Staring at empty spaces – thoughts from the IoHR conference

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“…spaces conceal their contents by means of meanings,

by means of an absence of meaning

or by means of an overload of meaning…”

Henri Lefebvre (1989) The Production of Space, Blackwell: Oxford, p92

I spoke at the ‘Empty Spaces’ conference at the Institute of Historical Studies in London today. There were lots of great papers, and plenty to chew on. But rather than attempt a summary or synthesis of the presentations, I want to reflect on the Lefebvre quote above. I’m not sure how I’ve not spotted it before, but I’m glad now to be acquainted with this provocative statement.

The general drift of the papers today was towards a tentative conclusion that empty places don’t really exist (a similar point to my conclusion about non-places, see here). This is born out in two senses with the aid of Lefebvre’s quote above. First, in that to be anywhere (a space) there will always (except perhaps in cold, dark vacuum of outer space) be some contents, in other words that there will always be some matter there. But – following Lefebvre’s point – we won’t always notice that there is stuff there. This brings in the second point, our perception of those contents depends upon the amount of significance (i.e. meaning) we give to the place in which they occur. Thus, too much or too little meaning attaching to that place can blind us to what is actually there, giving it an appearance of emptiness.

And thus my thoughts turn to a windy Tuesday morning last month, and the march up a bronze coloured rough path, to an observation platform. Here I stood with my family, gazing into a deep void, the scoured remains of Anglesey’s Parys Mountain. In its late 18th century heyday this mine was the world’s largest producer of copper ore. But all that we actually noticed there that day was the fearsome wind, its thumping waves of force tugging aggressively at our clothes. Standing at the platform I knew that I was being humoured in this cultural pit-stop. I knew that this gale rendered our vantage point precarious and our visit to it especially short-lived. And I was right, the family mutiny was near instant and we quickly marched back to the shelter of our car.

But I suspect that even if there had been glorious, welcoming weather my family would have found the experience of staring into an excavated void only bearable for a few moments. This was a trip for Dad’s benefit, just another occasional and reluctantly indulged deviation from the normalities of family holidaying. Doubtless they felt that getting it out of the way would, well – get it out of the way.

Seeking out this place was of interest to me as part of ongoing research into meaning-making in abandoned quarries, but I’m sensing recently that my project has turned in upon itself. Being interested in why some might be interested in such places isn’t quite the same thing as being directly stirred myself by these places. Or maybe I still am. I think I’ve lost the ability to work out which is the driver now. I’m no longer sure why I’m seeking to be there, starring into a big hole.

This place – Parys Mountain – has an interpretation board, a device intended to stir interest in this seemingly empty, evacuated place, by pointing to the content that is still there (or to explain how it left here – and why). It also signals the interest of others – those who have taken the trouble to build the viewing platform, and deem a place like this worthy of attention. They, and it, seek to make this place ‘an attraction’ (in the broadest sense).

Reading the board (with difficulty – as the rain slid horizontally across it) some key dates, sepia photographs and an interpretive diorama sought to portray this mine as active, showing how this void came into being.

Keying this place to its history of productive use is a standard tactic, aimed at giving it sufficient meaning such that the contents here (the void – yes an odd form of ‘content’ – and the variegated rust coloured tiers of ground comprising this deep crater) can be noticed. But on this day the insistent intrusion of the wind – the excess of weather ‘information’ foisted upon us – meant we could not even start to appreciate this place. There was too much noise (semantic and actual).

And this dissonance pushed a question up towards the surface – something I’ve been trying to ignore the nagging insistence of in recent months. The question (a painful one for a history junkie like me) is: “why does it matter that this barren place was once this, or once that? Why do we need to know and what in us does it help us to know?”

Perhaps if I lived in the constant shadow of this strange fractured hillside it would help my sense of dwelling to know this history. But I’m just a tourist passing by, what purpose does knowing this serve for me? From deep inside, my reflex answer is “we all need to know where things come from – we need to be grounded in the world, aware of the processes that make us and things we depend on”. But then a counter thought responds: “maybe, but why do we need to know where copper used to come from?”

