Blog Archives

The Ruins of Music

The Grande Ballroom in Detroit in 2009, which remains in ruins today (image from Albert duce).

The Grande Ballroom in Detroit in 2009, which remains in ruins today (image from Albert duce).

Music has a rather ephemeral materiality rendered in tangible things like CDs, cassettes, records, and perhaps even digital playlists, but its more compelling archaeological dimension is probably the historical landscapes of clubs and music districts that dot nearly every community.  Local grassroots music tends to be relatively dynamic, but live music holds a tenacious if ever-transforming grip on the landscape: most communities can point to a distinctive soundscape of clubs, impromptu spaces, and places from churches to schools where music was the heart of local experience.

Music has had a profoundly consequential hold on youth culture for most of the last century, but many places’ local musical heritages are in ruins or razed.  The musical landscape is exceptionally dynamic: a parade of fringe styles continually step forward in nearly every place, articulating a host of local, generational, and social experiences.  Most musical circles seek some modestly satisfying measure of relevance, creative community, and profitability, and some express broad if not universal anxieties and sentiments while others are simply more ephemeral sounds. Read the rest of this entry

Failed Ambition: Ruins, Gaze, and Public Housing

IMG_6226Much of our fascination with ruins—and perhaps some of our uneasiness—revolves around their stark testimony to failure, and perhaps no ruins aesthetically underscore the collapse of modernity more clearly than public housing.  Public housing was born from a distinctive marriage of modernist optimism and racist and classist ideologies aspiring to remake the American city (and with many global parallels).  Last week Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass housing project went under the wrecking ball, another in a series of 20th-century housing projectsPruitt-Igoe, Cabrini Green, the Robert Taylor Homes—that are routinely stereotyped as the epitaph for modernity’s over-reaching ambition, xenophobic nostalgia, or the misplaced optimism of state-supported housing.  Regardless of their legacy, the ruins and razing of public housing raise interesting questions about gaze and how we see and imagine particular sorts of ruins.

IMG_6239Ruins fascinate us because they energize our imaginations, providing material evidence of lost experiences while simultaneously underscoring the passing of that heritage.  Those lost experiences assume meaning through an idiosyncratic mix of popular iconography, mass discourses, and personal spatial and material experiences that shape how we perceive places like Detroit (what Edward Said referred to as “imaginative geographies”).  Every ruin fuels a distinctive corner of our imagination and tells a distinct sort of story, and the narrative of public housing ruination is distinguished in modest but critical ways from the tales woven about industrial decline, dead malls, or eroding post-Soviet landscapes. Read the rest of this entry

The Feral City: The Convergence of Ruins and Nature

Open lots in Brush Park

Open lots in Brush Park

Detroit’s Brush Park was once one of the city’s finest Gilded Age neighborhoods, a 22-block community of mansions that included a host of high style Victorian homes within reach of downtown.  Referred to by one period observer as the “little Paris of the Midwest,” Brush Park was home to some of the city’s wealthiest residents between the mid-19th century and the early 20th century, when it began to gradually decline, transformed into boarding houses during the Depression and subsequently declining along with much of the postwar city.   Today, only about 80 of the neighborhood’s roughly 300 original structures remains standing.  Some rehabilitated homes stand alongside others that are decaying as forlorn testimony to the neighborhood’s former glory, and the remaining homes are magnets for artists, preservationists, and urbanites re-imagining the life of the city. Read the rest of this entry

Burying Trauma: Cemeteries and Heritage at Central State Hospital

The autopsy room in the Old Pathology Building at the former Central State, now Indiana Medical History Museum (image Huw Williams).

The autopsy room in the Old Pathology Building at the former Central State, now the Indiana Medical History Museum (image Huw Williams).

In September 1903 The Indianapolis Journal reported that Oliver S. Clay and his mother Charlotte “for years have lived in their home at 1405 East Sixteenth street, but on account of reverses, financial and otherwise, were compelled to mortgage their property for several hundred dollars, which, on becoming due, remained unpaid.”  In many ways, Clay’s story of ill fortune might well be told of many of his early 20th-century neighbors.  His father J.H. Clay had been the Pastor of the Bethel AME Church in Indianapolis until his death in 1892.  After his father’s death Oliver was an advocate for African-American education and a Black political party, and in the 1902 election he led an African-American movement to vote a blank ballot, telling The Indianapolis Journal that “if the white politicians will give the negroes recognition then he will advocate voting.”  However, like many Americans entertaining the American Dream, Clay’s ambition and hard work ended in tragedy as he was evicted, institutionalized, and eventually relegated to a potter’s field.  The ultimate fate of his mortal remains punctuate both his unfortunate end and the way contemporary society routinely ignores the unpleasant histories at the heart of American life.

