Gazing from ruined pavements: A postcard from Berlin

Potsdam

“Broken fragments of stone become evocative ruins when someone gazes upon them and imbues them with significance; otherwise they linger on as worthless rubble to be swept away or ignored.”

(Michael Meng (2011) Shattered Spaces: Encountering Jewish Ruins in Postwar Germany and Poland. London: Harvard University Press, p.10)

I’ve just finished reading Meng’s book. It examines the ways in which abandoned and ruined Jewish public places (principally synagogues and cemeteries) fared across various eras of neglect, erasure, re-purposing and (in some cases) rediscovery and restoration between 1945 and 2010, in Germany and Poland, under both communism and capitalism. Meng features the arresting image (above) of a crowd of passers-by photographed halted from their travels on the pavement and gazing at the ruins of Potsdam synagogue, in the daylight that followed Kristallnacht (the ‘night of broken glass’: 9-10 November 1938) and its orgy of coordinated ruin-making inflicted on Jewish buildings by the Nazis. Chillingly his sparse commentary draw us into the image, he suggests that we can’t discern from the image what the spectators were thinking, or even why they had stopped to look. This made me scour the picture – searching through the crowd, staring at the back of their heads – hoping to find a face that would meet my gaze and give me some clue. But the image – as Meng rightly notes – gives us no closure, and (as his book provides) requires a detailed meditation on context and an assaying of the ebbs and flows of two rival structures of feeling and acting: “redemptive antisemitism” and “redemptive cosmopolitanism” in each of Germany and Poland in the postwar years.

Meng’s analysis shows how, since the 1980s, Jewish ruins in Germany and Poland have become valorised – via the ascendancy of redemptive cosmopolitanism – in particular through their role in international commemoration and heritage pilgrimages. This seems self-evident, from our contemporary vantage point. But Meng’s book shows that there is nothing eternal or inevitable about this attachment of significance to these places, and his is a meticulous analysis of the unpredictable end-of-life-cycle of any ruin, and of the vital importance of understanding how the materialities (and costs) of dereliction intersect with the rise and fall (and dereliction) of the bodies of ideas that give meaning (and whether for good or ill) to any place. But Meng is also attentive to local contingencies for the sites that he chronicles, the story of each ruin cannot be contained within that building alone. The fate of a place may be collateral damage (or collateral salvation) related to some other local issue or project. To be effective then, the explanatory lens has to be able to move in (towards local prosaics) and out (to be able to situate the site’s fate as at least to some extent within wider sociopolitical trends).

Meng’s book was my holiday reading for a recent short family holiday sightseeing in Berlin. I’d been there once before, 10 years ago, and had done the whole ‘Berlin – city of traces’ thing then, absorbing myself with dark heritage guidebooks and trying to cram in as many glimpses of “the ghosts of Berlin” (Ladd 1997) as I could. This second time around I was happy to navigate the city via family consensus. I was politely but firmly told that this holiday wouldn’t be about ‘Dad’s dark ruins thing’.

The impression I came away with from this re-visit was that Berlin’s traces are neater and tidier now – presented as part of international heritage tourist circuits. The dark stuff is there, but it is increasingly ‘just’ part of those circuits. This impression may simply be a product of the different circumstances of my re-encounter with Berlin, and I’m not suggesting that Berlin in 2010 was somehow purer, more authentic or less touristic. Any experience of any place (and whether ruined, ‘dark’ or otherwise) is at least in part an outcome of what you go looking for. And I’m not going to be po-faced and suggest that somehow my exploring of Berlin in either 2010 or 2019 was itself anything other than a form of tourism. In short, each time I went to Berlin with certain expectations and each time found ways to ‘join the dots’ so as to meet those expectations.

There was one exception however to this ‘I went – I saw – I came home having seen what I expected’ intentionality. And it happened on the day where my teenage daughter had control of our itinerary. She decided that we would go to Berlin Zoo, and so we did.

