“I propose to lead a troglodyte existence with several ‘trogs’” – Winston Churchill, 21st September 1940
Yes, there was something wrong with my camera that day, my pictures aren’t very good. This blog-essay juxtaposes my ‘bad’ photos of an open-day at the ruined hulk of Churchill’s ‘other’ London bunker – codenamed ‘Paddock’ – in Spring 2010 with a rumination on the practice of modern ruin gazing, and ‘ruin porn’.
‘Paddock’ was built 40 feet beneath a suburban GPO research station at Brook Rd, Dollis Hill, North London in the early stages of the war as a reserve bunker, a fallback in case the Government should be ousted from the Cabinet War Rooms beneath Whitehall. Whilst that central London complex is now presented as a restored walk-through ‘attraction’ and bunker-themed subterranean Churchill museum, Paddock has received no restorationist’s attention. Instead, it presents as a buried decaying hulk, its two layers having the ambiance of a cross between a rusting submarine and a buried Travelodge that the World somehow lost, and left to the decay in a fug of penetrating water, oxidation and fungal growth. This bunker, in short, is a modern ruin.
Paddock was decommissioned from military use in 1943 and ceased its subsequent GPO occupation in the 1970s. From that time it fell into decay. In the 1980s BT (as successors to the GPO) closed the research station, and in the 1990s the site was acquired by Stadium Housing Association and plans drawn up for a social housing development on this ‘brownfield’ site. At an advanced stage of the planning process the existence of this once ultra top secret bunker came to light and the local planning authority decided to impose a planning condition upon the developer. In return for permission to build 36 houses upon the surface, twice-yearly ‘open-days’ would have to be held, to give any who wanted to, a chance to venture inside.
When I went along in Spring 2010, I found a gaggle of people milling on the pavement beside the nondescript entrance to the bunker. As the safety instructions sent to me by the Housing Association had mentioned with evident relief, this tour would be conducted by the experts – the bunker enthusiasts, Subterranea Britannica (Sub Brit).
Holmes (2009), in his book about Churchill’s main bunker, quotes from the diary of one of Churchill’s Assistant Private Secretary, Jock Colville who described Paddock in its prime, in September 1940 as:
“deep underground rooms safe from the biggest bomb, where the Cabinet and its satellites (e.g. me) would work and, if necessary sleep. They are impressive but rather forebidding: I suppose if the present intensive bombing continues we must get used to being troglodytes (‘trogs’ as the PM puts it). I begin to understand what the early Christians must have felt about living in the Catacombs.” (64)
Descending the cellar-like steps, the feeling was very much of entering some dank catacombs. This place is uncurated – there has been no preservation, let alone restoration there. There are no interpretation boards, there is no son et lumiere to bring this place ‘back to life’.
Instead (and I keep returning to this word because it really does capture the essence) here was a rusting and rotting hulk. In the two levels of long narrow corridors with office sized rooms either side, there was very little to identify this site’s prior exceptional purpose or even its subterranean location (apart from the absence of windows to these rooms). This was a rotting building, a long narrow rectangular office block, that just happened to be buried underground and to have had the good fortune to have been visited a few times by a wartime Prime Minister. Or, at least that’s how it struck me.
Seeing and doing
The crowd who had assembled for this trip underground was a surprisingly diverse bunch, a genuine North London cross section by race, age, gender and class. I suspect that many were there for the heritage angle – to glimpse another part of the Churchill trail, and perhaps others were curious local residents. It was strange to be in this derelict, decayed space in the company of an array of mainly smartly dressed middle aged people whom – I suspect – don’t normally clamber into the depths of dilapidated office-bunkers. Presumably they were here for the link to history and heritage, a link that was pretty hard to grasp hold of in this rotting void.
What attracted my attention most was the determined and disciplined photographic foraging of a black female teenager in the party. In each room she would seek out standard tropes of urban exploration photography and take multiple shots with her expensive looking camera. She clearly knew what she was looking for.
And what was she photographing?
Well, dust encrusted old bottles left on tables, fragments of notice board parchment, rusting signs: all the usual indicia of former use, abandonment and decay. And no doubt, from her thorough approach she would have come away with some ‘beauties’ in the oeuvre. In making this observation I’m not being ‘sniffy’. If my camera had been working properly that day I would have been attempting to perform the same stock compositions.
What struck me was that she (and I) had brought along a readymade way to ‘read’ this ruin – and we read it in a way that enabled us to pretty quickly forgot that we were in a specific place of heritage or events. Our engagement was more generic and focussed on the experiential materialities of this hulk – of the rust, the mould, the exposed metal: the place as ruin.
Smith (2004) recounting his own visit to this place with Subterranea Britannica, rendered this strange aesthetic – an unlikely conjunction of survey and poetics – thus:
“walls and floors ran wet…a beautiful snowy fur, the most exotic fungus I had seen below ground grew from the ceiling…gravy splashes of mould up the walls…droplets of water had been cultured into jewels by immobility” (333-334)
Our Sub Brit guides also seemed more captivated by the dank, broken-ness of this place that in portraying a clear and confident account of its wartime life. A line from Smith’s book had struck me when I first read it, and almost verbatim replayed itself via our own guide when we were taken into the generator room: his guide had inhaled contentedly there and declared with evident satisfaction “there’s still that engine-room smell”’ (2004:334), our guide showed a similar enthusiasm for this mechanical room and appended to every sentence of his description of these power devices the rider “as you probably know…”, co-opting us – willing or not – into a ceremony of subterranean machine-worship, recalling the obsessive enthusiast quoted in Geoghegan’s (2009) wonderfully titled article on industrial archaeology enthusiasts: “If you can walk down the street and recognise the difference between cast iron and wrought iron, the world is altogether a better place”.
