Infrastructure, investigated: thoughts from the SHU SPG conference

Isle of Axholme (Brian Lewis)

“Infrastructures are the collectively constructed systems that also build and sustain human life. “We” build infrastructure, and it builds “us.” Infrastructure exceeds its most obvious forms — the pipes, roadways and rail that often monopolize our imaginaries. Social infrastructures are also built, material, and lasting. Even intimacy is increasingly understood as infrastructural.”

Deborah Cohen (2017) ‘Infrastructures of Empire and Resistance’, blog here

So, the idea was to gather together a group of people to talk about how and why they focus upon infrastructure in their research activities. In short: to form a temporary infrastructure of knowledge exchange, of intimacy even. And this is what we achieved at the recent SHU Space & Place Group conference. I’d hoped that we’d presence the often backgrounded infrastructures that enable social life but I think we also got a bonus too, a glimpse of the human within infrastructure: both in terms of a fundamental dependency, but also as an authorship, and fellow-travelling. Infrastructure is of-us and we of-it. As Paul Graham Raven reminded us at March’s taster event, for Donna Haraway we are already cyborgs, beings melded with technology, whether we like it or not.

Richard Brook (Manchester Metropolitan University) picked up this theme in his opening presentation. As an architect he’s interested in how infrastructure is a mega-object emplaced into the environment with varying degrees of explicit attention to design and context, versus the compulsion towards function-determining-form. Helpfully he showed how attitudes towards the formation of infrastructural objects and their networks have fluctuated over time: in some eras infrastructure has been the subject of presencing, or ‘fitting-in’ through design (i.e that the host society has foregrounded it, perhaps as a sign of modernity and progress) whilst it has been the subject of less concern and consideration in other eras. But in most eras design focus and appreciation of environmental ‘fit’ has still tended to follow a “view from the road” rather than a “view of the road” approach for most infrastructure which we travel or inhabit. We are supposed to look out from not look at infrastructure.

Next up architects Cristina Cerulli and Sam Vardy (SHU) reported on their project with MArch students exploring the theme of ‘infrastructures of autonomy’, considering both the ubiquity of infrastructure in the modern world, but also of how it might be critiqued, adapted and made-different. They took us through the journeys that their students have been on, first forming their own sense of what infrastructure is and then developing their views of how it might otherwise be: and whether through a design (or political) processes of addition, subtraction or mutation. Their project’s blog can be viewed here: link

Then we shifted out attention to infrastructures of power generation and supply. Will Eadson (SHU) outlined his research into the politics of district heating networks, reminding us that each element of infrastructure is owned by someone, and that the interaction necessary to create and maintain a system requires a shared purpose and a mechanism of collaboration. Will pointed out how through combinations of politico-technical friction within these systems, the best of intentions can be thwarted, or rendered more difficult than their engineering or architectural designs might suggest.

Martin Dodge (University of Manchester) turned our attention to a historical perspective, by outlining his work researching the  now-vanished 20th century network of power generation and supply in the Bradford area of north-east Manchester. He showed us how through archival searching he has pieced together a sense of the scale and purpose of the colliery, power station, gas works and abattoir that once operated as an integrated cell-like, metabolic infrastructure feeding itself and nourishing outward. But also spewing out legacies of pollution and ill health. Martin’s presentation sparked debate about whether heavy industry should be the focus of narratives of ‘loss’ and whether such foregrounding is (in any sense) nostalgic, and whether it is right or wrong to build the stories of place other than through the interview testimony of those who once worked there. Martin was open and generous in giving his responses, and in doing so indicated (for me at least) that if the aim is to presence infrastructure then the presencing of the researcher (and of their motives and feelings about what they have chosen to research, and why) is a very important – but often hidden – part of the story. A copy of Martin’s slides can be viewed here.

After lunch we reconvened to hear from Fides Matzdorf (SHU) taking us through her ethnographic account of improvised infrastructures within the spaces and places of competitive ballroom dancing. Fides showed us how generic municipal spaces (e.g. town halls) are locally and individually adapted by the competitors who appropriate the ledges of memorial plaques, radiators, window fixings as improvised changing stations. Her presentation reminded us that infrastructure is fundamentally about environmental adaptations to some pressing purpose, and that spaces can be multi-use, adapted in the moment with a venue’s infrastructural (event enabling) affordances brought out by the user, rather than designed-in, intentionally by the original place maker. Thus not all infrastructural function and use is (or can ever be) anticipated by the designer.

Then sound artist Matt Parker (University of the Arts, London) turned our attention to the presence of the infrastructures of the internet, giving them a sense of mass and energy consumption through his atmospheric short film which uses field recordings of the sounds emitted within server farms to emphasise that ‘the cloud’ is not light – hardware is just that, hard, heavy and sucking in energy at an exponential rate. The effortless screen-world of the now is enabled through a physical infrastructure that is located elsewhere, out of sight but with a heavy footprint that is visible and audible, if we know where to look (and choose to do so). Matt’s film is here:

And there’s more at: http://www.thepeoplescloud.org/

Brian Lewis (poet and publisher, Longbarrow Press) then counterbalanced the claustrophobia of Matt’s presentation by taking us outside – first through White Thorns his poetry recital, to the Isle of Axholme, the empty seeming flatlands of North Lincolnshire, where he performs long, lone night walks.

On high, a freehold
of six thousand square metres
threshed by a rotor.
All the feathering threefold
swept into pitch cylinders.

Brian’s verse (extract above and more here) drew into relief the infrastructural features of that landscape – the wind turbines, the drainage ditches and the agricultural apparatus and showed himself drawn into co-occupation of space with them thereby revealing a highly populated landscape devoid of humans. Then Brian took us outside – literally – leading us out into the daylight of Sheffield for a meander past the culverted outcrops of the River Sheaf, the barren straights runs of the tram lines as they parallel the railway station and inner ring road, across a long, confined metal bridge tunnel, that few in Sheffield choose to notice and thereafter winding up through narrow lanes to SHU’s Cantor Building for a haiku writing session inspired by the walk (with some of the compositions scrolling below).

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Then the event ended with John Grant’s (SHU) tour of the roof of the Cantor Building, showing us its heat and power infrastructure and outlining how resilient this building would be as a hiding place in the event of a zombie apocalypse. John uses this colourful metaphor as a way of engaging students in the prosaics of assessing the energy rating of buildings – it being more attention grabbing to presence infrastructure through setting the challenge of finding ways of avoiding encounter with the flesh-failing bodies of the undead than in foregrounding infrastructure through attentiveness to the power rating plates of blank solar cells and heat exchangers.

Thus, in all of the talks the power of narrating infrastructure – of knowing and presencing it for a particular purpose – came to the fore.

Image credit: Isle of Axholme (Brian Lewis)

NB: My spell checking tells me that presencing is not a real word. But it should be, and one day I will try to fully explain why. In brief, it was a term used by anti-nuclear activists in the 1980s to counter the ability of the nuclear state and its infrastructure to hide in plain sight, and involved mobilisation of a variety of representational strategies (photography, performance, writing, archival research) to make sure that that infrastructure’s  footprint was noticed (see for example the work of the Atomic Photographers Guild: https://atomicphotographers.com/). An extreme instance of presencing is the spraying of human blood on nuclear facilities by the Ploughshare activists, as chronicled in  Eric Schlosser’s (2015) Gods of Metal, see also: https://www.ploughshares.org/about-us.

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Utility After Abandonment – details of our 15 paper ruins session at the RGS-IBG Conference, Cardiff August 2018

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“…show no pretence of other art, and otherwise… resist all tampering with either the fabric or ornament of the building as it stands; if it has become inconvenient for its present use, … raise another building rather than alter or enlarge the old one; … treat our ancient buildings as monuments of a bygone art, created by bygone manners, that modern art cannot meddle with without destroying.”

