Accelerated ruins: the aesthetics of demolition

4 10 2013
Demolition of New Broadcasting House, Manchester, October 2012

Demolition of New Broadcasting House, Manchester, October 2012

When the BBC’s New Broadcasting House (1976) was demolished on Oxford Street in Manchester in October 2012, thousands of passers-by witnessed the violent death of a large building. Over the course of a few weeks, the building was transformed from ruin to rubble, and thence into just one more unimaginative (yet ubiquitous) Manchester car park. Demolition is perhaps the most commonplace form of what Marshall Berman has termed ‘urbicide’, that is, the deliberate destruction of the built environment of cities. And yet it’s certainly the most ignored: buildings come and go, their unmourned deaths usually heralded by long periods of decline, marked by the failure to find new uses for obviously defunct structures.

Demolition of New Broadcasting House, Manchester, October 2012

Demolition of New Broadcasting House, Manchester, October 2012

Deliberately contemplating buildings undergoing demolition is a transgressive form of looking. Seeing a building being killed is a discomforting, even shocking experience. Buildings – even long-empty ones – are essentially anthropomorphic structures, designed to be lived in and to be shared spaces of existence. Gaze at a building being demolished long enough and you begin to feel the pain of that death: its broken walls, gaping windows, and twisted metalwork eliciting a kind of bodily sympathy in the viewer. The violence of demolition also contrasts with the serenity of the ruin. Where, with the ruin, nature is allowed to re-establish her former claims to the building, producing (at least for a time) a peaceful sense of equilibrium, the building undergoing demolition is violently annihilated by the very tools that raised it up in the first place. No wonder that most demolitions are shielded from public view behind makeshift screens.

Demolition of Oldham Twist Mill (1883), September 2013.

Demolition of Oldham Twist Mill (1883), September 2013.

Representations of demolition are thus transgressive in that they both expose and forestall the violence of architectural annihilation. On the one hand, photographs articulate the half-demolished building as somehow still existent, even at the moment of its death – the architectural equivalent of a coroner’s report perhaps; on the other, the exposure of the building’s insides during demolition produce revelatory views of architecture – that is, glimpses of the otherwise invisible ‘soft’ interiors (perhaps most powerfully represented in Rachel Whiteread’s spectral sculpture House (1993)).

Rachel Whiteread, 'House' (1993)

Rachel Whiteread, ‘House’ (1993)

'Demolition of Hungerford Market', Illustrated London News, 27 December 1862, p. 705.

‘Demolition of Hungerford Market’, Illustrated London News, 27 December 1862, p. 705.

Demolition also suggests new kinds of urban aesthetics, given widespread expression in nineteenth-century London when modernisation produced unprecedented scenes of urban ruination. So, when the Hungerford Market near the Strand was demolished in 1862 to make way for the Charing Cross Railway Station (1864), the Illustrated London News found in the resulting scene of destruction a powerful new aesthetic of modernity: a vast, dark absence flanked by houses on the brink of destruction, and the shadow lines of staircases, ceilings and floors imprinted, like Whiteread’s House, on their remaining walls. For the Illustrated London News such destruction produced a great deal of visual interest, in effect a new form of urban picturesque; yet in representing such a scene at all, the newspaper also exposed the urbicide that is common to all forms of modernisation. Yet, as Lynda Nead has argued, the illustration is also a permanent representation of the archaeology of modernity, revealing that the latter is always haunted by the spectral presence of the past, no matter how quickly it tries to obliterate it with the promise of the new.





Love at last sight: Mayfield railway station, Manchester

24 07 2013

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Barely a stone’s throw from Manchester’s bustling transport hub that is Piccadilly station lies the latter’s ghostly doppleganger: the disused Mayfield railway station. Opened in 1910 by the London & North Western Railway Company, this gigantic building operated as a relief-station for the overcrowded Piccadilly next door. In line with Manchester’s industrial decline, Mayfield was closed to passengers in 1960 and permanently shut down in 1968. After years of abandonment and numerous proposals for redevelopment, work began on dismantling the enormous structure in February 2013.

