Tuesday, 24 April 2012

What kind of space(s) do ruins produce? Can we argue that ruinous spaces unfold into a critique of contemporary process of ordering urban space?


In 1760, the Earl of Belvedere, Robert Rochfort, arranged for a Gothic ruin to be constructed on his Westmeath estate. It is said the ruin was built to block the view of his brother's neighbouring estate on account of his suspicion that his wife had committed adultery with said brother. The wall was built and still stands as Ireland's largest 'folly'. Beyond attesting to the obviously crazy behaviour of the Lords and Earls of plantation Ireland it highlights an age old fascination with ruins. A fascination enjoying a renaissance in light of the west's post-industrialism and economic uncertainty, similar in nature to the ruin lust that 'gripped European art and literature in the 18th Century' (Dillon, 2012).

I will first explain the concept of the contemporary ruin and give examples of ruins of popular and emerging ruins relevant today. I then hope to describe the inherent characteristics of these ruins with a hope to shedding some light on what we can learn from our understanding and interpretation of ruins. In doing so I will investigate whether ruins can be used as a tool when analysing how urban spaces function. The following text and images will be a mixture of my own experiences, my current design studio work and my interpretations of other urban examples of ruinous space.

"The Jealous Wall" Belvedere House, Co. Westmeath

Contemporary Ruins

For the purpose of the overall arguments in this essay I have decided to mainly discuss the contemporary ruin. Historical ruins and ruins of war have a role to play in the ordering of today's urban spaces but an unpicking of the contemporary ruin is, I believe, far more useful as a tool for understanding urban spaces. I believe this to be the case on account of the huge changes to what constitutes urban landscape in recent times, our coinciding population growth, 'an accelerated archeology' (Stallabrass,1996) and hyper capitalism. It is also worth noting that any discussion on 'post' industrial ruins is geopolitical in that the exploitation of labour and subsequent rise and fall of industrialised zones is something that is still happening all over the world. Exploitation being something that 'never goes out of fashion' (Cunningham, 2011). In China the huge ghost cities of an over zealous government desperate to conjure up an urban dwelling middle class have left huge swathes of never lived in ruins.

Chinese artist Jiand Pengyi - 'Unregistered Ciies'

In the UK and US the industrial ruin has become a much photographed and discussed urban phenomenon. 'Ruin Porn' has swept the tumblrsphere quicker than 'Planking' with endless online space devoted to its documentation. Its influence already seeping into popular culture through the smouldering ruin heavy images of the current zombie craze or maybe even the faux-vintage photography of instagram. We can not get enough of ruins lately but why? We have always been fascinated by these ghostly places and their inherent nostalgia inducing discarded objects, but the industrial ruins and ghost estates of modern times are surely different from the crumbling marble of the Parthenon. And what of the ruin rendered ruinous overnight by capitals meandering flows, having never been used. Never been lived in. What kind of ruin are they?

The moment a building starts to crumble can signify the moment 'natural forces begin to become master over the work of man' (Simmel, 1958). This is what Simmel claims is the root of the nostalgia caused by our interpretation of a ruin. We see in the ruin the lofty ambitions of the human spirit that have succumb to the inevitable processes of time and the unstoppable force of nature. He also claims the ruin, a building, becomes something whole and new once it becomes a ruin. A kind of plateau or balance is reached between nature and the artistic intentions of the building. I find this easily applicable to our classical idea of ruins. It conjures images of Greek columns left standing alone and covered in vegetation. A stark reminder of a once great society. The analogies start to crumble when applied to contemporary ruins. The ruins of Rome for instance, have been reused, up cycled, plundered and scavenged by man in partnership with nature. A slow unstoppable chipping away of the buildings original function. But in post industrial ruins we find a ruin closer in nature to the disaster struck ruins of Pompeii. A factory that was once at the centre of capitals flow can be abandoned so quickly that the clothes of its former workers remain. These traces of human activity paint a more personal picture of the buildings diurnal patterns. The materials and stains left over 'can stimulate an empathetic recouping of the sensory experience' (Edensor,2005). Capitalism's swiftness more akin to Vesuvius than the gradual decline of the Roman empire.

