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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The android’s empty gesture: OOO, irony and the drug dealer’s watch

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“Irony is like a wink from an android. You think you know what it means, until you realise the signal you took for meaning emanates from a source for which meaning is meaningless.”

Ian Bogost (2016) Play Anything. Basic Books: New York.

We’ve met at conferences a few times. He’s always distinctively dressed. He appears to pay considerable attention to how he presents himself to the world. Like a roadie for Hot Chip, he favours a gauche retro ’80s stylee. He comes up to me and poses the question.

“So, what’s with the drug dealer’s watch then?”

I look down at my wrist, and he does too. We both stare at my Casio F-91W. He assumes that I mean something ironic by choosing to wear it. I find myself unable to account for my sartorial choice. Not because I can’t find a reason, but because I can think of half a dozen rationalisations, but I can’t remember whether any of them were ever the real reason why I started wearing this retro-watch:

  • I’m anti-flashy in intention, I’d never wear a watch that declares ostentation. So maybe I chose the cheapest watch I could find for that reason.
  • My last watch broke. And I couldn’t decide what watch to replace it with (I’d been wearing that one for 15 years). So, I decided to wear a neutral, statement-less watch in the meantime.
  • My first watch was a Casio F-91W. It was an object of delight and wonder when I got it as a teenager in the early ’80s. It’s hard to summon a sense of that wonder now – but digital watches were the smart phones of their day. Look at all of the functions. And the buttons. And its so multi-functional that it needs instructions etched onto its face. Maybe I’d hoped that wearing it again (and marvelling that it’s still being made) would connect me to that childhood wonder. Maybe it did in abstract – but I only use it to tell the time. It’s other functions are ignored. I’m served for those needs by even more complex 21st century consumer prostheses.

I mumble an explanation (I forget which one I selected) and offer a knowing laugh. It does the trick and the conversation ends. In my mind the knowing laugh is an acknowledgement of the irony that opting for the most lo-tech option nowadays can single you out as having illicit intent. As I laugh I recall the image of a colleague stopped at airport customs because he had two mobile phones, and one of them was of the near-disposable, plain-vanilla variety. An unsmart phone. He was released after explaining that the suspiciously nondescript bland-phone was a University pool-mobile, issued for use during his field trip. It was not a phone for receiving drug orders.

These intertwined stories – of consumer devices and the intentionality assumed for them – came to mind as I read Ian Bogost’s Play Anything. Bogost’s is an odd book. I’d loved his Alien Phenomenology, or what it’s like to be a thing (2012, University of Minnesota Press) and I was hoping for more of the same. What I got instead was a strange book that seems to be trying to be two books at once. At one level it’s a continuation of his mapping out of his own take on Object Oriented Ontology (OOO), through a focus on the pleasures realisable through an active exploration of the possibilities of objects. But this line of argument seems overlaid by the book’s attempt to appeal to a wider, more general readership via its appearance as a (sort of) ‘self-help’ manual – an appeal to engaged worldliness as more outward looking alternative to (or augmentation of) mindfulness. The book’s rather longwinded subtitle, shows this direction of travel: “The pleasures of limits, the uses of boredom, and the secrets of games“. In pursuit of this Bogost ruminates on the positivity of ‘play’ and ‘fun’. He productively argues that play is not (necessarily) an opposite to work, but rather is a state of interaction with objects that seeks to explore their full qualities, rather than just a “things-for-us” instrumentality. But where it then gets a bit messy is in trying to then destabilise traditional understandings of “fun”.

But, hats’ off to Bogost for getting an OOO book positioned and presented as a mainstream paperback offering. And beneath some of the chatty, discursive filler (that the genre requires) there are a number of interesting, and provocative ideas playing out.

