Collapsing the sky / closing the building: some thoughts on the unbecoming of places


Yesterday afternoon, at 4pm, at the moment that Matthew Flintham was searching in Newcastle for ways to materialise the UK’s militarised airspaces, thousands suddenly found themselves stuck to the ground, as the virtual-but-real commercial transit spaces normally mapped out across the sky by the UK’s National Air Traffic Service’s mainframe disappeared. A glitch caused these air lanes to temporarily vanish – and for a moment the sky ceased to be a humanised place, it became undefined and uninhabitable: it collapsed as a place.

An hour or so earlier I’d also been speaking at the University of Newcastle’s Cultural Significance of Place symposium– giving an account of Marc Augé’s ‘non-places’ thesis. On one level it’s easy to dismiss his ideas: with an ‘of course non-places don’t exist, wherever we inhabit we bring meaning to, a place we are in can’t be meaningless’ assault. But rather than go for the obvious, I highlighted some of the nuances of Augé’s arguments, and tried to show their usefulness.

Fittingly (for yesterday’s conjunction of events) Augé writes at length about airports as the epitome of (nearly) non-places, framing them as places of pure transit, the arrangement of such hubs simply being to facilitate the passage of persons between other – meaningful – places (the place that they want to leave; the place that they want to go).

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For Augé a non-place is an ideal-type, and extremity unlikely to be encountered in pure form. It marks out a spectrum: non-place at one end and the mostly richly connected-to space at the other.  The extent of a place’s existence can thus be measured (somehow) by reference to the amount of engagement/meaning given to it by the user/dweller, and (for Augé) specifically in how ‘based’ (i.e. grounded) in that localised site the dweller actually is. Augé’s argument is essentially one aimed at his fellow anthropologists and their fondness for equating place with community attachment to a group-defining locality (something he styles ‘anthropological place’). He argues that with the rise of globalising forces and technologies, modern life (which he styles supermodernity) entails weaker and more individualised engagements with place, thus we pass through rather than dwell in places.  The static and certain communities and localities that we used to be quintessentially based in, now have a less powerful, less directive role in our identities.  He concedes that such ‘weak’ places are not like the stable bounded worlds of the ‘primitive’ communities that his colleagues might ordinarily focus their studies upon. But he urges them to also study the anthropology of supermodernity – and precisely in order to understand how increasingly individualised meaning making still manages to construct stabilised ‘singularities’ (and thereby maintain at least some localised semblance of place and notions of what to do there).

If we accept the impossibility of a pure non-place, we are left with the challenge of understanding weak, or individualised (and/or commodified) places, and to grapple with the conditions under which they come into being, subsist and die. This links back to Matthew’s work on visualising military airspaces – for they ‘come and go’ during the course of the day, and few are in existence 24/7. They are also ‘creations’ (places) known only to their makers (the military and NATS) and users (pilots). By they are vitally important to these people, even though they are near non-places to passengers who are transiting through them. Likewise (if we return to the ground), at airports the passengers have a very weak place attachment to the airport – it is simply a means to an ends – but what about the staff who work there? A cleaner, for example, will have a very intimate and meaningful task-driven attachment to the washrooms and their surfaces that they must regularly inspect and traverse with their mop and sponges.

Even in supermodernity places are still made meaningful by people in symbolic and physical interaction with portions of the world – sometimes those meanings are strong, aggregated notions that excite and direct action. Sometimes the meaning is individualised, improvised and/or a product of personal biography or events. And the meaningfulness of places changes moment by moment. If Augé is proposing a place/non-place spectrum, and we view this as a dial then in the places of supermodernity the needle is constantly moving – and each of us has our own dial. We cannot speak about any place being a non-place per se, for all times and all people.

These thoughts were helpfully set in train by Emma Fraser’s talk in Sheffield earlier in the week. Emma gave a talk on ‘Salvaging the urban obsolete’ as part of UCLAN’s In Certain Places programme, talking of her ongoing work at the University of Manchester upon ruination and people’s engagement with ruins. Emma posited that a ruin is never static, and that to watch a ruin is to watch a process of physical and social dissembling – thus that is an observable process of place unbecoming, as both matter and meaning irresistibly decay.

Emma’s talk paved the way for artist Victoria Lucas’ film After (2013), the result of her residence in the Castle Market complex, Sheffield’s ultra-Modernist 1960s markets, now facing demolition. As Emma observed, the moment that ruination starts is rarely witnessed by an analyst. Victoria’s short film (below) thus helpfully (and evocatively) captures the early to mid-stages of the unbecoming of the markets as a place-for-many. But it never becomes a non-place, because it remains populated by security guards – and for a time by Victoria – with both bringing a sense of place and activity to their ongoing engagements with it. But we do witness part of the material and social process by which ‘closure’ of the market triggers a collapse of this place into ruinspace.

