Ruins in reverse: Ciudad Valdeluz, Spain

3 12 2014

Unfinished college building, Valdeluz

It was the American artist Robert Smithson who, in 1967, first coined the phrase ‘ruins in reverse’ when describing some of the strange forms he encountered in the post-industrial landscape around his home town of Passaic in New Jersey. His first ruin in reverse was an abandoned highway – a ‘zero panorama’ that contained within it ‘the memory-traces of an abandoned set of futures.’ Of course, that abandoned construction project was not a new phenomenon – one can imagine countless structures in history never reaching a state of completion; yet, there was something unprecedented in Smithson’s attribution of the term ‘ruin’ to this not-yet-built environment.

Abandoned platform, Guadalajara-Yebes railway station

Abandoned platform, Guadalajara-Yebes railway station

Faded advertising hoardings, Valdeluz

Faded advertising hoardings, Valdeluz

Since the global financial crisis of 2008, these ruins in reverse have become so commonplace and widespread as to comprise a new international ‘style’ of ruination, one that has generated an enormous amount of media commentary, from abandoned infrastructure (like Smithson’s ‘zero’ highway) to entire cities waiting to be inhabited in China. One such site is the commuter town of Valdeluz, 40 miles northeast of Spain’s capital, Madrid, which I visited on a humid September day earlier this year. Conceived at the height of Spain’s economic boom in early 2004, the city (Ciudad) of Valdeluz was laid out next to a vast station on the new high-speed railway that linked Madrid with Barcelona. Nine thousand homes were planned (for an estimated population of 30,000), as well as a large business park, state-of-the-art college, leisure facilities and verdant ‘green zones’ of parks, children’s playgrounds and golf courses. To date, only a quarter of the apartment buildings have been completed, with the population starting in 2008 at only 200 and rising slowly today to around 2,500.

Pedestrian walkway, Valdeluz

Pedestrian walkway, Valdeluz

Unfinished road, Valdeluz

Unfinished road, Valdeluz

Visiting Valdeluz requires detailed knowledge of train timetables: for at least 10 hours every day, no trains at all stop at the station that serves the town, even as dozens hurry through on the high-speed line. As Smithson so clearly articulated, encountering ruins in reverse is akin to being dislocated from conventional notions of time. In Valdeluz, the unmistakeable peace encountered in the ruin is entirely missing; from the abandoned remnants of the town, one cannot construct an image of the built environment as it once was, but, rather, left groping in the dark as to what it was (and is) meant to be. Even though all the objects encountered are familiar to the point of banality (benches, lampposts, manhole covers, pavements, roads, junction boxes), in their unfinished state they seem unreadable, detached as they are from any sense of an assured future use.

Abandoned junction boxes, Valdeluz

Abandoned junction boxes, Valdeluz

Central plaza, Valdeluz

Central plaza, Valdeluz

Even stranger, of course, is the reality of Valdeluz as a place that is lived-in, albeit by only a few. As reported by Newsweek in June 2014, these residents express a common feeling of being cut-off from larger society, forced to deal with unprecedented problems of place-making and social cohesion. As the proprietor of the town’s only café, Yolanda Alvarez, stated, the problems in the town are precisely the opposite of those normally associated with urban life: too much peace-and-quiet, too little to do, virtually no public transport. Even as the town’s mayor has voiced optimism with regard to the future of the fledgling community, so much rests on the larger forces that created the town in the first place (and which have now departed).

Business park, Valdeluz

Business park, Valdeluz

Business park, Valdeluz

Business park, Valdeluz

As I hurried back to catch the mid-afternoon train back to Madrid (the last for another 10 hours), the identical clocks spread out on the long empty platform were audible in their rhythmic ticking. Apart from this and the muffled noise of the wind, there was an unearthly sense of stasis, a feeling that generated an entirely new notion of ruin. It was as if a world had been created for the purpose of demonstrating some kind of meaning that nevertheless remained entirely elusive. Had some alien force deposited this built environment onto the earth as a simulation of a human environment? If so, for what purpose? Finding the elusive answers to these questions may yet account for the profoundly alien nature of global capitalism and the increasingly large-scale ruins in reverse it is leaving in its wake.