In the ensuing self-conversation (which I’m sure must exhibit strange muttering and facial twitches erupting into the proximity of my family members) my thoughts link to that era of amateur industrial archaeology of the 1950s and 1960s. The (attempted) valorisation of local industrial sites like these is very much a product of those times. But what will happen when that generation has passed? Who will curate these sites then – managing that Goldilocks challenge of getting the temperature of the meaning-making just right for this industrial porridge?

Perhaps this will become a dying art – as curatorial attention of succeeding generations passes on to other nostalgic objects – and perhaps ultimately someone, somewhere will decide that the time has come to turn the practices and places of industrial memorialisation into meta-referential museums dedicated to preserving the lost arts of the industrial heritage industry itself.


Further beyond the broken building: on the sudden decline of some old ruins


“These seemingly sleepy, old-fashioned things, defaced houses, closed-down factories, the debris of shipwrecked histories [which] still today raise up the ruins of an unknown, strange city.” 

Michel de Certeau (1998) The Practice of Everyday Life, Vol 2: p.133

I’ve used this quote a number of times now on this blog, it’s a great way of pointing to how ruins and associated ‘left-behind-pieces’ can trip you up – in the built environment, life or otherwise.

I will be using the quote again this Friday as I take a group of Paul Dobraszyczyk’s students on a tour of Sheffield’s ruins, as part of their ‘Ruin Lust’ module. But what’s really struck me in preparing this itinerary is how my adopted city’s once seemingly stable and dependable ruins are suddenly and rapidly disappearing. Empty hulks I’ve wandered past year after year with my own students, orienting them to the city that they are going to be learning about as surveyors, are on the move. My ‘old familiars’ are now either lying demolished, sitting freshly shrouded in scaffolding or re-clad and  repurposed to some funky ‘meanwhile’ use or other.

Now, for many this is ‘progress’, and the erasure of ruins is another index of development, on a par with (for the Futurists) factory smoke as a sign of modernisation or (for surveyors) tower cranes as a pointer to the state of a city’s property market. On Sheffield’s low-level skyline I still see few tower cranes, and only a little smoke, but this fading away of once dependable ruins is a sure sign of something afoot, and it certainly offers up a provocation: that of the ruin of ruins, of their vulnerability to erasure at any time other than the depth of an economic slump.

Ruinphobia and erasure lust

I’ve been trying to work out how I feel about this ‘loss’. Ambivalent is the best word I can find.

I miss the familiarity (and informality) of ‘my’ ruins, but I also see the dangers of fetishising broken-ness, emptiness and uselessness. I guess it’s a bit like a meal – you need some ruins in the urban matrix as hot chillies to challenge the bland functional wholesomeness of the majority of the cityscape, but just as a plate full of chillies would not be a nourishing meal, a city full of ruins would be too much.

Striding around Liverpool last year with a surveying colleague and a group of my students, our guide urged us to see whole streets as tired and in need of an abrupt and unapologetic change. Whilst the vitriol was directed at shabby 1960’s office blocks, the register was reminiscent of the aggressive agents of Post-War change who saw the slum clearance bulldozing of dilapidated terraced housing as a proud step towards a bright new future. Gesturing towards these under-occupied office blocks, my colleague declared their current uses unsustainable, the building types outmoded and these flat streets going downhill fast. Yes, there were enclaves of heritage buildings that could be kept for posterity, but much of the real estate assembled in this quarter was dismissed as simply a waste of space.

My colleague’s eloquent reaction typified the ‘ruinphobia’ that (much more so than ruin lust, or ‘ruinphilia’) drives the lives and fates of most of the built environment. In the spring I spoke at Paul’s conference at the University of Manchester on ‘Big Ruins’ and offered up there some early thoughts on the pervasive influence of ruinphobia.