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Yet, for two weeks in July, Mayfield was reopened for use as an arts venue for the Manchester International Festival hosting, in its cavernous spaces, a series of events: Massive Attack soundtracked a film by Adam Curtis; Eszter Salamon performed dance; and Tino Sehgal choreographed an installation. Sehgal’s work was located in a pitch-dark chamber at the back of the station: a disconcerting and immersive piece featuring monologues decrying consumerism and shamanistic dances that circled an audience blinded by the darkness.

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However, for me, the main attraction was the station itself: a vast series of brick-vaulted chambers supported on dozens of steel columns embedded in concrete bases. Long a popular space for illicit exploration, for two short weeks Mayfield opened its arms freely to all. With uncharacteristic summer heat outside, the interior of the station became a cool sanctuary, the sunlight filtered by blinds and seeping through numerous cracks in doorways and windows. Here, the otherwise brutal forms of functionalism unbound had the effect of creating a temporal displacement: was I, like W. G. Sebald in the ruins of Orford Ness, exploring the remains of some long-distant civilisation, the strange forms of the air vents and endless brick vaults leftovers of a enigmatic primitive culture? Or was I in the far-distant future witnessing the ruins of our own culture after its extinction after an unknown catastrophe? Sehgal’s performance seemed to enhance this sense of being catapulted into a different temporal realm – its whooping sounds and enigmatic statements offering something that seemed at once both primitive and futuristic.

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Such displacements are a common result of experiencing large-scale ruins. The dark spaces of Mayfield – cavernous chambers permanently shrouded in shadows – were more like vast underground tombs than industrial leftovers, exuding both threat and tranquility. Such feelings were heightened by the knowledge that this space will soon be erased, its spaces confined to the dark recesses of memory. Truly, this was love at last sight.

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Rest in distinction: the allure of catacombs

2 05 2013
Catacombs, West Norwood Cemetery, London

Catacombs, West Norwood Cemetery, London

In an earlier post, I explored the origins of London’s catacombs and one group in particular: those at Kensal Green Cemetery. In November last year, as a favour for a talk I gave at West Norwood, I was guided around the catacombs in this South London Cemetery. Catacombs are underground structures, built of brick or stone in the form of a cellar, which house coffins in recesses in galleries. Altogether, ten cemeteries in nineteenth-century London were constructed with catacombs: those at West Norwood being installed in 1840.

1. Recesses in the West Norwood catacombs

1. Recesses in the West Norwood catacombs

2. Plaque denoting the owner of a recess in the West Norwood catacombs

2. Plaque denoting the owner of a recess in the West Norwood catacombs

The word ‘catacomb’ literally means ‘among the tombs’ and the latter clearly expresses why these spaces are so different from conventional burial sites. In a catacomb the dead are directly accessible: at West Norwood, coffins line the recesses along the brick tunnels (1), many now in an advanced state of decay. In former times, relatives of the deceased would visit these spaces and commune with their loved ones with a sense of intimacy not possible with a conventional grave. Catacombs are spaces where one can literally be among the dead, temporarily sealed off from the life above ground in a private and exclusive space. Yet, as with all cemeteries, there is also a community of the dead here; unless one is important enough to have an isolated mausoleum, places of rest are invariably shared. Certainly, catacombs are no place to be alone; when my guide took me into a tiny, pitch-dark recess filled with the tiny coffins of children, I felt a powerful sense of horror at being almost consumed by the dead, shuddering at the thought of such overwhelming losses.

3. Former grave-digger's spade, West Norwood catacombs

3. Former grave-digger’s spade, West Norwood catacombs

4. Catacombs under St Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna

4. Catacombs under St Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna

Despite their communality, the catacombs at West Norwood, just like their counterparts in other London cemeteries, nevertheless express the desire for continued social distinction after death. Purchasing a catacomb was a sign of high social (and financial) standing, the signs of which are most clearly expressed in the plaques that mark the individual spaces (2), a forlorn grave-digger’s spade the only reminder of the social ‘other’ that always haunts such a desire for exclusivity (3). In even more exclusive catacombs, like those beneath St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna (4), this desire for social distinction generated both horror and absurdity. Once the burial site of nobles, in the eighteenth century these spaces became the general catacomb for all of Vienna’s residents. During the time of the Habsburg Empire, the catacombs were once again transformed into an exclusive space – a pristine stone-arched vault – while the rest of the bones were moved to an ignominious pit. Today, in these catacombs, the pickled organs of the former Habsburg rulers are preserved in copper urns, their mummified bodies preserved in two other sites in Vienna. It is as if this level of social distinction has literally torn apart the bodies, one burial site being inadequate to preserve the idea of an eternal kingdom.