Manifesto of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, 1877

In his SPAB manifesto William Morris declared that in their original completeness buildings have a fixed identity and authenticity which can be maintained indefinitely via timely and proactive works of protection and maintenance. Thus reactive restoration should never become necessary, if precious buildings are looked after properly. But SPAB’s concerns were for the preservation of a few signature buildings, and their dream of an indefinite remaining-as-is was just that, a dream and whether for the iconic few or the prosaic many. All things fall apart, and protection and maintenance programmes are usually a question of controlling the rate at which ruination occurs, rather than holding it at bay permanently. For most buildings the journey towards ruin is inevitable, unless an evolving, adaptive re-use strategy is enlisted. The choice is a stark one: adapt or die.

But viewing ruination as a process offers the prospect that the chosen re-use point could be set at any of various stages along that journey. The structure that is being re-used could already appear to be markedly dilapidated by the moment of its salvation via an adaptive re-use. And in some quarters it is the very emergence of architectural decay that spurs a revalorisation and the opportunities for re-use that then ensue (and the challenge then becomes one of how to artificially freeze the building in that state – but no worse – and to activate its use in a manner fit for the tastes and needs of now, rather than the moment and purpose of its origination).

I’m delighted to announce that we are going to have a three part session exploring the utility of contemporary ruins at this summer’s Royal Geographical Society annual conference in Cardiff (28-31 August). The exact date of our session will be announced towards the end of May (and details will be posted here). But in the meantime here are details of the 15 papers that we have, showcasing ruin//reuse research from all around the world: Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and the Arctic.

Session 1 – Curating ruination: care, affect and mattering

Chair: Edward Hollis – University of Edinburgh

The shimmering ruin

Hayden Lorimer – University of Glasgow

This paper will do three things. First, it will introduce the conference session establishing its purpose, parameters and potential. It will consider how, in the current conjuncture, ruins are being reimagined, repurposed and reactivated, where new utility is found after long periods of abandonment and entropic decay. If this signals a reversal in ruinous fortunes – with present-day or near-future ruins repopulated as public spaces and cultural assets – it also presents significant challenges for heritage managers, land owners, arts practitioners and social activists, in legal, social and creative terms. Second, the paper will consider how recent interdisciplinary scholarship in the fields of ruin studies and heritage studies can provide the theories necessary for critically understanding projects of re-occupation or (re)-construction. This exercise of taking stock conceptually will be a means to reckon with ruins, culturally and materially, in updated form (Edensor and DeSilvey 2012). Third, the paper will briefly put some of this thinking to work in a single introductory study. Kilmahew-St.Peters (KSP) is a signature site for reimagining the new ruin. Located in the West of Scotland, KSP has been the subject of recent experiment: ground-breaking, arts-led, community-facing and heritage-driven. Outcomes at KSP remain complex and contingent, with a local culture of ruin-care perhaps destined to be perennially transitional. The site’s vexed history will be presented in capsular form, as a sequence of live tweets. This illustrated frieze will serve to preface three later contributions to the session, alighting on specific aspects of KSP’s past, present and future.

What really haunts the modern ruin?

Luke Bennett – Sheffield Hallam University

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.

Wymering Manor: ordinary matters and everyday practices in at risk historic sites

Belinda Mitchell & Karen Fielder – University of Portsmouth

Focussing on historic buildings which are at risk, we are interested in the disciplinary territory that lies in the overlap between interior design and conservation practice by conceptualising historic interiors as unfinished sites of experience loaded with affective capacity. The work aims to examine the representation of such spaces from the inside out through new materialist theories and creative methodologies in order to articulate the sensory in conservation practice and to rethink historic interiors accordingly. An uninhabited 16th-century timber-framed manor house in Portsmouth provides a case study for this experimentation. We propose that the house is experienced all the more poignantly as it hangs in a transitional state prior to any unified programme of restoration and reuse which would determine a fixed and static end point. The concern in this essay is with the house, its material/immaterial matters and the matter of the local community who are reimagining its futures in their ongoing efforts to save it. We are interested in the everyday community responses to the impulses that derive from the material mattering of vulnerable historic sites and the values and attachments that are formed through these material flows. The commonplace interactions and gestures of the community are discussed through referencing Kathleen Stewart, where “the ordinary is a shifting assemblage of practices and practical knowledge, a scene of both liveness and exhaustion, a dream of escape or of the simple life”.

Ruins fermentation: practicing different forms of culture

Lilly Cleary – William Angliss Institute, Syndney

The process of fermentation, according to Sandor Katz (2010), describes the creative space between fresh and rotten; fermented products creatively arise within a collaborative web of microbial relationships and “they are embodiments of culture not lightly abandoned” – or left to exploitation by intensive production and its inherent need to value uniformity, consistency and durability in the name of safety.  This paper enrols the practices of fermentation, materially and metaphorically, as a way to bring together the connected questions of how to activate modern ruins creatively and collaboratively, as well as safely, albeit in a less uniform and consistent way. My analysis reports on the repurposed use of a disused abattoir in regional Victoria, Australia – a site saved not because it was valued, but instead has become valued because it has been saved (DeSilvey, 2017).  Usually associated with death and decomposition, a number of craft fermenting businesses have begun to re-configure and re-perform the space. Here, rot as the active agent of ruination (Lorimer and Murray, 2015) has been displaced by rot as an active agent in convivially making welcome the uncertain and often inconsistent agencies of humans with nonhumans. My paper builds on this case study to reimagine the decomposition of ruins as productive public sites for practicing different forms of culture and “wild” culturation – asking, how might the practice of ‘ruins fermentation’ allow us to engage in a very material sense with the abandoned spaces, microbial traces and living communities of ruins.

Actively awaiting ruins in the Netherlands

Renate Pekaar – Cultural Heritage Agency, The Netherlands

Clemens Driessen – Wageningen University, The Netherlands

In the Netherlands, a ruin is hard to come by. Of course, there are occasionally buildings that are no longer in use. But before they get a chance to fall into disrepair and attain a ruinous state, these structures will have been either refurbished, or torn down. By discussing a series of cases of buildings that almost, or only briefly, had become ruins, this paper will explore the motives and speculate on the cultural origins of what arguably is a collective desire to clean up every structure that is no longer used, or to diligently reconstruct historical ruins to their imagined original splendour. The first author of this paper, as a heritage professional working for the Dutch government, has in her work sought to advocate an approach of ‘actively awaiting’ – allowing for time to generate a renewed interest in (listed) buildings that are no longer functional, or perhaps leading to an appreciation of the process of their falling apart.

Some efforts have recently emerged that seek to actively promote an alternative aesthetic in which decay is accepted and given new meaning. An example is the ‘Ecoruine’ project in Northern Groningen, where historical farm houses are projected, via computer renderings of future ruins, to be the scenic backdrop of a campsite. This paper will seek to answer whether through this type of work the dominant sense of degeneration associated with dilapidated buildings in the Netherlands could -over time- be replaced by the ruin as somehow valuable, embracing its evocative and ecological quality.

