Blog Archives

The Elevated Eye: Drones and Gaze in Ruins

A host of photographers, community historians, and self-styled urban critics have produced a fascinating visualization of the architectural detritus of cities, industry, and various failings of modernity.  That flood of so-called “ruin porn” has unleashed a complex breadth of artistic creativity as well as anxieties about the social implications of gaze and how we see, photograph, and imagine architectural remains.  Much of the uneasiness with ruin photography laments the camera’s gaze as a selective and seemingly distorted representation of our visual and physical experience of an objective reality: that is, the implication is that a photographer frames landscapes in selective ways, and the realities confirmed by our eyes are somehow corrupted by digital filters, High Dynamic Range imaging (HDR), and camera lens filters that toy with color balance, light intensity, and nearly every dimension of a photographic image.  This somewhat awkwardly ignores our fascination with ruins and ruin images; it suggests that we should privilege how our eyes and bodies experience ruin landscapes; and it perhaps implies that the only “authentic” representations of ruins can come from residents and people who can somehow lay claim to ruined places’ narratives.

The visual and physical gaze on ruins is now being further complicated by the emergence of drone videos documenting ruin landscapes.  For instance, in 2014 British filmmaker Danny Cooke visited the Chernobyl exclusion zone to film the remains of the 1986 nuclear accident for a 60 Minutes report.  Chernobyl is one of the world’s most intensively photographed ruin sites, a uniquely captivating abandonment in which a whole community apparently dropped everything in place.  The site is used by various observers to evoke the resilience of nature, underscore humans’ consequential impact on public health and the environment, and illuminate a state’s enormous arrogance, so it is an enormously magnetic dark tourism site (nearly 10,000 people visit the exclusion zone each year, see a really interesting analysis of this tourism on The Bohemian Blog). Read the rest of this entry

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