Ruin gazing: dead cities and the imagination of disaster

14 06 2013
A New Zealander gazes at the ruins of Victorian London (in 'London: A Pilgrimage', 1874)

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

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

Pripyat from the roof of the former Polissya Hotel

Pripyat from the roof of the former Polissya Hotel

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

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

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

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

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

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

Varosha in Cyprus, abandoned in 1974

Varosha in Cyprus, abandoned in 1974

Google Maps street view of Fukushima town, Japan

Google Maps street view of Fukushima town, Japan

The Oil Rocks near Baku, Azerbaijan

The Oil Rocks near Baku, Azerbaijan

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

Empty quarter in the city of Ordos, China

Empty quarter in the city of Ordos, China

Meta-ornament: railway tracks

4 10 2012

Tracks on the southern approach to Manchester from Stockport

According to Walter Benjamin, railway tracks had a ‘peculiar and unmistakeable dream world’ attached to them, one that, for early railway travellers, was related to their unprecedented straightness in the landscape, their geometric alignment, or in their wider convergence into networks. Early railway prints in the 1830s and 1840s (1) emphasized the sharp linearity of railway tracks, cutting through the landscape with unprecedented geometric precision; while contemporaneous travellers were transfixed by the seemingly infinite recession of parallel tracks.

1. T. T Bury’s view of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway over Chat Moss, 1830


                                2. 1898 film from the front of a train in Barnstable

As recorded by Edward Stanley in 1830, when he witnessed a locomotive approaching from the far distance, train tracks seemed to compress space and time and usher in a new form of perception; Stanley thought the parallel tracks made the engine seem to increase in size ‘beyond all limit’ as it came nearer, eventually ‘absorbing everything within its vortex’. A similar fascination came at the end of nineteenth century, when railway tracks formed some of the earliest subjects for film: that is, in the ‘phantom ride’ (2), a term used to mean a film that looks from the front of a moving railway engine along the tracks themselves. Here, the novel view of the camera (one that was seldom experienced in ordinary life) combined its ‘subjective’ view with an inaccessible position that laid bare, through an unwavering emphasis on the endless perspective of the parallel tracks, the disembodied consciousness of the railway journey.

3. Railway maps of England in 1850 (left) and Britain in 1900 (right)

If railway tracks suggested a new kind of machine aesthetic, defined by extreme linearity and a corresponding overturning of ‘natural’ perception, then the conglomeration of tracks into networks seemed to produce revolutionary new patterns – or ‘meta-ornament’ in the landscape. In its early decades, the new railways spread at a seemingly exponential rate across Britain, from just under 100 miles of track in 1830 to over 6,000 by 1850 (3; left), rising to 19,000 by 1900 (3; right). Yet, their growth was far from ordered, the consequence of unregulated competition among private railway companies, and for some, the resulting network was perceived as alarmingly chaotic. Punch pictured its own ‘Railway map of England’ in 1845 (4), at the height of railway speculation in that decade, with the English landscape of the near future enmeshed ‘in irons’, with no ordering principle to the layout. Left unregulated, the railway companies would, Punch argued, eventually create so many tracks that ‘we shall soon be unable to go anywhere without crossing the line’.

4. Punch’s ‘Railway map of England’, 1845

For others, the speed at which the railway network spread across the country was nothing short of miraculous: The Builder arguing in 1852 that the railways were ‘preparing the world for a wondrous future’ when they would unite the whole of humanity ‘as one great family’. Later, when a new railway was constructed between Buxton and Bakewell in 1876, The Builder argued that the iron tracks enhanced the picturesque landscape through which they passed by adding a ‘new element of what may be called the mental or moral picturesque’. In contrast to John Ruskin, who bitterly opposed the building of the new line, The Builder perceived ‘a kind of mystery’ in the track’s ‘windings and burrowings’ through the soft landscape which, taken as a whole, were strongly suggestive of the ‘bond of civilization that connects us’. If Ruskin lamented the railway’s tendency to obliterate beloved landscapes and their traditional cultural forms in its gigantic network of lines, The Builder had the opposite reaction: railway tracks became picturesque precisely because of their connectivity, that is, the way in which they created, through ‘the triumph of science’, new geographic and social networks that had a high moral purpose.

Tallinn,Tarkovsky and Stalker

13 09 2011

1. The Flora chemical factory with the old city of Tallinn behind

Stalker, released in 1979, is a Russian science fiction film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. It’s an enigmatic film, almost devoid of special effects and characterised by long takes and even longer silences, punctuated by strange images and philosophical dialogue. It’s creation was a troubled affair – the original film was damaged beyond repair and it had to be reshot by Tarkovsky and his crew. In addition, the setting of the film – mainly abandoned but toxic industrial powerplants – was said to have contributed to the early deaths of many of the film’s creators, including Tarkovsky himself.