Most importantly, for the purposes of making sense of my ‘drug dealers’ watch’ moment, Bogost offers up a very interesting cultural diagnosis: something that he calls ‘ironia’. He argues that contemporary culture embodies a retreat from commitment to ideas, social positions and material things. Ironia causes us to cloak what we mean, align to or physically do by spraying out a trail of counter-statement and counter-actions. In ironia, our aim is to confound, to slip out of certainty, to defer finality or decision. In my case, to wear an anti-watch permanently because I can’t bear the weight of choice that the multitude of possible watches (and social-symbolic messaging) poses.

“Irony is the escape from having to choose between earnestness and contempt”. Through irony you can appear to align to both, simultaneously. Bogost argues that retreat to irony feels clever, it seems to let us have our cake and eat it,  it leaves us thinking that we are able to live in a permanent deferral of choice and/or action. You can be all things to all people. But this oscillation and indeterminacy produces headaches, and Bogost goes on to show that the ironic stance ultimately produces nothing, except alienation.

Bogost points out that whilst paranoia tends to be a condition of scarcity – a manifestation of (real or mistaken) glimpses of power at work over appropriation of finite resources, ironia is a condition of overwhelming over-abundance – of choices, of matter and of awareness of the possibilities of things going wrong (i.e. risk). Ironia is a syndrome of those lucky enough to be weighed down by an over-abundance of material and symbolic choices, and of knowledge of “how things bite back” (to adopt Edward Tenner’s (1997) Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the revenge of unintended consequences. Vintage: London) and can hurt us or at least fail to satisfy our expectations of them.

Bogost also argues that our retreat into ironia flows fundamentally from a state of fear, in which (in terms of politics, culture, material-relations): “we’ve trained ourselves to see commitments as affectations, and only to pursue a commitment ironically so that we can cast it aside if fear overtakes us.”

In diagnosing ironia Bogost makes a interesting link to nostalgia – by arguing that a turn to embrace of a thing-in-the-past is a control strategy, for appropriating a former thing is helpfully selective and controlled. Thus my remembrance of my first watch is fond – but only based on a few of its qualities and my experiences with it. Nostalgia enables us to keep at bay the enormity of things (material objects, cultural formations, social relations) and their risks of disappointing us. Fundamentally it is a simplifying strategy, and achieves its effect through temporal distancing – just as a holiday to a far off place where things seem simpler is a function of (social and spatial) distance from the complexity of the present at hand. As he puts it pithily, in this pillaging-to-simplify-and-keep-at-bay we “are all grave robbers now, even while mistaking ourselves as preservationists”. And the rise of social media has accelerated the pillage, giving us all and excuse [and perhaps also a fundamental need] to “abscond with objects, people, and situations by arresting them into assets imprisoned between sincerity and contempt. Online, we become digital poachers, stealing things’ souls in order to elevate ourselves above them, until we destroy those very things via incorporation or disposal. [Today’s] Safari spoils are made of pixels rather than ivory.”

Bogost’s book (as characteristic of most OOO based argumentation) is full of delicious mobilisations of aberrant mundaenity (as provocative poetics and metaphor are OOO’s analytic method), with Bogost here meditating on the act of sofa-covering in order to make his point:

“Rather than accept either the protected or the exposed state of the plastic sofa cover, irony celebrates the buffer—the plastic—as an alternative. Where grandma deployed the plastic cover out of paranoia that some mishap might befall a piece of furniture meant to last a lifetime, irony deploys it for the sake of experiencing the cover as an alternative to the cheap, crappy sofa that doesn’t warrant protection in the first place. Irony sells plastic sofa covers from the back of a truck in the IKEA parking lot.”

Having persuasively diagnosed ironia and its problems, Bogost then attaches the argument that play (as a fulsome, exploratory and committed engagement) leads to a more fulfilling (and authentic) relation with both material objects and socio-cultural objects.