Climbing out of the metro stations we were a little disorientated. We could see various signs to the zoo, but they seemed contradictory. We shuffled along in a direction that we thought might work, and soon came upon a bulky security barrier, painted in black and yellow, and with the (English) words “Truck Stop” repeated in very insistent, prominent letters. This street architecture seemed overly keen to announce itself and rather awkwardly positioned, laid down in an already cluttered street scene – pavements, market stalls, infrastructure. Then we saw some votive candles on the steps rising from this pavement and on closer inspection could see memorial photographs and a few flowers laid out besides them. Getting even closer (having weaved across the pavement’s heavy traffic of passers by to get nearer) we saw names engraved into the otherwise normal pavement steps. Collectively it started to dawn on us (but not in a tranquil, contemplative way – because our senses also had to remain focused on the perils of stopping within this pavement’s flow of incessant movement): this place was the scene of the 19 December 2016 Christmas Market terrorist attack, in which 12 of the pedestrians who had been using this pavement were murdered by being run down by a truck. Trying to take this in as the world incessantly and very mundanely carried on its flows around us felt unsettling. As I tried to process the newly-acquainted significance of this place fragments of the scene: the steps, the market stall to my left, the pavement beneath my feet, and the recently encountered Truck Stop barrier, all coalesced into a sense of place – that this otherwise unremarkable portion of pavement was a distinct location and that it was more important than any other stretch of the pavement further along this busy road. And yet, as I fought to stabilise this image  of a distinct, important place, it struggled to stay separated from the urban realm and flows of which it was part. Bodies buffeted me as I slowed to survey the scene, elements appeared at the periphery of any provisional framing of this scene – extending it further along the pavement and beyond the steps into the nearby church, the plaza beyond and the bulk of the market stalls. 

That this site was not separated from its surroundings felt strange (given the way that memorial sites usually are separated: e.g. presented as calm, contemplative oases in a nearby park). But it also gave it an unusual affective charge – this place and its unexpectedness had pricked me, and in circumstances where I had not been looking to be pricked. As we walked away I turned to look back at the ‘site’ (and to try and get a synoptic grasp of it). It was then that I noticed a very subtle form of memorialisation that had been installed to ‘frame’ this place. Running down the steps and across the heavily trafficked pavement was a narrow golden slither or rivulet. It was impossible to see the slither in its entirety because of the flow of passersby. It also proved impossible to photograph – for unlike a conventional sculpture it was but a flat mark across busy ground. It looked like a rivulet of golden blood and seemed in its context life affirming rather than mawkish.

Related image

Subsequently I’ve read that this memorial is actually meant to signify a crack – positioning this within the distinctly German post-war tradition of ‘mahnmal’ (warning monuments): for the crack here symbolises the attack (and thus the momentary breach in Berlin’s self-image of redemptive cosmopolitanism, and acting as a call for alertness and vigilance to guard against the risk of such cracks in the tolerant, democratic polity).

The creation of this artwork, by designers Merz Merz, actually involved first the chiselling out of a 17 metre long, narrow crack across the steps and pavement and then the elimination of that void with the golden infill. In that sense the re-joining of the pavement – via the elimination of the damage inflicted upon it – was intended as a redemptive gesture, a gesture augmented by involving the bereaved in the smelting of the gold.

But without knowing this process and backstory I reacted to this as a rivulet. Either way the enmeshment of this site and its subtle monument within the throng of daily life stopped me in my tracks. I had to stop, look from the pavement and make some sense of these broken-and-mended fragments of stone and what they could or should stand for.