2. The entrance to the Zone in Stalker

3. The old Flora chemical factory, Tallinn

Much of the film was shot in and around Tallinn – today, the capital city of Estonia, but back then still part of the Soviet Union. The city is famous for its remarkably well-preserved medieval core; but Tarkovsky used another aspect of Tallinn for his film, that is, the effects of the Soviet policy of rapid urban industrialisation. Beyond the old city walls, the Soviet city remains – brutally modernist tower blocks infilled with countless brick and red-and-white striped chimneys. One of these – part of the Flora chemical factory – looms aggressively directly in front of the church towers of the old city (1 & 3). This was the site chosen by Tarkovsky for the heavily-fortified entrance to the Zone – a restricted area in Stalker where supernatural forces are at work (2). The factory has now been taken over by an artists’ collective, who use its decaying spaces for exhibitions, studio space and cultural events that draw on the iconography of Stalker in relation to contemporary life in Estonia.

4. The abandoned terraces near the harbour in Tallinn

5. The empty hall inside the terraces

I came into Tallinn on a high-speed ferry from Helsinki, landing at a makeshift harbour and walking into the old city via the chemical factory. Between these two spaces lies a vast, concrete wilderness – an enormous abandoned multi-level terrace that links the sea with the city centre, but which has long since been abandoned to the elements (4). Inside the concrete walls is an enormous empty hall without any obvious function (5). As enigmatic as any of the locations in Stalker, it is an inexplicable place: was it built long ago in preparation for a flood of visitors that never materialised? Or a relic of Soviet propaganda now left to rot? Whatever the explanation, it’s now a place where people wait to board the ferry back to Helsinki and viewing platforms have been recently constructed to mitigate this waiting time (6). In this space, the spirit of Stalker still resides – its meaning is incomplete, leading to reverie, which is only heightened by the activity of waiting.

6. Viewing platform on one of the terraces

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.

Art on the underground

28 10 2010

Greeting at Ludgate Circus

Last autumn in London, city slickers passing Ludgate Circus would have been forgiven for not responding to this salutation on the pavement. Barely noticeable and oddly phrased, this was a piece of graffiti that looked more like an official instruction from an unknown but benign authority. London is overcrowded with subterranean spaces, but on this particular day, I could not help but feel that pedestrians were being directed to the disused Kingsway tram tunnel, temporarily reopened at that time for tours of a work of installation art titled Chord. Conceived by the British artist Conrad Shawcross, Chord consisted of two giant, mechanical machines that wove a thick spiral of rope from innumerable spools of coloured string. Following the old tram tracks underground, these two machines moved very slowly away from each other in the Kingsway tunnel, connected by their woven rope until it was cut and the process begun again.

Chord, Kingsway tram tunnel, October 2009

Chord is one of a number of recent art projects that make use of disused underground spaces – in both London and other British cities. Yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, the underground spaces themselves have tended to be the bigger draw than the art which they house. The Kingsway tram tunnel is one of many of London’s ‘lost’ subterranean spaces. It opened in 1902 and was part of the redevelopment of Holborn that cleared away slum housing, replacing it with a broad, tree-lined avenue. Underground, the tram tunnel provided a north-south route that connected London’s tram lines and eased traffic congestion. Closed in 1952, its main use since has been for storage and for film and television sets.

Abandoned cars in the Kingsway tram tunnel

In fact, it is difficult to separate reality from fiction in the Kingsway tunnel. Is the 1970s Ford Cortina of its time or the remnant of a film set? Why are there old Tube maps on the walls? Much of what is there, including the boards full of fake-posters seen below, are the detritus of a more recent venture when this space was used  as a fictional Underground station ‘Union Street’ in the 2008 film The Escapist. But how can we explain the combination of Victorian and post-War print here? Are some of these real, others part of the film? Or are they part of several different films, each new one pasting over its forebear? Or are they even, perhaps, a realistic evocation of a tube station billboard when an old poster is removed, exposing the multiple layers of the past beneath?

Posters in the Kingsway tram tunnel

This mixing up of the real and fictional makes this a natural space for art installations: after all, they are only continuing an already established tradition. Of course, many other London locations have been used in cinema, but those underground maintain the traces of that interaction in a much more tangible, strangely uncanny, way.

Into the belly of the beast

4 10 2010

Peepshow of a Victorian sewer, Kew Bridge Steam Museum

Sewers remain a powerful site for mixed ideas about the city. They are both signifiers of a truly modern city, efficiently disposing of its wastes, but also places of imaginative horror: the literal as well as metaphorical bowels of the city; everyday yet alien spaces. Their imaginative power is enhanced by their very invisibility. In London, most people travel underground every day on the hundreds of miles of tube; London’s sewers cover thousands of miles and are all but unknown to the city’s populace because their acceptability depends on their invisibility. But even if we don’t see them, sewers are perhaps the only type of underground space that connects everyone to each other: in the ceaseless flows in the sewers we can’t escape the fact that excrement has no social distinction.