So, regarding my watch. Bogost summons me off the fence: for “irony keeps reality at a distance”. He exhorts me to “pay close, foolish, even absurd attention to things. Then allow their structure, form, and nature to set the limits for the experiences”. In other words I need to declare for my watch, to accept that it is my watch, and that I have already made my choice of it. I then need to fully get to know it – to explore its affordances (as they assist me), its resistances (as they oppose my desires for my watch-tool) and play with my watch in a way that also touches the other qualities that it has – the ones that are not revealed to me by use or purpose but rather which exist none-the-less. Examples here might include, feeling the warmth of its face after exposure to the sun, exploring its crevasses and their grime-ecologies, embracing its scratches, chips and weathering as they unfurl over time.

My watch travels with me through time and space. It goes most places with me and is usually to be found resting upon the surface of my skin. It is a quiet but helpful (and reliable) companion. There are things I’ll never know about my watch – how it works, where its components have come from, who made them, or what lies in store for my watch, and how it will disassemble someday. Even with playful effort my relationship with my watch will be shallow and largely instrumentalist. But armed with OOO I can be a little more attentive to it and committed to its proximity to both my body and my social presentation of self to the world. I’ll give it a try and try and pass our time together in a more satisfying, connected way.

 

 

 

Withdrawn bodies: into the lawscape with Andreas, Keith and Candice Marie

“Bodies embody the law, carry the law with them in their moves and pauses, take the law with them when they withdraw”

Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos (2015) Spatial Justice: Body, Law, Atmosphere. Routledge: London.

“Shall we watch a film?”

I realise it’s not really a question. I put down my book and search for something that we might both be in the mood for.

We find Mike Leigh’s semi-improvised black comedy Nuts in May (1976). Originally broadcast as a TV play, the low resolution, 4:3 projection fails to fill our 16:9 flatscreen. The image sits withdrawn into the centre of the screen, with black bars either side of this broadcast that curiously seems deeply, from within the TV, like a time capsule signal beaming in from a different era.

And yet as we watch it is an era that increasingly rings true – awkwardly so at points. Keith and Candice Marie are earnest vegetarians, venturing out from the metropolis to rural Dorset for a camping and hiking break. The film is squirm-inducing account of the breakdown of their calm, assured and ordered orientation to the world. Here, communing with the great outdoors it all goes a bit awry. And as I watch I find myself reading the film simultaneously from two angles. First, there’s a bitter-sweet nostalgia. I remember this milieu, a childhood remembrance of mustard coloured fisherman’s jumpers, folk songs and amateur industrial archaeology. But the second angle is a frame set by not having given my head time to adjust from book to TV watching…

The book I put down was Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos’ Spatial Justice. It’s a challenging read, Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos takes no prisoners in his synthesis of Deleuze, Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) and Affect Theory. Technically it’s a legal geography book, but for vast tracts of the book’s dense, but productive prose the law side of things disappears from view, and this is intentional. Refreshingly Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos wants to show “what happens when the law is nothing more than just one part of an assemblage with other bodies”(59) in space.

This is not a work that plays to the hegemony of critical legal geography, law’s presence (or absence) is not being explicated in order to show and/or challenge power-at-work. Instead it attempts a post human reformulation of “justice” and “spatiality”, and ends up with a conceptual product (“Spatial Justice”) that bears little relation to its otherwise next door neighbour, “Social Justice”. Indeed I’m left feeling simultaneously elated and uncomfortable that it so fully abandons a role for programmatic critique. Instead Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos uses OOO (and Deleuze) to frame Spatial Justice as the processes by which things (physical objects, ideas, emotions) do (or do not) accommodate to other things to which they find themselves adjacent. And in this flat ontology, Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos shows (perhaps) what happens when more-than-human ecological concerns are asserted over a human-centric ethics.

And a key element of Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos’ theorisation here is that the world is made up of myriad things: humans, oysters, table cloths and money (to use a classic OOO list-painting ploy) and that none of these things are ever fully revealed to any other thing – there is always a surplus hidden in the shadows. In short, all things withdraw. And for his purpose (as a spatio-legal theorist) law itself is one of those things that just loves – needs – to recoil into the ontological shadows.

