Strange territory: Liverpool’s dockland ruins

14 02 2014
IMG_6407

Looking south along Brunswick Place to the docks.

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

The 1901 Tobacco Warehouse seen from Regent Road.

The 1901 Tobacco Warehouse seen from Regent Road.

Regent Road facade of the Tobacco Warehouse.

Regent Road facade of the Tobacco Warehouse.

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

Brunswick Place

Brunswick Place

Effingham Street

Effingham Street

Ruined grabber, Huckisson Branch Dock No. 3.

Ruined grabber, Huskisson Branch Dock No. 3.

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

Hills of scrap metal, Huckisson Dock No. 3.

Hills of scrap metal, Huskisson Dock No. 3.

Former spare car-parts warehouse, Brunswick Place

Former spare car-parts warehouse, Brunswick Place

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

Walls of buildings along Brunswick Place.

Walls of buildings along Brunswick Place.

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





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





Cottonopolis

3 02 2013
Paul Dobraszczyk, Cottonopolis, 2013, charcoal on watercolour and chalk and ink, 50x70cm

1. Paul Dobraszczyk, Cottonopolis, 2013, charcoal on watercolour and chalk and ink, 50x70cm

In this painting (1), I wanted to represent my recently-adopted home city: Manchester. Like all cities Manchester is, at least in part, defined by its textures: its surfaces and colours. And, for this city, that surface is brick and that colour is red. Yes, brick is used all over the country, being, perhaps, the most common building material, but here in Manchester it is somehow uniquely synonymous with the city as a whole: sodden and almost infernal on the frequent rainy days; warm, rich and earthy when the sun graces the sky. And if you look closely, Manchester’s seemingly monotonous brick is really a rich spectrum of red hues and subtle shapes: from the uneven hand-made bricks of its earliest warehouses (2) to the variegated patterns of its later flamboyant Victorian buildings (3).

2. The Merchant's Warehouse, Castlefield, 1820s

2. The Merchant’s Warehouse, Castlefield, 1820s

3. Warehouse on Princess Street, c.1870s.

3. Warehouse on Princess Street, c.1870s.

Fashioned from this omnipresent brick are Manchester’s buildings, particularly its industrial buildings from the days when the city was also known as ‘Cottonopolis’. World-centre of cotton textile production and marketing in the Victorian period, Manchester’s innumerable mills, warehouses and factories were once the defining visual motifs of industrialisation. For early-Victorian visitors to Manchester, like the German architect Karl Frederich Schinkel, the city’s mills that were concentrated in Ancoats presented ‘a dreadful and dismal impression’ of ‘monstrous shapeless buildings’ that Schinkel visualised in a kind of hurried fever in his 1826 sketchbook (4). Schinkel gave us the perennial Manchester motif (passed all the way down to Lowry): the massive utilitarian rhomboid dotted with innumerable but highly regularised windows; and the chimneys of course – a ‘forest’ of impossibly high ‘needles’, according to Schinkel, belching smoke incessantly into the skies over the city.

4. Schinkel's sketch of mills in Ancoats, 1826.

4. Schinkel’s sketch of mills in Ancoats, 1826.

Today, most of these industrial buildings and their chimneys are gone; or, if they remain, the smokestacks no longer smoke and the buildings are either half-ruined, empty or gentrified – ‘post-industrial’ in the literal sense of the word, frozen in an in-between state, no longer industrial but not yet something else. Yet, even this seemingly bygone industry is never ‘post’ – as we all know it’s simply been relocated elsewhere, out of sight, out of mind, halfway across the globe. Once, Manchester’s mills seemed to be literally taking over the world in a vast unregulated conglomeration, a kind of architecture that was dictated entirely by newly-industrialised capitalist production, one that threatened to reproduce itself in unending exact replicas across the face of the earth.

5. Old Mill, Ancoats, 1798-1801.

5. Old Mill, Ancoats, 1798-1801.

Yet, even in the blankness of Manchester’s surviving mills (5), I find a sense of honesty about industrial production that seems to have been covered over with what’s replaced it (the glass sheen of global finance). It’s as if the regular, repetitive windows on the surviving mills in Ancoats speak very precisely and transparently about the nature of capitalism itself; each window casts a light on the machine and its workers; each are identical cogs in a wheel; each are bound by the same brutal scientific rationale.








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