Concrete island: the abandoned MP-203 highway, Spain

4 10 2014

Two miles south-east of Mejorada del Campo – a small satellite town of Madrid – the semi-arid landscape of thorns and hardy bushes suddenly reveals the MP-203 highway: over a bridge to nowhere, the silent concrete dual carriageway curves northwards to the horizon. Standing on the bridge, I film the highway: how long before I will capture the powerful sense of emptiness, I wondered? A few seconds? A minute? Ten minutes? The wind picks up, shaking the small bushes that have gained a foothold in the central reservation below.

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Intended as a relief road for the congested Madrid-Barcelona highway, this 12.5km stretch of highway was started in 2005 and 70 million Euros were ploughed into the project before construction work stopped abruptly in 2008. As it became clear that Spain would not be emerging from its deep recession any time soon, the highway project was shelved and has remained unfinished and abandoned for six years.

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In recent years, the Mail Online has published many articles on the numerous abandoned construction projects that now litter the Spanish landscape; the melancholy tone of these articles countered by a barely disguised schadenfreude at just how far the Spanish economy has sunk (well, compared to Britain anyway). In the Mail Online‘s estimation, the Spanish, it seems, always get ahead of themselves; their abandonments just desserts for their seemingly-intractable hubris.

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Perhaps one of the Mail Online‘s journalists should actually visit the abandoned highway; for it is an extraordinarily disconcerting site that raises questions about not only the future of all economies dominated by boom-and-bust capitalism, but also the place of the motorway in our imagination. For here is ruin at its most banal and also at its most brutal – the great swathe of concrete suddenly seeming like an alien entity that has simply appeared in the otherwise rural landscape. Without an endless stream of cars (which effectively removes the motorway as a ‘real’ space to be experienced), a road on this scale seems inhuman and out of time, as if both prehistoric and futuristic at the same time. If walking on a deserted motorway is a popular trope in many a post-apocalyptic fantasy (such as the first episode of The Walking Dead), then actually doing it is to realise just how inhuman motorways are; to walk on one is to lose yourself in a desert of concrete, devoid of orientating landmarks.

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As I wondered about the effect of this ruin in reverse, I was led to think of J. G. Ballard’s own fantasia of the motorway, Concrete Island (1974). Charting the  story of a lone male driver who crashes and becomes marooned on a patch of waste ground entirely enveloped by elevated motorways (based on the Westway in London), Ballard’s novel forensically documents an enforced experience of living in the fortress-like space created by the intersection of these monstrous roads, resulting in the Robinson Crusoe-like central character eventually accepting it as his home. As I left the surface of my concrete island (after barely an hour) and returned to the bustling streets of central Madrid, I realised that to truly embrace the motorway as a human space might require as radical a transformation as that seen in Ballard’s cautionary tale.





Sewer, sump, swamp: drowned Londons

29 08 2014

Matija Keser, London Underwater, post-apocalyptic wallpaper

Matija Keser, London Underwater, post-apocalyptic wallpaper

The prospect of drowned cities is a significant part of the rhetoric of climate change: from recent maps issued by the Environment Agency showing the catastrophic flooding that might result from increased tidal surges, to Google Earth’s Flood Simulation software that allows one to picture the effects of apocalyptic rises in sea levels on London’s iconic buildings, the tops of its skyscrapers the only visible reminders of the city beneath. At the same time, both recent literature and, to a lesser extent, television, have enlarged these powerful images into fully-fledged narratives: from the eccentricities of Will Self’s The Book of Dave (2006), where a 100-metre sea-level rise reduces London to the settlement of Ham, which is now the top of Hampstead Heath; to the turgid TV film Flood (2007), when an enormous tidal surge overwhelms the Thames Barrier, flooding the whole of central London.

Map issued by the Environment Agency showing the flooding of London due to future tidal surges

Map issued by the Environment Agency in 2014 showing the flooding of London due to future tidal surges

 

Google Earth Design (2011), London under 80m of water

Google Earth Design (2011), London under 80m of water

Yet, the submerged city has long been a significant trope in the literary destruction of London, and going back to these precedents enlarges and complicates the meanings of contemporary prospects of urban flooding. In the literary imagination, the submerged city is a representation that acts as a metaphor for a wide variety of processes, whether the revenge of nature, the unconscious mind, the return of the past, or the processes of ruination. Here, I focus on three literary visions of drowned London: as sewer, sump and swamp.