In 1901 the Public Library Bulletin reported on Clay’s aspiration to turn his home into what he dubbed the Claysonian Library.  Clay’s collection included “the 315 volumes comprising the library of his father, the Rev. J. H. Clay, deceased, to which have been added by donation a sufficient number of books to make the collection 521 volumes, besides miscellaneous magazines and periodicals.  The object is to cultivate a taste for literature among the young colored people, especially of the immediate neighborhood.”  Oliver Clay’s neighborhood library was dedicated in April 1901 on what would have been his father’s 51st birthday, and several months later he received a gift of 50 volumes from Congressman Jesse Overstreet.  The library subsequently hosted regular events at the Clays’ home and local venues, such as a lecture on the Emancipation Proclamation’s 40th Anniversary in January 1903.

In August, 1903, though, the Indianapolis Sun reported that Clay “has, with the furniture of the institution of which he is founder, been ejected into the street.”  Clay moved his things back into the home and told the newspaper that “`You may say, mistah, that the Claysonian will be re-established in other quatahs soon and that the good work started by me will never die.’”  In September a realtor returned in an effort to eject the Clays and once again “started to move the furniture out into the street.  When he looked up he was gazing into the barrel of a revolver held firmly in the dusky hand of the Claysonian.  `Claysonia forever!’ cried Oliver Clay, `and if you dare to move anything from this house you will forfeit your life.’” Read the rest of this entry

The Time Capsule Effect: Pristine Abandonment and the Ideal Ruin

Stepping into the 1960s shoe store "time capsule" (image from tadaw).

Stepping into the 1960s shoe store “time capsule” (image from tadaw).

Sometime in the late-1960s the proprietors of a modest shoe store closed its doors, leaving the stock neatly stacked along its walls.  It remained there apparently untouched until a year ago, when a descendant opened the doors to find a mountain of shoe boxes and footwear and a typical small business seemingly as it had been left the day it was shuttered.  Shoe collectors’ hearts leapt at the prospect of the magical specter of “old store stock” in its original packaging transformed to the status of “vintage.”  The implied riches of the assemblage on ebay have captured much of the popular curiosity with the little store, but the more fascinating story is the “time capsule” effect of the assemblage and similar “pristine” abandonment spaces, not simply the allure of a pair of vintage wingtips.

Shoe boxes line the walls of the preserved shoe store (image tadaw).

Shoe boxes line the walls of the preserved shoe store (image tadaw).

Ruins are material and aesthetic vehicles for the imagination, sometimes simply for a “lost time” and in other hands as moral statements about the collapse of cities, industry, or communities.  The undisturbed shoe store is an example of perhaps the most compelling of all abandoned sites: the “time capsule” left as it “really was” in an un-staged moment arresting the flow of a distant material life.  The archetype for the time capsule site is Pripyat, the nuclear city rapidly abandoned in April, 1986 after the Chernobyl disaster.  Tours now venture to Pripyat to walk amidst the detritus of everyday life and the specter of disaster apparently arrested in time. Read the rest of this entry

Ruins and Race in a World War II Ghost Town

A water tower still rises above the vacant Elko tract (image Ben Swenson).

A water tower still rises above the vacant Elko tract (image Ben Swenson).

Perhaps the most distinctive ruins of the Cold War lie east of Richmond, Virginia.  In 1943 a decoy airfield was constructed by the 1896th Engineer Aviation Battalion to confuse potential aerial attacks on the US Army Air Corps based at nearby Byrd Field in Henrico County.  The battalion constructed a series of artificial structures and a fake runway arranged much like that at Byrd Field.  Yet a compelling if somewhat more complicated story is provided by the tract’s post-war history and its interpretation in the subsequent half-century.

In February, 1947 the state bid to purchase the decoy airport tract in Elko from the War Assets Administration with the intention to build an African-American mental hospital.  A streetscape, drainage, fire hydrants, and a water tower were erected, yet by June 1954 the Richmond paper had reported that “$500,000 of utilities are rusting at Elko.”  In October 1955 the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star reported that the state was beginning training of “the grounds and buildings department of the proposed Negro training school and hospital at Elko near Richmond,” but in February, 1957 the Governor approved a switch of the hospital’s site from Elko to Petersburg.  The unfinished ghost landscape left behind remains an overgrown empty grid today attesting to measures of arrogance, racism, and distorted historical memory that distinguish Cold War America. Read the rest of this entry

Renovating Ruins: Ruination, Consumption, and Art

Karl Bitter's 1898 installation The Races of Mankind was placed on pillars when it came to Holliday Park (image from Donna Cazadd).

Karl Bitter’s 1898 installation The Races of Mankind was placed on pillars when it came to Holliday Park (image from Donna Cazadd).

At the heart of Indianapolis, Indiana’s Holliday Park sit the remnants of an artwork its designer hoped would be known as Constitution Mall.  The remains are typically referred to simply as “the Ruins,” though, and in the heart of the city park they are a picturesque if unexpected backdrop:  ambiguously evocative of a deteriorating heritage, the Greek columns, a reflecting pool, and a scatter of limestone statuary are today fenced-in and grown over with weeds.  The centerpiece of the remains is an 1898 sculpture designed by Karl Bitter known as “the Races of Mankind” depicting three kneeling figures who represent “the Caucasian, Negro, and Mongolian races bearing mankind’s burden.”