His book seeks to account for this withdrawal – and to show its effects. In particular, he argues that where a situation is working well, its space (and other measures of its form) will appear smooth. In other words, the situation will appear straightforward, “obviously” arranged the way it is “just because”. In this slickness the resulting milieu manifests as atmosphere. Thus a romantic restaurant meal is all cosy, and (positively) emotionally charged. None of the legal infrastructure that enables the restaurant to register for VAT, to contract with the supplier of those Oysters, or the licensing requirements shaping the harvesting and dressing of that seafood will rise to the surface. But if the situation – its atmosphere – breaks (perhaps through the awkward agency of microbial contamination and resulting bodily distress) then this legal architecture – what Andreas conceptualises as lawscape – will suddenly reveal sufficient of itself, reframing the situation.

And so, with this in mind (and as I search for down-to-Earth scenarios with which to process Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos’ arguments), I sit watching Keith and Candice Marie as they wander the battlements of Corfe Castle, Keith doggedly “mansplaining” – squeezing the stones, the stories and the view into a totalising, instructive narrative. He’s making it all worthy, assimilating it into their holiday-making. Keith then takes them off to a quarry, and insists on interrogating the sole quarryman about his noble craft. Keith thus strides across Dorset, assimilating the actuality of the space he passes through into his already well-ordered worldview.

By all of this we see Keith (and the subordinated Candice Marie) in control.

We see this also in his hyper-ordered setting up of his pitch at the campsite.

But this is all prelude, for it is in the proximity to others that the ‘object’ Keith/Candice Marie  starts to come unstuck. First they must accommodate to the presence of Ray, a reticent (but harmless) student camped nearby. Keith finds that he cannot control the proximity of Ray, and emotionally and physically withdraws. Meanwhile Candice Marie seeks to engage Ray and to find common ground with him.

Then the arrival of Honky and Finger, on a noisy motorbike finally tips Keith over the edge. Honky and Finger are (by Keith’s judgement) the embodiment of uncouth. They are noisy and disorderly. Keith (at Candice Marie’s insistence) approaches Honky and Finger to ask them to be less noisy. First his approach seeks to active a dormant (withdrawn) civility – that surely Honky and Finger would know how to behave. But when he realises that seemingly there is no civility to re-activate, Keith takes a second line of interaction: he starts lecturing them about the “Countryside Code” and (in the face of Honky and Finger’s blank faces) then summons the image of the campsite’s rules against bonfires, painting a picture of rules signed up to by each guest at arrival, and how those strictures map on the space and specificities of this increasingly awkward encounter. When this strategy fails (when the lawscape has been summoned out from the shadows and even this has failed to bring forth a means of coexistence between these two objects: Keith/Candice Marie and Honky/Finger) Keith snaps and chases Finger around the campsite trying to reign blows upon him with a large stick.

Vanquished, the next morning Keith and Candice Marie conclude that they themselves must withdraw – they decide to leave the camp site and seek out somewhere where they can camp alone, arranging their affairs in a state of solitude. Here they can have things the way that they want theme to be. But they are visibly shrunken. They have gone into the world. They have actively and confidently sought to find its correspondence to the ideas and ideals that motivate their living, but the world (social and physical) has pushed back. They went seeking an immersion in an atmosphere (that of a calm and enriching rural idyll) but instead experience a rupture of that continuum. Friction through encounter with other semi-withdrawn objects, created a moment of crises in which the lawscape was glimpsed (and found wanting in terms of its conflict solving potential). And so, the solution – the route to Spatial Justice – was a withdrawal.

Image credit: http://lightsinthedusk.blogspot.com/2009/12/nuts-in-may.html

In the bunker with Virilio again. This time with the walls closing in.

“For me the bunker is a kind of metaphor for suffocation, asphyxiation, both what I fear and what fascinates me”

(Paul Virilio in Virilio & Lotringer, (2002) Crepuscular Dawn: 23).