 

Image credits: Postdam Synagogue, Potsdam Museum via http://www.grahamfoundation.org/grantees/3950-shattered-spaces-encountering-jewish-ruins-in-postwar-germany-and-poland ; Merz Merz (2017) Der Goldener Riss https://www.rbb24.de/politik/beitrag/2018/07/terror-breitscheidplatz-entschaedigung-antraege-gedaechtniskirche-berlin.html; Making Der Goldener Riss https://www.bento.de/today/berlin-so-sieht-das-mahnmal-fuer-die-terroropfer-vom-breitscheidplatz-aus-a-00000000-0003-0001-0000-000001951349

 

Awkwardly exploring fear, fascination and ambivalence in the ruin of Hitler’s Bunker

Image result for hitler's bunker

“Fixating on the historical locale feels naïve, even juvenile; the prime epistemological illusion of ‘heritage’, after all, is to substitute place for process, thus to manufacture ersatz ‘experience’.”

Patrick Finney (2007) ‘Finding the Führer Bunker’ Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory & Practice, 11(2) 287-291

As Finney notes in his short essay (which is an apology for him having momentarily drifted off into thinking about Hitler’s bunker when he meant to be doing other, proper academic work), showing an interest the specifics of iconic Nazi places may not be a good career move. Instead it may lead to you being bracketed with a motley collection of conspiracy theorists and fanatics. Writing about Cold War bunkers is just about passable now as an academic endeavour, but turning the spotlight onto a previous era’s concrete caverns is more risky.

So it’s been with some awkwardness that I’ve worked up a study of the post 1945 afterlife of the subterranean site of Hitler’s last days, and the resulting article has now been published in the Polish Geography journal Geographia Polonica as part of their special issue on ruination, demolition and urban  regeneration. The article is free to download here: http://www.geographiapolonica.pl/article/item/11707.html

The aim of this short blog is to add visuals to the story, and the argument, that my article sets out in its text by displaying my slides for a presentation of my paper at the ‘Thrill of the Dark:  Heritages of Fear, Fascination and Fantasy’ conference being held at the University of Birmingham at the end of the month (details here: https://thethrillofthedark.com/).

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Here’s my abstract for the conference presentation:

“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.”

My Geographia Polonica article uses this chronological account of the slow-death of the Führerbunker as a way of thinking through what ruination really entails – considering the interweaving of material and semantic decay, and intentional and incidental attrition in that place’s slow, faltering fade. As shown above, my presentation also follows this trajectory, and its concern to identify the stages of that faltering fade, but it additionally touches on this bunker’s iconic on-going reverberation, showing how material obliteration of such an undesirable, dark place does not ensure its elimination from culture. Accordingly, towards the end of the presentation I chart how this place increasingly becomes a disembodied signifier – a metonym for evil and failing ‘last days’ governance. In doing this I’m connecting back to the first paper I ever wrote about bunkers:  Bennett, L. (2011) ‘The Bunker: Metaphor, Materiality and Management’, Culture and Organization, 17(2) 155-173. [free copy here].

So, by the end of the presentation I’m thinking about ruination in a non-material way and with a concern for how a (dark) symbol fades: what are its processes of semantic ruination and stubborn persistence?  In the final flurry of images I present the last days of the Führerbunker as now a free-floating meme that is not dependent for its survival upon the clarity of the spatio-material co-ordinates or physical condition of its site of origination. And this roving meme (this virtualised Führerbunker) has increasingly looser, multivalent rules of use (testimony to its normative ruination). It is now freely appropriated for a wide variety of irreverent re-purposing. These appropriations retain the essential ‘last days of governance’ abject motif, but appropriate it for new satirical projects of varying degrees of importance or seriousness. In doing so these appropriations reinforce the generality of the ‘bunker mentality’ metaphor, but also weaken the specificity of a real Hitler having inhabited a real Berlin bunker during a real total war that lead to millions of real deaths. And there’s nothing better to encapsulate this than the Downfall parodies:

 

 

References: for these please see my Geographia Polonica article.

Picture credit: https://www.express.co.uk/travel/articles/633088/hitler-grave-resting-spot-berlin-germany

 

Back in the Grotto: elf ‘n’ safety, providence and thrill

 

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“law is a project aimed at manipulating, governing and channelling senses into precise categories, boundaries and definitions; at the same time, it is a process emerging out of the sensorial intermingling of human and nonhuman, tangible and intangible bodies, as such inseparable from this continuum.”