5. Chambers in the St Paul's Catacombs near Mdina, Malta

5. Chambers in the St Paul’s Catacombs near Mdina, Malta

7. Christian wall painting, c.3rd century, St Paul's Catacombs, Malta

6. Christian wall painting, c.3rd century, St Paul’s Catacombs, Malta

Yet, in their early incarnations, catacombs were once spaces of inclusivity. The island of Malta is riddled with ancient underground spaces, including the St. Paul’s catacombs, outside the former Greek city of Melite (now Mdina). In a series of deep rectangular shafts flanked by chambers (5), one can still see the evidence of Christian, Pagan and Jewish burials. Originating in pre-Roman Phoenician culture, these spaces were taken over by the successive religious groups that lived side-by-side in Malta over the centuries. In these catacombs, Jewish mourners might perform ritualised acts of memorialisation next to Pagan rites of sacrifice, while a faded Christian wall painting displays the same act embodied in another form (6). Walking and crouching in these spaces, their womb-like enclosures and soft, warmly-lit walls (7) seem to speak of the possibility of social unity rather than heightened division, where together we can face the inevitable erasure of distinction that will come to us all.

7. St Paul's Catacombs

7. St Paul’s Catacombs





Ruins as memorials

5 06 2011

B-29 engine at Higher Shelf Stones, Peak District

England’s Peak District is a beautiful area of wild moorland and wooded valleys; but it’s also a graveyard for over 50 aircraft – mainly Second World War planes that crashed in poor visibility on the western edges of the Peak’s bare moorland. These tragic remains now attract ‘baggers’ in the same way that the Scottish mountains do and there are many websites and even books listing the wrecks and their precise positions in the often featureless landscape.

1. Wreckage of Meteor aircraft, crashed 1951 on Siddens Moss, Peak District

2, Memorial in wreckage on Siddens Moss

I came across my first wreck by accident, while trying to find my way over a desolate stretch of moorland in the area around the Black Hill in the far north of the Peak District. First, I came across single pieces of metal (1), shredded and twisted, and then, following their trail, I found recognisable parts of aircrafts – bits of wing, engine and fuselage – heaped together in a shallow gully. Finding this wreckage suddenly invested the landscape with a enigmatic sense of tragedy – an unknown story that obviously involved violent death. More striking was the discovery of a small memorial – a cross and a poppy – embedded in part of the wreckage (2). After returning home I found out the story of the wreckage: two Meteor aircraft had collided in mid-air in 1951 and crashed on the moorland, killing both pilots.

3. B-29 wreckage on Higher Shelf Stones

4. Wooden crosses in wreckage at Higher Shelf Stones

Many of the Peak District’s aircraft wrecks are also memorials. A much larger wreck at Higher Shelf Stones near Glossop is very close to a popular walker’s path and it consists of the ruins of a B-29 aircraft, which crashed in 1948 killing all 13 people on board (3). Amongst the wreckage – including almost intact engines, wings and wheels – are countless memorials, made up of a mixture of crosses, using stones gathered from the moor (4), bits of wood or even parts of the wreckage itself, and poppies arranged around the engine parts in scarlet wreaths (5).

5. Poppy wreath on an engine at Higher Shelf Stones

The iconography of these memorials is the same as those used for war memorials and many of the aircraft were used during wartime or carried veterans when they crashed. Yet, the effect of this iconography amongst these wrecks is very different from its more common counterpart – that is, cenotaphs and poppy-wreaths that form the focus for acts of civic remembrance. Here, unchanging ceremonies present the past as if it were static, undisturbed by the erasing nature of time and the duplicity of memory. In these Peak wrecks the memorials become part of the ruin: wooden crosses are scattered by the wind (6), poppies devoured by rain, stones sunk into the bog. As such, even as they bring to mind past lives obliterated by a violent event they also participate in the inevitable process of ruin itself.