Image result for star wars compactor

It often happens this way. This time it’s breakfast. I’m half listening to the radio. BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenessberg has arrived in the studio to do a live chat with the presenter, offering up her thoughts on the aftermath of the Chequers declaration (the UK Government’s terms to be proposed to the EU for Brexit). You can sense it in Kunessberg’s voice, she’s building up to something. Here it comes. Ah, yes and its out. The B-word…

The bunker has been deployed once again as a poignant political metaphor, a way of encapsulating a leader’s seemingly last-days predicament. And, furthermore Kuenessberg was especially proud of her abject image-making, for she had added for even greater effect the suggestion that not only was Theresa May ‘in the bunker’ but that also (via some strange, unstated physics-defying mechanism) the walls of this structure were also closing in on her. Kuenessberg was so pleased with her doubling of the peril-image that she referenced it again, with palpable satisfaction, a few days later on the same programme.

But (apart from the addition of the cross-allusion to another cultural artefact: Han Solo and friends trapped in a shrinking garbage chamber in Star Wars: A New Hope) there was nothing new in this coinage. Political posters regularly roll out the bunker-image (and its never-quite-spelt-out allusion to Hitler’s final days confined – and losing the war –  beneath the burning streets of Berlin in Spring 1945). One of my first bunker related academic articles (Bennett 2011) was an attempt to identify and analyse the material and metaphoric routes of the bunker meme in present day organisational discourse. Writing that back in 2010 I drew on the ways in which former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s last days had been repeatedly framed in this way.

The bunker is a powerful meme – at a whisper it evokes either the Hitler’s-last-days trope or the survival-machine nostalgia of the nuclear shelter. This latter form cropped up on Channel 4’s political satire show, The Last Leg last week – all wrapped up in a nice dose of futility (the bunker rolled onto the stage was a rudimentary wooden shed (or ‘man cave’) which was then effortlessly demolished before our eyes). This latter trope has been more prevalent since the rise of Trump, the chill of Cold War #2 and the increasingly rash sabre / weapon / willy waving of recent months.

Against this backdrop I’ve been pulling together one of my two presentations for the Royal Geographical Society 2018 conference. My working set of slides are scrolling below. I’ll probably cut them down for the talk, but the current set takes time to spell things out (I think).

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The aim of my presentation is to build upon one of my introductory chapters from my edited collection published last year (Bennett 2017). That chapter had sought to show how Paul Virilio’s seminal work on studying the cultural significance of bunkers could be located in his own wartime trauma, of living through Nazi occupation. The chapter then went on to argue that his bunker hunting in the late 1950s and early 1960s needed also to be set the context of the highpoint of the ‘first’ Cold War. The aim of the presentation is to take the analysis chronologically onward – following the bunker’s continued haunting presence into Virilio’s post-Cold War theorising of ‘Hyperterrorism’ and the siege psychosis that he characterises as endemic in contemporary urban living.

In following this trajectory I seek to show how Virilio invokes the bunker as a powerful motif in each era of his writing – and that he does so partly for effect (it is an evocative rhetorical stance) and partly because he needs to (in that the bunker serves as a fetish for him; a terror-object which he compulsively returns to, and perhaps seeks to control through making-it-known, and bringing it out into daylight).

But – as Mark Lacy notes – it is hard to ascribe Virilio’s repeated return to the bunker (in the ‘flesh’ in the 1950s and 1960s, and in writing since the 1960s)  as purely a driven dynamic of trauma – for there are other (probably equally traumatic) experiences that he has chosen not to write about in his work, notably his time as a French army conscript during the Algerian War of Independence. So, the motives and ethics of Virilio’s exegis of the bunker are complex. He has certainly raised the salience of ‘the bunker’ within cultural studies. Perhaps in rendering it highlighted he has countered some of its otherwise ‘withdrawn’ power (the architecture of martial power prefers to hide in plain sight). But equally he has helped to normalise, and fetishise, these terror-objects, adding somewhat to the ease with which the bunker has been packaged up as a consumable artefact via its cultural embrace as a trope, meme, metaphor and metonym. This familiarisation, and the shorthand and allusional effects that it commands, have myriad impacts, some capable of aiding resistance to martial power but some helping to feed a masculinist, war-imagery (and imaginary) that normalises the architecture of security.