Session 2: Reusing the ruin: pressures, opportunities and difficulties

Chair: Hayden Lorimer – University of Glasgow

Castles in the Air, Facts on the Ground. An examination of imaginary proposals for the ruins of St Peter’s Kilmahew

Edward Hollis – Edinburgh University

Written six centuries ago, Alberti’s dictum that ‘Beauty is that thing to which nothing may be added, and from which nothing may be taken away’ haunts our attitudes to heritage today. Conservators, art and architectural historians document and discuss buildings and artworks as singular artefacts, usually authored by single authors, possessing a completeness that time, decay, and atrophy can only spoil. That’s the traditional story, anyway; and it is one within which the ruin takes an uncomfortable place. Following eighteenth century ruin theorists, and anticipating Edensor, the architectural historian John Summerson tried to reconcile the ruin with classical aesthetics by suggesting that the incompleteness of the ruin is suggestive: it invites completion in the minds’ eye. But that state of completion may, as the nineteenth century restorer Viollet le Duc suggested, may never have existed – it is, as Ricoeur suggests of memory, an imaginary all of its own, as well as the recollection of something but lost. In this sense, it may be afforded all sorts of creative latitudes that a strictly archaeological reconstruction of the past may not. This paper will explore these imaginary latitudes by considering a host of castles in the air: unrealised creative proposals generated by one real ruin. Since its abandonment in the late 1980’s St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross has spawned, in projects devised by developers, artists, activists, and students of architecture, landscape, and interior, hundreds of projects for its completion. These projects differ from other creative interventions, from graffiti to events, that have taken place on and in the site: this is a study of works devised in absentia, on paper and in the screen. On the face of it, these proposals are thought experiments. What do these projects, each a snapshot of attitudes to the site at the time it was made – a sort of retelling – tell us about changing attitudes to St Peter’s itself as it undergoes its own processes of ruination? This process of change is, in some sense, a result of the dissemination of these imaginaries in their own right – through exhibitions, online, in reports and so on. How do they speak to one another, through networks of influence and counterreaction? How these imaginaries relate to the site itself? In some, it is used as an object of contemplation; but in others, the causality is reversed, and these remote imaginaries have left traces on the site that then suggest further possibilities of their own. Finally, this enquiry will return to Alberti’s dictum, to ask how such projects, themselves incomplete, transitory, co-dependent with another ‘work’ the ruin itself) may be understood as creative works. If beauty is that to which nothing may be added, and from which nothing may be taken away, then how are these works of subtraction and addition, in themselves, beautiful?

What to do with incompletion? Learning from Incompiuto Siciliano

Pablo Arboleda – University of Glasgow

For the past five decades, around 400 unfinished public works have been erected in Italy as the result of deliberate, dysfunctional modernisation – political corruption and mafia networks involved. A third of these constructions are located in Sicily alone and so, in 2007, a group of artists labelled this phenomenon an architectural style: ‘Incompiuto Siciliano’. Through this creative approach, the artists’ objective is to put incompletion back on the agenda by considering it to have heritage value and, in doing so, their aim is to change the buildings’ dark side and turn it into something positive. This presentation reviews the four different approaches that the artists have envisaged in order to deal with unfinished public works: to finish them, to demolish them, to leave them as they are, or to opt for an ‘active’ arrested decay. The cultural implications of these strategies are analysed through the study of different architecture workshops that have been taking place during the last ten years, and this body of knowledge is supplemented by a long semi-structured interview conducted with one of the involved artists. Ultimately, it is concluded that incompletion is such a vast and complex issue that it will surely have more than a single solution; rather a combination of the proposed four. This is important because it opens up a debate on the broad spectrum of possibilities to tackle incompletion – considering this one of the key contemporary urban themes not only in Italy but also in those countries affected by unfinished geographies after the 2008 financial crisis.

A Tale of Two Cities:  An exploration of psychohistorical legacy in shaping attitudes towards modern ruins in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Harriet McKay – London Metropolitan University

Their nicknames say it all.  Cape Town as South Africa’s ‘Mother City’ seems dependable, knowable, safe and somehow western.  Indeed the term Mother City is innately connected with white European assumptions of ownership. But beyond her mountain range lies something quite different; Africa.   That Africa of course, includes the far edgier ‘Jozi’; Johannesburg. This paper will explore the recent utilization of an abandoned early twentieth century Cape Town grain silo and its redevelopment as Zeitz Mocca (Museum of Contemporary African Art).   Widely acknowledged as having been inspired by the Tate Modern/Guggenheim Bilbao models, this new emblem for championing contemporary Africa was designed by British architect Thomas Heatherwick and sponsored by German entrepreneur Jochen Zeitz. Nine hundred miles away the Hillbrow Tower dominates the Johannesburg skyline. Built in 1968 this telecommunications tower represents South Africa’s economic boom under Grand Apartheid.  That it, like many of Johannesburg’s 20th century ruins, remains an uncared for white elephant is testimony to a fractured, and therefore much more ‘South African’ history than Cape Town’s ‘Europeanness’ will admit. Johannesburg’s abandoned sites however betray the largest metropolis on the continent to be sitting between the rock of its late 20th century past and the hard place of wanting to be a modern and truly African city. Examining approaches to redevelopment, or its failure, this paper will use Cape Town/Johannesburg examples to explore the barriers to activating ruins safely, creatively and collaboratively or indeed, at all.

Value negotiations at the margins: Bringing a town back from the dead

Samantha Saville – Aberystwyth University

The high arctic settlement of Pyramiden, Svalbard is in many ways an archetypal ruin, increasingly renowned as a ‘ghost town’. Post-industrial, post-Soviet, post-permanent population. Fiendishly enticing, not only to those imbued with even the slightest tinge of ruinen lust, Pyramiden also offers stunning glacial vistas and ample opportunities for wildlife watching in relative peace. Pyramiden is no longer post-profit or post-potential. Over the last 6 years there have been increasing efforts from its Russian owners to capitalise on this cultural attraction and its location. Tourist and scientific activity is growing.  The re-development and re-use of Pyramiden is however fraught with a number of questions as to what should be valued, how and what this means for the town’s ongoing use. What exactly is cultural heritage, and how should it be managed/ protected/ cared for – whose version of value, conservation, safety and heritage counts here? How are the ambiguous configurations of nature/culture, past/present, care/abandonment to be treated as Pyramiden morphs from ruin to something else? Drawing on doctoral research, I discuss how this story of recognition and revitalisation of a cultural, political and economic asset has been unfolding so far. In doing so I blend value enquiry, assemblage thinking and the ethics of care to tell a multitude of small stories that can inform our thinking of how we activate modern ruins.

Repurposing modern ruins through tourism: lost places, heritage and recreation. The case of Beelitz Sanatorium

Aude Le Gallou – University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

Over past decades, Berlin’s urban space has undergone deep transformations accounting for the presence of numerous modern ruins in the city and its surroundings. Having become prized spots for alternative practices (Edensor 2005), some of them are now subject to recreational valorisations. This is the case of Beelitz Sanatorium in the periphery of Berlin, which is being gradually rehabilitated after its abandonment in the early nineties. A part of the complex has been transformed into a leisure area which main attraction is a canopy walkway meandering between ruins. Drawing on an urban and cultural geography approach, our presentation aims to analyse its recreational valorisation as a form of cultural repurposing of abandoned places. First, we outline the reappraisal of the cultural value attached to Beelitz’s ruins as rediscovered heritage. Then we discuss spatial issues raised by their development as recreational ruins aiming to meet requirements for use by a broad audience. Finally, we question the temporalities of such a recreational valorisation and ask whether tourism and leisure repurposing must be understood as permanent or as a transitional stage in a broader process of rehabilitation. Our methodological framework is based on a mix of qualitative methods including participant observation, formal and informal interviews with participants, organizers, institutional actors and inhabitants as well as analysis of online material. By providing valuable insights into the ways modern ruins are being re-integrated into the city’s space, the case of Beelitz is exemplary of current changes of perspective on abandoned places and their social value.

