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





Walking the girdle (part 1)

4 12 2012
1. The nine-mile walk around inner Manchester and Salford (shown in green)

1. Nine-mile walk around inner Manchester and Salford (shown in green)

2. 1844 map of Manchester and Salford included in Engels's 'The Condition of the Working Class in England'

2. 1844 map of Manchester and Salford included in Engels’s ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’

In 1844, Engels described industrial Manchester as being planned as a series of concentric circles: an inner commercial core surrounded by a ‘girdle’ of working-class quarters about a mile wide beyond which were the middle-class residential districts (2). In this way, Engels argued, wealthier people from the outer areas might come in and out of the city on its roads ‘without ever seeing that they are in the midst of the grimy misery that lurks to the right and to the left.’ This ‘hypocritical plan’, as Engels called it, has persisted to this day, with the majority of the city’s thoroughfares being like spokes of a giant wheel, enabling easy travelling in and out of the city. And just as in Engels’s day, the further out from the city centre one travels, the more salubrious the surroundings become, today Mancunians reach all the way out to Alderley Edge in rural Cheshire, with its vast gated mansions: home of the footballers and their wives.

On a very cold but sparkling day in November, I decided to walk Manchester and Salford’s inner ‘girdle’, as a kind of alternative way of apprehending the topography of both cities – a counter to the frustration of generally only knowing the city as a series of linear routes in and out (1). The areas through which this walk passed – Salford, Hulme, Ardwick, Ancoats – were all just outside Manchester’s city centre and, although most of the housing was relatively new, still very much had the character Engels first observed in 1844 – that is, ‘unmixed working-people’s quarters’.

3. Cast-iron columns bases at Plymouth Grove

3. Cast-iron column bases at Plymouth Grove

4. Bricked-up factory in Ardwick

4. Bricked-up factory in Ardwick

5. Textile warehouse on Hyde Road, Ardwick

5. Textile warehouse on Hyde Road, Ardwick

So, after taking my usual linear bus ride from the suburbs to the University, instead of heading to my office I walked eastwards towards Ardwick, in a counterclockwise direction, passing the half-redeveloped Plymouth Grove pub with its late-nineteenth century ornamental cast-iron columns by the Glasgow founder Walter Macfarlane, now rusted into rich golden hues (3). Heading westwards, Ardwick is a surprise, an old industrial area that’s still working, with textile factories still hanging on despite the tumbledown bricked-up brick buildings (4), one of which still bears the imprint of its several generations of owners, its signs overlaid as if deliberately preserving the building’s history (5). Continuing west, a great railway viaduct thickens towards Piccadilly, its enormous brick arches a sign of how Manchester’s Victorian railway (unlike London’s) ploughed its way directly through the inner city, straddling the working-class housing with apparent disdain (6).

6. Railway viaduct in Ardwick

6. Railway viaduct in Ardwick

7. Former synagogue on Pollard Street

7. All Souls church on Every Street

8. Abandoned tower block in Ancoats

8. Abandoned tower block in Ancoats

Across the thundering Ashton road, one enters the Medlock river valley, a green oasis in Manchester’s monolithic red-brick cityscape, and a reminder that, like many other cities, Manchester’s fortunes were originally bound up with its rivers. Onwards through the edges of Beswick, a sleepy suburb in the Medlock valley, crowned on the Ancoats side by an abandoned church on Every Street – its fantastic array of turrets challenging the utilitarian brick buildings around it (7). Entering Ancoats past the Bank of England pub and over the Ashton canal, one suddenly emerges into another world – a contested landscape of waste ground, ruined factories, angular post-modernist tower blocks, and 1970s working-class housing. As one resident told me, Ancoats is now a battleground: some of the residents have been forced out, their properties compulsorilly purchased and demolished to make way for gentrification that hasn’t yet happened. Here, older 1960s tower blocks stand in limbo, condemned for demolition but subsquently purchased for £1 each by the developers Urban Splash in the property boom of the late-1990s. Now too expensive to either demolish or redevelop, these tower blocks remain as petrified ruins (8).