Perhaps because they are invisible, sewers invite illicit or secret journeys motivated by personal curiosity. In relation to London’s sewers, the most famous early modern explorer was Ben Johnson, whose mock-epic poem describing a tour of the Fleet river in 1610 describes all the strange horrors of what was even then a pre-modern sewer. In the Victorian period, perhaps the most obsessive engagement with London’s sewers occurred in the 1860s, with the journalist John Hollingshead’s book Underground London, published in 1862. These series of essays derive from the author’s self-confessed ‘appetite for the wonderful in connection with sewers’. Hollingshead’s collection of essays is remarkable for the sheer variety of viewpoints represented. Indeed, he sums up these multiple conceptions of sewers in his introductory chapter:

‘There are more ways than one of looking at sewers, especially old London sewers. There is a highly romantic point of view from which they are regarded as accessible, pleasant, and convivial hiding-places for criminals flying from justice, but black and dangerous labyrinths for the innocent stranger … [and] there is the scientific or half-scientific way, which is not always wanting in the imaginative element.’

Capturing all of these views in a wonderful moment during one of the sewer journeys described in his book, Hollingshead is told by his guide that he is now walking beneath Buckingham Palace, where he promptly sings the national anthem, whilst up to his knees in what was, presumably, royal excrement.

Hollingshead’s intrepid journeys are mirrored today in the practice of draining, an increasingly popular branch of urban exploration. For urban explorers, illicit sites – industrial ruins, abandoned buildings and underground spaces – are the hidden nexus of the city, places where the rules of progress and order are directly challenged. Visiting sewers presents an opportunity to discover a secret world under the city, one that might challenge existing certainties and provide liberating alternatives. Usually under the cover of night, sewer explorers descend into these spaces and explore them at will. This usually involves a degree of danger, which is part of the attraction: mobile phone networks cease to operate; the space is pitch black and slippery underfoot; and you quickly become highly disorientated.

Sewer under Brockwell Park, Brixton

My single exploration of this kind happened in a storm drain beneath Brockwell Park in Brixton earlier this year. With a more experienced guide, I descended an iron ladder into a large sewer. Using headlamps, we walked several hundred yards and then explored a unknown smaller side drain, down which we walked, or rather stooped, until we forced open a manhole with the help of a passer-by on the street above.

Entering the unknown sewer

What was striking about the experience was how extreme it was: my other senses were so engaged that actually thinking about things and talking was very difficult and very demanding. In this, it was quite different again from other types of urban space from which we are physically shut out from. Indeed, the whole spatial experience was very far removed from anything above ground: with these apparently infinitely receding spaces, you can never tell where you are. Because the sewers are designed in a grid-like network, they are easily comprehensible on a map of the city, but not so underground. In fact, in these spaces, the very things that are supposed to contribute to being able to understand things are working against you, because you’re not supposed to be there. It’s something that’s inherent in the London sewers, in their design – they’re not designed for people to be there, because originally they were supposed to be self-cleansing and no walkways or other helpful features were incorporated into their design.

The Third Man

In fact, this experience and the feelings associated with it relate more closely with imaginative uses of sewers in film and literature. One of the first, and most famous, Carol Reed’s 1949 film 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. In a different vein, the smell of London’s sewers summons up childhood memories for the female protagonist of Margaret Drabble’s 1980 novel The Middle Ground: stooping to take a sniff at a grating to one of Bazalgette’s sewers, she cannot resist this ‘powerful odour of London’ that invites her to ‘escape the prison of the present into the past, where dark spirits swam in the fast-moving flood’.


Things that bubble up from the unconscious might be altogether more unpleasant and, in the world of film, sewers have provided popular locations for nightmarish monsters:  from giant ants in the storm drains of Los Angeles in the cold-war thriller Them! (1954); mutant alligators in the sewers of New York in Alligator (1980); to more recent incarnations such as human-like cockroaches in Guillermo Del Toro’s 1997 film Mimic. Throughout the post-War period the imaginative connotations of London’s sewers have tended to be displaced by those of other cities, in particular New York; yet recently they have resurfaced in both literature and film. In the final moments of Peter Carey’s 1997 novel Jack Maggs the eponymous hero witnesses the construction of the city’s Victorian sewers. Here, the ‘vertiginous unease’ induced by the sight of a deep trench being dug in the street mirrored the general anxiety Jack Magg’s felt about his own life and summoned up an apocalyptic vision of his own demise. Likewise Clare Clark’s 2005 novel The Great Stink sets most of its narrative in the London sewers, exploiting their dark associations to mirror the repressed yearnings of her central character, which are played out in the hidden spaces of the sewers before dramatically entering the life of the world above. More visceral still is the brutally feral monster inhabiting a self-made netherworld in Christopher Smith’s 2004 film Creep, who returns from the sewers through the tunnels of the Underground to enact vicious killings at night. Although crass and exploitative, the horrors in Creep seem to prefigure the much more tangible unease now associated with the city’s substructure since 7 July 2005. Engineers of the past and present might build sewers as rational spaces that bring wastes to order, but it seems they will always be open to other subversive interpretations and uses; clearly we are still fearful of what terrors might return to confront us from the darkness of the world below.


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