Ruins in reverse: Ciudad Valdeluz, Spain

3 12 2014

Unfinished college building, Valdeluz

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

Abandoned platform, Guadalajara-Yebes railway station

Abandoned platform, Guadalajara-Yebes railway station

Faded advertising hoardings, Valdeluz

Faded advertising hoardings, Valdeluz

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

Pedestrian walkway, Valdeluz

Pedestrian walkway, Valdeluz

Unfinished road, Valdeluz

Unfinished road, Valdeluz

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

Abandoned junction boxes, Valdeluz

Abandoned junction boxes, Valdeluz

Central plaza, Valdeluz

Central plaza, Valdeluz

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

Business park, Valdeluz

Business park, Valdeluz

Business park, Valdeluz

Business park, Valdeluz

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

Waiting for the train, Guadalajara-Yebes station.

Waiting for the train, Guadalajara-Yebes station.





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





Mass ornament: Parisian love padlocks

3 08 2012

Love padlocks on the Pont de l’Archevêché in Paris

On the extraordinary cast-iron extravaganza that is the Pont Alexander III in Paris are a group of padlocks attached to the legs of an ornamental crab. At the time I saw them, I thought they were isolated tokens of eternal love offered by daring tourists – small padlocks inscribed with hearts and the names of the enamoured couples. Only the next day, approaching the Pont de l’Archevêché, just south of Notre Dame, did I realise the full significance of these love padlocks. From a distance, the bridge sparkled and gleamed in the bright sunlight; only closer did I see that its simple lattice railing was covered in a multitude of padlocks, completely obscuring the structure behind. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of multi-coloured padlocks hung down in great bouquets of metal, many with coloured ribbons attached, overlooking that great emblem of Parisian romance, the cathedral of Notre Dame. Only a scattering of locks adorned the other side of the bridge, facing an altogether lesser symbolically-charged urban landscape.

Love padlocks on the Pont Alexander III in Paris

Only later that day did I discover that these Parisian love padlocks are part of a world-wide phenomenon, with the first appearing in cities in the early 2000s and now adorning a diverse range of urban structures, including Tower Bridge in London, Liverpool’s Albert Dock, the Hohenzollem Bridge in Cologne, the Ponte Milvio in Rome, the Butcher Bride in Ljubljana, and the ‘Mother-in-law’ bridge in Odessa. In all cases, lovers fix their locks to a fence, gate, bridge or similar public monument and, in an action symbolising their everlasting love, throw away the key. Despite periodic clampdowns by municipal authorities – many of Paris’s padlocks were removed in 2010 – there seems to be an unstoppable momentum behind these tokens of eternal passion.

Individual padlocks on the Pont de l’Archevêché

The unity of the mass on the Pont de l’Archevêché

It’s difficult to explain the sheer extent of this phenomenon; according to one source, the affixing of love padlocks in Rome can be attributed to the practice first being depicted in the novel I Want You (2006) by the Italian author Frederico Moccia; while those in Serbia can even be traced back before the Second World War. Whatever the explanation, the proliferation of these love padlocks clearly points to a growing need to express, in a concrete, public and collective form, the deepest desires of couples in their individual unions. I would argue that love padlocks create a form of mass urban ornament, at once highly subjective but also cooperative, forming an ornamental whole out of a multitude of basic components. So, on the Pont de l’Archevêché, the seeming chaos of the individual padlocks resolve themselves into a pattern when viewed from a distance;  some have even been spray-painted in different colours – presumably by a third party – to create a further sense of aesthetic unity.

Spray-painted padlocks on the Pont de l’Archevêché

The notion of these love padlocks as a mass ornament can be related to the work of the German theorist Siegfried Kracauer. Writing about Berlin in the 1920s, Kracauer argued that urban ornament can be seen as evidence of a counter-current to the rationalising and ordering tendencies of the modern metropolis, dominated by planners and other controlling forces. For Kracauer, ornament provides access to a different kind of city, one that gives free reign to the subjective world of the individual – a ‘field where civilisation’s process of repression has met resistance’. In this sense, personalised ornamental expressions in everyday life – making doodles, fashioning hairstyles, even cooking – are important signs of the individual’s contribution to the whole; they represent the ‘will to art’, implying the possibility of new relationships to space and city. I would argue that love padlocks are a significant contemporary instance of this ‘will to art’. They inscribe on the modern city – with its abstract circulations, regulated movements and absence of historical memory – a subjective piece of history, representing both a concrete  moment, a subjective memory and a utopian form of time, that is, in the everlasting and the eternal love that has been promised.





