Chronopolis: Detroit’s time zones

8 05 2015
The Imagination Station opposite Michigan Central Station

The Imagination Station opposite Michigan Central Station

In a peculiar instance of art imitating life, I happened to read J. G. Ballard’s 1960 short story ‘Chronopolis’ during a recent stay in Detroit. In Ballard’s tale, set in a future city (the Chronopolis of the title), the population have completely abandoned the notion of sequential time, resulting in a city that is ‘effectively an enormous ring, five miles in width, encircling a vast dead centre forty or fifty miles in diameter.’ Hiding his own interest in the now forbidden timepieces of his ancestors, the central character Conrad sets off on a journey into this abandoned city, meeting the renegade Marshall, and restarting the city’s clocks once again. Typical of Ballard’s writing, this seemingly fantastical story was eerily prescient of the fate of the city in which I read it. Detroit’s decline is always narrated with shocking statistics and chronological landmarks: the riots/rebellion of 1967 which precipitated the flight of Detroit’s white residents to the burgeoning suburbs; the even-more catastrophic exodus (250,000 residents) in the wake of the collapse of the housing market in 2008; and the city’s declaration of bankruptcy in 2013. Recent commentary on Detroit has tended to emphasise two seemingly opposing temporal conceptions: the city as a place of vacant land and ruins that have succumbed to the slow rhythms of nature; or the city as still waiting, in the words of its motto, to rise from the ashes.

Clock in the former Cass Technical High School. Photograph by Andrew Moore, 2010

Clock in the former Cass Technical High School. Photograph by Andrew Moore, 2010

Both of these conceptions result from an understandable desire to apprehend the meaning of Detroit. As a city with less than 40% of its former inhabitants and with nearly one third of its vast area (138 square miles) now vacant land, Detroit seems to confound everything we expect of a city. As the photographer Andrew Moore put it in his 2010 book Detroit Disassembled, there’s a sense in Detroit that ‘the past is receding so quickly that time itself seems to be distorted’ – perhaps nowhere better pictured than in Moore’s own image of a half-melted clock in the former Cass Technical High School (now demolished). Like other photographers of Detroit’s ruins, Moore isn’t convinced that the city will rise again; rather, it is nature that is Detroit’s true engineer: ‘Janus-faced’, it ‘renews as it ravages this shadowed metropolis’.

The Heidelberg Project on Detroit's east side.

The Heidelberg Project on Detroit’s east side.

At the same time, people (mainly young white professionals and creative types) are moving back into the city’s core: the billionaire Dan Gilbert has bought up dozens of formerly vacant buildings downtown; while the surrounding areas of Midtown, Corktown and Eastern Market are seeing new apartments being built and boutique shops opened. Here, the talk is of renovation and renewal, of productive forward-looking time regained after the blank wasted time of abandonment.

Clock above the entrance to the abandoned CPA Building on Michigan Avenue, Corktown

Clock above the entrance to the abandoned CPA Building on Michigan Avenue, Corktown

Can both of these time zones exist in the same city? Indeed, they can and do – and more besides. At Tyree Guyton’s world-famous Heidelberg Project on Detroit’s east side, a hand-painted clock (fixed on just after 3.45) is fastened to a pole overflowing with decrepit soft toys and wooden crosses: a time that pinpoints, abet allusively, a past tragedy (all over the city, poles covered in toys signify and memorialise sites of murders). Meanwhile, in Corktown on the near west side, the one remaining hand on the clock over the entrance of the abandoned CPA building points forever at the number 6. Looming just across the road, Detroit’s most iconic ruin – Michigan Central Station – used to contain within it a clock that stopped forever in the mid-1960s at one minute to seven, signalling the beginning of the end for this architectural behemoth.

Former Michigan Central Station, Corktown

Former Michigan Central Station, Corktown

In Detroit of all places – once the epicentre of clock-based time in the Fordist mass production of cars – these frozen clocks seem to mock any attempt to temporalize the city. What is the past, present or future if time has forever stopped? The answer Ballard gives us in ‘Chronopolis’ is typically ambiguous: if we abandon time, we can never get it back as it once was. This seems to be what makes Detroit such a troubling (yet exhilarating) city: its future is now radically unknown.