The Ruins in April, 2013 (image from netmonkey)

The Ruins in April, 2013 (image from netmonkey)

The three sculptures were created at the end of the 19th century, but the installation itself was created in the 1960s and 1970s, a faux ruin rather than a genuine architectural shell.  Park boosters’ interest in “renovating” the Ruins now signals that the piece has passed from an artwork evoking romantic ruination to a true ruin that somehow fails to capture an aesthetic ideal and has no self-evident consumable value.  The discussion over how to rescue an artwork that was always intended to be a ruin illuminates the complicated intersection of aesthetics and ruination.

Bitter’s statues came to Indianapolis in 1958 after the St. Paul Building in New York City was torn down.  Architect Francis Keally presided over a committee that reviewed proposals for re-using the statues: the city of Indianapolis, as well as New York University, Columbia, and Farleigh Dickenson submitted plans to re-use the sculptures.  The New York Times’ Meyer Berger reported that “Indianapolis was awarded the figures by a committee because it plans to set them in the middle of a reflecting pool, a lofty setting identical to that envisioned by the sculptor.” The paper indicated that Indianapolis architect David V. Burns “has drawn tentative plans for the future installation.” Read the rest of this entry

Beneath the Surface of Abandonment

Fragments of collage ruins (Ewa Fornal)

Fragments of collage ruins (Ewa Fornal)

Abandonment art is routinely lamented for its literal and metaphorical focus on aesthetic surfaces; that is, abandonment art risks reducing the weathered, damaged, and derelict exteriors of abandoned buildings to an ahistorical style that fails to illuminate processes of ruination.  Some critiques of ruin art are guilty of their own romantic desire to paint transparently uplifting or “authentic” pictures of a place; in many instances, they somewhat xenophobically resist a host of “outsiders” spilling into eroding urban cores; and some critics of “ruin porn” hazard ignoring the genuine structural decline of much of urban America.  Nevertheless, a shallow gaze on abandoned landscapes may indeed hazard trivializing complicated historical decline by fixating on the visual dimensions of ruin.

A collage from "I'm the Mempry of Mannix F" (Ewa Fornal)

A collage from “I’m the Memory of Mannix F” (Ewa Fornal)

Ruins may well have assumed their elevated contemporary prominence because of the digital documentation of abandonment: the likes of flick’r and tumbl’r are awash with ruin images; instagram-armed camera phones document a decaying planet; and artsy urban transplants have led a digital dissection of the ruins in their midst.  Images of decline can quite productively evoke waste, loss, and transition and fuel interventions against structural processes of ruination; the challenge simply is to avoid romanticized notions of an aesthetic decline disconnected from deep-seated inequalities.

An archaeological approach to ruination ideally sifts through layers of ruination and visually and materially interprets processes of creation, growth, decline, and ruin.  Some artists may be borrowing much the same method to creatively rethink ruins.  Polish artist Ewa Fornal, for instant, might be circumspectly characterized as an abandonment artist.  Fernal, who lives and works in Ireland, toys with the distinction between aesthetic surfaces and the historical depth of ruination.  Many photographers work with the visual representation of abandonment, but Fornal is among a handful of artists who work with the material detritus of ruins (e.g.,  the 2010 Modern Ruin exhibit in Dallas). Read the rest of this entry

Abandoned Faith: The Aesthetics of Religious Ruins

The ruins of this church are near Plzen, Czech Republic (image by author).

The ruins of this church are near Plzen, Czech Republic (image by author).

Perhaps the most compelling abandonment art evokes emotional absence, the literal loss of people if not whole ways of life that once inhabited the buildings, communities, and discrete places in ruin art.  Mental hospitals and schools, for instance, are routinely featured by photographers because they once housed emotionally intense experiences, be it the depths of mental illness and the despair of incarceration or the innocence of childhood and the hopefulness of education.  Those powerful but ephemeral feelings are in some ways heightened in hindsight by the decay of the buildings themselves, whose decaying shells help us see change and imagine what has been lost.  In many cases ruined spaces aesthetically evoke social “illnesses,” like the stigmatization of mental illness and the health care abuses implied in the shell of an asylum; the decline of industry underscored in an abandoned factory; or the changes in mass leisure and post-war suburbanization that led to the collapse of grand city theaters.

A 1960s postcard image of Holy Land USA's hillside sign (image courtesy wikimedia commons).

A 1960s postcard image of Holy Land USA’s hillside sign (image courtesy wikimedia commons).

