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





Ghosts in the city: the ruined churches of Famagusta

18 04 2013
Remains of the Armenian church, Famagusta

Remains of the Armenian church, Famagusta

Famagusta (Gazimagusa) is a medieval walled city in north Cyprus that has changed hands many times in its long history: once a Crusader stronghold; then a Venetian fortified city, prized by Leonardo da Vinci; then, after an epic siege in 1571, an Ottoman outpost; then, from 1918 to 1960, a British colony; today, the southernmost city of Turkish-controlled north Cyprus, who seized control in 1974. From its immense walls – as impressive as any built by the Venetians – one sees the signs of Turkish militarisation everywhere: immense battleships in the industrial port; barracks sealed off by barbed wire; and, in the distance, the ghost city of Varosha, the modern formerly-Greek suburb that’s now a sealed-off forbidden zone.

It has been said that Famagusta once had 365 churches, each one paid for by a man or woman intent on buying their place in heaven. That’s one church for every day of the year – an extraordinary number perhaps explained by the large number of sects that used to coexist in the city: Latin and Greek, Maronite, Armenian, Coptic, Georgian, Carmelite, Nestorian, Jacobite, Abyssinian and Jewish. From the meagre 17 churches that still remain today, it’s hard to imagine the overwhelming spectacle of such a large number of churches crammed together in such a small area; yet, in some way, the remainders – most in ruins – still testify to the ghostly presences of all those other churches that have been erased from the cityscape.

1. West front of St Nicholas Cathedral/Lala Mustafa Pasa Mosque

1. West front of St Nicholas Cathedral/Lala Mustafa Pasa Mosque

St Nicholas Cathedral (1, now the Lala Mustafa Pasa Mosque) is still the architectural focus of the city, its imposing western facade, built in the 14th century likened to Reims Cathedral in France. Now, the former cathedral is a mosque, its incongruous minaret added by the Ottomans, the interior whitewashed, the altar supplanted by the minbar and mihrab, and the floor covered in soft carpets. Hearing the Azan emanating from this former church is both disorientating and strangely moving, jolting you into a place between the two hard-faced religions that still seem to face each other off in today’s divided Cyprus.

2. Interior of the Nestorian church through a crack in the door

2. Interior of the Nestorian church through a crack in the door

3. Faded frescoes, church of St George of the Greeks

3. Faded frescoes, church of St George of the Greeks

4. Weathered limestone, church of St George of the Greeks

4. Weathered limestone, church of St George of the Greeks

The other 16 churches are scattered inside the city walls, most of them in various stages of ruin; those that are not, firmly locked to curious visitors. Peering through a crack in the door of the 14th-century Nestorian Church (the most intact of the smaller churches), one sees an interior untouched by time, its pews, lectern and screen seemingly awaiting the next group of worshippers that may never come (2). In other more ruinous churches one can wander at will, the insides of these buildings now turned outwards: faded frescoes exposing the saints to the elements (3); homilies only offered by the pigeons who inhabit the vaults; the soft brown limestone eaten away into fantastical miniature worlds of coral-like formations (4).

5. Church of Ayios Nicholas

5. Church of Ayios Nicolas

6. Dome of the church of Ayios Nicolas

6. Dome of the church of Ayios Nicolas

At the southern end of the city are the two perfectly formed churches of Ayios Nicolas and Ayia Zoni: small, rustic buildings with their pleasing geometries of square, octagon and circle (5 & 6). Sitting here sketching on a windy afternoon, I was drawn, like many ruin gazers, into a reflective mode of perception. Unlike modern ruins, which sting us with their raw violence, old ruins comfort because they inhabit a different temporal realm from us. Long ago – a time which I can only imagine and not experience – these were churches; yet, they still remain as ghost churches, bearing witness in their materiality to distant traumas that remain in soft material traces. It’s as if they say to us: if you’re lucky, you might age as beautifully as we do. So, perhaps my own traumas, destructive as they are, will not end in my erasure but rather in my slow, but nevertheless inevitable, transfiguration into a silent witness.