Andrea Pavoni, Controlling Urban Events: Law, Ethics and the Material (2018) Glasshouse/Routledge. p.159

All around me elves and safety, as we walk along the winding path at the come-and-pet-a-goat-this-used-to-be-a-working-farm-once-y’know attraction. I’ve been here before – to this place and to this theme – I didn’t come here as research. A mid December family outing saw us rock up. The place is near-empty, slightly too cold, and not quite close enough to Christmas to have any air of anticipation. It would also make more sense if there was snow. Too much ex-farmyard scrub and scrap remains in view, a blanket of white would knit everything together nicely. But that cold unity would create problems of its own – paths to be cleared and gritted to ensure maximal circulation of this place.

We are given a map – cartoon style (as everywhere) it carves up this place into zones, allocating themes, promises of particular atmospheres and colour-coded do’s and don’ts. The design of the map, and the topography that it represents, assumes that we will walk at a certain place, along particular routes and have particular sensations and experiences along the way. The places we are not supposed to go – the backstage, attraction-enabling, zones – are shown only part-drawn at the periphery. No colour-coded lines of movement run through them. These places are meant to look so unexciting that they will be entirely uninviting. A subtle form of prohibition based upon an engineered reversal of desire – an aversion-lite. It is sufficient for most, though risks a beguiling counter-attraction effect for some contrarians.

It all gets me thinking again about how places are parsed and encoded in the name of ‘health and safety’, and how some of the resulting normative orders are clearly contributing to that goal, whilst others seem simply the modern – acceptable – way of saying, “this is private”. And also that in “attractions” like this place, there is a dual encoding, a conformity to the curator’s perception about provident risk management sits alongside a staging of thrill, simulated jeopardy, or authenticity.

I ponder the tensions between these as I stoop to bend my lanky body into the mesh, caged frame of a sheep trailer and set off on a jolting tractor ride around the site. We stare out at the park and its uncaged patrons, who stare back sometimes envious (we were ahead of them in the queue for this experience) and others who view us as entertainment – a cage of strangers trundling around the petting zoo. Human flesh, in a pen-on-wheels that smells like it was host to an incontinent flock earlier that day. Then the highpoint, first the three-point turn in the otherwise off-limits backstage storage bay, then being sprayed with water jets as we meander down dedicated tractor-only trails amidst the motley assortment of inflatable santas, elves and snowmen. They also stare at us, except for the ones who have fallen over or twisted away in the flatland winds, now facing obstinately elsewhere.

This wet smell-fest assault is hardly the glass skywalk in Shinuizhai National Geological Park, China, where an exposure to fear is the raison d’etre of the place, but clearly we are meant to be destablised by this tractor ride – and we might leave unfulfilled were there to be no simulated jeopardy at this place. We’re we to be feeling entirely safe and certain here would mean that the place had failed as an “attraction” – a place that offers the promise of an encounter with something non-standard, and not entirely under our control.

So, having obediently washed my hands and (having brought our own picnic) not eaten it in the warm cafe area but instead in the designated cold, outdoor shame-benches of the frugal, I decided to offer-up the following conference abstract to the ‘Practising Legal Geography’ session at RGS-IBG 2019 (London, 28-30 August) – see last month’s post for details of the CFP:

Providence in place management: can critical legal geography account for zonal risk assessment?