Session 3: Remembering and performing in the ruin: heritage, atmospheres and creative reanimation 

Chair: Luke Bennett – Sheffield Hallam University

Stories of light and dark from a modern ruin in transition

Ruth Olden – University of Glasgow

Light has become a significant agent in the drive to transform the modernist ruins of St Peter’s Seminary into a cultural asset and public space.  NVA, the arts organisation responsible for this creative vision, have built an international reputation on their innovative use of light in natural and built landscapes both in the UK and further afield, and St Peter’s is arguably their biggest challenge yet. Recent engagements with the site have seen NVA enrol light in the managed presentation and curation of the site, with all manner of lighting technologies employed to enable access, to facilitate readability of the modern ruin, and to transport audiences into imagined realms. This presentation considers three events that have been staged on St Peter’s between 2016 and 2018 in which light has taken centre stage. In doing so it seeks to examine how NVA have delivered different choreographies of light, what the cultural and creative value of these events has been, and what legacy they have had in the bigger story of ruin transition. Alive to the transient nature of these events however (and arguably of their cultural legacies), this presentation also draws in the lesser known stories of light and dark animating the modern ruins of St Peter’s Seminary. By capturing the ruin in different states of exposure – exposures that are natural and artificial, planned and unplanned – this presentation seeks to explore the opportunities but also the challenges that the drive to ruin post-production and presentation faces.

Committed landscapes: strategies of social and cultural dynamization in non-urban ruins through artistic and creative activities

Rosa Cerarols & Antoni Luna – Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona

Geospatial changes in contemporary societies produced a gradual and growing abandonment of large areas of territory. The progressive depopulation of extensive spaces in postindustrial Europe is becoming an enormous challenge for policy makers and territorial activists. In some of these landscapes in crisis, there have been different initiatives over the last few years associated among others to new forms of agriculture or tourist activities that try to modify the abandonment dynamics but maintaining their dependence for urban customers or investors. However, in the last decade there has been a fundamental paradigm shift, facilitated by improved communication networks. New globally hyperconnected spaces of creation and experimentation are appearing even in the most remote areas of the territory. The ability to spread all kinds of new activities in these depressed environments opened new possibilities for social and cultural improvement for local residents. In this project we analyze the impact of art/craft initiatives of KONVENT a cultural association created near the village of Berga, 100Km North of Barcelona. Konvent association settled up in the abandoned spaces and ruins of the old “Cal Rosal” factory. Some members of the association have personal attachments to these spaces since their family and friends used to work and live here and they have worked to preserve the buildings and the old industrial landscape. These emotional attachments and an exceptional atmosphere of creativity creates a very unique setting favoring new local cultural gatherings and certain national and international recognition while maintaining the pulse with local and regional authorities.

The PostDegrado current

Ilaria Delgradi – independent researcher, Milan.

From the industrial revolution toward the cultural revolution. Based on this concept I’ve started to analyze this process in my own town, Milan, shaping a new current, named PostDegrado. The technological development, the globalization and the production translation to the East, deprived many places of machineries, professions, workers and families. During the last few years, the enormous industrial and rural abandoned heritage has been and is being renovated with socio-cultural contents. The PostDegrado current concerns the actual tendency to transform an abandoned and forgotten place in a long lasting good. A cultural, artistic, social and interdisciplinary movement that grows up from basic and common needs: creativity needs space; citizens demand meeting spots; the environment requires attention and the land is exhausted from massive edification. PostDegrado is a platform created to promote the enjoyment of reactivated places characterized by architectural fascination and surrounded by historical memories. Inedited locations where people can enjoy the new designated uses. The platform objective is to create a network among projects’ creators, location managers and spaces owners, to facilitate the exchange of information, materials and contacts and to spread the importance and beauty of the new tendency of creative reuse. PostDegrado aims to give practical examples and tools to those who want to replicate one of the several and different format to reactivate unused and forgotten places. There are many existing maps that indicate the geographic coordinates of abandoned spaces. Here’s the first map about regenerated places: a collection of good practices starting from Milan and growing internationally.

Slave fortes and baracoons: re-considering the ruins and loss of historical values in trans-Atlantic slave trade relics

Alaba Simpson – Crawford University, Nigeria & Kwaku Senah – independent researcher, Ghana

Slave fortes and baracoons played significant roles in keeping and transporting slaves to the ships that eventually carried them across the Atlantic Ocean during the slave trade era in West Africa. These relics are increasingly being neglected and used for other purposes which have come to be a source of concern to historians and ethnographers, particularly where earlier works may have been carried out on these relics by these scholars. The paper intends to discuss the absolute destruction of baracoons in the Badagry community of Lagos state in Nigeria and of Forte Good Hope in the Aplaku area of Ghana where the forte has been converted in its dilapidated stage to a Beer Palour. Other examples abound in the two countries and the two scholars hope to approach the discussion from the point of view of insider researchers in order to align the topic with the conference theme. The paper hopes to cause the audience to better know the changes that have taken place in the custodian attributes of the keepers of the relics of slave trade in their various dimensions, thus bringing in the issue of disintegration and perhaps the cause for activation of these relics.

Fieldwork and creative practice: reimagining abandoned defensive architectures and rock cut burial sites 

Rupert Griffiths – Goldsmiths, University of London

Site/Seal/Gesture is a collaboration between cultural geographer Rupert Griffiths and archaeologist Lia Wei. This collaboration develops a shared language of fieldwork, process and making. Working together as artists and from our disciplinary perspectives, we deal with two distinct types of site—one in the UK, the other in China. In the UK, we look at the ruins of defensive architectures such as sound mirrors, forts and bunkers on the Thames estuary and the southeast coast. In Southwest China we look at rock cut tombs set in cliff faces, sometimes at the edge of expanding urbanisation. We correlate these sites by considering them as both monuments and dwellings in urban and rural margins. We see the bunkers and the rock cut burial sites as drawing a line between life and death—bunkers protecting the living from death and rock cut tombs separating the living and the dead. Both use the material monumentality of rock or concrete to do so, whilst set precariously at the physical and psychological margins of the host culture. As geographers and archaeologists our aim is to investigate correspondences between materiality, landscape and the human subject, and to develop and extend approaches to ethnographic fieldwork. As artists our aim is explore the process by which landscape imaginaries emerge through an assemblage of bodies, materials, tools, and technologies, bringing notions of longue durée into direct contact with informal use, lived experience and creative encounter.

Image Credit: restoration of Matrera castle near Cádiz by Carquero Arquitectura, https://www.dezeen.com/2016/10/03/carquero-arquitectura-matrera-castle-contemporary-restoration-cadiz-spain-architizer-awards/

 

 

Filling the void – two trips into the ruins of London’s underground

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“As three-dimensional public objects [urban ruins] still serve useful purposes and act as concrete, tangible catalysts for storytelling.”

Mélanie van der Hoorn (2012) Indispensable Eyesores: An anthropology of undesired buildings. Berghahn Books: Oxford (p.8)

Nature abhors a vacuum, and nowhere more so than in the crowded, densely developed space of central London. So where might we look to find underoccupied ruins in such a highly utilised terrain? The answer it seems is below our feet. I report here on recent trips into two of the city’s uncharacteristically empty spaces. By comparing these two seemingly very different sites I seek to draw out how they are both ultimately preoccupied with the question of how to fill these uncommon voids.

The cult of information meets the cult of the misty bull

In the heart of the City, in the bowels of the new corporate HQ for information giant Bloomberg, lie the remains of a small Roman temple. Built around AD 240, this temple was the site at which the all-male worshippers of the Mithras cult met to enact their rituals in celebration of their bull slaying god.

Abandoned in the 5th century with the retreat of Rome, the temple fell into ruin and sank beneath the surface of the city (in the standard way that archaeology does). Then along came post war clearance of the site (now a bomb-site from the Blitz), the ruins of the temple were uncovered, and thousands of people flocked to the excavation, trample its mud and to gaze (and stand) upon its stones and their silent-but-tactile revelation of a time very-long-ago. In the subsequent redevelopment of the site, the ruin was transplanted in 1962 to the top of a nearby car park where – over the years – it received a few visitors. But now, as a condition of the £1 Billion re-redevelopment of the site the ruin has been re-placed, back upon its original site and now sits as a tourist attraction in the bowels of the Bloomberg building.