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Richard Jefferies’s After London (1884) is an ur-text of the post-apocalyptic genre, a deeply strange book that channels the author’s expertise as a naturalist, his neo-medievalist yearnings and his hatred of industrial modernity. In this novel, the cause of the end of London is unspecified, but Jefferies’ text hints at vast geological upheavals that have resulted in England becoming unrecognisable: a vast lake surrounded by pastoral landscapes and a chivalric society of feuding nobles. Yet, overshadowing this otherwise bucolic post-apocalyptic England is what remains of London: a toxic wasteland that nobody comes out of alive. When the novel’s hero, Felix, accidentally ends up lost in the former metropolis’s poisonous miasma, he experiences a city both drowned and petrified:

‘As he advanced, the remnants of buildings increased in number…In some places the crystallised wall had fallen of itself, and he could see down into the cavern; for the house had either been built partly underground, or, which was more probable, the ground had risen. Whether the walls had been of brick or stone or other material he could not tell; they were now like salt.’

As revealed by Jefferies, London has literally been drowned in its own wastes: first the city’s crumbling buildings choked its rivers, creating a stagnant swamp; then the ground rose and the sewers came to the surface, further poisoning its already foul waters. In this vision of submergence, London’s vertical structure (the characteristic Victorian high and the low, the above and below ground) is flattened, but this leads not to redemption (as it might in socialist narratives) but extinction. If the cataclysmic forces that precipitated the end of London were beyond human control, the city’s toxic afterlife was a direct indictment of the vertical city’s environmental and social degradation.

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As After London demonstrates, the idea of submergence grows out of an awareness of the city’s multiple layers. If these layers must normally be imagined to be seen in their totality, then at certain times, the city’s vertical structure might be inadvertently revealed, such as in the aftermath of the Blitz during the Second World War. Perhaps nowhere are the war ruins of London evoked more strongly than in Rose Macaulay’s 1950 novel The World my Wilderness. Here, the city’s ruins play host to adolescents, namely the exiled 17-year old Barbary and her half-brother Raoul. In this novel, which drew on Macaulay’s intimate knowledge of wartime London, the ruins of the Blitz are a refuge for traumatised children who have yet to work through the catastrophic upheavals they have just experienced. In the City of London – where over half of its buildings were either damaged or destroyed by German bombs – the city’s layers are temporarily revealed, creating a spectral landscape of half-exposed cellars and caverns, staircases reaching to the open sky, and abundant vegetation reclaiming the ruins.

In Macaulay’s ruined London, the underground spaces act as a sump for what cannot be accommodated in the post-war world, namely the unhealed traumas of the recent return to savagery. Indeed, the submerged city points to the disturbing notion that this sump of savagery might indeed be the bedrock of civilisation, rather than a temporary aberration:

‘No civilisation lasted more than a thousand years; this present one, called western culture, had had its own say and was due for wreckage, due for drowning, while the next struggled inchoate in the womb of the ensuing chaos, till slowly it too would take shape and have its day.’

Swamp

The memory of savagery forms a key ingredient in perhaps the most powerful literary vision of submerged London: namely J. G. Ballard’s 1962 novel The Drowned World. Widely seen now as prophetic of climate change, Ballard’s novel uses the image of the drowned city to reflect on how humans might adapt themselves to cataclysmic changes in the environment. Set many decades after an intense increase in solar radiation had led to massive temperature rises and the melting of the polar ice caps, a small party of scientists are leading a reconnaissance trip before joining what’s left of humanity in the arctic – the only inhabitable zone left on the earth. All else has reverted to the Paleozoic period: drowned by the rising seas and now subject to boiling temperatures, London has become a tropical swamp of flora and fauna that had evolved accordingly: giant iguanas now reside in former office buildings which are smothered under silt; enormous mosquitos plague the visitors; and the whole steaming environment secretes a ‘terrible stench….the sweet-compacted smells of dead vegetation and rotting animal carcasses.’

