Monthly Archives: September 2012

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!

Generational Histories, Popular Culture, and Archaeologies of Everyday Life

Countless stories await in libraries throughout the country like the Genealogy Center in the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana (courtesy amyc500)

An enormous volume of historical archaeology focuses on anonymous folks peopling the past, and the discipline has painted a remarkably detailed picture of everyday life over the last half-millennium.  What historical archaeologists understand is that every life is a potentially compelling story waiting to be told by a creative interpreter weaving together material culture, historical resources, and oral testimony.

The lure of everyday people’s histories looms especially large in contemporary popular culture as well.  If we have learned anything from Behind the Music,it is that even the most prosaic fossil musician’s life is utterly compelling: In the hands of a skilled narrator, even the likes of M.C. Hammer and Grand Funk Railroad are revealed to harbor fascinating and even sympathetic accounts of human frailty, ambition, success, and heartbreak that underscore the essential dimensions of human experience shared by all of us.  If we dig deeper, conducting rigorous primary research, systematic oral history, and material analysis we can find consequential stories that push beyond mere biographical details:  Joe Cocker’s life and ancestry likely reveal the creolized cultural hybridity of skiffle; the Carpenters’ story might be soberly told in the context of 20th century bodily ideologies; and the life of Biggie Smalls/Notorious B.I.G. reflects all the fascinating diasporan cultural dimensions of hip-hop storytelling.  And if we had the chance to interpret their material assemblages then it is likely we would weave that into an even more interesting interpretation; admit it, aren’t you a little curious about Biggie Smalls’ domestic assemblage?

Historical archaeology has crafted a far-reaching scholarship that canvasses everyday life across a breadth of scales from individuals to households to cities to global systems.  Yet we still might take some cues from popular culture’s skill crafting generational histories—that is, genealogical accounts of families’ lineage and heritage.  Beyond simply constructing isolated family trees, historical archaeology is ideally suited to approach genealogical narratives as rigorous scholarship and embrace the genuine activist implications such generational histories hold for many of our community constituencies.  We can tell absolutely compelling stories of everyday life: family genealogies can be an element in rigorous scholarship that addresses significant research questions even as those narratives provide fascinating microcosm histories.

A stream of television shows now plumb the genealogical details of celebrities’ ancestry and B-list stars’ family heritage.  There are both American and British versions of Who Do You Think You Are?; a Wales show Coming Home; the British show You Don’t Know You’re Born; and My Famous Family (which takes an ordinary person and finds their famous ancestors).  Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has been among the most visible scholarly proponents of this discussion, hosting the British series Black in Latin America; the American show Finding Your Roots, which focuses on genealogical methods telling the tales of various stars (e.g., Kevin Bacon); Faces of America, in which Gates documents the genealogies of well-known Americans (e.g., Stephen Colbert); and African-American Lives, which illuminates Black public figures (e.g., Tom Joyner’s family story is astoundingly compelling).

Academics have sometimes been reluctant to make the apparent Faustian bargain of embracing popular culture, suspicious of how complex historical narratives will be reduced to a few transparent points in a half-hour show or mis-quoted in a newspaper or magazine article.  Alongside the newfound interest in generational histories popular culture has suddenly begun to pay attention to things as well. A host of television series now examine material culture, including Antiques Roadshow, Pawn Stars, and Auction Kings, though many of us have been uncomfortable with some of the ways material narratives and value are constructed by these shows.  Yet these shows are not going away, because so many people are fascinated with material culture and the stories told by old things, and genealogical shows are not likely to disappear either.  Things matter, and generational histories are consequential to our community partners and have genuine political weight, so we risk crafting an insulated discipline if we cannot embrace that widespread interest in the very things in which we are interested.

The most significant trigger for the recent explosion in genealogical interest has been the rich range of documentary resources now available online.  A host of ever-expanding web pages marshal an exceptionally rich database of primary historical evidence, and scores of people from nearly every walk of life have assumed control over their very own narratives and pieced together many solid genealogies.  Much of the mass embrace of genealogical narrative came following Alex Haley’s landmark Roots: The Saga of an American Family in 1976, which was followed by a very popular television mini-series the following year.  Roots revolutionized African-American genealogical research in particular, but its’ phenomenal popularity (almost half the country saw the final episode) reflects how genealogical narratives can bring some of the nation’s most weighty heritage into public discussion.

The Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley memorial sits on the Annapolis, Maryland docks where Haley’s ancestor Kunta Kinte was sold into captivity (courtesy Mrs. Gemstone).

Scholars, though, have often been reluctant to embrace genealogy as rigorous research or historical interpretation.  Roots and Alex Haley have been targeted by critics contemptuous of the book’s popular success, critical of Haley’s research methods, and suspicious of his political leanings.  Some of this reflects deep-seated resistance to a late-19th century approach to genealogy as an ideological mechanism tracing racial and ethnic descent that implicitly separated White bourgeois from immigrants, people of color, and working classes.  To compound the distance between academics and generational historians, some self-important academics persistently stereotype genealogists as sloppy researchers engaged in utterly particularistic documentation.

Yet in the hands of Alex Haley generational histories confronted ideologically distorted accounts that paid no attention to the marginalized masses; in Roots’ case a creatively interpreted genealogy wrote the African diaspora into American history with a 250-year account of Haley’s family.  Academics observers and generational historians alike can always press for more primary sources, question an author’s interpretation, dispute a writer’s narrative devices, or argue for framing the data in new ways revolving around different questions, but all scholarship is open to such interrogation, whether it is a family tree or an article in a peer-reviewed journal.

Very few historical archaeologists have ever been unwilling to work with genealogists, and in fact many of us have had very productive collaborative research projects with community scholars studying generational histories.  Archaeologists are truly public scholars working in the midst of living communities and rarely if ever conforming to the caricature of an academic sequestered in the ivory tower.  Historical archaeologists actually have focused much of our politics on such community partnerships and engagement, and we understand that genealogical narratives are important to many of our community partners.  Genealogists routinely master a dense array of basic primary resources, and historical archaeologists link individual families’ genealogies to broader historical currents.   We bring substantive scholarly questions to such partnerships, an interest in relating the particularistic historical details of a single life or one family to broader transnational, colonial, and global patterns.  With community partners we turn those discussions into something far more politically and socially important than yet another archaeological case study.

Allen County Library image courtesy amyc500

Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial image courtesy Mrs. Gemstone

See the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial web page for more information on the Annapolis monument to Haley and his ancestor.

On the SHA Blog my piece on the closing of the Georgia State Archives details one of the most draconian and short-sighted of fiscal policies as the state plans to effectively close its Archives to the public.

Adams, Russell L.

1980 An Analysis of the Roots Phenomenon in the Context of American Racial Conservatism.  Presence Africaine 116:125-40.

Stephanie Athey

1999 Poisonous Roots and the New World Blues: Rereading Seventies Narration and Nation in Alex Haley and Gayl Jones. Narrative 7(2):169-193.  (Subscription access)

Barile, Kerri S. and Jamie Brandon (eds)

2004 Household Chores and Household Choice: Theorizing the Domestic Sphere in Historical Archaeology.  University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.

Cantwell, Anne-Marie and Diana diZerega Wall

2003 Unearthing Gotham: The Archaeology of New York City.  Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut.

Mills, Elizabeth Shown

2003 Genealogy in the “Information Age”: History’s New Frontier?  National Genealogical Society Quarterly 91:260-277.

Nash , Catherine

2002 Genealogical Identities.  Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 20(1):27–52.  (Subscription access)

Orser, Charles E. Jr.

1996 A Historical Archaeology of the Modern World.  Plenum, New York.

Taylor, Helen

1995 “The griot from Tennessee”: The Saga of Alex Haley’s Roots. Critical Quarterly.  37 (2):46-63. (Subscription access)

White Carolyn (editor)

2009 The Materiality of Individuality: Archaeological Studies of Individual Lives.  Springer, New York.

The Politics of Building Aesthetics

Some buildings are not especially satisfying, plagued by unsightly aesthetics that lead architectural critics and self-styled aesthetes to debate the merits of such structures and spaces.   These discourses sometimes reduce buildings to aesthetic props decorating the landscape, important for their stylistic merits or lack thereof, even if they are implicitly understood to have ambiguous social effects.  Each Wednesday, the Historic Indianapolis web page features one of these unsightly structures in Indiana’s capital city chosen for its dissatisfying preservation or architectural modifications often concealing the fabric of a historic structure.  The examples in the What-the-Hell (WTH) Wednesday column include some truly unique buildings, many that may well qualify as utter eyesores or demoralizing preservation failures.  The tongue-in-cheek assessment of the buildings and in some cases remedies for their restoration are all well-intentioned and thoughtful, and the column’s lamentations over these buildings does indeed raise the question of how such structures are seen by their designers, residents, and neighbors.  The more consequential question, though, is how such an aesthetic analysis of buildings can be extended to become an analysis of the social and moral weight of buildings and architectural spaces and link style to the structural conditions that produce “ugly” buildings.