Into the Forbidden Zone: Varosha, ghost city of Cyprus

30 03 2013
Varosha from Palm Beach

Varosha from Palm Beach

In 1974, the glamorous resort town of Varosha in Cyprus was abandoned by its 35,000 mainly Greek Cypriot residents after the Turkish army invaded the northern part of the island. Now fenced off and forlorn, Varosha has never been resettled, being set aside by the Turkish authorities as a possible bargaining chip should negotiations even begin with the south. Today, nearly 40 years after being abandoned, Varosha remains one of the largest modern ruins in existence, on a par with Pripyat in the contaminated zone around Chernobyl in Ukraine.

2. Fence around Varosha

1. Fence around Varosha

As part of the militarised zone between northern and southern Cyprus, Varosha is effectively off limits to all but official visitors: a ‘Forbidden Zone’ as the countless signs along the fence proclaim (1). The fence itself is a formidable barrier to any would-be explorers: a mixture of barbed wire, corrugated iron, Prickly Pear cacti, oil drums and signs warning off intruders. Yet, away from the obvious observation towers on the town’s seafront, where lone guards sit or stand in abject boredom or blow whistles at anyone trying to take photographs, there’s surprisingly little security: gaps have opened in the fence and it’s easy to slip in and out unnoticed.

2. View over Varosha from a former apartment building

2. View over Varosha from a former apartment building

3. Vegetation in Irakleus Street, Varosha

3. Vegetation in Irakleus Street, Varosha

4. Former workshop in Ermou Street, Varosha

4. Former workshop in Ermou Street, Varosha

5. Ermou Street, Varosha

5. Ermou Street, Varosha

So, my two visits inside the abandoned town were not fraught with danger; neither did they involve anything more physical than slipping through a large hole in the fence. Yet, once inside everything is different. You are at once an illegal trespasser in danger of arrest or even of being shot; an explorer of unimaginable ruins stretching as far as the eye can see (2); and the ‘Last Man’ (or woman) of Mary Shelley’s invention (and countless fictional end-of-the-world stories since). Almost 40 years without human intervention have resulted in the streets becoming overgrown with lush vegetation (3); former shops and bars disintegrating in the hot sunshine (4); signs becoming simply vacant spaces in the sky (5); and former apartments turning into the homes of pigeons and crows (6). Everyday spaces and objects left by fleeing residents now take on an uncanny or surreal quality: omnipresent peeling paint creates a new kind of interior aesthetic (7); broken chairs and rusted fridges and stoves become reminders of the accelerated redundancy of modern objects (8); a stripped motorcycle metamorphoses into a human skeleton (9); and a strange animal-like sculpture creates a mysterious presence in an empty room (10) (is it a post-abadonment intervention or just an unsalvageable leftover?)

6. Line of pigeon droppings in a former house in Varosha

6. Line of pigeon droppings in a former house in Varosha

7. Peeling paint in a former house in Varosha

7. Peeling paint in a former house in Varosha

8. Rusting 1970s fridge on a rooftop terrace in Varosha

8. Rusting 1970s fridge on a rooftop terrace in Varosha

9. Rusting bicycle

9. Dismembered motorcycle

10. Mysterious object in a room in Varosha

10. Mysterious object in a room in Varosha

Ruins on this city-like kind of scale always invite an immersive form of meditation. Sit still for a while and you hear the sounds of nature reclaiming the human environment: the cooing of pigeons, the cawing of crows, the wind rustling old curtains and rattling decrepit doors and windows (11). This, together with the obvious abolishment of what was once private property, is the emancipatory power of urban ruins: they calm, liberate and offer visions of different kinds of futures freed from the constraints of the normative present. However, ruins on this kind of scale are also always deeply unsettling, especially if we think of the violence that made them what they are. Embedded somewhere in the present peaceful spaces are traces of the tens of thousands of stories of violent rupture and loss that accompanied the abandonment of Varosha. All these silent spaces were once imbued with human qualities, whether those of the home, workplace or places of play. It is these stories that are waiting to be reconnnected with the spaces as they are now.