Few abandonment sites paint more compelling if idiosyncratic emotional absences than Holy Land USA, a Waterbury, Connecticut religious park that closed in 1984.  Abandonment art routinely depicts amusement parks, whose ruins cast a captivating aesthetics of imaginative play and imply a certain innocence.  Yet Holy Land USA breaks from the conventional amusement park in both its subject matter and the materiality of the decaying park.  The park has been the focus of numerous abandonment artists and urban explorers drawn to the host of eroding Holy Land dioramas.  Amusement parks often figure in abandonment art since its meanings are rooted in pleasure even as their ruins tragically underscore the advance of nature.

The Holy Land USA sign in 2008 (image courtesy nick see).

The Holy Land USA sign in 2008 (image courtesy nick see).

Holy Land USA is also a compelling symbol of faith, and perhaps even more so in decline than it may have had at its height as a tourist attraction in the 1960s and 1970s.  Abandonment artists routinely examine churches, which symbolize something ostensibly timeless, capture the depth of hope invested in some spaces, and evoke both the consequence of faith and the decline of religion.  Like amusement parks littered with aesthetically novel and fascinating things, churches provide exceptionally powerful aesthetic spaces, especially in decline:  church spaces can be visually arresting, often-monumental shells through which light streams in captivating ways through now-absent congregations.  Just as amusement parks often reveal the shifts in mass-consumed leisure in the 21st century, churches document the 20th-century city, forlorn in many neighborhoods depopulated by choice and circumstance alike.  Abandonment art paints churches as symbols of the collapse of the urban core, and the ruin’s symbolism as a dead space shallowly intones the decline of religion itself.

A 1974 image of Holy Land USA visitors at the Good Samaritan Inn (image courtesy)

A 1974 image of Holy Land USA visitors at the Good Samaritan Inn (image courtesy cousin dave)

Holy Land USA was the inspiration of Waterbury lawyer John B. Greco, a devout Catholic who began construction of the park in 1956 with the ambition to “bring people closer to God.”  Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and various biblical stories were represented by unique, handmade figures and structures whose mixed scales, hand-crafted style, and decorative deities might be interpreted as both kitsch and craft.  The park was roughly akin to the sacri monti (i.e., sacred mountains) that dotted Italy during the late 15th and early 18th centuries.  Like Greco’s Holy Land, the sacri monti recreated the Holy Land for pilgrims unable to venture to the near East.  Greco and a team of volunteers made the park’s dioramas representing Biblical moments including Bethlehem, Daniel in the Lions’ den, and the hilltop of the Crucifixion, crafting the exhibits from whatever they had on hand.  In 2005 the Hartford Courant indicated that the distinctive Holy Land ruins “featured a non-working, doorless upright freezer housing a statue of Jesus with the Sacred Heart, and a Garden of Eden display consisting of naked mannequins — Adam and Eve — amid fake plants inside a mobile home.”

The remains of Herod's Palace (image courtesy CalAround).

The remains of Herod’s Palace (image courtesy CalAround).

Greco had traveled in the Near East and visited some of the spaces represented in his park, but the park borrowed from popular cultural symbolism and pure imagination alike.  The park’s hillside, for instance, was covered with an illuminated Holy Land USA sign like the Hollywood letters, and in 1997 a Boy Scout project restored the letters.  Yet other displays like Herod’s Palace had no stylistic reference to any classical architectural form and instead looked like a modest shed laid out on a putt-putt course. After Greco’s death the park was inherited by a Catholic religious order, falling into disrepair even as its idiosyncratic style attracted photographers and repelled style arbiters.  In 2002, for instance, the New York Times indicated that “the gray plaster Temple of Jerusalem, affectionately called `unhistorical and funky’ by one local religious scholar, now more closely resembles a prop from a Japanese monster movie.”  The Times described the park as “Catholic-oriented religious kitsch — much of it miniaturized and built with scrap machine parts.”  The Daily Show dispatched Stephen Colbert to the scene in 2002, examining the disagreements over the park’s preservation and the projection of kitsch onto faith.

The Holy Land hillside today (image courtesy CalAround).

The Holy Land hillside today (image courtesy CalAround).

Unlike kitsch, though, Holy Land USA certainly seems not to have been fabricated as intentionally garish excess; instead, it looms as heartfelt folk art whose symbolism seems melodramatic only because it was proselytizing, and appeals to the soul rarely are articulated with subtlety.  Pictures of Greco’s park now expose its hand-crafted essence of chicken wire figures, recycled plywood, machine parts, and paper mache now eroding into the Connecticut hillside. In 2008 the eroding 56-foot cross planted on the hilltop was replaced by a 50-foot steel cross, but the remainder of the park appears to be in relatively rapid decline.  The ruins of Holy Land USA depart from utterly commercial material shows of faith consumption (e.g., The Holy Land Experience), and in its decline Holy Land USA paints a compelling aesthetic of faith and folk art.  Like the most compelling ruins, it provides a visually arresting evocation of absence, in this case evoking the proselytizers and pilgrims who once trooped through the park.

Holy Land USA References

Statues still dot the remains of Holy Land USA (image courtesy CalAround).

Statues still dot the remains of Holy Land USA (image courtesy CalAround).