And, yes. I’m fully aware of being vulnerable to the same accusations: and that’s something that I try to tackle head-on in the book’s final chapter.

Reference: 

Bennett, Luke (2011) ‘The Bunker: Metaphor, Materiality and Management’, Culture and Organization, 17(2) 155-173. (There’s a free-to-access copy of my working draft of that article here, and (subscription required) the published version is here.)

Bennett, Luke (ed.) (2017) In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: Affect, Materiality and Meaning Making (Rowman & Littlefield: London). Details here (NB: hardback and ebook currently available, paperback edition coming soon).

Image credit:

https://goo.gl/images/Pc7nsU

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.

Investigating Infrastructure – The 2018 SHU SPG conference, 13 June 2018

Investigating infrastructure poster

This year the SHU Space & Place Group’s interdisciplinary conference is themed around “Infrastructure”. Drawing across an array of disciplinary traditions and perspectives in a mix of presentations and activities our presenters will invite participants to explore the ways in which (tangibly and intangibly) infrastructure permeates space and enables place. Our event will take an expansive definition of infrastructure, ranging from big, heavy, monumental industrial objects to the faint structures that quietly enable and shape the world around us, and our daily experiences within it.  During the day, in an optimum and productive mix of playful and serious, you will encounter infrastructure in the shape of singing turbines, hot pipes, chatty buildings, dancing places, recuperative greenspaces and as refuges from the zombie apocalypse.

The event is free to attend, and you will even get refreshments and a packed lunch (courtesy of sponsorship by SHU’s Department of the Natural & Built Environment).

SHU SPG events are open to all, and whether SHU staff or beyond our institution. A physical limit is set for by the capacity of the venue, thus registration will be on a ‘first come first served’ basis.

Tickets can be booked here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/investigating-infrastructure-the-2018-shu-spg-conference-tickets-45721336749

PROGRAMME

9.30-9.45 WELCOME & INTRODUCTION

Luke Bennett, Natural & Built Environment Dept, SHU

This introduction will summarise key themes arising from the SHU SPG panel event Beneath the City Streets: four researchers explore urban infrastructure and its invisibility held on 21 March 2018 and suggest how these themes might productively inform this conference’s ruminations.

9.45- 11.15 SESSION 1: INFRASTRUCTURE, POWER AND PLACE

Chair, Luke Bennett, Natural & Built Environment Dept, SHU

9.45 – 10.00 Infrastructure’s objects

Richard Brook – Manchester School of Architecture

Infrastructure, whilst often characterised in terms of its invisibility via network multiplicity, functional ubiquity and semantic indeterminacy, still depends upon local, fixed, physical points of presence. This presentation will consider the objectification of infrastructure from an architectural perspective by showing how the seemingly invisible and diffuse is necessarily materialised and localised in the form of the built artefacts of infrastructure which are, by turns, prosaic and monumental. Infrastructure will be described as object and as producer of objects and the materiality and materialisation of infrastructure as concretised yet simultaneously ethereal. Such a situation seeks to explore the limits of the urban, the expanded geography and the morphology of the contemporary city.

10.00 – 10.15 Infrastructures of autonomy

Sam Vardy & Cristina Cerulli – Natural & Built Environment Dept, SHU (Architecture) 

We will present critical readings of infrastructures as fertile grounds for the development of autonomous initiatives. Drawing on insights from design research developed within the context of a Masters’ architecture design studio,  we will explore what we might understand as infrastructure, looking beyond common instances (pipes, roads and communications systems etc.) to reveal other possible of alternate infrastructure(s) manifestations, implications and affects – spatially, socially and politically.