Waiting for the train, Guadalajara-Yebes station.

Waiting for the train, Guadalajara-Yebes station.





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





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.





The intestine of Leviathan: visiting the Paris sewers

20 07 2012

Light and darkness in the Paris sewers

The contemporary historian David Pike has drawn attention to nineteenth-century ideas about underground space, in particular the ways in which these articulated the urban underground as a symbolic space – that is, as a metaphor of society as a whole. In relation to Paris, we find this expressed most directly in Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Misérables. Society, for Hugo, is compared to geological strata with ‘upper and lower galleries’; at the bottom of society are located its most seditious elements – the ‘fearsome’ workers and the revolutionaries. The direct association of sewers and filth provided a powerful metaphor for these lowest levels of society; these spaces were more or less directly associated in the public mind with the moral filth of the city – places where, according to Hugo, ‘monsters may be born’.

1. ‘The sewers of Paris’, Illustrated London News, 29 January 1870, p. 128

However, in Les Misérables, Hugo also makes a clear distinction between the old sewers, seen as fearsome places – ‘the intestine of Leviathan’ – and the new sewers built from the 1850s onwards, which he describes as ‘clean, cold, straight and correct … [where] the filth is well-behaved’. According to Hugo, the transformation of the Paris sewers divested them of their older symbolic power. In 1867, a section of the Paris sewerage system was opened up to the public; visitors – both men and women – who descended into this transformed underworld admired the cleanliness of the spaces, the lack of smell, and the brilliant lighting (1). These visits challenged public understanding of sewers as fearsome places with a new mode of conception – that propagated by the engineer, who plans and builds sewers according to rational and scientific principles.

2. Stuffed rats in the Paris sewers

3. The history of Paris’s sewers as described in the Musée des Egouts

4. Jean Valjean’s escape through the Paris sewers as pictured in the Musée des Egouts

On the surface, today’s Musée des Egouts is a rather less exciting and more sanitised space than its nineteenth-century forebear. Guided by arrowed signs, visitors inspect the sewers without actually riding in the excrement, the cleaning machines are displayed as relics of the past, while stuffed rats in a glass case suggest that the sewers have been thoroughly cleansed of organic life (2). Meanwhile, the history of Paris’s underworld is described through unappealing exhibition panels inserted into the cavernous spaces of the sewers (3), while Jean Valjean’s heroics are visualised as they might be in an amateur dramatics production of Les Misérables (4). Yet, all the while, the great tide of Parisian excrement flows beneath your feet – overpoweringly smelt, heard and seen. The enormous water and gas pipes, suspended from the ceilings of the sewers, drip in the humidity while the enclosed spaces magnify sounds and create strange echoes. It is as if the spaces themselves constantly threaten to overshadow the rationalised understanding being presented to us. Indeed, looking past what is presented suggests an illimitable world beyond, at once terrifying and enchanting – passages disappear in all directions, up and down (5); tunnels recede into pitch black (6); unimaginable torrents can be heard in the far distance; shadows loom in unexpected places (7).

5. Looking up a passageway

6. Looking down a side drain

7. Shadows and light

The Paris sewers, like those in any other modern city, might have been called to order in the nineteenth century; yet, like all sewer spaces, no matter how rationalised in conception, they stubbornly resist to be perceived in this way. In providing an opportunity to experience these spaces, no matter how ‘guided’ this experience may be, the Musée des Egouts opens up a world in which the city can be re-enchanted, experienced as truly ‘other’ and offering fertile ground for the liberation of the imagination.