The language of the walls: Victorian posters

13 07 2012

1. Orlando Parry, ‘A London street scene’, 1834, watercolour

In 1855, James Dawson Burn’s book The Language of the Walls argued that reading posters could be revelatory: the mass of announcements on London’s walls display the roots of a new kind of language, that which underpinned the developing commodity culture of Victorian Britain. In the same way, Orlando Parry, the painter of A London Street Scene (1), shows posters as a new visual extravaganza to be admired. Here, St Paul’s Cathedral is literally shut out by this modern spectacle, the cornucopia of typefaces offering their own fascinating insight into the life of the city. Although the cliched cast of London social characters that fill the lower half of the painting ignore the bill-sticker pasting up his latest offering, Parry has clearly paid microscopic attention to the details of these curious objects – their typefaces accurately reflecting what would have been available to printers in the mid-1830s.

2. ‘The billstickers’ exhibition’, Punch, 29 May 1847, p. 226

Throughout the Victorian period, Punch featured many cartoons showing wall posters in London. Yet, unlike Parry, it mocked the supposed value of the spectacle they generated. In 1847, Punch drew attention to the daily ‘Bill-stickers’ exhibitions’ that could be seen almost anywhere in the city (2). With St Paul’s again obliterated by a makeshift wall of gigantic posters, Punch shows a respectable group of visitors come to see this impromptu exhibition. Here, everything is exaggerated, dictated by competition, and leading to an illegible mass of words and images. Such a spectacle reflected the quackery and puffery of advertisers, one that needed to be better regulated and controlled.

3. ‘The result of careless bill-posting’, Punch, 5 November 1898, p. 115

Yet, the accretions of posters on walls might also lead to the formation of new unintentional meanings. So ‘the result of careless bill-posting’ (3) in 1898 was an accidental joke – the bemused onlookers wondering if they really should try this strange specimen of exotic animal in their baths. Although Punch is probably only interested in the comic potential of such accidental juxtapositions, this image also hints at other concerns. As the cartoon graphically demonstrates, reading posters was not like reading books or newspapers – one had to be able to negotiate these random juxtapositions, to be able to read in a different way. This was a peculiarly modern form of perception, being able to decipher the new visual language of the commodity, one that was dictated by free competition. The result  – a kind of visual pandemonium – might confuse or delight in equal measure; despite their commercial basis, its very freedom that governs the arrangement of these posters might lead to new and unexpected meanings if we had the right perceptive tools to decipher them.

4. ‘Picturesque London – or, sky-signs of the times’, Punch, 6 September 1890, p. 119

In 1890, Punch pictured what it saw as the logical development of the city poster – a skyward development of advertising where the ‘swinging signs of ogre Trade’ invade ‘the smoke-veiled vaults of heaven’ (4). Here, gigantic letters float freely or on balloons, obscuring St Paul’s or even the sun, while outsized binoculars, gloves, hats, umbrellas and bottles soar to ‘monstrous heights’ above the city. With savage mockery, Punch uses this vision of future ‘sky-horrors’ to castigate the laissez-faire attitude towards posters and hoardings – a warning of what may result if advertisers are left unchecked. Yet, this is also a strangely prescient image – a kind of Heath-Robinson version of the skyward spectacle of Blade Runner (1982) or an anticipation of the sign-as-architecture that came to define the cityscape of Las Vegas. And was it this image that inspired Frank Gehry to commission Claes Oldenburg  and Coosje van Bruggen to build part of the Chiat/Day Building (1985-1991) as an enormous pair of binoculars – an iconic herald of the dissolution of modernism into a melting-pot of styles?