10.15 – 10.30 Transforming urban heat infrastructure: place, territory and politics.

William Eadson, Centre for Economic & Social Research, SHU

Urban heat infrastructure in the UK is undergoing transformation as cities seek to move towards, cheap and secure low carbon energy sources. But such transformations are contingent on a wide range of entanglements between actors and materials that are often spatially distanciated and precariously held in place through a range of different means. In this presentation I will use case studies from English cities (including Sheffield) to focus on the territorial politics of urban heat: how territory is constructed and put to use in the development of new urban heat infrastructure.

10.30 – 10.45 Lost infrastructures and historic visual representations: case study of power generation in east Manchester in the post-war period

Martin Dodge – University of Manchester (Geography) 

Drawing on ideas from historical geography, visual culture and cartographic communication this talk considers how far large infrastructure sites can be recovered through historic visual representations that have survived and are publicly available in archives. Looking in particular at the massive fossil-fuelled energy production sites which had a dominating physical presence in many British cities from the late nineteenth century and through first half of twentieth century, this talk focuses on a distinctive cluster of gas works, power station and colliery that were situated in the Bradford area of east Manchester. Nearly all trace of these major infrastructures is lost from the urban landscape by the late twentieth century and it is interesting to consider how far their distinctive form, architectures, production methods and material presence can be envisioned and narrated using original building plans, engineering drawings, OS mapping, process diagrams, aerial photography and other technical inscriptions.

10.45 – 11.15 Panel Discussion

11.15-11.45 BREAK

11.45 – 1.00 SESSION 2: INFRASTRUCTURE, INTERFACES & INTERACTION

Chair: Carolyn Gibbeson, Natural & Built Environment Dept, SHU

11.45-12.00 High society or squatters? Competition dancing, affordances and engaging with the infrastructure of the ballroom

Fides Matzdorf – Sheffield Business School, SHU (Facilities Management)

Dance is all about space – moving through space, sharing space, claiming, ‘hogging’ and defending space and thereby framing and operating a highly structured social interface. Just as matter moves through hard infrastructure (pipes, wires, channels), so bodies flow through the ballroom. I’ll take you on a short journey of pictures and stories through the spatial trials and tribulations associated with a competition day – complete with paradoxes, contradictions and ironies in order to explore this and the underlying infrastructural orderings of the ballroom as a competitive space. This journey will reflect on the awkwardness of the notion of ‘backstage’ as a place in which the necessary messiness of an event is hidden – and will by analogy further question the supposed ‘invisibility’ of any infrastructure and of its operations.

12.00 – 12.15 The interaction zone: interpreting English and Dutch urban domestic interfaces as an infrastructure for sociality

Kaeren Van Vliet – Natural & Built Environment Dept, SHU (Architecture) 

Public private interfaces form a continual infrastructure running through the built environment (Wohl 2017) where messages are recorded and relayed. The interface can also be understood as a place (Dovey & Wood 2015) where public and private are negotiated and values are displayed. This presentation uses the tensions and synergies between emerging theoretical understanding of the interface to undertake a micro-spatial and visual exploration of English and Dutch domestic interfaces

12.15 – 12.30 Green Infrastructure for mental health

Jo Birch – University of Sheffield (Landscape Architecture) 

This paper foregrounds ‘the value’ and ‘values’ of a city’s green infrastructure and urban nature in responding to societal challenges around human wellbeing and mental health. Whilst nature-based therapeutic activities are acknowledged as potentially useful in mental health recovery (Bragg and Leck 2017) and/or ‘social citizenship’ (Parr 2007), we know too little about how green infrastructure may play a role in coping with mental illness, recovery or prevention. Through discussion of findings from the Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature (IWUN) project I share values of urban nature told by a group of people with mental health difficulties living in Sheffield, discussing what this means for both urban planning and healthcare.