Victoria Lucas (2013) After

And finally, back to Newcastle. Alistair Bonnett is speaking, reading extracts from his book Off The Map. He draws forth two types of non-places, which at first glance don’t appear to have any connection. First the intentional non-places of rendition and other ‘black-ops’, the places that the state does not want you to notice. These – says Alistair – are ‘redacted’ places. There is an art to hiding such facilities ‘in plain sight’, and a lot of effort is expended in achieving it. Matthew Flintham’s presentation was also addressing this – the ubiquity of inaccessible (to bodies and/or comprehension) militarised landscapes. Then Alistair points to banal, non-functional rump-spaces, that have ‘non-place’ character because they have no clear purpose, such as undercrofts beneath motorway flyovers. But these get colonised by psychogeographers or rough sleepers, so even these don’t fit the non-places ideal type.

There is some tension in applying the ‘non-places’ label to both the ultra-top secret and the ultra-banal. But I was aiming for a middle point in including bunkers in my own talk – the bunkers I’m concerned with are ubiquitous bunker-ruins. They are no longer secret or access-restricted. I don’t deny that secret and dark places still exist in operational mode, but it is the ‘what happens after’ question that intrigues me. Abandoned bunkers – and I’m thinking here of the national array of 1,500 Royal Observer Corps fallout monitoring posts, are often of the ‘hidden in plain sight’ type, but now that hiddenness is not maintained by anyone. So, they are just ‘in plain sight’ and available for those who wish, to project their meaning onto them. They are not non-places, they never were. They have always been meaningful to some people (although ‘who’ these people are has changed over time). And this meaningfulness is not entirely individualised – it is developed, shared and sustained through ‘communities of practice’ (Wenger, 1998) and their ways of doing, knowing and seeing a bunker.

If we can get past the popular view that Augé’s book consigns certain types of places to a negative or meaningless ‘non-place’ status, we can find that actually it helpfully advocates the worth of studying how types of places fade in and out of notice, and – by extension – what representational and/or pragmatic logics are at play at any particular moment of a localised built structure’s material life, as it moves along its journey of unbecoming.

Photo credit

STANTA battleground airspace in East Anglia – photo and 3D model by Matthew Flintham


Marc Augé (1995) Non-Places: an introduction to [an anthropology of] supermodernity, Verso: London (Trans. John Howe) [NB: for the 2009 second edition of the English translation the words ‘an anthropology of’ is dropped from the subtitle, obscuring the original audience that Augé was directing his argument to]

University of Newcastle’s Cultural Significance of Place Interdisciplinary Research Group:

University of Central Lancashire’s In Certain Places programme:

Matthew Flintham:

Emma Fraser:

Victoria Lucas:

A review of Alistair Bonnett’s off The Map book:

Etienne Wenger (1998) Communities of Practice – learning, meaning and identity, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge


‘Painting the sky brilliant white with Titania’s ubiquitous dust’ – cautious thoughts on atmospheric modification

‘They came in tiny parachutes

dissolving through the atmosphere

From planes not seen or heard’

Slab (1987) ‘Undriven Snow’


This blog essay is about the atmosphere, specifically the alien-ness of matter in the atmosphere. It is about attitudes towards the vastness of an uninhabitable portion of our world and specifically the material strangeness invoked by news of a gravity defying plan to inject earth into the sky.

Sky – the final frontier

Peter Sloterdijk (2009) has characterised the twentieth century as the era of ‘explication’ of the atmosphere. In his book he points out how during the last century the sky came to be knowable, occupy-able and weaponise-able in ways previously beyond comprehension. Before the ‘modern’ era, the sky was unattainable, majestic and unbounded. The sky was heavenly, or at least a transition to a ‘higher’ realm beyond. Up was blessed, down was cursed. Sky was rampant ‘other’ – nature bringing events to man (life giving rain and sun, and death bringing storm and drought) at times and places of its choosing.

What Sloterdijk presents is a glimpse of how the heavens were brought down to earth, rendered human (or at least brought within the reach of human influence) during the last 100 years. He builds his argument around the advent of airborne warfare, and specifically chemical warfare (direct attack against atmosphere’s life sustaining properties). I instead want to look at human interaction with the sky from the perspective of atmospheric engineering, specifically via one ubiquitous powder, nano particles of titanium dioxide.

Titania’s white power

I’ve been preparing a lecture this week in which I’m trying to show the breadth of environmental law in a very short teaching slot. I’ve chosen titanium dioxide as a case study, and I’m really glad that I’ve taken my investigation in that direction. Because TiO2 offers even more holistic weirdness than I’d thought it would.

Titanium dioxide (otherwise known as Titania), is a mineral pigment made from titanium ore. The ore is extracted from the ground in vast open mines, it is then shipped around the world to large energy (and acid) guzzling production sites. The resulting pigment gives plastics and rubber opacity and whiteness and is used in a diverse range of everyday products such as art paints, printing inks, paper, ceramics, textiles, glass, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and food (where its presence is as food additive ‘E171’). Our modern world would look very different without this white power additive. In the US per capita titanium dioxide ‘consumption’ is 3.4kg per year (est. 1991).