Representing the nation: the Thames Embankment lamps

22 05 2012

1. Dolphin lamps on the Albert Embankment, London

The dolphin lamps lining the Thames embankments (1) in London have arguably become just as iconic symbols of the city as its more high-profile monuments, such as Big Ben, St Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey. But how do commonplace objects like lamps gain such symbolic resonance?

Built in stages between 1862 and 1874 by the Metropolitan Board of Works, the Thames Embankment transformed London’s riverscape by reclaiming marshy land next to the river and constructing wide carriage- and foot-ways and a high granite retaining wall, stretching over three miles in total. After they had considered the question of lighting the embankment, the Board of Works took the unusual step of displaying proposed designs for lamp standards on the Victoria Embankment in March 1870, in order to gauge public opinion before selecting a final model; and the lamps were widely illustrated in the building and metropolitan press (2 & 3).

2. The Coalbrookdale lamps as seen in the Illustrated London News, 1870.

Central to the responses to the lamps was how they would be affected by mass repetition in cast iron; after all, many hundreds would be required to fill the three miles of the new riverfront. The Illustrated London News clearly favoured the lamp manufactured by the Coalbrookdale Company: an ornamental fantasia consisting of an altar-like support, surmounted by cornucopias, overflowing with ‘their gifts of plenty’, and the central lamp pillar entwined with the figures of two boys, exchanging a burning torch (2). This newspaper, and others, was impressed by this lavish ornamentation, the cornucopias symbolising the ‘rewards of British commercial industry, as displayed on the banks of the Thames’; the trident and caduceus in the adjacent panels, ‘the mercantile spirit and maritime enterprise of the nation’; the two boys symbolising the ‘energy of the nation’, one that was clearly derived from its industrial prowess.

3. Vuillamy’s dolphin lamp (left) and Bazalgette’s tripod (right) in the Illustrated London News, 1870.

In the event, the Coalbrookdale lamp was rejected in favour of the other two designs: a dolphin lamp designed by George Vulliamy, architect to the Board of Works; and a rather more restrained design by the engineer Joseph Bazalgette, comprising a base of bent lion’s legs and paws (3). As commentators argued, the aesthetic impact of both of these designs would benefit from repetition, as opposed to the Coalbrookdale example; in large numbers, Vulliamy’s dolphin lamps would create an ‘admirable effect’ from a distance (1); while Bazalgette’s tripod, because it was ‘well drawn, modelled and finished’,  ‘will certainly bear repetition better than either of the others’ (4). In addition, both of these designs were modelled on established precedents: Vulliamy’s entwined pairs of dolphins were adapted from the Fontana del Nettuno (1822-23) in the Piazza del Popolo in Rome; while Bazalgette’s came from the more general model of the classical tripod, usually employed in antique vases and candelabras.

4. Bazalgette’s lamps on the Chelsea Embankment.

When the Victoria Embankment was opened in 1868 it was celebrated in the press as directly comparable – even superior – to the engineering feats of ancient Rome and also as superior to similar developments in contemporary Paris, itself being remodelled and promoted as a new kind of imperial city. Thus, the new lamps on the embankments, modelled on Roman precedents but with their visual impact enhanced by insistent repetition, were perceived as enhancing London’s status as the preeminent imperial city ‘to which no other European capital presents a rival’.

5. One of Vulliamy’s Sphinx benches, installed on the Victoria Embankment in 1874.

The symbolic potency of Vulliamy’s lamps was significantly enhanced by the addition of further cast-iron street furniture in the late 1870s, to mark the opening of Cleopatra’s Needle, an Egyptian obelisk installed on the Victoria Embankment in 1878 after its tortuous four-year voyage from Egypt. In 1874, anticipating the arrival of the obelisk, Vulliamy designed benches that featured sphinx and camel-shaped armrests (5 & 6). This collection of street furniture extended the historicist concept of the obelisk, enhancing both its spatial reach and its overtly patriotic and imperial associations; the obelisk and its associated benches in effect reappropriated Napoleon’s imperial ambitions to Britain, with London’s new monument also vying for visual supremacy with an existing obelisk in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Moreover, the older dolphin lamps also gained an enhanced status through the new Egyptian ornaments; their own imperial associations with Rome were now conjoined with those of Egypt and the implied succession of Britain over France as the pre-eminent imperial nation.

