Ruin gazing: dead cities and the imagination of disaster

A New Zealander gazes at the ruins of Victorian London (in 'London: A Pilgrimage', 1874)

A future visitor beholds the ruins of Victorian London in ‘London: A Pilgrimage’, 1874

I’m currently embarking on a new research project that has grown out of recent work on the legacy of Chernobyl and its ruins, particularly the abandoned town of Pripyat, which I visited in October 2007 and which has subsequently formed the subject of many talks and articles. Here’s a summary of the project I envisage…

Pripyat from the roof of the former Polissya Hotel

Pripyat from the roof of the former Polissya Hotel

Perhaps more than any other Soviet ruin, Pripyat – the ghost town near Chernobyl abandoned after the accident in 1986 – has come to embody, for the capitalist West, all the failures of state socialism in comparison with the successes of the former: a total lack of transparency; technological ineptitude; and a callous indifference to the human and environmental consequences of industrial and social exploitation. Yet, in recent years, Pripyat has been commandeered by that same West in the service of postmodern culture: as a backdrop for fantasy computer games such as Call of Pripyat (2009) and as a site of horror in the film Chernobyl Diaries (2012). What does this shift tell us about the legacy of urban ruins like Pripyat, both for the West and for those who were directly affected by their ruination? Has the collapse of communism really resulted in the uncontested rule of global capitalism, or are there still spaces that might provide alternatives to this hegemony?

Still from the computer game 'Call of Pripyat' (2007)

Still from the computer game ‘Call of Pripyat’ (2009)

Publicity poster for the film 'Chernobyl Diaries' (2012)

Publicity poster for the film ‘Chernobyl Diaries’ (2012)

This research proposes to address these questions by focusing on the wider significance of urban ruins in an age of global capitalism. It will concentrate on case studies of four pairings of socialist/capitalist sites of urban ruin that resulted from different destructive forces: ethnic conflict (Agdam, Azerbaijan and Varosha, Cyprus); technological failure (Fukushima, Japan and Pripyat, Ukraine); deferred utopianism (Keelung, Taiwan and the Oil Rocks near Baku, Azerbaijan); economic decline/surplus (Detroit and contemporary empty cities in China, for example Ordos). Relating an experiential awareness of these urban ruins with a concurrent host of fictional counterparts in visual culture (particularly in film), this research will interrogate the relationship between the real and the imagined in terms of how large-urban ruins are perceived, both from the perspective of those who were directly affected by such ruination and from those who seek to re-appropriate these ruins in other contexts, whether in post-state socialist or capitalist contexts.

Varosha in Cyprus, abandoned in 1974

Varosha in Cyprus, abandoned in 1974

Google Maps street view of Fukushima town, Japan

Google Maps street view of Fukushima town, Japan

The Oil Rocks near Baku, Azerbaijan

The Oil Rocks near Baku, Azerbaijan

The result will be to create a dialogue between state socialist, capitalist urban ruins and the wider (global), culturally-prescient theme of the imagination of disaster. If urban ruins have been commandeered by some, others – particular those who were directly affected by their abandonment – still view them as a kind of representation void: petrified places that speak only of loss, of a helplessness in the face of overwhelming forces defying comprehension. In the grip of our own apocalyptic imaginings – brought on by the prospect of unsustainable urban growth, unmanageable environmental threats, increasingly extreme social segregation, and wars and terrorists that deliberately target urban areas – if we are to represent the death of cities, what can we learn from urban sites that have already died? This research will use its analysis of state socialist and capitalist urban ruins to open up an emancipatory space that, following Slavoj Žižek, accepts the universal inevitability of ruin in order to break its ideological grasp and thus to suggest liberating alternatives.

Empty quarter in the city of Ordos, China

Empty quarter in the city of Ordos, China

10 thoughts on “Ruin gazing: dead cities and the imagination of disaster

  1. Thanks Michael! Fellow travellers would be welcome! I just need to get some money first…

  2. Great stuff Paul – I particularly like the way that you are structuring this
    investigation, looking for something both amidst and beyond the act of
    ruin gazing, and taking the investigation in a global, trans-local (and post-Western) direction.

    • Thanks Luke. It’s certainly ambitious and will probably take ten years (or more). I’m primarily interested in the intersections between personal experience (call it ‘urban exploration’), the causes and social effects of large-scale ruins, and wider cultural representations/re-appropriations of those ruins. I think it’s possible open up a dialogue here that goes beyond distinct ideologies. And there is a veritable explosion of post-apocalypse in cinema at the moment which makes that task pressing.

  3. Sounds an interesting project Paul. Should keep you busy for a while. One observation from the Pripyat and Varosha photographs is that the non-human natural world appears to be thriving. Also recall reading how wildlife and the birds have also been flourishing.

    • Thanks for this. Yes, the return of nature will be a key theme in the research and it has a long history in relation to ruins. A favourite text here is Richard Jeffries’s ‘After London’ (1885), where London gets consumed by its sewers and becomes a toxic swamp.

  4. Really fascinating and ambitious project; it is interesting that so many of these spaces have been cast in popular culture less in tortured tones serving as the metaphor for capital’s decline than somewhat shallow aesthetics and beauty, lots of interesting possibilities.

    • Thanks Paul. I think the ways in which these ‘big’ ruins have been portrayed in popular culture is the really fascinating aspect of this project (and one that is understudied). In fact, I’ve just been writing about this in relation to Pripyat and the film ‘Chernobyl Diaries’ (and also citing your wonderful post on the subject of representations of Chernobyl). Basically, what I’m want to question is the notion of ‘authentic’ ruins, and how the authentic is linked to ideology in all its guises.

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