9. The early 19th-century mills of old Ancoats

9. The early 19th-century mills of old Ancoats

10. Textile warehouse on Thompson Street, north of Ancoats

10. Textile warehouse on Thompson Street, north of Ancoats

11. New Co-op headquarters building in central Manchester

11. New Co-op headquarters building in central Manchester

Over the Rochdale canal is old Ancoats, created at the end of the 18th century as the world’s first industrial suburb, and still characterised by its enormous, utilitarian brick mills and warehouses that summon up images of the industrial revolution, with its din and smoke (9). Yet, today, this part of Ancoats is silent and spotless: a closed world of private apartments, offices and deluxe recording studios. With its tightly-packed grid-like streets, cobbled for over two hundred years, Ancoats here is less contested, more fully embracing of a new kind of exclusivity that’s so characteristic of former industrial quarters in many other British cities. Out of Ancoats across the busy Oldham Road, one enters a desolate former industrial area, the factories and warehouses given over to end-of-the-line textiles (10), with the futuristic shapes of the city’s new generation of skyscrapers rising up beyond (11). With the towers of Strangeways high-security prison looming in the distance, I head towards the half-way point around the girdle (part 2 to follow).





The Dark Arches of Leeds

3 12 2011

1. One of the tunnels carrying the River Aire in Leeds' Dark Arches

Today, the entrance to Leeds’ central railway station is a rather banal building dating from the late 1960s. This replaced another station, dating from 1864 to 1866, which, in turn, was a ‘new’ station superseding a jumble of earlier buildings dating from the 1840s.  The enormous scale of the railway station today is best appreciated from below, in its aptly-named ‘Dark Arches’ – a line of immense red-brick groined vaults covering an access tunnel built beneath the station in the mid-1860s and still forming most of its substructure today (2). When it was built, this subterranean world was one of the largest man-made underground spaces in Britain, created by the engineers T. E Harrison and Robert Hodgson and using over 18 million bricks. The space is dominated by the River Aire – Leeds’ principal waterway – which crosses the west end of the Dark Arches in four immense tunnels spanned by a cast-iron bridge (1 & 3). Here, the tunnels carry the fast-moving river underneath the station where it then joins the Leeds-Liverpool Canal at Granary Wharf. Turbulent and unruly, its sounds and smells animate the atmospheric gloom of the tunnels.

2. The Dark Arches from Neville Street to Granary Wharf

3. Walkway in one of the tunnels carrying the River Aire

Lining the last tunnel is a narrow walkway, a tantalising aid for would-be explorers but sealed off by a gate and coils of threatening barbed wire (3). Other brick openings suggest more secret worlds hidden in the darkness beyond, their unknown extent emphasised by gigantic brick arches glimpsed among the shadows and receding into pitch black (4). While gleaming, transparent glass office blocks rise up from Leeds’s nineteenth-century heart, the Dark Arches remind us of the city’s foundation – namely, its murky, industrial past. Indeed, in one of the arches are reproductions of Victorian photographs of the area, stained black with soot and smoke and redolent with a sense of stygian gloom.

4. Receding brick arches in the shadows

5. A place of safety for some...

The Dark Arches used to contain a run-down shopping centre, designed to cleanse this space of its dark associations in the early 1990s, but one that failed to entice enough people to shop, eat and enjoy themselves underground. As with many leftover Victorian subterranean spaces, the symbolic power and industrial origins of the Dark Arches remain stubbornly resistant to gentrification. Today, some of the arches facing Granary Wharf have been converted into restaurants, while the majority are now filled with parked cars – a common, acceptable use of underground space that is probably due to us feeling that our cars (if not ourselves) are safer in these sealed-off worlds (5). In between the cars, a few people use the arches as a convenient thoroughfare; others, for more nefarious activities. As early as 1892, Leeds’s chief of police was citing the Dark Arches as a centre of idling, prostitution and mugging; while in 2007, the British Transport Police uncovered a cannabis factory hidden in its recesses. It’s this twin sense of safety and danger that continues to haunt all underground spaces, particularly Victorian ones, and which prevents them from ever being fully controlled by the powers in the world above.





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








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