Patina and the depth of surface

2 11 2013
Rusted gates, Malta

Rusted gates, Malta

Patina – the visible signs of age on the surface of a material – is generally valued as a positive form of decay, and is manifest in a panoply of material forms: distressed wood, weather-beaten stone or brick, faded wallpaper, well-worn textiles, rusted ironwork, to name but a few. Whatever form it takes, patina signals the desire for a visual sign of authenticity, that is, material imbued with a history that speaks of ‘natural’ processes accrued over time. Paradoxically, in many cases, these visual signs of ageing are achieved very quickly and forcibly; hence, the widespread criticism of patina as yet another symptom of the post-modern obsession with surface at the expense of ‘authentic’ depth. 

Peeling paint, Emsworth

Peeling paint, Emsworth

'X' mark and successive water lines on a door in Lakeview, New Orleans, 2007. Photograph by Christina Bray (

‘X’ mark and successive water lines on a door in Lakeview, New Orleans, 2007. Photograph by Christina Bray (

Yet, patina can also be interpreted as a critical form of visuality. In a recent talk at the University of Manchester, archaeologist Shannon Lee Dawdy focused on the meanings of patina in the buildings of New Orleans, pre- and post-Katrina.  The devastating hurricane of 2005 created so-called ‘Katrina patina’ – the characteristic residue left by saline water that overwhelmed New Orleans for weeks after the city’s flood defences were breached. Today, amidst the ruins of nearly 6,000 homes in New Orleans, many of the city’s renovated domestic buildings still have a large letter ‘X’ on their exteriors; in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, rescue personnel spray-painted the letter ‘X’ on all buildings to indicate that they had been evacuated. Many returning residents chose to conserve rather than erase these letters, which have become known, according to Dorothy Moye, as ‘Katrina crosses’. Here, patina functions as a memorial to a natural disaster. It is the architectural equivalent of the post-traumatic symptom, showing us the trauma of the past as it reverberates down into the present. By displaying the ‘wound’ inflicted by the trauma, this patina has the potential to contribute to the wider work of future healing in New Orleans.

'X' mark in Bywater, New Orleans with Tibetan prayer flags, 2009. Photograph by Dorothy Moye (

‘X’ mark in Bywater, New Orleans with Tibetan prayer flags, 2009. Photograph by Dorothy Moye (

Patina straddles the space (and time) between construction and ruin. It is always an ambivalent form of materiality because any attempt to stabilise its meaning effaces the essential nature of patina as process. Therefore, the meaning of patina lies in its instability; as with ruins, patina represents a fragment that suggests the meaning of the whole (as in the case of New Orleans’s x-marked buildings). The latter suggests a way out of the condemnation of patina as a superficial form of materiality. Patina, whatever form it takes, has the potential to deepen the meaning of surface as surface. The examples in New Orleans also suggest (contrary to patina’s detractors) that intentionality is key to patina’s critical visuality. Perhaps it’s not the aestheticising of surface per se that is at issue but what we choose to do with that aestheticising. In the case of Katrina patina, it is clear that the material surface has the capacity to expand the field of architectural meaning, to hold together contradictions, to manifest historical depth, and to contribute to the ongoing work of remembrance and healing.


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.

An English edgeland: Covehithe, Suffolk

5 06 2012

The beach at Covehithe, Suffolk

Coastal erosion is a common-enough occurrence in Britain – from the windswept Holderness coastline, north of the Humber, to the wild rugged cliffs of Cornwall; yet, it never fails to generate unease, an unsettled feeling of dread that sometimes haunts our dreams.

1. St Andrew’s church, Covehithe

Some of my childhood dreams of being trapped on the beach by an onrushing sea were probably rooted in frequent visits I made then to the Suffolk coastline, near to where my grandparents lived. Guided by my father, I heard stories of Dunwich – the once-great medieval town now mostly buried beneath the sea – or the weird world of Orford Ness – a great shingle spit constantly being remade by the sea. Most evocative to me was the isolated coastline north of Southwold. At Covehithe, the ruins of  St Andrew’s church (1) stand just one field away from the crumbling cliffs, the original 100-ft tower now the outgrown focal-point of a much smaller church building. Like many churches in Suffolk, St Andrew’s was outsized in relation to the size of the community it served – never more than 300 people. The villagers themselves pulled down most of the building in 1672 leaving the tower surrounded by ruins.



Walking along the crumbling mud cliffs a stone’s throw from the church, one cannot help but re-imagine its history as a product of the unstoppable power of the sea. For, over many hundreds of years, this coast has been gradually eaten away: the only road terminates right at the cliff edge (on one childhood visit I remembered seeing a car that had careered over it); the footpath often disappears into the void; and trees are visibly tumbling over the edge.