Dreaming the city: Phlegm’s Sheffield bestiary

24 03 2015

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The artist with the nom de plume Phlegm has an international reputation as one of the most inventive street artists working today. Banksy may be the leading figure in the recent commodification of urban graffiti (his new works now regularly protected by hastilly-mounted sheets of perspex), but his prominence often overshadows the extraordinary flowering of urban street art in cities across the world today: from the powerful political murals in Buenos Aires to the omnipresent splashes of spray paint that adorn almost every one of Detroit’s thousands of abandoned buildings. Still occupying an ambivalent zone between the legal and the illegal (with many graffiti artists still prosecuted for their activities), urban street art is also positioned at the juncture between the usually antagonist discourses of blight-busting and creative appropriation of defunct buildings and structures. Think what you will of its value, there is no doubt that graffiti changes both the aesthetics and experience of the built (and unbuilt) environment.

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Phlegm’s Sheffield-based work (his most concentrated of a vast series of works that can also be found in cities in Spain, Australia, Norway, Canada, Sri Lanka, USA and Poland) provides a touchstone that links together the city’s numerous abandoned buildings. Cycling along the River Don (Sheffield’s principal river and site of heavy industry since the early nineteenth century), from the railway station to the edge that is now the vast Meadowhall shopping centre, Phlegm’s works are like invitations into a secret world; a group of murals glimpsed from the canal tow path involved a subtle navigation of brownfield sites to get right up close to them. Three fish-based pieces: on one side of a brick viaduct two figures hunched in coracles carry outsized fish (1); directly opposite, another figure hauls an equally outlandish catch skewered on a spear (2); while, on the other side of the wall, the tail end of another huge fish seems to emerge directly out of the ground (3).

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The enigmatic figures in Phlegm’s murals – often shrouded in wraith-like garments – were first developed in his self-published comics. These figures are always ambivalent – half childlike, half menacing – and long-limbed, as if they had emerged secretively into the city from some mythic woodland existence. They are part of a bestiary (the title of his first solo exhibition at the Howard Griffin Gallery in Shoreditch in 2013), an ever-evolving but deeply personal collection of dream-like creatures that present strange narratives that now link cities across the world. Those in Sheffield (and I only found a few of them) invite a more localised reading: one figure holds an outsized telescope that reaches right across the façade of a city-centre ruin (4; a ruin now almost completely covered in graffiti art); near the River Don, a worm-like figure has itself eroded into the ruined wall that it adorns (5); while a relative of that same figure seems to carry a whole fantasy city on his back on the side of a shop in the University district (6).

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Increasingly straddling the illicit and the legal (the shop mural is one of his many commissioned works), Phlegm’s murals invite a questioning of not only the value of what is normally derided as a narcissistic, infantile act (graffiti that simply tags), but also the place of the private imagination in the public sphere. We may dream freely in the sanctioned spaces of our beds or baths; but what might it mean for all of us to dream as freely as this in the spaces of the cities we also inhabit?





Ruins in reverse: Ciudad Valdeluz, Spain

3 12 2014

Unfinished college building, Valdeluz

It was the American artist Robert Smithson who, in 1967, first coined the phrase ‘ruins in reverse’ when describing some of the strange forms he encountered in the post-industrial landscape around his home town of Passaic in New Jersey. His first ruin in reverse was an abandoned highway – a ‘zero panorama’ that contained within it ‘the memory-traces of an abandoned set of futures.’ Of course, that abandoned construction project was not a new phenomenon – one can imagine countless structures in history never reaching a state of completion; yet, there was something unprecedented in Smithson’s attribution of the term ‘ruin’ to this not-yet-built environment.

Abandoned platform, Guadalajara-Yebes railway station

Abandoned platform, Guadalajara-Yebes railway station

Faded advertising hoardings, Valdeluz

Faded advertising hoardings, Valdeluz

Since the global financial crisis of 2008, these ruins in reverse have become so commonplace and widespread as to comprise a new international ‘style’ of ruination, one that has generated an enormous amount of media commentary, from abandoned infrastructure (like Smithson’s ‘zero’ highway) to entire cities waiting to be inhabited in China. One such site is the commuter town of Valdeluz, 40 miles northeast of Spain’s capital, Madrid, which I visited on a humid September day earlier this year. Conceived at the height of Spain’s economic boom in early 2004, the city (Ciudad) of Valdeluz was laid out next to a vast station on the new high-speed railway that linked Madrid with Barcelona. Nine thousand homes were planned (for an estimated population of 30,000), as well as a large business park, state-of-the-art college, leisure facilities and verdant ‘green zones’ of parks, children’s playgrounds and golf courses. To date, only a quarter of the apartment buildings have been completed, with the population starting in 2008 at only 200 and rising slowly today to around 2,500.