Pompeii victim

In visiting ruins the most commonly mentioned appeal is a sense of escape from the controlled, clean surfaces of modern public space. Rick Poynor, a modern ruins photographer describes a "re-enchantment" when exploring the modern ruin.

"The abandoned ruin is a special zone charged with an intensity and a potential for revelation that most ordinary, complete and comfortable places lack. The more corporate daily experience becomes, the more some sites of ruination can offer an interlude of release into a refuge that is not accessible to crowds (it may well be unsafe), not overseen by officialdom, and not commercialised." (Poynor, 2012)

So we see, in its exploration a kind of escape. A chance to free ourselves from the over regulated public spaces we are now afforded. Here, ruin photography is similar to urban explorers description of what attracts them to these other spaces. Qualities evident in the heterotopias of Foucault. Strongest in the ruin's ambiguous relationship with time.

Atemporality in Ruins

When we visit the ruin our perception of time becomes non-linear. It affords us an opportunity to "remember the future, imagine the present, and experience the past" (Wanenchak, 2012). In this analysis we find a difference in the taking of the photo or more importantly the physical presence in the ruin and the subsequent consumption of the documentary evidence. Considering we are asking how these contemporary ruins feel and what it says about urban space it seems obvious to deal specifically with the ruins influence in the immediate physical presence but an increasingly valid influence exists in the ever more powerful digital world. Are the properties of the ruin the same for the urban explorer as they are the computer user?

Power Tube - Part of UK:Blitz urban explorer series

This reflection afforded us by the ruin will inevitably lead us to thoughts of our own life and death. The ruin acting as a kind of "memento mori" (Wanenchak, 2012). It is often brought about by the traces left there. The non-linear narrative woven with "disparate fragments, juxtapositions, traces, involuntary memories, inferred meanings, uncanny impressions and peculiar atmospheres" (Edensor, 2005). What could be termed as dirt. Further prompting us to think about and reflect "on the relation of order to dis-order, form to formlessness, life to death" (Douglas, 1966). 

Douglas believes that what we see as dirt is not simply something that can cause us harm in a medical sense, i.e. bacteria and disease as these notions are relatively new. In a ruin we see rusty girders and smashed windows not just as symptoms of ruin but symptoms of order. Symptoms of rules. “Uncleanness or dirt is that which must not be included if a pattern is to be maintained” (Douglas, 1966). Really, dirt is something that reinforces the patterns and norms of society. Dirt is "matter out of place" (
Douglas, 1966) and we see it as disruptive in a given framework. It helps maintain our ideas of order. Order in urban terms then, may rely on ruins. Look at this building. It is a ruin because it fell out of favour with the current system. Yes it is a negative symbol but underneath its immediate symbolism it is continuously reinforcing the order of things. Maybe capitalism needs ruins. If we did not have the constant visual reminder that we need to follow the strict rules of capital and commodification we will end up like the rusty tower. Neglected and dying. Why bother trying if there are no punishments for failure? Dirt and by extension ruin, is not an "isolated event. Where there is dirt there is system” (Douglas, 1966). Where there is ruin there is a system.

When we visit a ruin it somehow allows us to step outside of the pattern and see it from a slight distance. Maybe this is part of the appeal. In the disorder inherent in the ruin we not only view the breakdown of the system. It also reinforces our current ideas. 

"In chasing dirt, in papering, decorating, tidying, we are not governed by anxiety to escape disease, but are positively re-ordering our environment,making it conform to an idea" (Douglas, 1966).

If we view 'ruin porn' as a "ritual of purity and impurity" we can then start to understand how it creates a "unity of experience" (Douglas, 1966). We don't just go to the ruin alone. We go there with a friend. We photograph and share our experiences online. inviting comment and interaction. Through the collective consumption of the ruin (ruin porn) we collectively experience the rules of our current system. Albeit in their broken state.