Deserted Religious Theme Park Izismile

Help Save Holy Land USA facebook

Holy Land Shaun O’Boyle

Holy Land 1956-1984

Holy Land USA agilitynut

Holy Land USA Amy O’Neill

Holy Land USA bdodge

Holy Land USA Bill Franson Photography

Holy Land USA Center for Land Use Interpretation

Holy Land USA Deserted Places blog

Holy Land USA Huffington Post

Holy Land USA I Think that I Would Die

Holy Land USA Institutional Green

Holy Land USA New England Journal for Aesthetic Research

Holy Land USA Roadside America

Holy Land USA Roadside America flickr page

Holy Land USA This is Connecticut

Holy Land, USA: From place of pilgrimage to creepy destination Washington Times

Holy Land USA Then and Now jenniferrt66 flick’r page

The Catholic Transcript Online 2008 Cross May Spark Revival of Holy Land USA.  The Catholic Transcript Online

Frances Chamberlain 2001 The View From/Waterbury; A Hilltop Landmark Undergoes a RevivalNew York Times 4 November.

Martin Kearns 1986 Man Who Built Waterbury’s Holy Land USA Dies.  The Hartford Courant 11 March:B1.

Ann Marie Somma 2005 At Holy Land USA, A Vision Crumbles: Waterbury’s Faded Monument Of Religious Kitsch Is Still ControversialHartford Courant 28 August.

Paul Zielbauer 2002 A Sight That Inspires Ambivalence; Ruins of a Religious Park Await Restorers or the BulldozerThe New York Times 12 November.


Good Samaritan Inn image courtesy Cousin Dave

Herod’s Palace image, Holyland hillside image,and Jesus statue image courtesy CalAround

Holy Land USA sign image courtesy Nick See

Metaphors for Abandonment: Exploring Urban Ruins

The prosaic humanity of an abandoned manor (image courtesy howzey)

An astounding number of web pages document abandoned materiality, encompassing a broad range of architectural spaces including asylums, bowling alleys, industrial sites, Cold War sites, and roadside motels as well as smaller things like pianos and even scale models of abandonment.  This ruination lust is not simply the province of a small handful of visual artists, hipsters colonizing Detroit, or recalcitrant trespassers; instead, it invokes something that reaches far deeper socially, has international dimensions, extends well into the past, and reflects a deep-seated fascination with—if not apprehension of—abandonment.  The question is what explains our apparently sudden collective fascination with abandonment, ruination, and decay.  The answers are exceptionally complex and highly individual, but there seem to be some recurrent metaphors in these discourses.

An abandoned roof felt factory in Tampere Finland (image courtesy Tiia Monto)

For “urban explorers” (a term that might loosely include artists, photographers, archaeologists, and curious folks alike), such journeys seek out “abandoned, unseen, and off-limits” spaces that imagine ruination in a wide range of artistic, emotional, scholarly, and political forms.  Many of these urban explorers and artists see themselves as visual historians, documenting the architectural and community heritage reflected in abandoned spaces.  For instance, Jonathan Haeber’s urban exploration blog Bearings explains that “I’m just an eye.  I’m just a camera. … An urban explorer is just a documentarian. …  We only appreciate the creations that are overlooked. … It is what remains that is the democratic equivalent of a revolution.”

This is a politically circumspect expression of the explorer as a visual chronicler who records the prosaic material dimensions of abandoned material heritage.  It focuses on the power of aesthetically documenting abandonment, often to fortify a general appreciation for the breadth of heritage but not always in especially articulate ways.  Urban Ghosts: Forgotten Places and Urban Curiosities, for example, argues that its mission through such images is to underscore that “History is all around us, on every street corner.  Almost every place has a story to tell, but so much goes unnoticed, or simply pales into insignificance alongside heavy-hitting giants like the pyramids.”

The abandoned Spreepark near Berlin (image courtesy Norbert Lov).

The thorough Guerilla Historian page argues that urban exploration can produce a historical narrative that is complicated by the physical and aesthetic depiction of ruination, arguing that “Staring into the unfamiliar past, artificial environments and composites of micro-histories is a way to construct a depth perception for our own timeline.”  This focus on the experience of exploring ruined materiality is not at all novel, but the Guerilla Historian envisions this producing a historical narrative focused on people’s story-telling.  Such a people’s history of ruination is based on grassroots commitment to the details of everyday heritage that some observers believe is outside conventional academic history.  Guerilla Historian suggests that “If his­tory is writ­ten only by the win­ners, we are all losers.  I come from a place where his­tory is some­thing you can walk on and climb on, some­thing to be found and felt. Come with me.  Our past has been relegated to weighty dusty bookshelves in this culture, treated as dead weight that holds modernity, innovation and progress itself back—I disagree. Our past is always obscured behind the veil of contemporary interpretation, and this work represents mine: a world where the past is freed from rotting pages and can teach us who we are.”  Some urban explorers share a comparable vision of their historiography as a foil to mainstream narratives; this risks over-stating the conservatism of academic historians, but it does capture that much of everyday materiality is absolutely irrelevant to mainstream historians, and urban explorers (including most historical archaeologists) celebrate the everyday world even as they acknowledge the profoundly complicated histories of loss in America.