Titanium is the ninth most common element in the earth’s crust, and over 90% of extracted ore is processed into millions of tonnes of titanium dioxide pigment. It was adopted in the twentieth century as a replacement for the toxic pigment, white lead. First extracted from ore in 1908, commercial pigment production commenced in 1918. In the 1990s it was discovered that titanium dioxide when irradiated by sunlight has photocatalytic and hydrophilic effects which have now been commercialised into coatings that rendering glass ‘self-cleaning’, and enable coated paving slabs in Japan to ‘eat’ atmospheric pollution (Emsley 2012).

Painting the sky

It is a proposal to inject millions of tons of titanium dioxide into the upper atmosphere as a way of tackling climate change that has caught my attention. Ker Than (2012) describes a plan proposed by Davidson Technology, to disperse the white power using high-altitude balloons so as to form a sunscreen layer a millionth of a millimetre thick that would absorb and reflect sunlight, offsetting some of the climate changing global warming effects attributable to greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere from other human activities. Titanium dioxide has the highest refractive index amongst known materials – it is the whitest of whites (although some TiO2 nano-particles are actually transparent: TDMA 2012).

Than’s depiction of the delivery method, of hoses flying up skyward, paints a surreal picture – very Dali-esque (or Heath-Robinson, take your pick):

For Davidson’s project, a slurry containing titanium dioxide would be pumped skyward via flexible pipes, which would be hoisted aboard unmanned balloons flying about 12 miles (20 kilometers) high. A “hypersonic nozzle” would then spray the slurry as fine particles into Earth’s upper atmosphere.”

Than also notes that this would be a long term project – the injection having to continue for centuries until atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases reduce (which would require changes to on-the-ground manufacturing and carbon dependency).

According to Than Davidson estimates his own plan’s costs as around $900 million per year, plus up to $3 billion per year for the titanium dioxide. Presently (2010 figures) world production of this mineral powder is just under 4 million tons (1.48 million from US production sources, 2.19 million from China), with five multinational companies having a 64% market share (Mowat 2012). Taking the current price per ton as around $3,000 (Hemmerling 2011) this suggests the plan would require an extra 1 million ton of titanium dioxide to be produced each year, with an attendant 20% increase in ore mining, processing and distribution of this white dust to the remote balloon launch sites from which it would be shuttled and pumped up into the sky.

Matter out of place       

As an environmental lawyer what strikes me about this potential interplay between mineral earth and sky is the fine line between pollution and ‘solution’. As Mary Douglas (1966: 50) said, dirt is “matter out of place”. It’s all about context. Intentionally injecting titanium dioxide into the atmosphere is portrayed in Davidson’s plan as environmental augmentation of the air, yet more often the titanium dioxide industry has been framed as a polluter of land and water. Depending on the precise production techniques used titanium dioxide production waste includes dilute sulphuric acid, solid residue (chloride or sulphate salts), ore and pigment dust and gaseous emissions (Lane 1991).

The titanium dioxide industry was one of the first manufacturing industries to be singled out for special legislative attention by the European Commission. In 1972 Corsica brought legal proceedings against an Italian titanium dioxide plant following sufferance of ‘red mud’ discharges afflicting the Mediterranean coast (production of each ton of the white powder produces a greater volume of waste that has to be disposed of, traditionally via pumping it into the sea)(Hague 1992). The Commission was concerned that inter-state disputes about this aquatic pollution could undermine the harmony of European trade in this increasingly important industrial commodity and thus a Directive was issued in 1978 to harmonise how each member state should regulate these plants and their emissions. Subsequent Directives focused upon environmental monitoring of the effects of permitted disposal routes for this waste, including dumping on land or injecting it into the soil.

These measures were early instances of international environmental law – born of a realisation that drifting plumes of red mud have no notion of national borders. As with the sea, so with the sky. Pollution emissions or remedial nano particle infusions into the sky would also need international consensus before emission, for clouds will drift where they will.

Aerography and appreciating the alien-ness of the sky

In the twentieth century we came to view ‘airspace’ as national territory, rather than private property. Technically, under English common law principles (as recorded by William Blackstone in 1769), a landowner owns the column of air above his land, right up to the ‘top’ of the sky. Whilst legislation abrogates this principle in order to allow aviation to cross his airspace, no provision has yet been made to allow the installation of an upper atmosphere sun shield above plots of land. Outer space (the space beyond atmosphere) is via international treaty terra nullis, owned by no-one. But in theory at least airspace within the atmosphere is private property of the surface owner.

