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





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





Wild spaces: Great Moss

10 10 2011

Scafell (left) and Scafell Pike (right) from Great Moss

In England, wild camping is an activity that is generally discouraged and is usually dependent on getting landowners’ permission. However, in isolated spots, such as Great Moss in the Lake District, it seems almost laughable than anyone owns the land and, in places like these, you can pitch a tent and not encounter anyone else for days. Great Moss is a vast, flat area of marshy ground near the headwaters of the River Esk, surrounded on all sides by England’s highest and grandest mountains with their evocative names: Scafell and Scafell Pike, Esk Pike, Bowfell and Crinkle Crags. From Great Moss – a five-mile walk up the Eskdale valley from the hamlet of Boot – these mountains present their wildest aspect: craggy, precipitous, treeless, and remote from either roads or buildings.

Scafell Pike, evening on the first day

Scafell Pike, dawn on the second day

I camped alone at Great Moss for two nights in unseasonably warm weather at the end of September this year, with a few isolated sheep and the occasional croaking of ravens for company. Here, mobile phone signals cease to operate and one is forced to focus on the basic essentials of living: preparing water and food, washing, and sleeping. Carrying everything on one’s back means leaving behind most of what we now regard as basic entertainments – a computer, television, even books. In my trip, the sense of aloneness was heightened by the short days, with darkness descending more quickly here – the sun disappearing behind the crags at 5pm and not reappearing again until 8am.

So, why would anyone want to expose oneself to this level of solitude? The nature writer Robert Macfarlane, in his book The Wild Places, argues that being alone in the wild has the potential to give us perspective on ourselves, our concerns and our place in the world. Yet, Macfarlane is also blasé about his own sense of vulnerability during his wild camping experiences, even as they are often characterised by intense cold, danger, and fatigue. For me, the experience was initially more frightening than liberating – for most of the first night I battled with anxiety and a sense of dread. Yet, once I’d relaxed the following day, the slowness of the passing of time became something that could be embraced as wondrous, the rituals of everyday life taking on a kind of mystical significance – bathing in the rushing stream, cooking in the twilight, waking to see the sky full of stars.

Scafell Pike, early morning on the second day

Scafell Pike, evening on the second day

Scafell Pike, the second night

By relaxing into the rhythms of silence, the world – narrowed to the views of the mountains from my tent – took on a kind of renewed simplicity. With my camera – my only luxury – the experience became framed as a series of almost-identical views of Scafell Pike, to which I had faced my tent on the first evening: in the last rays of sunlight, at dawn, in early morning sunlight, in late afternoon fading light, and in the pitch black of the final night. It’s almost as if the world had temporarily revealed to me its most basic origins, the mountain being the always-has-been presence in a world of ceaseless flux: “And there was evening, and there was morning – the first day. And there was evening, and there was morning – the second day”.





Sketching, photography and the tourist gaze

30 08 2011

Sketch of buildings at Freeland, Oxfordshire, 2004

‘Today everything exists to end in a photograph’ (Susan Sontag)

Writing in 1979, Sontag could never have anticipated the explosion of photography that came with the introduction and rapid dissemination of the digital camera. Today, to be a tourist is primally to see places and people through the lens of a digital camera. This recent shift to digital technology has resulted in an unimaginable increase in the sheer volume of pictures taken; from my own experience, in the three years after 2003 I took nearly 1500 photographs on my old Pentax SLR-camera; post-digital, I’ve amassed over 14,000 images in the past three years alone and probably taken at least double that. It’s not just the quantity of images that has changed: we also perceive the world differently through a digital camera – from the considered setting up of shots and the awareness of the finite resources of film to a faster, more throwaway kind of perception, one that tends towards amassing rather than reflection.

John Urry has reflected on the role of photography in contemporary tourism. His definition of the ‘tourist gaze’ is bound up with a certain kind of perception, one that is focused on looking at objects in a specific way. For the tourist (and we are all tourists to some extent), photography becomes part of the construction of objects to gaze at – a search for the photogenic itself which tends to turn the environment into a series of snapshot images to be recalled when we’ve returned home. Yet, as Urry states, many tourists are often disappointed with their photographs because their memories of a view or place are richer and fuller than their photographs. However, this doesn’t necessarily lead to a questioning of the ability of photography to ‘capture’ this fuller picture, or indeed of the search for an alternative.