Child’s chair and walking stick in an abandoned asylum boiler room (image courtesy World of Good)

Many of these projects focus on how the photographic representation of abandonment is utterly dependent on the bodily experience of a creative, curious, and sympathetic eye moving through ruined landscapes.  Matthew Christopher’s Abandoned America page has thoroughly chronicled urban abandonment, and his assessment of abandonment hinges on the physical experience of moving through these ruined landscapes, which he refers to as the “visceral experience of entering a parallel universe.”  In an Atlantic Cities article on “ruin porn,” Christopher acknowledged that “It was a case of that old cliché, ‘a picture speaks a thousand words.’ … When I’d try to talk about the presences that seem to linger in these places, people would look at me like I should be in an asylum myself. When I showed them pictures — they’d suddenly get it.”  Many if not most urban explorers believe that a visual record of a place is uniquely documented by a photographer who thinks creatively and embraces prosaic ruination, taking pictures in ways that our sight may not otherwise have seen and stressing what Travis Parno calls “the potency of the imagination.”  Beauty in Decay, for instance, aspires to “walk in the eerie footsteps of long departed souls through haunted houses turned to dust and industrial complexes surrendered to nature,” arguing that “to understand the siren song of these places requires a certainly more poetic mindset than one might be used to occupying.  Think back to your childhood for a moment and it all begins to make sense. … At the very point we cross the border from childhood into adolescence we cross real physical borders too. It’s the moment in our lives when we test the boundaries.”

Nike missile silo SF-91L in Belvedere California (image courtesy www78)

For some of these explorers, this is more than an exercise in taking good pictures or breaking into buildings.  The Beauty in Decay project acknowledges that with “a digital SLR camera and High Dynamic Range software it has become very much easier to take awesome photographs,” yet they do not reduce it simply to an aesthetic exploration; instead, they argue that “photography appears to be the symptom and not the disease.”  Rather than reduce urban abandonment to voyeuristic curiosity or shallow artistic vision, the Beauty in Decay project suggests that explorers “in the comfortable and over-protected ‘first world’ are living in an enforced and extended state of childhood.  They have remembered that they are capable of having unmediated experiences of reality and they welcome the fear that may (or may not) come with those experiences.  The fear itself is the gateway to go through. It’s the gateway that leads for many to ‘wonderland’. This is the world through the looking glass that in some dark corner of every soul, we are all looking for.”  This frames urban exploration as the pursuit of meaningful experiences in an over-built world that provides a false security; it is in the ruins of that very world that we encounter ourselves and our society and plumb the depths of our most unsettled sentiments about ourselves and modernity.

The abandoned Cocoa Palms Resort on Kauai, Hawaii (image courtesy peptic_ulcer)

Many urban explorers characterize ruin as “beauty,” a romantic nostalgia with deep historical roots.  For urban explorer Jonathan Haeber, for instance, the ruined landscape provides “beauty and ephemerality,” securing its aesthetic appeal from its very ruination and the decay inevitable in all materiality’s return to nature.   The implication of this notion of beauty is that the seeds of decay are in all materiality and technology, and we acknowledge this transience through our own willingness to see that ruination all about us.  One somewhat overwrought description of the Beauty in Decay project rhapsodized that urban explorers “collectively put forth a ground cry against a modern culture that embraces the new, polished, uniform, and mundane.  Urban explorers find the beauty—layers of graffiti by years worth of writers, multi-hued peeling paint, antique objects, someone’s initials left in the dust on a broken stained glass window—and physical manifestations of memory that abandoned, impermanent urban spaces can hold.”  This views decay as traces of memory, a somewhat romantic notion of the ruin as a pleasing fantasy whose materiality haunts the present but does not invoke the future.

An abandoned building in Cork, Ireland (image courtesy slinky2000)

The most distinctive definition of the relationship between beauty and ruin is a rapidly emerging school of photographic art that uses abandoned ruins as the stark backdrop for fashion images or nudes (for a relatively SFW example, see Beauty in Decay compiler Romanywg’s facebook page).  For instance, visual artist Miru Kim’s “Naked Spleen” series depicts her nude in a variety of urban ruins, explaining that “Experiencing feelings of alienation and anxiety in the city–a city that has increasingly become more surveilled and commodified–I began to understand how many artists and authors suffered from severe bouts of depression, inertia, and isolation, which the term spleen embodies. One of the ways I escaped such feelings was to visit desolate and hidden places in the city. … Exploring industrial ruins and structures made me look at the city as one living organism. I started to feel not only the skin of the city, but also to penetrate the inner layers of its intestines and veins, which swarm with miniscule life forms. These spaces—abandoned subway stations, tunnels, sewers, catacombs, factories, hospitals, and shipyards—form the subconscious of the city, where collective memories and dreams reside. … As I momentarily inhabit these deserted sites, they are transformed from strange to familiar, from harsh to calm, from dangerous to ludic.”  This actually invokes a common urban explorers’ desire for an unmediated experience, it simply inflates the sensory dimensions of that experience and produces more jarring images by juxtaposing a nude with ruination.  Others have used urban ruins as a very different sort of backdrop: For instance, the Gakuranman site’s guide to urban exploring includes the story that one urban explorer “tells us that she has also bumped into crews shooting adult photography and video on more than one occasion, which was quite embarrassing for both parties.”