Ballard’s hallucinatory vision of a submerged London in turn haunts the main character of the novel, Kerans, who, like others in the book, is experiencing his own inner evolution as he eventually yields to his residual Paleozoic self and becomes one with the new environment (even though that undoubtedly leads to his premature death). In Ballard’s view, the drowned city mirrors our own unconscious minds, that is the ‘inner space’ of submerged desire, historical memory and as yet undreamt of possibilities. For Ballard, accessing the submerged world holds the the key to redemption – it makes room for an alternative consciousness to emerge that may chart new trajectories of history into the future.

Sewer, swamp, sump: very few of the recent imaginings of how London will be affected by climate change offer such a rich diversity of representations as these. Yet, if Ballard is right, they are all caught up in a ceaseless exchange between the material and the mental. The submerged city is always to some extent a mirror of our own submergence; if it drowns, we too must drown.





Ruin imaginaries: Maenofferen slate quarry, north Wales

17 07 2014
1. Maenofferen slate quarry, north Wales

1. Maenofferen slate quarry, north Wales

On a soggy Sunday morning in Snowdonia, I took the opportunity to re-visit Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 cinematic masterpiece Stalker. It’s a film like no other – an immersive, meditative science fiction story that moves at such a glacial pace that, by the end of its two-and-a-half-hour running time, one is either mesmerised or bored to distraction. Far more spiritually infused than its literary source, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (1971), Stalker takes you on a snail’s-paced journey into a post-apocalyptic world of mudane detritus, damp featureless landscapes and industrial ruination, all suffused with melancholic longing.

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By the afternoon, the Welsh rain had cleared and I drove up to Blanaeu Ffestiniog to explore the extraordinary landscape to the north of this slate mining town. One of the wettest built-up areas in Britain, Blaenau Ffestiniog is surrounded by the remnants of a once global industry: groups of hills entirely made up of discarded slate and littered with ruined buildings and defunct machinery, and traversed by tramways at impossibly steep angles. As I walked up one of these hills from the northern edge of the town into the Maenofferen quarry, the ruined landscape closed in, the encroaching mist above accentuating the enveloping quality of the slate hills (2). With Stalker so fresh in my mind, this landscape could not help but call to mind the Zone in that film and with that recollection, the hills became inscrutable, mysterious and distinctly threatening. Some parts of the quarry are still worked: yet on this April sabbath, all of the machines stood idle, as if abandoned by an alien civilisation forced to leave in a hurry (3).

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Further up the slate-made hills, the mist descended like a benign miasma. As any hill-walker knows too well, mist is a peculiarly discomforting phenomenon. On the one hand, it makes everything so still, soft and muffled; on the other, it hides what is close by, collapsing the world into a small sensory bubble. Here, just as in Stalker, the mist turned buildings into visual mysteries – half-shrouded entities that only made sense when close enough to make out their forms (4). Throughout my perambulation of this vast, unruly site, those mysteries seemed to deepen with every step, as if confirming the Zone’s profound illogic that the shortest way is never the most direct. So, only after a long detour around the edge of the Snowdonia National Park – navigating by fenceposts, half-glimpsed reservoirs and stream-beds – did I eventually return to the quarry from its northern side, finally entering the vast and monolithic buildings where the slate used to be unloaded and worked until the complex ceased production in 1999. In these buildings – unlike many former industrial sites – all of the machinery and many of the tools have remained, seemingly abandoned with haste after some unknown cataclysm forced the workers to flee.

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In these spaces, objects piled on objects, crowding in and demanding to be deciphered: three delicately-composed circular metal saw blades waiting to be catalogued (5); one gruesome hook longing for a kill (6); a lone rusting screw suggesting familial loss (7); one glove marking the position of a dead hand? (8) Of course, with some basic knowledge of the slate-working process, I would have made sense of these objects, but who could have really understood the final room – a vast barn-like space filled with absurd vehicles petrified in immobility? As the mist rolled in through the missing timber roof, these objects became extraordinary bearers of meaning trapped out-of-time: the green trolley ‘not allowed underground’ (9); the blue one with a single bright-red wheel hub (10); the strange sunken ‘eyes‘ of the yellow one (11); and the almost comedic shape of the rusty one (12). Yet, whilst photographing these vehicles, all of a sudden the mist vanished and the power of that mystery lifted. At once, these objects became more grounded and the alien monoliths outside the barn became what they really were: half-finished concrete pillars (4). Now, the Molewyn range of mountains appeared beyond and the real world opened up once again.