11. View over Varosha (video)

More of my photographs of Varosha can be found here.





Study seminar on ruins, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester

17 10 2012


Apocalypse Now: Thinking about Ruins and Radiation

Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester

Wednesday 28 November 2012, 2-5pm, free

A study session organised by me (Dr Paul Dobraszczyk) exploring contemporary perceptions of ruin that also engage with the current exhibition of works by Jane & Louise Wilson at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester.

To book a free place tel: 0161 275 7450 or call in at the reception desk at the Whitworth Art Gallery

Speakers and topics will include:

Jane & Louise Wilson (artists)

Chernobyl, Pripyat and the death of the city Dr Paul Dobraszczyk (University of Manchester)

Why ruins? Why now? Professor Tim Edensor (Manchester Metropolitan University)

Getting a grip on time slip: decay fetishism in an age of austerity Dr Bradley Garrett (University of Oxford)

On the psychoanalysis of ruins Dr Dylan Trigg (Husserl Archives, École Normale Supérieure)

Ruins and radiation Dr Jeff Hughes (University of Manchester)

Pripyat from the terrace of the former Pollissa hotel

Since 9/11, ruins have come to occupy a central place in visual culture: as images of the aftermath of acts of terrorism or the resulting war on terror; the ruin of the housing market after the recent financial crisis; or a post-apocalyptic obsession in cinema. This session will examine contemporary notions of ruin and ruination, engaging directly with an exhibition of photographs and films of the ruined Chernobyl site by Jane and Louise Wilson, and calling on a diverse range of ruin obsessives from the fields of philosophy, science, cultural geography, art, and architectural history. Signifiers of both civilisation and barbarism, creativity and destruction, ruins call into question the solid, the enduring and the permanent, representing as they do either the end of the old or the beginning of something new. We seek to learn from this challenge presented by ruins, whether they be created by the constructive but often brutal processes of modernisation, or their opposites – the forces of destruction, both natural and unnatural, real or imagined.

Abandoned funfair in Pripyat





The afterlife of objects: the Coalbrookdale gates

9 02 2012

1. The Coalbrookdale gates at the International Exhibition in 1862

When the Coalbrookdale Company exhibited a lavish set of ornamental cast-iron gates at the International Exhibition in London in 1862, they were building on a well-established reputation for ‘artistic’ castings. Celebrated by the Illustrated London News as ‘pure and rich in character’ (1), these gates were probably created as a gift for Queen Victoria to guard her rural residence at Sandringham; evidenced in their combining of highly naturalistic motifs – flowers and leaves – and the Prince of Wales’s feathers braided in a wreath of laurels over the centre of the gates. The eminent Victorian sculptor, John Bell, designed the figures standing atop the pillars as well as some of the other Coalbrookdale exhibits shown behind the gates – a statue of Oliver Cromwell and an ornamental umbrella stand.

In the event, it seems that the Queen snubbed the offer of the gates for her Sandringham estate – the story being that, on seeing the gates at the Exhibition, she took offence at the nearby statue of Cromwell and, by association, decided that all the Coalbrookdale Company’s products might be tainted with republican sympathies. After the Exhibition, the gates and the Cromwell statue went back to Coalbrookdale and languished there in a warehouse for many decades.

2. Warrington's heraldic motifs incorporated into the gates

3. The gates with Macfarlane's new lamps, installed in 1895

Yet, both objects had an afterlife. In 1893, Frederick Monks, a wealthy iron founder from Warrington, discovered the gates at Coalbrookdale and offered them as a gift to his home town. They were re-erected at the entrance to Warrington’s town hall, the royal regalia replaced with the heraldic motifs of the town (2). At the same time, the Glasgow iron founder, Walter Macfarlane, erected many ornamental lamps in the town, including two flanking the gates, as well as a new railing extending around the park surrounding the town hall (3). With a great deal of civic ceremony, the gates were opened on 28 June 1895 – the date of Warrington’s most important annual festival, Walking Day, when garlanded children paraded around the town in a visual spectacle of civic boosterism (4). The gates quickly became a source of local pride, the product of an act of personal philanthropy that provided an aesthetic and decorative reference point in a disheartening urban landscape. They also proved to be a spur for similar acts of public giving and Monks himself bought the Cromwell statue for Warrington in 1899, with another local bigwig, Sir Peter Walker, donating a lavish ornamental cast-iron fountain, made by Macfarlane and installed in the park beyond the gates (5).

