Authentic ruins

16 08 2013
Collapsing shed on a farm in the Peak District, Staffordshire

Collapsing shed on a farm in the Peak District, Staffordshire

In the early 1780s, the English artist, author and Anglian priest William Gilpin (1720-1804) visited the ruined Tintern Abbey on the banks of the river Wye on the Welsh borders, remarking that its ruins were too perfect, too well preserved, and should be made more ruinous to be pleasing to the eye. Gilpin writings about the picturesque in relation to ruins would go on to influence a whole host of ruin obsessives, from artists such as J. M. W. Turner (1) to the urban explorers of today.

The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, 1794 by J.M.W. Turner

1. The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, 1794 by J.M.W. Turner

Gilpin’s remarks about Tintern Abbey flag up the question as to what makes a ruin ‘authentic’. Is an aesthetic appreciation of ruins dependent on them being ‘remade’ in the eye of the beholder? Or do ruins possess an inherent beauty that transcends the subjective vision of the observer? On a recent visit to Ironbridge (for a conference on the landscapes of iron and steel), the keynote speaker Sir Neil Cossons drew attention to new plans for the World Heritage Site, which sprawls for several miles along the River Severn in the Ironbridge Gorge. As Cossons related, there are currently plans to ‘re-wild’ some of Ironbridge’s industrial ruins, particularly Coalbrookdale’s original coke-powered blast furnace that kick-started the industrial revolution in Britain and which now sits in ruins beneath a triangular steel and glass structure to protect it from further decay (2 & 3). Cossons argued for a new approach to the museumification of sites like Coalbrookdale’s blast furnace, one that bridges the gap between ruin and the imagination without killing the ‘romance’ of the former.

2. Structure housing Coalbrookdale's original blast furnace

2. Structure housing Coalbrookdale’s original blast furnace

3. The first coke-powered blast furnace, built by Abraham Darby in 1709

3. The first coke-powered blast furnace, built by Abraham Darby in 1709

An important aspect of the appeal of any ruins is a sense of their authenticity, that is, as sites that have been left free of human intervention and allowed to be restored to the ‘natural’ cycles of decay. So, when those processes are speeded up, whether by demolition or total destruction by war, fire, or natural disasters, ruins lose their capacity to signify: like the recent demolition of the old BBC building in Manchester, where destruction progressed from ruin to rubble within a matter of days (4). Once a ruin becomes rubble it no longer signifies anything other than annihilation. In one sense, ruins are appreciated only when seemingly petrified; yet, it is a fine line between petrification and restoration, the latter resulting in the deadening of the edgy restlessness of the ruin.

4. Demolition of the BBC building on Oxford Road, Manchester in October 2012.

4. Demolition of the BBC building on Oxford Road, Manchester in October 2012

In one sense, for ruins to matter, they have to obey certain rules, whether expressed in Gilpin’s aesthetic of the picturesque or in more recent photographs of ruins by urban explorers. Thus, just as Gilpin looked for certain features in ruins that made them aesthetically pleasing, so urban explorers, time and again, focus in their photographs on the visual appeal of abandoned spaces, whether the geometric simplicity of sewer tunnels, the panoramic spectacle from the top of a ruined power station, or the intimate textures of industrial decay (5). All this points to an essential contradiction at the heart of the search for authenticity in ruins. For, even as ruins are desired because they seem to stand outside our subjectivity, the very act of perceiving ruins dissolves their authenticity. Perhaps the only authentic ruins are those that have not yet appeared, or those that have never been seen.

5. Patinas of decay in Varosha, Cyprus

5. Patinas of decay in Varosha, Cyprus





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.





Hidden spaces: the Derbyshire Dales

25 01 2012

Cave Dale, near Castleton, Derbyshire

There’s probably no more dramatic contrast in the English landscape than that between the Dark and White Peak of the Peak District National Park; and all because of two different kinds of rock – Gritstone and Limestone. Divided by the Edale and Hope valleys, to the north is the Dark Peak – an area of high moorland, its hard Gritstone foundation chipped away by the elements into undulating wild plateaus of heather and peat and rocky ‘edges'; to the south, the White Peak – its bed of soft Limestone sunk into gently folded hills, farmland and hidden valleys, known as Dales. In contrast to the wild, windswept and barren moorland of the Dark Peak, these Dales are places of fecundity – steep-sided valleys carved by rivers and streams into self-enclosed worlds, protected from wind and cold.

Hay Dale, looking towards Rushup Edge, the boundary between the White and Dark Peak
Moss covering trees and a stone wall in Cressbrook Dale

On a map, the Dales are identified by the serpentine windings of watercourses, enclosed by narrow countour lines. In reality, they are almost hermetically-sealed environments, usually hemmed in by thick broadleaf woodland and a treacherous floor of uneven and slippery limestone, collected over time from the crumbling cliffs that fringe the upper slopes. With alluring pastoral names – Monks Dale, Millers Dale, Dove Dale, Hay Dale, Chee Dale – these valleys are places cut off from the elements, where moss covers wood and stone alike, where exotic birdlife flourishes, and where ancient trees gradually sink into decay.

Limestone cliff in Chee Dale
Monks Dale in Spring

It is perhaps unsurprising that these secret spaces were one of the most important sites for the birth of England’s industrial revolution. In the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the Dales saw the building of the first large-scale water-powered textile mills, such as Cromford (1771) and Cressbrook mills (1787). These provided the template for the hundreds of mills that would later define the urban centres of the industrial revolution: Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield. In these early days, production on this industrial scale needed fast-flowing water to power the steam-engines that drove the mechanised looms. It seems appropriate that the industrial revolution should have begun in these hidden worlds: the mills and factories almost shamefacedly emerging out of an otherwise agrarian world; their new kinds of workers housed in rustic cottages in the surrounding hills.

Cressbrook Mill, Cressbrook Dale, 1787








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