6. Cross and wreckage on Mill Hill, Peak District

7. Mangled radiator at Higher Shelf Stones

We might even argue that the wreckage itself is a more powerful memorial than the later additions. Left where it fell in the landscape, it is overtaken by nature: the metal surfaces become strangely contorted by rust and weathering (7), moss and grass grow through the pierced surfaces, and sheep make use of hard surfaces as convenient places to relieve an itch (8). In its ruined state, this wreckage speaks both of a past event – one that is tragic and violently immediate – and of its subsequent return to a much slower time, where it accumulates the stories of the landscape itself.

8. Sheep's wool on an axle, Mill Hill





The Vienna sewers

22 05 2011

1. The river Wien, Vienna

The prevailing image of Vienna is of a city of pleasure: the opera, waltzes, refined luxury etc. Yet, like all modern cities, it has an underside – real underground spaces that allow the city to function: from its bland yet smoothly efficient underground railway to its invisible system of sewers built at the end of the nineteenth century.

2. Scene from The Third Man (1949)

Vienna’s sewers transcend their everyday domain largely thanks to one defining representation: Carol Reed’s film The Third Man, made in 1949 and written by Graham Greene. Like all of Greene’s work, The Third Man explores human depths – unconscious motives, hidden political and personal treachery, and death – which are symbolised by, and return through, the ultra-rationalised spaces of the Vienna sewers just after the Second World War. It is here, in a celebrated sequence that the black marketer Harry Lime is cornered and finally shot by his one-time friend, Holly Martins (2). Throughout the film, the Vienna we know today is barely recognisable – here the city is battle-worn, barely more than a collection of ruins controlled by a disparate group of foreign occupiers.

3. Scenes from The Third Man projected on the sewer walls

Today, with the help of Vienna’s sewer authority, the Third Man tourist agency have cashed in on the film’s reputation and opened up – for paying visitors – the section of the city’s sewers that was actually used in the film. Descending the lotus-like manhole used by Harry Lime in his attempted escape, you enter the same murky world he inhabited. Here, montage from the film is literally projected onto the walls of the sewers (3), sounds from the film appear from unexpected crevices, and strategic lighting gives added drama to the spaces. It’s a themed excursion into the underworld that could be accused of hollowing out the originality of both film and sewer space.

4. Foul water meets clean water

5. Passages between the sewers

Yet, in reality, the raw brutalities of the sewers win out, with their grotesque stench, hostile spaces and foul rushing flows. In one space, chocolate-coloured water merges before one’s eyes into clean water in a mesmerising display of slowly-shifting eddies and whirlpools (4); in another, labyrinthine passages confuse in their topographical strangeness (5) (as they do so powerfully in the film); while, in the submerged river Wien – used by Lime to move swiftly and unnoticed between the city’s four occupied zones – is revealed as an astonishing, vaulted cavern, receding seemingly infinitely into the darkness (1 & 6). Here, with spectacularly appropriate lighting and ominous sounds, patches of graffiti can be made out along the walls of the tunnel: signs of the present-day successors of Harry Lime – those who yearn for freedom of movement and a brief respite from the oppressive rationality of the world above.

6. The river Wien under Vienna





The underground at war

5 01 2011

Corridor in Paddock, the alternative war rooms below Dollis Hill

Underground spaces take on heightened significance during times of crisis above-ground, particularly wartime. When cities are threatened by war, subterranean spaces are mobilised in new ways: as places of shelter, secrecy and production. During the Blitz in London in 1940-41, the normal associations of the city’s underground – darkness, danger and death – were dramatically reversed: the workaday Tube became immobilised by crowds of people sleeping on the platforms; new tunnels were dug to house munitions workers; the government built underground rooms to house their war operations; and church crypts, vaults and even coffins were used as places of shelter.

