Concrete style – concrete as foreground, as surface – is left to exist as an isolated artist-thing. And yet…


Striding out from his site office, the site manager proudly surveyed the scene before him. Standing by a freshly laid foundation pad, he took a deep breath, leaned back in satisfaction and extolled the marvellous self-levelling properties of his new concrete mix. Yes, there is a high-art fetishism that can attach to this grey matter, but there is also a robustly prosaic field in which concrete comes to the forefront of attention, and approaches a material-love.

Alexander  Styhre writes of this in the context of a study of Swedish tunnelling contractors, and the aesthetic nature of their tacit knowledge – accumulated as sheer experience of concrete’s behaviour – as concrete sprayers. He reminds us that aesthetics was once wider than the fine art sense in which it is commonly used today and covered craft – artisanal work too. Proficency in such human-material engagements requires attunement of all the senses, as one concrete sprayer put it:

“Quite often, you hear various sounds…you may see the movements of the [spray] machine…you notice that it doesn’t do too well, the spray concrete just bubbles and hisses by the mouth-piece, and then something’s wrong…you can listen to the pump-beats whether machine works as it should” (2008: 407)

In making his point Styhre makes an interesting observation – that for the fine arts aesthetics is a matter of what is produced, whilst for the artisan aesthetics is processual – it is about attaining (and maintaining) the craft and competence entailed within the task, its technology and its matter.

Forty addresses this and concrete’s high art vs daily craft duality in his book – noting that care should be taken not to ascribe the origins of the proliferation of concrete construction entirely to the world of architects and technologists. Instead, space should be preserved for the pragmatic, on-site, ‘trades’ level development of concrete usage (and in particular the pioneering of reinforcement). Thus, much of the life-history of concrete lies in these hands, and is largely unrecorded. But these hands (and the wisdom and experience connected to them) were engaged in close, co-evolving relationships with concrete, an everyday erotics of trial and error, experience of this stuff, its abilities and weaknesses.

Standing by the freshly laid foundation pad, the site manager continued on, his traumatic sagas of premature curing, and of consequent cracking, rolling forth punctuated by the palpable joy of his newly-found improved concrete formula which has rendered all that pain a thing of the past.

But no one would suggest that the high-end housing estate that he was building should be built of concrete. Oh, no – these will be houses faced with brick (with concrete blocks behind, as Building Regs dictate in acknowledgment of concrete block’s better thermal performance than the humble house brick). That will fit the character of the area and the tastes of the market. Poured concrete homes in the UK have the connotation of poorly built housing for the poor.

Back at the conference Adrian Jones, Nottingham City Council’s former Director of Housing gave some sense of this in his overview of the relationship between concrete and his city’s development. The Post War situation saw demand (and Governmental will) for reconstruction and for modernisation. Concrete offered the promise of speed, relative cheapness and a sense of the future. Construction came to look increasingly factory orientated – with system building. But the structures thrown up in this wave did not prove durable. Sometimes this was due to poor build (or the limitations of concrete) and at other times it was simply vulnerability to a public sentiment that had never fully embraced concrete as a ‘proper’ construction material (unless that stuff was secreted out of view within a more palatable material coating of brick, cladding or render).

Jones also gave an enticing glimpse of the normally unnoticed local landscape of concrete supply – the quarries and batching plants, the riverside (concrete) warehouses, the roads and bridges by which this grey stuff was made and found its way into the city. Much of this infrastructure of local extraction and transhipment is now gone. A new branch of infrastructural urbex waiting to be explored…


As the traceur pauses, staring out in to the landscape before him, something catches his eye:

“The differences in height, and the material of the surfaces are, you know, optimal, and…it has…this concrete wall which is not painted, not polished at all, so first of all it’s good to hang from and to practise things, and it doesn’t show any traces on white paint, for example, so that nobody has a reason to complain, and it is really, very diverse.” (2012: 169)

So states, ‘Valtteri’ a Finnish traceur interviewed in Lieven Ameel and Sirpa Tani’s research into the everyday aesthetics of Parkour , and specifically the development – within that practice – of what traceurs call “Parkour eyes”,  an attentiveness to structural and surficial details that would not normally register in conventional engagements with the urban environment. Thus to become proficient in Parkour is to develop an ability to read the surrounding  with all senses engaged, and to commune with such objects wilfully, intimately (for example by bodily slam, the trusting of weight or anticipated degree of friction). In such engagements – it appears – concrete comes out very well, and thus a conventionally drab decaying concrete landscape becomes valorised for a range of non-visual qualities (strength, traction, uniform gradient, camber, temperature). These qualities all contribute to the usability of these objects, and are interpreted aesthetically as the ‘feel’ of the object. Thus developing ‘Parkours eyes” Ameel and Tani conclude:

“Is not only about seeing possibilities in unexpected places, but also about seeing possibilities for attaching new and unexpected feelings to place” (170)

And thereby a prosaic, everyday “aesthetics of ugliness” (171) is found for the concrete wall.

In similar vein one can hear the unnamed writer of Article Magazine, gazing at the Moore Street Brutalist structure, summoned to stop and stare by the brute concrete edifice:

“I hear dubstep whenever  I see this building: lurching over it seems to force me into the ground. Its only purpose is to keep people out and yet it succeeds in drawing me into it.” (Article: 2009)



Ameel, L. & Tani, S. (2012) ‘Everyday aesthetics in action: Parkour eyes and the beauty of concrete walls” Emotion, Space &Society 5 164-173

Article Magazine (2009) ‘Sheffield Concrete’, www.articlemagazine.co.uk/wordpress/feature-articles/sheffield-concrete

Bos, C. (1995) ‘Painful Materialism’, Daidalos, Aug 1995, p.22.

Forty, A. (2012) Concrete and Culture: a material history, Reaktion Books: London.

Schjeldahl, P. (1993) ‘Hard truths about concrete’, Harper’s Magazine, 287, no. 1721, October 1993, pp. 28-30 [a longer extract from this wonderful paean to concrete is at: http://marchingunderbanners.net/2011/09/21/hard-truths-about-concrete/]

Styhre, A. (2008) ‘The aesthetics of rock construction work: the beauty of sprayed concrete, rock reinforcement and roof bolting’ Culture and Organization, 14, 401-410.

Photo credit: Moore Street Substation (Sheffield) by thebustocrookes www.flickr.com/photos/thebustocrookes/8396394404