12.30 – 1.00 Panel Discussion

1.00 – 1.45 LUNCH

1.45 – 2.45 SESSION 3: INVESTIGATING THE SPACES & PLACES OF INFRASTRUCTURE

Chair: Becky Shaw, Sheffield Institute of Arts, SHU

1.45 – 2.00 Towards the development of innovative interfaces for spatial mapping of cultural infrastructure

Rebecca Sharp – Natural & Built Environment Dept, SHU (Geography) 

The proposed work will aim to develop a prototype of an innovative interface to map cultural infrastructure. The research will draw on the theoretical and data analysis techniques from engineering and infrastructure studies and apply these techniques to non-infrastructure research. The work will apply innovative spatial visualisation techniques together with social media textual analysis to provide an overview of different spatial social cultural interactions. Social media data analysis has been a growing area of research over the last decade with geotagging analysis becoming increasingly popular in the last few years. Gaps in knowledge still exist in effectively visualising this data and the outreach of this information to communities and policy makers. This research will thus build on the previous literature to review different ways to visualise data in an interactive (spatial and temporally) multi-layer interface.

2.00 – 2.15 Sonospheric Investigations

Matt Parker – University of the Arts London (Sound Artist) 

This presentation will introduce the sonospheric investigation as a research methodology for attending to the obfuscated energies and vibrations of media infrastructures. It will introduce some of the practical and ethical challenges encountered when negotiating access to critical nodes of the Internet ’s material plane, from the position of an artist and spatial practitioner. Lastly, I will discuss some of the weirder things you might find the other side of the high security perimeter fence.

2.15 – 2.30 White Thorns: the poetics of windfarms

Brian Lewis, Longbarrow Press (Poet)

The story of the Isle of Axholme, an area of reclaimed marshland in North Lincolnshire, is one of engineering and extraction. Even before it was drained, realigned and flattened in the 1620s, the land was regarded as a source of fuel; by the 1980s, small-scale peat cutting had given way to intensive harvesting, a period in which gas and coal exploration also fissured the isle. The colliery at Thorne is now a solar park, and the flatlands are crowned by the wheel and flicker of wind turbines, including a 34-turbine array at Keadby; the largest onshore wind farm in England. Drawing on a sequence of poems based on recent walks around the isle, this presentation will reflect on how Axholme’s resource infrastructure has moved above ground in the 21st century and consider how the scale and dynamism of the ‘white thorns’ impacts on the affective experience of landscape.

2.30 – 3.00 Panel Discussion & briefing for the two activities

3.00 – 5.00 SESSION 4: TWO ACTIVITIES NARRATING INFRASTRUCTURE

3.00 – 4.00 Activity 1

GROUP A: An indoor walking survey with John Grant (Natural & Built Environment Dept, SHU) to assess a university building’s infrastructural resilience and preparedness for surviving a zombie apocalypse (guided walk from Norfolk 210 to Cantor Building Room 9140).

GROUP B: A short outdoor walk to inspire an infrastructural haiku writing workshop led by landscape poet Brian Lewis of Longbarrow Press (assemble in Cantor Building Room 9140).

4.00 – 5.00 Activity 2

GROUP A: A short outdoor walk to inspire an infrastructural haiku writing workshop led by landscape poet Brian Lewis of Longbarrow Press (guided walk from Norfolk 210 to Cantor Building Room 9138).

GROUP B: An indoor walking survey with John Grant (Natural & Built Environment Dept, SHU) to assess a university building’s infrastructural resilience and preparedness for surviving a zombie apocalypse (assemble in Cantor Building Room 9138).

5.00 END OF THE EVENT

 

Image credit: Matt Parker

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

restoration-matrera-castle-villamartin-spain-carquero-arquitectura_dezeen_2364_ss_0-852x609

“…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/