At some level assessing architectural aesthetics is simply an individual and idiosyncratic interpretation of a building or space: one person’s experience of an oppressive brutal modernist office building may well liberate another occupant; a neighborhood derided as a “slum” may well be a welcoming home to a community despite its aesthetic and material shortcomings; and a preservationist’s “architectural disaster” may belie concrete spatial inequalities that drove impoverished and marginalized people into “historic” neighborhoods without the material resources to craft the buildings into the stylish historic homes preservationists champion from the distance.  Purely aesthetic analysis risks failing to acknowledge that built landscapes are living entities connected to concrete structural inequalities with roots as deep as the buildings themselves, and even the most aesthetically unsightly buildings may have profound social and moral consequence.

This week the WTH Wednesday column took as its subject the Upper Room Apostolic Church on Indianapolis’ eastside.  The modest church sits on Broadway Street, nestled in the curve of the massive junction of Interstates 65 and 70 that was carved into the community in the 1960’s (view it on Google maps).  In 1958, the city’s Redevelopment Commission described the northeastern Indianapolis neighborhood where Upper Room Church sits today as “a vast blighted area.”  As in many other American cities, historic neighborhoods that declined during and after the war were targeted by a state eager to dispossess the people who had made their homes in such communities, many of whom were Black, often-impoverished, and powerful voting blocks.  In 1965 and 1966 alone, over 5000 households were displaced in Indianapolis for highway construction.  A complex mix of federal and state authorities cut a looping interstate highway swath through the heart of Indianapolis that sliced through a series of predominately Black neighborhoods, razing scores of homes, displacing many long-term residents, and leaving the de-populated shell of historic neighborhoods declining even more rapidly.

The little Broadway Street church sits in a neighborhood known as Chatham Arch, which was platted between 1836 and 1871.  Many of the smaller homes in and around the community were razed in the aftermath of World War II, and as in many other Indianapolis neighborhoods larger structures were subdivided into exponentially more makeshift rental spaces for residents desperate for work, which included many African Americans in a wave of migration out of the South.  The neighborhood was placed on the National Register in 1980, and in 2000 Indianapolis Monthly dramatically proclaimed that “Once a stagnant neighborhood populated by mostly ramshackle collapsing homes, Chatham Arch now offers downtown living with a small town feel.”  Of course, Chatham Arch and neighboring communities were populated by people, and not simply buildings, and the tendency to write those residents out of the analysis and history risks rationalizing displacement and simply allowing it to march on into the future.  In 2006 an Indianapolis Monthly article described homeowners in the revitalized Chatham Arch as “very sophisticated buyers, and the houses are quite high dollar.”  An optimistic local realtor indicated that “It used to be that there was Lockerbie and the Old Northside, and a war zone in between,” a space now occupied by Chatham Arch in the midst of the similarly gentrified Lockerbie and Old Northside communities.

In 1887 Allen Chapel AME appeared on a Sanborn Insurance map described here as “Colored Church.”

Yet today many surrounding structures like the church on Broadway remain part of a landscape that is still visibly dismembered by urban renewal forces, and that story of urban inequality materialized in the Upper Room Apostolic Church may well be more important than the fancifully renovated Chatham Arch homes or the preservation shortcomings of the church itself. In August, 1866 Allen Chapel AME (i.e., African-Methodist-Episcopal) was formed on Broadway Street with eight founding members, with the church described in 1870 as being a 36 X 44 foot frame structure first occupied in Christmas, 1866.   An “African” church was in the city directory in that spot in 1867, and in 1870 the congregation was identified in the city directory as “Allen Chapel (African).”   In 1875 W.R. Revels was identified as the Church’s Pastor.  Born in North Carolina in 1817, Willis R. Revels appeared in 1862 Indianapolis tax records as a physician; he served as a Pastor of the Bethel AME congregation in Indianapolis as well as the Bethel AME congregation in Baltimore; his brother Hiram Rhodes Revels was ordained in 1845 and was the first person of color to serve in the US Congress, elected as a US State Senator from Mississippi in 1870-1871; and Willis served as an advocate for the 28th United States Colored Troops regiment that formed in Indiana in 1863.  Revels sat for his picture shortly before his death in March, 1879, and in 1887 the church appeared on a Sanborn Insurance map as a brick building sitting exactly where the Upper Room Apostolic Church sits today.