Ownership of the sky is pretty irrelevant unless you can defeat gravity. The sky is not naturally inhabitable or meaningfully possessible. Matter is not normally installable in the sky. Gravity is a timeless force that normally keeps our thoughts, actions and concerns at or near ground level. But the titanium dioxide plan, is another instance of the gravity defying explication of the sky that Sloterdijk has conceptualised, and if ever implemented would have material consequences upon the ground (more titanium ore mining, more processing, more soil and water pollution, more energy consumption) and also novel legal ramifications in terms of sky-ownership.

Perhaps the danger here is that – via this march of explication – we are trying to conceptually and physically approach the sky as we do land. Introducing a collection of essays acknowledging geography’s fixation with the geo (i.e. land and matter)Jackson & Fannin (2011) speculate on what a genuinely understanding ‘aerography’ would need to look like, and how it would to differ from geography in order to break free of what Henri Bergson called ‘the logic of solids’.

We would laugh if anyone were to suggest that the sky was a solid, but if we are at the brink of demarking it as territory into which material can be permanently inserted then we are at risk of transposing that solids logic into an alien world to which it may never be suited, regardless of the reach of our gravity defying technologies.

The permanent colonisation of sky-space by matter could also, of course, have unforeseeable chemical and/or climactic effects. In time would have to reap what we sow: the atmosphere might resist the explicatory logic of the human plan and reassert its sovereignty of the sky.  Perhaps here we can leave the last word to another Titania, the queen of the fairies in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act II, Scene i):

“…the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents:
The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable:
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest:
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.”


References and sources:

Douglas, M. (1966) Purity and danger: an analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo, Routledge & Kegan Paul: London

Emsley, J. (2012) ‘Fujishima is suggested as a possible Nobel Prize winner “for the discovery of photocatalytic properties of titanium dioxide known as the Honda-Fujishima Effect” Science Watch,

Hague, N. (1992) Manual of Environmental Policy: the EC and Britain, Longman: London.

Hemmerling, K. (2011) ‘Titanium Dioxide could give these 10 stocks a boost’

Jackson, M & Fannin, M (2011) ‘Letting geography fall where it may – aerographies address the elemental’ Environment & Planning D: Society & space, 29, 435-444

Lane, D.A. (1991) ‘Pollution caused by waste from the titanium dioxide industry – Directive 89/428’ Boston College International and Comparative Law Review 14(2) 425-434

Mowat, R. (2012) ‘TiO2 Titanium Dioxide Companies’

Sloterdijk, P. (2009) Terror From the Air, Semiotext(e): Los Angeles (trans. Amy Patton & Steve Corcoran)

Than, K. (2012) ‘Sunscreen in the sky? Reflective particles may combat warming’ National Geographic Daily News

TDMA (Titanium Dioxide Manufacturers Association) (2012) About Titanium Dioxide TDMA web site:

Photo credit: Nikki Clayton –

New uses for old bunkers #23: sky-bunkers and the vertical geographies of shelter

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” Henry David Thoreau

Recently I was flicking through Muir’s (1986) The Stones of Britain and I came upon a description of the round stone towers built in Ireland in the eighth and nineth centuries by monastic settlements in the face of Viking raids. Muir interprets these towers as defensive in nature – stone silos into which the community could ascend and shelter, within the wooden framework of spiral steps and landings. Here – in the sky – they would shelter from the sea-borne raiders of the land.

As I looked at Muir’s photograph of the tower at Turlough, County Mayo, something about it struck me as familiar. Then I realised what it was – the tower reminded me of Winkelturm, the above-ground air raid shelters built across Germany during the Second World War.

These concrete or brick silos were built at factory sites, railyards and other facilities with labour forces needing quick access to local shelter. It proved considerably cheaper (and quicker) to build these shelters above ground – and up unto the sky – than it to burrow into the underground. Whilst exposed in the above ground world, these towers were tall but narrow in profile. Hard targets to hit directly. They were also well-suited to locations where geology or watertable made excavation untenable.

As with the Irish sky-bunkers, these shelters featured staircases and landings where their denizens could nervously await the end of the raid.

Attempted escape into the sky – the refuge of height – made an obvious modal sense in the case of the Irish towers, because they entailed escape from the sea and the ground occupied by the Viking raiders. But the Winkelturm warped that logic of escape, for in them shelter was being sought by ascending into the arena of the attack: the air above. The sky was the very place from which these assailants came.

Reflecting on this deadly irony got me thinking about Stuart Elden’s recent work on vertical geographies. At the 2012 RGS-IBG conference in Edinburgh I attended Stuart’s keynote lecture, in which he looked at the ways in which the subterranean, surface and sky all key together in a vertical mesh of power. Stuart’s examples included offense and defence, and highlighted the importance of reading place in three dimensions – not just laterally, but also vertically.

Thinking about the direction of attack, and the ‘logical’ direction of shelter reminds us of the importance of reading the vertical – particularly in an age of gravity defying technological capability.