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Remnants as ruins: the Irk culvert, Manchester

8 05 2014
The Irk culvert under Victoria Station, Manchester

The Irk culvert under Victoria Station, Manchester

At the corner of Hunt’s Bank and Victoria Street near Victoria Station in Manchester is a stone wall (2) that betrays the otherwise invisible presence of one of the city’s principal rivers – the Irk. For here, the obvious visual signs of subsidence – sunken blocks of stone – were brought into being by what lies beneath the ground: namely, a massive culverted section of the river Irk than runs nearly a kilometre from the railway viaduct that emerges northwards from Victoria Station to the point where the Irk empties itself into the Irwell, just a few yards east of this sunken wall. This peculiar half-ruined wall makes visible a presence of absence, an immediate visual reminder of something hidden; perhaps even, like most ruins, a gentle admonition to those who would forget what has been lost. Yet, this ruin also tells us, uncontrovertibly, that the river is not lost; indeed, in its very ruin, it betrays the river’s continuing presence and influence on the city.

Subsidence in the wall flanking Hunt's Bank and Victoria Street

2. Subsidence in the wall flanking Hunt’s Bank and Victoria Street

3. Entrance to the Irk culvert under the railway viaduct north of Victoria Station

3. Entrance to the Irk culvert under the railway viaduct north of Victoria Station

Like many urban river culverts, that of the Irk is deliberately hostile to would-be explorers. It’s entrance – seen from the steps that descend into Manchester’s new Green Quarter from Cheetham Hill Road – is a forbidding black hole into which rushes the fast-flowing river over a 2-metre high weir (3). As documented by Manchester’s urban explorer community, getting into that black hole is difficult even at the driest of times: it involves wading in chest-high murky water before descending the slippery weir into complete darkness. Flanking the river before it disappears are the shiny new skyscrapers of the Green Quarter – a characteristic (if extreme) juxtaposition of high technology and ‘low’ nature in the post-industrial city.

4. Extract from the first Ordnance Survey map of Manchester (1849) showing the open course of the Irk

4. Extract from the first Ordnance Survey map of Manchester (1849) showing the open course of the Irk

5. Plan of the same area in 1908 showing the disappearance of the Irk

5. Plan of the same area in 1908 showing the disappearance of the Irk

The now hidden section of the river Irk was culverted in several stages from the late-1840s to the 1910s (4 & 5). As famously described by Frederich Engels in 1844, the Irk was once one of the foulest watercourses in Manchester, a river that was polluted with the wastes of the tanneries, bone mills, gasworks and the privies of innumerable half-ruined medieval houses that originally lined its banks where the culvert now runs. In 1844, standing on Ducie Bridge, Engels described the open river as a ‘coal-black, foul-smelling stream’ that was filled with horrible slime and refuse and whose waters produced bubbles of ‘miasmatic’ gas that ‘gave forth a stench unendurable’ even high up on the bridge. As documented in successive maps of this part of Manchester (4 & 5), this noxious waterway was unsurprisingly removed from sight (and smell): firstly, in 1849, when the section flanking Chetham’s School was bricked over and then, around 1902, when a longer section was culverted after Victoria Station was extended southwards. The small remaining section of open river – to the east of what is now Victoria Station Approach was built over sometime in the early 20th century, only reappearing ‘symbolically’ in a recreation of part of the river in a fountain sculpture in what is now Cathedral Gardens, redeveloped after the IRA bomb in 1996.