Pedestrian walkway, Valdeluz

Pedestrian walkway, Valdeluz

Unfinished road, Valdeluz

Unfinished road, Valdeluz

Visiting Valdeluz requires detailed knowledge of train timetables: for at least 10 hours every day, no trains at all stop at the station that serves the town, even as dozens hurry through on the high-speed line. As Smithson so clearly articulated, encountering ruins in reverse is akin to being dislocated from conventional notions of time. In Valdeluz, the unmistakeable peace encountered in the ruin is entirely missing; from the abandoned remnants of the town, one cannot construct an image of the built environment as it once was, but, rather, left groping in the dark as to what it was (and is) meant to be. Even though all the objects encountered are familiar to the point of banality (benches, lampposts, manhole covers, pavements, roads, junction boxes), in their unfinished state they seem unreadable, detached as they are from any sense of an assured future use.

Abandoned junction boxes, Valdeluz

Abandoned junction boxes, Valdeluz

Central plaza, Valdeluz

Central plaza, Valdeluz

Even stranger, of course, is the reality of Valdeluz as a place that is lived-in, albeit by only a few. As reported by Newsweek in June 2014, these residents express a common feeling of being cut-off from larger society, forced to deal with unprecedented problems of place-making and social cohesion. As the proprietor of the town’s only café, Yolanda Alvarez, stated, the problems in the town are precisely the opposite of those normally associated with urban life: too much peace-and-quiet, too little to do, virtually no public transport. Even as the town’s mayor has voiced optimism with regard to the future of the fledgling community, so much rests on the larger forces that created the town in the first place (and which have now departed).

Business park, Valdeluz

Business park, Valdeluz

Business park, Valdeluz

Business park, Valdeluz

As I hurried back to catch the mid-afternoon train back to Madrid (the last for another 10 hours), the identical clocks spread out on the long empty platform were audible in their rhythmic ticking. Apart from this and the muffled noise of the wind, there was an unearthly sense of stasis, a feeling that generated an entirely new notion of ruin. It was as if a world had been created for the purpose of demonstrating some kind of meaning that nevertheless remained entirely elusive. Had some alien force deposited this built environment onto the earth as a simulation of a human environment? If so, for what purpose? Finding the elusive answers to these questions may yet account for the profoundly alien nature of global capitalism and the increasingly large-scale ruins in reverse it is leaving in its wake.

Waiting for the train, Guadalajara-Yebes station.

Waiting for the train, Guadalajara-Yebes station.





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.

Sewer

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.

Sump

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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The Ancoats Dispensary: the politics of ruins

13 06 2014
The Ancoats Dispensary building before scaffolding was put up by Urban Splash in 2010

The Ancoats Dispensary building before scaffolding was put up by Urban Splash in 2010

A small group of local activists had been keeping a vigil for over 3 years outside one of Ancoats’s most iconic ruins: the old Ancoats Hospital building, constructed in 1875 as a replacement for the earlier dispensary, opened in 1828. The Ancoats Dispensary Trust – the organisation who keeps the vigil – was formed in 2011 as ‘a reactionary movement in opposition to the proposed demolition’ of the Grade II listed hospital building by Urban Splash, who had purchased the building (apparently for just £1) in the 1990s but had been unable to find an alternative use for the building, despite the company’s chair and co-founder Tom Bloxham declaring in 2001 that ‘if we don’t deliver of this one, we’ll never work in this city again.’ Having initially worked with the North West Development Agency (NWDA) in renovating the Dispensary into apartments, erecting scaffoldings and removing the existing roof, the abolition of the NWDA in 2010 by the new coalition government resulted in Urban Splash ‘mothballing’ the building and applying to the City Council for a demolition order.