Runwell Hospital in Essex (UK), a mental hospital opened in 1937 that closed in 2010 (image courtesy howzey)

Matthew Christopher has a sober explanation for the meanings of his images of abandonment.  He somewhat counter-intuitively (if rhetorically) argues that his images have no intended moral or political lessons, arguing that each picture of an abandoned place “filters a fraction of another microcosm of loss.  This place was many things to the many people who knew it: a source of income, memories of good times with family and friends, maybe even an inspiration or an ideal. Those things are gone now. Here is the corpse left behind, which we can parade around for our entertainment, and wax philosophical.”

The specific reasons for focusing our gaze on those “corpses” reveal the complicated sociopolitics of ruination.  Brian Dillon argues that late-18th century Romanticism turned the mutilated remains of classical artworks or the fragments of buildings to a “randomly chosen instant,” celebrating decay and the ruined fragment but resisting a unified narrative.  This perspective would seem well-suited to many urban explorers fascinated by material details and idiosyncratic experiences in abandoned spaces, and their fascination with preserving the moment is reflected in the recurrently invoked “code of honour” to “take only pictures, leave only footprints.” That code aspires to freeze the moment of abandonment, merging the abandoned ruin with nature and leaving it to “natural” decaying processes.

Yet many observers approach abandonment as an exposition of the “ruins of modernity,” casting ruination scholarship as fascination with the “corpse” of a history we believed to be resistant to transience if not permanent.  This is a perspective that risks romanticizing stability, even if at least obliquely reflecting a simultaneous discomfort with modernity’s lust for “progress.”  In 1911 Georg Simmel argued  that ruination is inevitable, and he suggested that ruins emphasize the folly of political and cultural permanence.  Julia King’s fascinating study Archaeology, Narrative, and the Politics of the Past has examined how contemporary historic sites have constructed “ruins” to frame historical interpretations on otherwise blank landscapes.  Her assessment of such manufactured ruins in Southern Maryland dissects the inelegant ideology of aestheticized historical ruins that borrow from 19th-century romanticization of ruins, seeking a permanence that inelegantly effaces the landscape of racism in places like Southern Maryland.  Such permanence is what Albert Speer aspired to ensure for the Third Reich in his “theory of ruin value”, which described architecture designed to decay gracefully and aesthetically.  In his 1970 memoirs, Speer indicated that during a construction project the

Speer’s Nuremberg complex has indeed been gradually overcome by nature in its present form as a memorial and a speedway (image courtesy Adam Jones, Ph.D. Global Archives).

“Nuremberg streetcar depot had to be removed. I passed by its remains after it had been blown up. The iron reinforcements protruded from concrete debris and had already begun to rust. One could easily visualize their further decay. This dreary sight led me to some thoughts which I later propounded to Hitler under the pretentious heading of `A Theory of Ruin Value.’  The idea was that buildings of modern construction were poorly suited to form that `bridge of tradition’ to future generations which Hitler was calling for.  It was hard to imagine that rusting heaps of rubble could communicate these heroic inspirations which Hitler admired in the monuments of the past.  By using special materials and by applying certain principles of statics, we should be able to build structures which even in a state of decay, after hundreds or (such were our reckonings) thousands of years would more or less resemble Roman models.”

Despite this pronouncement coming from a Nazi, Speer voiced a common aspiration for architecture to provide a state a historical, ideological, and material presence long after its fall.  Naomi Stead cleverly argues that Speer’s caricature of the ahistorical ruin was a reaction against the relics around him that were obviously part of his social moment and testaments to its failures.  The distinction between most contemporary ruins and Speer’s idealized relics is that most of the abandoned factories, theaters, and asylums in our midst have a historical patina but are nevertheless clearly of a moment we recognize as “ours.”  Speer instead aimed to produce ruins that belied their age and merged with nature, casting these buildings as timelessly historical.

A Netherlands potato flour factory abandoned in 1964 (image courtesy Harm Rhebergen)

Matthew Christopher persistently uses the metaphor of “death” to describe his images of abandonment, arguing that “At its core, the photography of ruins is fundamentally about death. … the very basis for the entire genre is that the photographs are of abandoned–or dead–spaces.  … the key element is that what they once were created for is no longer.  Much in the same way, a host of chemical and biological processes continue in a corpse but it is still no longer considered living.”  This assessment of ruination art, exploration, and abandonment discourse focuses on the corpse of modernity retaken by nature, a gaze that can be reduced to romantic nostalgia (ironically, a central feature of modernist gaze), or it can view the ruin as an active entity that has a genuine politics revived by an aesthetic gaze.