6. The immense brick-lined walls of the Irk culvert

6. The immense brick-lined walls of the Irk culvert

What of the space of the culvert itself – the source of that invisible presence which continues to make itself felt in the city above? Once inside the culvert, the space seems to grow – the 20-foot span arch seen at the entrance now supported on immense high brick walls; while the noise of the rushing water is magnified by the cavernous space (6). The sights and sounds recorded by Engels may have (thankfully) disappeared, but the river still has a fearsome quality to it: a smell that makes one light-headed (dangerous, as all urban explorers know); a furious velocity; and, as if testifying to the latter, a channel lined with tree branches, shopping trolleys, car tyres and other forms of urban detritus. Such accumulated ruin is counterbalanced by what has been preserved – a bricked-up arched space in one of the walls that was once used as a shute for depositing dead cattle onto boats (7) and, perhaps most extraordinary of all, a wooden bridge  suspended between the walls of the culvert (8). This bridge – now bricked up and used as a utility tunnel – used to carry cattle from the fields on the north side of the Irk to the markets in Shudehill and it probably dates, at least in part, to around 1650, when Manchester was little more than a village.

7. Former shute for depositing dead cattle into boats

7. Former shute for depositing dead cattle into boats

8. Former cattle bridge spanning the Irk culvert, now used as a utility tunnel

8. Former cattle bridge spanning the Irk, now used as a utility tunnel

For this bridge to have survived so long after its pre-industrial function had been extinguished is testament to its power as a petrified ruin. It is paradoxically the ruin of the river (and its subsequent banishment) that has preserved this ancient relic intact; out of sight (and mind) it has been allowed to escape the relentless modernisation that has characterised Manchester from the eighteenth century onwards. If urban modernity requires the city to develop by a process of ‘creative destruction’ – or deliberate ruination/rebuilding – then this preserved ruin directly challenges that process. Its continuing existence speaks of the residues of modernity, or the ruins that do not yield to modernity because they continue to serve it in some unforseen way. It’s as if, from that bridge, the rushing river below described by Engels somehow refuses to be expunged from Manchester’s urban memory. Perhaps the name given to this culvert by urban explorers – Optimus Prime – is more than a rather infantile pseudonym; for has the culvert truly not transformed the river into something mythic?





Strange territory: Liverpool’s dockland ruins

14 02 2014
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Looking south along Brunswick Place to the docks.

Walk north of Liverpool’s magnificent Liver Building – leaving behind the bustling angular forms of the city’s new waterfront buildings around the Albert Dock – and you enter the liminal dockland zone – the northern part of a vast interconnected port system that stretches over 7 miles along the Liverpool bank of the river Mersey. In 1907 – at the height of Liverpool’s preeminence as a global port – the writer Walter Dixon Scott described the ‘romance’ of the city’s docklands, a ‘strange territory’ that formed ‘a kind of fifth element’ to the world – ‘a place charged with daemonic issues and daemonic silences, where men move like puzzled slaves, fretting under orders they cannot understand, fumbling with great forces that have long passed out of their control.’

The 1901 Tobacco Warehouse seen from Regent Road.

The 1901 Tobacco Warehouse seen from Regent Road.

Regent Road facade of the Tobacco Warehouse.

Regent Road facade of the Tobacco Warehouse.

Today, those ‘great forces’ have seemingly abandoned Liverpool, wielding their power now on the eastern side of the planet, but their traces remain everywhere in the city’s docklands, which are perhaps an even stranger territory today than they were at the turn of the twentieth century. Walking north along Regent Road, which hugs the granite wall that encloses most of the docks (with their evocative succession of names – Trafalgar, Salisbury, Nelson, Wellington, Canada), one sees everywhere the material remnants of Liverpool’s former maritime dominance. First, surrounding Stanley Dock, are gargantuan abandoned buildings, including the world’s largest brick-built warehouse, completed in 1901 to store the vast quantities of tobacco that were then imported from the United States. Flanked by a host of other brick warehouses, the entire complex hovers between a state of ruin and recuperation, the largest buildings being slowly turned into apartments and, in the case of the Tobacco Warehouse, a vast hotel, while the smaller examples continue to languish in redundancy.

Brunswick Place

Brunswick Place

Effingham Street

Effingham Street

Ruined grabber, Huckisson Branch Dock No. 3.

Ruined grabber, Huskisson Branch Dock No. 3.