Through all of these prompts and reflections I wonder are we searching for some sort of truth. The kind of truth we can not find in our public spaces any more. A concept imagined in Tarkovsky's Stalker. In it, the zone becomes a forbidden ruin. A place off-limits to the public for it is rumoured to house a room that can grant a man his innermost wish. While watching, I couldnt help but recognise the ruins the three men visit. I have seen them before and I will see them again. Every time I visit a ruin. And there is something revealing in that. One could argue that once you have seen one ruin you have seen them all. All different versions of the same thing. The same eventual feelings and emotions. Our repeated visits attest to a kind of drug like quality. We want to experience the ruin over and over. A ritual. So the ruins physical appearance really takes a back seat. From Detroit to Cardross I will eventually end up thinking about my own life and death. It might start with a realisation about the decline of the car industry or catholicism but both lead down the same road.

Stalker. 1979

St Peters seminary, Cardross

Indeed it is in film and storytelling that the ruin features most and is used as a tool to analyse and critique the present. Through imagined future ruins the atemporality affords us an opportunity to step outside our current timeframe and look at the present as if we were looking back on history.

"the anticipation of a ruinous end is frequently a narratological means by which to return to and make sense of the present; by ‘traveling to the future’ we might make and give meaning to the present" (Viney, 2010)


So as the ruins come thick and fast, the question might become; do post industrial ruins afford a more immediate analysis of the current order of things? Has its meaning been lost through a lack of distance? In other words, are ruins losing their ability to afford us the chance to step back and unfold the spaces of today, given the speed at which the ruinous state can occur. One of the assumed common denominators of the ruin was time. The ruin needed time to be used and then unused. If the materiality of the ruin itself is a secondary aspect of the ruin is it use that becomes the primary? If the post-industrialism of the west is reflected in 'ruin lust' then the ghost estate and ghost city stand testament to 'boom lust'. Now, with governments forcing economic boom times through rapid construction of buildings dependent on continued growth the time and human involvment in creating a ruin is reduced to the construction workers and town planners. The traces found in the ghost estate are not from the factory worker. The intended user. They are from the marginalised post industrial urban nomads. Squatters and salvagers, urban explorers and drug takers. Skate boarders and traceurs. These are the true ruins of today. They might be the first shoots of "fantasies of non-reproduction" (cunningham, 2011).

Ghost Estate, Dublin, Ireland.

If the post-industrial ruin can indeed be viewed as a "charnel house" of capitalism/ labour (Cunningham, 2011) then it is safe to assume the ghost estate or neo-ruin has taken on the role of crematorium. The faint evidence of function and human trace had been incinerated. The separation of the majority of people (the workforce) from the needs of capitalism through its repeated abdication of the workforce does seem to suggest some problems down the line but Cunningham's viewing of this as an indicator of a future without capitalism is hard to see based on his analysis of the post-industrial ruin. The conclusion has a lot more weight when applied to the ghost estate. The neo-ruin, like the post-industrial ruin lives outside of the normal flows of society but in a more extreme way. It has been marginalised and exists in a transitional state without the benefit of ever having been centre stage. Something fraught with danger in the eyes of society. The 'ghost estate' is a Manqué. It is dead having never lived.This transitional state or non-state can make us very uncomfortable.