“You can go there, but not there, and only there if accompanied”. Risk assessment is a fundamental place-making technology, one which often results in the parsing of sites into zones of normative differentiation. How is this zonal arrangement brought about? This paper will examine the practices by which law’s concern for managing the risks of injury to recreational visitors is spatialised. These practices involve the pragmatic translation of law’s abstract fears into site-specific judgements by lay-actors, principally site managers, who as neither lawyers nor professional geographers must perform delicate normative encodings of their places. This deployment of law into place by managers is a two-step process, requiring first their reading of the features and circumstances of a site and secondly, their devising of locally workable rules of being-in-place. The paper’s analysis of these lay legal geographical translation practices will be based on a comparative survey of risk assessments prepared by hosts for visitors to ‘awkward’ heritage sites. The study will show how key ‘risky’ features of those sites are identified, evaluated and presented through the managers’ mediation between safety legislation and other ‘attraction’ priorities, such as thrill, authenticity and affordability. In interpreting this data the paper will explore how well-suited critical legal geography, and its customary focus upon tracing power relations and subaltern identities, is to examining and understanding the spatial aspects of risk assessment and its resulting place management, and whether alternatively Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos’ (2015) and Pavoni’s (2017) more acceptive legal geography can offer additional opportunities for investigation and insight.

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

Buffalo-State-Asylum-for-the-Insane-Buffalo-NY

“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/

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Session 1 – Curating ruination: care, affect and mattering

Chair: Edward Hollis – University of Edinburgh

The shimmering ruin

Hayden Lorimer – University of Glasgow

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

What really haunts the modern ruin?

Luke Bennett – Sheffield Hallam University

Tim Edensor (2005, 2011) has celebrated the ruin as a place of open possibilities enabled by the decay of its normativities. Meanwhile, acknowledging the ongoing role of the ruin manager, Caitlin DeSilvey has mapped out “palliative curation” as a light-touch approach to ruin-care in which the productive capacities of dilapidation are enabled. In our current study of the management and repurposing of the Modernist ruins of the St Peter’s Seminary near Glasgow, we have investigated the complex ways in which care and associated normativities are iteratively composed and applied to a ruin. Our study suggests that the pragmatic instantiations of a ruin’s care reflect complex, shifting and negotiable apprehensions by owners, managers and security staff forged in the intersection of a site’s pasts, presents and futures, and of the knowledge, risks and opportunities that this journey through time may bring. Here, the dynamic nature of the circumstances and trajectory of any ruin generate a succession of local and provisional assumptions and resulting temporary interventions, which channel engagements with the ruin and how care (and ordering) of it is materially and symbolically expressed. This presentation will explore this through an interpretation of three instances of such ‘haunting’ at St Peter’s: (1) forecasting danger by reference to elsewhere: in liability and risk assessments for organised encounters with the ruin, (2) listening to the site: reflexively adjusting attitudes towards managing recreational trespass as ruination progresses and (3) making do: the improvisational care applied to the ruin by its lone security guard, drawn from his own Lifeworld.

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

Belinda Mitchell & Karen Fielder – University of Portsmouth

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

Ruins fermentation: practicing different forms of culture

Lilly Cleary – William Angliss Institute, Syndney

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

Actively awaiting ruins in the Netherlands

Renate Pekaar – Cultural Heritage Agency, The Netherlands

Clemens Driessen – Wageningen University, The Netherlands

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

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

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

Chair: Hayden Lorimer – University of Glasgow

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

Edward Hollis – Edinburgh University

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

What to do with incompletion? Learning from Incompiuto Siciliano

Pablo Arboleda – University of Glasgow

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

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

Harriet McKay – London Metropolitan University

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

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

Samantha Saville – Aberystwyth University

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

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

Aude Le Gallou – University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

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

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

Chair: Luke Bennett – Sheffield Hallam University

Stories of light and dark from a modern ruin in transition

Ruth Olden – University of Glasgow

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

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

Rosa Cerarols & Antoni Luna – Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona

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

The PostDegrado current

Ilaria Delgradi – independent researcher, Milan.

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

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

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

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

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

Rupert Griffiths – Goldsmiths, University of London

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

The cult of information meets the cult of the misty bull

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

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

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

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

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

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

shadow

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

mithraem

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

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

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

The Minotaur’s lair and the infinite tunnels to nowhere

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

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

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

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

big tunnel

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

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

creatures

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

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

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

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

minotaur

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