Sleeping in a coffin in a church crypt in wartime London

The Cabinet war rooms – now a popular tourist attraction – were built under the Treasury in Whitehall in 1939 and remained in operation throughout the Second World War. They were in fact the successors to another set of war rooms, constructed in Dollis Hill in north London and known as ‘Paddock’, which can still be visited by the public twice a year. The original war rooms were abandoned in 1939 in favour of a more central site but they remain today in their original state, albeit in the advanced stages of decay. In contrast to the comfortable experience of visiting the Cabinet war rooms, complete with underground cafe, visiting Paddock is disconcerting. Standing empty for 70 years, stalactites now hang from the ceilings and rise from the sodden floor; piles of rubbish and mud fill the rooms, while the furnishings rot and rust unchecked. Without the explanations given in the restored Cabinet war rooms, these spaces take on a nightmarish, uncanny quality: rooms meant for equipment recede into the darkness, their odd-shapes feeling alien and disorientating; and relics from the intervening years – 1970s Coca-Cola bottles and fire extinguishers – speak of other stories of illicit exploration.

The Cabinet war rooms under Whitehall

Paddock: the first Cabinet war rooms

The battery room at Paddock

Old drinks bottles and decaying doors at Paddock

In fact, the spaces at Paddock feel more akin to the countless post-apocalyptic film sets that have defined cinema since its early-20th century beginnings. They seem to speak of a disaster that is yet to happen, where even underground spaces are no longer safe from destruction. Post-apocalyptic films such as Day of the Dead (1985), Threads (1984) and The Road (2009) provide differing causes of annihilation – zombies, nuclear war and an unidentified cosmic strike – but they all use bunkers as an initial means of escaping apocalyptic destruction. However, in these pessimistic visions of the future, the underground is eventually overwhelmed by the apocalyptic forces above or, alternatively, by social breakdown below. Experiencing the decaying spaces at Paddock reminds us forcefully that it is impossible to escape the consequences of war, even if their sanitised counterparts under Whitehall continue to celebrate that very escape.





Underground overground: London’s Victorian viaducts

13 11 2010

Subterranean Oddbins inside the Holborn viaduct

During the 1860s, London was physically transformed: gigantic new sewers were built, underground railways constructed, new streets and overground railways levelled slums, and the river Thames was embanked. What all of this new construction did was to confuse existing notions of vertical space in the city, that is, between the underground and the overground. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Holborn viaduct, built from 1866 to 1869 at the boundary of the City of Westminster and the City of London. Before it was built, traffic going to and from the City of London had to negotiate the steep-sided Holborn Hill, a road that descended into the Fleet valley before climbing Ludgate Hill on the other side. The Holborn viaduct filled in this space, completely levelling the hill and transforming the environment.

The bridge over Farringdon Street

All that is visible today is the bridge across Farrington Street, beneath which the old River Fleet is enclosed in a sewer. Lavishly decorated with ornamental cast iron, featuring the emblem of the City – the winged dragon killed by St George – the bridge is only one part of a vast network of vaults that honeycomb the spaces either side of it. Within these spaces run gas, electricity, water and sewage pipes and, when built in the 1860s, was the first attempt in Britain to unify urban infrastructure in a single space. The vaults are now used for a variety of purposes: as a cavernous wine cellar for Oddbins; as a store for a bicycle hire company; and as a novel space for wining and dining.

Bicycles for hire in the Holborn viaduct

Everything about these spaces suggest that they are underground – the musty smell, the dark brick arches, and absence of natural light; yet, you enter them on street-level. This mixing up of underground and overground space is characteristic of Victorian London, particularly in its vast stretches of railway viaducts, which created a multitude of brick arches over the city. At London Bridge station, these arches converge to form a 1/2 mile-wide viaduct that towers over the surrounding streets, and into which burrow several roadways.

Road through the London Bridge viaduct

As a testament to the enduring appeal of the Victorian underground, part of the space inside the London Bridge viaduct has been converted into three of London’s most popular tourist attractions: the London Dungeon, the London Bridge Experience and the London Tombs. Drawing on the more sensational aspects of London’s underground history – ghosts, murderers, death and torture – these themed attractions reintroduce the ancient underground into a real Victorian space created for entirely practical purposes. Such a contradiction serves to highlight both the very real differences between the imaginative associations of underground spaces and their intended function, and also the fact that both are inevitably bound up together.