The Dispensary building in March 2014

The Dispensary building in March 2014

With the destruction of the building seemingly imminent, a grassroots campaign was begun that has put forward an alternative proposal to turn the building into a community space. As the Ancoats Dispensary Trust has argued, the campaign for the Dispensary to returned to ‘common use’ reflects the history of the building as a place of healing within the larger Ancoats area. As the campaign chair, Linda Carver, has argued, the motivation for returning this ruin to the community grew out of widespread dissatisfaction with both Manchester City Council and Urban Splash’s policy of turning the New Islington area of Ancoats into a mainly privately owned site with only small concessions to social housing. Indeed, in my own visits to the Dispensary in March 2014, I encountered the same feeling amongst those volunteers who maintained the vigil for three hours in the afternoon every weekday of the year.

Shelter for the vigil's volunteers

Shelter for the vigil’s volunteers

Day 203 of the vigil, 28 February 2013

Day 203 of the vigil, 28 February 2013

With a host of makeshift placards and posters now obscuring Urban Splash’s now ironic images of what the Dispensary might have looked like if converted into privately-owned apartments, the vigil has created and occupied its own space of resistance outside the ruined building, re-appropriating it as a site of political protest. That the vigil has continued unbroken for so long is a powerful testament to the tenacity of dedication of a small group of local citizens to what seems a thankless task (the campaign has already been refused Heritage Lottery Funding twice).What all of the volunteers I spoke with had in common was a history of displacement by regeneration programmes in the East Manchester area: for example, Chris was moved out of Ancoats by the local authority after his rent was raised by Adacdus Housing (the association who used to manage the housing in Ancoats on behalf of the City Council); Jackie had lived in Ancoats for 42 years before her block of flats was scheduled for demolition and she was relocated to Openshaw; while Patrick lived in the neighbouring area of Clayton, but nevertheless felt strong affinities with displaced Ancoats’ residents. All shared a common sense of anger towards both Urban Splash and Manchester City Council regarding the regeneration of the New Islington site. Both Chris and Patrick regarded the new apartments along the Ashton Canal (including the Chips Building, designed by Wil Alsop) as being only for wealthy buyers, while the waste ground that lay in between the Dispensary and the Rochdale Canal was an ‘insult’ to the Ancoats community because it was now fenced-off privately owned land that had been taken away from the existing community.

'Cotton Field', the privately owner land that used to be the Cardroom Estate, an area of social housing.

‘Cotton Field’, the privately owned land that used to be occupied by social housing (the Cardroom Estate).

The campaign to save the Ancoats Dispensary has seized on a ruined building and reappropriated as a political weapon against the dominant and powerful forces of urban regeneration in the area. Although the outcome of the campaign is far from certain, it demonstrates how a local community (and one further afield) can galvanise itself around a ruin in order to make its voice heard and to articulate alternative futures. As Patrick explained to me, the Ancoats Dispensary is not just viewed as a convenient rallying point for long-standing resentments to be expressed (although it is partly that); rather it is a building that has a long history of being rooted in and serving the needs of the local community. From 1828 until 1996, the building was the local hospital, with additional buildings being added as needed. When the hospital was threatened with closure in 1987 by the then Conservative government, local residents from the Cardroom Estate staged a sit-in protest which resulted in the building’s continued use as a community clinic until 1996. The subsequent decline and demolition of most of the hospital buildings bar the Dispensary has undoubtedly fueled the anger felt towards the City Council. As Patrick stated, winning the money necessary for restoring the Dispensary will not only provide an enormous boost to a disenfranchised community, but also a heterogeneous space that will genuinely answer to the desires and needs of that community. In short, this ruined building has been transformed from an example of architectural failure to a focal point for emancipatory desire.





Ruin Lust: fettered pleasures at Tate Britain

31 03 2014

 

J M W Turner, 'The chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey', 1794

J M W Turner, The chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey (1794)

Ruin Lust – on at Tate Britain until 18 May – explores artists’ fascination with ruins from the eighteenth century to the present day. Arranged thematically rather than chronologically, the exhibition takes us on a journey through the many meanings of ruins: as sites of aesthetic pleasure, melancholy reverie, or war-torn devastation; as places of memory or premonitions of the future; as sites embedded in landscapes or encompassing entire cities. From Turner’s delicate watercolours of Tintern Abbey from the 1790s to Laura Oldfield Ford’s disquieting paintings of present-day housing estates, ruins have for centuries been imaged by artists as places to think through the meaning of time: for all ruins, whether ancient or modern, invite (or perhaps demand) a kind of awareness that moves slower than normal, one that inhabits (for a moment at least) a gap, or a place apart. 