4. The opening of the gates on Walking Day, 28 June 1895

5. Ornamental cast-iron fountain installed in the park behind the gates in 1899

Yet, the story doesn’t end there. For, in March 1942, all these cast-iron objects were at the centre of a fierce debate when the War Government required that many towns and cities remove their cast-iron fittings to be reconstituted as munitions. It seems that the citizens of Warrington willingly gave up the ornamental fountain to be melted down but resisted attempts to do the same to its railings and gates. Residents objected to the brutal assault on their private property and the mess that was often left behind. While many of the town’s gates were being made into guns, the Coalbrookdale examples survived, perhaps because they now represented the town as a whole, rather than any one individual; and they continue to do so today, providing a vision of luxurious abundance in an otherwise rather nondescript post-industrial townscape (6).

6. The Coalbrookdale gates today





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





Brickopolis: under Manchester

30 01 2011

Manchester walks offer an occasional tour titled ‘Underground Manchester’. From my past experiences in London, these tours promise much in their titles but usually deliver very little as regard actual subterranean space, so beset are official tours with stringent safety regulations. At its start, this Manchester tour seemed to fit the pattern: a long ramble through the city streets, with the guide talking about Manchester’s underground, now sealed off and inaccessible. However, half way through the tour, things took a dramatic turn as the party of 35 mainly elderly visitors descended an 80-ft staircase beneath the Great Northern entertainment complex, an ultra-modern, ultra-bland building housed inside what was previously the gargantuan Great Northern warehouse – a Victorian building that stored industrial quantities of cotton in the Victorian period.

The entrance chamber in the former canal

At the bottom of the stairs, we entered the former Manchester and Salford Junction Canal, built in 1829 underneath the city centre from the Rochdale Canal to the River Irwell to transport goods between the Great Northern Railway Warehouse on Deansgate to Grape Street, near to what is now Granada Studios. The 17-ft high tunnel of the former canal still visibly sweats and drips, fogging my camera lens immediately and making photography difficult. Sparsely lit, this space was where thousands of Mancunians would have entered during the Blitz to escape the German bombs that fell on the city from 1940-41. Inscribed on the wall are the remains of the official instructions to these reluctant troglodytes – rules as to how to behave in this most unusual of environments.

Faded instructions to wartime shelterers

In fact, this space is but a portal into an extraordinary subterranean world, completely unlit, slippery underfoot, and filled with rubble. That the group was allowed to enter these spaces was remarkable enough, and they felt every bit as wild and alien as other underground spaces shut off from public view. With almost hostile indifference to my top-of-the-range camera, the cavernous spaces appeared and reappeared in fantastical moments of sublime architecture, such as a great brick arch spanning one of the caverns with an almost impudent sense of the outlandish.

The brick cavern

What these spaces are testament to is the fundamentally subterranean quality of the modern industrial city. For Manchester was quite literally hollowed out and refashioned by the quintessential Victorian material – brick – manufactured in such quantities as to remake the very earth itself into a space that Piranesi could but dream of. The vastness and inhuman quality of these brick spaces does not fit with their conversion to shelters for anxious wartime residents (in contrast to the rather more homely chalk tunnels of the Chislehurst caves in London, also used to shelter thousands during the Blitz). In fact, one anonymous artist – perhaps one of the unfortunate wartime shelterers – has scrawled an image of the devil on one of the walls, as if representing the being most well-suited to live in this nightmarish world. If the Victorians modernised cities like Manchester by remaking its subterranean spaces, they also created, through those very spaces, a world that seemed reminiscent of something far more ancient.

The devil's own realm





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.








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