Metaphors for Abandonment: Exploring Urban Ruins
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.
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 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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
“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.
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.”
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.
2005 Fragments from a History of a Ruin. Cabinet 20.
2010 Decline and Fall: Tracing the History of Ruins in Art. Frieze 130.
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)
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.
Abandoned Places flick’r group
Center for Land Use Interpretation
Conserving the Twentieth Century
Explorations of Beauty and Decay
Haikyo: Urban Exploration in Japan
Sub-Urban: Main Drainage of the Metropolis
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！
Posted on September 23, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged abandonment, ruin porn, ruins. Bookmark the permalink. 33 Comments.
Dr Mullins: Thank you for this thoughtful reflection on the diversity of reasons “explorers” choose to take up this avocation. I came by way of this post via trackback to Bearings, but I have read your thoughts before (vis-a-vis Matthew Christopher). You have probably sussed out these things much more adroitly than anyone else I have read, and I thank you for academically approaching a topic that few in the ivory towers are brave enough to do.
I admit that my views have changed considerably since I first wrote the words you cite. I do believe there are myriad political mandates that could arise from these beautiful relics, and most of them would have positive ramifications for U.S. society in a rapidly evolving era. I won’t hazard to profess which are most important to pursue, but I believe these records have ENORMOUS potential as research tools. My thoughts continually turn to Arthur Miller’s words when he wrote about the images of the burgeoning consumer culture in the 1940s to 1960s captured by Henri Cartier-Bresson (here I am copying and pasting from Bearings) :
“There was plenty of glitz in America in the sixties and seventies, yes and in the forties, the era of these pictures, but clearly Cartier-Bresson was trying to get behind it to the substance of American society. And since his is fundamentally a tragic vision he reacted most feelingly to what in America he saw as related to its decay, its pain. The very horizon is often oppressive, jagged with junked cars, the detritus of consumer culture, which after all is a culture of planned waste, engineered obsolescence. Whatever lasts is boring, what demands its own replacement energizes our imaginations.”
I have since chosen to focus on consumer culture in industrial landscapes of the early 20th c. (I see we are kindred in that regard!) Nothing has had a greater effect in my academic research than my experience in the field. Like J.B. Jackson, Carl Sauer, et al. I believe the best understandings of culture come from on-the-ground field experience. I would love to chat with you about your research if you are willing to oblige. Feel free to write me!
Jon, I think your page and Christopher’s share a somewhat common reluctance to impose your politics on others and want the data–in his case images, in yours a somewhat broader experience of the landscapes–to be the factor motivating policy and critique, but of course those voices are all utterly politicized and perhaps even more effective when they’re circumspect. Interpreting ruination discourses as apprehension over (or a reflection of) consumer culture is actually right up my alley, so I’m surprised it did not really occur to me and glad you bring it up. I may have been self-deluded to think I could think this through in a couple rapid blog posts. Thanks for your thoughts, do drop me an email, my research shares lots with what you’re doing.
Reblogged this on Brent Fortenberry's Research Pages.
Did you get scared taking these pictures in these abandoned places? http://www.segmation.wordpress.com
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Thanks very much for this post! I have some books of photography on abandoned buildings in US cities, but had no idea there was so much else available on the Web.
Reblogged this on Techie.
Good Evening: Thank you for a very interesting and thoughtful post. Vonn Scott Bair
Ruins can be beautiful, whether they are contemporary or ancient.
Love this stuff!
Great perspective. I do so see the poetry and art in ‘ruins’ as we say. Though I’m not a photographer, I’ve always wanted to learn. And I think I have an eye, just because I know what moves me, as your piece did. Thanks.
Thanks, I suspect learning to take the pictures is technically not that difficult but it is tougher to teach somebody to have that eye and curiosity, curious to see how your blog will look with those images and stories added. 🙂
Thank you for putting together this examination and reflection. It was beautiful in its own right.
I loved to walk around and find stuff
others just overlook.
Someone will come out of this generation as the next Ansel Adams or Norman Rockwell for eloquently capturing our troubled times and showing how beauty still exists. (Better than the plastic bag scene in ‘American Beauty’)
The abandoned seaside resort is a little terrifying. Awesome, but terrifying.
abandoned structures really are stunning in such a unique way. Great post
To me the nature of ruins and our fascination with them is emblematic of the human condition; a dissonance between the transience of our actual lives and the greater span of history.Each, also, offers us significant windows into history – not just the physical structures, but the way people think; how they conceptualised their own times and places. The pyramids are perhaps the best known instance, but to me the same concept was particularly evident in Speer’s ideas, a conscious attempt to extend the way his appalling regime was imposing itself across history. There are powerful reasons why his monuments to his masters should have been blasted into ruin; but on the other hand, if we do not have reminders of the way humanity occasionally disgraces itself, we risk repeating past mistakes.
I like the notion of Nazi architecture and similarly “shadowed histories” as “open scars” that we do not remove, but producing a building with the intention of it becoming an ideologically powerful ruin may well have been a level of obsession distinctive to the Nazis.
;D Epic, you always see these pics floating around the web, but they never have great writing to accompany them, seriously appreciated ;D
An interesting collection of images: thanks for that. I hope that most of these buildings get reclaimed.
Reblogged this on bellakatdotme.
So is there anything abandoned worth photographing in your area? Alot of this stuff, has been somewhere else.
Lots of great research here!
This is such a fascinating look at the phenomenon of ruins. I admit to being one of those people who finds ruins as interesting as restored sites. For me, ruins feel a lot closer to the time when the structures were in use, than sites that have been refurbished or renovated. They aren’t frozen in time (at least, most of them aren’t), but I always feel more of a sense of a place, its history and its significance when I can look at it as a decayed shadow of its former self, than I do in other historical places. I have no idea why. Something about the energy is different, I think. For example, before they redid Ellis Island into the museum and visitors’ center that it is now, it had a very different feel–as an abandoned immigration hall with “ghosts” of the people who passed through. It was less removed from the time when it it was in operation. When you see it now, all redone, I don’t get that same feeling. It feels more like a movie set than the real thing.
Great research, and a fantastic post, thank you so much! Also, thank you for the comprehensive list, which is just terrific to have and must have taken bloody ages…
Reblogged this on scraping off the past.
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