So, the ‘new use for old bunkers’ at work here is two fold – first something eternal (or at least recurrent) in the relationship between the monastic defence towers of the Dark Ages and the counter-intuitive Winkelturm. Second, the way in which the vertical dimension of escape and shelter can encourage us to embrace the three dimensionality of space and place.

And – thirdly – the fate of the Winkelturm once again shows us how bunkers (and there are an estimated to be over 200 Winkelturm left in Germany) are co-opted into the contemporary world, valorised by enthusiastic bunker-hunters and/or adapted to new commercial uses, as shown below.

Elden, S. (2012) ‘Secure the Volume: Vertical Geopolitics and the Depth of Power’ Political Geography Lecture at RGS-IBG, July: a video recording (of an earlier outing of this lecture) is available at:

Muir, G. (1986) The Stones of Britain – landscapes and monuments, quarries and cathedrals, Michael Joseph: London

Image & information sources:

Floating in space – a response to ‘Mars is indeed a place”

I’ve just been re-reading Hondartza Fraga’s mesmerising blog essay ‘Mars is Indeed a Place’ and wanted to set up a recommendation link to it, but inspired by Hondartza’s piece I also wanted to add some images of space, exploration and floating which I’ve always found very potent and which her piece reminded me of.

So, here’s the link to Hondartza’s blog essay:

And specifically here is the ‘floating’ meditative video clip there that started off my chain of association:


Here are the images and sources that Hordartza’s work brought to mind.

First, a 1972 image from Nasa’s archive as digitised by photographer Michael Light (great name) in his 1999 book Full Moon.

There is a slideshow of 50 of Light’s book’s images at:

There is a haunting loneliness to nearly all of them. Space as big, dark. cold and…alien. Humans as small, frail and in awe. Bit like here:

And then I wanted to add this 1903 image of Shackleton’s stranded crew waving to their colleagues as they row off in search of rescue:

And finally (if anyone really wants to get deeply into the idea of floating in space):


The above is a trailer for First Orbit a real time reconstruction of Yuri Gagarin’s first human step into space. The full film is available to watch via free download at:

I’m not going to write anything further in this post. For once, I’d like to leave the images and sources to speak for themselves…

…well, maybe just one quotation:

“If there were no railway to overcome distances, my child would never have left his home town, and I should not need the telephone in order to hear his voice. If there were no sea travel, my friend would not have embarked on his voyage, and I should not need the telegraph service in order to allay my anxiety about him.” (32)

Sigmund Freud (2004 [1930]) Civilisation and its Discontents, Penguin: London

Razed to the ground – mapping and drawing the destruction of Tokyo, 1945

It’s a strange expression, ‘razed to the ground’. Heard (rather than read) it seems an oxymoron. Through a confusion of ‘raised’ and ‘razed’ two opposite directions of elevation are conflated and we have to pause to get our bearings. In this short post I’m reflecting on something that has caused me to pause for thought this week as I stumbled on an event that didn’t fit the version of recent history handed down to me.

The stumble-point has been an article in The Atlantic Cities by Eric Jaffe, which in turn points to a recent research article published by Fedman and Karacas in the Journal of Historical Geography. The theme of both is the ‘forgotten’ systematic erasure of 65 Japanese cities by US incendiaries in the six months prior to the dropping of the Atom bombs in August 1945, and the role that map-making played in that destruction.

Jaffe reports that Fedman and Karacas’ work aims to restore this campaign  to US public memory, for whilst the dropping of a new type of bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has lodged in public discourse, the preceding campaign has largely been ignored. Whilst the London Blitz has a rich resonance, the Allied air campaign against Germany has provoked some debate in recent years, the ‘conventional’ bombing of Japan in the closing phase of WWII has not.

Why does this matter? Well, the scale of the destruction wrought on those Japanese cities is mind-boggling. Measured by civilian air raid casualties (all stats from Hewitt 1997: 297) the scale is shocking:

Britain – 60, 595 killed, >86,000 severley injured

Germany – 600,000 killed, c. 800,000 severely injured

Japan – >450,000 killed, > 1,500,00 severely injured

But what really distinguishes the raids on Japan is the concentration of destruction within a relatively short period (six months) and its focus upon destruction of Japan’s built environment – an urban erasure, for if we look at the statistics on the proportion of urbanised areas destroyed:

Britain –   3%

Germany – 39%

Japan – 62%

Coming at the end of a long war in which so much destruction had already been tested out and refined, the attack on Japan became a technocratic anti-planning (in the sense of a ‘town planning’ that normally aspires to grow and improve cities): something that Fedman and Karacas call ‘Urbicide‘. WWII had increasingly become a war of technology and industrial application. Science, engineering, medicine all found inverted expression in wartime. In the case of the raids on Japan (as Fedman and Karacas wish to remind us), planners and geographers were co-opted into the destructive schema.