The Allen Chapel congregation built a church facing 11th Street  that had its cornerstone laid in July, 1927 and the new church was dedicated in March, 1928. The building that eventually became the Upper Room Apostolic Church remained where it sits today, serving one fraternal organization and least two congregations:  In 1930 the building appeared in the city directory as Allen Chapel as well as the Indiana chapter of the young men’s fraternal society the Order of DeMolay, and the fraternal remained at that address in 1940, 1951, and 1960 city directories; in 1970, it was home to Pentecostal Apostolic Church; and in 1980, it appeared in the city directory as the home of the Grace Missionary Baptist Church.   In the meantime, the building certainly declined, and in 2006 a city planning document for the neighborhood characterized the Broadway Street structure’s exterior as having “major deterioration.”

Many of the Historic Indianapolis buildings that grace its Wednesday feature are truly vernacular architecture outside the pale of style and difficult to accommodate to the aesthetic and historical codes championed by preservationists.  Vernacular architecture is intensely local, shaped by contextually specific environmental, cultural, market, and social influences, and many of the little homes dotting cities like Indianapolis transported a variety of ethnic and regional styles that were modified to meet the financial challenges of their makers, the ways their households changed over time, the spatial size of lots, and similar local if not personal factors.  The intent of designers is not irrelevant, and some buildings are truly poorly conceived, but in an analysis of vernacular structures buildings matter as living entities with evolving stories whose aesthetics are material reflections of broader social processes.  The Upper Room Apostolic Church’s story is certainly far more complicated than its momentary appearance as a preservation nightmare, and in fact the church’s aesthetics are a direct reflection of the concrete social and material processes that ravaged this and many other inner-city American communities.  The story of the little church on Broadway—one with heroic figures, genuine achievement, state inequalities, and crushing decline—is by no means unique, and it might be told of any number of buildings in Indianapolis and nearly any other American (if not global) city.

Trellick Tower (courtesy duncan)

Assessments of architectural style are always partial at best if they fail to embed the structures in broader social, cultural, and material context.  The 31-story Trellick Tower in London, for instance, has rather polarizing aesthetic effects, a massive shaft of concrete that The Guardian recognized was long seen as a “scar [on] the west London skyline.”   Completed in 1972, the brutal modernist tower was designed by Emo Goldfinger.  In 1939, Goldfinger built a modernist terrace home at 2 Willow Road in Hampstead, London that razed several cottages, a move opposed by some residents that included Ian Fleming, who subsequently immortalized Goldfinger as James Bond adversary Auric Goldfinger.  Emo Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower was described by The Guardian in 1999 as an example of “pure geometry, of beauty, a perfect resolution of horizontal and vertical elements,” but it was widely reviled, and Goldfinger’s career never recovered from the stigmatizating commentary that dogged Trellick Tower.  Like many high-density tower blocks the building became a haven for criminals and exceptionally run-down by the early 1980s.  Such buildings were moral as well as aesthetic productions meant to fashion community, though much of the high-density public housing in the United States such as Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis or Cabrini-Green in Chicago was fatally undone by racist housing administration practices.  Trellick Tower, in contrast, rebounded in the 1980’s and was listed as a Grade II protected property in 1998.

The WTH Wednesday case studies include quite a few buildings in similar neighborhoods whose current condition and aesthetics are powerful stories about displacement and racially and class-based urban renewal.  Preserving such structures is laudable, and the Historic Indianapolis pages have been an important advocate for grassroots history and preservation.  Every community deserves to be so lucky to have thoughtful preservation voices in our midst, and in the face of a city in danger of losing much of its built heritage many buildings like this church can be demoralizing to preservationists.  Yet as material culture scholars we risk writing the complicated histories of urban landscapes out of the story if we fixate on dormers, ornamental woodwork, and aesthetics and forget to link them to broader social and material processes.

Grossman, Susannah L., (2010). Demolition Men: Contemporary Britain and the Battle of Brutalism. Undergraduate Thesis, Department of Art History, University of Pennsylvania.