It’s these trees that form a kind of mirror image of the ruined church, that is, of survival amongst ruin. On the beach a group of trunks are arranged in a spectacular display of the effects of the meeting of wood and water. In some, exposed roots have been transformed into explosions of weird spikes – like strange, petrified sea creatures (2); in others, the roots seem to emerge from the sand as the new growth of some unknown plant (3). Some trees stand almost complete, their angular forms offering a kind of melancholy testimony to their stubborn refusal to decay (4); others lie prostrate, gradually sinking into the sand world beneath them (5). Some cradle pebbles, stuck fast in between sea-smoothed branches (6); others, in a much more advanced state of ruin, barely register, mistaken for stones on the shoreline (7).



These trees offer tangible visible evidence of what happens to supposedly solid objects in these coastal edgelands. Contrary to what we imagine, these places are not really edges at all; rather, they are the meeting points of two different worlds, ones that we generally hold to be entirely separate. For us to remain solid and rooted, that other world of ceaseless flux must be kept at bay. In reality, however, this notion of solidity is an illusion; for everything is always moving, from the smallest subatomic particle to the largest galaxy. It’s precisely that movement which is constantly producing new and unexpected forms – the beauty of which is displayed in those sea-blasted trees.


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 Ancoats Peeps

3 10 2011

1. Peep 9, 'Clocking Off'

In 2002, the artist Dan Dubowitz was commissioned to contribute to the regeneration of Ancoats – an old and dilapidated industrial quarter of inner-city Manchester. Over the next eight years, he made a series of ‘Peeps’ – twelve brass peepholes in the walls of buildings viewed from the streets which revealed installations constructed in steel boxes embedded in the cavities behind. In addition, Dubowitz also helped create the area’s first public square – the Cutting Room – opened in 2010.

2. Peep 3, 'Mary's Room'

As documented in the 2011 book The Presence of Absence, the Ancoats Peeps offer ‘a fleeting glimpse of a walled-in space; a tunnel, a disused toilet, a spinning governor, a bell tower, a gauge.’ The worlds seen through the Peeps are intimately connected with Ancoats’ industrial past. It was once the first industrial suburb of the centre of the world’s cotton industry – that is, early Victorian Manchester – and the Peeps are saturated with nostalgic images of heavy industry: strange machines (2), dials, dirt and the toil of incessant work governed by the clock (1). Yet, despite being grounded in the history of the area, they are enigmatic images, strongly suggestive of former lives but ultimately mysterious in their meanings.

3. The Beach Club in Ancoats

4. The patina of decay on a wall in Ancoats

As an integral part in the planned regeneration of Ancoats, the Peeps are also much more than isolated visual reminders of the area’s industrial past; rather, they’re very much part of a projected image of a future for this now run-down and virtually silent part of the city. Walking around Ancoats on a grey Sunday afternoon with my wife and daughter, searching for the Peeps was bound up with experiencing the city in a new way. Ancoats is not an area of Manchester one would visit for any reason: it’s a forbidding place, almost devoid of people, its buildings seemingly in an interminable state of decay apart from a few pockets of gentrification. In the courtyard of one former warehouse, now converted into apartments, a makeshift nightclub is walled-in by images of the sea, its floor covered in sand (3); the wholesale decay of other buildings offering strange patterns that are sometimes mirrored in the forms of the peeps themselves (4); while a single tile on a wall is stencilled with the word ‘DEFECT’ (5). Are these also artists’ interventions, bits of history, or simply the result of natural processes of decay?

5. Defective tile or artist's intervention?

In one sense, the creation of the Peeps and the activity of looking for them makes you see urban space in a different way, one that makes everyday things suddenly seem like art (and vice versa). This re-enchantment of urban space has a long history, often bound up with densely theoretical texts and practices, but the way it happens here is disarmingly simple and bound up with an experience that is open to all (6).

6. Peeping in Ancoats

Another Place

14 07 2011

Another Place, Brighton-le-sands, Merseyside

Another Place is a seaside sculpture by the British artist Anthony Gormley. It consists of 100 cast-iron replicas of the artist’s body arranged over a 2-mile stretch of beach near Crosby north of Liverpool. Originally made in 1997 for exhibition on a beach in Germany, the sculpture travelled from there to Norway, Belgium and finally Britain where, after much local debate, it was decided to keep the sculpture permanently.