Entry is free (via a booking system at https://www.londonmithraeum.com/), through a small, bright gallery space called Bloomberg Space, currently displaying the vibrant, citrus hewed art of Isabel Nolan. Here very friendly guides welcome the visitor, as they step into this exception space to the fare of plush eateries and swish offices dominating the surrounding streetscape.

“Is this the right place for the Roman ruins?” I ask. “Indeed it is”, comes the bright reply and an eager arm thrusts a rather expensive looking tablet in my direction. This, I’m told, will help me to interpret the array of excavated artefacts comprising a tall vertical display on one wall of the gallery. “We have over 14,000 artefacts in total, these are just a sample here – you can experience the rest using the tablet” says the attendant, urging me with every gesture to engage with its pleading screen. Here the whole set up yearns to emphasise both the abundance and its orderly mastery by Bloomberg’s blending of physical and virtual modes of encounter.

There is something very proficient and mission-affirming about this curation – it didn’t strike me as cynical and the guides genuinely seem very proud of their ruin attraction – but the manner of staging this encounter with the past screams out that Bloomberg are in the information business and that they can collate and relay anything, not just business performance data.

A black staircase then guides us below ground and into a chamber where Joanna Lumley and academic friends tell us (on rotation, every 15 minutes) what is known about the Cult of Mithras and its rituals. We sit in the gloom, instructed by images projected Plato-like onto the (cave) wall. A silhouette of a cloaked figure shimmers, by turns looking like a bull or a man. This references the Mithras ritual’s own simulation of the sacrifice of a bull (and whilst information is scarce about the rituals, we are confidently assured that space was simply too small to enable an actual bull killing here).

shadow

Suitably primed (and in turn acting out our own modern tourist ritual) we process into a dark room and are invited to spread out around the edge of this space in order to best “enjoy the experience”. Here we experience a soundtrack of Mithras worshippers assembling, a hubbub of voice chatting excitedly in Latin. We, the 21st century audience, stand at the periphery of the room and we can hear the 4th century denizens who have also assembled here for their ritual, but cannot see them. Then comes the sound of an ancient horn, which ushers in an attentive quiet (from both audiences) and then ritual chanting (from the 4th century participants). This interplay between the reaction of the two audiences is suitably atmospheric. Mist then starts to spray into the room and fine lines of lights shining down through the damp air mark out the walls of the temple, as the chanting continues.

mithraem

Then after a few moments of this strange empty-presence the house lights come on and we are invited to inspect the ruins. We are back in the 21st century and alone with our thoughts and interpretations. The end of the sound- and light-show leaves us within a room that has some runs of nondescript, and rather clean looking, stone – wall stumps – laid out upon the floor. Once the room is fully revealed there is actually very little to see here. The materiality of the stones themselves can’t match the vibrancy of the sound and light show. And the ruins occupy little of the volume of the space and this is why the walls written in mist and light are so effective. But their side effect is that, once they have gone, they emphasise that a ruin is always (at least in part) an absence of structure and matter. A ruin always has missing mass and lost surfaces, for it is void space in which a former building partly lingers.

The presentation of the London Mithraeum is both powerful and an anti-climax, because it is an attempt to reanimate a void; to temporarily fill it with action, structure and intimations of mass. The power comes from the active curation of the experience of this ruin-encounter, and inevitably (perhaps) this entails the active use of our own processes of myth-making and storytelling in order to animate this space. The sound and light show creates a sense of the Mithras ritual, but it also creates its own ritual performance of heritage-spectacle (and/or ruin-gazing).

There is no reason to suggest that this is the final staging of the London Mithraeum. Perhaps in the year 2500 there will be a London Bloomberg experience that creates a ritual in which our further evolved selves can have the titillating retro experience of an IT-enabled sound and light show activating the conjoined ghosts of a late-Capitalist corporate headquarters and/or a Roman heritage attraction and of the ruin-voids they have each left behind beneath the active surfaces of The Greater Anglia Conurbation.

The Minotaur’s lair and the infinite tunnels to nowhere

Artist Naomi Avsec talks me through the chain of events that led to her taking up a six month residency deep beneath Clapham, South London in an abandoned air raid complex of tunnels: “When I saw the advert, I just couldn’t resist. Studio space here in London is so cramped and expensive, and you end up with a bland, tiny room. Here was a chance to work in a strange, exciting and voluminous place quite different to the standard studio offering. In short, here was a wonderful opportunity-space”.

We met above ground in a local café and then took the rickety elevator down, over 100 feet into her lair. Here the tunnels went on and on, their emptiness punctuated only by the occasional variegation in the cement cast hemispherical panels: a hatch here, a sign there, and a light screed of dust everywhere.

At times Naomi strode off into the dark, announcing that when alone she likes to go for walks along her tunnels without any lights on, for they are almost straight and predictable enough for such drifting.

After wending our way along, up, across and down a few turns of tunnel (for our indulgence, safely guided by torchlight) we reached Naomi’s studio, an arbitrarily selected station point. Her territory was marked out by a desk, piles of material and laid-out work-in-progress. And yet the tunnel still seemed so empty. “That’s the real challenge here” Naomi told me, “how to make a mark upon this emptiness. I find things in my forays to the surface and drag it back down here. Up there these items feel big, and I struggle to drag them and cram them into the lift. But as soon as I get them here they shrink to insignificance. I’m approaching half-way through my residency now and I’m still trying to work out how I can make my area feel populated”.

big tunnel

Built as one of London’s deep shelters in the aftermath of the Blitz, these tunnels saw little use in the war. Back in those days the now-empty space of this labyrinth would have been full, floor to ceiling – with bunk beds, and in design intention at least would have been full of bodies, the anxious flesh of huddled families.

Naomi’s creative work here is bringing some bodies into the tunnels, but not in the sense portrayed by Henry Moore in his sketches of slumbering human figures in London’s air raid shelters during the war. Naomi works across a number of media and styles. Collage is to the fore in her creative practice at the moment, summoning strange/uncanny inhabitants into the tunnel.

creatures

Perhaps due to the absence of an anthropomorphic stimulus in the solitude of this place, Naomi’s work seems instead to be tending towards the more atavistic. She has also assembled a variety of surreal three dimensional sculptures made with those found materials that she has laboriously dragged back into her lair, like an ant with its payload waving precariously in the breeze, its bounty far larger than its body.

Maybe it’s inevitable that time spent alone in stygian gloom summons thoughts and impressions of shadow creatures that have been glimpsed in the underworld across the generations. There is a dreamy, playful tone to the uncanny beings that Naomi has summoned into being.

“I get carried away down here. There are no distractions and that’s such a luxury. This really is such a great opportunity. Some days, after a while, I eventually notice the cold creeping up from the concrete through my feet. When that strikes I go back to the surface and nip into the local supermarket, both to use the loo and to top up on sunlight and a sense of connection with the surface-world. I also take Vitamin D as a precaution against the lack of exposure to daylight. But it’s still a thrilling and really stimulating experience.”