This “death” underlies Christopher’s political argument that his images document not simply an abstract notion of abandonment and decay; instead,

“Each one represents failure.  On a micro level, this is evidenced in the building itself and the failure of the owners to fund/maintain whatever it was established for.  On a macro level, it often applies to the community’s inability to support the business, and to an even greater extent can be indicative of lost industries and economic collapse on the county and state level. I would argue that the culmination of these failures shows a trend even greater (and more ominous), that of an overall social decline leading to the fall of an entire empire.”

Abandoned seaside resort in Tianjin Tanggu (China) (image courtesy 请叫我面团)

This sober if not dystopian perspective views images as “a eulogy for the lost ways of life they represent, a statement of their emotional, spiritual, and metaphoric relevance to our everyday lives, and a sense of the visceral experience of entering a parallel universe of silence, rust, and peeling paint.”  These profoundly consequential tales of abandonment are counter-intuitively told with exceptionally prosaic spaces, but many artists of ruination and post-apocalyptism routinely depict the world’s most famous landmarks, with appearances from  Big Ben, Red Square, Cristo Redentor, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, the Pentagon, Harrods, and of course the Statue of Liberty.  This casts ruination into the future and places us clearly within a material and historical landscape constantly in processes of decay and ruination.

Christopher invests his politics into his images but is counter-intuitively reluctant to assume the political meanings of the pictures.  Instead, he argues that “As is often the case, I have the question–not just an idle curiosity, but a big gaping hole where meaning is supposed to be–but not the answer. …  Why does the husk of the building photographed matter? Why does the moment this image captured matter? Why does it matter that you’re looking at it now and reading this?”  For Christopher those are open questions posed by images, and it remains for us to turn them into political and policy statements that address built preservation and illuminate the structural conditions that produce contemporary abandonment.

Brian Dillon

2005 Fragments from a History of a RuinCabinet 20.

2010 Decline and Fall: Tracing the History of Ruins in ArtFrieze 130.

Greco, Joann

2012 The Psychology of Ruin Porn. Altantic Cities.

Julia A. King

2012 Archaeology, Narrative, and the Politics of the Past: The View from Southern Maryland.  University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.  (partial reading version on google books)

Naomi Stead

2003 The Value of Ruins: Allegories of Destruction in Benjamin and Speer.  Form/Work: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the Built Environment 6:51-64.  Available online at Naomi Stead’s wordpress site.

Urban Ruins web pages

There are an astounding number of web pages documenting abandoned structures, ruins, and the aesthetics of urban exploring.  Try starting with this list of pages.


28 Days Later

Abandoned America

Abandoned Kansai

Abandoned Places

Abandoned Places flick’r group

Abandoned Porn tumblr



Beautiful Decay flick’r group

Center for Land Use Interpretation

Conserving the Twentieth Century

Contamination Zone

Dark Passage

Dark Places

Day of the Dead

Dead Malls

Dystopia Photography

Explorations of Beauty and Decay

Forbidden Places

Frits Vrielink


Guerilla Historian

Harald Finster

Haikyo: Urban Exploration in Japan

Howzey UrbEx flick’r page


Jeremy Blakeslee

Lost in Time

Michael Alan Goldberg

Michael John Grist

Lost America




Lost Indiana

Lost Place-Switzerland

Marcel Woudstra flick’r page

Mr. Monster flick’r page

New England Ruins



Rick Harris

Romantic Ruins

Ruin Porn tumblr

Ruins of the 20th Century

Russia Abandoned

Sending 4 Help

Shaun O’Boyle

Silent UK

Sleepy City

Subterranea Brittanica

Sub-Urban: Main Drainage of the Metropolis

UK Urban Exploration

Under Montreal

UrbEx Art

UrbEx UK

Urban Dirty

Urban Explora

Urban Exploration Magazine

Urban Explorers flick’r group

Whatever’s Left


Image credits

Abandoned manor image courtesy howzey flick’r group Abandoned Manor

Runwell Hospital image courtesy howzey flick’r group Runwell Mental Hospital

Nuremberg image courtesy Adams Jones Ph.D. Global Archives Nuremberg flick’r set

Potato factory image courtesy Harm Rhebergen flick’r page

Tampere factory image courtesy Tiia Monto in wikimedia commons

Spreepark image courtesy Norbert Lov flick’r group Spreepark

Nike missile silo image courtesy www78

Cocoa Palms resort image courtesy peptic_ulcer

Cork building image courtesy slinky2000

child’s chair in asylum image courtesy World of Good

Chinese seaside resort image courtesy 请叫我面团!


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