I’m now gathering my thoughts for a paper that my SHU colleague Jill Dickinson and I are presenting at the University of Sheffield Town & Regional Planning Department’s interdisciplinary symposium on ‘Transience and Permanence in Urban Development’ in January 2015. Our concern is how ruinphobia is expressed through law and policy, and how that in turn influences the fates and forms of urban land use and reuse. Our paper is entitled “Forcing the empties back to work?: ruinphobia and the bluntness of law and policy” and we will also seek to show how certain assumptions about utility and urban temporalities are embedded within the range of legal and policy measures that drive the war against emptiness, disuse and degeneration. Here’s our abstract:

Since at least the mid Nineteenth century (but having important antecedents far back in feudalism’s concern for the proper utilisation of land – the law of waste) many pages of the statute book have been dedicated to the creation of measures to encourage or force property back into productive use, or at least occupancy. This paper will critically examine the ‘challenge’ of the city’s empty, unproductive and/or dilapidated places:

First, by questioning the unstated assumption that emptiness and dis-use are problematic. This requires an analysis of the latent ruinphobia that lies at the heart of the policy agenda and finds its expression in the policy’s links to the social sciences (e.g. Wilson & Kelling’s ‘broken window theory’ of crime caused by urban dereliction), in community governance measures such as the Clean Neighbourhood & Environment Act 2005, and the embers of slum clearance (Housing Market Renewal). This fear of emptiness (and its related Protestant ethic of full utilisation) is palpable (and unquestioned) in The Portas Review, in the 2007 abolition of empty premises rate relief, in the ‘bedroom tax’, in the proliferation of charity shop and other ‘meanwhile’ occupancies.

Secondly, by exploring the bluntness of ‘temporality’ within the planning law and policy system and its implications for use-forcing. Here ‘temporality’ is used in two senses – both as an awareness of the passage of time, and more specifically in acknowledgement that law attaches to familiar-sized moments – phases of use. Our contention is that for all its talk of planning (which implies a command of the future) planning law and policy has only limited effective reach across time (for it cannot force development to occur, merely channel the development aspirations of other stakeholders) and that it also rests upon a specific time horizon – that of the ‘medium term’. Consents are granted without time limit (but implicitly anchored to the 20 years or so likely life of a building) or are restricted to a handful of years. The planning system is not set up to act or think in terms months – its notion of temporary being confined to 28 days (a nod back to pre-industrial fairs, hunting seasons and the like).

I’m also starting to think through how different people see ruins differently, and at different times and a variety of scales. In part this is prompted by an invitation from the Institute of Archaeology at University College London, to speak there in March 2015 as part of a series of guest lectures on multidisciplinary perspectives on ‘the contemporary’ and heritage. I’ve proposed as my title “Make, use, abandon, repeat: thoughts on entropy and the temporalities of real estate”: and I’m thinking that I’ll try to offer up there some insight into how the real estate industry’s particular sense of past, present and future affects its engagements with the built environment. The ‘contemporary’ is a function of notions of both the past and the future acting upon (and or creating) as sense of ‘the present’. I’ll try to go further and show how rival temporalities are at work in forming, sustaining and/or changing the built environment. I’ll illustrate my talk with reference to some sites and surplus-to-current-use property types (likely a mix of ruined bunkers, quarries and cotton mills).

What are ruins anyway?

Paul’s students are art historians (hence the focus on ruin lust). The humanities has dominated academic ruin-talk in recent years, but potentially the tide is now turning (towards balance and collaboration I’d hope, rather than a ditching of the ruin-positivity brought in from the arts). As I flagged in my ‘Ruin of Ruins’ talk at Paul’s conference, political economists are entering the fray and arguing that a focus on the aesthetics of contemporary ruins has stifled analysis of the causes and consequent processes of ruination. The decontextualisation of ruinous objects, and/or insufficient attention to their ‘site stories’ is a fair criticism, but ‘affective’ ruin-scholarship has increasingly acknowledged the dynamic – and processual – nature of the material forces (many of them elemental) by which buildings and their component materials are degraded.

But amidst this tussle the irony I live with is that I’ve done very similar circuit walks with my real estate students. The same buildings, but with a change of gazes, resulting in very different readings for those structures. The temporalities are different too. The trainee surveyors look forwards to what the dilapidated building could become. I suspect Paul’s students will tend to look backwards, to what remains of what once was. In other words, development site vs evocative ruin. And my students know that an untended building will quickly fall into ruin.