Things become even stranger the further north one progresses. In the streets beyond Huskisson Branch Dock No. 3, the semi-ruinous buildings continue to live on in a variety of forms: as spaces to store and sell salvaged car parts in Brunswick Place; as unspecified ‘Units to Let’ in Effingham Street; or as offices for a stationary company in Princes Street. All of these streets face onto the docklands beyond, where enormous hills of scrap materials accumulate before one’s eyes (presumably waiting to be exported for recycling). It is as if one is witnessing the entire wastes of the world being gathered into one space – a spectacle that leads to a strange sense of temporal dislocation.

Hills of scrap metal, Huckisson Dock No. 3.

Hills of scrap metal, Huskisson Dock No. 3.

Former spare car-parts warehouse, Brunswick Place

Former spare car-parts warehouse, Brunswick Place

This feeling of being witness to the ‘great forces’ of material destruction is, of course, a mainstay in (post) apocalyptic cinema, particularly within the cyberpunk trend that began with the first of the Mad Max films in 1979 and has continued up to the present in The Matrix trilogy and the recent Robocop reboot. Within the cyberpunk genre, salvage plays a critical role in imagined apocalyptic futures, whether seen in the hotchpotch of technologies in machines in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), or the appropriation of architectural ruins as domestic spaces seen in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) or Neil Marshall’s Doomsday (2008). The image of ruins in cyberpunk is both romantic – a form of neo-Gothic revelling in the excess of decay – and also critical, namely of late-capitalism’s increasingly accelerated regime of ‘creative’ destruction.

Walls of buildings along Brunswick Place.

Walls of buildings along Brunswick Place.

Walking in Liverpool’s ruined docklands (in effect, the type of real spaces that underpin cyberpunk’s alternative realities) is equally fraught with contradictions, from the startling aesthetics generated by the clash of serene emptiness with violent destruction to the melancholic sense of lives and buildings clung onto in desperation. Liverpool’s docklands are a landscape that simultaneously speak of past, present and future: what was exists as both material remnants and absent ruins; what is shows itself in the ingenuity of those who continue to use the semi-ruined buildings; what will be comes in the sense of the landscape as prophetic of what will (inevitably) become of the world under capitalism.





Walking on water: the path to Hilbre Island

17 01 2014

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‘What do you call a path that is no path?’ (Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways, p. 61)

Hilbre Island, and its two sister islands Middle Eye and Little Eye, lies 2 miles off the Wirral mainland in the mouth of the estuary of the River Dee. One of 43 unbridged British tidal islands that can be reached on foot from the mainland, Hilbre is a place set apart, marooned by the tide for 4 hours in every 12, and, although inhabited for centuries, now lies abandoned, its former houses falling in disrepair. Unlike the infamous paths that cross Morecambe Bay or Foulness in Essex, the way to Hilbre is easy (and popular): one need only consult tide times and avoid the couple of hours either side of high tide. Yet, to walk the 2 miles from West Kirby to Hilbre is to enter another world, one where the landscape is forever changing and where paths exist only as flux – a place where the path is everywhere and nowhere and you are free to choose it.

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In British landscapes outside of the national parks, such freedom of movement is rare; here, as soon as one steps out onto the sand, it comes upon you. The islands – low prominences of rock on the horizon (1) – are the guides that draw the path but, despite the passage of countless feet over the centuries, there are no lines made by walking. Until one reaches the red sandstone rocks of Little Eye, the landscape is a mesmerising spectacle of sand, light and water – always different because always in flux (2). Here the tide does not so much come in and out as appear and disappear out of the sand, its low ripples funnelling the water and light into endlessly shifting patterns.

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In this landscape, the rocks of Little Eye are an anchor, the southern edge of a shelf of sandstone that rises and falls for 2 miles before dropping back into the sea at the northern end of Hilbre Island. All along this shelf the rocks provide a temporary resting point for thousands of birds that feed from the rich tidal waters of the Dee: after high tide, the guano of countless newly-departed Oystercatchers fills the air with the rasping smell of ammonia (3). As one follows the rocks, they grow in redness, particularly if one is also following the setting sun, the layers of sandstone both sculpted by and resistant to the enveloping sea: here, swirls and eddies of orange and pink (4); there, green bands of algae support the red (5); elsewhere, tessellated lumps of fused sand and rock (6). At the northern end of Hilbre Island, where the rocks gently slope into the sea, one feels at the very edge of the world, watched only by the wild eyes of seals bobbing up beyond (7).