Trellick Tower image courtesy duncan

Archaeologies of Prosaic Materiality and Traumatic Heritage

This July 1942 stone marker in Oulu commemorates the 6th SS Mountain Division Nord’s time in the city (see close-up below).

Few dimensions of heritage in living memory have more power to spark our collective sociopolitical imagination and evoke personal trauma than World War II landscapes.  At the end of an otherwise non-descript dead-end in the Oulu, Finland suburbs sits a modest wartime memorial that says much about how we commemorate, remember, preserve, efface, and ignore the most complicated dimensions of that heritage.  The little monument tenaciously illuminates the area’s Nazi experience and evokes powerful social and personal traumas, even as the surrounding landscape of ephemeral wartime features risks slowly drifting into invisibility as it passes out of living memory.  It is the sort of material thing and landscape associated with very recent historical trauma that increasingly more archaeologists are examining.

Various archaeologists have turned their attention to an archaeology of the “contemporary past,” examining the politics of materiality and heritage in the memories of living people.  Alfredo Gonzalez-Ruibal paints a picture of a consciously politicized archaeology of the recent past that aspires to “haunt us” by summoning forth “the presence of the past in a vivid way.”  Gonzalez-Ruibal focuses on spaces of “abjection” that are “beyond social remembrance, where memory is erased,” historical moments that “too recent, conflicting, and repulsive to be shaped as collective memory.”  Such spaces and things are rarely part of actively accessed memory or intentional commemoration, instead largely left to gradually decay.  The Oulu memorial and a landscape of trenches, scattered landscape features, and at least one standing structure are the sort of apparently mundane things that evoke complicated and painful wartime experiences, a “vanishing present” that most of society has been reluctant to confront.

Much of this work has examined 20th-century wartime spaces that a European Association of Archaeologists panel last week referred to as “terrorscapes.”  In the hands of these archaeologists, landscapes of terror and trauma materialize various forms of violence outside the normal channels of political struggle, reaching from concentration camp and prison spaces to everyday landscapes and objects.  The EAA session chaired by Jan Kolen, Rob van der Laarse, and Marek E. Jasinski included a selection of papers on World War II concentration camps; Cold War prisons (many like the Falstad Camp in Norway were both SS concentration camps and subsequently held Nazi prisoners after the war); Anna Zalewska’s “gas-scapes” charting World War I gas attacks; and landscapes of war in places ranging from Western Bohemia to the Netherlands to Finnish Lapland.  The session is part of a shift in archaeological and heritage studies toward broad and politically reflective scholarship on 20th century wartime experience, work that has focused on Europe but has included projects in places like Canada, Africa, and the US.  Such research examines life in the face of terror as well as now-forgotten wartime landscapes and prosaic things that can evoke genuine trauma as we negotiate these complicated histories.

Archaeologists have painted a rich picture of Nazi landscapes and materiality that has most closely examined landscapes such as concentration camps and prisoner of war camps,  festival spaces, monumental sites like Nuremberg, planned communities, and plantscapes.  These spaces all share some degree of centralized planning reflecting functional, symbolic, and often ideological purposes.  Other archaeologists have examined the most prosaic dimensions of terrorscapes like the Sobibor Extermination Camp, where false teeth, souvenirs, and house and luggage keys were found across the camp and pathways to the gas chambers were archaeologically identified in 2007; the Buchenwald Concentration Camp revealed comparably modest everyday things; and in 2005 at Majdanek survivors helped archaeologists recover a series of objects buried by camp prisoners over 60 years before.

The Oulu memorial reveals how the war remains very much a part of contemporary memory and is invested in a broad range of prosaic landscapes beyond planned spaces and battlefields.  This was a point made in the EAA session by Taisto Karjalainen, who is documenting the cultural resources in Finland’s massive Lapland forests for Metsahallitus, the Finnish state-owned enterprise administering the forests.  His research in Finnish Lapland has identified a broad range of bases, scattered equipment, roadways, prison camps, and mass graves from the two phases of World War II that Finns refer to as the Continuation War and subsequent Lapland War.  Oula Seitsonin and Vesa-Pekka Herva have likewise illuminated a complex wartime landscape that included roughly 30,000 Soviet prisoners in nearly 100 Lapland prison camps doing the exceptionally arduous labor of building roads and supplying bases in northern Finland.  Their study of the Peltojoki camp recovered ski’s, gas masks, tin cans, burnt notebook binders, and ceramics destroyed when the Germans fled in 1944, reflecting much of what the Germans brought with them rather than what they may have provisioned to their Soviet prisoners.