6. Camel bench on the Victoria Embankment, installed in 1874.

Not all critics were impressed by this overinflation of significance of the lamps: Percy Fitzgerald, writing in the Magazine of Art in 1880, argued that the lamps on the embankment were ‘too trifling in character to need such massive bases’ and, in a telling comparison, condemned Vulliamy’s ‘attenuated’ lamp posts in contrast to those found in Paris, which he regarded as ‘elegant’ objects. In Fitzgerald’s view, the magnification of the significance of the embankment lamps through their constructional forms did not match up with their aesthetic or symbolic ambition: in short, they were not worthy representations of the preeminent world city. The fact that they have since become iconic symbols of London suggests that this critic was misplaced in his opinions.





Ornament and memory

27 03 2012

Cast-iron capital, Skipton station, Yorkshire, 1880

‘All I remember of Pilsen, where we stopped for some time, said Austerlitz, is that I went out on the platform to photograph the capital of a cast-iron column which had touched some chord of recognition in me. What made me uneasy … was the idea that this cast-iron column, which with its scaly surface seemed almost to approach the nature of a living being, might remember me and was, if I may so put it, said Austerlitz, a witness to what I could no longer recollect for myself.’

For Austerlitz, the eponymous narrator of W. G. Sebald’s 2001 novel, the repressed memories of his traumatic childhood in Nazi Germany keep resurfacing in unexpected and disturbing contexts. These memories form the basis for the novel’s narrative structure – a kind of stream-of-consciousness text with no chapter or even paragraph breaks. But why might an ornamental cast-iron column in a provincial Czech railway station stir long-submerged memories?

Liverpool Street Station, London, 1875

Sebald, of course, doesn’t give an answer, but it’s something to do with the ‘puce-tinged encrustation’ on the iron capital which makes it seems almost alive and therefore conscious and capable of memory – of remembering Austerlitz when he was a child. A ridiculous idea, no doubt, but one that I find has strong resonances with radical notions of ornament developed by the German theorist Siegfried Kracauer just at the beginning of the rise of fascism in Germany in the early 1930s.

Paddington Station, London, 1852-55

Like other intellectuals of his generation (particularly Walter Benjamin), Kracauer was worried that the modernists’ banishment of ornament would lead to it returning in a ‘dislocated, unmediated’ form that could be utilised for the strengthening of totalitarian power – think the Nuremburg Rally or Nazi propaganda films. Yet, Kracauer also saw a radical potential in ornament. In his autobiographical novel Ginster (1928), the protagonist – an architect – challenges his own sense of alienation in modern Berlin with a developing notion of ornament – encompassing much more than conventional visual decoration and including accidental ornament (creating by the smudging of a window), schoolboy doodles, or the patterns in decaying walls. Kracauer’s broad notion of ornament allows the individual to ‘resubjectivize’ the increasingly objective and rationalised modern city by fixed visual images that mediate the present and the past, thus breaking down the distance between the individual and the whole.

York Station, 1877

It’s precisely this function of ornament that infuses Sebald’s Austerlitz with its narrative potency. Without him knowing it consciously, the cast-iron column in the railway station mediates present and past, partly because its visual appearance – covered in the encrustations of decay – provokes its appropriation as an object that is both present and bears witness to its history. And cast iron seems peculiarly suited to this kind of mediation. In countless railway stations, Victorian cast-iron ornament remains part of  structures that are at once powerfully present and also connected to a past, nebulous as that connection may be.

Preston station, 1880

From their inception in the 1830s, railway stations have functioned as potent symbols of modernity – the onward rush of technology – but also places of immense stillness – of waiting, where time past flows into time present. And, within these spaces, if one cares to stand and look, as Austerlitz did, the cast-iron ornament (especially if it’s rusted or stained) reminds us of these slippages in the sleek image of the modern. They are places where the whole is perceived – the milling crowds, the endless departures and arrivals of modern life – and, paradoxically, where we feel our individuality most strongly and the deep well of memories that we all carry.

Hellifield station, Yorkshire, 1880





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








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