Communal reading and everyday life

13 04 2012

Taking an everyday journey on the London Underground in August this year, I witnessed many different types of reading; in the carriage in which I travelled, a middle-aged couple jointly consulted a London guidebook; a man next to me perused a map of the Underground; a young woman opposite studied some hand-written notes; two passengers read the newspaper; while one was engrossed in a novel. Finally, whilst observing my fellow passengers, I scanned the advertisements on the walls of the carriage. In short, I witnessed and engaged in varied kinds of reading at work on equally varied kinds of reading material.

Image

On the same day I took this photograph of a group sitting on a bench along the South Bank. These three Italian visitors were engaged in an act of shared reading common to any group visiting a new city: in the centre the older female holds a London guidebook so that the other two people can read it. She looks down at the text, as does the male figure to the left, presumably her partner. Meanwhile the girl on the right, presumably her daughter, looks ahead, not reading the guide, but nevertheless closely tied in with the act of reading by the other two figures. This kind of reading would almost certainly be interrupted by other activities: conversation about decisions to be made or unrelated matters, or observations of surroundings. Finally, we can imagine this kind of shared reading replicated countless times across London at every moment of the day, perhaps more numerous and visible in areas popular with tourists.

Image

When studying readers of the past, such shared reading must be considered alongside the traditional emphasis on readers of literature, absorbed in their books in splendid isolation, such as those seen in David Vincent’s Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: a Study of Nineteenth-Century Working Class Autobiography (1982), which states that ‘reading is a solitary activity’ (p. 125) despite the cover illustration showing a group of Victorian working men collectively reading a newspaper. Bringing to light the experience of shared reading, such as that seen in this photograph, might tell us much about reading as a ‘functional’ activity, that is, one that presupposes concrete acts in the world. By studying such experiences in the past, and analysing the relationship between reading and action, we will uncover varieties of everyday experience that have so far remained ignored by historians, but, like other forms of reading, warrant our close attention.

Image





Measuring Victorian London: Mogg’s cab fare map

3 01 2012

1. Mogg’s Postal-District and Cab-Fare Map, 1859. Drawn by Edward Mogg, lithographed by C. Whittingham, London, published by William Mogg, London. 532 x 720 mm (Paul Dobraszczyk)

Running parallel to the development of fare books in the nineteenth century (like Mogg’s Ten Thousand Cab Fares) was the publication of what might be described as ‘at a glance’ information: that is, information contained on one sheet of paper in the form of comprehensive fare tables or maps. Books of fares, no matter how well designed, were clearly problematic to use, whether carried in a pocket or consulted in a cab: in a book format information could never be ascertained ‘at a glance’; pages had to be turned, indexes consulted, destinations and cab stands memorised.

2. Detail of Mogg's Cab-Fare map, 1859

Mogg attempted to address this problem with his series of Postal-District and Cab-Fare maps (1 & 2), drawn by his brother Edward. Superimposed onto a conventional topographic map of London are grid squares at half-mile intervals, labels of the postal districts, and the four-mile radius from Charing Cross (shown as a dark circle) that marked the transition from a sixpence to a shilling fare per mile. In addition, referencing aids are included around the edges of the map: letters along the top and bottom; numbers on the sides. In the 33-page index that accompanied the map and listed 3,000 places, readers were instructed on how use the map (3): first, they were to locate their required destination in the index, and, second, to memorise the letter and figure of the square required (4). By then consulting the map and matching the letter and figure to those given around its edges, the user could find the required place ‘instantly’.

3. Explanation of how to use Mogg's map

4. Index to Mogg's Cab-Fare map

Whether cab maps were indeed ‘useful’ to visitors to London is difficult to ascertain. Punch, in 1851, provided its own satirical image of a map like Mogg’s being used (5). It showed two visitors to London engaged in a ‘topographic problem’, that is, trying to use a similar map to find their way from Seven Dials to the Eastern Counties Railway Station (now Liverpool Street), a distance of about 3 miles. With one visitor holding the map securely while the other squints up close at the obviously far too detailed map to try and measure the distance with his fingers, Punch mocks the optimistic claims publishers like Mogg generally made of their maps.