And fire fighters too, for Vanderbilt (2002) cites a book, published in 1946, which (along with having perhaps the longest title ever), says it all: Fire and the Air War: A compilation of expert observations on fire of the war set by incendiaries and the Atomic Bombs, wartime fire fighting, and the work of the fire protection engineers who helped plan and the destruction of enemy cities and industrial plants (National Fire Protection Association International: Boston, Bond, H. ed.). In attacking Japanese cities, the knowledge of how to fight fires – learnt through bitter experience elsewhere earlier in the war, was inverted: employed as knowledge that would maximise destruction.

Indeed, a wide range of technical expertise was applied by the raids’ planners to maximise the urbicide, including architecture. Fedman and Karacas point to the methodical trialling of incendiary technologies in desert test ranges where townships of vernacular Japanese (and German) houses were built and then methodically destroyed. And by some grim irony Japanese housing was especially suited to incendiaries, due to its widespread use of wood (a material good for earthquake resilience, but also great for man-made firestorms).

Soon after, the planners checked their sums and tests and – as Fedman and Karacas show – a US Committee of Operational Analysis report produced in September 1944 concluded that a massed aerial incendiaries attack on Tokyo could leave 7.75million homeless and “should the attack have the favourable circumstances of high winds conducive the rapid spread of flames…should a regular bombing pattern occur with full saturation of the attack area, should exit arterials be quickly blocked by conflagrations, should mass entrapment of people occur, the resulting casualties will probably be substantially higher.” (Quote is from that 1944 report)

Once a supply chain of vast quantities of napalm had been secured through the good offices of war procurement departments and contractors, the destruction was unleashed and Japan’s 65 largest cities were systematically burnt-down between March and July 1945. Thereafter, as Lindquvist recounts:

“For lack of bigger game, the United States now bombed cities with only 100,000 inhabitants, scarcely worth the cost of the bombs. By the beginning of August they were down in the 50,000 range, [then] there were only four reserved targets left. One of them was called Hiroshima, another Nagasaki.” (para 232)

Like many educated Westerners the incendiary bombing campaign in Japan is not something I was aware of until I started looking into it this week. I thus claim no special knowledge or insight: other than a feeling of unease that I didn’t know.

This sense increased when I follwed an internet trail set for me by Fedman and Karacas. Their bilingual site seeks to address this Western memory-deficit. Their trail leads me through the “trophy” maps and other abstractions of the dehumanised process of (what Gregory 2011 has called) ‘the kill chain’ and then onward to web sites in which Japanese eye witnesses give written and pictoral testimony to the human reality of experiencing the onslaught of these raids. That journey ultimately led me to a feature entitled That Unforgettable Day – The Great Tokyo Air Raid Through Drawings ( Assembled there are paintings, produced in later years, by eye witnesses who had lived through the destruction of Tokyo as children.

These paintings serve very strong testimony to the power of marks on paper to communicate emotion and human experience, just as the military maps show the ability of marks on paper to aid destruction by rendering human lives and homes as abstract targets (a process Fedman and Karacas capture in their article’s title: ‘A cartographic fade to black’).

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The survivor’s pictures resaturate the event-picture with visceral colour and human affect. The paintings that I have reproduced here are the most muted ones. I do not want to sully the energy of the most visceral testimonies by pasting them into my ‘passer-by’ blog. They deserve to be seen in context on that site, if used here they might imply a voyeuristic ‘bomb porn’ (in the sense that a notion of ‘ruin porn’ seems to be coallescing in some quarters). That’s not where I’m wanting to end up. Elsewhere I’ve tried to explain my reasons for recently venturing into this bleak topic of air raids and urbicide. My gaze has been alerted to the brutal dehumanizing effects of objectifying cities as systems devoid of the citizens who seek to enact their lives within them, I’d like to help re-populating those empty representations, but I need to be mindful of a risk of separating a survivor’s visual testimony from it’s direct linkage to lived human experience.

I therefore commend the links and sources presented above and below.


Fedman, D. & Karacas, C. (2012) ‘A cartographic fade to black: mapping destruction of urban Japan during World War II’, Journal of Historical Geography available at:

Gregory, D. (2011) ‘Above the dead cities’ in Daniels, DeLyser, Entrikin and Richardson, Envisioning Landscapes., Making Worlds – Geography and the Humanties, Routledge: London

Hewitt, K. (1997) ‘Place annihilation: air war and the vulnerability of cities’ in Regions of Risk: a geographical introduction to disasters, Longman: Harrow.

Jaffe, E. (2012) ‘Mapping ‘urbicide’ in World War II’, The Atlantic Cities, 28 May at:

Lindqvist, S. (2001) A History of Bombing, Granta; London.