1: 'Sound II', Winchester Cathedral crypt, 1986

2: Figure on the roof of the Royal Festival Hall, London, 'Blind Light' exhibition, 2007

Cast iron is a material Gormley uses on a regular basis – and casts of his body appear in such diverse locations as the crypt in Winchester Cathedral (1) and on the tops of various buildings in London, as part of his 2007 exhibition at the Hayward Gallery (2). In making multiple replicas of his own body, Gormley invites questions about the production of art, the mechanisation of the human body, and how the reproduction of art affects our consciousness of it. In addition, in his use of cast iron, Gormley harks back to an earlier era of industrialisation and the location of works like Another Place and The Angel of the North in former centres of industry reinforce these connections.

In Another Place these connections are further strengthened by cast iron’s relationship with the British seaside. In many of Britain’s seaside resorts, cast iron was formative in the transformation of sites defined by wild nature into artificial environments, in that it provided the raw material for both structures (piers, pavilions and shelters) and ornamental utilities (lamps, railings, toilets and kiosks). Today, much of this Victorian ironwork remains but now, in its state of rusting decay, a melancholic reminder of the slow decline of British seaside resorts from their heyday in the early twentieth century.

3: Another Place, figure on the shoreline

4: Another Place, rusting head

5: Another Place, view towards Liverpool docks

Gormley’s sculptures fill a relatively undeveloped stretch of coastline north of Liverpool, away from the Victorian resorts of Southport or New Brighton. All the figures face the same way – out to sea – and they are arranged in lines stretching from the high- to low-water tide lines. What is striking about the figures is their varying degrees of naturalisation. In only a few years, some of the figures are almost completely covered in barnacles or seaweed (3); others are rusted with golden patterns (4); some seem almost as new; others have even been given clothes to cover up their nakedness (5). Where Victorian cast iron in nearby Southport is being repainted to keep rust at bay, here the iron is deliberately exposed to the violent natural forces of wind, sea, sand and salt. The result is a sense of positive value given to both artifice and nature and the relationship between the two, which here assumes a highly individual character despite the original figures being exact replicas. Here, Gormley perhaps offers, in these cast iron figures, a metaphor of ourselves being both similar to each other but also made unique by our individual trajectories in life.

The aesthetics of decay: rust

5 07 2011

Railings, South Parade Pier, Southsea, c.1879

One result of the post-modern turn in architecture has been a fashion for ‘distressed’ materials – weathered wood, stripped beams, broken bricks – that supposedly invest a new building with some sense of historical authenticity. Decayed materials speak of processes over time, their patina the result of a unique history. However, one sign of material decay – rust – has largely remained outside the pale of this recent appreciation of decay in building materials. In almost all cases, rust devalues the object and as a result we fight a constant battle to protect our possessions and buildings from it – painting and repainting, sanding, filing, and soaking – to ward off oxidation.

Capital, Madeira Drive, Brighton, 1888-95

Yet, there have always been those attracted to rust. In 1890, the architect William Lethaby expressed his delight in iron’s appeal to the imagination. A material that spoke of strength, simplicity and severity, Lethaby argued that rust allowed nature to return to this artificial building material, giving it a ‘magnificent patina which was a true colour of iron’ and which contributed to its ‘mysterious appeal’. Today, a whole gamut of photography groups on Flickr testify to this strange fascination with decaying metal: ‘Wonders of Oxidation’, ‘Rusty and Crusty’, ‘The Rust Bucket’, to name only a few.

Railing, Victoria Pier, Colwyn Bay, 1900

According to Dylan Trigg, the contemplation of material decay, like rust, offers an escape from the illusion of progress that dominates our everyday perceptions. Taking the time to look at decaying objects means stepping back from onward rush to a slower time, that of gradual accumulations and imperceptible losses. In decaying materials, we are reminded that, at the root of things, entropy governs the material world – the unstoppable movement from order to disorder, form to formlessness. Of course, realising this produces melancholy, but a rich sadness that knows the fragility of life and perhaps even liberation from the need to impose order and clarity on it.

Columns and brackets of the derelict pier pavilion, Llandudno, 1883-84

Seating on Blackpool's North Pier, 1863

Perhaps nowhere is this sense of melancholy more powerful than in Britain’s seaside resorts, where rusting Victorian cast ironwork epitomises their long decline from opulent places of escape attracting millions of pleasure-seekers to the often-derelict and lonely places they are today. Here, rust speaks directly of both material and social processes of decay, and with it a mixture of pleasure and sadness. There’s no denying the rich lovely colours of cast iron created from decades of exposure to wild untamed nature, but the exotic ornamental forms, disfigured by years of neglect, also speak of long-distant dreams and desires that have either been cast aside or long-since transferred elsewhere.

Supporting column, Lytham St Anne's Pier, 1885


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