"the Maoris regard menstrual blood as a sort of human being manqué. If the blood had not flowed it would have become a person, so it has the impossible status of a dead person that has never lived" (Douglas 1966)
We have no ritual to deal with it. It sits in silence without the benefit of the rusty colour pallette so atractive to the pohotgrapher. Ireland, renowned for its lush green scenery often untouched by construction for miles on end is now the home of the ghost estate. They are beyond depressing. Not just testiment to greed and corruption they blight the landscape with an eerie silence. Their black lifeless eyes staring straight at you. All we can do for now is look away. The ruin is important in how we place a value on our public spaces. Like most waste, it contextualises everything else. The "processes and contradiction involved in recognising rubbish" [read: ruin] are crucial to social life / nescessary to the wider "system of valuation" (Thompson, 1979). This transition state has proved problematic before. We are never sure what we should do with rubbish/ ruins. If there was a vagueness in the temporal understanding of the ruin how can we begin to unpick the neo-ruin. It never existed and never will. It is a still birth. Maybe this really is the beginning of the end. A sign of a system so sick it will keep on producing and producing because it doesn't know any better. Previous landscapes of transition (LOTs) have acted as a "holding ground until real-estate values increase" (Berger 2006) but they have usually involved a transition of function/ use. The field becomes a storage facility. The city then expands and the storage facility become a car park. In the future it becomes a mall or housing estate. The neo-ruin had skipped all of that. As nature starts to reclaim the ghost-estate it may well be destroyed. Restored to the car park. A kind of inverse LOT. 

Occupying the Ruin: Portobello high school + Conclusions

If ruinous space can be defined as being atemporal, absent of intended function/ use, and in posession of utopian future view and is not defined by its having been used and disregarded then is it possible ruins can also exist as an occupied building. Portobello high school, the current subject of my design studio has 1400 current users. With a new school designed and awaiting decision in a long drawn out planning process the current building has fallen into a state of disrepair. Leaking roofs, rust and faded paint dominate the aesthetic. The implementation of the curriculum for excellence (the new pedagogy being implemented across Scotland with a view to a vastly superior future education system) rests solely on the new school. A golden future just around the corner. It has left the current building operating as a sort of interim shelter. Not fit for its intended purpose yet stuck in this state long enough for a student to pass through and complete his education. Teachers speak of "the new school" constantly, removing themselves from the failures of today. 

Portobello High School, Edinburgh.

If ruinous space can exist here it can exist anywhere. The defining characteristic being value. A place can take years to become something but value is fickle. It flickers continuously, shedding light on one corner as quickly as it casts a shadow in another. Nowhere is immune to value. All space subject to whatever system governs its worth. The ruin acts as a kind of Dispostif. A place that embodies everything the parental system was/ is about. It reveals the fundamental birth and death of a space with hints of how we used it.

"The rich and many-sided culture, the unlimited impressionability, and the under- standing open to everything, which are characteristic of decadent epochs, do signify this coming together of all contradictory strivings" (Simmel, 1958)

Even in its decline and absence of intended original function it re enforces the power that created it. We see a particular space as ruinous because we exist within a system of value. If there was no new (valuable) school we would not occupy a ruin. It provides an escape but only briefly. It scares us but also helps us understand the remaining un ruined urban fabric. But its fickle condition is a positive one as well. People see opportunity in ruins. If a place can become ruinous overnight it could also be reintegrated into our urban space just as quickly.


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Cunningham, John. (2011). Boredom in the Charnel House . Vairant. 42 

Dillon, Brian. (2012). Ruin lust: Our love affair with decaying buildings. The Guardian, 18 Feb. [online] Available from [http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2012/feb/17/ruins-love-affair-decayed-buildings] [15 April 2012]

Douglas, Mary. (1966). Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York.
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Lynch, Kevin. (1990) Wasting Away - An Exploration of Waste: What It Is, How It Happens, Why We Fear It, How To Do It Well. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

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Simmel, Georg. (1958). Two Essays. The Hudson Review. 11 (3), 371-385.

Thompson, Michael (1979) Rubbish theory: The creation and destruction of value. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Viney, Will. (2010). Ruins of the future. Narrating Waste. 30 Aug. [online] Available from [http://narratingwaste.wordpress.com/2010/08/30/ruins-of-the-future-an-extract/] 
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Wanenchak, Sarah. (2012). The Atemporality of "Ruin Porn". The Society Pages, Jan 2012. [online] Available from [http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2012/01/12/the-atemporality-of-ruin-porn-part-i-the-carcass/]
 [12 April 2012]

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