Entrance to the London Dungeon

While the London Dungeon conjures up its fabricated histories of the city’s underworld in its safe and convenient pseudo-subterranean setting, London still has its real underground spaces and communities that continue to haunt the city. If visitors to the London Dungeon want an authentic subterranean experience, they might be better advised to find a homeless person sheltering in one of London’s subways and give them the extortionate entrance fee.





Visiting London’s dead

14 10 2010

Visitors in the Kensal Green catacombs

Catacombs are underground structures, built of brick or stone in the form of a cellar, which house coffins in recesses in galleries. Altogether, ten cemeteries in nineteenth-century London were constructed with catacombs: the first at Kensal Green in 1832 with others following at Norwood, Highgate, Abney Park, Brompton and Nunhead in 1840; and Tower Hamlets, City of London, Saint Mary’s and New Southgate in the 1840s and 50s. They give an important indication of London attitudes not just toward underground space and death but also toward the changing cityscape as a whole.

The oldest precedent for the catacombs of London were those built in Rome, most famously by the early Christians in the second and third centuries. However, the most recent influential precedents were those in Paris, which were established in 1786 when, in response to the overcrowding of the city’s cemeteries, the bones of the dead in the Cemetery of the Innocents were moved to what were formerly underground quarries under the Left Bank. Bones were moved throughout the early part of the nineteenth century and it is estimated that around 3 million bodies are now interred in the catacombs. What was unusual about the catacombs was that they made no distinction of social status – the bones  are arranged solely according to the cemetery from which they came. This led many to comment on the egalitarian nature of the space: the skull of an aristocrat might lie next to that of a pauper or criminal.

Democracy in the Paris catacombs

Another unusual aspect of this space was that it was open to the public. In the nineteenth century, public visits were offered twice a month to persons obtaining authorisation from the police. Even today, where visits are possible all year round, the sheer number of bones and their abstract configurations still provoke strong reactions. Visitors see only a fraction of the network of catacombs and they are a magnet for urban explorers and other groups who attempt to penetrate their secret spaces with subversive fervour.

Yet, from the start, the Paris catacombs were associated with revolution. They were constructed at the time of the first revolution in 1789 and remained indelibly tied up with the social upheavals in Paris that occurred sporadically throughout the nineteenth century. Their concealed nature and unknown extent led to a mixing of legends and facts: according to the authorities these underground spaces were used by conspirators to both hide and organize themselves. Revolutionaries even drew on the Christian precedent of the Roman catacombs: they viewed themselves as a persecuted minority, hiding in the depths of the earth, until their hour of triumph or martyrdom came.

The main corridor and catafalque in the Kensal Green catacombs

In contrast with the labyrinthine layout of their Parisian counterparts, London’s catacombs were built on grids.The galleries were constructed in arched brick, the standard architectural form of Victorian London. At Kensal Green these arches are divided into arched insets, with deep cuts at their ends to let in light from above. Within the individual arches, various arrangements occur, the most frequent being a division into separate loculi, one for each coffin, inserted lengthwise to conserve space. Some of the arches are reserved for a single family, or some are empty – never having been used.

A key feature of the London catacombs was a hydraulic lift, or catafalque, by which the coffin would be mechanically lowered at the right moment from the chapel to the catacombs below. The mechanism would be concealed by the coffin drapery giving the illusion of a miraculous descent into the underworld. This was a piece of pure theatre and marked a combination of up-to-date technology with ancient myth. The catacomb gave the appearance of automation within an inorganic man-make environment of brick, lead and iron, with the lead-lined coffins giving the impression of an incorruptible body, even if this far from the reality – today, most of the coffins are badly decayed, infested with woodworm and mouldering in the damp. Yet, today, the Kensal Green catacombs are only three-quarter’s full and you can still buy space to inter yourself or your entire family.

The London catacombs, like those in Paris, were also visited by the public. Family members and curiosity seekers regularly descended into their spaces to revisit the dead – a practice not possible with traditional methods of burial. This subterranean visit transported visitors to another world, albeit one strictly controlled by modern technology. Today, most of London’s catacombs have been sealed off; only Kensal Green and Highgate offer regular opportunities to curiosity seekers who still want to visit London’s dead.








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