Naomi’s opportunity to be here comes courtesy of a residency programme called GROUNDED offered by Battersea Art Centre and Growing Underground (http://growing-underground.com/), the owners of this subterranean complex who are steadily expanding their own operations into the presently unoccupied portions of the labyrinth. Growing Underground grow fresh micro-greens and salad leaves in a bright, white, pest-free, highly controlled environment using the latest hydroponic systems and LED lighting. At the moment their operation inhabits some, but not all of the tunnels. Naomi’s is one of three current artist residencies within the as-yet-to-be converted tunnels. Human access into the growing areas is strictly controlled and my visit was only to the currently spare tunnels. Growing Underground’s ongoing expansion of production will see more of the empty tunnels transformed into vibrant, ultra-clean growing spaces, though the insertion of sealed units into the tunnel – creating tunnels within the tunnels and a lingering voidspace between the doubled ceilings, sides and floors. Naomi therefore is free to leave her mark upon her tunnel-space’s cast concrete walls if she wishes, but if she does so then the chance is that few if any will ever see her creations. “That creates a strange challenge. It’s almost like being invited to create some invisible art; something that only the artist knows about.” Perhaps the early cave painters felt this way and/or that they saw the audience for their art as not of-this-earth. Again, we return to the atavisitic elements that seem recurrent in the work inspired by Naomi’s lone dwelling in these man-made caves, the drift towards her production of sigils, invoking or inviting a communication with inner and outer demons as she wrestles with the abundance of this empty, blank, worm-like subterranean space.

minotaur

Image credits: Blurry photographs by Luke Bennett, better ones by Naomi Avsec, www.naomiavsec.co.uk.

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/

 

“Utility after Abandonment”: our CFP for the RGS-IBG Conference: Cardiff, August 2018

smith island

RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2018

Geographical landscapes / Changing landscapes of geography 

Cardiff, Tuesday 28th August – Friday 31st August 2018

 Session Call for Papers

UTILITY AFTER ABANDONMENT?

The New Ruin as Cultural Asset and Public Space

Session sponsored by the Social and Cultural Geography Research Group (of the RGS-IBG)

Convenors: Luke Bennett (Sheffield Hallam Uni.), Ed Hollis (Univ. of Edinburgh), Hayden Lorimer (Univ. of Glasgow), Ruth Olden (Univ. of Glasgow)

——————

During recent years, across the arts and humanities, and associated cultural spheres of literature, cinema, architecture, heritage, urban exploration and curated art, interest has intensified in ruinenlust, ruins and ruination (Edensor 2005; DeSilvey and Edensor 2012; Lavery and Gough 2015; Bennett 2017). Ruminating on the ruin has come to be understood as a sensibility reflective of classical, romantic and picturesque tropes. However, other modes of social engagement are possible.

Learning how to live with ruins is a twenty-first century challenge requiring cultural articulations that are forward-thinking and experimental, acknowledging new models of intervention, ownership and access, and welcoming contrasting – even conflicting – forms of aesthetic and emotional attachment (DeSilvey 2017; Hollis 2010; Lorimer and Murray 2015).

Nationally and internationally, there are a multitude of valued heritage landscapes, currently in ruinous, vulnerable, degraded states, requiring differing forms of creative intervention for the purposes of rehabilitation, re-occupation and reinvention, so as to safeguard cultural legacies for the future. For this session we seek not only statements of intent, but also critical reports on activities already occurring in cities under austerity and non-urban landscapes, in the global north and global south, where ruins are being reimagined and repurposed as cultural assets and public spaces.

The session’s convening team represent a variety of perspectives on the reimagining and repurposing of ruins, variously undertaking studies and investigations ranging across landscape design and architectural history, cultural geography, law and risk management. We welcome contributions that reflect and/or go beyond this constellation of interests, and which embrace (or challenge) our view that open interdisciplinarity is the best way to understand and activate the potentialities of the contemporary ruin.

Session presentations/contributions are sought which variously address three connected questions:

– How do you activate modern ruins safely?

– How do you activate modern ruins creatively?

– How do you activate modern ruins collaboratively?

 

Please send expressions of interest/abstracts (250 words max.) and a title to:

Ruth Olden (Ruth.Olden@glasgow.ac.uk) by Monday 5th February 2018.

 

Image credit: Holland Island, Chesapeake Bay via baldeaglebluff/flickr,

 

 

A field, a bunker, a field again: The fate of place and the prosaics of place-making and unmaking.

Markyate Montage

“On top of the hill… I met an insurance agent and a radio salesman, wearing badges and armlets. Their oldest clothes and huge smiles. Theirs is a job that would drive schoolboys mad with envy. Any healthy-minded lad would give all his pocket-money to take a turn in this observation post, with its sandbagged watching place, its dug-out and camouflaged hut. Here is sentry work of a new and exciting kind.”

                J.B. Priestley, News Chronicle 17 Oct 1939

This is an abridged version of a paper that I wrote for an academic journal special issue on ‘Cold War Places’. I wanted to foreground the rise and fall of a prosaic wartime place-type, the aerial observation post and chose to stitch together a semi-fictionalised account of one site’s passage through time. This seemed the best way to give life to the fragments of stories that I had found for a variety of such posts in the National Archives. My aim was to show the ebb and flow of a place-formation, and how it is an unstable local-national constellation of people, environment, paperwork and policy. But in the end the editors didn’t feel my unconventional approach suitable for their history journal. So, rather than leave it in a drawer I’m presenting it here…

2017

We are at the verge of a country lane in the Hertfordshire countryside just outside the village of Wasnott, 30 miles north of London. Beyond a gap in the hedge a field gently rises to its brow on the horizon. Other than the stubble of an arable crop this field is empty; there is nothing to see here.

1979

We are at the same location, looking into the same field. A man wearing a dark beret and blue serge uniform is crouched over a portable petrol-electric generator trying to get it started. Around him stand three other men. One wearing a blue trench coat, another standing by a raised concrete hatch, into which the third man is about to descend. Two of the men are smiling, caught in the act of playfully chiding the generator attendant for his ineffective motor-starting technique. The men have brought with them an assortment of other bags and cases. The men and the concrete structures are surrounded by a high chain-link fence topped with barbed-wire, forming a compound within which a sign stands, declaring:

“Royal Observer Post

7/P2

Wasnott”

The men are ROC volunteers getting ready for a weekend exercise that will see them stationed within their post’s underground bunker. Here they will open a succession of manila envelopes at allotted times and act upon the simulated detonation and fallout readings contained within, reporting that data through to their ROC Group HQ.

1933

Four men are standing in the field: the head of the Observer Corps, the Clerk of the Parish Council, Wasnott’s police constable and an engineer from the General Post Office (GPO). The Clerk is present because the field is managed by the Parish Council, the western part of it having recently been turned into a recreation ground. The constable is here because his Chief Constable has been instructed via a “confidential” standard form letter issued by the Home Office to arrange recruitment of local men as special constables to man an observation post to be established at this spot for the purpose of detecting, plotting and reporting aircraft movements as part of the air defence system. The procurement of both men and physical sites for the Observer Corps has become standardised through experience and repetition since the Corps was established as a volunteer force in 1924 in Kent and Sussex, and then slowly expanded across the counties of Southern England. This field has been identified as suited to a post because it affords a good clear view towards London. However, the GPO Engineer is in attendance because this location is only feasible if a telephone connection can be run to it. The men agree a suitable position and a stake is driven into the ground.

As the Home Office’s letter assures the Council, this stake is the post’s only enduring physical element, for:

“as the [observation] equipment is portable, nothing remains on the site when not in use, nor is there anything to be seen, except, in some cases, a peg driven in flush with the ground to mark the exact site, e.g. in a field… A telephone pole may be erected close to the site, if no convenient pole already exists … no damage of any sort occurs, and it may perhaps be mentioned that the men manning the post are always local men, known probably to you, and that in the quite large number of posts already established, no difficulties with Landlords or Tenants have been found to occur”.

Accordingly, the Home Office’s letter offers no rental payment for the post’s use of the site, which it states will be used for annual exercises not exceeding seven days (or nights) per year.