Smith also relayed another evocative parallel recalled by one of his Sub Brit guides, about areas of water ingress into this bunker: “It’s like Star Wars where they’re trapped in a trash compactor” (333). It was, it really was. Trash compactor, space hulk, derelict bunker – they all merged as cultural reference points in this broken place.
I’ve been thinking about Paul Mullins’ (2012) recent blog-essay on ruin porn and archaeology of modern ruins. The teenage photographer, the Sub Brit enthusiasts and I (with my damaged camera) were all – each in our own way – exhibiting and practising a contemporary ruin aesthetic in our engagement with this place. The decontextualised dimension is what renders the so-called ‘ruin porn’ aesthetic distinctive.
Garrett (2011) has sought to explore this free-ranging aesthetic sensibility in his notion of urban exploration as an ‘assaying’ of the past and its structures, it is a promiscuous, selective and ‘mix and match’ approach that is free of the channelling of meaning which curated heritage venues or an archaeological investigation would entail; that urban exploration harbours “no temporal or typological constraints to an appreciation of the past” (2011, page 1050).
Garrett takes to task High & Lewis (2007) for their attack on urban exploration, which they regard as shallow and lacking a deep engagement with the history and use-lives of the places that are briefly explored. He argues that places are more than memorials, more than an embodied outcome of use-lives waiting to be faithfully excavated by in-depth study. Instead he regards ruins as much about place as time, as places of more open-ended (and generic) material stimulation of the senses and experience.
I follow Garrett’s view up to a point. I agree that urban exploration can be performed via a ‘cross-reading’ of place (a notion captured in Edensor’s (2005) important work on the aesthetics of industrial ruins), but I depart from Garrett in terms of how ‘free-form’ the urban exploration aesthetic or practice actually is. I have sought to show elsewhere that actually it is deeply structured, that it is fairly easy to spot and replicate the ‘rules’ of its ways of doing in terms of what, where and how (Bennett 2011).
High & Lewis write off urban explorers’ narratives as (only) “a valuable window into how some white, middle class North Americans in their teens and twenties view[…] deindustrialisation…” (2007: 63). Whilst they make an important contribution in characterising urban explorers as tourists, in whose gaze places are romanticized and decontextualised. What they write off as “little more than impressionistic collage of observations and feelings. [Where] we learn more about how these abandoned buildings make the narrators feel, than about their history and function” (2007: 55), I view as products of a sophisticated and relatively stable genre, a mode of representation that is being performed by (in the case of this visit), me, the Sub Brit enthusiasts and the teenage photographer. This genre sets frameworks for approaching ruins, a way of measuring good and bad attempts at the genre and denies a truly free-form engagement with them (at least to the extent that any attempt to document and share the visit is concerned).
So, is this ‘ruin porn’? I guess it depends what you mean by ‘porn’, implicitly there is a negative judgment wrapped up in the term, but helpfully Mullins draws out some of the nuances, and potential positives.
In his essay Mullins seems to align the notion of pornography with a self-centred, gratificatory and asocial consumption of place. He points to critics of the ruin porn practitioners at work in the ruins of Detroit as celebrating the aesthetics of ruin in the way that previous generations of white, middle-class, male ‘hipsters’ might have extolled – from the safe distance of their life-comforts – the ‘soul’ of slums, or the authenticity of the ghetto. The fear that Mullins echoes (but does not necessarily share) is that ruin porn arrests social processes (like urban regeneration) that would otherwise address socio-economic and other inequities: that in ruin porn’s fetish of decay and remnant signs of the past, progress is somehow opposed or delayed.
Mullins then goes on to suggest that ruin porn may be a positive counter weight to modernism’s fixation on grand schemes of ever-change and perfection seeking; that an attention to decay and traces may open our eyes to a wider range of stimuli and ways of seeing our worlds.
I’m with Mullins on that. Yes, there is a danger that celebrating decay could avert attention from pressing issues, but there is also a danger that a relentless and unquestioning quest for modernisation, change and cleanliness rushes too boldly towards erasure.
There is a positive role that ruin porn can play. Just as it is said that children need to be exposed to a little dirt and germs to develop immunity, perhaps adults need to see a bit of a dank bunker now and then to remind them that the built environment has a wider range of textures, smells and forms than everyday experience might normally reveal.
If ruin porn helps to augment our sensory range then that is good – provided we remain vigilant against the rise of narrowing representational conventions within ruin porn itself and the proliferation of derivative and hackneyed depictions that lose their ability to offer augmentation of experience of the built environment.
However, there is also a need to remain attuned to the role (past, present and future) of these structures as places of social life, of questions of power, habitability and quality of life.
Bennett, L. (2011) “Bunkerology – a case study in the theory and practice of urban exploration”, Environment & Planning D: Society and Space, 29 421-34
Edensor, T. (2005) Industrial Ruins: space, aesthetics and materiality, Berg: Oxford.
Garrett, B.L. (2011) “Assaying history: creating temporal junctions through urban exploration”, Environment & Planning D: Society and Space, 29 1048-1067
Geoghegan, H. (2009) “ ‘If you can walk down the street and recognise the difference between cast iron and wrought iron, the world is altogether a better place’: being enthusiastic about industrial archaeology”, M/C Journal: a journal of media and culture, 12 2 unpaginated.
High, S. & Lewis, D.W. (2007) Corporate Wasteland – the landscape and memory of deindustrialisation, IRL Press: London.
Holmes, H. (2009)Churchill’s Bunker, Profile Books / Imperial War Museum: London
Mullins, P. (2012) “The Politics and Archaeology of ‘Ruin Porn’” at http://paulmullins.wordpress.com/2012/08/19/the-politics-and-archaeology-of-ruin-porn/
Smith, S (2004) Underground London – travels beneath the city streets, Abacus: London