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

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

Petrified ruin: exploring the abandoned city of Pripyat

27 09 2010

Entering Pripyat

Pripyat was built in 1970 to house workers at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear plant. It’s now an empty city, abandoned in 1986 after the worst nuclear accident in history. Recently, Chernobyl and Pripyat have become unlikely tourist destinations and my visit in October 2007 was arranged through a travel agency in Kiev. Visiting Pripyat is a disconcerting experience: because it is the largest post-War ruin in existence, the empty streets and buildings feel like a real-life version of countless ruined cities in post-apocalyptic cinema.

If one is a lover of industrial ruins, as I am, walking through the empty, decaying buildings of Pripyat might seem to represent an opportunity for extreme pleasure – a place, in the words of Tim Edensor, ‘which offers spaces in which the interpretation and practice of the city becomes liberated from the everyday constraints which determine what should be done and where, and which encode the city with meanings’. So, for example we have surprise in the arbitrary arrangements of once ordered things – broken strip lights in a supermarket (1):


…or the sudden reappearance of utopian objects from the past – socialist icons left in a room in the palace of culture (2):


…or the excess of meaning generated by inexplicable objects and juxtapositions – rusted hat stands alone in a decaying room (3):


For Edensor and others, such experiences are potentially transformative, ‘suggesting new forms of thought and comprehension, and … new conceptions of space that confirm the potential of the human to integrate itself, to be whole and free outside of any predetermined system’. Yet, such positive assessments of industrial ruins tend to present them as alternative spaces within the ordered, modern city. It is one thing encountering an industrial ruin in the midst of the ceaseless life of the city; it is quite another if all is ruin, if there is no counterbalancing order at all.

As one proceeds through Pripyat, the sense of ruin quickly becomes overwhelming: the very qualities of fragmentation, plenitude, discontinuity and defamiliarisation that Edensor celebrates, soon overwhelm. Scale overrides the positive attributes of these qualities: the strange beauty of peeling walls in corridors soon become only reminders of the vastness of all that is not seen; the decay of the conventional architectural signs of civilisation – hospitals, schools, supermarkets, hotels – a wearisome succession of incommensurable losses (4):


And the decay seen is not what it seems: not a product of the return of natural processes of decomposition, but from two decades of systematic looting; a consequence of the residents being forced to leave all their belongings behind when the town was evacuated. Finally, juxtapositions of objects become unbearably poignant – children’s toys left on the decaying remains of a merry-go-round (5):


…or simply sinister – a rusty gynaecological chair and gas mask in the grounds of the hospital (6):


Indeed, for the ‘voices of Chernobyl’ – those who experienced the accident and its aftermath at first hand – the site represents something much more than a technological ruin: for one witness ‘Chernobyl was a way into infinity…it shattered existing boundaries’; for another ‘the World no longer seemed eternal as it had done before … we had been deprived of immortality’. For many Chernobyl represented the end of communism, even if its final collapse was delayed until 1991. Before Chernobyl they were protected by the Soviet state apparatus; after it, they were forced to become individuals again, left alone in their own private zones. The sense of Chernobyl as both technological and cosmic catastrophe is embodied in the experience of the spaces of Pripyat and more specifically, in the ‘city-like’ quality of it. With its endless blank corridors, disorientating repetition, and the evidence of violent human agency at work in its spaces, Pripyat is more ruined city than collection of industrial ruins, inviting meditation on loss on a cosmic scale.

Read more about my research on Chernobyl and Pripyat here

See more of my photographs of Chernobyl and Pripyat here


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