This Finnish war experience is not especially well-understood in the US, and it is not always completely appreciated outside Finland and the Nordic world.  The Soviet Union invaded Finland in the Winter War in November, 1939, ceasing hostilities in March, 1940.  The Finns inflicted significant Soviet losses, and the Soviet attack on Finland wounded their diplomatic and military reputation, but Finland ceded roughly 11% of its territory to the Soviets to end the conflict, which included the Karelian home to 12% of the Finnish population.

The wartime landscape in Finland was changed radically by the arrival of the Germans in 1941.  Eager to regain their lost territory and apprehensive of a renewed Soviet attack, the Finns joined the Germans as co-belligerents against the Soviets between June, 1941 and September, 1944 in the Continuation War (Jatkosota).  The first German Operation Barbarossa troops in the German attack against the Soviets landed in the harbors of the Bothnian Gulf, including Oulu, on June 10, 1941.  In September, 1944 the Moscow Armistice between the Soviet Union and Finland ended the Continuation War and the Finns turned against the Germans in what is referred to as the Lapland War.  During the Lapland War the retreating Germans destroyed the northernmost Finnish network of small camps and bases, discarding equipment along their retreat, killing livestock, mining roads, and destroying virtually everything they crossed.

A close up of the Oulu marker, which reads
der 2/Pz.Jg.Abt.
Im Juli 1942

Dated July, 1942, the Oulu memorial is a rather distinctive, anonymously crafted commemoration to the 6th SS Mountain Division Nord, almost certainly carved by a soldier with the Waffen SS Division.  The little monument is quite different than a state-sanctioned marker endorsed by either the Nazis or Finns, and its preservation over the subsequent 70 years illuminates the rich range of material forms taken by wartime memory.  Bases like that in Oulu were sometimes referred to as “Little Berlins,” and in communities like Oulu Finns lived alongside Nazis in a strategic and often personally close relationship, with roughly 10,000 Finns working on Nazi construction projects and many Nazi’s paying rent to local Finnish residents.  During the Continuation War the Germans built garrison and supply bases on the outskirts of northern towns like Oulu, Tornio, and Kemi and in the existing city center of Rovaniemi.  Oulu housed the largest Waffen-SS encampments in Northern Finland, hosting military bases, hospitals, and training areas for troops.  Unlike the well-studied monumental centers of the Third Reich or sanctioned Nazi architectural forms, these distant support centers transported an idiosyncratic range of material designs reflecting the functional needs of such places.  These landscapes were shaped by a complex confluence of functional need, a Nazi desire for some forms of material regimentation, local Finnish practices, and concrete environmental conditions that required the Germans to organize themselves distinctively in places like Oulu and Lapland.   Seitsonin and Herva’s study of the Peltojoki camp in Lapland paints a picture not of a highly regimented military base but instead one that was “relatively loosely organized” with “quite insubstantial” structures despite some standardization in the portable material culture found at the site.  The Germans fled their Oulu base and port at the outset of the Lapland War, so there is no concrete archaeological evidence of the degree of regimentation in places like Oulu.

This 1942 Alpine-style SS Officers Club was subsequently a youth hostel and now serves as an Oulu fire house.

The Nazis’ presence in Oulu is now materially visible to only a reflective eye, in the form of a couple postwar monuments, at least one standing Nazi structure (a 1942 SS Officer’s Club), a fragmentary streetscape, a network of eroding wooded trenches and mortar positions, and the little Waffen memorial.  Much of the wartime landscape of support structures for the military was razed long ago, and development and the thick forest have together reclaimed much of the more ephemeral features like trenches and firing ranges associated with the Germans’ alliance with the Finns.