Vanderbilt, T. (2002) Survival City – adventures among the ruins of atomic America, Princeton Architectural Press: New York

“And that was another hole in the ground that I didn’t find”: on walking and reading Blitzscapes

Walking the Blitzscape

In December 2010 I accompanied an interpretative walk tracing the path of the Sheffield Blitz, led by local poet Rob Hindle, and organised by those psychogeographically inclined chaps at Longbarrow Press.  The appearance today online of a video fragment from Rob’s narration of the walk, has prompted me to chip in my own take on attempting to trace a Blitzscape.

The fragment captures a passing comment from Rob, explaining his failed attempts to trace any  physical legacy of a known suburban house-casualty of the raid, Rob offers up the throw away line that I’ve used as the title of this piece: And that was another hole in the ground that I didn’t find.” In this post I want to focus on that search-for-the-physical, the ‘scattered’ nature of the impact of the bombs on the built environment and the ability of that environment seventy years on to all but erase that ‘random’ destruction.

The poetry walk sought to re-engage with the spatiality of the bomb-run of the first (and main) Sheffield raid in December 1940. In psychogeographical style – to walk is to physically read place at a natural human pace, a pace that maximises the scope for full absorption of the places passed through, and joining them into a communal experience, and linear narrative – for the walk culminated in the approach to the city centre, the epicentre of the bombing, a flattened portion of the main shopping avenue.

The walk took about three hours, starting in the barren natural wastes of the city fringe moorland and ending in the once-waste shopping thoroughfare, each joined through bisecting diffuse outer and dense inner housing districts, cutting a straight path into the city. Much like the bombers did that winter’s evening 70 years before. We ended our walk at the site of the former Marples hotel, the locus of the highest casualty event of the raid.

The walk struck me in a different way to what I had expected (and perhaps than what had been intended). The slow trudge into the city centre was sparce. Occasional incidents and recollections, but largely Sheffield now. Not then. Cars, trees, falling winter light.

But it was when we hit the shopping strip – The Moor – that it started to feel weird (and haunted). The bottom of that strip currently re-laid to waste. The result of a stalled shopping centre redevelopment. Demolition of the shops built after the war to replace those destroyed by the bombers, now destroyed themselves in the name of progress.

As we walked up this emptying, twilight pedestrianised street I started to hear distant strains of some mutant music. At first I thought I was imagining it, but as we drew closer to the Town Hall we came upon a live music festival. A German free jazz band playing and filling the city centre air with jagged sound. Somehow, it seemed oddly fitting.

Perhaps this was an intended or synchronistic correspondence between the sparse-into-dense experience of the journey’s progression and of the increasing density of the bomb scatter inflicted as the attackers came closer to the centre of the city.

The walk sought to commune with the raid and its consequences. Spatially I think it did achieve something. But narrating absence by walking is difficult. I was struck by the way that this city has physically moved on. It has erased, incorporated, absorbed the events. Little remains now to be seen or touched. It took time and considerable effort, but the bomb sites here and elsewhere around the world were cleared  away. Rubble was removed. Buildings grew back. Generations came and went.

The world moves on, swallowing up the traces

I find the ability of the world to move on – to erase the events and their legacy – and for subsequent history to play out on the same stage quite chilling (but I accept its necessity). But we stand at the brink of the death of ‘living memory’ of this event and time. It is about to become truly ‘history’, as abstract to those currently alive as Waterloo or the Somme. The land and its buildings cannot hold these stories in a way that can readily speak to us. Only human agency and the archive can do that.  Perhaps characteristic of the notion that ‘history is written by the victor,’ there is plenty of testimony available to the lived-reality of air raids in the UK (see for example for Sheffield, SFRB 2008). I am not arguing, a la Sebald (2003) in relation to the German cultural response to Allied air raids, that there is a cultural amnesia at work in the UK over our air raid heritage.

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I come from a generation (and a family background) that gave me direct physical access to ancestors who had witnessed the battlefields of the First World War and the air raids of the Second. In homage to that legacy I find myself drawn to the built environment in search of the fading physical traces that link my life and now, back to that heritage. For me it is personal. It connects to identity. Not in a patriotic way, more in an existential sense – that people I knew, and with whom I shared mundane pleasures and discourse had been touched by the tragedy of events that I couldn’t fully comprehend in terms of them as a ‘lived experience’ known directly to me. These ancestors left me photographs and documents, but most importantly they left me places through which they had walked and lived (and in which things had been done to them). These places then are canvasses, ever present through time. Events (and buildings) come and go. But if you stood in one spot you would be standing where millions of daily life-actions had been enacted over thousands of years. But how do you summon all or any one of them to the present, then glipse and connect to them?

I don’t know. All I know is that there’s something missing in the built environment when I go searching for these ghosts. Guess I’d better just keep searching (or otherwise learn to let go).