4. 'Topographical problem', Punch, 1851





A seaside icon: the Blackpool Tower

14 11 2011

1. The Blackpool Tower in 2011

By the 1890s, Blackpool was one of the fastest-growing resorts in Britain, with its working-class reputation firmly established. More than any other of its buildings, the Blackpool Tower (1; 1891-94) came to embody the town’s sense of itself as pre-eminently modern. The 500-ft high tower, constructed from a mixture of cast and wrought iron, was inspired by Gustave Eiffel’s tower built in Paris in 1889 and, like its Parisian model, the iron construction of the Tower was essentially structural and utilitarian, the only decorative part being the Tower’s crown (2), a vestige of orientalism that, up close, reveals itself to be a series of unornamented iron beams crudely bolted together.

2. The crown of the Tower

For the Tower’s first visitors, the panoramic view from the platform at the base of the crown, reached by an electric lift, was ‘simply indescribable’ where, on the ground, ‘people look[ed] like fleas’ (3). The lift was one of many other entertainments that were housed between the Tower’s four iron legs, including a circus, ballroom (4), terraced gardens, and promenades, all of which were characterised by exotic decoration in iron (5), terracotta and opulent low-relief tiles (6). The Blackpool Herald focused on the other-worldly ‘atmospheric transformation scene’ that formed part of each circus performance, when a unique flooding mechanism allowed the vast floor of the circus to be filled with water in a matter of minutes, transforming it into an arena for swimming and aquatic displays. Here, then, was a ‘fairy-like’ image of nature controlled by technology, the ‘interface between land and sea … mastered and controlled before the very eyes of the visitor’.

3. View north from the crown of the Tower

4. The Tower ballroom

More than any other seaside building – perhaps even any other building in Britain – the Blackpool Tower has come to symbolise both the town and British seaside experience as a whole. As John Urry has argued, Blackpool’s tower, just like its model in Paris, is no normal spectacle because of the original view it offers of urban space, that is, by turning it into a ‘natural’ landscape. The tower, in a similar way to piers, enables people to see the world as a whole and ‘to celebrate the participation within, and the victory of, human agency over nature’. Going even further, seaside historians have argued that the Blackpool Tower is variously a democratic space, freely available to all; a site of the carnivalesque, that is a complete release from – and reversal of – the norms and conventions of everyday working life; or a utopian symbol of hope for all those who visited Blackpool.

5. Ornamental iron in Jungle Jim's (the former Tower gardens)

6. Exotic tiles and terracotta inside the Tower

Central to all of these interpretations is the view of the tower from afar (7). As documented by the Mass-Observation research group in the 1930s, working-class visitors often described the effect of their first view of the tower from the train journey to Blackpool. It created great excitement, confirmed that you were on holiday and was a sign of the ‘other world’ of pleasure about to be entered where the ‘cotton and factory chimney are finished with’. Just like the Eiffel Tower, the distant view of Blackpool’s tower was what transformed an essentially utilitarian structure into a ornament of the town, the oriental iron crown being the most potent symbol of entering another world, one that reversed the normal associations of the factory chimneys of visitors’ home towns. The fact that the tower is still popular to this day is testament to its enduring symbolic potency, despite the terminal decline of the disciplines of industrial production that fed the desire for release. Yet, the tower’s pleasures – virtually unchanged since it was opened in 1894 – are still defiantly working-class, celebrating a collective experience that is both nostalgic for one generation and exciting and spectacular for another. Like much of what remains of Victorian seaside iron architecture, the tower experience is anathema to middle-class values, with its herded crowds, chaotic business, contrived entertainments and unashamed nostalgia. For this middle-class author, learning to see meaning in the iron tower (and in seaside ironwork in general) was one way in which this resistance can be challenged.

7. The Tower from the beach at low tide








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