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At sunset, the return journey to West Kirby is magical, the shifting patterns of light now accelerating in a spectacular display. The hue of the red rocks edges from vermillion to purple, while the sand and water double the sky’s molten colours and mirrors its passing clouds (8 & 9). One is no longer walking on this landscape; rather between and inside it, enveloped as if caught within the elements themselves. And when one finally reaches the terra firma around West Kirby’s marine lake, the edgeland beyond still beckons in the semi-darkness – the now striated forms of water on sand like solidified embodiments of the fading clouds above (10).

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Patina and the depth of surface

2 11 2013
Rusted gates, Malta

Rusted gates, Malta

Patina – the visible signs of age on the surface of a material – is generally valued as a positive form of decay, and is manifest in a panoply of material forms: distressed wood, weather-beaten stone or brick, faded wallpaper, well-worn textiles, rusted ironwork, to name but a few. Whatever form it takes, patina signals the desire for a visual sign of authenticity, that is, material imbued with a history that speaks of ‘natural’ processes accrued over time. Paradoxically, in many cases, these visual signs of ageing are achieved very quickly and forcibly; hence, the widespread criticism of patina as yet another symptom of the post-modern obsession with surface at the expense of ‘authentic’ depth. 

Peeling paint, Emsworth

Peeling paint, Emsworth

'X' mark and successive water lines on a door in Lakeview, New Orleans, 2007. Photograph by Christina Bray (http://www.southernspaces.org/2009/x-codes-post-katrina-postscript)

‘X’ mark and successive water lines on a door in Lakeview, New Orleans, 2007. Photograph by Christina Bray (http://www.southernspaces.org/2009/x-codes-post-katrina-postscript)

Yet, patina can also be interpreted as a critical form of visuality. In a recent talk at the University of Manchester, archaeologist Shannon Lee Dawdy focused on the meanings of patina in the buildings of New Orleans, pre- and post-Katrina.  The devastating hurricane of 2005 created so-called ‘Katrina patina’ – the characteristic residue left by saline water that overwhelmed New Orleans for weeks after the city’s flood defences were breached. Today, amidst the ruins of nearly 6,000 homes in New Orleans, many of the city’s renovated domestic buildings still have a large letter ‘X’ on their exteriors; in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, rescue personnel spray-painted the letter ‘X’ on all buildings to indicate that they had been evacuated. Many returning residents chose to conserve rather than erase these letters, which have become known, according to Dorothy Moye, as ‘Katrina crosses’. Here, patina functions as a memorial to a natural disaster. It is the architectural equivalent of the post-traumatic symptom, showing us the trauma of the past as it reverberates down into the present. By displaying the ‘wound’ inflicted by the trauma, this patina has the potential to contribute to the wider work of future healing in New Orleans.

'X' mark in Bywater, New Orleans with Tibetan prayer flags, 2009. Photograph by Dorothy Moye (http://www.southernspaces.org/2009/x-codes-post-katrina-postscript)

‘X’ mark in Bywater, New Orleans with Tibetan prayer flags, 2009. Photograph by Dorothy Moye (http://www.southernspaces.org/2009/x-codes-post-katrina-postscript)

Patina straddles the space (and time) between construction and ruin. It is always an ambivalent form of materiality because any attempt to stabilise its meaning effaces the essential nature of patina as process. Therefore, the meaning of patina lies in its instability; as with ruins, patina represents a fragment that suggests the meaning of the whole (as in the case of New Orleans’s x-marked buildings). The latter suggests a way out of the condemnation of patina as a superficial form of materiality. Patina, whatever form it takes, has the potential to deepen the meaning of surface as surface. The examples in New Orleans also suggest (contrary to patina’s detractors) that intentionality is key to patina’s critical visuality. Perhaps it’s not the aestheticising of surface per se that is at issue but what we choose to do with that aestheticising. In the case of Katrina patina, it is clear that the material surface has the capacity to expand the field of architectural meaning, to hold together contradictions, to manifest historical depth, and to contribute to the ongoing work of remembrance and healing.

 








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