In Sheffield – partly given the shrinking ruin-base, and also the tendency for our buildings to be small and low to the ground – both types of spectator need to be broad minded in order to actually spot empty or underused buildings. Both communities are stuck in the ‘traditional’ mindset – namely that ruins will be broken castles or cathedral-like industrial monoliths, that they will be empty keeps and abandoned dark satanic mills. More likely here in Sheffield however, ruins will be hollow 1960s offices, empty municipal buildings and/or surplus retail units. And these places only coyly betray their ruinous nature. The rot sets in subtly at first, the signs of early stage abandonment visible only to the expert eye. Rotting window frames, bird nests clogging drains, grime gathering on now uncleaned windows. This is how ruins start, as Tim Edensor helpfully explained at Paul’s conference for the benefit of ruin-scholars (it’s something my students and surveying colleagues knew all along) ruination is a process that takes over when the work of care necessary to keep it at bay is stopped. Thus a building enters its ruin phase as soon as care is withdrawn (or substantially reduced).

Thus perhaps to find Sheffield’s ruins I need to adjust my expectations. I need to look for the subtle ruins and I need to look for them in the empty units of shopping parades, above street level in the vacant floors sullenly stacked upon still thriving ground level shops. I need to look for them in the heart of the city, not in its industrial periphery.

And when I look for them that way I find a fair few, and many of them are Listed Buildings – kept ‘alive’ but gravely ill by the iron lung of heritage protection. But for what purpose? Perhaps my colleague was right, “erase it all”. Perhaps, as Rodney Harrison (2013) puts it we are suffering from “a ‘crisis’ of the accumulation of the past” (580), that we have become too obsessed with “not forgetting” (581), perhaps we just need to let some of this stuff go lest we otherwise suffer an overload of different pickled pasts piling up round us, “constantly surfacing and intervening in our present” (581). Perhaps we need to remember to forget, and to periodically remind ourselves to check whether a protected building or monument is still meaningful for us or can now be released from its suspended animation. It is certainly notable that the only ruins that I can think of as not presently disappearing in Sheffield are those that are listed.

So, these then are the “New Ruins” of Sheffield. I am not the first to identify them – Owen Hatherley  devotes much of his 2010 ‘guide book’ to this city’s prominent relics of the modernist era and its aspirations. Notable too is Hatherley’s singling out of the city’s indoor market, built atop of the rubble ruins of Sheffield’s 13th century castle (demolished in 1647 by order of parliament at the end of the English Civil War). It seems that talk is afoot of resurrecting the medieval ruins of the castle at the expense of the abandoned modernist ruins of the indoor market that currently sits on top of that rubble. Great (future) socio-economic potential is ascribed by the proponents to the desired airing of the castle’s modest remains. It is asserted – with the familiar bombast of urban regeneration ‘vision’ – that reconnecting this city with its foundational ruins, will enhance both the city and the 21st century Sheffielder’s sense of the city and their identity:

“Sheffield Castle could form a further jewel in the crown of Sheffield’s City Centre public realm. It could provide a catalyst for attracting significant public investment that will help in the regeneration of what is currently a run-down area of the City Centre. It also provides a new and powerful image for the City and one that will attract visitors as well as provide a place of immense interest and enjoyment for residents of the City and surrounding area. With a carefully directed programme of excavation, conservation and selected reconstruction the remains of Sheffield Castle could bring significant economic, social and educational benefits to the City. It provides the chance to take the City on a journey of discovery that it is hoped will excite, enthuse and engage an entire generation of Sheffielders and visitors to the City.” (Waddington, 2009: 3)

So, perhaps after all there is still some ruin lust left in Sheffield’s policy circles (Reed 2014), and ruinphobia does not always win the day.



The Friends of Sheffield Castle (2013-14) Website:

Harrison, R. (2013) ‘Forgetting to remember, remembering to forget: late modern heritage practices, sustainability and the ‘crisis’ of accumulation of the past’, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 19 (6): 579-595.

Hatherley, O. (2010) A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, Verso: London.

Reed, J. (2014) ‘Council “committed” to Sheffield Council plan despite lottery funding setback’, The Yorkshire Post, 25 October.

Waddington, C. (2009) Discovering Sheffield Castle – A prospectus for excavating and presenting Sheffield’s lost castle, ARS Ltd Report 2009/1, Archaeological Research Services Ltd: Sheffield.