Giving thanks to a gutter

We can all read our life-course in a multitude of ways. We can all spot a role for contingency. The one I choose to hang on involves my grandmother. One lunchtime – a Tuesday I believe – she was on her lunchbreak strolling with a colleague along the high street of Teignmouth, a South Devon seaside town. Suddenly she heard and saw a bomber flying low, speeding towards her and straffing the street below it. She claimed she saw the pilot’s face before hurling herself into the gutter, pressing down into the dirt for dear life. Moments passed as she waited to find out whether her end had come. Then bombs fell on the small dock nearby. The raid was over. She lived,  conceived my mother who in turn conceived me. I owe something to the gutters of Teignmouth and the accuity of my Nan’s sense of hearing and her (then) agile reflexes.

I’ve been to Teignmouth many times since. I’ve wandered the high street there pondering the pavements. Looking for that mundane event-space. But all the pavements, all the gutters there are indistinct.  This environment, these structures, are indifferent to me. For I, and my ancestors, are but few in millions who have made myriad passing uses of their concrete, stone and iron elements.

Like Rob Hindle, I search but I don’t find the holes. They heal over and conceal the events that take place from time to time within them. They frequently frustrate what Moshenka (2010: 7) has styled the “treasure hunts of memory fragments”.

But sometimes the environment spews up traces

Moshenka has also written of the subtle ways in which a “fragmented” commemoration of the London Blitz is performed in that city through a process of “counter-memory”, the irruption of fragments (both physical and symbolic) of the Blitz into the ‘everyday life’ of the city. His study shows how, on a localised scale at least, places can offer up moments of remembrance. One example is the discovery of unexploded bombs on development sites or dredged up from the Thames. For Moshenka, such events – and their fleeting disturbance of the life of the city – are “counter-monuments”. By this he means that whilst monuments are consciously made, top-down civic installations, these irruptions are bottom-up, localised and/or beyond precise human control. They stop the ‘now’ in its tracks, and force us to confront the ‘past’. They also transfer some of the costs of the past to the present.

The big in the small; the small in the big

It is also the warping – and laying explicit – of the interaction between the macro and micro that I find enthralling about air raids. The whole-nation coordination entailed in the creation and tasking of a bomber fleet and the individual fate of the person, house, room impacted by the ‘unlucky draw’ of each bomb’s descent. To be in the wrong place/time when another nation passes overhead. Gregory (2011) captures this point well in his essay ‘Above the dead cities’. His essay shows how these levels of scale interconnect and frame an ‘inevitability’ of the eventual damage – a “natural history of destruction”. Perhaps, in extension of this we could add a “natural history of erasure” to describe the ‘inevitable’ processes by much most of the physical traces of such raids are erased from the face of these (once) dead cities.

I will close with one final thought – an acknowledgement that, whislt never as accurate and ‘precisely targeted’ as their operatives may contend, air raids are not entirely random in their footprint of destruction. Hewitt (1997) here ably shows a “social geography of bomb destruction” (305) whereby more than 90% of air raid deaths in the UK, Germany and Japan were civilian residents in dense inner-city residential areas, and with a preponderance of women, children and the elderly. Hewitt characterises this focus towards destruction of the truly civilian as “place annihilation” (319) – and yet, viewed via the built environment seventy years on the places subsist. The places won out. It was the people who were annihilated in this “civil ecology of violence” (319).

Gregory, D. (2011) ‘Above the dead cities’ in Daniels, Delyser, Entrikin & Richardson (eds) Envisioning Landscapes, Making Worlds – geography and the humanities , Routledge: London, pp. 12-24.

Hewitt, K. (1997) ‘Place annihilation: air war and the vulnerability of cities’ in Regions of Risk – a geographical introduction to disasters, Longman: Harlow.

Moshenska, G. (2010) ‘Charred churches or iron harvests? Counter-monumentality and the commemoration of the London Blitz’ Journal of Social Archaeology 10 (5) pp. 5-27.

Sebald, W.G. (2003) ‘Air war and literature’ in On the Natural History of Destruction, Penguin: London, trans Bell, A.

SFRB (2008) The History of Sheffield Fire Brigades 1379-1974, website at:

Sheffield Telegraph & Star Ltd (1948) Sheffield at War 1939-45


Links and sources

Photos and map from Sheffield Telegraph & Star (1948) via which also has very thorough coverage of the Sheffield raids. The full bomb map is available to download at:

Making a plain building speak

This is a link to Tim Prevett’s fascinating blog about the traces of optical illusion painted on the long drab brick wall of Crewe’s Bombardier train factory during the Second World War. The now faint traces give a glipse of the mural painted there in wartime to fool Luftwaffe pilots into thinking that the features glimpsed below as their bombers sped across that town seeking out their targets were residential streets rather than a railway factory. Viewed at the correct angle (45 degrees?) from the distance of a speeding cockpit this effect would be achieved, whilst close up at ground level, even then, these blocks of black paint may have just seemed random and abstract daubings.