1942

The Chief Observer is hauling a bundle of advertising hoardings from his delivery van and taking them into the post hut. For the first five years of the Wasnott post’s existence the observers continued to bring all of their equipment to the site for each exercise. Experience of bitter winds on this hillside encouraged them to also bring thick clothing and canvas windbreaks. However the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in September 1938 changed things. For two weeks at the height of the crisis the observers manned the post permanently and it became clear that for continuous operation these posts would need to provide sheltered facilities to enable observers to cook, rest and simply get warm. Deciding upon the suitability of having each post served by a wooden shed, the Air Ministry issued designs for “Standard Pattern Huts” and provided £5 for materials by which shelter and welfare facilities could be locally sourced and erected. But in the face of rationing of building materials the roll-out of this solution was slow to bear fruit. In the meantime at Wasnott the Chief Observer scrounged around and improvised with sandbags “quite a good little fort around the spotting position”. But that proved unsatisfactory as a long-term shelter as after a hard winter the “bags gradually rotted and the sand swirled about in the breeze and got into eyes, cups of tea and everything”. As interim measures a tent and then a caravan were placed at the site and then at the height of the Battle of Britain, amidst fears of imminent invasion, two members of the Home Guard camped out near the post in an old car they had dragged onto the site.

At Wasnott the Chief Observer kept pressing for tools to do the job – and a wooden hut was eventually created, replete with a “cubby hole” featuring stove, small desk and shelves adjacent to open platform with removable glass windshields. But winter chill penetrated even that shelter, prompting the Chief Observer to now bring cardboard display adverts from a local tailor’s shop, to line his hut’s walls.

1946

The scavenger wrenches the corrugated steel shutter from Wasnott post’s now-abandoned observation platform and drags it to his van parked at the edge of the site.

By the end of the war the ROC had 40,000 observers, 40 reporting centres, and approx. 1,500 posts spread across the length and breadth of mainland Britain. But within a couple of weeks of the end of the European campaign in May 1945, the ROC was stood down and its posts quickly abandoned. Already in a tired condition by the cessation of hostilities, posts’ physical structures quickly fell into dereliction – a process accelerated by the post-war steel shortage and its ensuing scrap hunting. Some posts also became improvised homes for squatters: citizens or demobilised military personnel, adding further to their “eyesore” reputation.

However, in the Autumn of 1946, in the face of deteriorating relations with the Soviet Union it was decided that the ROC should be reactivated, and in December of that year, the Air Ministry wrote to Wasnott Parish Council proposing a year to year tenancy to formalise its resumption of occupation of the site. In the face of some resistance by the Council to the standard lease presented to them (but which the Air Ministry asserted had been accepted without amendment by many landowners), the Air Ministry eventually agreed a 15/- rent and to providing a more particularised definition of the post’s 3 yards by 3 yards plot.

But the revival of individual posts didn’t automatically revive the observation network for the wartime ROC reporting centres had closed, the radar system was barely operable and few fighter squadrons remained. Plans were put in hand to address this, but this investment would not see fruit until 1953 (by which time the evolution of military technology had rendered both the new reporting centres and the new ROTOR’ radar bunkers obsolete). Derek Wood, recalling his own experience of starting out as an ROC member in 1947, portrays the parlous conditions faced by the post-war observer, stood on site contemplating the emergent Cold War tensions in:

“their ill-fitting uniforms [which] were soaked through, post structure and hut were non-existent and the rickety wooden tripod legs of the instrument often fell to pieces, depositing the heavy metal table on the luckless observer’s feet. Telephones had a habit of emitting loud screams and crackling noises, or they cut out altogether. Where lines had not been laid on the observers solemnly wrote the [aircraft] plots down and put them in the mail the next day.”

1954

The pre-formed concrete panels are unloaded from the lorry and carried across to the site. The Council had anticipated this moment back in 1951 when they agreed to increase the site plot to 7 yards by 7 yards, and to increase the annual rent to 40/-. The Air Ministry’s plans to improve the physical condition of its observer posts had seen Orlit Ltd commissioned in 1952 to supply 400 sites with prefabricated concrete lookout posts in two variants: on-ground (Type A) or raised on stilts (Type B). But Wasnott’s new observation platform is of doubtful merit, for jets have now started to supersede human plotting capability. In recent Air Ministry trials it was acknowledged that the days of the ROC’s aircraft spotting role are numbered. Wasnott’s Orlit platform will indeed soon lie derelict, aircraft observation supplanted by the ROC’s new role inspired by the Hydrogen Bomb and the new type of accommodation required for it.

1956

The Chief Observer is sitting in his car, writing a letter to the Council thanking the councillors for their permission to bring cars onto the recreation ground for the duration of the one week summer exercise. The Chief Observer’s letter assures the Council that the rest of year’s training will be held in the function room of a local pub, The Lucky Duck.

Following the previous year’s exercise a spat had ensued between the Air Ministry and the Council. The Council had notified the Air Ministry of new bylaws prohibiting vehicles from the recreation ground and in turn the Chief Observer had alerted the Air Ministry to the prospect that this restriction could “considerably dampened the enthusiasm of our Post Instructor and Observers” adding that “it is no wonder that the ROC is struggling to attract volunteers”. After further correspondence a temporary concession was granted to permit the ROC volunteers to park their cars upon the site during their summer exercise.

The subject matter of the post’s training activity will soon change (although, out of these volunteers’ choice, aircraft spotting will remain a staple of the crew’s gatherings in The Lucky Duck for many years to come). In June of 1955 the Home Secretary had announced to the House of Commons that steps were being taken for the ROC – given its network of observation sites spread across the length and breadth of mainland Britain – to give warning of and to measure radioactivity in the event of air attacks in a future war. Henceforth, instead of plotting aircraft the ROC would be plotting nuclear explosions and fallout. At Wasnott there were some resignations when the post’s new duties had been announced. These volunteers had joined the ROC because they wanted to be aircraft spotters and they enjoyed being outdoors, sky watching. They did not want to hide underground like moles.

Results from US and UK testing in the mid 1950s had emphasised the importance of shelter in the face of not only blast, but also the ensuing fallout. Accordingly, in support of the ROC’s new role the Government had authorised funding for the ROC Posts to receive subterranean “protected accommodation”. The first designs for this had been settled in July 1955, and the resulting underground bunkers would be built by local contractors using “cut and cover” techniques to form in poured reinforced concrete a 19ft x 8ft 6in x 7ft 6in buried concrete box, its roof slab overlain by three feet of earth. Accessed via a hatch, a ladder leading down 15ft into the bunker gave access to its main room with desk, two sets of bunk beds and small anteroom with an Eltex chemical toilet. Ventilation was provided by two wooden or steel louvred ventilation shafts. Each post cost around the price of a modest terrace house, but inside the conditions were far from homely: the bulk of that expense being absorbed in the cost of excavating and building below ground. The ROC’s bunkers featured no heating and only dim lighting from a single 12V battery pack. Home Office habitation trials in 1956 found the subterranean posts fit for purpose, but their design and dwelling circumstances continued the ROC’s experience of abjection, with Wood recalling that “despite the monitoring room temperature of 60oF the insidious cold of the concrete floor crept through flesh and bone.”

1960

The local contractors are clearing the site, packing away the wooden shuttering planks used to form the Wasnott bunker’s poured concrete walls. The shuttering will be used again at the next site. As they drive out of the field they are keen to do so quickly, before the tenant farmer reappears. There has been recent correspondence between all parties about the mud churned up by the contractor’s to-ing and fro-ing, one more instalment in a long line of correspondence associated with this post’s latest phase of rudimentary development.