Joseph Gandy, 'A Bird's-eye view of the Bank of England', 1830

Joseph Gandy, A Bird’s-eye view of the Bank of England (1830)

Indeed, before we even enter the exhibition space of Ruin Lust, a series of quotations invite us to think in a certain way, to make the link between ruins as physical objects and what’s going on in our minds, whether an extract from W. G. Sebald’s late novel Austerlitz (2001) or James Joyce’s apocalyptic musings in Ulysses (1922). Why is it that gazing at ruins seems to mirror something fundamental in the human body? The title of the exhibition suggests that the act of looking at ruins is invested with libidinal energy, a kind of revelling in the sensual excess of decay that is perhaps rather unseemly. Yet, very little in this exhibition is suggestive of the kind of ‘ruin porn’ that is increasingly filling up the internet and the (electronic) pages of tabloid newspapers such as the Mail Online. Rather, here is ruin lust at its most refined, deriving more from the mind than the body. Only John Martin’s end-of-the-world bombast and Laura Oldfield Ford’s lurid canvases of post-punk revolutionaries waiting for action in ‘sink’ estates come close to the daemonic energy of the kind of ruin lust that draws in the crowds to the latest apocalyptic blockbuster or the Mail Online’s almost daily dose of ruin porn.

Jane & Louise Wilson, 'Urville', 2006

Jane & Louise Wilson, Urville (2007)

Indeed, much of the work on show in this exhibition is meant to direct us away from ruin lust towards a more contemplative or critical gaze. Thus Joseph Gandy’s extraordinary painting Bird’s Eye View of the Bank of England (1830) shows John Soane’s recently completed building in the far distance future, its otherwise secure spaces opened up to view through a process of ruination. Here, ruin speaks of a kind of beauty in ageing, although to a contemporary viewer it cannot help but be a barbed critique of our bloated financial overlords. No lust here from the vantage point of a passing crow; only distanced longing perhaps. Back down to earth, Jane and Louise Wilson’s black-and-white photographs of the fantastical outsized sculptural objects that are the remains of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall fortifications speak more of alien presences than material excess, their mythic titles – Azeville (2006), Urville (2007) and Biville (2006) – signalling a temporal shift into some kind of mythic time. Like the revelatory ruins of the Statue of Liberty appearing at the end of The Planet of the Apes (1968), the Wilsons’ photographs seem to disrupt conventional notions of time – are these the ruins of a defunct ancient civilisation or those of our own in the far distant future? 

Laura Oldfield Ford,

Laura Oldfield Ford, TQ3382: Tweed House, Teviot St (2012)

What most of these representations steer away from is the sensual excess of the ruin, its power to overwhelm and envelop the subject, something the cultural geographer Tim Edensor has written beautifully about in his book Industrial Ruins (2005). It’s as if these images are saying: ‘don’t get too close to ruins – keep your distance so you can make them mean something else’. This pervasive sense of ruins as allegories is challenged directly by Laura Oldfield Ford’s paintings (and more generally in her practice as an artist). Rendered in shocking pink, her depictions of semi-ruined spaces are unashamedly tasteless and suggest that even (or perhaps especially) mundane dilapidation can be fertile ground for subversive desires. In TQ3382: Tweed House, Teviot St (2012), the two young female figures are engaged in focused yet unspecified activity, amidst the shabby (but definitely not shabby-chic) interior of their modernist apartment. There’s something peculiarly repulsive about this painting, a feeling that is mirrored in the visceral quality of modern ruins. Over 150 years ago, Charles Dickens spoke eloquently about the ‘attraction of repulsion’ in Victorian London; Ford has rendered this in the contemporary city. Ruins, if they are ‘real’ rather than manicured, always produce this attraction of repulsion; they invite you to rub your nose in their material excesses, to roll around in their vulgarity, to delight in their repulsiveness. As Ford reminds us, to live in ruins is precisely to embrace them as ruins, to allow them to be places that incubate strange, fertile and potentially revolutionary desires.  

 








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