By drawing or sketching, rather than photographing, one enters an altogether different perceptual world, one that plunges you into this fuller picture. With pencil and paper, irrespective of artistic ability or the intended quality of the drawing, you commit yourself to seeing differently – seeing for longer and in a more sustained way. The result is that, in a far more effective way than photography, sketching helps you to remember. To illustrate something of what I mean, I present a few examples of my own sketches and how I remember through them…

1. The Giralda in Seville, 2009

An hour in the square east of the Giralda in Seville on a warm afternoon at the end of October in 2009. As my drawing moved slowly down from the top to the bottom of the tower, hammering continued in the square, along with a procession of tourists arriving and leaving the city, bags on wheels and taxis coming and going. This commanding building, with such a pronounced sense of the vertical, seems to require some kind of extended contemplation, especially when the gigantic bells start ringing, which they did as I sketched, creating a sound which seems to fill the whole city.

2. The Nant Francon valley, Snowdonia, Wales, 2003

On my way back from a walk up the back of Carnedd Dafydd, to admire its cliffs, I stopped in the Nant Francon valley, just before reaching the cottage where I was staying, and decided to sketch the view. In rapidly-fading light and a plummeting temperature, I hurriedly drew the forms of the mountains that filled sides and head of the valley, their names already familiar in my mind – Carnedd Dafydd, Tryfan, the Glyders, Foel Goch. The light was crystal clear, as it had been for days, but the cold was finger-numbing and the drawing had to be done very quickly. Despite this, the result still pleases me as it reminds me of the conditions under which it was made.

3. Vernazza, Italy, 2003

A second visit to the beautiful coast of Liguria in Italy and its ‘five lands’, this sketch of Vernazza, where I was staying, was made sitting on a wall in the first hot sunshine I’d experienced that year. Here, drawing was limited by uncomfortable heat and the heavy lines indicate a rather hurried method. But I also remember a deliberate sense of slowing down in response to a time of crisis in my life – a sense of wanting to stop, to allow myself some space. Here, sketching was one of the ways I did this, in a familiar environment where the ‘sights’ had already been seen on a previous visit.

4. The Citadel, Aleppo, 2008

Here, the finished drawing is less important than the context in which it was drawn. It’s not a very good sketch, primarily because, for most of the time I was drawing the citadel, I was surrounded by a group of 20 boys celebrating with their Eid presents – replica guns which they brandished at me and at each other. They also jibed me with ridiculous questions, jostled my arms and even tried to help me with the drawing, adding bits here and there. As a result I retreated to a nearby empty cafe, ate an expensive and horribly tepid lunch and ended up in the hospital the following day with a nasty case of food poisoning that was initially and very worryingly diagnosed as an inflamed appendix.





A Victorian collaboration: two London lamps

29 07 2011

1. Lamp in Southwark Street, London, The Builder, 1865

This extraordinary cast iron lamp, one of a pair unveiled in Southwark Street in London in January 1865, was designed by an architect, Charles Henry Driver for Joseph Bazalgette, the chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works, and was manufactured by the ironfounder Walter Macfarlane, based in Glasgow. It was this collaboration that formed the focus of the illustration of the lamp provided in The Builder published a week before the lamp was unveiled (1). Although not specified in the text accompanying the image, the identity of one of these figures is revealed by this photograph below, which undoubtedly formed the basis for the engraving (2).

2. Photograph of the lamp and Walter Macfarlane

3. Detail of the figures around the lamp

In the photograph Walter Macfarlane himself stands in front of one of the lamps, erected in the grounds of his Glasgow foundry before being transported and re-erected in Southwark Street. The features of both lamp and Macfarlane in the engraving correspond almost exactly with the photograph, although reversed as one would expect with a printed image. However, more figures are introduced into the engraving (3), including the recognisable figure of Bazalgette behind Macfarlane, who has presumably brought his wife to admire the quality of the lamp. The figure on horseback on the right and the related female figure are probably Charles Driver and his wife, although his name isn’t mentioned in the accompanying text. Driver definitely did appear in another Builder illustration in 1868 (4), showing another Macfarlane-produced lamp that is explicitly stated in the text as designed by Driver – to the left of lamp, he appears, with his wife, opposite Bazalgette, although this time minus Macfarlane. Driver’s features are replicated in the 1865 image, including his riding crop, which appears in the 1868 image, despite the absence of an accompanying horse (5).

4. Another lamp depicted in The Builder, 1868

5. Detail of the figures around the lamp

Even without this close observation, it’s clear that the 1865 image shows both an architectural object and the key players in its coming-into-being – namely, patron, designer and manufacturer. Indeed the collaboration depicted is very like that which produced the image in the first place, that is between an artist and wood engraver, represented in the image itself as the two signed names at the bottom left and right of both prints (1 & 4) – W G Smith and Walmsley.








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