Some communities have chosen to efface Nazi materiality as thoroughly as possible; others have aspired to leave it an “open wound”; and many more chart a middle ground.  Many places like Oulu have the rather mundane material reminders of war, often left to abandonment, removed without any thought to their significance, or simply preserved without any especially coordinated heritage strategy.  The Waffen memorial in Oulu belongs in that latter group, moved to its present position from an adjoining corner several years ago by anonymous city staff who recognized the significance of the carved stone.  In some ways the marker’s symbolism as a personal expression of a German soldier–as opposed to a monument left by the Nazi’s–may have helped ensure that it survived since the war.  Concentration camps tell remarkably powerful stories, and many of the Nazis’ planned spaces underscore the state’s effort to use architecture, space, and things to serve the most heinous ideological and social ends.  These more modest spaces dot much of Europe, extending into the furthest reaches of Lapland, numerous unremarkable countrysides, and many other cityscapes whose rich and traumatic heritage remains nearly completely unseen.  Many archaeologists are now confronting these seemingly prosaic material things and landscapes and illuminating traumatic heritage within the very recent past.  Such work can ideally be part of or even start discussions about those dimensions of heritage and contemporary social life that we have been unable to confront.

Compare (most of these journal articles are by subscription access)

Mats Burström and Bernhard Gelderblom (2011) Dealing with difficult heritage: The case of Bückeberg, site of the Third Reich Harvest Festival Journal of Social Archaeology 11(3): 266-282.

Caroline Sturdy Colls (2012) Holocaust Archaeology: Archaeological Approaches to Landscapes of Nazi Genocide and Persecution Journal of Conflict Archaeology 7(2):70-104.

Simone Gigliotti, Marc Masurovsky, and Erik Steiner (2011) Landscapes of Experience: Representing the Evacuations from the Auschwitz Camp System during January 1945. Geographies of the Holocaust

Isaac Gilead, Yoram Haimi, and Wojciech Mazurek (2009)  Excavating Nazi Extermination Centres. Present Pasts,

Alfredo Gonzalez-Ruibal (2006) The Past is Tomorrow: Towards an Archaeology of the Vanishing Present. Norwegian Archaeological Review 39(2): 110-125.

Alfredo Gonzalez-Ruibal (2008) Time to Destroy: An Archaeology of SupermodernityCurrent Anthropology 49(2):247-279.  A non-subscription version is available on Gonzalez-Ruibal’s page.

Alfredo Gonzalez-Ruibal, Yonathan Sahle and Xurxo Ayán Vila (2011) A social archaeology of colonial war in Ethiopia. World Archaeology 43(1): 40-65. Non-subscription, pre-publication version.

Gert Groning (1992) The Feeling for Landscape—A German ExampleLandscape Research 17(3):

Gert Groning (2002) Teutonic Myth, Rubble, and Recovery: Landscape Architecture in Germany.  In The Architecture of Landscape, 1940-1960, edited by Marc Trieb, pp.120-145.  University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

Joshua Hagen (2004) The Most German of Towns: Creating an Ideal Nazi Community in Rothenburg ob der TauberAnnals of the Association of American Geographers 94(1):207-227.

Jan Kolen (2009). The “anthropologization” of archaeological heritage.  Archaeological Dialogues, 16:209-225.

Sharon Macdonald (2006) Words in Stone?: Agency and Identity in a Nazi Landscape Journal of Material Culture 11(1/2):105-126.

Sharon Macdonald (2006) Mediating Heritage: Tour guides at the former Nazi Party Rally Grounds, Nuremberg.  Tourist Studies 6(2): 119-138

Adrian Myers (2008) Between Memory and Materiality: An Archaeological Approach to Studying the Nazi Concentration Camps Journal of Conflict Archaeology 4(1): 231-245.

David Passmore and Stephan Harrison (2008) Landscapes of the Battle of the Bulge: WW2 Field Fortifications in the Ardennes Forrest of Belgium Journal of Conflict Archaeology 4(1-2):87-107.

William H. Rollins (1995) Whose Landscape?: Technology, Fascism, and Environmentalism on the National Socialist AutobahnAnnals of the Association of American Geographers 85(3):

Oula Seitsonin and Vesa-Pekka Herva (2011) Forgotten in the Wilderness: WWII German PoW Camps in Finnish Lapland.  In Archaeologies of Internment, edited by Adrian Myers and Gabriel Moshenska, pp. 171-190.  Springer, New York.

Frank Uekotter (2007) Native Plants: A Nazi Obsession? Landscape Research 32(3)

Timo Ylimaunu, Paul R. Mullins, James Symonds, Markku Kuorilehto, Hilkka Heikkilä, and Siiri Tolonen (In preparation)  Memory of barracks – World War II German ‘Little Berlins’ and post-war urbanization in Northern Finnish towns.