Completed in early 1960, the building of Wasnott post’s protected accommodation was the culmination of a protracted legal process that rather belies the urgencies of the first Cold War. Back in 1954 the Air Ministry had asked the Council to sell it the existing plot, but the Council had declined. After that, the Air Ministry has reconciled itself to meeting its needs by taking a 21 year lease of the site. Thereafter from early 1955 until March 1959 a succession of correspondence teased out mundane conveyancing matters concerning the nature of the Council’s ownership interest in the site variously under the Wasnott Inclosure Act 1842, the need for Ministry of Education authorisation due to the recreation ground’s educational endowment, negotiation of rent and fencing arrangements and steps to clarify the first names of all required signatories to the lease. Eventually, the lease was completed, regularising the Ministry’s occupation of the site (now increased to 136 square yards) for 21 years at an annual rental of £5 and, at the Air Ministry’s insistence, imposing a 50 foot radius safeguarded area ringing the protected accommodation within which the landlord agreed not to build any obstructions.

1962

The Chief Observer, visiting the site to tidy up after a recent fallout plotting exercise, finds that the entrance has been blocked by the tenant farmer who grazes cattle on the pasture adjacent to the recreation ground. With some difficulty, she manoeuvres herself around the obstacle and approaches the hatch, descending thereafter into the bunker. There she attempts with some difficulty to fit a piece of equipment, in the course of which she falls onto the post’s table causing a “splintering crash that reverberated round the walls, just as we are told the nuclear blast will do”. Gathering herself together she climbs back to the surface and once out of the hatch notices a bull amongst the herd of docile jersey cows. The bull starts towards her and she runs at full pelt towards the blocked exit. To her relief she manages to squeeze her way back to the safety of the lane and emphatically concludes: “to me a bull with a ring in his nose, is far more of a potential hazard than a nuclear bomb. This is a case of the evil that we know being ‘worse’ than that which we do not”.

With such naivety or bravado, Wasnott’s crew were slowly coming to terms with their new role, a process aided by their involvement in blast and fallout monitoring exercises, like the recent Fallex 62 national fallout plotting exercise. Such exercises could be monotonous however.  Fallex 62 had featured only a single simulated strike, meaning that only the eastern part of the country was substantively affected. Accordingly, Wasnott crew’s participation had been “limited to ‘monotonous’ fall out readings or ‘no reading’ for hours on end”, accompanied by the constant “blip – blip” chirping of the post’s Carrier Warning Receiver, a soundtrack relieved only by occasional chatter with the crews of the other posts in Wasnott’s cluster.

1980

The new recruit is being introduced to the post. In the face of rising tensions between the superpowers over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan recruitment to the ROC has doubled over the last year. The Chief Observer tells the recruit that his prospects for a long and enjoyable role in the ROC are buoyed by the Thatcher Government’s stated commitment to reviving civil defence. The Chief Observer does not mention his nagging concern that eventually the need for monitoring posts staffed by humans will be overtaken by remote sensing devices given everything that seems to be happening with the boom of electronic devices in the household. For the time being he will take comfort in the works in hand to convert the Wasnott post’s landline links to dedicated private wires and to replace its old terminal with a new loud-speaking Teletalk telephone.

But despite the recent rise in recruits the ROC retains its perennial anxiety about recruitment and at Wasnott this anxiety colours the Chief Observer’s stance around renewal of the Wasnott Post’s lease which is set to expire this year. The PSA (who have now taken over the management of civil assets from the Defence Land Agent) have advised that the ROC can rely upon standard continuation of tenancy rights set down in the Landlord & Tenant Act 1954 which mean that the 1959 lease will be deemed to simply continue on its old terms. The UKWMO’s HQ staff have become involved, and they share the Chief Observer’s discomfort with this passive approach. Ultimately UKWMO will insist that the PSA enter into negotiations with the landowner to secure the active grant of a new 21 year lease because “we know from experience that any uncertainty about the long-term future of a post will have an adverse effect upon the morale of its crew.”

1992

The Chief Observer places equipment removed from the post into the back of the hired van, it is now sixth months after the formal standing down of the ROC. The van is driven by full time ROC officers who have been instructed to liaise with ROC Post crews around the country so that they may arrange to collect equipment from their posts and take it to central stores. In July 1991 Kenneth Baker, the Home Secretary, had suddenly announced that following review of the defence requirements in the light of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Home Office could no longer justify the continued use of the ROC volunteers for the nuclear monitoring role, and that this responsibility would in future be met by a mixture of local authorities and the military. The news had been received with shock by the ROC. At Wasnott Post the observers had gathered at the site for the last time and written their names, and the date, upon the wall of their post. Their sector’s commanding officer had exhorted his volunteers to “maintain our image to the end” and that they should “stand down with dignity…there is nothing to be gained from emotive statements to the media, petitions, demonstrations etc”. However, at many posts it had proved difficult to get the now disbanded post members engaged with the clear-out task. The van’s drivers will themselves be redundant by the end of March 1992. This attempted clearance of posts and gathering together of their records will therefore prove to be only partially successful.

1999

Accompanied by the bemused farmer, the man with the expensive looking camera climbs down into the Wasnott post. The photographs that he takes there will form part of a survey which will present on-line an account of the location and physical state of every traceable ROC post. The farmer acquired this field from the Council after the recreation ground was sold for housing development in 1967. He had never paid much attention to it prior to the ROC stand-down. In 1992 he had accepted surrender of the lease and a payment of £50 in lieu of the reinstatement liability. Shortly afterwards he took the post’s fencing down, and cleared away the collapsed Orlit post after it blew over in a heavy storm. But otherwise he had left things alone.

A few years later he had been approached by a businessman who said that he would like to rent the bunker as a weekend retreat. The farmer had seen the man on site a few times, cutting the grass around the post or sitting on the hatch admiring the view of London. One time in conversation the man had declared: “this place was originally built so the Royal Observer Corps could monitor London being wiped off the map. Sometimes that’s easy to forget” and the farmer felt that the man was trying somehow to resist that forgetting. But the man’s attendance had tailed off after a while and he eventually stopped paying the rent.

There had also been some approaches from former members of the ROC Post’s crew, with talk of preserving the post as a historic relic of the Cold War, and seeking funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to do so. But nothing had come of this and the farmer had found all that rather hard to fathom – this place was surely too recent to be archaeological. The photographer assured him that the post had historic interest – and that hundreds of amateur investigators have been working since 1995 on a project to catalogue the twentieth century’s “Defence of Britain” sites across the UK.

2007

Using now-readily available locational data the bunkerologist has programmed his sat-nav to alert him of proximity to any ROC post. Having detected one here, on the outskirts of Wasnott, he strolls across the field and down into the bunker. Inside he finds a burnt out shell. The polystyrene tiles combusted well, coating the underground room in a thick layer of soot, into which recent visitors have written their names and a few faux apocalyptic slogans, echoing the Half Life Video game.  The man takes some photos which he later uploads to an urban exploration forum website, describing his visit thus: “close to minor road and OPEN. As previously reported – empty and burned. Nasty. The site is overgrown and is being undermined by rabbits.”

2013

The farmer has decided to clear away the Wasnott post’s surface features, having heard recently that English Heritage had listed a ROC Post in Yorkshire, he wants to ensure that his site doesn’t attract any restrictive heritage designations. His insurance broker has also worried him by pointing out that he would be liable if anyone were to be injured with the post.

Erasure of the post is easy. The turrets fall with the aid of a towrope and a tractor, and he then grubs out the near-surface remains of the hatch, tumbling the masonry into the ladder well and then overfilling with soil to leave no trace of the ROC’s former presence in this now empty field.

Picture credit: A montage combining a 1979 view of Markyate ROC Post overlayed onto the site’s 2015 Google Earth form. The 1979 photograph is reproduced courtesy of Roland Carr.

Note: Wasnott is not a real place, but all of the quotes are taken from primary sources concerning various ROC Post sites and events at them. References for the quotes are available from me, if desired.

 

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